My poor mother. She was so patient with me. I had found a spider’s nest, a tiny ball of cream coloured silk. I was thrilled. If I placed the nest in a matchbox at the top of my bedroom wardrobe, then they would one day hatch. No one would find them there and I could watch them grow.
But I soon forgot about them and instead attended to my snail collection which was growing by the day in jars in a Victorian brick bread oven in the scullery.
I was nine years old. It was 1971 and clearly there was no going back on this interest I had in nature. By the way, the eggs did hatch and all the gorgeous spider-lings would tip-toe out at night and return to the matchbox for the day. Irritatingly, my mother found both the spiders and the snails in the end, but she was gentle in her reproach, knowing my fondness and passion for wildlife.
By twenty seven I was a producer with BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, and camping in the remotest corners of the Planet while making wildlife films like ‘Realms of the Russian Bear’, ‘Wildlife on One’ and ‘Life of Birds’ with Sir David Attenborough. I remained very at home in this environment over the following 20 years and was lucky enough to produce many films for BBC ‘Natural World’ and the award winning series ‘Planet Earth – the future’. The truth is, I’m still profoundly captivated by the beauty and the astonishing variety of life.
This last year I have partnered with a few very special hotels across the south of England to offer 2-day ‘nature retreats’. These are attracting newcomers to nature, tired mothers, soul-searchers, all kinds really, but they all want to feel more connected to the natural world; more tuned to it.
The hotels I have chosen are fantastic places to stay are also surrounded by fabulous countryside rich in wildlife. Over the two days, we go out on quiet walks, directing all our senses in a ‘mindful’ way to notice more – underfoot – overhead – the calls of birds; the wonders of the miniature world. I give talks on the way colour and sound is perceived differently by animals. We look at films after dinner. We even hold up and admire a tiny arthropod in a jar in front of each of us (not a spider!) to realise the immensity of its success as a species to survive unchanged for over 70m years.
Hotel Endsleigh in Devon, for instance is a Grade I historic house set in 100 acres of fairy-tale ancient woodland, with brooks and ponds, magnificent gardens and the river Tamar flowing peacefully through the valley. I’ve seen otters, even stoats here.
There is a pair of kingfishers, too, but they fly so quickly and low over the water that few people get to see them. I will point out the distinct call of the kingfisher — a very high pitched whistle. Once this sound is recognised, most people get to see the bird. I remember so well my own first-sighting of this gorgeous bright blue jewel.
Tresanton is another place where I run these nature retreats. It’s a beautiful Hotel within walking distance of the Cornish coast on the Roseland peninsula at St Mawes. Banks of wildflower meadows, with scattered gorse bushes and bramble briars rise from the shore. Sitting quietly in the grass one sees many unusual birds (even the Cirl bunting), butterflies (marbled whites, blues) and hear the haunting calls of curlews and oyster catchers. We watch films that I have made, talk over dinner and I make it my mission to help people feel more connected to nature.
I also give nature retreats at Bailiffscourt Hotel & Spa in West Sussex, Lucknam Park in Wiltshire and for those Londoners with just a day free I’m offering Mondays through June at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes
Fergus Beeley is an Ambassador for Steppes Travel
He can be contacted via his website www.fergusbeeley.com.