People say “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”. I can’t say I’ve read every page, or even close to every page, but I have read a few chapters. My time in wheelchair rugby and in television has taken me to all corners of the UK; to France, to Germany and to Finland; across the Atlantic Ocean to North America and 8000 miles in the other direction, to Vietnam. But earlier this year, television brought me to the place I love most in all the world – it brought me home.
You might have seen my recent Countryfile episode, Saltmarsh, Sand and Sea (available here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bjd4ds). The episode featured what I like to think of as my back garden: the Isle of Sheppey. For me, Sheppey means ‘summer’, it means ‘discovery’ and it means ‘family’. This is where our dad would bring us, my brothers and me, to share his knowledge and love of the wildlife. It was the bird life that most enchanted me. We’d follow dad across the marshland and he’d search for the signs that he knew so well. He’d identify a bird and we’d ask how he’d done it. Then he’d explain that it was the distinctive call or the silhouette or the way the bird flew. We learned to recognise the sounds and the shapes and the movements. We learned to name the birds that went with them. Even now I can recite them like the alphabet. Peregrine, kestrel, lapwing and heron; avocet, egret, wagtail and snipe.
That time on Sheppey has stayed with me in ways that I couldn’t appreciate while I was so young. At the time I just knew I was enjoying myself and learning about wildlife. What I didn’t realise, until I was older, was that I was also growing roots in that Kent earth. Since then I’ve been blessed to experience diverse cultures on different continents. Wherever I’ve been, whoever I’ve met and whatever I’ve seen, I’ve always known where my roots are. They’re deep in the soil that I walked on as a kid, nurtured by the love and lessons of my parents and reinforced by the bond that I have with my brothers.
If you understand what I mean about my roots, you’ll understand why I felt so proud, a few months ago, to be given the title Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Swale. Swale is my home borough and includes the Isle of Sheppey, so it will always hold some of my happiest and most meaningful memories. But Swale has even more significance for me because of my grandparents. Richard and Rose Moreton served their local community as the Deputy Mayor and Mayoress, then the Mayor and Mayoress, of the Borough of Swale. In 1985 they formed the Swale Youth Development Fund to assist talented young people in meeting their potential. The fund continues to this day, with Rose as its Life President and with me as a patron.
The recognition of Swale Borough Council is special to me because it reminds me that my identity is intertwined with the identities of the place I call home and the people who raised me. We all inherit parts of ourselves from the people who came before us and we share parts of ourselves with the people who come after. My desire to assist children and young adults in fulfilling their potential is something that my grandparents gave to me. My fascination with the natural world and my drive to share it with others are things that I got from my dad. Nowadays I take my nephews to Sheppey, just as my dad took me. I hope the boys will love and appreciate the natural world that’s so available to them. I hope these trips become just as meaningful for them as mine were for me. I hope that wherever they go, whoever they meet and whatever they see, they’ll always know where their roots are.