Chris Packham is one of the nation’s favourite naturalists, best known for The Really Wild Show and fronting BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch. He tells Caroline Hutton his fondest memories.

…In intense detail

Such as the geography of our garden in Southampton, where I grew up. I remember every crack in the trees, and the shapes of the stones I constantly turned over looking for beetles and bugs.

My parents tell me that even before I could walk I was crawling around looking for insects. My father sunk a baby’s bath into the ground, and I’d lie on the side with a spoon and bowl and scoop things out of the water, fascinated by the diversity of life: tadpoles, pond skaters, rat-tailed maggots.

The garden may have been small, but it was a constant safari. 

 

packham as a child
Chris, as a child, discovers a life-long love. “My parents didn’t mind my obsession with animals”

 

…Feeling disconnected from other kids

This was worse around adolescence. As my classmates’ interests focused around girls and social life, my world became ever more about animals. So I was excluded from their gatherings, and at that age I didn’t understand why.

Kids can be cruel and merciless, and my shyness and obsession with the natural world won me few friends.

 

…The Bird

My kestrel was simply called The Bird—it was bigger than any name. I took it from its nest one sunny Saturday in June 1975. Everything had been perfectly planned. My father had agreed to help, but he couldn’t come with me until the afternoon; waiting for him made for the longest morning of my entire life.

 

 

"Even now I find it hard to talk about without crying."

 

 

I climbed up the tree so quickly I got really sweaty, and the dust from the ivy and branches stuck to me. I could see the fields beyond and the young birds in the nest, backing away from me.

I reached out and took one, and although its downy feathers made it look voluminous, in my hand it felt skinny and emaciated. I was terrified of hurting it. But we took it home to my bedroom, and when I woke the next morning and found it on my fist, I fell in love. It was perfect.

 

…Its death informed the rest of my life

It died six months later, and even now I find it hard to talk about without crying. I'd found something I felt entirely connected to at a formative time in my life; it was more than just a bird to me.

I tried to get the best veterinary care for it, but I still blamed myself. Of course, I’d had many animals who had died and I’d been observing death in the natural world all my life, but this was a very personal loss and difficult to bear. 

 

Chris Packham
Chris as a punk: "The music and fashion were the perfect separating mechanism"

 

…Hearing punk music for the first time

I had always listened to music—I’d been a T-Rex fan and I loved the extravagance of David Bowie. But when I heard The Clash sing “White Riot”, there was something about the energy and anger in the music that segued into the way I felt then, different from other people around me. The music and fashion were the perfect separating mechanism.

I dyed my hair blue and wore a studded leather jacket and put safety pins everywhere. When I walked along the street, people would cross the road or shift along the bus stop to distance themselves from me. That suited me perfectly at the time. 

 

…Working very hard at university

I studied Zoology at Southampton University. I wasn’t happy there and didn’t fit in with the other students, but I was productive.

I wanted to leave a better zoologist and, thanks to the staff, the high quality of the lecturing and the strong mammal ecology unit there, I accomplished my goal.

 

…My audition for The Really Wild Show 

I’d been working as a wildlife cameraman and a colleague said to me, “You never stop talking about animals, you should audition for this presenting job.” So I spent ages flicking paint from a toothbrush onto a chicken’s egg to make it look like it was a peregrine falcon’s egg.

Then I made a box for it so it looked as if it were part of a precious collection from the Natural History Museum, and during the audition—while talking about the perfect structure and camouflage of birds’ eggs—I “deliberately” dropped it and got everyone in a fluster. With my blonde quiff and ripped jeans, I gabbled away in a breathless, unpunctuated bout of enthusiasm; it was all a bit mad.

When I didn’t hear back quickly enough, I took a train to Bristol and talked my way into Mike Beynon’s office at the BBC. Mike was a creative and imaginative force there. Luckily, when I walked up to his desk and said, “Look, I’ve got quite a few things I need to do with my life, so I need to know whether I’m going to get on with them or whether you’re going to give me the job,” he liked my attitude.

 

springwatch
Relaxing with Springwatch colleagues Kate Humble and Martin Hughes-Games

 

…Feeling like a child in a sweet shop

All of a sudden, I was working in a studio where people did nothing but bring me animals to look at and talk about. It was the perfect show for children, fast moving and diverse—a mix of entertainment and education.

One day, a rather colourful and instantly likeable man brought in a cobra and got it to hood up for us, which was magnificent. His name was Jack Corney and—although he passed away before knowing this—I now share my life with his daughter Charlotte, who is director of the Isle of Wight Zoo. 

 

…Being diagnosed with Meniere's disease

I’d always been healthy but, aged 37, I had the first of many attacks that I can only liken to trying to walk across a very bouncy castle. It’s a rare disease and affects the inner ear, causing unpredictable bouts of vertigo, paralysing dizziness and vomiting. I’ve become increasingly deaf in my right ear, which ironically has made the symptoms less severe over the years.

The people I’ve worked with have been kind and understanding. One time, when I was filming Nature’s Calendar on the beautiful island of Skomer off the coast of Wales, I had to ask the producer Jenny Craddock to stand behind the camera and jump around waving her arms, so I could focus on her to stop myself falling over. I’ve never wanted the disease to affect my professionalism.

 

chris packham
Chris with his partner Charlotte

 

...Watching a water rail dream

Presenting Springwatch and Autumnwatch is just like being a kid again, only better because the cameras are on the wildlife 24 hours a day. I’ll never forget the time we were filming a female water rail who was incubating her eggs.

I’d longed to see one of these most secretive of birds all my life, so it was wonderful to sit there watching her on her nest, enjoying the sunshine. Then I heard these small peeping sounds and saw her eyelids flickering and her head twisting.

There was no doubt she was dreaming… but of what? We’ll never know. To me, that’s the perfect bridge between science and romance.

Chris Packham's memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is out now.

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Read the full article in the June edition of Reader's Digest

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