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Dartmoor: On the Hunt for Wilderness

PUBLISHED: 08:35 22 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:44 20 February 2013



Film-maker Richard Terry thinks Dartmoor is just as wild and special as Alaska's bear country.

At first glance, the wilds of Alaska might not seem to have that much in common with Dartmoor. But on chatting to Richard Terry, it soon becomes apparent that Dartmoor can offer just as much wildness and inspiration as the bear country he has recently been filming in.

I loved living by the sea in Kingswear and Brixham, and there were always incredible views of the coastline, said Richard, who grew up in South Devon. He became fired up to join the film industry, and after much persistence, he was taken on to train at the BBC film studios in Ealing. Richard then worked in London for 20 years on dramas and documentaries, travelling all over the world for various projects. Apart from one short trip when I was nine, I didnt travel at all until I was 20 years old and I have definitely made up for it since.

Apart from one short trip when I was nine, I didnt travel at all until I was 20 years old and I have definitely made up for it since.

Eventually, Richard felt a need to return to his roots in Devon and eight years ago, he and his wife Juliette went to live by the sea in Maidencombe. Knowing they might well miss the citys hustle and bustle and the caf culture of Londons Portobello Road, they set up The Shaldon Coffee Rush in the small village of Shaldon on the River Teign. We served fantastic coffees, and were keen to allow dogs too, so walkers could pop in after a long walk on the beach and enjoy some of the finest coffee from around the world, said Richard. Plus it was also a great way of quickly becoming part of the community in Shaldon.

After running the coffee shop for six years, whilst working as a freelance cameraman, an extraordinary filming opportunity came through. In May 2008, Richard was offered one of his most challenging filming projects yet to film a documentary series about Charlie Vandergaw, a man who for the last 20 years has lived amongst wild black and grizzly bears in a small hand-built wooden cabin in a remote and incredibly wild part of Alaska.

Richard explains: I had never seen a bear before, even in a zoo, and within a couple of weeks of getting the job I was living there for six months. He was uprooted from his wife and two young sons, to go alone as a one-man crew there would be no producer, director or sound recordist to help out.

Richard had previously made a film, A Man Among Wolves, for National Geographic about wolfman Shaun Ellis and his wolf pack in North Devon, for which he had to learn quickly how to behave amongst the wolves. Bears were somewhat bigger. When he found out hed be working in such close proximity to bears, he took an adventure first aid course locally and a gun familiarisation course on Dartmoor, just in case. It was difficult leaving his young family behind, but his two sons, Saxon and River, both came out to visit him in Alaska with his wife while he was filming. Im often away a lot but if Im in an extraordinary place with some time off my family will come out and join me, which is brilliant.

Throughout Stranger Among Bears Richard Terry tells the dramatic story of Charlie Vandergaw, a man who lives on the boundary line between wildlife and humans, with much controversy and in defiance of the state authorities. It was so exhilarating; when youre so close to bears, you have to really respect them for what they are, says Richard. I wasnt so terrified because I was with someone who knew them and I put my trust in them.

Following the success of this series, Richard spent another intense filming stint on the Katmai Coast, with only canvas as shelter, filming David Bittner. David, a Swiss fish biologist, was camping out in Alaska in the hope of understanding more about the grizzly bears food source Pacific salmon. Richard was intent on trying to discover what drives a man to put himself in such a risky situation, for his series Alone Among Grizzlies.

Coming to Dartmoor felt like returning to the extreme wilderness I experienced in Alaska

On returning home, England no doubt felt like a complete contrast to this wild existence he had adapted to. Devons south coast just felt too busy after living alone in a tent filming for so long, and there were people everywhere. Torbay is beautiful but it can be very touristy, explained Richard. I needed to find my nearest bit of wilderness and I was hankering after open spaces.

in April 2010 he and his family moved to live near Chagford on north Dartmoor. Coming to Dartmoor felt like returning to the extreme wilderness I experienced in Alaska. It feels like we have lived here a lot longer than five months now. We have really been welcomed into the community, said Richard. We can step straight out into the wilderness from our front door. There are wild Dartmoor ponies everywhere, sheep, cows, more birds here than I have ever seen and deer coming right up to our windows. It does in some ways look like a jungle we have a large pond, enormous rhododenrons, foxes screaming at night, mink running past. Its our sanctuary.

The moors of Devon seem to have satisfied Richards pangs for living out in the wild.

Richard lives in a house surrounded by 17 acres of woodland and wild moorland. From where we live, we cant see any other houses. Sometimes it feels like we have moved to a different planet, and that it wouldnt seem completely unusual to see a bear here!

The moors of Devon seem to have satisfied Richards pangs for living out in the wild. Dartmoor is equally as special as Alaska. I dont feel sad to come home to this place it is a wilderness of its own. He says, It is a different lifestyle inland up on the moors, it feels like Devon proper. Plus its the perfect place to bring up kids. Its a real adventure playground I have hung up a tyre swing from our beech tree for the boys to play on and they love just being outside swimming in the lake getting muddy.

Sometimes it feels like we have moved to a different planet, and that it wouldnt seem completely unusual to see a bear here!

As for his next assignment, Richard will be the host of a newseries. The idea of having to perform in front of a director and producer is actually scarier than working with bears!

When hes back from his travels, Richard values that feeling of being truly grounded on his home territory, and he returns to the Shaldon Coffee Rush for regular caffeine hits too.
Watch Richards films Stranger Among Bears and Alone Amongst Grizzlies on the Animal Planet channel:


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