‘You only need to drive 20 minutes in Britain to go somewhere special’

The lush lawns and shaded paths of Hampton Court are probably not the first places you would expect to find Ray Mears. Britain’s foremost expert in nutrition and survival skills has traveled widely during a 30-year television career that has taken him to some of the world’s toughest regions, notably through three series – Wild Australia, Wild France and Wild China – which has included sun-baked deserts and snow-capped mountains.

Today, however, it is within the manicured grounds, near the River Thames, where Henry VIII once walked, and thousands of tourists a year admmire the sight. Around him, the 2024 edition of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival is taking shape.

The connection is not entirely disproportionate. Adventure travel company Exodus is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary and – using Mears’ input in part – has created a display garden that comes with a soundtrack of 12 different “Sounds of Adventure” from around the globe. These “melodies” are varied – from the chorus of dawn in Vermont to the semi-silence of the small hours in the Archipelago of south-west Finland – and form a delightful background as Travel Telegraph sits down with Mears for a chat.

It’s anyone’s guess what the ghost of England’s heaviest king, perhaps eavesdropping under the trees, might make of this conversation – with his talk of near-death experiences in the Arctic, and “joys” minus 40 .But it also shows Mears’ affinity for Britain’s wild spaces. Maybe a spectral/royal disagreement will be avoided after all…

Ray Mears at Hampton Court Palace

Ray Mears at RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2024

What are your favorite nature sounds?

There is nothing like the sound of birds in his environment. So the call of the loon is one. It is the other nightingale. The sound of nightmares is like liquid money running through the forest.

There are so many sounds that inspire. I am camping with Aboriginal people in Australia. When you wake up in the morning, you hear the women calling. It is a distinct sound; there is a rhythm to it. You know where you are in the day by what you can hear.

Does the sound of British nature specifically inspire you?

The resin. It’s here all year round, but it’s a sound you only notice in winter and spring. As other birds arrive, he becomes overwhelmed. But the lapwing and the blackbird make the sounds of nature that are really strong in Britain. The blackbird, rooting in the leaves, sounds like someone walking in the woods.

Is the blackbird a noisy bird?

Yes, when it roots in the leaf litter of insects. It’s the rhythm [he taps out a repetitive thump with his foot]. It looks like someone might be moving around. Sometimes, people who are not familiar with the woods think that someone is prowling around. It’s just the blackbird.

Do we not pay enough attention to these sounds?

It would be easy to say: “modern life is bad.” I don’t think that’s true. But we are drawing attention to the beauty that surrounds us – technology, phones, the availability of music. I like to interfere with nature.

Do you spend a lot of time in the garden?

I don’t really garden. I have too many deer on my doorstep. They eat everything. But I love being outdoors. I have a dog. We go out every morning and sit quietly. Of course, he hopes that something will come his way to chase him.

You’ve spent a lot of time in the Outback. What is it about that part of Australia that inspires you?

The emptiness; the lack of people. It’s tough, it’s challenging. In some ways, it’s like being in the Arctic. You have to pay attention to what nature tells you. You can’t do your own thing. It is simple. In the north, you have to be warm. In the desert, you need water. I like that simplicity. It reminds me that I am just a small thing in a bigger field.

Outback AustraliaOutback Australia

‘I love the harsh, empty, challenging environment of the Outback’ – Tourism Australia

Have you also traveled extensively in Canada? What do you like there?

I love the boreal forest [the treescape which rings the Northern Hemisphere above the 50th parallel]. The boreal forest is amazing. And not just in Canada. In the winter, I’m usually in Finland, teaching people how to deal with minus 40C. Which is joy. They arrive as children in the woods, and leave as experts, saying “this is my life now”.

Is it easier to live in the forest of Finland or Canada, where there are many plants, than in the Australian Outback, where it is much drier?

Yes. The Outback is very challenging. If you’re lost there, you’re in trouble. This can be seen in the culture of Aboriginal people. Their traditional livelihoods are very sophisticated, especially when it comes to finding food. They have 60,000 years of practice.

Is the Outback your most challenging environment?

No, not really, because the Aboriginal knowledge is there, and I have good teachers. I was lucky. I have spent more time in Australia with Aboriginal people than with white Australians. Having those instructions makes all the difference.

Have you ever been in the Outback and thought you were in trouble?

I have been in many difficult situations. But more in the Arctic. I had a situation where I was very cold, and I had to make a decision. I went down the hill into the cold air, hoping to find birch trees. Because you can burn birch trees. I was able to find some very small, straggly birch trees. They saved my life.

Which part of the Arctic?

That was in Finland; in northern Lapland.

Is living in the Finnish Arctic different, compared to Canada or Russia?

Big differences. If I’m talking about the Arctic, I’m thinking mainly of the boreal forest. The High Arctic, where the Inuit live, is another ballgame. It is extremely difficult. People live there through community effort.

When you enter the Arctic forest, it is difficult in a different way, because of the depth and softness of the snow. You can’t build a classic igloo in the Arctic forest, although you can make a fire. But the forest changes a lot. If you are in Canada, you have the black spruce. At the top of Finland, it’s all pine trees. When you go to Siberia, there are many larch trees. There are no needles on these in the winter, so the wind gets through.


Mears: ‘I had the most difficult situation in northern Lapland’ – Visit Finland

You mentioned teaching survival skills in Finland, in minus 40 C…

The coldest I’ve worked at is minus 55 C. That’s it cold.

Do you understand that cold if you haven’t experienced it?

It means you can’t make a single mistake.

How do you deal with that kind of temperature?

Well, you don’t make mistakes. You don’t go outside unless you know what you’re doing. You have to have the right clothes, make sure you’re fed right, drink enough. And that you have support. The Arctic is not a place to go alone.

The Sami have a god, Bieggolmai, who stands on the mountain with two paddles, and turns around, creating the wind. And sometimes, when you want to light your fire, when you strike a match, and the wind blows, you feel that Bieggolmai is testing you. You feel a kinship with the culture, their beliefs and their traditions. The wind has a presence there that is not here. Sometimes, I swear that I can see Bieggolmai, spinning on his mountain.

If I were to come to the Arctic with you this winter, how long would it take to survive?

Two weeks. Let’s start with the basics. I tell you on the first day: Don’t go astray, don’t get lost. you will death Two weeks later, that’s your life.

How do you teach that?

With a lot of experience. You cannot learn these things from a book. It comes from living in the environment, and working with the local people. You won’t find a better snowmobile driver than Sami. They have to chase the reindeer through the trees in deep snow. If you learn from them, you can travel anywhere on a snowmobile.

A man walking in LaplandA man walking in Lapland

‘You can’t learn how to live in the Arctic from a book. You have to experience it’ – Juha Laine

Reindeer cannot be chased on snowmobiles. You are making a lot of noise

The Inuit put their “sheepdogs” on the back of the snowmobiles. And they bark. But if the reindeer run into the trees, they try to get around in front of him, and steer him back.

Did you do that?

Yes, I can do that. It is tough. The Sami take the windshields off their snowmobiles, because otherwise, they get smashed on the branches.

Which of your Wild series are you proudest of?

France. Everyone said: “there is nothing wild in France”. Which is wrong. France is amazing. It is twice the landscape of Wales. And the land surface is three times the size, because they have a lot of mountains, so it’s a great habitat. The wildlife is incredible.

Do we tend to underestimate how wild Britain can be?

Britain is great. Last week, I was teaching Bushcraft in Sussex, and there were three people from Holland on the course. They said they couldn’t believe how much wild land we still have in Britain; is not entirely focused on agriculture.

What is your favorite part of the UK to explore?

All of it. Norfolk is a super host. Wales is beautiful. Cornwall is the land that time forgot. Devon and Somerset – all those beautiful views and rolling hills. Scotland – the Gaeltacht is extremely beautiful, but so is the Lowlands. The Galloway Forest is a jumper – but people pass it on their way north. You only have to drive for 20 minutes in Britain to reach somewhere special. We take a lot of it for granted.

If you could hike anywhere in the UK next week, where would you go?

I love Dartmoor. I love to navigate, I love to use a compass. Actually, I know Dartmoor well; I wouldn’t need help. But it is quite big. You can feel our ancestors there.

You grew up on the Downs in Surrey. Where would you recommend people explore?

Go down the west side of Dorking, towards Shere. You have the Surrey Hills, and the North Downs. You have Ranmore Common, and Hurtwood. That area is beautiful.

Surrey DownsSurrey Downs

The Surrey Hills is one of Mears’ favorite places in the UK – Alamy

Can you ever take a beach holiday?

I get bored in five minutes. I might find something else to do on the beach, but I can’t sit in the sun. It’s not my make-up.

When was the last time you were at the beach?

Probably when I was a child. Must be there.

So where do you go on holiday?

I have just been away with my wife. She likes to collect fossils, so we went down to the Jurassic Coast. That was beautiful. We had a great time. We found many fossils.

The IS RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival running until tomorrow (July 7). Details on Exodus’ “Sounds of Adventure” program are available here

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