Ben Fogle on the pain of losing a child: 'When you experience what we went through and it shakes you to your core'
Ben Fogle has travelled the world for 15 years, but nothing prepared him for the blow of losing a child. He tells Gabrielle Fagan about life after the tragedy, and how he still retains his sense of adventure
It takes a lot to rock Ben Fogle.
The Englishman has endured and survived countless perils and hazards on his travels around the world, from man-eating crocodiles to a flesh-eating disease, but the loss of his third child took him into uncharted territory.
“When something like that happens, it’s a reminder of our mortality. I’ve taken on big challenges over the years – like rowing across the Atlantic in a tiny boat – and you construct a sense of immortality, but then you experience what we went through and it shakes you to your core,” says the adventurer of the trauma 14 months ago, when his wife, Marina, suffered a stillbirth nearly 33 weeks into her pregnancy and almost died.
At the time, he was away in Canada to celebrate his grandmother’s 100th birthday and flew back to London not knowing throughout the 10-hour flight if either his wife or his baby son – the couple named him Willem – had survived.
He and Marina (38) – who have two children, six-year-old Ludo and four-year-old Iona – had bereavement counselling. Now the panic attacks and anxiety Fogle (42) suffered in the months that followed the tragedy in August 2014, have largely gone. They will not try for other children because of the risk to Marina’s health.
“We all deal with grief in our way and we’ve found ways of carrying on. I don’t have the anxiety I used to and, although you will never forget, you kind of move forward.
“It makes the children you have doubly precious. You value what you have and make the most of what you have, which is what we’ve done,” he says quietly.
The devastating experience has proved a spur for the TV presenter, who in the last year has managed to work on no less than six television series and produced a book, his seventh, Labrador: The Story Of The World’s Favourite Dog. It’s a breed particularly close to his heart – he met his wife while walking his dog, and the addition of a new Labrador puppy to the household shortly after their bereavement was a comfort in painful times.
“I like to immerse myself in work and I have always used writing as a refuge – it’s my way of escaping wherever I am – and that book was part biography, as well as focusing on our simple but rewarding relationship with dogs and the comfort they can bring us,” he says.
“When suddenly your focus changes, you see the years going by and it’s an extra reminder that you don’t want to live life with any regrets.
“I’ve always been conscious of seizing the moment, but after last year, it’s become even more relevant to me. I’ll probably slow down for a bit soon though, so I have a little more time to enjoy life instead of racing from one thing to another.”
There’s no sign of that yet – he’s back on screen presenting the fifth series of Channel Five’s New Lives In the Wild, and using his considerable charm and empathy to bond with those who’ve pursued alternative lifestyles and overcoming considerable odds to do so.
“In the developed Western world, we’ve tried to close the door on the wilderness and construct a comfortable existence, where we minimise risk, but we’ve ended up dominated by a technology-driven 24-hour lifestyle. Over the last few years, there’s a fast-growing group of people looking to regress and turn back the clock.”
The escapees from the rat race he meets include a woman who left her marriage to live off-grid in a house made from straw bales and horse manure in Pembrokeshire and has established a technology-free community, a family who nearly lost everything establishing a smallholding in Devon, and an American living on Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in Britain.
“It’s not been easy for any of them and their bravery and resilience is inspiring.
“The Mason family, in Devon, initially suffered hostility because locals assumed they were New-Age travellers who didn’t care about the environment, but that was so far from the truth, as they’ve proved,” he says.
“We so love to stereotype people in Britain – I can relate to that myself as I’ve experienced it.
“By taking on challenges over the years, I’ve tried to show people I’m not just some ‘posh boy’ and that there’s far more to me.”
He’s certainly done that since he first found fame in 2000 living on the remote Hebridean island of Taransay for BBC reality series, Castaway.
For the past 15 years, he’s faced huge physical challenges, from trekking the Sahara to crossing the Antarctic, as well as forging a presenting career on programmes ranging from Countryfile to Harbour Lives.
Fame, success and fortune notwithstanding, he still nurtures a dream of turning his back on it all to live his own “wilderness” and recently pinpointed an uninhabited Scandinavian island where he hopes to set up home. It appears unlikely that he could spend a year in any one place without getting itchy feet – he seems to spend his life in perpetual motion with frequent absences from home.
“My being away a lot does put a strain on family life and our relationship, but Marina and I have been married for almost 10 years now and it’s always worked for us.
“We have a good system and we’ve worked out coping mechanisms,” he says.
Marina has revealed the couple have regular therapy sessions with a marriage counsellor to help them cope with the pressures of working and parenting, and to strengthen their relationship.
“Of course, I’d rather spend more time with her, but it’s what my job entails. I proposed just after I’d rowed across the Atlantic, so she’s always been very pragmatic about it – she knew she wasn’t marrying an office worker!” he says.
“Although my risk boundaries have changed slightly, now I have a family depending on me, I still like to test myself and want to carry on coming home with fantastic memories and stories for my children which can open their eyes to the world.
“Although I couldn’t bear it in the past when they pleaded with me not to go away, nowadays they accept it and are used to it.
“Really, I think the latter’s healthy and shows they’re secure. We know lots of families where the parents are in the services and are continually going off, and by comparison, my departures and challenges are nothing compared to that – after all, I’m not being shot at!”
Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild UK starts on November 12 at 9pm on Channel 5