For a young Edith Bowman, growing up in a small seaside hotel in the small seaside town of Anstruther, 50 miles round the coast from Edinburgh, was idyllic but cramped. She wouldn’t have had it any other way. Bowman’s family ran The Craw’s Nest, which also had a restaurant that focused on serving fresh seafood 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 take a few throw live lobsters into the water”. front door”.
For her new BBC Two series Coast to Coast Food Festival, Bowman, along with co-hosts Colin Murray and Sean Fletcher, traveled across the UK talking to farmers, producers and community champions about their food stories. The program also returns Bowman to Anstruther, giving her a chance to reflect on her childhood there and what it taught her about food. The show is her first professional foray into the world of food.
“The whole essence of what this show is about was my environment growing up,” she tells me, when we meet for tea in a cafe near Oxford Circus. It’s in the building that used to be the studios where many of the BBC’s radio shows were made, and Bowman is nostalgic about it; animated as she indicates where they used to shoot. She wears a large beanie that falls over her eyes and an oversized sweater that seems to emphasize her petite stature. She greets me with a big hug and immediately starts chatting, her soft Fife brogue filling the space between us.
Local products are strongly etched in her memory; from the big red truck that would visit the hotel once a week, filled with fruit and vegetables from local farms, to the menu that showcased all the seafood – haddock, sole, crabs, shrimp – recently caught off the coast . It was also important to her parents to buy locally as it was cheaper than importing ingredients from further afield.
Her formative years may have revolved around local gastronomy, but Bowman confesses that its importance didn’t occur to her until she moved. She went to Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University to study media and communications and had to do her own shopping for the first time. “I think it wasn’t until I started buying food for myself that I started noticing where it came from on the packages,” she recalls. “It wasn’t something I was really aware of before because it wasn’t an important conversation at the time. I think there’s also kind of a story where it’s like if you want good food it has to come from somewhere else. But Italian food can be as good here as it is in Italy – look what Stanley Tucci makes!” (The American actor has made two series about the delights of Italian food, including multiple trips to Italy and one to London.)
It’s hard to surprise Bowman these days. At 49 years old, she has worked solidly for the past two decades and has seen it all. Bowman began her career as a VJ (video jockey) for MTV and joined BBC Radio 1 in 2003 to Colin and Edith show with Murray, and later flew solo while hosting her own weekday afternoon show. Her voice, larger than life and proudly Scottish, filled homes and cars as thousands tuned in to listen to her energetic playlists and illuminating 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 “floored” her. She told me last year Psychologies magazine that she felt “incredibly let down” by the broadcaster and that she “knew I was being shooed away by Radio 1”. Bowman says she did get closure on what happened, but spoke about it anyway because “I wanted people to get a feel for the realities of a job in this industry”. “With the way social media works, everything is through rose colored glasses. But there are times when you are completely devastated, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Recently, the BBC was embroiled in a controversy over the treatment of Ken Bruce, another important 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 that his last 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,” says Bowman. “He will take a lot of listeners with him, but that is healthy for Radio 2 – competition is good. It will make them think about how and what they do, and there will be regeneration. Out with the old, in with the new.”
Bowman’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach to her work can be attributed to her mother, who has a favorite phrase: ‘What is meant for you will not pass you by’. Bowman says it’s good to live by. It has guided her through tumultuous times in her career and led to some amazing moments. She has spoken with 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 fronts post-punk indie rockers Editors. 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 herself is not a royalist, her family were big fans. She said The times that her grandfather had a custom velvet toilet seat made in case Her Majesty wanted to use the facilities.
Given her family’s influence, it might come as no surprise that Bowman hosts the official podcast for the wildly popular Netflix series The crown. She insists she is only interested in the production aspect of The crownand says: “The royal family has nothing to do with it The crown!” But, like everyone else and their dog, she does have an opinion about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. “I do think the whole circus revolves around the royal family, especially Meghan [Markle] And [Prince] Harry, I think our media is very much to blame for the way they reported on her,” she says. “It’s so unfair. When you compare how they wrote about Kate [Middleton, now the Princess of Wales] and how they wrote about Meghan – it’s disgusting. That is the problem for me.”
After decades of meeting, interviewing, and rubbing shoulders with celebrities, Bowman relishes the opportunity to talk to everyday people. In particular, speaking to people who are coming up with all sorts of different ways to feed their communities Coast to Coast Food Festival has been inspiring to her.
“What I found really heartwarming was that people felt the need to take ownership of things,” she explains, pointing to Scotland The Bread as an example. The project, which is a partnership, aims to revive wheat varieties that used to be common in Scotland but are now rare. They grow the traditional grains, grind them and sell the flour to the local community and beyond. “So many people now look back at traditional things and try to restore them because they disappeared for whatever reason,” says Bowman.
The state of British food production is in dire straits. At the end of February, many supermarket shelves were deprived of fresh fruit and vegetables as bad weather hit Europe and North Africa, from where much of the produce is imported. Britain’s over-reliance on salad imports from Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt came to light when supermarkets began imposing rationing, with some restricting purchases to two or three packs per person. Discussions arose on social media about whether people should buy more local products and how accessible it is to do so.
“It’s really crazy, isn’t it, when you encourage people to buy local – but it’s more expensive,” Bowman muses. “If you’re a single working mom and you have three kids to feed, you need to find the most financially viable option for you right now, and that’s not shopping as locally as you can, because prices tend to be higher, which is defeats the target. She points to Brexit as part of the problem: leaving the European Union has brought numerous complications, particularly in terms of customs fees. In the UK, farmers saw an exodus of Eastern European workers who made up a large part of their workforce, who had to pay higher wages to keep up with harvests, has in turn driven up food prices locally.The departure also brought additional visa costs for musicians wanting to tour Europe, as well as customs declarations of equipment .
Bowman’s shoulders slump as she thinks about Brexit. “I could go on a whole political diatribe about the consequences of Brexit and [how] that has to do with food, music, performances, all sorts of things,” she says with a furrowed brow. “It is at the heart of so much of what we are going through right now, on so many levels. Brexit has a lot to answer for.” In terms of food production, she’s learned that much of Britain’s food goes a lot further afield, which is “the opposite of what we’re talking about”. “There are oysters that travel the world!” she exclaims. “But for these producers it’s no longer financially viable for them… there are certain types of food that we make and grow and produce in the UK that are revered all over the world, but those things are finding it harder to get out of the UK because of Brexit.”
She seems desperate as she has no answers or solutions to offer, but she cheers 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 are out there,” she says, emphasizing how she thinks certain themes will be reflected across the country. “It was a different conversation in each place we visited,” she explains, but there was a common thread throughout, one that the community celebrates: “How food can connect people.”
Coast to Coast Festival can be seen every Monday at 6.30pm on BBC2 or on BBC iPlayer