When I was 12, my parents decided to move from a town to a smallholding and breed pigs. My dad continued to work in London, which meant a long daily commute for him, while my mum’s commute was 20 seconds to the farm. With the help of a retired farmer, we kept about five sows and a boar. As a young man learning about life I always thought that boar had a good deal, until he got a bit old and was replaced by a younger model. We reared their piglets for pork, and also had about 200 free-range hens for eggs, which we sold by the roadside.
While my friends were helping their parents with household chores, I was bottle-feeding young heifers, or mucking out the pigs, firstly by hand, and then with our old but sturdy Ford 1000. It was a wonderful time in my life, and I don’t think I quite realised how lucky I was. I do now.
At various times we had beef cattle, and I clearly remember one adventure with a herd of lively young bulls that had escaped. I say adventure – it was more like a nightmare. As anyone who’s dealt with bulls will know, they tend not to be very agreeable. All I could think was, why on earth didn’t we castrate them?
I returned to a pig farm not long ago to do some filming. I loved everything about it, even the strong smell. It took me back to my youth. Nowadays the country tends to mean walks and beautiful scenery. Two places stand out for me – the Brecon Beacons and stunning beaches of the Gower Peninsula. Walking, relaxing, taking in the open spaces – the ultimate detox for our busy lives.
When I lived in Cardiff, I’d drive north towards Brecon and within an hour I would be walking in some of the most wonderful countryside Britain has to offer. I even walked up a snow covered Pen y Fan with my heavily pregnant wife. Two weeks later she had our son. Nothing was going to get in the way of our walk.
From Cardiff, we’d also get to the Gower in just over an hour. In summer we’d harvest strawberries from a pick-your-own farm on the walk to the beach and gorge on them in front of the clear blue sea. It takes more planning now we live in London but we still strive to do it as often as we can.
The dolphins I’ve seen jumping out of the water off the Pembrokshire coast make the best natural sight you could dream of.
My worst experience in the countryside was getting lost walking on Boxing Day without proper outdoor gear or a mobile phone, at Castell Carreg Cennen in South Wales. It wasn’t enjoyable as it got dark and very cold very quickly. We ended up climbing over fences and stumbling through streams in the pitch black. It would have been fine on my own, but my wife and kids were with me and, having studied geography, I’ve been labelled the family map-reader … well, I lost my bearings that long day and night.
When I was a teenager my dad took me on a cycling holiday to the Outer Hebrides. To call it a challenge is an understatement. We started in Fort William, and after climbing Ben Nevis we made our way to Oban by bike, South Uist by ferry, then battled the winds on two wheels up to North Uist, staying in youth hostels along the way. I vividly remember one was an old croft and in the morning we walked up a nearby mountain. From the top I could see an entire river system, from its boggy source, to a mini estuary feeding the Atlantic Ocean. It was like a real life textbook diagram. That was one of the main reasons I studied geography at university.
If I could change one thing about the countryside, it’s the demise of rural communities and villages. If we lose village post office, shop and school, while house prices rocket way beyond locals’ price range, and supermarkets squeeze farmers’ profits, we’re going to change rural Britain for the worse. The rural-urban debate feels very imbalanced at the moment. In Wales it also affects the language, as Welsh speakers are driven out of their communities.
Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture paints a perfect picture of sea and land. For a modern choice, I find listening to Gabrielle Aplin’s first album, English Rain, conjures up images of the countryside (and rain).
Cream or jam first on a scone? Jam – skip the cream and eat double the scones.