It takes a lot to rock Ben Fogle. The man has endured and survived countless perils and hazards on his travels around the world, from man-eating crocodiles to a flesh-eating disease, but the loss of his third child took him into uncharted territory.
“When something like that happens, it’s a reminder of our mortality. I’ve taken on big challenges over the years, like rowing across the Atlantic in a tiny boat, and you construct a sense of immortality, but then you experience what we went through and it shakes you to your core,” says the adventurer of the trauma 14 months ago, when his wife, Marina, suffered a stillbirth nearly 33 weeks into her pregnancy and almost died.
At the time, he was away in Canada to celebrate his grandmother’s 100th birthday and flew back to London not knowing throughout the 10-hour flight if either his wife or his baby son – the couple named him Willem – had survived.
He and Marina, 38, who have two children, Ludo, six and Iona, four, had bereavement counselling and the panic attacks and anxiety Fogle, 42, suffered in the months that followed the tragedy in August 2014, have largely gone. They will not try for other children because of the risk to Marina’s health.
The devastating experience has proved a spur for the TV presenter, who in the last year has worked on six television series and produced a book, his seventh, Labrador: The Story Of The World’s Favourite Dog. It’s a breed particularly close to his heart – he met his wife while walking his dog, and the addition of a new labrador puppy to the household shortly after their bereavement was a comfort in painful times.
“I like to immerse myself in work and I have always used writing as a refuge – it’s my way of escaping wherever I am – and that book was part biography, as well as focusing on our simple but rewarding relationship with dogs and the comfort they can bring us,” he says.
“When suddenly your focus changes, you see the years going by and it’s an extra reminder that you don’t want to live life with any regrets. I’ve always been conscious of seizing the moment, but after last year, it’s become even more relevant to me. I’ll probably slow down for a bit soon though, so I have a little more time to enjoy life instead of racing from one thing to another.”
There’s no sign of that yet – he’s back on screen presenting the fifth series of Channel 5’s New Lives In the Wild, meeting people who have pursued alternative lifestyles and overcome considerable odds to do so.
Those fleeing the rat race include a woman who has established a technology-free community after leaving her marriage to live off-grid in a house made from straw bales and horse manure in Pembrokeshire, a family who nearly lost everything establishing a smallholding in Devon, and an American living on Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the UK.
“It’s not been easy for any of them and their bravery and resilience is inspiring.
“We so love to stereotype people in this country – I can relate to that myself as I’ve experienced it. By taking on challenges over the years, I’ve tried to show people I’m not just some ‘posh boy’ and that there’s far more to me.”
He’s certainly done that since he first found fame in 2000 living on the remote Hebridean island of Taransay for BBC reality series, Castaway. Over the past 15 years, he’s faced huge physical challenges, from trekking the Sahara to crossing the Antarctic, as well as forging a presenting career on programmes ranging from Countryfile to Harbour Lives.
Fame, success and fortune notwithstanding, he still nurtures a dream of turning his back on it all to live in his own ‘wilderness’ and recently pinpointed an uninhabited Scandinavian island where he hopes to set up home.
“After all, island living is where I began on Taransay, and I have such fond memories of it.”
• Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild UK, Thursdays, Channel 5, 9pm