Actress Virginia McKenna on Born Free, life in Coldharbour and her memoir, The Life in My Years
With the wildlife charity Born Free celebrating its 25th anniversary, MATTHEW WILLIAMS meets founder Virginia McKenna to talk living with lions, life at home in Coldharbour and the Surrey puma, among other things
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2009
There's been a shadow lurking around Surrey for some time now. An ominous four-legged fiend that leaves villagers quaking as they put their favourite bunny, or hen, to bed. But could the source of this story follow a trail all the way back to a Coldharbour garden in the Seventies?
"Well, Christian wasn't walking up and down the road, so I don't think so," says the actress and wildlife campaigner Virginia McKenna, when I ask her about the lion she kept for four months in the Surrey Hills and whether it might have anything to do with the Surrey puma 'myth'. "Not a lot of people knew about him to be honest, although I think the butcher was quite surprised when we started asking for all these bones and such.
"Actually, we used to have a gardener who came in one day and said he'd seen it. He was absolutely insistent. Well, he couldn't have made it up, could he? And what about all the other sightings? It could be there - there are tons of rabbits to eat after all and deer and pheasants and goodness knows what."
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I'm meeting the 77-year-old star of Born Free film fame as she celebrates the 25th anniversary of the charity she set up in 1984 with her late husband and kindred spirit Bill Travers.
Since it began, after the premature death at London Zoo of Pole Pole - an elephant the pair had come to know during the filming of An Elephant Called Slowly - Born Free has surpassed even her expectations.
From humble beginnings, the charity originally known as Zoo Check has grown into a global force for wildlife, and these days their son, Will, is chief executive in what continues to be a family affair.
"If it hadn't been for Will, I'm not sure that it would have reached 25 years," says Virginia. "We were very focused on the captivity issue, as that's where we started, but he's broadened it out and brought in conservation, anti-poaching, hunting - I mean, everything really to do with the protection of the animal in its environment. I'm still involved day to day, to some extent, and I've got my own office in the garden. Apart from my family, Born Free is everything, really.
So many memories
To coincide with this major anniversary, Virginia has also published her memoirs, The Life in My Years. The book proves to be a thoroughly moving tribute to a life well-travelled, the family, friends and animals that make up her world, and, of course, Bill - who died ten years after the charity was founded.
"It lasted a good while and there are many good memories attached to our time together," she says. "Everyone goes through ups and downs but that is just life. The parts you remember are the important ones and for me they are all the positive things.
"He's probably having a good laugh at all this: 'Oh God, you haven't written all of that!' he's probably saying. He would be very proud of Will and what we've achieved. Bill used to sometimes play Devil's advocate with him because he wanted Will to be able to come back if someone challenged him."
As a child, Virginia's family moved from England to South Africa and back again, and her film and charity work have taken her around the world. Yet, for 51 years, she has lived in a cottage in Coldharbour and despite all the many wonders she has seen elsewhere, home is most definitely where the heart is.
"We knew we wanted to live in the country as we weren't really town people and so spent a long time looking," she explains. "One day, we came across this funny little cottage - it wasn't particularly attractive but the setting was mind-bogglingly beautiful. We just knew that it was the place, even though it didn't have a bathroom or anything. We bought it and never even thought about leaving it.
"I feel very much part of the community. We're just slightly out of the village, which I quite like as it means I can pop in and out. I have very good friends there and luckily my three sons all live near me, while my daughter lives in Australia, which can be a bit more difficult."
As well as keeping her family close, she doesn't live too far away from a certain Brian Blessed either, who has played a massive part in the Born Free story with plenty of fund-raising along the way.
"Brian has been brilliant to us," says Virginia. "He and I worked together, in 1984, in Stratford. We played the king and queen in Hamlet. He's a lovely man - and now he wants to go into space as well!"
He also has something of a menagerie of his own at home - so do they ever get competitive?
"Well, I don't want to go into space - I haven't finished looking around the Earth yet - but he does have a lot of animals; certainly more than I have to look after," she says. "I have nothing in the house but I have a wonderful cock pheasant, with a harem of females, who comes for breakfast every morning and occasionally tea. He waits for me at the door and has encouraged his females to come, too.
As well as that little gathering, we have deer, badgers and rabbits in the fields and woods - lots of naughty moles digging up everything, too."
You sense that there aren't any separations in Virginia McKenna's world: friends, family and animals are all hugely important to her. And she has obviously deeply affected those around her, too. In fact, Joanna Lumley writes a touching foreword to her memoirs.
Campaign for the Gurkhas
"I've known Joanna since she was in The Avengers," says Virginia. "She was our first patron and has been absolutely brilliant for us ever since. When I was thinking about the foreword, I really hoped she would do it. I supported her in her campaign for the Gurkhas because my husband was a Gurkha and her father was, too. So I joined in a couple of her demos in London, protesting against the way the government has treated them."
I suppose it is this fighting for what is right spirit that makes me inquisitive to find out what she makes of the potential intrusion of more and more housing into Surrey's green belt...
"It's like erasing nature - what are they doing to the world?" she exclaims. "They seem to constantly want to expand but we've got such a tiny infrastructure of roads and such, we'll collapse. They can't even look after the roads we've got. You should see the lane I live in - it's like a farm track. It's crazy... 'We must be the leading this, the leading that...'
Sometimes, you've just got to accept that you're not going to be the leader any more; be a little more modest about your aspirations. As long as people can live a decent life, earn enough money to live on and protect the place they live in, you know, what are your ambitions? It will just be one big housing estate eventually."
Life in Coldharbour
It's not really surprising that she is so passionate about the area where she lives. Virginia says that she feels most comfortable at home and she is also involved in a number of local initiatives: she is a patron of Wildlife Aid in Leatherhead and gets involved with her local church, too, doing a reading every year at their carol concert and also acting as patron to their concert society.
"A wonderful neighbour of mine, Jane Newbury, does all the groundwork and finds all the people to perform," she says. "She does a tremendous job with the concerts. We've even had the Yehudi Menuhin students play.
"I have a very old friend and she was one of the founders of Friends of the Yehudi Menuhin School and she used to take me to concerts. I also knew a young cellist there called Rowena Calvert, who has gone on to do the most amazing things in the world and is coming back to play the Elgar Cello Concerto at the Dorking Halls in July. She is really worth looking out for."
In this age of the autobiography, I wonder what it was that encouraged Virginia, who says she has always felt very reserved about sharing her personal life, to add her own musings to already packed shelves?
"I thought it would be great to leave a few of these memories for my children and grand-children," she explains. "My daughter always asks me questions about my parents and I find I can tell her so little. I can only tell her my memories rather than their history because none of it's written down.
"Some of it was very hard and I also had to think, of course, about whether I really wanted to make my personal feelings public. But I felt with this that I had a certain level of control over what I talked about and how I wrote about it. It was my choice if something went in or didn't."
As I turn to leave, I notice the image of Christian the lion, seemingly jumping out of the TV behind me. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of a certain cottage in Coldharbour...
My favourite Surrey...
Restaurant... I don't go out that often but after a concert at the Dorking Halls we went to one called The Bali and they were brilliant, courteous and helpful. That is the main thing about eating out for me - being well looked after.
Shop... Sadly, our village shop closed many years ago. If I want to buy a very special present for somebody, I will go to The Fig Tree in Dorking - they have really unusual things and they've got that personal attention to detail.
Relax... Both my favourite view and place to relax are my home. I've got lovely woods, where all the animals live.
Visit... I'm mad about gardens, so it's definitely RHS Wisley for me. I'm a member and I get their magazines so that I know when everything is happening. If I have a visitor, I will always try to take them to Wisley.
FURTHER WILDLIFE READING
• Surrey Wildlife Trust has a monthly column in Surrey Life magazine
• British Wildlife Centre, near Lingfield - a wild day out in Surrey
• The new WWF headquarters in Woking: one of the UK’s greenest buildings and a new Surrey attraction
• Nicholas Owen meets Wildlife Aid’s Simon Cowell
• Discover how the Shalford-based David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation is helping to protect the world’s endangered species