Chris Packham has trampled out a path in natural-history television as a sort of anti-David Attenborough. Where the Attenborough brand is all about epic cinematography and grand statements about the state of life on Earth, Packham uses nature as a prism through which to speak to his own struggles.
These include coming to terms with life-long depression and an autism diagnosis. And it is the healing power of nature that is to the fore in Chris Packham: The Walk That Made Me (BBC Two, Wednesday, 8pm).
This is a charming serving of slow TV that asks nothing of viewers other than that they take a deep breath and set their anxieties temporarily aside. It starts with Packham, wielding a hand-held camera, retracing a beloved childhood ramble along the River Itchen in his native Hampshire, in southeast England.
A gentle riot of sounds and sensation ensues. The babbling of spray over rock, the rippling tumult of songbirds, and the muffled thud of grass under foot together cast a bucolic spell as Packham sets off. He followed this route many times as a boy, he says. Now, returning at the age of 60, he fears the memories may prove overwhelming. “It takes sometimes a bit of courage to walk in your own distant footsteps,” he says.
Sloping alongside the water one moment, scaling a hill the next, he encounters locals with whom he exchanges small talk. One recalls seeing a kingfisher perched on his front gate; another says that swimming in the river helps with his rehabilitation after he lost a hand.
The most profound interactions, however, are between Packham and the environment. “Look at that: a blackthorn tree. Absolutely sensational,” he says early on. “It’s that point in the year where it’s so green it hurts.”
The restorative qualities of a long walk will be familiar to many. For Packham this balm for the soul has had potentially life-changing consequences. Towards the end of his trek he recalls his miserable 18th birthday. He had no friends and felt isolated from his family. Embracing the outdoors was one of the ways in which he moved towards the light. That remains true. “Walking every day is central to my mental-health regime,” he says. “I couldn’t get a handle on how to manage myself. This was a place where I would immediately find comfort.”
This isn’t nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, as is made clear in a powerful conclusion. As he approaches Winchester Cathedral, Packham expresses the concern that out there are many young men who feel, as he once did, locked out of the world. If we know someone in that position, he urges us, ask if they’re okay. And if it’s obvious they aren’t, do something about it. “Don’t pretend to believe them and buy them another pint,” he says. “Help them sort it out.”