What has telly's Clare Balding been recording in Suffolk?
PUBLISHED: 12:30 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 13:11 17 February 2019
DJ and IT engineer David Bradbury met the presenter when she came to East Anglia to record a radio programme for the BBC. He tells our reporter what she was like, and where they travelled together.
Who can top this as an unforgettable way to welcome 2019? A six-mile walk around pretty East Anglia – with national treasure Clare Balding, no less. And the media favourite even shells out for delicious pastries from an artisan bakery. A Happy New Year indeed.
Clare was here to meet IT engineer David Bradbury and record an episode of BBC Radio 4’s walk-and-talk series Ramblings.
Recent episodes have taken the presenter to Aviemore in Scotland and Dartmoor in Devon. Suffolk must have appeared a bit, er, on the tame side when Clare stopped by on January 2.
“We were nearly back to the pub (the Rushbrooke Arms at Sicklesmere),” David remembers. “I think we’d started off talking about hills… She looked around and joked ‘I can’t see any hills round here!’”
He laughs. “Well, when you’re on a bike… Come out of Hawstead; that’s steep enough!”
His episode (called, appropriately, “Gentle Slopes not Rolling Hills – Suffolk”) goes out on Thursday. We’ll be able to listen to a 25-minute distillation of what they said and saw during a six-and-a-half-mile stroll around and through Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds.
At its heart, really, is the idea that a walk in the fresh air is a brilliant way of dividing up the working day. It’s great for body and soul – and fantastic if we can share it with a colleague or two. Or more.
David has long been keen on cycling and walking – and the environment. When a borough and town councillor in Bury St Edmunds for a few years, he’d proposed installing a local wind turbine. It didn’t win widespread support. “Young and naïve!” he laughs. Or ahead of time.
He has in the past been out with the Bury St Edmunds Ramblers, who count his parents as members, but things took a new direction when he was with his previous employer.
“I was in the middle of a divorce. The company was in a rural location, there was a regular group of walkers (among his colleagues) and I joined them. We used to go at lunchtimes. We generally wouldn’t talk about work!”
He’d been on some Ramblers’ Walking for Health events. These were great for physical health, particularly, but he found the “work walks” brilliant for mental wellbeing.
“You’re often with your colleagues longer than you’re with your family. I found they could offer a different perspective with support. It’s not necessarily ‘talking about’ problems outside work; it’s almost a distraction from the problems. But you know they’re thinking of you – that they’re able to support you in various ways.
“To get people to purposefully put time aside – to go out for a walk with someone you know only as a colleague – can help in so many ways. It gets you away from your screens – hopefully not looking at your mobile, so you’re not stressed from hundreds of emails and the latest social media rubbish – and you think ‘It’s just great’.”
So it was a regular activity, then?
“I would have thought that over a period of two or three weeks a third of the company would have gone out for a walk. It was a ‘modern’ company that encouraged people to look after themselves.”
A regular listener to BBC Radio 4’s Ramblings, David had contacted the production team to see if it was interested in the angle of colleagues striding out together. It certainly was.
While the Beeb’s wheels turned, the firm he was with had to trim its workforce last year. “What did we do to help us deal with that process? We went out walking in the countryside. It was obviously a distressing time for everybody, not just those directly involved.”
Happily, before Christmas, David found a new job – and the company’s attitude about the great outdoors was one of the things that made him feel at home.
“The (job) agency said ‘They’re in the middle of the countryside and they run a walking group’. That’s a box ticked.”
Even when he went to Cheshire for his induction day with technology solutions provider Chess, a walk around Alderley Edge was part of the programme. “I thought ‘Yes. This is my kind of company’.
“It’s ‘Come and enjoy working for us, but we want you to be fit and well at the same time’. If you’re fit and well, you’re going to be a good employee. Sitting in front of a screen (for long periods) is not the best thing for you.”
The cyber-security engineer is practising what he preaches. He’s walked up from his office to meet me by a rural church outside Bury St Edmunds.
The sun’s out (for the moment), as are the snowdrops. As we gaze over the fields towards Bury, David talks about fieldfare and waxwings being quite common. The other day he saw a barn owl take off from a fence.
So: Clare Balding and the recording. “She was just lovely. Professional; naturally friendly.
“We talked about how walking with colleagues can be beneficial. One of the things I hadn’t thought of until I mentioned it is that even if you’re not saying anything yourself, you’re still part of the group, listening to people.
“You’re not forced to speak (when out walking). But if you’re sitting opposite someone, looking at each other, someone feels duty-bound to speak. If there’s three of you (strolling), or even just a couple, neither of you needs to be saying anything… the ‘conversation’ doesn’t need to have words.
“It’s just knowing someone is there. Not to offer advice; not to offer sympathy; but just to know that someone can spend 10 minutes, an hour, giving you their time, which is precious.”
He invited to the recording his friend Ron West, aka “the human Google. If he doesn’t know something directly, he’ll know someone who does”.
The radio programme’s pledge is “Clare Balding joins notable and interesting people for a walk through the countryside”. David says: “Well, I’m not notable, and I’m surely not that interesting. So mum said ‘You know Ron. He knows lots of stuff.’
“And Ron’s a fan of the programme as well. I think he’s very pleased to meet someone he’s listened to for years. Part of the walk went to Nowton church, and he knew all about the Flemish glass.”
After three miles of the walk they were joined by David’s daughter and his mother.
“Clare did sign my daughter’s copies of her books. (The presenter has written a series of stories about horses.) She was so good with my daughter. She was asking her all about school and what she did.
“As we walked through Nowton Park, she talked about some of the trees. There’s an amazing totem pole. (More than 35 feet tall, and of red cedar.) I hadn’t noticed it before, but my daughter said it must be St Edmund’s head with the wolf” (included in the design. Native Americans believe a wolf helps the sick).
David and his daughter used to go for walks and practise times-tables en route. “So we did a little bit of that on the walk with Clare, and she threw a few numbers at her!”
The Nowton Park arboretum, site of the totem pole and trees from around the world, is also home to a carved panda that stands in the “China region”. It apparently delighted the BBC visitor.
“She was dumbstruck. ‘Stop! Stop! There’s a panda here!’” says David.
It was towards the end that she treated them to pastries from The Friendly Loaf Company, in Nowton.
“I genuinely think Clare enjoys the walks. She knew (restaurant) Maison Bleue in Bury – I imagine that’s through her racing connections – but she didn’t know that side of Bury (where they walked) at all. She loved Nowton Park.”
Has David heard a finished version of the episode? “No. I could be speaking to you now and then end up really embarrassed after listening to the programme!
“What I hope the programme and article might show is: take advantage of your colleagues, because they can offer a level of support during the day. You might be feeling low in the morning and they can help get your mind off things.”
All of us can benefit from a break from the workplace – revitalising ourselves with fresh air, movement and a shift of mental gear, either in the company of others or on our tod.
“If you’re walking on your own, it’s time to yourself. Switch the phone to silent if you can. (We’re listening to glorious birdsong as we chat.) Yesterday I was reading Rights of Man by Thomas Paine while walking.”
Woah. I’d fall into a ditch. “When you know your route and there’s not much about, you’re fine! Isn’t it better to be burning off a few calories at zero cost than sitting in front of a screen?”
Ramblings is on BBC Radio 4 at 3pm on Thursday: “Clare Balding and her fellow walkers take in the delights of rural Suffolk, which include a severed head and a drove of hares.”