Oveta McInnis gazes over Virginia Water Lake, which glitters in the Sunday morning light. “You can’t appreciate nature in a Zumba class,” she says, taking a deep breath. “You don’t get all this.”
McInnis waits for the rest of the London Caribbean Trekkers to catch up, their laughter and animated conversations drifting along the path towards her. “Lots of people have a barrier in their mind about walking, but it’s so simple and it’s so good for you,” she muses. “It exercises the body and mind, and you make friends too.”
Despite the benefits, however, the British countryside remains distinctly white: a study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England found that only 1% of national park visitors come from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Another study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested why: that despite people from minority ethnic backgrounds valuing the natural environment, they feel excluded and hyper-visible in what they see as an “exclusively English environment”.
But things are changing. Often motivated by lockdown, there has been an increase in the number of walking groups set up by and for ethnic minorities in the past few years.
London Caribbean Trekkers is one of the smaller groups: 15 friends meeting once a month to walk somewhere within an hour of Enfield, where most members live.
Muslim Hikers, however, has almost 5,000 Facebook followers. The group 100 Black Men, founded to entice middle-aged black men into the Yorkshire countryside, proved so popular that it recently renamed itself Walk 4 Health because so many women wanted to join up.
Bristol Steppin Sistas, founded last year by Sophie Brown, has almost 600 Facebook members. “I’d never come across women of colour walking out in the countryside or coastal areas, so during lockdown my sister and I decided to start a Facebook group and it just grew,” said Brown.
The group’s popularity is so great that Brown is launching a Bristol Steppin Sistas radio show with Ujima community radio station in July and hopes to become a full-time hiking leader.
“There has been a reluctance for women of colour to venture into unfamiliar spaces where they feel exposed, judged and remarked on. This has led to our staying in our lanes,” she said, citing incidents of white walkers staring and commenting as her group passed them on hikes or stopped off in rural pubs.
Peaks of Colour, founded during lockdown by Sheffield activist Evie Muir, has 340 Facebook members and organises monthly walks and expeditions into the Peak District.
“I started the group at a point where racial trauma was at its peak: George Floyd had been murdered and a rightwing group had unfurled a huge ‘White Lives Matter’ banner on the top of Mam Tor in the Peak District,” she said. “Although we were being prescribed one walk a day by the government, there were so many barriers for people of colour to access natural spaces that we just didn’t feel it was for us.”
The barriers were practical as well as psychological: “You need to have confidence and outdoor literacy to go hiking,” said Muir. “If you don’t have those – and you also fear that if you get lost and have to ask for help, you’ll be met with a racist response – then that’s a huge disincentive to get out there.”
Other groups set up to help ethnic minorities to overcome these barriers include the Black Girls Hike and East Midlands African-Caribbean Women’s Walking Group. The Wanderlust Women, another group, was started by Amira Patel during lockdown, and has become so popular that it has changed the course of Patel’s life.
Patel, who wears a niqab or hijab, recently quit her job and moved to the Lake District to train as a mountain leader. “I had never come across another woman who wore a niqab or hijab to go hiking,” she said. “It made me realise that a lot of women aren’t going outdoors because they don’t feel confident, or they don’t think it’s for them because they don’t see anyone else who looks like them doing it.”
Maxwell Ayamba, a co-founder of 100 Black Men Walk for Health, puts the rise in walking groups for black and minority ethnic groups partly down to a growing awareness of the health disparities between white and black communities.
But, he said, there’s another reason his group is growing in popularity: though the group was originally aimed at middle-aged men, Ayamba found younger men were asking to join.
“They realised it was one of the only ways they could spend time with responsible adults,” he said. “They wanted to learn from the lived experience of grownups about the violence they are experiencing in their peer-to-peer relationships. They’re using walking as a way of developing a better future for themselves.”