Illustration by Alan Baker
Words by Roy Wilkinson
Zoologist, broadcaster and author Lucy has co-hosted BBC TV’s Springwatch and also founded the SAS (Sloth Appreciation Society). Her latest book, The Unexpected Truth About Animals, entertainingly details the implausible natural history of creatures including eels, beavers and hippos. We caught up with Lucy to chat about her early love of waterways, her treasured riverine reads and her connection to canals and rivers as places to reflect and regenerate.
I can’t overstate how much canals were part of my life when I was growing up. I grew up near Pett Level in Sussex and I was obsessed with frogs and water life. My favourite pastime was going to the Royal Military Canal with my father and catching frogs and water boatmen. My grandfather was a shepherd on Romney Marsh [in Sussex] and my dad was an antiques dealer. Dad was also an accomplished amateur ornithologist who grew up loving Romney Marsh, which he passed on to me. He knew everything about the wildlife on his doorstep. Dad sunk an old Victorian bath in our garden. I was an only child and that was everything to me – full of creatures from the canal, which I caught with a net made from old net curtains. I tried to catch small eels in the canal but I couldn’t get them out of the net – they’d slither out of my grasp. Now I’ve written about eels. In fact, I begin my latest book [The Unexpected Truth About Animals] with the eel. It’s amazing that something so commonplace can have such an extraordinary life cycle and biology that we still don’t understand today. We still can’t say for sure where eels breed – after massive amounts of effort, from Aristotle onwards.
Later, as an adult living in London, I found a flat that was footsteps away from Regent’s Canal. I would spend most of my free time walking and running along the canal. I loved that – this car-free haven of quiet where I could see moorhens and maybe a pike. I now live in Hastings and my favourite thing to do at the weekend is to walk along the Royal Military Canal. I love the flatness of the landscape. There’s something just wonderful about these straight lines in the middle of the British countryside. I love that contrast. The canal reminds me of being young. It stirs feelings of happiness and deep contentment in me.
My favourite river-related songs are quite well known ones. I love Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’. As a child of the 1970s I also love ‘Rivers Of Babylon’, the Boney M version. I also really like Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’. So, all songs where a river is maybe a metaphor more than being evocative of any actual river.
I love water-related books, my favourites are from my childhood. I read The Wind In The Willows again and again and again. I found it totally enchanting – the romance of these creatures and the world they live in, all wrapped up with the waterway. That’s what I wanted to create in my back garden with dad’s pond. I even loved that TV programme Tales From The Riverbank, which had real hamsters and white pet rats living in these little human-type houses by the river. In The Wind In The Willows, the first time Mole sees a river he says something like, “So this is a river?” And Ratty says, “It’s my world and I don’t want any other.” I totally related to that – I was completely captivated by that world myself, and I still am. I also loved Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher and [Henry Williamson’s] Tarka The Otter.
Canals and rivers are great places to reflect and regenerate. When I was living in London, if I was feeling stressed then going for a run along the canal would take me far away from that frenetic environment and to another place entirely. I love the trees overhanging the water, the peace. I’m a firm believer in the soothing balm of nature. I think the reflection of the sky in a river is something that’s so beautiful and moving. Like many people I have my good days and my bad days and, if I’m having a bad day, I walk along the canal, and that can completely reset me. I totally use waterways as a place of quiet and calm. You can think of life and experience as like a river – it’s constantly in motion, nothing remains the same. If you’re troubled by something, that will pass – like a river, it will flow on. I really appreciate what Canal & River Trust does. Canals are living corridors that are important for so many animals, so it’s great that they can be supported and maintained.
The Unexpected Truth About Animals is out now, published by Black Swan.
Posted on 31/01/2020