TV presenter Sally Eaton on Cow Ark, lichenology and getting locked in the lavatory


Lancashire TV presenter Sally Eaton talks to Roger Borrell about Cow Ark, lichenology and getting locked in the lavatory

If Jenny Eaton is reading this, what I’m about to say might come as abit of a surprise. But don’t worry, no one came to any harm.

Here goes: Do you remember when you waved goodbye to your  17-yearold daughter Sally after she told you she was going on a school trip? Well, that wasn’t strictly true. Instead, Sally and a couple of friends from Clitheroe Grammar travelled 5,000 miles on their own and without telling anyone to spend the summer teaching in schools in India.

‘We just took off,’ confesses Sally Eaton, co-presents Channel 4’s naturalhistory programme Wild Things. ‘The school has a scheme involving aid in Third World countries but we didn’t think our parents would let us do that so we organised our own trip. What did my mother say? She doesn’t know about it – we still just refer to it as The School Trip.’

If you think Sally Eaton has an adventurous spirit, you are probably right.It might also convince you she was a challenging child: ‘Mum once told me not to spill sugar on the carpet as it would encourage flies to lay their eggs and we’d end up with maggots. That was great – I just kept secretly sprinkling sugar around the house.

‘Another time I was told not to leave a half empty glass of milk on the windowsill because it would grow fungus in the sun and we’d have spores flying around.

Wonderful! I kept hiding milk around the house.’ The truth is that Sally, now 31 and working as a lichenologist, had a blissfully happy childhood growing up in the tiny Bowland community of Cow Ark near Clitheroe with her brother and sister and their parents, mum Jenny, a ceramicist, and architect dad, Peter.

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‘Because we moved into a farmhouse that was quite run down, we just lived outside all the time. In the morning I would make myself a packet of sandwiches and head off for the Trough of Bowland on my bike. When I couldn’t cycle any further, I abandoned my bike and went on foot.

‘I’d eventually arrive home with old bits of bone and pieces of plant and study them under my microscope. I got that in my early teens – it was advertised on a “for sale” card in Booths in Clitheroe.  ‘I’m always grateful to my parents for the freedom I had – it’s not something many children experience any more. I was very lucky.’

After Waddington and West Bradford Juniors she went to Clitheroe Grammar and developed a passion for natural history. ‘I was a terrible geek,’ she laughs.

‘Fortunately, I had a quirky group of friends. Most girls are into dolls, dressing up, clothes and then boys. Not us.’  After studying biology at  Edinburgh, Sally’s free spirit took over once again. ‘I went to work in Borneo in a tropical swamp forest to study regeneration after logging and that involved looking at how orangutans had adapted to the changing conditions.’ Later she spent time living in a tent in Madagascar chasing snakes and geckos. ‘I learned you had to pick up snakes by the tail and quickly grip them behind the head. That normally stops them from biting you.’

A master’s degree took her back to Edinburgh and she is now based at the city’s Botanicals Gardens where she is regarded as an expert on lichens. It was while working there that she and a handful of colleagues were asked to appear on Channel 4’s Wild Things, a six part series which looks at wildlife that normally gets overlooked – often because they are so small. ‘There was no audition,’ says Sally, who is due to marry next year. ‘They asked me to say something on film and phoned me a couple of weeks later to ask if I’d like to be one of the presenters. It’s very exciting.

‘We are hoping there will be a second series and I’d love to be involved. But I’m not abandoning my work for a career in television. But I am hoping it will mean more people know what I do for a living. Most look puzzled when I tell them I’m a lichenologist!’

Any suggestion that lichens are, well, a bit dull is met by a squeak of outrage. ‘I once got locked in the bathroom and when my boyfriend came home and released me he was very synpathetic,’ Sally says. ‘But I had my hand lens and I opened the bathroom window and spotted some lichen growing on the ledge. I spent a very happy couple of hours examining it. It really is fascinating.’

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