Animal lover Clare Balding reveals her latest book
PUBLISHED: 16:18 15 October 2020
From growing up with Hampshire racehorses to caring for dogs and cats at home, the broadcaster’s love of animals has seen her through good times and bad
When Clare Balding insists that our interview takes place at an animal sanctuary in Hampshire, you don’t argue with a national treasure. “I want to stress the importance of animals in our lives and how they have shaped history,” she says. A testament to her devotion to animals is her latest and sixth book; Heroic Animals: 100 Amazing Creatures Great and Small.
Within minutes of her arrival at St Francis Animal Welfare Centre in Fair Oak, the BAFTA winning presenter and award-winning author is holding tiny kittens, hugging rescue dogs and rubbing the nose of Muffin the ageing donkey - who was saved from the meat trade. Next she has Jane Garvey, BBC Radio 4’s Presenter for Woman’s Hour on the phone to centre manager Helen about adopting cats, before offering a book signing with all the proceeds going to the charity. Aside from being one of the most popular faces on TV - from major sport to Ramblings, Crufts and Sports Personality of the Year, one is immediately struck by her dynamism, compassion and desire to make the world a better place. Especially where animals are involved.
It all started in Hampshire, where she grew up in Kingsclere surrounded by dogs and hundreds of horses. Her father Ian was a Champion racehorse trainer - who trained horses for the Queen and over 2000 winners, including the great Mill Reef. Her brother Andrew is also a prolific trainer and is still based at the Balding family home of Park House Stables.
Clare recounts her childhood as a pony mad girl who loved riding around the Hampshire countryside with dreams of becoming an Olympic event rider. That was until she went to work for the legendary six-time Badminton winner Lucinda Green who implored her to go to university instead. “I was gutted at the time but of course she did me a huge favour. I have loved my broadcasting career.”
For Clare, 2020 should have been a massive year, with the Olympics and Paralympics on top of usual major events like Wimbledon and The Boat race. Yet this strange year has allowed her not only to work on the new book, but reflect on life, and enjoy more time at home with her partner Alice and family of animals. This includes a new litter of kittens and of course Archie, their beloved Tibetan terrier, who sadly died in July at the age of 15.
“Lockdown and this year has forced me to be very flexible, in terms of coping with a complete upheaval of expectations. Now I’m really glad to have been more at home this year. I looked at it as an enforced sabbatical which I never would have taken otherwise. I find it very difficult to stop working, and I know lots of people feel like this. When you’re freelance it’s really hard to take time off because you think, ‘what if the big job arrives whilst I’m on holiday?’ So actually not being able to do the regular work means I could take a break. I haven’t worn heels for seven months and I hardly wear makeup, so that’s been lovely. Being at home and at the end of Archie’s life, and also the beginning of the kittens’ lives was so important too.”
Her book became her other main focus of lockdown life. With 100 true stories featuring a wide variety of animals, it took an intense four months. Clare admits it was an emotional journey. “There are some incredible stories of bravery and loyalty, like the two guide dogs who saved their blind owners in the Twin Towers. There were literally thousands of people trying to get down the stairs. One guy let his dog go because he thought it had a better chance of survival without him, but the dog came back to get him. In the introduction I talked about Archie and about him dying, which happened when I was writing the book. When recording the audio version, I just couldn’t read that paragraph again. Animals have been such an important part of my life - and not just the ones that live in my house” she says, visibly choked.
“In fact, they have probably shaped me more than humans. I don’t say that out of disrespect to the wonderful people in my life. But I think a lot of animal lovers will probably identify with that feeling. They are members of your family and sometimes the ones that you feel closest to growing up. Whether you live in a horse, dog or cat-loving house, they are your buddies. I think you learn to deal with certain emotions through animals too. Grief certainly, but I think you learn patience and trust from having animals, and in a way you learn how to love. As with humans, you’ve got to love them despite their faults. So I think they shape you in many different ways and often when I interview people, it’s easy to connect with them through animals.”
Her affinity with animals gave her a best-selling book, the autobiographical “My Animals and Other Family”. They also helped launch her career. After reading English at Cambridge University, she started in sports journalism and sports broadcasting at the BBC, partly because of her knowledge of horses. She still lists Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials as her favourite sporting events.
Despite living in London for most of her life, Clare’s affinity for Hampshire still runs deep. “I still come back regularly. There is something about the landscape that makes it feel like home. I have walked all of the South Downs Way and my book “Walking Home” is about doing the Wayfarers Walk, which starts in Emsworth. There is a walk from Salisbury Cathedral to Winchester Cathedral, the Clarendon Way, which I want to do. Hampshire has got that lovely balance between well maintained farmland, parkland, woods and forests - and it’s got a coastline. It has pretty much everything you would want and it’s in easy distance of London. I really love Winchester. I went on the most fantastic walk for Ramblings, up to the top of St Catherine’s Hill and to the city centre. So yes, one day I would like to come back and live here”
Clare’s book Heroic Animals: 100 Amazing Creatures Great and Small is out today.
If you are interested in rehoming an animal in need or supporting St Francis Animal Welfare, you can read more online here