The voice of Radio 4’s Ramblings chats to Country Walking about lumpy landscapes, aggressive step-counting and the importance of silence…
For 17 years and 32 series, walkers have been tuning into Radio 4 at 3pm on a Thursday to be transported to another place. Each episode of Ramblings is an aural adventure in the British landscape, in the company of people who know each destination intimately. And for almost its entire existence, Clare Balding has been the guide for these viewless voyages. So Country Walking Magazine caught up with Clare to say hi, and salute the gentlest voice ever to take us on a walk we can’t see…
It’s hard to imagine the pitching session in which someone said to the BBC: “OK, go with me here: walking… on the radio.”
I know, what an extraordinary idea! Lucy Lunt, who originated it, is still the producer today. She had such a conviction and faith in it; she saw the ideas and stories that could come from putting two people together on a walk with something to talk about. And 17 years later, it has become something that taps into so many people’s experiences. I joined for series two, because the original presenter wasn’t able to do it. And now I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
It must test of your powers of description.
Always. But I like learning new ways to describe what I’m seeing. On the latest series I went out in Dorset with a group of primary school children who go walking with a local farmer every Friday afternoon. I asked them to describe what they could see and one girl said, “It’s very lumpy round here.” Lumpy! How perfect is that?
But you use silence very well in the programme, too.
Silences are great. A big long silence which simply conveys that we’re walking, thinking, or admiring a view – I love those. If a deer runs across the footpath, we stop and enjoy that moment together, I don’t talk over it. If I need to describe it, I do that afterwards. I find people always say more when you give them space and don’t try to talk all the time.
How do you find a balance between talking about the place and focusing on the person you’re walking with?
It’s never just about the geography. The art of Ramblings is that it uses places to evoke emotion and memory; to trigger something in the person I’m walking with, and hopefully the audience. I went to Windsor Great Park with Bill Bryson, and he was beautifully nostalgic about walking there with his wife. So the landscape unlocks the story for you. Walking is a totally ageless, classless, gerless thing. It’s a unifying passion that anyone can relate to.
The programme has had some very positive effects, hasn’t it?
There’s at least one walking group for bereaved people that was set up by people who listened to Ramblings, because they loved the way the series helped to evoke the best memories of time spent with their partners. For them to be able to walk with other people who have been through the same experience is immensely therapeutic and liberating. If Ramblings never accomplished anything again, that would be success enough for me.
Were you always a walker?
It was part of the deal of growing up among the Hampshire downs among the racing community. You couldn’t not want to be out there exploring. But I hadn’t walked widely around other parts of Britain, so I’m very grateful to Ramblings. It has unlocked so many new places for me.
Northumberland draws me back time and again. Along the coast, where the castles are, you get the most incredible light. I love the Suffolk/Norfolk border, especially the Constable Way around Bury St Edmunds. And Hampshire, of course – it’s still home.
Who do you walk with, away from the show?
I walk a lot with my mum; she’s a very calm person and it’s wonderful to walk with someone who’s a calming influence. Just the other day we did 13 miles along the Wayfarer’s Walk in Hampshire, ing up at Combe Gibbet. We like walking around Kingsclere, which is where I grew up. A lot of people will know it as Downton Abbey, because the series was filmed at the Highclere estate. And Alice [Clare’s partner, Radio 4 newsreader and announcer Alice Arnold] is wonderful company on any walk. Then of course there’s Archie, my dog. He’s getting on a bit now, so he rarely manages more than five miles, poor lad.
Where haven’t you been?
Oh, there’s still so much Britain left to go to. My primary targets are the Isle of Man and some more of the Scottish islands, but I’d like to see more of Cornwall too, especially on the South West Coast Path.
What has walking done for you?
Everything. It turns me round and sorts me out. An example is what used to happen to me whenever I had to work overseas. For years I got terribly homesick, but walking fixed that at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Every morning I’d go for a walk for an hour and a half by the Black Sea. And it really set me up for those big long days of broadcasting. Before that I would have been flagging after a few days, but by making time for a good walk every morning, I was still flying by the of Day 19.
We hear you’re keen on step-counting…
Definitely! I aim for 12,000 steps a day, which usually comes out around five miles. And I’m quite competitive. I got into a step-counting battle with a fri, and we ed up obsessively tacking on extra miles at the of each day just to get the steps up. Walking isn’t competitive by nature, but I think a little competition can be healthy. That’s probably the racing talking.
So what do you make of our #Walk1000Miles challenge?
It’s a great idea to encourage people to walk more. Walking 1,000 miles in a year isn’t beyond anyone’s capability. I tell people I walk five miles a day on average and they stare at me in disbelief: “how can anyone have the time to do that?” But it really is possible – and after a while, easy.
Favourite bit of kit?
My boots. A pair of Asolo Tribe GVs that I’ve had for six years. I love them.
Finally, our readers know an awful lot about good walks. What’s their best chance of getting the attention of (BOLD) Ramblings?
It’s amazing the number of suggestions for good places and stories that we get. The producers work very hard to find great ideas, but very often they do fall right in our lap! So yes, if anyone has a suggestion, they are welcome to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can download over 160 episodes of Ramblings at www.bbc.co.uk/radio by searching for the programme title. Clare’s books Walking Home and My Animals and Other Family are available on Amazon.
ABOUT CLARE BALDING
* Born in Kingsclere, Hampshire, 1971, the daughter of racehorse trainer Ian Balding. Her brother Andrew is also a trainer.
* Became an amateur flat jockey in 1988 and was Champion Lady Rider 1990.
* Joined the BBC in 1994, working on Radio 5 Live and presenting sport on Chris Evans’ Radio 1 breakfast show.
* Presents sport and lifestyle programmes on Radio 2, Channel 4 and BT Sport. Anchor for Olympics, Winter Olympics and Sports Personality of the Year.
* Has presented Ramblings for 16 years.
INTERVIEW: NICK HALLISSEY
This interview first appeared in Country Walking Magazine