Interview with Nicholas Crane
Imagine a man whose sense of adventure and discovery are matched only by his willingness to boldly cross the harshest of terrain, armed with only a map and a compass. That man is - Nicholas Crane!
It's clear that you love Britain. Just what is it about British Isles that makes them such a unique and fascinating subject?
It's combination of things really. Because of the Gulf Stream, at the moment we're blessed with a very peculiar climate; essentially we have a hot water bottle lying down the western part of our shores, giving us weather that is far better than it ought to be.
By rights we should have a Canadian climate, but we don't - we have palm trees in North West Scotland and we have these four wonderful seasons. Depending on what time of year you go around Britain you'll see we have a landscape of extraordinary diversity.
One thing we I wanted to do on Map Man and Coast is show this diversity to British viewers so I feel passionately about singing Britain's praises. For example, on Salisbury plain you have lovely knee-high chalk grassland full of butterflies and on Dartmoor you have short, cropped grass and great, weathered lumps of granite, rising out like globs of dough on the top of each hill! It's very dramatic and very wild.
On both Map Man and Coast, you always travel long distances on foot, even if it's raining - why don't you just take a train?
There's a reason for me being seen on foot out in all weather and enjoying myself in my own country. I believe that it's a genuinely exciting place and that we'd all benefit if we appreciated what we've got on our own doorstep rather than hopping on a place to Barcelona for the weekend!
You must be pretty fit to make the kind of programmes that you do. How difficult did you find making the series?
Yes, they do get pretty extreme physically, and I run every day to keep a high level of fitness. But I'm never alone on these shoots - I'm with a film crew and they have to be very fit as well. Between filming we're all always lugging around tons of equipment, so when you see me on top of a mountain what you don't see is the three hours it took us to get there in the pouring rain, each of us loaded with tripods and recording equipment!
Each trip must take a lot of preparation.
Yes, making those programmes is the hardest work I've ever done in my life. Your normal working day will be twelve hours minimum, plus we do a lot of filming at night. Filming is an exercise in risk management and crisis control. We have a plan we've all worked on incredibly hard for many months beforehand but things normally start going wrong immediately!
Fortunately we're very lucky on Map Man to have, I think, the best crew in the country. These films could not have been made without those individuals. All I have to carry most of the time is a rucksack and an umbrella!
For all the work that you've done you are a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. What exactly does that mean?
Being a Fellow is simply a matter of paying a subscription! But I am very fortunate to have recently been asked to become a Chartered Geographer - this is quite exciting as you can only get this title if the RGS considers that you've made some contribution to geographical understanding. The institution itself is immensely valuable and is now emerging as one of the most important scientific forums in the world. The RGS is worth supporting and worth listening to.
So, how did this all start for you?
I guess it goes way back to my childhood. My parents were very adventurous and I started camping with them when I was three months old! Also I grew up on the edge of the countryside was given a bicycle when I was about eight. Soon I started using that to explore the countryside.
When did you discover your love of maps?
I was taught how map read and use a compass by my father and what I realised through him was that if you have a map and a compass, those two items alone will give you weeks of adventures and you learn a lot. I figured out that one Ordnance Survey map covering one tiny bit of Norfolk could give me weeks of excitement and when you consider that there are over 200 of these maps covering the whole of Britain, then that's more than a lifetime's worth of adventure!
When did you combine your love for the world around us with broadcasting?
Well I'm a writer really and when I finished my geography degree I started writing around that time. I wrote a book when I was in my early twenties that was published and since then I've always worked for newspapers and magazines.
I first got into broadcasting back in the early 80s. I was on a series called Now Get Out Of That - an adventure reality show where two teams of four were given a fictitious situation to capture a crashed satellite from the mountains of Wales! The series involved riding horses, swimming down waterfalls and building rafts and that was the first telly I did.
You were also in Afghanistan during the war between the Soviet Union and the Mujahideen for a Radio 4 documentary called Hidden War.
Yes that was pretty dangerous. It was during the last few years of Soviet Occupation and the end of the Cold War. Even though at the time it felt like the world was on the brink of the apocalypse because of the Cold War, I do feel however that geopolitics back then were more straightforward than they are at present.
Now the geopolitical climate is now based on religious grounds and as a result we have something far less stable and it's a complete tragedy what's happened in Afghanistan since we were there. When I think back to the families I travelled with through the Hindu Kush Mountains in '88, it's heartbreaking. Now, fifteen years after all the humanitarian aid that I was tasked to organise back then seems to have all been for nothing, their lives are still in a state of total turmoil.
Is there anywhere in the world you would love to go and research?
Yes loads of places! However, my biggest problem is that since it's become apparent that global warming and climate change is being encouraged by air travel, apart from unavoidable business, I've denied myself the luxury of flying anywhere myself for my own pleasure over the last ten years.
Given the current geopolitical climate, is there anywhere you'd like to avoid?
No, not at all. I'd still love to go back to Afghanistan, as I feel I've got unfinished business there and I'm extremely concerned about what's going on.
Part of me is a journalist and journalism is not all about reporting the bad events in the world; it's also about raising public awareness about issues and I think the Western world has got to learn that playing crusaders in other lands isn't the way to do things anymore and is very dangerous indeed.
So, what's next for you?
I've just come back form two days in Glasgow where I've been working on the beginning of a new series called Great British Journeys for BBC2. I'll be going out, following the footsteps of eight famous explorers of Britain, asking just who discovered the British Isles.
It's following very much the same kind of adventurous geography as Map Man did, but this time we'll be finding out why these eight explorers can be considered the eight most important discoverers of our own country. I also hope that the series will increase public awareness of climate change as a global challenge and in particular a challenge to our own archipelago.
Finally, how would you recommend schools make geography more appealing?
Probably by avoiding the 'G' word! You're absolutely right, it's always been associated with chalk dust and tweed jackets, but it isn't like that at all.
Actually, if you walk into a modern day geography class at school you'll find the students learning about sea level rise, CO2 emissions, issues that are the most important in the world at the moment - it's the only modern discipline that can address the planet's single most important crisis.
And of course history is a vital part of this.
Yes, it's only by going back in time and seeing what has happened in the past that you can anticipate what will happen in the future. I love history, but I'm not interested in making pure history programmes, but what I am interested in doing is looking at what has happened in the past and using it for future benefit.
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Books by Nicholas Crane:
Great British Journeys, Phoenix, Sep 2008
Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe, Penguin, April 2003
Two Degrees West: An English Journey, Penguin Books Ltd, Jun 2000