It takes at least an hour of brisk walking up a steep incline to reach the summit of the Hermaness National Nature Reserve, which overlooks the felicitously named Muckle Flugga, the most northerly point in the UK, just off the coast of Unst in Shetland. But, boy, is it worth it when you get to the top.
When Alison Steadman arrives at the summit and looks down at the spectacular sight of some 33,000 gannets nesting in the immense, rugged cliff-face, she simply exclaims: “If I were to live another thousand years, I don’t think I’d ever see anything as amazing as this. The sight and sound of these beautiful birds is truly mesmerising. It’s something I shall never forget.”
The actress is best known for starring in such memorable work as Abigail’s Party, Gavin & Stacey, The Singing Detective, Nuts in May, Pride and Prejudice and Fat Friends. But she reveals that for the past six decades she has been harbouring another secret passion: bird watching.
Reflecting on that moment at the top of the remote and windswept hill from the relative comfort of her north London sitting room, the 67-year-old actress still can’t quite get over the majesty of the spectacle. “It’s quite a walk up there, but my God, when you get up there, what an absolute thrill!
“You’re seeing thousands of gannets finding their nests from previous years, meeting their old mates, screeching and chattering. They’re not bothered whether you’re there or not – they’re too busy. They all have a purpose. They’re not fighting or pushing each other off the cliff – it’s all very ordered. It’s wonderful.”
Making this documentary in Shetland – an austerely beautiful archipelago of more than 100 islands, which in the spring and summer is home to more than a million birds and has one of the largest avian populations in the UK – has clearly struck a chord with Steadman.
The actress, who was born and bred in Liverpool, recalls that her passion for “birding” was first ignited as a nine-year-old. “We were on a school trip down a country lane and I heard a blackbird singing for the first time. It’s the most beautiful sound – I still stop on my way to the Tube and listen to it now. It fills your heart with joy.
“Later we all had to do a turn in front of the class, and I decided to imitate the blackbird’s call. My classmates very politely gave me a round of applause.” A lifelong love affair was born.
The passion continued when, as a 17-year-old she saved up enough money to buy a much- coveted reel-to-reel tape recorder. “I’d bought it to record things like Radio Luxembourg. But one summer evening I was sitting by the window in the living room when I suddenly heard all these birds that had gathered to sing to each other. It was so beautiful, I just had to record it.”
The actress recently found the reel-to-reel tape recorder and played it back in the hope of finding that birdsong, but says that all she discovered was a rather embarrassing recording of her and a boyfriend singing “Kumbaya”.
Steadman, who is a patron of the RSPB, also sings the praises of birds as a force for good. “Birds have a very therapeutic effect. When I feel stressed, it really relaxes me to listen to birdsong. It’s such a lovely sound.” But she never gets too carried away by her hobby. “Real twitchers are a different species altogether. They have scopes worth £10,000, and they dash off the moment they hear about a rare bird spotted 100 miles away. I’m not like that. I see birding as a joy and a great way to relax.”
A highlight of her trip to Shetland was a face-to-face encounter with a puffin. “I’d been waiting for that moment, really, all my life,” she beams. “Puffins are absolutely gorgeous, aren’t they? Who the hell designed them? How clever were they? They’re like nothing else. Garden birds can look the same, but puffins are on their own. And they only have those colourful beaks during the mating season. It’s like, ‘Put on your lipstick – the guys are in town!’”
So what’s next for Steadman? She is one of the leads in Grey Mates, a new BBC1 sitcom about three pensioner couples – “It’s wonderful that we now have more roles for older actors” – and is keeping her fingers crossed that a Gavin & Stacey movie, mooted by Ruth Jones in Radio Times earlier this year, actually comes off. “If it happens, I’m there!”
But inevitably her thoughts turn to birds. “Over the years, they have brought me so much happiness. I’m now looking out at my back garden, where I have four feeders and a bird table. It’s like Sainsbury’s for the birds. They have everything here. ‘Let’s go to Number 63,’ they tell each other. ‘We know we’ll get a good feed there!’”
See Alison Steadman’s Shetland tonight at 9:00pm on ITV