There weren’t many opportunities to sail in Shepherds Bush. As a child I once went on the pedalos in Hyde Park. Many years later there was a party on a Thames River Cruiser. I never had to consider my fear of water until I moved to the coast and made new friends who all had boats and thought there was nothing finer than bobbing about in them.
My ocean introduction was also my job interview with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Lurching around on board an old fishing boat, I kept one wary eye on the horizon and the other on my fraying mackerel line. Hair crunchy with sea spray and stomach tight with the unfamiliar tidal swell, I caught my first fish that day, a silvery mackerel. Hugh showed me how to humanely despatch the slithering catch with my London livered hands, before chucking it in the battered bucket to add to the day’s haul.
When the engine shuddered to a halt I was preoccupied with the desire and fear of catching another fish. There was a raised voice debate about why the boat had stopped and I realised this wasn’t planned and we were a long way from land. I was an even longer way from London in all senses. Hugh stripped to his pants and dived straight into the freezing spring sea, dipping under the boat. After several attempts he successfully unravelled a length of old rope that had snarled around the propeller and held it aloft to relieved cheers from the deck. Pulled back up into the boat, Hugh stood shivering while we all searched the tiny cabin and bench seats fruitlessly for anything that could be used as a towel. He caught sight of the cosy, oversized pink scarf around my neck as I slowly unwound it.
On the beach, the sunset smudged a faint coral, we set a circle of stones and lit a fire of driftwood in the middle of it. There was a production line of gut pulling, filleting and sea water cleaning before some of the catch was chopped and doused in lemon juice and thinly sliced red chilli, ceviche style. I had never eaten fish like it - so fresh, subtle, the taste on my tongue matching the briny air. It was the first time I had been responsible for catching, killing, cooking and eating my own food, the complete circle. The rest of the mackerel were char grilled, floury bread rolls ignored as we broke the blistering flesh with salt sticky fingers and shared it between us like an initiation.
Thirteen years ago River Cottage changed my life.