Motcombe explorer John Blashford-Snell CBE shares thoughts on climate change, Motcombe’s voles, Shaftesbury’s shop workers and how a joke shop purchase could save your life in the jungle.
John Blashford-Snell was featured on ‘This Is Your Life’ in 1976. As the explorer who made the first descent of the Blue Nile and the inaugural vehicle crossing from Alaska to Cape Horn, John was a worthy subject for the prime-time TV programme.
43 years later, Colonel Blashford-Snell can add forming Raleigh International and his CBE, awarded in the 2019 New Year’s honours, to his long list of accomplishments. I visited the 83-year-old, described recently as ‘the King of Motcombe’ in his office, a cluster of outbuildings decorated with maps, photographs and expedition memorabilia down a long lane and opposite his home of 29 years.
His love affair with Motcombe began from speaking at Port Regis School events. “When Judith found this house, she talked to the headmaster who said, ‘Buy it, quickly’,” said John, who joked that the head wanted him nearby as a regular speaker. “I said to the Scientific Exploration Society when I was Chairman, ‘If you want a temporary base for a couple of years then I will lend you my outhouse for a short time’. They’ve been there ever since.”
John’s adventures have taken him to places where danger lies around every corner. He showed me a video of one lucky escape on his computer. “Crossing a dry riverbed in Assam, I saw what I thought was a water pipe on a dry riverbed, leading down into the mud. Then the water pipe moved. It was a huge serpent. It was coming slowly towards me. We were looking at a king cobra, about 14 feet long, with a bump in the middle where it had just eaten a snake. It wormed its way towards us. We kept very still, about 12 feet from it and got the most marvellous piece of film. One of these can kill an elephant so we didn’t want it to bite us. It’s the most venomous snake in the world,” said John.
I put John’s matter-of-fact account of an encounter which would terrify most people down to his extensive military training and experience. He explained that animals are nowhere near as frightening as men with guns. “When you know somebody is out there and wants to shoot you it’s a question of who shoots first, especially when you can’t see them.” And John has been shot at. “Not frequently, though,” he says, again brushing away what most people would consider a horrific encounter in a sentence.
Sometimes John has faced an older and just-as-deadly weapon. “In Papua New Guinea, in the interior, many of the local people had never seen a white man. Suddenly, you might see a chap twenty feet in front of you with a bow and arrow. First, you turned your hands outwards to show that they were empty and slowly you took a small gift from your pocket and gently put it on the ground, stepped backwards and walked away. After a time, the man would pick up what you left on the ground. He would accept your gift and you’d be friends,” said John. “I bought this joke laughing machine. It is very hard for somebody to shoot you if they are laughing. If you put this machine down and press a button it creates hysterical laughter. They will start laughing and you make friends that way. I did use at once or twice.”
Sitting at the end of a leafy Motcombe Lane, I found it incredible to consider that John has encountered people who had previously had no contact with outsiders. “One of the groups found my camera beyond belief. They had no metal. We gave them pen-knives and they thought they were fantastic. We came in the helicopter. They had never seen one and they were laying on the ground, praying. They were looking in amazement at the Chinook. If a helicopter parked overnight, we would find baskets of fruit left in front of it as if they were giving gifts to the ‘great bird’ and hope that it would come back with what cargo they wanted,” said John.
He continues with his missions to help people turn their lives around, whether that is at home or abroad. “We go in there looking for a particular objective. It could be scientific, medical or dental. You need the help of the local people to look for a lost city. You have to do something for them. We always take doctors, and dentists are particularly appreciated. Can you imagine living in Shaftesbury and the Abbey Clinic didn’t exist? What would you do?” posed John.
In recent years he’s become a passionate supporter of the ‘Just A Drop’ charity of which he is a trustee. “A lot of their work is done in Africa, India and some in South America and the Far East. It’s a very good charity helping to change the world. Somebody once asked me what the greatest luxury on an expedition was. I said it was being able to turn on the tap and drink what comes out of it, because most of the world can’t do that.”
John’s Motcombe office also looks after a number of ventures operating in UK inner cities, in places like Liverpool and Brixton. “There are a lot of charitable activities going on from Motcombe,” he said.
If TV bosses produced an updated ‘This Is Your Life’ programme, John says he would relish the chance to talk about the work with ‘Operation Drake’, which later became ‘Operation Raleigh’, and how it has changed its participants’ lives. That organisation was launched after his TV appearance. “We put particular emphasis on trying to get young men and women from all over the world who had not had a chance in life to develop leadership.”
John often attends Drake reunions. He proudly tells me how he met Emily Penn and presented her with an award from the Scientific Exploration Society, another of his initiatives. Emily had been working to reduce plastic pollution. She told John that her environmentalist parents had encouraged her, and they had become inspired following their Operation Drake mission.
He also spoke fondly of Falklands veteran Simon Weston. “His face was severely burned. He had numerous operations. The Prince of Wales, who was our patron, suggested that we offer him a place on Operation Raleigh. He came with us to New Zealand and we sent him to an island which was full of rats that were killing all the birds by eating the eggs. We wanted to trap the rats so the birds would survive. It was also home to numerous biting insects and the poor chap couldn’t use insect repellent on his face because of his burns. But he stuck to it. One night, sitting by the fire, he talked to me about doing something for young people in the North West. He said the problem would be money, but I told him he could get it.”
John told Weston to take a course in public speaking and tour pubs and clubs, sharing his story. “It was a huge success and he is well-respected now in many fields.” John believes his own, personal success has been in creating a framework within which people can unlock their potential.
We moved onto climate change. John told me he has witnessed its impact for at least twenty years. “You can see where the glaciers have retreated. You can also see the effect on plant life. I’m glad that people are making a lot of noise and trying to persuade governments. When you go overseas and see a beach covered in plastic, nobody is taking much notice.”
He says he has been inspired by a friend in Kenya, who arranged beach clean-ups each Saturday. The man then decided to make a boat from washed-up waste plastics. “He collected the plastic and produced a dhow. He coated the outside with flip-flops because the beaches are always covered with them. He called it the ‘flip-flopping expedition’ and sailed it down the coast to Zanzibar, to give conservation lectures in each port,” said John.
“He is hoping to build a bigger one to sail around Africa and up to England. It’s got people’s imaginations going. There are lots of people trying to get rid of this ocean of plastic in the Pacific. A Dutch ship is scooping it up,” John added.
He supports direct action, but he does not defend mass demonstration, such as the recent London roadblocks. “I think the way to do it is through imaginative ways, without causing harm to others. You can turn people against you. I think Britain is a good example. We are doing tremendous work but it’s not just us. We have to convince the rest of the world. You go to India and you see the Ganges with a mass of plastic and rubbish drift into the ocean.”
John is doing his bit. His Motcombe office is covered with solar panels. He’d like others to follow his lead. “I’d like to see every house in Britain being covered in solar panels. We have got to think about the wind and use heat exchangers. Anything we can do to save energy,” said John, who believes New Zealand provides a good example of what can be achieved.
Col Blashford-Snell has seen so many places and so much wildlife. But he told me that he has become bored of the tedious ritual of air travel, such as ensuring that he does not exceed the baggage allowance.
And he would still love to visit Eastern Russia, to view the Siberian tiger. “I’m very fond of tigers. My son-in-law runs a charity for the protection of Bengal tigers. They’re wonderfully impressive animals and are increasing thanks to the efforts of wildlife protection organisations,” he said.
“We were in Nepal other day and there are now eighty-seven, where ten years ago there were ten. The Nepalese government has got two-thousand soldiers guarding the area. They shoot poachers when they come inside. I’m not saying that’s the right thing to do but it does have an effect on the tigers. It’s a question of education. You have to persuade people not to kill tigers because they think there’s magical medicine in their bits and pieces, which will help your virility.”
Voles might not be as exotic as tigers, but John has been just as passionate about protecting these Motcombe mammals. “I was strimming around the pond and a vole leapt out of the way,” said John, who recounted the story over lunch with friends in London the next week.
“We decided that we should form the Vole Club. The whole group turned up in Motcombe, dressed in straw hats. We put a marquee up and a notice by the pond saying, ‘Spare the vole and shoot the mink’. It was a joke. A car pulled up and a guy asked if this was the vole club. He said he was the County Conservation officer and wanted to join. He is now Professor Alistair Driver of Exeter University. He and his wife wanted to know where the voles were, so I told them to go to the pond. He waded up to his knees and came back clutching something shouting, ‘Look! Vole turds!’”
The group decided to raise money to conserve voles, buying 100 babies and transporting them to a river in Devon, where they are doing well. “There are a lot of voles around Motcombe in the ponds and streams,” said John. “I wouldn’t say they are out of danger yet, but they have been saved from complete extinction, which otherwise might have happened.”
For a man so widely travelled, you might think Dorset would be rather tame and unexciting. John said on the contrary – he loves exploring our county’s countryside and he feels very much at home in and around Motcombe. “I just hope they don’t build too many houses. I’m very fond of Dorset, and Shaftesbury in particular. It’s very much our hometown and we do all our shopping there. There are some delightful shops in Shaftesbury. The attention you get from people is really good, but I think it’s because they are largely people from Dorset,” John said.
“They are friendly people. You go to the shops in Shaftesbury and people smile at you in a way that you don’t see everywhere. When you go to the big city, you don’t get that. I think people are keen to attract customers and that’s why they smile at you. They want you to come back.”
Finally, I asked John about resident Liz Pocock’s description of him as village royalty. “I don’t know about the ‘King of Motcombe’ title, but it is a great village. There are lovely people and a fantastic village shop. We thoroughly enjoy living here,” John smiled.