Walk & Talk with Kate Humble
What triggered your love of the outdoors? I had an idyllic countryside childhood in Berkshire — we spent all of our time out of the house! If you grow up that way, the outdoors is just in your blood. We walked a lot, too — if our friends lived across the fields, we just tramped across the fields to see them. One of my earliest memories is walking up Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. I remember feeling we were never going to get to the top, but we did, as you always do, and there is no better reward than the view from a summit.
Why does walking matter to you? The kind of rhythm you get into when you walk is very therapeutic. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I go walking with a scrambled head and then a light bulb comes on illuminating all the solutions, but afterwards everything seems to be back in perspective. The modern world is so invasive, but nature isn’t beaten yet! On a walk, you see the seasons changing around you, the migrating birds arriving, the first bluebells — there’s something very satisfying in witnessing that.
What do you make of the South Downs getting national park status? It’s very welcome news. We all know there are places in Britain that are just as beautiful that don’t have such status, but being recognised as a national park creates publicity and a wider understanding that an area is important. The Association of National Parks Authorities works hard to inform visitors about the place they are in. And, of course, the more parts of Britain that allow people access the better.
How does the UK compare with other parts of the world when it comes to beauty? There is this presumption that, to experience the greatest landscapes or staggering wildlife, you have to travel thousands of miles. But I’ve been all over the globe with this job and, hand on heart, there are places in Britain that can’t be bettered anywhere else in the world: the north coast of Cornwall, the Peak District, the west coast of Scotland… the list is endless. The British landscape is our little secret. Maybe we should shout about it a bit more!
Most nature programmes on television are fronted by men. Do you see yourself as a role model? No, I don’t see myself as a role model or a pioneer. But you’re right, it is staggering that, in 2009, outdoor broadcasting is still traditionally seen as the bastion of male presenters. I hope my presence among them encourages those people — and not just women — who may find the outdoors a little overwhelming to get out there and enjoy it. Some people wonder if it is safe to go into a wood or if they can go to a hide at a wildlife centre even if they don’t have binoculars or don’t know their birds. And I want them to know that of course they can — nature is there for everyone to enjoy!
You don’t have a science background. How has that influenced your approach to the complex issues you encounter in your work? I see myself as a translator. Because I come from a lay background, I really hope I can pass on my enthusiasm to others like me. I’m fascinated by science in a way I wasn’t at school, and now I don’t have to worry about getting 70% in an exam; I’m not afraid to ask about anything I don’t understand! The greatest privilege of my job is getting to meet people at the top of their field. Rocks can be sexy, but geologists are often bearded and wordy, so I will interrupt them and ask them to explain something again in simple terms. That’s not dumbing down, in my view— everyone has the right to have the world opened up for them, because there’s great satisfaction in accruing knowledge.
How did you manage to resist hitting Bill Oddie over the head with a saucepan after all the years co-presenting Springwatch with him?! People refuse to believe it, but I loved working with Bill. Yes, he talked over you and went off on massive tangents, but he is absolutely passionate about his subject. He is one of life’s great enthusiasts. I often felt like the head girl dragging him back to what we were supposed to be talking about!
Does anything irritate you about walking? The extremes of opinion you encounter. I dislike those walkers who are so militant they feel they can simply walk through a farmer’s corn just because the map says there is a footpath. Why not just go around the edge of the field? But equally, I find it incredibly annoying to be looking at a map with a path clearly marked and find my way blocked with barbed wire. I am sympathetic to both sides of the debate — yes, some farmers can be difficult, but they should be celebrated and encouraged, not reviled.
You’re a keen diver. How important is access to the coast in Britain? We’re not a big island but, even so, most people are disconnected from the sea. They tend to look at it as a big, cold stretch of water; they don’t see it as one of the greatest wildlife habitats we have — a big bucket of life. It’s a part of Britain that we should be immensely proud of, but we also need to be more aware of the damage we’re doing to it. Puffins are many people’s favourite birds, but we are in danger of losing them from our shores and islands altogether because of what we’re doing to the sea.
Does worrying about climate change keep you awake at night? To a certain extent, yes. Politicians aren’t brave enough to do what they should, and I think we’re approaching it all wrong — the more programmes and articles there are about it, the more disempowered and overwhelmed the public become. What worries me is that we will run out of time and that we’ll still only be talking about climate change as the poles melt…