‘You only have to drive 20 minutes to get somewhere special in Britain’

The lush lawns and shady paths of Hampton Court are probably not the first places you would expect to find Ray Mears. Britain’s most renowned expert on bushcraft and survival skills has travelled widely during a 30-year television career that has taken him to some of the toughest terrain on the planet, not least via a trio of series – Wild Australia, Wild France And Wild China – who have visited sun-baked deserts and snow-capped mountains.

Today, however, it stands in the manicured grounds, bordering the River Thames, where Henry VIII once strolled and thousands of tourists admire the view each year. Around it, the 2024 edition of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival is taking shape.

The connection is not entirely illogical. Adventure travel company Exodus is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary and – with the help of Mears’ input – has created a show garden that comes with a soundtrack of 12 different “Sounds of Adventure” from around the world. These “melodies” are varied – from a dawn chorus in Vermont to the half-silence of the early hours of the Aland Islands in south-west Finland – and they make a delightful backdrop when Telegraph Travel sits down with Mears for a chat.

What the ghost of England’s most irascible king, perhaps eavesdropping beneath the branches, would make of this conversation – with its talk of near-death experiences in the Arctic and the “joys” of minus 40 – is anyone’s guess. But it also reveals Mears’s great affection for Britain’s own wild spaces. Perhaps ghostly/royal disapproval can be avoided after all…

Ray Mears at Hampton Court Palace

Ray Mears at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2024

What are your favorite sounds from nature?

There is nothing like the sound of a bird in its environment. So the call of the loon is one. The nightingale is one. The sound of a calling nightingale is like liquid silver flowing through the forest.

There are so many sounds that inspire. I’ve camped with Aboriginal people in Australia. You wake up in the morning and you hear the women calling. It’s a specific sound; there’s a rhythm to it. You know where you are in the day based on what you hear.

Is there a specific British nature sound that inspires you?

The robin. It’s there all year round, but it’s a sound you only hear in winter and spring. When other birds arrive, it gets drowned out. But the robin and the blackbird make really strong British nature sounds. The blackbird, when it’s rooted in the leaves, sounds like a person walking through the woods.

Does the blackbird make a lot of noise?

Yes, if it roots in leaf litter for insects. It is the rhythm [he taps out a repetitive thump with his foot]. It sounds like someone walking around. Sometimes people who are not familiar with the forest think that someone is sneaking around. It is just the blackbird.

Don’t we 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 distracted from the beauty around us – by technology, phones, the availability of music. I love the intrusion of nature.

Do you spend a lot of time in the garden?

I don’t really garden. There are too many deer in front of my house. They eat everything. But I love being outside. I have a dog. We go outside every morning and sit quietly. He hopes, of course, that something will come along and he can chase it.

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

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

Australian outbackAustralian outback

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

You have also traveled a lot in Canada? What appeals to you there?

I love the boreal forest [the treescape which rings the Northern Hemisphere above the 50th parallel]. The boreal forest is beautiful. And not only in Canada. In the winter I am usually in Finland teaching people how to deal with minus 40C. It is a joy. They arrive in the forest as babies and leave as experts, saying “this is my world now”.

Is it easier to survive in the Finnish or Canadian forests, where there is a lot of plant life, than in the Australian Outback, where it is much drier?

Yes. The Outback is very challenging. If you get lost there, you are in trouble. You see that in the culture of the Aboriginals. Their traditional way of life is very advanced, especially when it comes to finding food. They have 60,000 years of experience.

Do you find the Outback the most challenging environment?

No, not really, because the Aboriginal knowledge is there, and I’ve had good teachers. I’ve been lucky. I’ve spent more time in Australia with Aboriginal people than I have with white Australians. Having those guides 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 downhill into the cold air, hoping to find birch trees. Because you can burn birch trees. I was able to find some very small, sloppy birch trees. They saved my life.

Which part of the North Pole?

That was in Finland, in Northern Lapland.

Is there a difference between surviving in the Finnish Arctic and surviving in the Canadian or Russian Arctic?

Big differences. When I talk about the Arctic, I think mostly of the boreal forest. The High Arctic, where the Inuit live, is a different story. It’s really hard. People survive there by the effort of the community.

If you go into the Arctic forest, it’s 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 fire. But the forest is incredibly diverse. If you’re in Canada, you have black spruce. Up in Finland, it’s all pine. If you go to Siberia, there are a lot of larch trees. They don’t have needles in the winter, so the wind howls through them.


Mears: ‘My most difficult situation was in Northern Lapland’ – Visit Finland

You talked about teaching survival skills in Finland, in minus 40 degrees Celsius…

The coldest temperature I’ve ever worked in was -55°C. That is cold.

Can you imagine what such cold is like if you have not experienced it yourself?

No. It means that you are not allowed to make any mistakes.

How do you deal with such temperatures?

Well, you don’t make mistakes. You don’t go out there if you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to have the right clothing, make sure you eat well, that you drink enough. And that you have support. The North Pole is not a place to go alone.

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

If I went to the North Pole with you this winter, how long would it take me to learn how to survive?

Two weeks. We start with the basics. I tell you on the first day: don’t wander off, don’t get lost. You shall die. Two weeks later that’s your world.

How do you learn that?

With a lot of experience. You don’t learn these things from a book. It comes from living in the area and working with the locals. You will never find a better snowmobile driver than a Sami. They have to chase the reindeer through the trees in the deep snow. If you learn from them, you can travel anywhere on a snowmobile.

Man walking in LaplandMan walking in Lapland

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

Chasing reindeer on snowmobiles sounds impossible. You make a lot of noise

The Inuit put their “shepherd dogs” on the back of the snowmobiles. And they bark. But if the reindeer runs into the trees, they try to get around it and send it back.

Did you do that?

Yes, I can. It’s difficult. The Sami take the windshields off their snowmobiles, because otherwise they get smashed by the branches.

Which Wild series are you most proud of?

France. Everyone said, “There’s nothing wild in France.” That’s wrong. France is amazing. It’s twice the size of Britain. And the land area is three times as big, because they’ve got a lot of mountains, so there’s a great habitat. The wildlife is incredible.

Do we underestimate how wild Britain can be?

Britain is amazing. Last week I was teaching bushcraft in Sussex and I had three people from Holland on the course. They said they couldn’t believe how much wild land we have left in Britain; that it’s not all devoted to farming.

Which part of the UK do you most enjoy exploring?

Everything. Norfolk is breathtaking. Wales is beautiful. Cornwall is the land that time forgot. Devon and Somerset – all those beautiful vistas and rolling hills. Scotland – the Highlands are really beautiful, but so are the Lowlands. The Galloway Forest is a gem – but people drive past it on their way north. You only have to drive 20 minutes in Britain to get somewhere special. We take a lot of it for granted.

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

I love Dartmoor. I love navigating, I love using a compass. I know Dartmoor well, actually; I wouldn’t need any help. But it’s big enough. You can feel our ancestors there.

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

Go west from Dorking, towards Shere. You have the Surrey Hills and the North Downs. You have Ranmore Common and Hurtwood. That area is breathtaking.

Surrey DownsSurrey Downs

The Surrey Hills are one of Mears’ favourite locations in the UK – Alamy

Is there a possibility to go on a beach holiday?

No. I get bored within five minutes. I might find something else to do at the beach, but I can’t just sit in the sun. It’s not in my makeup.

When was the last time you were at the beach?

Probably when I was a kid. Forced to be there.

Where are you going on holiday?

I’ve just been away with my wife. She’s a fossil collector, so we went to the Jurassic Coast. That was lovely. We had a great time. We found lots of fossils.

The RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival runs until tomorrow (July 7). Details about Exodus’ “Sounds of Adventure” program can be found here

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