Broadcaster, writer and world record-breaker, Helen Skelton takes adventures in the great outdoors to a whole new level. Think … completing the Namibia Ultra Marathon (only the second woman ever to do so), kayaking over 2,010 miles down the Amazon River for Sport Relief (breaking two Guinness World Records) and tightrope walking at 66 metres between the Battersea Power Station towers. A familiar face from BBC’s Blue Peter, Countryfile and the London and Rio Olympics, there’s now a Yorkshire house renovation, farmyard filming and some SAS recovery. Carolyn Nicoll caught up with the multi-talented presenter during the lockdown in Leeds.
I came to live in Yorkshire because of my husband’s work. Richie (Myler) plays scrum-half in rugby league for Leeds Rhinos. In many ways Yorkshire feels very much like Cumbria, where I grew up. I love the vast outdoor space and the older I get the more I know I need to be near greenery, so to me Yorkshire is home from home. There’s a real ease of getting to places I need to be for my work. We live with our two boys, just outside Leeds and I often travel into the city for different projects at some great radio and TV production companies. But, equally I can be on the moors in 20 minutes and deep in the Dales in just 30 minutes. For me it's the best of both worlds.
As well as the stunning Yorkshire countryside, I also love the amazing coastline, its beautiful beaches, the bustling towns and the lovely little fishing villages. We spend a lot of time as a family at the coast, my kids and I particularly love the sea. Even in the winter it has a wonderful feel to it, sometimes wild and atmospheric. Of course, another favourite is the Yorkshire food. Absolutely delicious and such a great range of local, fresh produce from farmers across the county. I genuinely feel really lucky that Yorkshire is where my family and I call home and we certainly plan to stay long-term.
A big project at the moment is renovating a Yorkshire heritage property whilst living in it. I have made a career out of committing to daft ideas and this is another. It’s nothing new to me, I have moved a lot and done up many homes. My eldest son is five and has lived in six homes already. Falling in love with the cottage which is now our home was something I just couldn’t help. Built in 1850, it’s not at all practical for my chaotic family and dog but I just couldn't get past it. But the fact that it’s impractical and there’s something very humble about it, plus it’s got a massive garden is exactly why I love it so much. Its back catalogue of various interesting owners is fascinating. However, restoring a property with so much history is definitely proving a financial challenge. That’s renovation for you.
Like everyone else, the coronavirus situation had a big impact on my family’s daily life. We're at home a lot more than we are in the park, which is a shame for the children and we haven't seen grandparents or my family for months, as they all live in Cumbria. I am struggling not seeing my parents but other than that I can't complain. My kids have loved not going to school, and selfishly so have I!
No two days have been the same during these unusual and changing times. My main commitment has been keeping the kids busy, so the usual tree climbing, football kicking and fight splitting up. I really enjoy working from home but it does mean the boys have been on TV quite a bit, including the BBC, Channel 4 and Channel 5, as they just pop up in the background.
As with most situations, there have been lots of positives as a result of lockdown, including not having to drive long distances for work. Normally I am expected to go all over the country, but working from home has been great, although a bit frantic at times. Having the kids at home is what I’ve really enjoyed, no set routine and waking up, looking at the weather and thinking "what shall we do today?"
Homeschooling my boys has been a bit tricky, plus cleaning and trying to stay on top of the washing. There really are so many more fun things to do!
Luckily I’ve had lots of work projects to keep me busy, especially with my kids clothing company, Toy Breaker, posting out orders or speaking to mums. It was launched just before lockdown so has been a challenge trying to keep it all going. I’ve also recently started presenting a new Radio 5 live show on Sunday afternoons at 3pm. It’s great!
Wild Girl is my latest book and unfortunately the current coronavirus crisis disrupted the book tour plans, speaking to schools and at book festivals. As a result there have been many online meetings, I think we’re all getting used to talking to many faces on a screen. I’m a bit of a ‘Wild Girl’ and have been lucky enough to be part of many adventures, so this is a guide to hopefully inspire girls in particular to get outdoors, because there are lots of awesome experiences out there to enjoy. I wanted to share some of my exciting stories, from kayaking the length of the Amazon to cycling to the South Pole, it’s an aspirational and practical guide to exploration for curious young minds who seek adventure, like me! I think it’s important to be motivated and overcome the toughest of situations, embracing fears and staying positive. Endurance excursions to some really remote parts of the planet and extreme wilderness areas taught me so much and I really wanted to encourage lots of young women to be positive and tackle any extreme challenge they want to. Really it can be done if you put your mind to it. There are some great illustrations in the book too from Liz Kay, a wonderful Yorkshire artist.
Lots of my TV projects involve filming at wonderful Yorkshire locations. For Countryfile I was recently at Hope Pastures in Leeds. They rescue horses, ponies & donkeys that have been abused and the team dedicate their time to rehabilitating and rehoming the animals wherever possible. It’s a wonderful place and I take my boys there all the time for a visit. Big Week at the Zoo filmed at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park was a real treat too. It’s such a joy to spend so much time with so many different species of animals and the conservation work being done at this great location in South Yorkshire is truly amazing.
This month it’s back to presenting with This Week on the Farm, lots of exciting stuff happening from Cannon Hall Farm in Barnsley. At Easter the TV show Springtime on the Farm (I filmed my bits from the garden during lockdown) was really fun to film and a big ratings winner, so it’s wellies back on for some more. A lot of This Week on the Farm has been filmed by the farmers themselves, and I’ll be co-hosting with Jules Hudson. There are some fantastic animals involved, from newborns to Ted the Highland bull, it’s all going on in South Yorkshire. There are gorgeous lambs, sheep shearing and even a financial advisor who has swapped spreadsheets for asparagus, working as a vegetable picker in North Yorkshire. It’s great to see what’s happening in the farming world and who doesn’t love seeing all those gorgeous animals. It’s a little bit more relaxing than SAS: Who Dares Wins.
Being part of SAS: Who Dares Wins was a fantastic experience and I would love to do it all again. Thrown in straight off the back of filming loads of other projects and dealing with personal things that were going on, I perhaps wasn’t really mentally or physically ready for such a huge TV challenge, but in spite of all that I got a lot further than I thought and really loved it. It is way harder than it looks, as there is so much going on that you’re involved with that doesn’t make the final edit. We never slept, but that doesn’t necessarily come across, so it’s hard for viewers to understand how tired and overwhelmed we all were.
When I get time to relax I enjoy playing tennis, biking and hiking, especially walking with my dog Spiderman. There are many gorgeous places to explore and enjoy so close to home. I think that’s the case for lots of people across Yorkshire, there’s a lot of countryside and even the cities are close to some stunning green spaces and pretty parks.
I’m most looking forward to seeing my parents again when I’m allowed and when it’s safe to do so. My dad FaceTimes me every day and shows me the view from where I grew up. Missing close family is a big thing at the moment for so many. Getting back to filming with a crew (rather than just me in the garden) will be lovely, there are so many amazingly talented colleagues who I haven’t seen in ages.
A perfect Yorkshire day out … where to begin … in Leeds it would have to be the majestic Kirkstall Abbey, plus beautiful Harewood House and also Lotherton Hall, both are historic properties with great bird gardens, wildlife and gorgeous grounds. In the Dales I’ll be off to Bolton Abbey and then up to the lovely village of Appletreewick. For the coast, again spoilt for choice, but Whitby, Sandsend and Staithes are particular favourites. I can’t wait!
This Week on the Farm filmed at Cannon Hall Farm in Barnsley starts on Tuesday 16th June, 8pm on Channel 5.
This article was originally written for This Is Y magazine digital edition – June 2020. To view the full magazine, click here.