Steve Brown’s life could have ended before it had really begun. When he was 24, a fall from a friend’s first-floor balcony – “I wasn’t larking around, I just tripped and fell” – left him with a broken neck and paralysed from the chest down.
“Of course I wasn’t happy about it,” he says, “but I wasn’t wishing the world would end. There was nothing I could change, so I just had to make the most of things.”
Though physical steps are impossible, professional ones are what drive him. And the one he’ll take on Sunday is very special: his debut as a Sunday-evening Countryfile presenter will be one in the eye for the school careers advisor who told him at 15 to give up on his dream.
“I told him that I wanted to be a wildlife presenter. I grew up exploring the countryside around where I lived in Kent. If I wasn’t playing football with my mates I was catching tadpoles and slowworms, and I loved programmes like The Really Wild Show and everything with David Attenborough. So that’s what I wanted to be. But the careers master just told me I wouldn’t be able to do that and to forget it.”
Brown during the London 2012 Olympic Games
He decided that if he couldn’t present then he’d film or edit, and did a degree to equip him with those skills. But then came the accident.
“I was at a friend’s house in Germany. I wasn’t doing anything wrong or silly – no Brits abroad messing around – I just tripped and fell over the railings of the balcony. I landed on my bum, my head went back over my shoulders and I broke my neck. While I was lying there I knew I’d done something serious, but I didn’t know what.”
Brown was in intensive care in Germany for five weeks and once his condition stabilised was transferred to Stoke Mandeville hospital, where he learned the extent of his paralysis. “I knew it wasn’t about getting better; it was about rehabilitation and learning to live in a wheelchair. And that was the start of my new life.”
Before the accident he had represented his home county at cricket and football, and sport became his salvation. The rough and tumble of wheelchair rugby provided a glimpse of his previously uninhibited life. Eventually he won selection to the GB squad and in 2012 captained the team at the London Paralympics. “Being captain at your home Games is the biggest thing that you could do. I was incredibly proud.”
Media invitations followed. He became a pundit, then a presenter and eventually got a chance to explore his passion for the countryside with items for The One Show and Springwatch.
Today, making his first film for primetime Countryfile, about hares at a nature reserve on the outskirts of Preston in Lancashire, the 35-year-old Brown is in his element. “For me it is worth every flat tyre, every muddy set of hands, every wet lap… I want to be judged on my performance. I’m hoping people will see it’s about ability, not disability.”
Brown’s love of the countryside is unconditional. It means, for instance, that he doesn’t want to see paths being created to give people in wheelchairs, like him, greater access.
“I don’t want to be seen as a spokesman for people in wheelchairs, but good people, with or without a disability, are respectful of the countryside and so wouldn’t want tarmac paths crossing through it because they respect the wildlife enough not to. There is enough countryside and enough pairs of binoculars to be able to see an awful long way. You shouldn’t need to be on top of it. The whole point is to give wildlife its space and not intrude on it.”
Today, with his binoculars hung around his neck and the birdlife on the reserve engaging his attention, Brown seems as happy as it’s possible to be. And he likes nothing more than sharing that passion.
“I can’t take my nephews out to play football or play on the swings and slides, but what I can do is take them out with a bird book and binoculars and hope the memories that I give them are the same as those that my dad gave me.”