I grew up in Birmingham, where you’re never really far from the countryside, even though it’s such a big city. As soon as we got a car, when I was 11 or 12, we were out in the country like a shot.
My love of the countryside was something I got from my father. My brother and I would ridicule him slightly. He would walk past a tree and say, “Oh, can you feel that?” And we would go, “Feel what, Dad?” And he would place his hands on the tree and say that he could feel this extraordinary energy and force coursing up through the tree. My brother and I used to go, “Hmm, yeah, sure, OK…” but of course he was right.
I did The Chief series in Norfolk from 1990-95. At that time I had a house in Stoke Newington in London and I rented a farmhouse while I was working. When the series was over I found that I was much happier in the countryside than in London, so I just stayed.
I like to fly old aeroplanes. You really only notice the ravages of the 20th and 21st centuries when you’re close up. If you’re flying over rural areas, you’re really looking at Britain the way it was 100 years ago, or maybe even more. It’s also an extremely difficult, demanding pastime that focuses the mind intensely; and so you have this wonderful combination of looking at the beauty of the countryside and doing something that you have to really struggle to do.
In Norfolk, we have the Stanford Training Area, land annexed by the British Army in the Second World War. A few years ago, I had access to it because I knew the commanding officer. You would have been absolutely astonished by how beautiful it was. It was like going back into the Garden of Eden. The wildlife and the plant life were happier and healthier with explosions and bombs and aeroplanes and artillery than with the way we live our lives now. I’ve also got a place in the wilds of Scotland and that’s my real retreat because it’s extremely remote. You can’t even get to it without a four-wheel drive. There’s an absence of mental noise. The remoteness engenders a sense of calm, the absence of competitiveness.
I see wildlife on an almost daily basis. Every morning I come down and there are birds just outside my window on the birdfeeders I put out. At my place in Scotland, there’s a barn and one evening we came out in the twilight because there was a lot of screeching and a lot of noise, which was uncharacteristic. There were two barn owls on the roof of the barn and they had four or five youngsters with them, which were all crying out for food. The two owls were taking it in turns to bring food for the youngsters. That was absolutely magical
The rural issue that most annoys me is inappropriate housing development. If people need houses, then absolutely we must have houses, it’s iniquitous that we don’t. However, when those houses are provided, they must be provided with a view to our heritage. The suburbanisation of rural life infuriates and upsets me. You’ll find woodlands where people have found their own ways through, their own walks, for hundreds of years, and suddenly they have gravel paths and signposts and car parks. The countryside becomes a theme park rather than something that just is, in and of itself.
I admire the work of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Also, the World Wildlife Fund and most of the animal charities have some kind of spiritual sensitivity – they are aware of what we need, which is more than money.
Our filming schedule on Inspector George Gently is very intense. A typical day is probably 15 hours. There is very little time to explore the country, but sometimes we are on location and it’s absolutely breathtaking. The Durham countryside has a beautiful atmosphere.