Actress Virginia McKenna on 30 years of Born Free and the battle to save the Surrey Hills
PUBLISHED: 10:31 02 March 2015 | UPDATED: 10:31 25 April 2018
Surrey actress Virginia McKenna, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, has spent half a lifetime saving animals. As she looks back over the charity's 30th anniversary year, here she reveals why the organisation faces greater challenges than ever - and how she's gearing up for another environmental battle on her own doorstep...
She may be 83, but actress Virginia McKenna shows no signs of slowing down yet. As well as her tireless work as a trustee for the Born Free Foundation, which she co-founded in 1984 with her late husband Bill Travers and their eldest son Will, she has hosted two safari tours to Kenya and published her first book of poems in the last year alone.
And then there is her campaign offensive closer to home. Virginia, who lives in a cottage in the Surrey Hills near Dorking, has been horrified by the plans to carry out exploratory oil drilling at nearby Leith Hill – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A passionate member of the Leith Hill Action Group, she argues that moves by Europa Oil and Gas to set up an exploratory drill site would inevitably have a devastating impact on the natural environment.
“We’ve been assured by the company that they will put everything back as it was before, but it’s nonsense to talk like that because you can never restore things in nature to what they were,” she says emphatically. “Besides, much more than the actual site will be affected because they plan to send huge lorries from Dorking along Coldharbour Lane – one of the most beautiful and ancient sunken lanes in the country – which will destroy the fragile banks on each side.
“Last year, we raised £25,000 to pay the legal costs for the Court of Appeal hearing – and won. But Europa successfully challenged the decision, so now we’ve appealed and there will be another court hearing in April or May.
“There’s a tremendous amount of public feeling about this and Nimbyism has nothing to do with it. Thousands of people visit the area to walk, cycle and get out into the countryside. And the more urbanised we become, the more people will need that refreshment.”
Home sweet home
At least Virginia has beautiful surroundings to console her. Her cottage looks out over 22 acres of forested Surrey Hills, and she can see the North Downs on the far horizon. “It’s my haven and I never feel lonely here,” she says.
It’s 57 years now since she and Bill bought the land and planted most of the trees. “We’d been looking for somewhere to live in the countryside for two years,” she continues, “and one day we came across this gamekeeper’s cottage on a big estate. It wasn’t particularly attractive, but the view was captivating and we just knew it was the place.”
Fittingly, for someone who has devoted most of her life to protecting wildlife, her garden is a haven for animals. “I have foxes and deer, and owls and pheasants, including a cock pheasant that arrives for breakfast every day with a harem of eight hens,” she laughs.
But despite her love of wildlife, few could have imagined early on in her career that Virginia would become a leading animal campaigner. Back in those days, her slender frame, fine bones and luminous eyes captivated audiences in classic Shakespearean roles, and as Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride, Anna in The King and I, Jean in A Town Like Alice and Julie, the Wren, in The Cruel Sea.
After a short-lived marriage to Denholm Elliott, she married her true love, Bill, whom she’d met in I Capture the Castle, and had four children. But their lives changed completely when they played real-life conservationists Joy and George Adamson in the 1966 film Born Free, the story of Elsa the lion cub.
Virginia explains that neither she nor Bill expected to be swept away by such a passion for the lions they worked with, or their environment. “It was just another film role,” she says. “We didn’t know this would become our lives.”
But their crusade didn’t begin in earnest until 1969 when she and Bill met a two-year-old elephant called Pole Pole while in Kenya working on the film, An Elephant called Slowly. “She was the most affectionate thing,” recalls Virginia. “We wanted to buy her and give her to an orphanage, but the Kenyan government had pledged her to the UK as a gift. So Pole Pole ended up in London Zoo.
“Then, years later, we received a letter saying she was going to be destroyed because she was unhappy and causing trouble, so we visited, taking her favourite oranges. We hadn’t seen her for about 12 years, but she came straight to us, put her trunk out and touched Bill’s hand.
“We started to become a bit of a nuisance, asking the zoo if they would take her into the wild. Eventually, they said they could move her to Whipsnade, but it didn’t work out. She collapsed in her crate. We decided there and then that her death had to have a reason, so we started our charity.”
Last year, Born Free, which recently moved to new offices near Horsham, celebrated its 30th anniversary. Today, it is an internationally renowned organisation with more than 100,000 supporters and a host of celebrity backers, including Joanna Lumley, Martin Clunes and Bryan Adams. Sadly, though, its work remains as necessary as ever.
One of its most pressing objectives is to improve the plight of more than 40 solitary elephants held in zoos and circuses across Europe, and wherever possible it tries to have them removed if they are in poor conditions. Virginia’s dream is to create a sanctuary for elephants in solitary captivity in Europe, perhaps in Italy or the South of France.
Born Free also works to save the endangered Asian elephant, now believed to number just 400,000 in the wild. Shockingly, an elephant is massacred every 15 minutes for its ivory and recent estimates suggest that if current poaching levels continue, most African countries will lose all their elephants in the next decade.
“Although the ivory trade was banned in 1989, the situation worsened when some ivory was allowed to be sold by China and Japan,” says Virginia. “It’s not difficult to get tusks across the border and there’s huge demand for this symbol of wealth in the Far East. Why people want this little piece of misery on their mantlepiece, I can’t imagine. I wonder if enough is being done to explain what it means to be an elephant because they have so many characteristics that mirror ours.”
Although she has been a figurehead for the movement since its inception, Virginia is unsentimental about her advancing years and says Born Free will cope perfectly well without her. “It has its own strength,” she says. “Our marvellous people are the heart of Born Free and it’s beyond a person now.”
But while there is breath in her body, she will work tirelessly on. Back in the autumn, she hosted two 30th anniversary safari tours to Kenya, and counted no fewer than 150 lion snares in one week. “The bush meat trade is huge out there, so my son Will and I have launched a de-snaring campaign in Meru National Park, where Elsa was returned to the wild and buried, as well as a project to monitor lion populations.”
A family affair
Her life isn’t entirely dominated by animal welfare, however, and she is devoted to her three sons, all of whom live locally, her daughter in Australia, and no fewer than 11 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
In her leisure time, she likes to walk through the lovely local woodland, listen to music and read. And then there’s her poetry. Her newly published anthology of poems, Tonight the Moon is Red, is a moving collection of verse recalling places, animals, causes and people from her beloved Kenya and beyond that have inspired her over the past 30 years. “I’ve been writing poems for many years and it’s one of my favourite means of expression,” she says. “My literary agent found a publisher who said they’d like to publish the book and it’s selling well.”
Perhaps her most poignant poems are about missing the strong arms of Bill, who died suddenly in 1994. It would have been perfectly understandable if she’d scaled back her conservation commitments after his death, but she says the work gave her “a sense of purpose” and she finds her return visits to Kenya – particularly to Elsa’s grave – especially poignant.
But perhaps her love for her Surrey home runs deeper still. “It’s the silence I love most, particularly when I can hear the hooting of the owls and barking of the deer,” she says. “And I love the light. As I speak, the late afternoon sun is catching the moss on an old dead tree in the garden and it’s quite magical. I can’t think of anywhere better.”
My Favourite Surrey…
Restaurant: The Grumpy Mole on Brockham Green, where I occasionally dine with friends. I’m a vegetarian and I know I’m guaranteed to get a lovely meat-free meal there. I also like the fact that they don’t jam you up against the next table.
Shop: Village Greens Farm Shop in Ockley, which sells wonderful local produce. They also stock Wild Thing Wine, which the Born Free Foundation benefits from, as well as Born Free coffee, a blend from five countries where we have projects. The owners are such lovely people.
View: From my house in the Surrey Hills across the beautiful North Downs.
Place to relax: My conservatory, where I can look out into my garden during the winter and still feel like I’m outside.
Place to visit: Leith Hill Tower. The view is to die for – you can see seven counties – and there’s a lovely tea shop. The hill also boasts the highest cricket pitch in England, where I watch one of my sons – and sometimes a grandson – play cricket every summer.