‘The Round Tower was my secret hideout’

MAN'S BEST FRIEND Ben with his dog Inca
MAN'S BEST FRIEND Ben with his dog Inca
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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He’s a television star whose passion for wildlife and nature has taken him across the globe.

But Ben Fogle says he couldn’t have done it without the experience he gained as a student at the University of Portsmouth.

EPIC JOURNEY Ben and James Cracknell after rowing the Atlantic

EPIC JOURNEY Ben and James Cracknell after rowing the Atlantic

It was during his time as a lodger in Southsea that he developed a love for the sea.

‘My lasting memory of Portsmouth is the water and the view of the city from it,’ he says.

‘Every day when I looked outside my bedroom window I could see the Solent. It was an incredible sight.

‘I loved watching naval ships, ferries and any other kinds of boats coming in and out of Portsmouth.

‘I forged a love for the ocean.’

Ben, 38, admits he found it difficult devoting all his time to his degree in Latin American studies – because he spent the majority of his time on the water. As a member of the University Royal Naval Unit he did a number of two-week training exercises in France onboard HMS Blazer.

He also joined a sailing club in Gosport and visited Spitbank Fort on occasions.

‘I spent so much of my time on the water – I just loved messing about in it,’ he says.

‘It’s probably why I ended up getting a 2:2 for my degree and not a higher grade!

‘Working for the University Royal Naval Unit helped me to gain a massive amount of respect for the Royal Navy and what it does. ‘I learnt how to navigate and I scrubbed the decks.

‘It was tough but I had to earn the respect of others. It’s an important life skill.’

In between his learning Ben had plenty of time enjoying himself.

‘Portsmouth was my playground,’ he explains.

‘It was where I got my sense of adventure.

‘It was a fun time in my life.

‘I tried doing as much as possible.

‘The Round Tower in Old Portsmouth was like my secret hideout.

‘I would watch a lot of the boats and sit and think about life there.

‘I loved the history of the place.

‘I can also recall the times running up and down Southsea seafront. It was a great sense of freedom.’

He also recalls nights out at the former Joanna’s nightclub in Southsea and The Dolphin pub, in High Street, Old Portsmouth.

‘I partied, I drank, I had a good time,’ he says.

‘They are the things you are meant to do as a student.

‘I had many memorable nights out.’

Ben, who lives in London with his wife Marina and children Ludo, two, and Iona, one, left the University of Portsmouth in 1998 and set his sights further afield.

He jetted off to Costa Rica to continue studying Latin American before making his break in television in 2000.

He starred in BBC reality show Castaway, which followed the lives of 36 people marooned on the Scottish island of Taransay for a year.

He then became a regular television presenter for the BBC – hosting shows such as Crufts, One Man and His Dog, Countryfile, Country Tracks, and Animal Park.

Over the years Ben has swam with crocodiles in Botswana and Australia and took on the challenge of rowing across the Atlantic with Olympic champion James Cracknell at the end of 2005.

Now Ben will return to his former home when he visits Portsmouth Grammar School today to talk about his latest book, The Accidental Naturalist, which talks about his close relationship with animals.

It is the sixth book Ben has penned in recent years.

He is due to arrive at Gunwharf Quays on a speed boat from Poole at 6pm.

His talk to an audience of around 200 people will kick off at around 7.30pm.

The event has been organised in conjunction with The Hayling Island Bookshop. People will discover how part of the book recalls Ben’s time giving disabled dog owners in Portsmouth a helping hand.

He walked people’s pets up and down the seafront a couple of times a week.

‘I can remember helping out one gentleman on quite a few occasions,’ Ben says.

‘He had this huge Great Dane. It was a lovely dog and I had a connection with it. I just felt it was important to help the community.

‘I’ve always loved animals and I’ve been around them ever since I was young.

‘I’m really looking forward to being back in Portsmouth.

‘It’s definitely a homecoming. If you had told me when I was a student I would one day travel the world and be a presenter on the television I would have told you that was completely mad.

‘Life has been a whirlwind in the last 12 years.

‘I’m incredibly proud of all the things I have accomplished.’

Ben’s visit to the city is part of a week-long book tour in the UK.

Tomorrow he will stop off in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

He will then move to a new house a couple of roads away from where he currently lives in London before taking part in adventure projects in Alaska and Africa.

Some of Ben Fogle’s career highlights

Ben Fogle is the son of British actress Julia Foster – who starred in 1960s films The Bargee, Alfie and Half a Sixpence – and Bruce Fogle.

He was educated at two independent schools; The Hall School, in Hampstead, London, and Bryanston School in Blandford Forum, Dorset.

Ben became a star on the screen after finishing his Latin American studies at the University of Costa Rica in 2000.

He is known for presenting the rural-affairs programme Countryfile alongside John Craven from 2001 until 2008. He reported on a number of the UK’s rural pastimes, including a world stinging nettle eating competition in Dorset, an oyster-eating championship in Northern Ireland and the World Conker Championships in Northamptonshire.

Ben was the first to cross the line in the pairs division of the 2005–2006 Atlantic Rowing Race with Olympic rower James Cracknell. While competing in the 3,000-mile race, huge waves caused their boat to capsize.

They arrived on land in Antigua at 7.13am on January 19 2006 with a crossing time of 49 days, 19 hours, 8 minutes.

He also competed in a six-day marathon called Marathon des Sables through the Sahara Desert.

As part of the challenge he raised money for the World Wide Fund for Nature.