Crowds descend on Clarkson country

The outspoken TV presenter’s foray into farming is his most courageous on-screen challenge to date – but while taking him out of his comfort zone has produced an addictive and warm-hearted series, his Cotswold neighbours are a little less happy at the invasion of visitors the show has prompted…

LOVE him or loathe him, it’s hard to ignore Jeremy Clarkson.

Tall, loud and opinionated, he tends to stand out in a crowd – and the fact he’s also instantly recognisable guarantees no one’s going to miss his presence in the room.

ON THE ROAD: Clarkson in Series 3 of The Grand Tour PICTURE: Amazon

The ubiquity of Brand Clarkson, not just on TV but in bookshops too, ensures there can’t be too many people unaware of his existence.

Yet despite projecting an on-screen persona as an oafish petrolhead with views only slightly less forthright and controversial than those of Piers Morgan, Clarkson is becoming something of a legend, and even his harshest critics are likely to harbour a grudging admiration for what he’s managed to achieve.

SENSE OF ADVENTURE: Clarkson and colleagues in Mongolia PICTURE: Amazon

I have to confess I’m not by disposition a natural fan. As a former motoring hack myself I’ve bumped into JC and his cronies at launches around the world and while they are all individually charming, I’ve always found the laddish Top Gear brand of tarmac-burning tomfoolery on screen a little hard to stomach.

But there’s never been any doubt about Clarkson’s business acumen or his ability to entertain, and in his new Grand Tour series we’ve also seen the likeable trio tackling some genuinely gruelling and terrifying tasks, from the wilds of the Mongolian desert to muddy rivers that pass for roads in parts of Mozambique – not to mention rickety bridges that give you heart failure even on the small screen, never mind in real life.

FRESH FORMAT: The Grand Tour has posed tough new challenges PICTURE: Amazon

Even with a camera crew and support team to get them out of a fix, these death-defying Boy’s Own adventures are in a totally different league from the normal fatuous banter about power output and 0-60mph times, and certainly not for the faint-hearted.

The challenges are also gloriously entertaining, so kudos to the trio for once again reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Where once upon a time motoring enthusiasts talking about cars was seen as niche and nerdy, Clarkson and Co transformed Top Gear into one of the BBC’s most powerful global brands and the most widely watched factual TV programme in the world.

SINKING FEELING: James May gets bogged down in Mozambique PICTURE: Amazon

Now they have managed to do the same thing again for Amazon Prime, with the fourth series of The Grand Tour evolving to ditch some of the talk segments and other small features in favour of films dedicated to road trips and adventure specials taking us to exotic locations that range from Cambodia and Vietnam to Madagascar.

FRESH FRONTIERS: the trio navigate the Mekong Delta PICTURE: Amazon

So far, so ingenious, but if that series allowed our larger-than-life adventurer to demonstrate he’s not just a boorish, irascible buffoon with a wicked sense of humour and a tendency to rant, the latest Clarkson vehicle takes us into entirely uncharted territory.

Back in 2019 Jezza, at 61, started to tackle his most ambitious challenge to date – taking personal charge of the management of the 1,000-acre Cotswolds farm near Chipping Norton that he bought back in 2008, with the whole unlikely experiment being filmed as an eight-part series called Clarkson’s Farm.

NOW IT’S PERSONAL: Jeremy tackles his biggest challenge to date PICTURE: Amazon

Now we’ve had feel-good, nitty-gritty farming series before like BBC2’s This Farming Life, which introduced us to real-life farming superstars like Sutherland hill farmer Joyce Campbell, who proved so popular that even her collies get fan mail.

What could the hapless Clarkson, who knows nothing about farming, teach us that characters like Joyce couldn’t? Plenty, it seems – and this is where you have to take your hat off to the irascible, irreverent, infuriating Clarkson, even if it is through gritted teeth.

FARMING LEGEND: Joyce Campbell PICTURE: BBC Scotland

Because as Stuart Heritage astutely observes in The Guardian, if this had just been Top Gear with tractors it could so easily have been either a grievously misjudged and potentially tedious rejigging of the old formula or an embarrassing, self-indulgent vanity project.

Thankfully, it is neither of those things. Instead, we are treated to a hilarious, addictive, warm-hearted gem of a series that has potentially taught more people more about farming than a dozen other agricultural programmes.

That’s partly because Clarkson himself is actively willing to learn and not afraid to be made to look a fool by people who know far more about the business than he ever will, and partly because his closest advisers turn out to be so clever and capable – not to mention completely unfazed by their employer’s fame or bluster.

Now 23, local farmworker Kaleb Cooper may not be familiar with life very far from Chipping Norton or know much about the bible, but he is master of the quotable put-down and knows just how to quash the more fatuous ideas his boss comes up with.

HOME-GROWN TALENT: Kaleb Cooper gives as good as he gets PICTURE: Amazon

It’s Kaleb, along with the down-to-earth “Cheerful” Charlie Ireland, incomprehensible local dry stone waller and head of security Gerald Cooper and Jeremy’s industrious and long-suffering girlfriend Lisa Hogan who are the real stars of the show.

And it’s Clarkson’s obvious affection and respect for this farming “family” that turns the series into such a joyful and rewarding offering, showing a much more intimate and sympathetic portrait of the TV presenter as farmer than we might ever have expected.

CHEERFUL CHARLIE: farm business adviser Charlie Ireland PICTURE: Amazon

The agricultural press weren’t holding their breath that venture would feature too much real farming, but one of the biggest surprises was the host’s determination to reveal genuine insights about the challenges he faces, from frustration with insect pests, financial pressures, foul weather and endless regulations to the genuine risk of death faced by the farmers, not to mention some of the traumas involved in livestock rearing.

From cultivation to harvest, misty dawn starts to exhausted night shifts, this is Clarkson as we have never seen him before, in a world where failures have real emotional and financial consequences and where one of the world’s great blusterers is completely out of his comfort zone, forced to rely on other people as he struggles to grow crops, rear sheep and demonstrate his commitment to meaningful environmental projects.

HELPING HAND: girlfriend Lisa Hogan keeps Clarkson on his toes PICTURE: Amazon

Incredibly, Clarkson’s Farm does a great job of informing us about the impossible demands that face the modern farmer, and it comes across as a genuine labour of love. Even Jezza sounded a little bemused by the outpouring of affection when the show was screened, taking to Twitter to write: “I’m genuinely amazed at the response.”

He was also pleasantly surprised by just how much he enjoyed himself – and that obvious pleasure is one of the great delights for the viewers too. “It’s the happiest I have been at work for a very long time,” he said. “It was absolutely heavenly, I loved every single second of it.”

SURPRISE SUCCESS: Jeremy outside his farm shop PICTURE: Amazon

Funny, fuzzy and full of surprises, this is addictive television – and against the backdrop of Brexit and coronavirus, the series provides a timely and unvarnished look at the challenges facing the industry amid growing concerns about food supply chains, climate change, ethical farming and sustainability.

Of course, not everyone in the nearby village of Chadlington is delighted to have Diddly Squat on their doorstep. And Jeremy’s critics are quick to pour scorn on claims that owning and running a 1,000-acre farmer really does much to offset his own not insubstantial carbon footprint.

But when Clarkson is involved, controversy is not far behind, as a recent casual tweet illustrated.

WEEKEND INVASION: queues gather outside Jeremy’s farm shop

When The Beyonder took a weekend trip to the Cotswolds, it found Diddly Squat farm shop under siege – with the car park packed, there were dozens of eager customers waiting in lines to be served, sometimes for hours.

It wasn’t meant to be a snide jibe, just a factual comment. After all, how many farm shops can count on this sort of popularity? Not only that, but so many of the visitors were young couples too, with aficionados travelling from all over the country on the off-chance of catching a glimpse of any of the stars of the show.

Never one to miss a promotional opportunity, Jezza was quick to respond, prompting a hectic flurry of “likes” from many of his 7.4m-strong Twitter army:

So far so good, and all this is fair game. But it does highlight one important aspect of the show which it’s all too easy to forget: this time it’s personal.

Hidden among the thousands of likes are a welter of comments too. And as you’d expect, being on Twitter, not all of them are complimentary.

Yes, there are those delighted at the boost he has given farming, and many customers from Essex to the Isle of Man insisted they were only too happy to spend hours queuing, with customers laughing and joking despite the wait.

BACK TO THE LAND: Jeremy on his Cotswold farm PICTURE: Amazon

But others aren’t slow to spray slurry in every direction: at us, for daring to tweet about the queues or at Jeremy for the price of his candles or the traffic “chaos” being created on surrounding roads.

The overall consensus seems positive: that a “great show” has helped to open people’s eyes to how hard farmers work, and if that has lured a new generation to the farm shop gates, that’s no bad thing.

But amid all the hectic exchanges, shares, likes and rebuttals, it occurs that this is where Clarkson’s real courage comes in.

Putting yourself “out there” on TV may bring financial rewards, but it also exposes you (and your loved ones) to constant comment and criticism, much of it cruel, intrusive and personal. Everyone thinks they know you and have the right to pass judgement on your actions, opinions, lifestyle and personality.

OPEN OUTLOOK: the Cotswold countryside near Clarkson’s Farm

Clarkson is a born entertainer who doesn’t shirk from upsetting people, and he’s not known as a paragon of political correctness or sensitivity.

But it takes courage to lay yourself open to such searing public scrutiny, especially when it means putting your home, family and friends firmly in the spotlight too.

There’s every indication that Clarkson genuinely had a blast making the first series of Clarkson’s Farm – and last month he was eager to ensure everyone knows there’s another series in the pipeline.

Let’s just hope Kaleb, Lisa and company are up to the challenge too. Where TV is concerned, there really is no hiding place from the public gaze, months and years after a programme is screened.

Series One of Clarkson’s Farm is available on Amazon Prime.

Birds of a feather flock together

WHAT makes Chris Packham such an extraordinary broadcaster is the completely natural style of his delivery, whatever the circumstances.

It singled him out as a TV natural at an early age, thanks to his unique ability to remain unflappable, cheerful, entertaining and informative irrespective of any challenges live broadcasting might throw at him.

On Springwatch he found a perfect verbal sparring partner in Michaela Strachan, his old buddy from The Really Wild Show  days in the 1990s, and the pair’s banter has underpinned the popularity of the series for almost a decade.

But in recent weeks there’s been a new face on the block – and although Chris’s step-daughter Megan McCubbin is an established presenter, photographer and conservationist in her own right, the pair’s decision to launch their Self-Isolating Bird Club in response to the coronavirus crisis has exposed her to a much wider audience.

With 30,000 followers on Facebook, 20,000 on Twitter and as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show, the club has proved an unlikely internet refuge for nature lovers eager to escape lockdown blues, although the total professionalism of the show itself means there have been few compromises in terms of the quality of the programming, despite Chris describing it to The Guardian as “Dad’s army makes TV”.

Like Chris, Megan has that rare skill of appearing totally at ease in front of a camera, neither nervous nor overtly self-aware and able to comfortably join in with the casual banter that is a hallmark of the best of this style of wildlife broadcasting.

The pair are also immensely knowledgable and they’ve done their homework…so 40-plus days into lockdown there’s nothing amateurish or hesitant about this surprisingly engaging escape from real-world worries.

The programme may be produced with mobile phones and Skype with earpods, mixed in a bedroom in Norwich, but it doesn’t look that way, and all the modern tech toys like nest box and trail cameras help to make modern wildlife reporting a whole lot more interesting than it ever used to be.

But this show is not about hi-tech wizardry or big budgets, simply an engaging, easy-going celebration of the natural world that extends beyond the ornithological roots of the title.

And the gang’s all here, of course: Michaela, Iolo Williams and the other Springwatch favourites, along with a stream of wildlife celebrities only too happy to share their short films, live cams and cheesy banter with the New Forest hosts.

The coronavirus lockdown may have shaped the straightforward format of the show, but it’s worked well, the enthusiasm of the daily exchanges providing a timely antidote to the bleak backdrop of national news and allowing hundreds and thousands of us to be drawn into the family intimacy of Packham’s culinary disasters and offbeat musical tastes (a separate #punkrockmidnight Twitter feed has featured Chris playing through his collection of classic punk singles).

Amid all the enthusiastic debates about barn owls and sea eagles, there has been room for bats, butterflies and hedgehogs too, for a chance to catch up with some of the leading young naturalists who have featured on Springwatch, like Bella Lack, Holly Gillibrand and Dara McAnulty, who will be reading his young naturalist’s diary on Radio 4 from May 25.

We have been invited to nose around other people’s gardens, with guests ranging from the wonderfully eccentic Martin Hughes-Games singing the praises of bats, chickens, earwigs and hornets, to Hugh Warwick waxing lyrical about hedgehogs and the author and natural history writer Patrick Barkham taking his delightful eight-year-old daughter Esme on a butterfly hunt.

But the guest list is already too long to credit them all, and growing by the week as long as the lockdown continues.

Packham himself is back on the BBC at the moment showing his true Attenborough credentials with the screening of Primates, which finishes on May 17.

But it’s closer to home that he and Megan have been proving to be the real wildlife stars of the coronavirus crisis – and helping to make people’s lives a lot happier into the bargain.

Half a million viewers for a weekday morning programme about birds? There must be a TV executive or two somewhere in the country kicking themselves for not thinking of this sooner…

Icy venue gets a warm welcome

MORE than 2.5m tuned into the first night of BBC2’s four-part Winterwatch series this week, the best viewing figures for a couple of years.

And although some continued to lament the absence of Martin Hughes-Games, the move to the Cairngorms appeared to prove a big hit with presenters and viewers alike.


Veteran TV buddies Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan were joined by the affable Welsh naturalist Iolo Williams, 56, as well as biologist Gillian Burke, 42, who has been a regular presenter on the show for the past two years.

While some critics took to social media to say how much they missed Hughes-Games, with some arguing the show should have honoured his departure officially, the stunning snow-covered venue won plenty of praise.

Highlights included sleepy pine martens, superbly camouflaged ptarmigans and a moving interview between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harkness about the mental health benefits of bird-watching.

The Cairngorms National Park is  the new, year-round home for The Watches, with this week’s show exploring how local wildlife adapts to get through the tough winter.

The presenters will then return to their new base  throughout the year to cover the changing seasons, keep up with some of the key year-round residents and meet the seasonal arrivals as they flock to the wild landscape in spring and summer.

Home base is at the Dell of Abernethy, a lodge built in 1780 sitting on the edge of the Abernethy Caledonian pine forest and perfectly placed to link viewers to the whole of the Cairngorms.

From here, the team can showcase the whole region, seeking out the wildlife that thrives in this challenging habitat and looking at the people and projects working to conserve it, including the UK’s largest landscape-scale conservation project, Cairngorms Connect.

As ever, the programme reflects wildlife issues and spectacles across the UK in a series of pre-recorded films showcasing the diversity of habitats and species that make this group of islands a truly unique place for wildlife.

All the presenters spoke of their enthusiasm for the new base before the show and have taken to social media regularly to sing its praises.

Michaela Strachan said: “The Highlands have a wonderful diversity of wildlife and habitats. It’s one of those places in the UK where you can really connect with the natural environment.”

Scotland’s national tourist organisation, Visit Scotland, and RSPB Scotland have both been delighted by way the programme has highlighted the scenic and wildlife attractions of the Cairngorms, with some local papers predicting the show will prompt a tourism boost.

The Watches are produced by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.

Peter brings the Wild Wood to life

WRITER and environmentalist Peter Owen-Jones doesn’t need much encouragement to start singing the praises of the great British countryside.

That ensures the maverick Church of England vicar is in his element exploring the landscapes, history and wildlife of the New Forest, one of the UK’s most important ancient woodlands, for his latest documentary outing.

The Big Wave film follows a similar BBC4 walkabout last summer which saw the author donning his familiar hat to wander around his beloved South Downs, where he has his parish.

The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood, screened on January 9 on BBC4, provides a similarly personal portrait of a landscape shaped by man since Neolithic times.

Presented in collaboration with the Forestry Commission and the New Forest National Park Authority, the film follows a year in the life of the forest meeting many of the people who work to preserve and protect it.


Although that gives the documentary a slightly promotional feel, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the reverend’s enthusiasm for the extraordinary landscape, with its gnarled ancient woodland, purple heathland and boggy mires, and his particular empathy towards the role of the “commoners” whose lives have been inextricably intertwined with the landscape for centuries.

Opinions about Owen-Jones are divided, with some finding the intensity of his presenting style a little irksome at times; others find his approach much more charismatic and endearing, with online threads on mumsnet divided over the relative merits of his unkempt ‘wonderfully ravaged’ appearance and resonant public-school enunciation.

Whatever your response to his asides to camera, there’s no doubting his total enjoyment in the majestic sights around him – from a goshawk jinking through the trees in search of prey to a stag bellowing amid the autumnal foliage.

A national park since 2005, this is a timeless place with few fences where ponies, cattle and pigs are allowed to roam free. It covers 566 square kilometres and stretches from the edge of Salisbury Plain through ancient forest, wild heathland and acid bog down to the open sea.

The heathland is home to dazzling lizards, our largest dragonfly and carnivorous plants. And some of the trees in these ancient woods were planted by man to build battleships for the British Empire.

As the backdrop changes with the seasons, the Sunday Times’ walking correspondent strives to find out more about the lives of the Commoners, a group of around 700 people who have retained grazing rights for their animals which date back to medieval times.

From the first foals born in spring to the release of the stallions and the annual herding of the ponies, he reveals a hardy people who, despite the urban development around them and the pressures on the landscape of 13 million visitors a year, retain a deep love of the land and a determination to see their way of life survive.

He discovers how the brutal Forest Laws imposed by William the Conqueror were used to crush the Commoners in order to preserve the forest as a royal hunting ground. Yet it was these same laws that inadvertently helped protect the New Forest that exists today.

The Commoners now face perhaps their greatest threat as the cost of property spirals and rents increase beyond the reach of a new generation wanting to continue the ancient traditions.

“This has been an incredible year. I’ve met people who, against all odds, have retained this ancient way of life and a deep connection to and love of the land. It’s what shapes and defines this extraordinary place,” says Owen-Jones.

A passionate author and environmentalist, he started working life as a farm labourer, became an advertising executive and gave up the London lifestyle to become a vicar, moving with his wife Jacs to Cambridgeshire, where the couple brought up their four children on a fraction of their earnings in London.


Described in a Telegraph interview in 2001 as a “sort of Worzel Gummidge in cowboy boots”, Owen-Jones soon began to become a regular face on TV when he was commissioned to present a series on atheism.

Since then he has presented a number of BBC programmes, including Extreme Pilgrim and Around the World in 80 Faiths, as well as How to Live a Simple Life, a three-part 2010 series in which he turned his back on consumerism

Having served as a rector of three parishes just outside Cambridge, he is now a house-for-duty part-time vicar on the Sussex Downs.

Recent books include Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain and Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul.

Pathways is an anthology of walks, part travelogue, part celebration of the secret paths and bridleways that criss-cross rural Britain. It’s also a reminder of the importance of walking as part of the meditative process and very much part of Owen-Jones’ own spiritual journey – which includes a daily hike up Firle Beacon where he says his prayers and, he insists, where every morning is new and different.

Perhaps it’s that meditative power that makes Owen-Jones such a natural choice for this sort of documentary – and, along with his thoughtful appreciation of the natural world, which makes him a perfect companion to introduce us to such an unusual landscape and a unique way of life.

Originally screened on BBC4, The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood is available on BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks.

Liz faces the terrors of the deep

THERE’S something truly extraordinary about being hundreds of metres down in the depths of the ocean in a tiny submersible, surrounded by sharks.

But add to that the fact that you are hundreds of miles from civilisation and that the swell is suddenly threatening to smash you against the rocks, and things suddenly get a whole lot scarier.   

It sounds like a scene from Jules Verne, but this is a modern-day voyage of discovery with natural history presenter Liz Bonnin following in the footsteps of Darwin in the remote Galapagos islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.


UNDERSEA WORLD: Liz Bonnin survives an underwater scare [PICTURE: BBC]

Well, not quite footsteps because Darwin never got this far under the waves. But the three-part BBC documentary series Galapagos had access to the most sophisticated underwater technology, permitting the sort of undersea adventure that Verne could only have dreamed of back in 1870 when his classic sci-fi adventure novel was published.

Not that the cutting-edge technology makes this in any way an easy excursion for celebrity biologist Bonnin, the French-born, Irish-educated presenter tagging along on a pioneering scientific expedition hoping to assess the survival prospects of some of the hundreds of unique species which populate the chain of 13 islands.

Two centuries on from the historic voyage of HMS Beagle, the aim is to explore the ocean depths, journey into volcanic craters and probe ancient forests in search of clues that could unlock the mysteries of these islands and their unique wildlife.

Like Attenborough’s Blue Planet, this is an adventure on a grand scale, as indicated by the portentous and cliché-driven two-minute introduction, which makes much of the fact that scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they do about the ocean depths and pulls in plenty of predictable lines about diving into the unknown on a voyage of discovery.

But if the intro feels a little overblown, we can forgive the documentary makers that self-indulgence once we have actually seen what’s in store for our intrepid heroine.

It’s easy to shrug off talk of dormant volcanoes and life-threatening currents when you’re sitting safely on your sofa at home, but although cheery Liz doesn’t dwell too much on what could possibly go wrong, in the second episode we share in her horror first hand when things start to get fraught under the waves.

We have already met upbeat and experienced submersible pilot Mark “Buck” Taylor earlier in the series and had our first taste of the amazing underwater world that can be accessed in his formidable eight-ton Triton submarine during the Blue Planet series.


DANGEROUS WATERS: exploring the reef beside Darwin’s Arch [PICTURE: BBC]

Buck himself has spoken in the past about his awe for the Triton’s abilities: not only can it undertake dives of up to 12 hours on occasion and reach depths of 1000 metres, but it can film a crab the size of your thumbnail in extraordinary detail.

It’s a machine which has been deployed in numerous scientific expeditions over the years, capturing the first ever footage of the giant squid in its natural habitat in 2013 and being used in a landmark series about the Great Barrier Reef with Sir David Attenborough in 2015, as well as Blue Planet II, which became the most watched UK series of 2017.

It’s clearly an honour to be one of the two passengers joining Buck on his descent into the deep and he does have that reassuring seen-it-all-before nonchalance of the expert which helps to put you at your ease.

But whereas last time we saw Liz’s unbridled joy over starfish, seahorses and coral winning out over sheer terror, this time the threat of impending doom is a lot more imminent and real: perhaps not quite what the Countrywise host envisaged when she embarked on the mission.

It’s all very well plunging into murky ocean depths that have never before been studied by science, posing wonderful questions about why hammerhead sharks school in masses and what sun fish actually do when they are underneath the ocean’s surface.

But when the ebullient Buck stops talking, you lose communication with the ship above and the currents start driving you towards the rock wall, you know it’s time to start worrying.

“I’ve had a few wildlife experiences where you get a sobering reminder of the power of the planet,” Liz said of the incident later in an interview for the Irish Examiner.

“There was this massive wall of soupy, opaque dark green water heading straight for us, and we were trying not to crash into the other submersible. The two of us were just spinning around in these currents like we were in a washing machine.”

Back on dry land, Liz sets off in search of rare pink iguanas and giant tortoises, flightless cormorants and scaly marine iguanas.


FOOTSTEPS OF DARWIN: Liz explores the Galapagos islands [PICTURE: BBC]

The aim is to find out more about the spectacular creatures which inhabit these volcanic islands and find out just how vulnerable they are in our rapidly changing world.

Although much of the environment here appears pristine, we know it is not immune to the effects of global warming and one of the mission tasks is to find out more about the impact of El Niño events on the islands.

In her three weeks on board the research vessel Alucia, Liz finds out more about what different scientists are doing to protect endangered species.

And as well as marvelling at the world’s largest gathering of scalloped hammerhead sharks partaking in a “complex mating ritual”, she takes to the water herself in one of the world’s most dangerous dive locations, Darwin’s Arch, hanging on for dear life to the reef as the currents threaten to sweep her away into the Pacific.

From swimming with boisterous sealions to having her mask pecked by a flightless cormorant, Liz is happy to get up close and personal with the local wildlife. Having studied biochemistry and wild animal biology, and with Charles Darwin as one of her “absolute heroes”, it is abundantly clear that this programme represents a dream come true for her.

But as well as serving up plenty of entertaining TV moments, there is also a sense that this mission is actively contributing to science through its ground-breaking findings, something that Liz, who has been appointed an ambassador for the Galapagos Conservation Trust, hopes will be a feature of her work in the future.

“It’s our duty to help communicate what we believe is the most important thing — to understand the wonders of this planet and do everything in our power to protect it,” she says.

Produced by the award-winning independent company Atlantic Productions for BBC Earth in a co-production with Alucia Productions and distributed globally by BBC Worldwide, Galapagos is available for the next three weeks on BBC iPlayer.

Nature duo reach for the stars

THERE’S an easy chemistry between Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan that always makes them a delight to watch on screen.


It helps that the pair have known each other for so long, “growing up” together over the past three decades, because this is the sort of TV magic which you can’t create artificially.

They first met back in the 1990s when Michaela joined the Really Wild Show, taking over from Terry Nutkins as one of the main presenters. The pair clicked instantly and have spent many of the intervening years renewing their on-screen partnership on Springwatch and its seasonal spin-offs.

Adored by fans for their cheeky banter – which has also led to BBC bosses ticking them off on occasions when the innuendos have become a little too saucy – the pair were reunited for a surprise Christmas special that found them setting off on a quest to uncover the wonders of the winter skies.

The trip takes them from the wilds of the Arabian Desert in search of the fabled Star of Bethlehem to the opposite weather extremes of the Arctic Circle in the hope of witnesssing the magic of the Northern Lights.

“I’ve worked with many, many male presenters over the years – but with Chris there is instant chemistry, that little spark of something on screen,” Michaela told the Mirror last year.

“We both really enjoy working together, we work well together and we have a lot of fun.”

It’s a winning formula for television and what has worked so well on Springwatch translates easily into this exploration of celestial wonders.

Mishaps with camels, sandstorms and snow sledges create a chaotic backdrop for their journey from Jordanian desert to Arctic tundra, with some rare oryx, friendly reindeer and welcoming bedouin herders helping the duo share a little festive spirit along the way.

When the Radio Times asked the pair to identify each other’s most attractive traits, Chris mentioned Michaela’s “unwavering optimism and joie de vivre” while she referred to his intelligent humour and expansive knowledge – “not just about wildlife but all sorts of other random things”.

Perhaps it’s that mutual respect that is the secret ingredient which makes them such an appealing duo on the small screen. For anyone who missed the Christmas Eve special, Chris and Michaela: Under the Christmas Sky is available on BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks, with the promise of a new Winterwatch series to come from the Cairngorms later this month.

Dame Judi’s love affair with trees

VETERAN actress Judi Dench is full of surprises.

Last Christmas, one of the more unexpected revelations about the woman who played MI6 chief M in seven James Bond films spread over 20 years was the discovery of her lifelong love affair with trees, chronicled in a special BBC documentary screened shortly after her 83rd birthday.


If you missed the programme’s original screening, there’s another chance this year to catch up with her one-hour tribute to all things aboreal, in the shape of Atlantic Productions’ documentary, Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees.

Much of the filming takes place in her own “backyard” in Surrey, but then this is no ordinary garden, but a six-acre memorial forest dedicated to loved ones in her life who have died.

“I started planting trees here with my actor husband Michael Williams,” she explains. “Every time a relative or friend died, we would plant a tree.”

In other words, this is quite an emotional journey. As Fiona Sturges summed up in her Guardian review in 2017: “Judi looks at trees in the same way that other people look at vintage sports cars or newborn babies: benevolent, indulgent, endlessly astonished.”

But for nature lovers this is a marriage made in heaven, with one of our most beloved national treasures expounding on a subject which has her wide-eyed in admiration.

Shakespeare (another of her great loves) features prominently as we stroll with Dame Judi through the beautiful woodland which surrounds her home and where she has planted trees to commemorate family members and actor friends who have passed away.

We uncover a civil war-era cannon ball found wedged into a 1,500-year-old yew tree, learn how beech trees use tannin to deter roe deer and find out how trees can even summon ladybirds to fight off invading aphids.

It’s an engaging journey and a delight to spend a little time “backstage” with a living legend, picking up a host of intriguing titbits about the secret life of trees along the way.

Chilly new year for Winterwatch

WINTERWATCH will return to BBC Two next year, broadcasting live from a new location in the wildest landscape of the UK – the Cairngorms National Park – which is to be the new, year-round home for The Watches.


Presenters Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Gillian Burke will host the wildlife extravaganza, kicking off the year in the depths of winter in one of the toughest places in the country for our animals.

The freezing temperatures and blanket of snow make this an extreme environment to call home, and the team will explore how the local wildlife adapts to get through this toughest of seasons.

Winterwatch will only be the start though, as The Watches will come back throughout the year to cover the changing seasons in Springwatch and Autumnwatch, keeping up with some of the key year-round residents such as golden and white-tailed eagles, red squirrels and pine martens, as well as meeting the seasonal arrivals as they flock to this wild landscape in spring and summer.

By staying for a full year, the team will get to know the area like never before, exploring the snow-capped mountains, ancient forests, raging rivers and deep, silent lochs in intimate detail. The Cairngorms are home to some of the most revered and rare wildlife in the UK – and The Watches will follow that life as the seasons change, unravelling exactly what it takes to survive in this great Scottish wilderness.

The Winterwatch studio will be based at The Dell of Abernethy, a lodge built in 1780 which sits on the edge of the Abernethy Caledonian pine forest and is perfectly placed to link viewers to the whole of the Cairngorms. From here, the team will be able to showcase the whole region, seeking out the wildlife that thrives in this challenging habitat, and looking at the people and projects working to conserve it; including the UK’s largest landscape-scale conservation project, Cairngorms Connect.

As ever, the Watches will also reflect the wildlife issues and spectacles across the UK in a series of pre-recorded films for each series – showcasing the diversity of habitats and species that make this group of islands a truly unique place for wildlife.

Michaela Strachan said: “I’m so excited to be going to the Cairngorms for Winterwatch. It’s such a stunning place. Full of wildlife, dramatic, wild and very, very cold! The wildlife always delivers from Golden Eagles to Mountain Hares, Wild Cats to Black Grouse, Ptarmigan, Pine Marten, Red Squirrel, Water Vole, Otter. The Highlands have a wonderful diversity of wildlife and habitats. It’s one of those places in the UK where you can really connect with the natural environment.”

Chris Packham said: “Scotland – land of the brave, home of the wild and hope for the UK’s wildlife. This is the happening zone in conservation and home to the most amazing diversity of sexy species. I can’t wait.”

Winterwatch will return to BBC Two in January 2019. The Watches are produced by the BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.

Ramblers return to R4


FANS of Radio 4’s countryside programme Ramblings will be pleased to see its return this week for its 39th series.

For almost 20 years, broadcaster Clare Balding has been tramping around the British landscape transporting listeners on another Thursday afternoon aural adventure, accompanied by enthusiastic local walkers from all walks of life.

A chaotic and lively dog-walk near Honiton in Devon kicked off the new series, with rebellious golden doodle Nigel trying to upstage Clare and her guests.

But that’s not everyone’s idea of entertainment, of course. Back in 2013 Will Self, writing in the New Statesman, hit out at the show as being symptomatic of the state broadcaster “kowtowing” to its parliamentary paymasters with an “excessive amount of mittel-Englandry of the leather-on-willow, cask-aged-bitter, spinsters-cycling-to-evensong variety”.

He sniped: “Balding is a natural for this sort of thing. She comes from that stratum of the British who seem to love their dogs and horses more than their children and certainly a great deal more than the working class. ”

However even Self recalls the show as being “a thoroughly amiable affair: the walks are usually in areas of tolerable – if not outstanding – natural beauty and the chit-chat flows like milky-sweet tea from a Thermos flask”.

Of course the very concept of pitching a walking programme on radio is an extraordinary one. Speaking to Country Walking magazine in 2016, Balding explained how the show’s long-term producer Lucy Lunt originated the idea:  “She had such a conviction and faith in it; she saw the ideas and stories that could come from putting two people together on a walk with something to talk about. ”

Balding joined for series two because the original presenter wasn’t able to do it, and proved an immediate hit.

Elisabeth Mahoney, the Guardian’s radio critic, wrote: “The finest broadcasters make you forget the medium. They sound as if they are chatting to you, off-air and informally, and are just happening to say amazingly clever, interesting stuff.

“She is quite simply a radio natural, and presenting a format that couldn’t suit radio better: a walk and a talk.”

If you miss the Thursday afternoon broadcast, more than 200 episodes of Ramblings are available as podcasts. And at least one walking group for bereaved people was set up by people who had listened to Ramblings and loved the way the series helped to evoke the best memories of time spent with their partners.

“If Ramblings never accomplished anything again, that would be success enough for me,” Balding said in 2016.

Ramblings is broadcast on Radio 4 on Thursdays at 3pm.