Edith Bowman on Coast to Coast Food Festival and why it’s incredibly expensive to buy local: ‘Brexit has a lot to answer for’
For a young Edith Bowman, who grew up in a small seaside hotel in the tiny seaside resort of Anstruther, 50 miles around the coast of Edinburgh, was idyllic but cramped. She wouldn’t have done it any other way. Bowman’s family ran The Craw’s Nest, which also had a restaurant that focused on serving fresh fish and produce from local fishermen and farmers. The radio DJ recalls growing up on a diet of “the freshest fish, the freshest food” available – so much so that her uncle, who owned a fishing boat, “would literally fly past our house and threw a few live lobsters on the front door”.
For his new BBC Two series Coast-to-coast food festival, Bowman, along with co-hosts Colin Murray and Sean Fletcher, traveled across the UK to speak to farmers, growers and community champions about their food stories. The program also brings Bowman back to Anstruther, giving him the opportunity to reflect on his childhood there and what she taught him about food. The show is her first professional foray into the world of food.
“The very essence of what this show is about was my growing environment,” she tells me, when we meet for a cup of tea at a cafe near Oxford Circus. It’s in the building that housed the studios where many BBC radio shows were made, and Bowman is nostalgic for it; animated as she points out where they used to record. She wears a large beanie that falls over her eyes and an oversized sweater that seems to highlight her petite frame. Greeting me with a firm embrace, she immediately begins to chat, her Fife brogue filling the space between us.
Local products occupy an important place in his memories; from the big red truck that drove to the hotel once a week, stocked with fruits and vegetables from local farms, with the menu highlighting all the seafood – haddock, sole, crabs, prawns – that had just been caught off the coast. It was also important for her parents to buy locally as it was cheaper than importing ingredients from further afield.
Her formative years may have revolved around local food, but Bowman admits her importance didn’t come to her until she moved away. She went to Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh to study Media and Communications and had to shop for herself for the first time. “I think it wasn’t until I started buying food for myself that I started noticing on the packages where it came from,” she recalls. “It wasn’t something that I was really aware of before because it wasn’t an important conversation to have at the time. I think there’s also kind of a narrative that developed where it’s like if you want good food, it has to come from somewhere else. But Italian food here can be as good as it is in Italy – just look at what Stanley Tucci does! (The American actor realized two series on the joys of Italian cuisine, making several trips to Italy and one to London.)
It’s hard to surprise Bowman these days. At 49, she’s worked hard over the past two decades and seen it all. Beginning his career as a VJ (video jockey) for MTV, Bowman then joined BBC Radio 1 in 2003 to co-host the Colin and Edith show with Murray, and later flew solo as she hosted her own weekday afternoon show. His larger-than-life, proudly Scottish voice filled homes and cars as thousands tuned in to listen to his energetic playlists and insightful interviews.
But in 2009, after five years on Radio 1, Bowman was moved to a quieter slot on a weekend breakfast show, a decision she previously said “devastated her”. Last year she said Psychologies magazine that she felt “incredibly abandoned” by the broadcaster and that she “knew that I was being overtaken by Radio 1”. Bowman says she got closure on what happened, but spoke about it anyway because “I wanted people to get a feel for the reality of working in this industry.” “With the way social media works, everything goes through rose-tinted glasses. But there are times when you are absolutely devastated and there is nothing you can do about it.
Recently the BBC has been embroiled in controversy over its treatment of Ken Bruce, another major Scottish voice on the airwaves. Bruce hosted his weekday morning show on Radio 2 for a total of 35 years, until January 2023 when he announced he was leaving to host a new show on Greatest Hits Radio. He told his Twitter followers that he had been asked to “leave early” and his final show aired on Friday, March 3. “It’s a loss for Radio 2 because Bruce’s listeners are incredibly loyal and he has a great passion for music,” Bowman says. “He will take a lot of listeners with him, but it’s healthy for Radio 2, the competition is good. It will make them think about how and what they are doing, and there will be regeneration. Finish the old, make way for the new.
Bowman’s “keep calm and carry on” approach to his work can be traced to his mother, who has a favorite phrase: “What is meant for you will not escape you.” Bowman says it’s a good way to live. It saw her go through some tumultuous times in her career and led to some amazing times. She’s spoken to some of the biggest names in music and film, from Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig to Lewis Capaldi and Bruce Springsteen. Even her husband, Tom Smith, is famous – he’s the leading post-punk indie rock editor. As a child, she met the most famous person in the world: the late Queen Elizabeth II, who visited her parents’ hotel for lunch (Anstruther is a two-hour drive from Balmoral). Although Bowman was not a royalist herself, her family were big fans. She said The temperature that her grandfather had had a bespoke velor toilet seat made in case Her Majesty wished to use the facilities.
Given his family’s influence, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Bowman hosts the official podcast for Netflix’s hugely popular series. The crown. She insists that she is only interested in the production side of The crownand said, “The royal family has nothing to do with The crown!” But, like everyone and their dog, she has an opinion on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. “I think the whole circus around the royal family, especially Meghan [Markle] And [Prince] Harry, I think our media has a lot to blame for the way they reported on her,” she said. “It’s so unfair. If you put side by side how they wrote about Kate [Middleton, now the Princess of Wales] and how they wrote about Meghan – it’s disgusting. That’s the problem for me.
After decades of meeting, interviewing and dating celebrities, Bowman relishes the opportunity to talk to everyday people. In particular, talking to people who offer all sorts of different ways to feed their communities to Coast-to-coast food festival was an inspiration to her.
“What I’ve found really encouraging is that people feel the need to take ownership,” she explains, citing Scotland The Bread as an example. The collaborative project aims to revive wheat varieties that were once common in Scotland but are now rare. They grow the heritage grains, mill them and sell the flour to the local community and beyond. “So many people are now looking back at traditional things and trying to reestablish them because they disappeared for some reason,” Bowman says.
The state of British food production is in dire straits. At the end of February, many supermarket shelves were devoid of fresh fruit and vegetables, as bad weather hit harvests in Europe and North Africa, from where much of the produce is imported. Britain’s overreliance on imports of salads from Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt was laid bare when supermarkets began imposing rationing, with some limiting purchases to two or three packets per person. On social media, debates have been sparked over whether people should start buying more local products and how accessible it really is to do so.
“It’s really crazy, isn’t it, when you encourage people to buy local – but it’s more expensive,” muses Bowman. “If you’re a working single mom with three kids to feed, you need to find the most financially viable option for you right now, and that’s not going to be buying as locally as possible because the prices tend to be higher, which defeats the purpose.She points out that Brexit is part of the problem – leaving the European Union has introduced many complications, especially with regard to customs fees Farmers in the UK have seen an exodus of workers from Eastern Europe who made up a large part of their workforce and having to pay higher wages to keep up with the harvests has to its tour is driving up food prices locally.The departure has also resulted in additional visa fees for musicians wishing to tour Europe, as well as customs declarations on equipment.
Bowman’s shoulders slump as she thinks about Brexit. “I could go on a whole political rant about the fallout from Brexit and [how] about food, music, concerts, all sorts of things,” she says, her eyebrow furrowed. “It’s at the heart of so much that we’re going through right now, on so many levels. Brexit has a lot to answer for. In terms of food production, she learned that much of the UK’s food goes much further, which is “the opposite of what we’re talking about”. “There are oysters that travel the world! she exclaims. “But for these producers it is no longer financially viable for them… there are certain types of food that we make, grow and produce in the UK that are revered around the world, but those things are struggling more to leave the UK because of Brexit.
She seems hopeless that she has no answers or solutions to offer, but lights up when she thinks about what she wants viewers to take away from watching the show. “I want people to really try to think about their community and find out what stories there are,” she says, highlighting how she thinks certain themes will be reflected across the country. “It was a different conversation in every place we visited,” she explains, but throughout there was a common thread, one that celebrates community: “How food can connect people.” .
The Coast to Coast Festival is available on BBC2 every Monday at 6.30pm or on BBC iPlayer