My Countryside interview: Paul Rose

The diver, explorer, polar expert and broadcaster discusses the Pennine Way, the great smell of sheep poo and why lessons should be taught outdoors

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I grew up in a council flat in Romford and wild places seemed out of reach. As a family we went to the coast for holidays and spent some weekend time in the Essex countryside, but life felt claustrophobic. I had an overwhelming desire to be outside, which meant that from about 10 years old onwards, I dragged my mattress onto the balcony and slept there as often as I could.

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I hated school, I wanted to learn but just couldn’t do it. There was probably no hope for me until the geography teacher took us to the Brecon Beacons on what I realise now was most likely a ‘last chance’ trip. I loved it. The most defining moment in my early life was sitting on the doorstep of the Merthyr Tydfil youth hostel, peeling spuds into a bucket after a long day in the hills, and realising that I had never felt so alive.

I live in the Lake District, and I enjoy the unique balance of accessibility and a feeling of the wildness. I especially enjoy arriving back into Oxenholme train station and being greeted by the welcoming smell of sheep poo as the doors open.

Everyone I know has walked the Pennine Way – it’s like a rite of passage for people interested in the outdoors – but I had never done it. Then, out of the blue, the BBC called and asked if I would present a documentary in celebration of the 50th birthday of the Pennine Way. I didn’t actually get to walk the whole Pennine Way for the series, but I’m hooked and later this year I will do the entire route.

When you go to wild places, the inner journey is a beautiful thing, too. It comes from stretching yourself and being tested – but that only comes if you get among it physically.

UK waters offer some of the world’s finest diving. My first sea dive was at Chesil Cove on the Dorset coast and I try to dive there any chance I can. My ultimate diving hero as a kid was Mike Nelson, as played by Lloyd Bridges in the US drama Sea Hunt. Every week he was rescuing pilots from crashed jets, surviving underwater knife fights and all of the beautiful women in the world wanted Mike to teach them to dive!

The rural issue that most annoys me is building new homes and businesses on good land while there are so many vacant urban and brown-field sites. We live on a small, overpopulated island and if we are not careful we could lose our countryside to opportunistic developers.

To improve country life, we need more people to get out and enjoy it. Let’s create a true countryside constituency. If I were prime minister, one of the first things I would do would be to sign into law an educational system that 50% of all school lessons had to be conducted outside. I would also insist on lessons for scuba diving, rock climbing, canoeing, sailing and skiing.

My rural hero is the Scottish-American conservationist John Muir [1838-1914]. As a teenager I was heavily influenced by him. He could write what I was feeling. The John Muir Trust is doing good work and it feels very much in the spirit of the great man himself.

One of my most memorable, and saddest, wildlife encounters was finding an injured roe deer in Longsleddale. It had been hit by a car. We had to put it out of its misery, but how? With no weapons, there was nothing we could do so we carried the creature back to my friend’s barn, telephoned the RSPCA and sat on the floor with the deer. A couple of hours later the RSPCA duty officer arrived, gave the deer a merciful injection and took her away. We remained on the floor, burst into tears and opened a bottle of whisky. More happily, I’ve fallen asleep in a meadow to the sound of bees and skylarks, and the feel of a gentle breeze.

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Paul Rose is an explorer, polar expert and broadcaster