My Countryside interview: Mary-Ann Ochota

The BBC presenter, anthropologist and author discusses her zest for getting outdoors, her rewarding rescue dog and the magic of holloways

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I grew up in rural Cheshire and always felt most at home in the countryside. I live in London now, but I escape whenever I can. I keep up my connection to the countryside by exploring and writing about it – but it’s also deep inside me.

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The British countryside is a dynamic place. It’s been shaped by all the people who came before us – 12,000 years of permanent occupation – and it’s still evolving. The traces of those human histories are there to spot, if you know the clues to look out for.

I love exploring on foot, usually with my dog Harpo at my side. I’m a Hillwalking Ambassador for BMC and a #GetOutside champion for the Ordnance Survey. Map in hand, rucksack on my back, fresh hills and fields before me, enticing me on – that’s what makes my heart sing. I’m also game for horse riding, camping, mountain biking, climbing, scuba diving – anything that gets me outside.

Holloways, those sunken tracks that drop you into a hedgerow tunnel, are magical. I love the feeling of having feet planted in the earth with a canopy of green above, walking the old ways. Some holloways are medieval – others are probably prehistoric. You’re walking in the footsteps of the ancestors.

Bottoms reservoir in Langley near to Macclesfield Cheshire, UK. Captured on a late autumn day in early Novmeber 2011 with blue sky and still waters giving mirror reflections of the clouds and trees ablaze in rich autumn colour. The foothills of the Peak district national park visible over the treetops.
Mary grew up in beautiful Cheshire/Credit: Getty Images

There’s a natural instinct to be tribal, but it does a disservice to both town and country when we default to clichés. We’re a small island and I can get to incredible wilderness areas in a few hours travel from the city. The urban/rural divide is more about mindset than geography.

I’d love to make more paths accessible. Not everyone can clamber stiles, but that shouldn’t stop them from accessing the countryside. I’d also stop people throwing litter around in the countryside. It does my head in! I walked some of the Yorkshire Three Peaks trail with a friend and we spent the day picking up sweet wrappers. It’s not just about the impact on the environment or how it looks – fundamentally, it’s disrespectful.

Andrew Price, a bushcraft expert in South Wales, is my rural hero. We met on a Time Team shoot, and now we’re pals. His extraordinary knowledge of British plants and fungi opens my eyes to details I’d miss.

The exploring bug doesn’t strike by accident. Getting excited about the outdoors has to be behaviour modelled by all of us. It’s about building confidence and skills and starting small. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every child learned the essentials, such as map reading and first-aid? We’re facing serious challenges when it comes to planning, new development and revitalising rural communities. We need to invest in skills and infrastructure, such as farming apprenticeships and high-speed broadband, so people can build businesses in rural communities. Otherwise half the country will become toxic commuter belt and the other half will decay.

Retraining our rescue dog Harpo was so rewarding. It took a lot of work and tenacity from both of us. You’re both learning how to communicate. The animal/human bond can make for an incredible relationship.

While wild-camping with Harpo on Dartmoor, the mist descended and it was spooky and beautiful all at once. It felt as though time stopped.

Old style tent with views from Speeton to Filey on the Northeast coast of England.
Mary enjoys wild-camping/Credit: Getty Images

I’ve been chased by cows on a footpath. I’d released the dog, which is the safest thing to do, but it didn’t stop them charging us from the other side of the field.

My Primus stove signifies freedom to go adventuring. When you’re up in the hills on your own after a glorious day’s walking, there’s nothing like a hot meal over a blue flame as the sun sets.

If I were a British wild animal, I’d be an otter. Although I’m nowhere near as graceful in the water. Or out of it, for that matter!

Cream or jam first on a scone is a trick question. If it’s a fresh scone made with buttermilk, you don’t need to put anything on it and it’s delicious. So before you can get the lids off the pot of cream and the jam jar, the scone’s in my mouth.

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Main image: Drew Buckley