Globe-trotting scientist Ben Garrod owes his passion for nature to East Anglia
- Credit: Archant
Evolutionary biologist, primatologist and broadcaster Dr Ben Garrod - known for TV shows like Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur, Hyper Evolution: Rise of the Robots, The Day the Dinosaurs Died and Secrets of Bones - shares how growing up in East Anglia sparked his love of nature.
Ben’s travelled the world, but East Anglia’s still the most amazing place to live - especially when you’re kid.
“You’re never very far away from the outdoors, from nature and I fail to see how a kid could ever be bored. We’d be on the estuary one day - it sounds dangerous as hell - the beach the next day, in the cemetery building dens and on the golf courses upsetting golfers. As long as there wasn’t ice and snow we were outdoors almost every day at some point.
Born and raised in Great Yarmouth, his parents owned The White Horse and the Elephant and Castle. He remembers heading downstairs as toddler to chat to the locals who he thought were his uncles and aunts.
“I thought I had about 250 of them which I thought was normal. It was such a rich diversity of people and I think it really helped shape who I was, definitely with the biology. We had an amazing Welsh arts lecturer who brought in a sheep skull one day, which I still have somewhere in the loft. I was about 10 and I already loved nature but he’d bring in different things each week and we’d draw things.
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“A couple of weeks later, I think it might have been him, brought in a poor dead seagull that had been hit by a car and we dissected it with Stanley knives in the bar. I vividly remember lorry drivers and mechanics peering over to see what it was, they had no idea what was going on. I thought it was absolutely normal. That was my first real taste of what I would call strong real biology, which was lovely,” he laughs.
When Ben was very little he recalls his grandad, a mole catcher for the local race and golf courses, gave him a pair of mole paws.
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“It was just that closeness with nature, but not like a squeamish closeness. He said ‘it’s lucky to keep these things’. He died when I was five and I still remember having them. It’s absolutely no surprise at all I do what I do.”
Ben bravely swapped Norfolk for Madagascar in his late teens.
“I’d finished sixth form and my biology teacher said ‘there’s this conservation project that if you’re not quite sure what you want to do yet, if you want to go to university one day...’. It was before a gap year was a posh thing, a standard thing. So I raised money and did some charity work to get there. I’d been on holiday to Greece, been to London once on my own, but never ever jumped on a plane and gone somewhere.”
He spent months in the absolute back of beyond, in the south west of the country with no internet, no phone connection, helping a community who fished for shark and dolphins and hunted turtles to adopt sustainable practices and he loved it.
Even though he loved the natural world and nature he didn’t make that connection he could do it as a job. The original plan was to become a doctor.
“I did lots of work experience, worked in a mortuary for a while, a funeral parlour, got lots of voluntary experience around hospitals and it was only one day when I went home and thought I couldn’t work in a room that was white floor, white ceiling, white walls, ‘ugh’. It drove me insane, so that was it, it was nature. This Madagascar trip crystallised and galvanised this desire to maybe you can do something in the natural world, you can do research, conservation... there are more jobs out there than being a vet or working for the RSPCA.”
Ben, now gung-ho about this travelling alone malarkey, decided to take a year off before starting university and went to Africa.
“I thought I was going to do eight or nine months there and lasted about six weeks before I got cerebral malaria which went into the brain quite badly, I had to be flown back to the UK to recover for quite a while back in Norfolk,” he laughs.
Ben ended up doing animal behaviour at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge, which he absolutely loved.
“A lot of people say to me since ‘why didn’t you go to Cambridge or Oxford or UCL’ but Anglia Ruskin did the best degree in the whole UK for what I wanted to do. Luckily, during university, I worked as a waiter / butler believe it or not at one of the big Cambridge colleges and had to serve staff and students.
“I met Jane Goodall, the very famous chimpanzee conservationist. I said ‘I actually want to be you really, you’ve been my hero since I was tiny and I would love some advice’. Across this one dinner we chatted between me serving her soup, dinner and coffee and by the end of it she had given me her email. Within a day or so said ‘we’ll get you out to Africa and we’ll have a job for you somewhere’.
“I thought this was a lie she sort of fed everyone, but within six months I was in Africa working for Jane, running a huge project on chimpanzee conservation and welfare; living in North West Uganda in a mud hut on my own,” says Ben, back in the region recently with his family show So You Think You Know About Dinosaurs?
The job involved taking charge of an African team of staff, responsibility for law enforcement education, habituating a group of 150 wild chimps.
“Naively, I’ve always been taught to say if you put your mind to it you can do it which sounds great but the doesn’t actually mean you can run a massive international conservation project with no experience so I learned very quickly that I was in the deep end but it was an amazing opportunity.
But, yeah, my first job after uni was spending 14-15 hour days in the forest, following the chimps, noting down their every behaviour, seeing what they did, where they ate, were they played, where they fought; every single part of their lives was detailed and I absolutely loved it.”
Finishing that, Ben came back to the UK for a little while, went to Asia and did the same sort of job with Orang-utans and then decided to he needed to do a masters.
“My girlfriend at the time got a job in Bristol. I said ‘I’ll move with you, see how it goes’. She and I didn’t last but Bristol and I did. I fell in love with the city, partly because it’s got that East Anglian town sort of city feel like Norwich; it feels very community driven, very focused on the person.
“Not a big fan of the hills I’ll admit I miss the East Anglian flatness and big skies. I’ve been there for about eight years now. I decided to do a PHD and ended up working, very luckily, with the BBC as a side job so yeah I’m a jack of all trades now.”
With mum and dad busy running the pubs, it was very often down to gran and granddad to look after him for the day. They go to the beaches around the area, looking for things that had been washed up, watching the birds.
“I’ve a proper Norfolk/Suffolk family so they all still live in exactly the same place,” laughs Ben.
“Around Christmas there’s about 30 of us. I’m the only one who left Norfolk so it’s quite nice to come back and see everyone. Mum’s side are all from Suffolk and dad’s are all from Norfolk so I’m a proper Norfolk/Suffolk boy. Both grannies are still alive and there’s lots of uncles and aunties and about 1,000 cousins. You can’t miss a Garrod, we’re everywhere.
“When I come back I also visit the beach every time, almost like a pilgrimage. It feels really earthing and grounding. Looking back, we used to walk miles.. especially my granddad, we used to stomp on marches. One day we’d be in a part of the beach right in the south denes almost and the next we’d be right up in Caister. How the hell I used to walk that as a four-year-old. That’s his legacy bless him.”
Minsmere is one of the places Ben misses most.
“As a kid I never, ever wanted to go to Alton Towers, I’ve been once and it was the most boring experience of my life, absolutely hated it. For me it was places like Minsmere. We used to drive all the way from here to there just for the afternoon to watch butterflies and catch lizards. That was absolute heaven.
“The Norfolk Broads was a really big area for me. I still come back in the summer months and we’ll just kayak around the broads and go to all the places I probably shouldn’t do, which I’ll probably get told off for.
“Again it’s the most natural places, the most cut off places that I love going to the most, like Hickling Broad or Horsey. Every Christmas I go to see the seals and chat with the volunteers. It’s the regular haunts I go back to again and again which I absolutely love.”
Ben is privileged to be a patron of the Norwich Science Festival, an ambassador for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and a patron of the STEM Awards which gets kids into science, technology, engineering and medicine.
“In Norfolk and Suffolk, if a kid says to someone ‘I want to be an astronaut or a heart surgeon or a palaeontologist’ it’s almost ‘oh, you won’t because that’s not really what we do in Norfolk and Suffolk’. There’s the idea, that we perpetuate ourselves sometimes, that you’re born here, you live here and you die here. There’s no reason why any one of us can’t be Richard Attenborough or make a documentary.
“We do have a very gentle, nice pace of life around here but that doesn’t mean we can’t aim high. “They just need to believe in themselves and I think we as adults, Norfolk/Suffolk residents, need to be able to encourage and engender that within our kids.”
Ben’s also excited about being an ambassador for the very first Norfolk Day in July.
“We’ve already got Prince William involved. Even though I’m very proudly Norfolk - because mum’s Suffolk I kind of mean Norfolk-Suffolk. I know there’s a lot of gentle banter and rivalry between the two but we’re two sides of the same coin in many respects to me. Again, it’s promoting where you’re from.”