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Interview: Clare Balding, broadcaster

01 May 2020

‘I think one of the most precious habits we will keep is the family pilgrimage’

Owen James Vincent

I love the variety of my broadcasting and the mixed challenges it presents. It’s very strange right now, with every sporting event I work on having been cancelled or postponed, including the Olympics and Paralympics. Although it’s lovely to have the luxury of time, I will pretty soon feel as if I need the adrenalin of live TV.

I love radio, because it feels natural and I can just be myself; but TV has taken me to some extraordinary places, and offers me a front-row seat to some of the best sports events in the world.

I got lucky one year, because the judges for an award said I’d achieved “perfect presentation” in their citation; but I reckon they hadn’t watched the whole show. . . I don’t think it’s ever achieved with a live programme, to be honest. You have to learn to live with not being perfect and to laugh when things go wrong. It’s always annoying to get things wrong, and I strive for accuracy above all else, but there’s always room for improvement. That’s what keeps it interesting.

The BAFTA was amazing, because it was a special award, and I really didn’t expect to be singled out. I was allowed to buy extra tickets; so I took my parents as well as Alice, my wife. We had the most lovely time, and Mum got to meet Michael Palin; so she was really pleased. Alice and I stayed quite late at the party and talked to all sorts of people from the world of film and drama. It was wonderful.

Terry Wogan is a broadcasting hero of mine. He was always kind, generous, and funny, as well as being brilliant on air. I don’t have his style — I wish I did — but I try to emulate his behaviour, in that he was never short-tempered with his back-up team, and they all loved him. It’s important to be good on air, but it’s more important to be good to work with.

I don’t present the racing any more, but I loved it when I did it, especially on the BBC, where I had a really fun on-screen partnership with Willie Carson. I love doing the equestrian events like Badminton, Burghley, and Olympia; but I guess there is nothing to top an Olympic or Paralympic Games. The sheer volume of events and the range of things you need to know keeps the brain sharp, and you have to be really full of energy every day for three weeks.

Ramblings started in 1999, and I took over as presenter for the second series. I’ve been doing it ever since. Lucy Lunt was the original producer, and I think it was her idea. We never thought it would be recommissioned, let alone still going 21 years later. We record three series a year of six or seven programmes per series. That means we’ve done over 400 different walks, which is an absolute joy for me.

I have been struck by the fact that walking is such an important part of every faith, and also a strong core of the pagan traditions. Our ancestors were clearly very aware of the meditative power of walking, of the benefits of being outside, and the spiritual depth of that connection with the earth and the natural world. I wanted to explore places in the country that have been heralded as having a special aura, and to walk them with people who could explain why that might be.

I really enjoyed walking with Brian Draper in Winchester (Radio, 13 March). It wasn’t a long or particularly taxing walk, but it took us from the cathedral, across the water meadows, and up to the summit of St Catherine’s Hill, where we walked the tracks of the labyrinth. I was feeling rather tense and anxious at the beginning of the walk because of various issues with my parents, but Brian helped me tap into a place where I could understand that I can’t solve every problem, and that sometimes I have to let things work themselves out.

I got very emotional — I don’t know if it was the place, the way Brian led us with kindness and understanding, or just because I was tired.

I think the difference between a walk and a pilgrimage has to do with pace and purpose. You don’t have to be on a long walk to a physical destination to be on a pilgrimage, but you have to be trying to achieve something, to understand something or to reach a place in your head, your soul, your heart.

Right now, with Covid-19 restrictions, no one can walk together in groups to any far-flung destination; but that shouldn’t stop people walking their own pilgrimage.

I absolutely do think pilgrimages will come to be important as a shared spiritual offering now, and, when we come through this period of isolation, I think one of the most precious habits we will keep is the family pilgrimage. I’ve seen families out walking every day, and it’s so lovely to know that this gives them an opportunity to discuss fears and issues, to notice the gradual budding of trees and flowers, and to reflect on their blessings rather than bemoan their problems.

I grew up in Kingsclere, in Hampshire, at the foot of the Downs. My father was a racehorse trainer; so we were surrounded by horses, and we also always had dogs. I wanted to be a dog, because I thought their life looked pretty good. I had an idyllic childhood riding ponies and having adventures outdoors. I was naughty, and got into all sorts of trouble at school, but I survived — just.

I now live in London with my wife, Alice, our dog, Archie, and our cat, Button. We have great neighbours, and, in fact, our whole community really came together in isolation.

I’m not sure I can claim to have had an experience of God, but I always felt an affinity with animals, and believed that they would reflect the best and the worst of us. If you’re kind and considerate to an animal, it will respond positively; if you’re unkind, it will bite you. That may not be God talking, but it’s the sort of message Jesus might have given.

I know that walking in woods or by a river gives me a sense of calm, and a feeling that I can cope with whatever situation is thrown at me. Is that God? I don’t know.

I think being true to who I am and who I love was something that required a fair amount of courage. It’s far easier to conform to society’s expectations and to avoid confrontation; but I think it’s vital to be honest and to stand up to homophobic bullying in schools and in the workplace.

I want to write more books, and, thankfully, that is something I can still do in lockdown. I want to present programmes that matter and that have longevity, and I want to help young talent come through in broadcasting. I would also love to walk in more areas of the UK that I haven’t yet explored.

There is still a huge battle to be fought over equal pay, and it makes me angry to think that it’s even something that requires a fight. It’s the law to pay men and women the same amount for doing the same work, and yet too many companies blatantly flout that law. In too many areas of life, women are automatically downgraded to the lowest-paid roles, or expected to do things for nothing. At least the virus has highlighted that the key workers in our society are not the financial whizzkids or the corporate executives, but the nurses, teachers, and carers — the majority of whom are female.

I love being at home, I love walking, I love being with animals, I love my work. I’m pretty easy to please, to be honest, because I can be happy in many situations.

I love the sound of birdsong and the flow of a river.

I hope that we’ll learn to live a simpler life, and that we will value time, kindness, and love as being more important than riches, fame, and status.

I pray for those I love to remain healthy and happy.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d be pretty happy in the company of Brian Draper, to be honest. I could listen to him every day and feel comforted.

Clare Balding was talking to Terence Handley Macmath.

Her latest book, The Racehorse Who Learned To Dance, is out now as a Puffin paperback at £6.99 (Church Times Bookshop £6.29); 978-0-241-33676-2.

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