Alistair Appleton on escaping to the country and being a proper Hampshire Hog
16:22 24 October 2012
“I’m a proper Hampshire Hog; I spent my whole childhood from the age of one until I left for university in Lee-on-Solent,” reveals Alistair Appleton, who’s most well known as a presenter on the BBC’s Escape to the Country.
He went to school in Southsea and spent most of his teenage years in and around the Hampshire coast: “I loved the countryside where my mum’s family lived near Titchfield and spent lots of lovely summers there - but I guess I was mostly connected to the sea: swimming, wandering along the coast, a little windsurfing here and there. I have a soft spot for the chalky downlands and the gorsy, shingly beaches around Hillhead and Alverstoke.”
Finding a spare moment in Alistair’s diary for us to shoehorn in this interview was not easy, so the first question I had to ask was what is it that’s keeping him so busy?
“I’m just coming to the end of my busiest time of the year. I film the BBC2 series Escape to the Country from March to October - that is, when the days are relatively long and bright,” he laughs. However it’s not just television work that’s filling his time: “October sees the beginning of my last term at psychotherapy school and the beginning of my season of mindfulness teaching, so three worlds start to overlap. The end of filming makes everything a little easier over the winter months, in theory,” he says.
Alistair became interested in meditation about 12 years ago; around the same time he started working in television. “It was initially just a way of keeping my head but gradually I became really interested in Buddhism.”
He travelled to various retreats in Thailand, California, Zimbabwe and Scotland, in particular to Holy Island off the coast of Arran, “my spiritual home.” This led him onto teaching mindfulness meditation to small groups up on Holy Island and that led to setting up his company, Mindsprings.
“I loved that work so much that I started to get a bit disenchanted with all the crazy schedules of TV filming and I decided five years ago to re-train as a psychotherapist,” but he has no regrets: “that was the best decision of my life and I think I’ve hit my 40s in much better shape than I hit my 30s.”
It’s fair to say, then, that it’s his passion for exploring the world, as well as the mind, these days, which led him to working in television. More specifically it was during his time spent in Berlin in the 90s: “I went there after university, it was a great place to be in your 20s because it - like me - was going through mad growing pains and finding its voice,” he recalls.
Alistair ended up spending six years living there and found work translating and working as a journalist for Deutsche Welle, the German equivalent to the World Service.
“In 1996 they put a call out for applicants for a presenting job and after a couple of woeful try-outs they took me on - at first as a replacement and then as the permanent host of their youth culture show, HEAT. I was really awful at the beginning but repeated baptisms of fire - live TV, writing my own scripts, no auto prompter, simultaneous translations into German - toughened me up.”
By the time he got to London, Alistair had “quite a nifty show reel”. He found an agent (one of many as it turned out) and after a dreadful year of anxious sitting around, he got a job presenting a show called House Doctor for Channel Five.
“I did that for several years and then worked for the BBC on an antiques show called Cash in the Attic. While I was doing those two shows I did a heap of other smaller projects and I guess the BBC liked me. I’ve loved being part of that amazing institution. I was lucky enough to work in the classical music field and then in the mid Naughties I was offered a spot presenting Escape to the Country, which has been my main show ever since.”
No place like home
Between filming, writing, teaching and blogging Alistair somehow manages to visit Hampshire, mainly to see his parents who still live in Lee-on-Solent. Knowing the area so well he always notices any changes: “Lee has done a nice job of sprucing up the seafront, despite the sprawl of retirement homes along the coast road and the dreary mass of retail parks between Fareham and Gosport.
“There are still some really nice Art Deco buildings in the centre of the village which have been restored, including the lovely Bluebird Cafe. And the church, St. Faiths, where I used to sing as a choir boy, is a particularly fine building too.”
However his favourite Hampshire places are a little further down the coast, he describes: “I love the tip of Hayling Island where it meets Eastney. I had a lovely family holiday there when I was six and a friend of mine is landlord of a fine pub there, the Eastney Cellars.
“In the other direction down the coast from Lee, the stretch of beach from Hillhead along to Warsash is particularly evocative to me. Then there’s Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve and then the strange cliffs at Chilling. The fields there are full of skylarks and on a sunny windy day, it’s really gorgeous.” He clearly has many fond memories and I had to ask him if he were to have his own country escape in Hampshire where and what would it be? “I might like a beautiful sunny Arts and Crafts red brick house surrounded by pine trees on the cliffs overlooking the sea near Titchfield. That would be magical; lots of glass and a telescope to watch the yachts go by.”
All in the mind
But there will be no leaving the busy life behind for a home in the county just yet as it seems Alistair will be showing buyers their potential dream homes for a while longer - the BBC has commissioned Escape to the Country for another couple of years. All at the same time as performing the juggling act that is building his Mindsprings business and psychotherapeutic work.
Years of trying to say things simply and succinctly on television means he has become pretty good at teaching and explaining. Mindsprings is definitely his future: “I’d love to build up the work we do, open a nice retreat centre - perhaps in Hampshire - and run more and more training weekends and retreats out in the fresh air so people can learn the practices and feel better in their own skin. It’s helped me such a lot and I love to share!”
- Find out more: if you would like to discover what Mindsprings is all about, visit the website at www.mind-springs.org