Clare Balding, national treasure, used to dress as a dog. “I spent most of my childhood thinking I was a dog. The dogs got a lot of attention and love and their lives generally seemed very nice. So I wanted that.” The woman who now presents Crufts (and everything else) tells me she would regularly sleep in the dogs’ bed and drink from the dogs’ bowl. “That’s normal, isn’t it?”
Clare’s childhood was far from normal. In her family, children were low down the pecking order. Way below animals. She grew up around horses, her father was a champion trainer. She could ride before she could walk (there’s a picture of her on the legendary Mill Reef at the age of two) – and was given a Shetland pony when she was born – by the Queen – who would come over regularly for breakfast – as you do.
Before we meet, for a walk, Clare texts me to say her dog Archie is on a ‘go slow’ and she may be a couple of minutes late. When she arrives – literally dragging Archie by his lead – it’s clear she isn’t exaggerating. People come up and talk to Clare all the time – like they know her. “The other day someone said ‘I know you’ and I said, ‘Uh, it’s because I work on the telly.’ He said ‘No, it's because we both worked for Lucinda Green at the same time.’ And he looked at me like ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ Awkward.”
Walking is where Clare does a lot of her thinking and she’s found it useful when guring out the plots to her children’s books. The Racehorse That Disappeared, her second book, came
to her when remembering what an impact Shergar's kidnapping had on her as a little girl. Clare has always wanted to write, but says she wasn’t naturally academic. “I just read a lot. English was literally the only thing I was any good at.”
She likes to schedule her writing. “On a writing day I want to spend at least six hours at the computer, but I have displacement activities like playing Scrabble online and cleaning the George Foreman grill. I actually did that the other day. Alice [Clare’s wife] came home and was like ‘Oh my goodness, the kitchen is so clean. Have you done any writing?’” In her book, Clare has created a heroine full of girl power – a plucky little ten-year-old girl called Charlie Bass. “She’s cool, isn’t she? I like her because she watches out for other people and tries her best.” Clare doesn’t have her own children but our conversation is littered with anecdotes about her niece and nephews whom she’s clearly very close to. As long as you don’t ask her to lose to them.
A former top jockey, she hasn’t lost her competitive spirit. “I was at a kids’ sports event the other day in a race with lots of kids sliding across the oor. I looked at Alice, ‘Do I have to let them win?’ and she said yes. ‘Ah dammit.’”
Clare’s passion for sport runs deep. “I’m a believer in the power of sport. I sat next to someone the other day who couldn’t understand why I rated sport above learning Latin. I said I did Latin A-level but I’ve never used it in my life but I use sport and what I’ve learnt from sport all the time.”
Clare loves walking, and keeps up a brisk pace round the park. She is on her thirty-seventh series of Ramblings on Radio Four. “It's so good for your head and you see the world at the pace you’re meant
to see it at. I walked with one guy who was ‘walking through Spring’. Spring moves up the country at a walking pace so the bluebells come out down south and then continue as you move up north; so however long it would take you to walk to Scotland (you’d have to walk through the night as well) it keeps going at walking pace.”
With all her walking she’s lost weight, “I still need to lose some more, I do sort of need to concentrate again.” And with talk of exercise Archie puts his paw down and stops walking – he wants to go home for a sleep. On this beautiful, crisp day Clare’s passion for life is infectious and genuine – ironic that she’s just gone through a tricky bit of publicity with a journalist accusing her of acting like a diva... The truth is with Clare Balding what you see is what you get... and there isn’t a diva-ish bone in her body.
Quick fire Questions with Clare
GUILTY PLEASURE: The Oreo milkshake at Byron Burgers. Bloody hell that is good.
WHAT MAKES YOU LAUGH? Alice. French and Saunders. Sally Phillips. I laugh loudly.
BIGGEST INDULGENCE: We love a cruise.
ON YOUR BOOKSHELF?: Judy Murray’s new book; Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Elena Favilli); Paris for One (Jojo Moyes)
BIGGEST LIFE LESSON FOR KIDS: The hardest thing you will ever do is walk into school on the rst day. Find the person who looks as if they need help and talk to them. Then you’re not thinking ‘oh my God I’m in this room and I don’t know anybody’.
The Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare Balding, illustrated by Tony Ross, is out now, published by Puffin Books.