My Best Teacher - David Bellamy

27th March 2009 at 00:00
This national treasure's love of botany and zoology was nurtured by a teacher with a twinkle in his eye

I thought I had a career in ballet, but by the time I was 14 I was the size I am now. My parents had always wanted me to be a medic, so when my proposed dancing career had tumbled away, I decided to study botany, zoology, chemistry and physics.

An enormously respected man dressed in tweed with spectacles, Mr Hutchings, was my A-level botany and zoology teacher at Sutton Grammar School for Boys. He was strict, but always with a twinkle in his eye. We were a little clan in sixth form science and I was lucky to have such a good teacher with a fantastic sense of humour.

Mr Hutchings was the proud owner of a set of slides and once when he left the room, we prepared a new addition to his collection. Its label bore a rude title about Mr Hutchings, but instead of exploding at us, he studied its preparation carefully and then complimented us for being such good slide makers.

The teachers at Sutton were set apart from us: I was called Bellamy and in return he was Mr Hutchings or Sir, yet we became great friends.

After A-levels, we decided to take Mr Hutchings to London Zoo for the day as a way of saying thank you. At one point, he was standing next to a Bactrian camel and explaining lots of facts when it began to salivate on the top of his head. We didn't laugh but helped him clean up and then to complete the day, took him to see Oklahoma!

When I was about 14, I accidentally blew off the front of my friend's house. We had been making fireworks using explosives from a doodlebug that had landed intact near my house. We were the best firework makers in town, but this particular time we got the formula wrong. I woke up on the floor and I could see all my neighbours looking in as there was no window anymore, not even a frame. I made the local papers and when I got back to school swathed in bandages, I was dragged up in front of everyone and castigated for being an idiot.

On the way down, as I passed the teachers, I heard Mr Coult, my chemistry teacher, whisper: "Bellamy, well done. You will make a scientist yet."

If Mr Hutchings inspired my love of botany, my dad developed it. Running the local Boots chemist, people were always coming in for advice and I learnt which medicines were made from which herbs. It all linked together, and although originally studying to be a medic, I found it an easy jump to botany once I left school.

One of the most amazing things in my life was when I opened my first nature reserve. It was a long time ago now, but I remember an old Victorian primary school in Liverpool with a playground where they had planted raised beds. I chose the smallest little girl to cut the ribbon with me and as we walked across hand in hand she looked at me. "David Bellamy," she said, "you see the trees and the plants, we put them there, but the butterflies and birds came along by themselves."

A botanist, broadcaster, author and environmental campaigner, David Bellamy OBE has written more than 40 books and 80 scientific papers and has presented about 400 TV programmes. He was talking to Paula Barnett.

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