Before she became the face of our biggest televised sporting events, Clare Balding was best known to walkers as the presenter of Radio 4’s cult programme, Ramblings. She talks to Walk about the enduring appeal of the show, her most memorable encounters, and how it’s given her and her family the walking bug...
WORDS: Rebecca Swirsky
In 15 years of presenting Ramblings, you’ve gone rubbish-collecting, singing and barefoot, been accompanied by mediums, comedians and taxidermists, and discovered an affinity with Buddhism, poetry and art. What makes the programme so special for you?
You get close quickly when you walk side by side. People say things they wouldn’t in a formal interview when you’re finding your way together. It’s an awful lot more intimate than going to dinner with someone, and it’s much more fun. A married couple who’d met on a walk worked out that their first two walks together were so long, they’d been on the equivalent of 12 dates. That’s pretty effective!
Has the show changed you as a person?
I’m much better at enjoying the process of getting to somewhere now, instead of looking at my watch, which helps me with work and life generally. And it’s had a massive impact on my interview technique, which is probably the reason I now host a chat show on BT Sport.
How has it changed your appreciation of walking?
Long walks didn’t happen for me until 1999, when Ramblings began. It’s a confidence thing, really. Until you do your first walk, you don’t know how easy it is. Now I walk for work, but I also walk in my own time for necessity. I need it.
Who have you made the most unexpected connection with while recording Ramblings?
The Monday Walkers (also known as the Whisky Walkers). They’re in their 70s and have all had something surgically removed – they joked that it was a prerequisite of joining the group! I’m in contact with their leader, Anne, and they’ve just come to see me at the Wigtown Book Festival, which was lovely. They are one of the groups we have revisited for the programme.
You estimate that you’ve walked more than 1,500 miles of footpaths on the show. Which ones have been most memorable?
This summer I did the Dales Way, which I absolutely loved. The South West Coast Path was fantastic too – doing the whole thing would be special. We’re really spoilt for choice in England.
Are you looking forward to the England Coast Path becoming fully open in 2020, having enjoyed the Wales Coast Path so much?
Oh, absolutely. I’m often asked the rather grim question: “What would be the last walk of your life?” My answer is always the coastline of Great Britain. If you’re going to do a last walk, you may as well make it last for ever.
Who would be in your ideal walking group and where would you go?
My partner, Alice, and my niece and nephews remain my ideal walking team. I’d like to finish the whole of the Wayfarer’s Walk in Hampshire, as we’ve done only the first 40 miles. I just need to wait until the kids get a bit older, as I don’t think they’d manage 20 miles a day just yet.
Can children enjoy walking as much as adults?
Totally. When I was walking the Downs recently with my six-year-old nephew, Toby, we stopped at a cobweb that had every line marked out by dew, while a red kite took off above us. He said, “We would never have seen these beautiful things if we’d been sitting at home watching the telly.” If you can persuade kids that walking is an exciting option, then happy days, away you go.
In your new book, Walking Home, you note that after about two hours the brain tunes into the frequency and rhythm of your footfall to give a feeling like meditation. Have you had any spiritual experiences while walking?
While looking at an incredible view or just seeing the mists lift, I’ve felt huge surges of love – you know, when you’re doing that mental clicking of the brain when you’re saying to yourself: “Don’t let me forget this.” [Clinical psychologist] Penny Priest’s research on the healing balm-effect of being rocked as babies, then finding that rhythm again while walking, is very interesting. It’s really important to let your brain tune out all the noise and just be.
You write in the book: “While walking paths, we tread in the footsteps of our ancestors, becoming living history.” Which walks are the most drenched in history for you?
Definitely the old paths of Cornwall and the walk to Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circle. Even the South Downs Way and Pilgrims’ Way, or any of those old drovers’ paths – they all feel spectacular.
What has been the most pleasing reaction to your new book?
People who wouldn’t consider themselves walkers finishing the book and thinking: “Right, where am I going to go walking this weekend?”
Which books have inspired you while preparing for an episode of Ramblings?
While I enjoy facts and history, I avoid tour guide-type books. I aim for writing that will get me into the mood for the colours I might see or the landscape – something to help give the walk personality. Poetry, philosophy and descriptive or funny novels help. You want to have a voice in your head that you aspire to. Travel writers such as Bill Bryson remind me that there are ways to write about walking that appeal to non-walkers. For My Animals and Other Family [her first autobiographical book], reading David Sedaris helped me to see the worst in family without getting angry – because, in the end, you may as well laugh.
What’s your favourite…
I really enjoyed walking from Inner Hope to Salcombe in Devon, partly because of the name, partly for the views and partly for the ice cream at the end.
Glasgow. Walking from BBC Scotland on the Clyde along the river through the city, through George Square and up to the statue of John Knox at the top of the Necropolis, to wave my finger at him and say: “Oi mate, women can do anything!”
I love the view from the North Downs at home back across Sydmonton and Kingsclere.
My maroon walking boots. They’re very comfortable and no one else has them in that colour (surprise, surprise!).
Gin and tonic, with a slice of lime.
Win one of five copies of Clare's Book Walking Home!