Life on water

BBC filmmaker and presenter Lucy Cooke grew up scooping microbial life out of the waterways with her dad. “Canals were a major feature of my youth,” she says. Interview: Emma Warren

What’s the best nature guidebook you ever read?
One book changed my life when I was about eight. It was the Life On Earth book that came with the David Attenborough series. I got it for Christmas. It introduced me to evolution and the amazing spectrum of life beyond my back garden.

Did you spend much time on the waterways when you were young?
Canals were a major feature of my youth. My dad sunk an old Victorian bath in the garden and that became my Narnia. I made my own pond using a Collins book of pond life. I used it to make sure I had pond skaters and beetles and lesser boatmen and greater boatmen. I wanted to see everything in the book in my sunken bathtub. That meant my dad had to take me every week, in our old Mini Pickup, to the canals near Romney Marsh to go pond dipping.

When you think about that book, what do you see?
I see a book that’s very much loved. It was hardback, all bent out of shape from falling in the pond too many times, with lots of scribbles and ticks next to things and quite a lot of lists at the back, of things I wanted.

What did you want in your pond?
The frogs! That’s why I’m still so obsessed. They were so unattainable. I did get some in the end. I remember the joy of getting frogspawn and then the tadpoles didn’t turn into frogs. It was a long journey to get frogs into my pond. Once they actually arrived my parents wished they hadn’t; marsh frogs make a total racket. 

What kind of guidebooks would be useful for people who just walk along the canals and want a way to get started?
I don’t know. My father is my resource. He grew up on the marsh so I never really had to look anywhere else, other than my book about pond life. Just following the path of the canal is very satisfying. There’s a huge amount of life beneath the water so if you do get yourself a net and have bit of a dip you’ll find thing you won’t have imagined. They’re not necessarily pretty, but they’re extraordinary.

Do you think people should get stuck into nature in a physical way?
I’m not pushy about it. If people just want to sit and watch, that’s fine. Going for a walk is a good thing, especially for kids. I was also addicted to television as a child but I don’t remember much of the telly I watched. I remember being outside.

Any favourite books about nature more generally?
I read an enormous amount. I read a wonderful book recently called Wild Things by Jon Mooallem. He’s an American writer and it’s all about the struggles with conservation. It’s very witty. It’s deep, with important things to say but does it with a lightness of touch and a wry smile.

Have you been on a canal recently?
No, my father was in hospital recently and as soon as he’s better we’re going to go on a walk along the canal, so I’m hoping we’ll do it in a few months. That’ll be a great moment. 

Read more about Lucy Cooke and BBC1's Talk to the Animals

Last date edited: 8 January 2015

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