‘I’ve been all over the world, but always compare places to the Lake District’
Countryfile recently debuted Celebration of the Seasons, a 50-minute, beautifully shot documentary taking in some of the greatest landscapes the UK has to offer.
Regular presenter Helen Skelton took the Countryfile team back to her native Cumbria to explore everything that spectacular part of the UK has to offer.
She reveals how outdoor activities have been an integral part of her life since childhood – and why she believes this is a great time for women’s sport.
It’s amazing how people underestimate the cameramen on something like Countryfile,” Skelton says. “The camera team on the show are so brilliant, and I think that really shows in Celebration of the Seasons.”
“It’s acelebration of our country, and our countryside, and it would have been wrong of the production team to scrimp and save on the pictures, so luckily, Countryfile is one of the few shows these days that really invests in their filmmakers.”
The documentary, which spans the length and breadth of the UK through the changing seasons, also sees Skelton back in the Lake District, where she grew up on a dairy farm. “I’ve been lucky with my job to go all over the world– Alaska, New Zealand, Australia and Africa – yet I always compare those places to the Lake District and to Cumbria, because Cumbria has a bit of everything! Huge mountains, big lakes, stunning coastline – I feel really proud of where I’m from,” she smiles.
“I spent years living in London trying to convince friends to come back up to Cumbria with me, and they always thought it was like going to the end of the earth. They’d happily drive five hours to Cornwall, but they wouldn’t get on a train for three hours to go to Cumbria.”
If she did manage to drag city-dwelling friends back to her home turf, Helen had already planned out a funpacked itinerary for her visitors. “We’d go to the lakes, go kayaking, go for a swim, and have a barbeque by the lake.
“There are great pubs, great food, great views, great people; loads of stuff happens in Cumbria that people aren’t aware of; Kendal Calling, for instance. I’ve loved Kendal Calling for years, but I had London friends telling me ‘oh there’s this really cool new festival called Kendal Calling…’ and I’ve been going to Kendal Calling since it was like, five men and a dog!” she laughs.
When speaking to Skelton, it’s clear that despite her media success – she has been a Newsround and Blue Peter presenter, as well as her current Countryfile and BT Sport football pundit roles – she has retained her quintessentially Cumbrian down-to-earth attitude.
“People don’t get too carried away with themselves where I’m from, they just get on with it,” she explains. “There’s a funny moment on the DVD extras, where the producer is asking me to talk about the landscapes and how they inspired me, but Cumbrians aren’t really like that!
“We don’t look out of the window and get all wishy-washy, we just think that we live in a great playground, so we have a great time! So when I was trying to sound gushy during the filming, the director cut and I had to ask ‘was thatconvincing?’”
A natural in front of the camera, Skelton says that, in fact, “I never set out to be a telly presenter. I just like talking to people. I was quite content working at Radio Cumbria, I was never there wishing I could be a TV presenter.
“I went to Newsround because I was encouraged to, and the only reason why I ended up on screen was because I covered someone’s maternity leave. I’m very naïve and I think that life is too short, you should do stuff that you enjoy, and I’ve been very lucky to chase things in my career that I actually enjoy.”
Fatefully, Skelton’s television work has fused her passion for outdoor activities, sports and fitness with her presenting ability. “I was really lucky with Blue Peter that I was able to combine my loves; I love training for stuff, so doing stunts like the High Wire challenge (Skelton walked a 150-metre tightrope between the chimneys of Battersea Power Station for Comic Relief in 2011) was perfect,” she recalls.
Even when she is off duty, she and her England rugby league player husband constantly challenge each other. “We are probably the only couple who went to the gym together on Christmas Day, on our honeymoon! But to be honest, when we train together it is a disaster because he really knows how to push my buttons and we are stupidly competitive.”
Sport and fitness has always been extremely important to Skelton. “I grew up in a sports-mad family. My brother is a footballer, my mum and dad have always played loads of sport.
My dad used to get us up in the middle of the night to watch the Ryder Cup, even when I was seven and had no idea what the Ryder Cup even meant,” she smiles. “Also, we always played as a family; it was never ‘oh Mum’s going to watch’.
“So without realising it, my mum has been a big role model for me – if we went on a bike ride, so did she. I’ll never forget mucking around with her on a skateboard, and that implanted in my mind so that I think of doing stuff like that, as a woman, as totally normal.”
Skelton has an insider perspective on the noticeable sudden media interest in women’s sport, especially women’s football, which she reports on.
“Maybe there is an appetite for female role models who are doing something different and out there achieving something, as opposed to just looking good,” she says.
“I know loads of women who play for the England women’s team: Fara Williams for example, an amazing woman; she was playing for her country, the top flight of women’s football, yet she was homeless at one point. So when you think about stories like that, I say, ‘you know what, ladies? Take everything you can get.’
“We are at a really interesting point for sport, because there will be loads of seven, eight, nine-year-olds who have sportswomen as role models after the Olympics. That generation is where we’ll see the real dividends.”
Countryfile: A Celebration of the Seasons is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital HD.