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Dick Strawbridge: 'The French still insist on two-hour lunches, so when we eventually get to slow down it's a lifestyle we'll enjoy'

By Claire McNeilly

Retired Army colonel and Northern Ireland-raised TV star Dick Strawbridge tells Claire McNeilly about his passion for green issues, the ongoing challenges of life in the Chateau de la Motte Husson in France's Loire Valley, and why he'll never shave off that trademark moustache.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

A. I'm 57 years old and am married to entrepreneur Angel Adoree (38). We have two children, Arthur (3) and Dorothy (2). I also have two children from my previous marriage, James (32) and Charlotte (30), and I have three grandchildren, Indiana (5) Pippin (4) and Arrietty (1).

Q. You were born in Burma, but you consider yourself to be Northern Irish. Tell us about growing up here.

A. My family moved back to Bangor in the early '60s when I was just a toddler. I had an idyllic childhood with the freedom to go and play. In Bangor I used to head down to the old pier to fish or to Pickie Pool - it was the stuff of Swallows and Amazons.

When the family then moved to Antrim in the late '60s, we lived at the edge of town so our playground was miles of unspoilt countryside.

As one of seven children our family life was full of energy and fun - we all knew how to laugh and work hard.

Q. What do you remember about Burma? Presumably your father was a military man?

A. Sadly, I have very vague memories of Burma. The family was forced to leave when the generals took over.

My father (George, who died in 1998) was an oilman and he met my mother on a ship going to Pakistan.

Dad was born in Newbuildings, just outside Londonderry, and then his family moved to Newtownards.

I suppose it was his sense of adventure that was the very reason we exist. In the 1950s, there were not many who left Northern Ireland and headed off to seek their fortune.

Q. How often to you come back to Northern Ireland, and what do you miss most about it?

A. We go back regularly. I've been fortunate enough to make several programmes for BBC NI and I always stay with my mum and sisters near Ballyclare. If there is no telly work, we still pop home to say hello and remind the youngsters of their heritage.

Q. You and Angel recently sold your two-bedroom flat in England and bought the Chateau de la Motte Husson in the Loire Valley. How is the business going and how much are you enjoying life in France?

A. We moved out of London and were renting in Southend as we searched for our dream home in France.

We looked for the best part of four years until we finally found Chateau de-la Motte Husson.

It was no spur-of-the-moment decision, and all our planning has paid off as we are within easy reach of the UK, which has been great for business, and in a beautiful part of rural France.

Our business seems to have started very positively, and it looks like we made the right decision.

The French are much less consumer-conscious than we are in the UK and still insist on two-hour lunch breaks, so when we finally get to slow down I think that it's a lifestyle we are really going to enjoy.

Q. The chateau is a popular wedding venue. How does your wedding to Angel compare to the ones you host at the castle?

A. Getting ready for our wedding was frantic because we needed to install the basics - namely, water electricity, sewage and heating - as well as getting some rooms looking elegant.

Somehow, we managed it and had a ball. However, Angel raised the bar in lots of areas before she was happy to host our first wedding here.

I reckon we've got it right as the weddings we host are very personal to the couple and every detail is attended to by Angel and the team, which should be no real surprise as she has had a successful events company for over 10 years.

Q. You're a former army officer. Tell us about your services career.

A. I had a very varied career that spanned the end of the Cold War and the transition to global terrorism. I learnt a lot and was very privileged to serve with some amazing people.

When I joined the Army in the late '70s there was a real threat from eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, so all of the 80s I was engaged in what could be classed as conventional operations - that involved digging lots of trenches in Germany.

It seems unreal, but as a 19-year-old subaltern I had a life expectancy of 15 minutes if the 3rd East German Shock Army invaded as my troop were deployed right in the main axis of attack.

When the wall came down I was fortunate enough to have a job that meant I was in Berlin regularly. Without the threat of the Eastern Bloc, I moved into counter-terrorism and communications.

I'm pretty technical and have worked with some very talented scientists and engineers that have broadened my technical knowledge and given me the confidence to tackle very disparate challenges.

My television career has been built on a mindset that 'Yes we can do that' rather than 'umming' and 'ahhing', which is a direct result of all my experiences in the military and a willingness to always have a go.

Q. You're associated with a raft of TV programmes, including Scrapheap Challenge, It's Not Easy Being Green, Coast, the Hungry Sailors and Saturday Farm, as well as Celebrity MasterChef, where you reached the final. How did you get into television?

A. I was put forward as a contestant for the very first Scrapheap in 1998, and after appearing in the first three series I moved on to other challenges.

Out of the blue in February 2003, I received five different television offers and decided to go for it.

Q. You attended Bangor Grammar Prep School and then Ballyclare High. What do you remember about that time? And what did you do afterwards, university?

A. The education I had at Bangor Grammar Prep School and then Ballyclare High gave me a sound education, but I was not the most diligent of students.

In Bangor I was young enough to be well-behaved. However, when I went to the senior school at Ballyclare, I definitely thrived in a more disciplined environment.

Luckily for me, Mr Miller took over as headmaster, and I have a lot to thank him and the staff for.

I did spend a fair amount of time in detention for arguing, and, although not cured of my rebellious side, I was sufficiently well-behaved to have a successful military career.

Academically, I have been capable, but not always applied myself. I somehow managed to get an honours degree in electrical engineering from the Royal Military College of Science, an honorary PhD and a also fellowship of the Royal Society for the Arts.

Q. Why did you leave Northern Ireland in 1976? Was it because of the Troubles?

A. No.

Q. Who was your best friend in school? Are you guys still in touch? Did anybody else of note emerge from your year?

A. I have never really been one for holding on to old ties and connections from the past. If I bump into anyone, its great to catch up with them, but I don't have any regular contact with people from school or the army.

Q. You have written eight books in total (including Made at Home, Practical Self-Sufficiency and It's Not easy Being Green), seven of which have been co-written with your son James. You're a big proponent of eco-friendly living and you like to share your knowledge as a sustainability and environmental expert. How did you become involved in green issues?

A. As a country boy I was always very aware of nature and I loved being in the fresh air. That's only a step away from seeing the need to be sustainable.

I always helped my father in the garden - I think people of my age understand seasonality of food as we grew up in a time when exotic food was not available all year round.

As for the technology, I am an electrical engineer, so I understand about generating and saving energy.

Q. As a self-professed foodie, it must've been great fun doing a food programme at sea with your son (Hungry Sailors on ITV followed Dick and James as they set sail aboard pilot cutter Amelie Rose to explore the food of Britain's coastal towns). Tell us about that.

A. James and I had a ball sailing an old wooden sailing ship around the coast of Britain, stopping in picturesque ports, meeting food producers, then cooking their produce. It was lots of fun and we met some great people.

Q. Do any of your family still live in Northern Ireland?

A. My mum (Jenny) and sisters (Linda, Deanna and Pamela) still live near Ballyclare.

Q. Can you tell us about the current three-part series of Escape to the Chateau?

A. This series follows our adventures since the summer, holding our first wedding there, as well as working to build the business. We are smiling lots, but it's definitely hard graft. Our Christmas special will be airing on Saturday December 11 on Channel 4.

Q. What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

A. Angel and I try and ensure we have projects that will bring in income to help with our renovation and life here. Like this year, I hope to do some filming back in the UK. We are also writing a book together that is going to be very interesting as we both like being in charge.

Q. You probably have the best-known moustache on TV. Do you like to think of it as your trademark? And how did it come about?

A. I never actually learnt to shave properly as a teenager, so I've had a moustache since. I'm very used to it and people do recognise me because of it.

Q. What does Angel think of your moustache? Would she like you to get rid of it?

A. Angel loves my moustache and has been instrumental in me growing even more facial hair.

Q. Have you had any famous people at the castle? If so, who?

A. The chateau is work in progress, and even though we have had some friends here that could be classed as famous, that's pretty irrelevant as they all have to work.

Q. You still do work for BBC Northern Ireland from time to time. Can you name some of the projects you've done? When will we next see you on local TV?

A. Most recently we filmed the Great Flying Challenge, where a team of artisans built and flew a replica of the plane Harry Ferguson designed, built and flew.

Q. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?

A. That I have four very beautiful children.

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