Robin Mills went to Burton Bradstock to meet Fraser Christian. This is his story.
“I come from Chipping Sodbury, between Bath and Bristol. My Mum and Grandad still live there. I went to school there, to a pretty rubbish comprehensive, and I was always in trouble. I’m dyslexic so I struggled, and eventually I got expelled with no qualifications. Probably the only thing that kept me out of Borstal was the Scouts and the Army Cadets, which I excelled in. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoor life, adventure, leading people, so I’d climbed Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike by the time I was 14. Not much really scares me and I like a challenge.
My Grandad was a gypsy, and Great Grandad travelled with Romany gypsies; he was well known for his expertise in horse medicine. My Dad didn’t ever teach me a great deal, but what he did was quite good. As a kid I was into punk music, smashing stuff up, and I couldn’t see the point of anything. He told me about Paradise Island near Papua New Guinea, where the people live under a volcano that could go bang any minute, and they don’t sit around waiting for the world to end, they’re known as the happiest people anywhere. So I remembered that, and I think it helped change me.
After school, my plan was to join the Royal Marines, do a few years then maybe get a job as a bodyguard. I was well into martial arts. So I went with a mate to a Navy recruitment office to sign away my life and join up. He went in first, and when he came out he described this humiliating test, doing pull-ups from a bar, naked, in front of a Navy doctor who was squeezing a very sensitive part of his anatomy. I just had this epiphany moment, I realised the Navy wasn’t for me; I’d grown up in total freedom, poaching, living in the woods, hunting and fishing, using a shotgun since I was 10, and I realised it was about me submitting to the service rather than being good at what I could already do, and my life’s plan flew out the window at that moment. Grandad had been in the Special Boat Service in his day, the elite service in Special Forces, and he’d done all sorts of exciting life-and-death stuff which I suppose had been part of the appeal for me.
Anyway, I’d been helping out in a pub on the weekends, so I decided to go to catering college and learn to be a chef. I had to blag my way in, saying I was going to join the Catering Corps after a year, but I got in to Brunel Technical College in Bristol and did a 2 year professional course. We learned the whole trade, waiting, front of house, as well as cooking, and I qualified with distinction, the highest marks in the college. The principle often told me he wished he could expel me, I was so much trouble, but I was the best student he’d ever had so he couldn’t. As one of the top students, I got offered jobs in a lot of top hotels like Claridges, Gleneagles, the Dorchester, but because the college had links with another college in Bordeaux, and I was good friends with a local French family, I got a job down there in a hotel. That only lasted a month, there were crossed wires, and I went off travelling with a French girl for a few months, who taught me nice things about French culture.
When I came back to England, I worked at a new country house hotel near Bath called Hinton Grange for a year and a half, then the Head Chef and I went to work at the Redesdale Arms in Moreton-in-the-Marsh, followed by the Manor House Hotel, a 4 star hotel in the village, where I became the 2nd Chef after about 6 months. I was just 20 then, with 5 blokes working under me, and that was really tough. Then one day, the boss came in and was moaning at me, and I looked at his new Mercedes and then at my old Cortina, and I just thought I’ve had enough. So I left, went travelling, bought an old caravan and lived on some hippy sites, lived in a wood for a year; sitting on the ground round a fire, all that was a more normal way of life to me.
Living in Bristol, city life didn’t really suit me, so when I found an old Mercedes van at my cousin’s place I bought it for £80, spent £300 on it to get it through the MoT, and took off with my girlfriend and some mates to the South of France, the Ariège. A rich friend had a house and some land there, and we did some work clearing the land and doing up the house. We were also attending big parties, in France and down into Spain, which had become hard to do in the UK with the new laws. I knew a lot of people doing parties in Prague, where Frank Zappa had been appointed Minister of Culture. Then I came back to Bristol, briefly, and took off to India, something I’d always wanted to do. I spent 3 months there, in Goa, helping out at a beach café, probably the easiest 3 months of my life; there’s always great fish to eat, you hardly need money, and I put on half a stone while I was there. Although, my girlfriend back home got it together with my best mate when I was away, something I just knew was going to happen.
Back in the UK, about that time I got my dog, Marley, a lurcher, when he was about 6 months old. He’s 15 now, and on his last legs. I was going from Bristol to Brighton when I had a call from a friend in Bristol, and something made me turn round and go back, one of those turns that changes your life. Gypsies talk about “there’s no such thing as a wrong turn, just a new adventure” and this was one of them. My friend had this young lurcher there, and couldn’t cope with him as she had a young child. So I just took the dog, and he just changed my life really. I’d been away from my usual life, living in towns, and he got me back to the countryside. I have never come across a cleverer dog, and I never will as long as I live; you could say he’s a soulmate, 110% dog.
I lived in Brighton, and was helping a friend doing plastering. Quite quickly I found I could turn my hand to it myself, and there was loads of work on at that time, so I found myself earning up to £350 by lunchtime. Then I got a big £30,000 job from a couple completely gutting a house, which went wrong; it turned out there was no money, and I ended up with very little after paying off debts to people who were working for me, and business loans. I was learning a lot about fishing then, from the beach, but also I shared a boat with a friend, an Arran 16, and went out to sea fishing every day I could, foraging when I couldn’t. At that time, I decided there were lots of things to learn about, including fishing, that I knew about but didn’t really understand. I also bought an old river cruiser, 24ft, sold the engine and did it up to live in, with my dogs.
I came down here to Dorset because I got a call from my friend Pete who was front of house manager at River Cottage, when they were at their old place near Bridport. I was up in Wales with my cousin on a week’s living wild and foraging, and Pete said one of the chefs was off. They were doing a “Catch and Cook” day, and were desperate for someone to help out in the kitchen. Then they asked me to help out with the fishing, which went well, and one thing led to another so that my friend Tom Lichfield and I ended up running the courses. I’d written my own course, and at River Cottage I realised that you could teach something you have a passion for, which is how after I left River Cottage I ended up running my own courses on coastal foraging, bushcraft survival skills, and cookery. I’m not really a business person, I probably don’t promote myself enough, but it just about makes me a living, leaving plenty of time to go fishing!”