Esther Rantzen. Photography: Ari Ashley
Thursday, January 14, 2010
It used to break Esther Rantzen's heart to leave the New Forest when she was a child. She reveals her passions for the Forest, vintage clothing and ChildLine to Sophy Robinson...
Esther Rantzen's connection with the New Forest goes back to her childhood. "My cousin used to manage a farm down here for the local MP, Sir Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre. I used to visit from London, and it was the only countryside I knew. I loved it so much - it used to break my heart when we had to leave and go back to the grey streets of London. It felt like going back to a prison!"
I met Esther early one sunny Saturday morning in July at her own New Forest dwelling - a beautiful farmhouse in a quiet and little-visited area north of the A31 where she combines a tranquil existence with her well-known drive to make things happen. It was only the half empty bottles of wine on the kitchen dresser that betrayed the previous night's function to promote ChildLine, the charity she formed 21 years ago to promote the protection of children.
"We took the children on a grand world tour to celebrate my 50th birthday. Bali, Himalayas, the Taj Mahal..when we got back we asked them which they liked the most. They said 'The New Forest!'
"Yes, it might look quiet and orderly in my house now, but I was hosting a glamorous and glitzy event here into the early hours of the morning," she says with laughter in her eyes as she sips her first welcome cup of strong coffee.
"It was for the NSPCC and my aim was to introduce some important people to ChildLine's work. Deloitte's local offices sponsored the evening, so there was lots of champagne and - no - I didn't have to cook or tidy up, the caterers did everything for me.
"We have just got to raise awareness of why Childline is so crucial to children. Growing up in care, or in difficult family circumstances, can be traumatic and we've not found the right way of providing help and support to vulnerable kids that really transforms their lives.
But during 25 years of her time at the farm, Esther has also turned her campaigning energies to local issues.
"This is one of the first parts of the Forest that introduced a 40 mph speed limit. We had a big problem here with motorists - often local drivers - who just think 'damn it' and put their foot down, speeding through the village and colliding with the commoners' animals - never mind the safety of people living here. So I helped Derrick and Vera Roberts at the village shop get a campaign together, and we managed to get the whole Forest to adopt the same speed limit for unfenced areas."
It is the peace and quiet that Esther loves about the Forest. "I feel quite torn about talking about it. I just don't want it to be inundated with visitors. I like walking in the remote parts of the Forest - it is like a great ocean of trees. I just stroll around for an hour or so, enjoying the bluebell woods, the beech trees, blackberries and wild roses. And the animals are wonderful too - just yesterday as I left the house I saw three pigs, four cows, a cat and two ponies in my path.
"Growing up in care, or in difficult circumstances, can be traumatic and we've not found the right way of providing help and support to vulnerable kids that really transform their lives"
"My husband, Desmond Wilcox, and I bought the property 25 years ago and it was described as a Victorian farm house." Humour lights her eyes again, "Well that was totally wrong! It dates back to 1680, and so we tried to restore what we could - all the wooden floors were rotten, the end wall was falling off the house and there was no damp proof course." As we talk, Esther moves over to the sink with our coffee cups.
"Just look at this," she says, beckoning me over to where she stood looking out of the kitchen window across her front garden to the forest beyond.
"What a joy to stand here washing up the dishes, and be able to look out on this wonderful view! Every home should have one." And at that the local commoner's pigs that run free in the lanes around her house, meandered into sight and snuffled around her front gate.
Retreat from London
"This was our second home - we were based in Hampstead Heath, London - but our three children had the experience of growing up here at weekends and in the holidays. I snatched whatever time I could from my work to join them down here. It's funny what an impact it had on the children, who still love to come and visit me here. Desmond and I took them on a grand world tour to celebrate my 50th birthday in 1990 - we went to some amazing places including Australia, Bali and the Himalayas - even the Taj Mahal. When we got back home we asked them which, of all the places they had seen, they liked the most. And they all said 'The New Forest'!"
While she was on that grand tour, Esther found a statue of Queen Sita, which she thought would look beautiful in her Forest garden. So it was shipped over from Bali and has pride of place in a shady corner.
Esther Rantzen CBE
1 Best known for That's Life! and as the founder of the charity ChildLine.
2 Television career started on BBC Two with the documentary series Man Alive.
3 Developed The Big Time in 1976 which launched the singing career of Sheena Easton.
4 Married Desmond Wilcox, head of the BBC's general features department, in 1977.
5 Devised a TV series called Hearts of Gold in 1988 celebrating people who have performed unsung acts of outstanding kindness or courage.
6 Created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1991 for services to broadcasting.
7 Took part in the BBC One show Strictly Come Dancing in 2004. Other recent shows include Excuse my French and Old Dogs New Tricks.
8 She was raised to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) last year.