Interview: Ben Fogle goes back to basics

Fogle: 'I thrive on challenges, adventures'. Picture: Neil Hanna
Fogle: 'I thrive on challenges, adventures'. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Ben Fogle is no stranger to extreme conditions, but could he turn his back on the comforts of the modern world to start again in the middle of nowhere? He’s tempted, but only slightly, he tells Rachael Popow

After spending a year trying to build a community on the Hebridean island of Taransay, off the coast of Harris, many people would feel like they’d done their fair share of roughing it – but not Ben Fogle. Since shooting to fame on the BBC reality show Castaway 2000, he has taken on a series of challenges in some of the remotest parts of the world, from rowing the Atlantic to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for his Extreme Dreams series.

Is there anything he won’t do? Fogle’s first response to the question is laughter.

“In terms of TV shows, if you’re a public figure, we’ve all been asked to do some sort of ridiculous show at some stage,” he says.

“Like Celebrity Life Drawing, where I was supposed to pose naked for artists to draw me. I think that was probably one of the most ludicrous shows that I’ve ever been asked to take part in.”

He said no, then …

The 39-year-old father of two is also unlikely to turn up around the camp fire on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!

“That’s one of the least likely shows I’d ever take part in, just because I think I’d be terrible at it. I’m not very good when I’m surrounded by big egos, I like to blend in and get on with things.”

He’s also not sure he could handle the infamous Bushtucker Trials: “I’m just as scared of spiders as the next person, and I’m not mad keen on snakes either.”

That comes as something of a surprise, as one look at Fogle’s CV suggests he’s pretty fearless. The presenter was certainly prepared to endure extreme conditions for his latest series, Ben Fogle: New Lives In The Wild, in which he moves in with people who have chosen to turn their backs on civilisation.

During the four-part series, he’ll be hunting in Texas, trading fish in Australia and learning how to protect himself from grizzly bears in Alaska.

It may not be everyone’s idea of living the dream, but Fogle believes many of us are increasingly tempted by the idea of getting away from the pressures of modern society.

“I think it’s quite timely in an age where people are financially strained, unemployment is rife, and there are housing problems. Now, more than ever, people are looking at alternative lifestyles,” he says.

“The series follows people who have done just that, they’ve left the grid and are living in wild, remote corners of the world, living on the surface of it a simpler life.”

He adds: “I’m certainly one of those people who’s been on holiday in the past, on a sandy beach beneath some palm trees, and wondered, ‘Can I not just string a hammock up there and catch some fish like the local fisherman, and live like that?”’

However, he admits that the lifestyles come with their own set of drawbacks.

“The big question of the series is, ‘Is life ever simple?’ and the answer is no. You may avoid some of those financial worries, but it’s human nature to worry – are you going to have enough warmth, fresh drinking water or fresh food, and can you buy schoolbooks for your children?”

Filming has certainly left him with mixed feelings about whether or not he would want to lead a similar life with wife Marina and their two children, Ludo and Iona.

“I always come back thinking I’m going to make my life much simpler, and that my children don’t need all these toys, and I don’t need all these gadgets and clothes, but you soon get back into the lifestyle and the culture in which we live,” he admits.

“What I miss is being close to nature – collecting your own water and generating your own electricity, catching your own food. I still dream of doing that with my own family, even if it’s just for a year-long experiment, I would love to have tried that. Whether we do it or not is another question, and maybe I’m still on the hunt for the perfect place to go and the perfect lifestyle to lead.”

Some of the ways of life he encountered during the new series simply wouldn’t fit the bill for the Fogles.

“Obviously, part of what they’ve done is search for solitude and I don’t know how healthy solitude is for children. I would love [my children] to be much closer to the natural world and the environment, but I would never deprive them of the social skills that you get in modern society.”

He adds: “If I could find a little community of friends, of like-minded people who lived in remote places like those individuals and families I spent time with in this series, I think that would be an amazing lifestyle.”

However, the search for the perfect home in the wilderness may have to wait, as Fogle is currently working on an even bigger challenge – swimming the Atlantic Ocean.

“Originally I was going to do it sooner rather than later, but the reality of the training and working with the scientists means it’s a much bigger challenge than anything I’ve ever done before, and I want to make sure it’s right,” he explains.

And the training isn’t just about being in the water.

Fogle believes everything from his time on Castaway to his recent trek across the Arabian Desert with Olympic rower James Cracknell has been helping him to prepare. “It’s my ultimate goal, the goal that keeps me fit and healthy and makes sure I appreciate every moment I have with my family.

“There’s no manual, so it’s about endurance training, which is part of everything I’ve done really – spending a month in the desert is part of that training because it’s the psychology of being away, being on your feet for many hours of the day, of boredom,” he says.

“I think a lot of people are dazzled by the physicality of it and the effort of being in the water for 12 hours a day, whereas what I’ve learned all the way from Taransay is that a challenge is as much about the psychology and mind over matter.”

And at the end of it, Fogle will have his family to come home to.

“I thrive on challenges, adventures and taking myself out of my comfort zone, so I can appreciate just how lucky I am to live in this country, to have the great NHS system that we have, and two beautiful, healthy children, and a beautiful wife.”

Maybe after swimming the Atlantic, that life in the wild won’t seem so inviting after all …