The Big Climate Fightback
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In our latest issue of Broadleaf magazine, we chat to Debra Stephenson, actress, impressionist and self-confessed tree-hugger. She tells us about her lifelong love of nature, from childhood tea parties with snails to shrugging off her latest villainous TV role by finding her calmer self among the trees.
Credit: Ben Lee / WTML
"I am drawn to majestic shows of nature: massive trees, rushing rivers, the sea. I grew up in Yorkshire, near the Humber, and I’ve always felt better close to water. At 21 I found the perfect place to live: Austinmer, New South Wales, where towering eucalyptus trees march down the cliffs to the beach. That continuity of nature from forest to ocean made a powerful impression, but Oz proved too far from family for a homebird like me. Then ten years ago we discovered a British equivalent, near Poole in Dorset. Here, it’s all about the skyscraping 60ft Scots pines standing sentinel beside rivulet-style ‘chine’ paths that zig-zag to the sea, where I swim each morning. They are the reason we moved here.
"I was a well-tended child with protective parents, not one to climb trees or go on a feral rampage! I didn’t have siblings, and play dates weren’t a thing. So I’d spend hours alone in our little garden, making perfume with rose petals and holding tea parties for snails. I’d have ladybirds crawling all over me and grew fascinated by minutiae: the curl of a butterfly’s tongue, the way veins on a leaf mirrored my grandmother’s hands. I think that attention to detail stood me in good stead years later, when I became an impressionist.
"We’ve a 10ft oak in our garden that my son Max grew from scratch. Back when I was filming The Impressions Show with John Culshaw, my mum took Max, then six, on the foot ferry across the Thames from St Margarets, in Twickenham. There are ancient oaks in the grounds of Ham House there, and Max stuffed his pockets with acorns. He planted them in pots, and one grew beautifully: mum looked after it in her greenhouse, then brought it to Dorset to put down roots when we did. Max is 18 now, and 6’2” – it dwarfs him!
"During lockdown, when everything was so upsetting, I took a course in transcendental meditation. I often practise it outdoors, and lately it’s helped me shake off the toxic character I’m playing in Holby City. She’s horrible, and if you’re not careful, inhabiting someone like that can creep under your skin and affect you mentally. We film at Elstree, where you’d be lucky to spot a pigeon, so I escape to Boreham Wood, which has a hotel with grounds full of magnificent trees. A spot of meditation under those and I soon feel myself again.
"It’s so therapeutic to be around trees – they’re good for the soul. You’ve got to come at climate change from all sides. We need a huge shift, but it must be driven by big business and government, rather than plonking too much responsibility on consumers. Green choices are usually miles more expensive, and most people can’t afford, say, oat milk in glass rather than cows’ milk in plastic. So it’s up to those at the top to find cheap, sustainable ways to help us change our habits. For my part, I try to eat a mostly plant-based diet – and support the Woodland Trust’s Big Climate Fightback, of course!"