It’s easy to manipulate television presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle. You can make him laugh, dance, jump into the bath and fall asleep fully clothed. He’s grumpy as he beds down, however, growling: ‘Dont bug me now, all right? I’m relaxing.’ This particular Ben Fogle is a 2in-high animated computer-desktop toy, downloaded from the presenter’s website.
In the flesh, he is just as obliging and eager to please. In the real world, Mr Fogle has lately taken on a serious role as president of the Council for National Parks (CNP). Previous presidents have included the broadcaster Libby Purves, and the actor and man-mountain Brian Blessed, both of whom are a great deal more seasoned than the sun-bleached, smooth-cheeked 32-year-old Mr Fogle. ‘I’d like to think I was chosen because I’m that bit younger than others who have had the task before me, and I’m hoping that I’ll appeal to a group of people that, until now, have been unaware of national parks or the importance of them. Although he is as bouncy as Tigger in his enthusiasm, he’s not completely wide-eyed. At the formal handover of the presidency, which took place on a walk across the South Downs (where the CNP is campaigning for the creation of the latest national park), Brian Blessed delivered a warning to his successor. ‘He said that I was going to get my nose bloodied over the next few years.’ Mr Fogle has already been pitched into battle over the boundaries for the proposed park, which have been the subject of a lengthy public enquiry.
The way the CNP sees it, ‘the case for granting national-park status to the western Weald is overwhelming. It’s a beautiful and iconic landscape with close associations to the chalk hills. Its inclusion would ensure that a South Downs National Park would be big and varied enough for quiet recreation and spiritual renewal.’ Although most people assume national parks are funda-mentally good, others have doubts. Staunch opponents of the expanded park, such as West Sussex County Council, argue that the western Weald has already been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so is well protected from over-development. If a ‘national park’ badge is pinned on the area, what will it bring other than a gang of park bureaucrats? Worse still, national parks are so popular with visitors that often they threaten the tranquillity of the cherished landscapes they are meant to protect try visiting the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire or the Lake District on a bank holiday. And the South Downs is more vulnerable to being overrun than the existing parks, being the closest to London, as well as ‘the ever-expanding population of the South-East,’ in the words of the CNP itself.
Mr Fogle will need to use deft diplomacy to win over opponents, and his eyes light up at the thought. ‘I always wanted to be an ambassador when I was younger,’ he explains earnestly. ‘I took my Foreign Office exam more times than I would like to admit and failed every time. Those exams are geared more towards intellect than character. If they’d been character-based, I might have fared better.’ His stated ambition as president is to see the park created in its fullest form, and he anticipates spending two or three days a month on CNP business fitting this around his hectic filming schedule, which includes presenting Countryfile, as well as new BBC2 series Extreme Dreams that has taken him to Nepal, Venezuela and New Guinea for long expeditions. ‘I wish I could come back 200 years ago as one of the great explorers, Livingstone or Scott or Shackleton. I would love to have been setting out on one of those adventures where you really didn’t know if you were going to fall off the end of the world or you were going to be eaten by cannibals,’ he says, wistfully. Rest assured, Ben. Some South Downs residents are already sharpening their knives and readying their cooking pots.