Clare Balding admits life hasn't always been perfect

Suspended for shoplifting — I’m proof you CAN reinvent yourself: Wimbledon. The Olympics. And bickering with her wife on Gogglebox. At 50, Clare Balding’s head girl style has made her a national treasure. But in a surprisingly candid interview, she admits life hasn’t always been so perfect

  • Clare Balding, 50, lives in South-West London, with her wife Alice Arnold 
  • She is set to give the nation daily sporting updates from the Tokyo Olympics 
  • Has penned a book revealing she was suspended as a child while trying to fit in 
  • Find out the latest Tokyo Olympic news including schedule, medal table and results right here

Clare Balding is the sort of person you’d want around in a disaster: brisk, capable; intrepid — and imbued with an unerring capacity for looking on the bright side.

We’re talking about the Olympics, with which she’s become synonymous — would we want anyone but Clare delivering crisply informed updates on our nation’s daily sporting triumphs? — and I’m wondering if, with the pandemic, she’ll make it to Tokyo next month.

Actually, she won’t.

‘I’m presenting the evening highlights for the BBC from Salford,’ she announces. Salford? Isn’t she disappointed? ‘Listen! I’ve been to every Games since Atlanta in 1996. I’d love to have gone to Japan but we’ve all got to make adjustments. Everyone has to trim their sails.

Clare Balding, 50, (pictured) who lives in South-West London, is set to give daily updates from the Tokyo Olympics next month 

‘Besides, for the viewer it won’t matter if I’m in Tokyo or Manchester because I’m going to have a really cool virtual reality scene behind me. It will look as if I’m in Tokyo, so that’s all great. I don’t feel I’ve lost out too much. I’ve got much better about taking things as they come.

‘Lucky me: I still get to host the show that a lot of people will use as their catch-up.’

The Paralympics, however, are a different matter: Clare’s role will be to interview the medal-winning athletes after their victories, and at present the plan is she’ll go to Tokyo in August for that.

‘But I have to be flexible because if I can’t get to the different venues and see the people I want to interview it might make more sense to host the shows from back here and do interviews down the line with the athletes.

‘They’ll have a camera their end and will hear me in an ear piece from London, Salford, Leeds, wherever,’ she explains.

Efficient and cheerfully pragmatic, Clare, 50, has become a fixture in the nation’s sitting rooms, the ubiquitous face of sports coverage. She started out in 1998 as the BBC’s racing commentator, having grown up with horses: her dad, Ian Balding, now retired, was an eminent trainer who looked after many of the Queen’s racehorses.

Her Majesty would pop down to his yard in Hampshire to see how her thoroughbreds were doing. She even gave Clare her first pony, a stout little Shetland called Valkyrie.

Clare covered the top race meetings — Royal Ascot, the Grand National — with a confidence born of familiarity. This was her world. Then came the Olympics and her stellar performance at London 2012 earned her a Bafta.

Clare earned a Bafta for her performance at the Olympics, London 2012. Pictured: The 2021 BBC Olympic team

From today you’ll catch her presenting the Wimbledon highlights every day. Then there’s Rugby League, swimming, golf . . . so although Crufts has sadly been cancelled this July, you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid her this summer.

The list makes me feel breathless just reciting it. Did she find herself a million and one projects to do in lockdown, which she spent with her wife Alice Arnold, a retired BBC announcer and newsreader, at their home in South-West London?

‘Good God, no!’ she cries. ‘Everything was cancelled last year and it taught me an important skill: not to be locked into one idea of what you are. Sometimes my diary controls everything. I learnt not to be defined by work and that’s quite important. I can’t wait to retire!’

‘What? We can’t let you do that Clare,’ I cry. To get a glimpse of how the couple would fare in retirement, you only have to tune into the latest series of Gogglebox, which sees them happily bickering on the sofa.

‘I’m not fearful of retiring,’ she goes on. ‘I think I’d rather enjoy it. Of course I’d still do lots of stuff — pursue my projects and passions, the things I believe in.’

It emerges, by anyone else’s standards Clare was very busy during her period of enforced incarceration. For starters she wrote a couple of books.

One of them — Fall Off, Get Back On, Keep Going — is aimed at children and contains the valuable life lesson, cogently argued, that if you mess up and make an idiot of yourself, don’t give up, just dust yourself down, get back in the saddle and learn from your mistakes.

Clare’s dad said she and her brother Andrew (also a racehorse trainer) would have to fall off 100 times before they became proper riders.

‘So we started falling off deliberately — which was fine until I crashed to the ground and broke my collarbone.’

Clare, who turned 50 during this year’s lockdown, said she celebrated with Alice and her family on Zoom. Pictured: Clare with wife Alice on Gogglebox

But the most interesting thing, for me, about her practical guide for kids is its honesty. Clare was bullied and marginalised by the ‘in-crowd’ when she arrived at her girls’ boarding school (Downe House in Berkshire).

She confides in her young readers that, desperate to fit in with the three most wayward girls in her school house, she was inveigled into shoplifting.

Caught with stolen booty from the village shop, she was suspended and sent home to face the wrath of her parents.

Clare, our national treasure, an adolescent thief? When I express surprise that she mentioned this to her young readers, she replies crisply: ‘That’s the whole point of it: we all have bumps in the road — it’s what the book’s about.

‘I could have written it in a preachy, didactic style — “Look at me, aren’t I good?” — but by far the most effective way was to say, “These are the things I got wrong. Don’t worry if you feel left out, run into trouble or make a massive mistake because you can recover.”’

Indeed, so comprehensive was her turnaround, she went on to become head girl at school and from there read English at Cambridge.

During this year’s lockdown she also turned 50. The celebrations were, inevitably, low-key: ‘I had three sets of online drinks: with school friends, family and my London dog-walking friends.

‘My sister-in-law organised the most fantastic tea hamper and Alice and I ate it on Zoom with my family.’

Clare married Alice in 2015 following their civil partnership in 2006. Pictured: Clare and Alice at their reception in 2006 

Rest assured, however, she’s planning the most gigantic hooley when restrictions are lifted.

‘I love my birthday!’ she cries. ‘I always celebrate and I definitely will for my 50th. My dream is to have a weekend festival with family and all my mates. Really relaxed; not posh. It will be in a big field with yurts with different food in each one; a creperie, pizzeria . . .

‘There would have to be a competition and scoreboard, of course. We might have netball matches led by the England women’s team and the female cricketers could do nets. Pony rides for the kids, but Alice has said we can’t have a Bucking Bronco because someone will get hurt.’

She’s on a roll now, announcing the musical line-up before she’s even confirmed that the invitees will take part. ‘I’ll ask my friend (singer) Alison Moyet and this really cool Dorset folk duo Ninebarrow I met on (BBC Radio 4 programme) Ramblings to perform. I haven’t told them yet!

‘Ruthie Henshall (the singer, actor and dancer) is a friend and she’s said she’ll come. If she sings she can have a box at the Derby for ever — not that I’ll necessary be able to deliver on that promise.’ She’s laughing now.

‘Alice sings. She has a very good voice. She likes the idea of an open mic and we’ll need a disco — so we’ll have to have it in the middle of nowhere — and I’ll open it up so the kids in the local area can come. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?’

Clare has been called ‘Tiggerish’ — a reference to the over-enthusiastic character in the Winnie-the-Pooh books — and, although it’s an endearing trait, I wonder if Alice, whom she married in 2015 following their civil partnership in 2006, found her effervescent presence exhausting during lockdown.

Clare is an impassioned advocate and patron of the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA). Pictured: Clare with Paralympic horse Lottie

She’s probably glad I’m out of the house a bit more now,’ she smiles. The hardest time for them was forfeiting their golf when that closed down, she admits. ‘But we went on long walks. I went a bit faster and for longer than Alice.

‘She took up running — her brother did a fitness programme for her — and hurt a tendon. She couldn’t even walk for a while. But she’s fine now.’

Last summer their adored Tibetan terrier Archie died: ‘He was very ill and we had to have him put down.’ Did she cry? ‘Oh God yes, I cried,’ she says. ‘And Alice gave me a little locket with his hair in it.

‘He was the only dog we’d had as a couple — he was part of our lives for 15 and a half years — and I still walk into the house thinking he’s going to be there.’

They would love a new dog but intend to wait and see if they can help families who’ve taken on a pet and found the responsibility unmanageable; not that Clare is too censorious about those who do so.

‘Dogs need time and commitment. Some people find they change their lives for the better, others find it a struggle. There will be cases that don’t work out and we could help out, be back-up.

‘I know that Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has very few dogs available for adoption and that’s a terrifically positive aspect of animal welfare and love. It can be a transformative relationship and an important one for kids.’ Children, animals, riding: they all feature in her conversation and she is an impassioned advocate and patron of the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

Clare (pictured) admits that she enjoyed not having to be ‘on show’ during lockdown and is unsure if she could go back to wearing heels

We meet at the stables in Uxbridge, Middlesex where five times gold-winning Paralympic equestrian Natasha Baker, 31, was raised, to see her and her handsome horse Lottie, bought with the help of sponsorship from Childs Farm skincare range, which also sponsors Paralympians.

‘Hopefully I’ll be there in Japan interviewing Natasha after she wins another gold medal. No pressure Natasha, obviously,’ she jokes. Natasha contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation in her spine, at 14 months and was left with weakness and no feeling in her legs, a disability she overcomes by issuing verbal commands to her horse; a talent that has earned her the nickname Horse Whisperer.

And Clare, who is thrilled with Natasha’s success, is also arguably the Paralympics’ most influential cheerleader.

‘They have huge power to change attitudes,’ she says. ‘In 1980, Russia refused to host the Paralympics because they said they had no disabled people in the country.

‘Then China, when it hosted the Games in Beijing, changed its attitude completely. It realised the Paralympics is about ability; what people can do. It’s significantly harder to get into the Paralympic teams now. It’s elite sport and the pool of talent is bigger. More people are competing for places.’

She’s also a stalwart supporter of women in sport. When I ask her which Olympians she’s inspired by, she reels off a list: ‘Laura Kenny has the opportunity to be not just the most successful British female cyclist ever, but to leapfrog her husband (cyclist) Jason.’

Clare, who is a loyal friend and devoted aunt, said she missed hugs from her niece and nephews the most in lockdown. Pictured: Clare and Zara Philips 

She also singles out Charlotte Dujardin, the most garlanded dressage rider in the history of the sport and sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, a history graduate and our fastest ever female runner.

‘Dina’s a real headline star. She has a lovely personality and is a great example of how you can combine sport with study.’

Clare, who is dressed in snazzy embroidered trainers teamed with smart trousers and an orange silk top, has enjoyed not having to be ‘on show’ during lockdown.

Unsurprisingly, she does not miss being made up for the cameras. ‘And I’m not sure I could ever wear heels again. Everyone’s wearing trainers aren’t they?

‘It’s perfectly acceptable now. Trainers and a dress. I think people will go back to work in them.’

She goes off on a riff, telling me about the litter of kittens born in her house during lockdown. They kept a smoky grey called Eric, ‘who loves to play with my make-up lady Anni’s hair curlers. He hides in her bag when she comes to our house’.

One of the kittens went to her old school friend Antonia, nicknamed ‘Toe’. ‘She’s called him Freddie and she’s moving house so he can have more space,’ she says. Toe, Clare confirms, was one of the classmates who befriended her when she felt left out and lonely at boarding school after that brief foray into criminality.

Clare is a loyal friend; a devoted aunt (to her niece Flora and two nephews Jonno and Toby) and very fond of hugs, it turns out.

‘My niece and nephews give great hugs although Jonno is 6 ft 6 in tall now and quite difficult to hug. That’s what I missed most in lockdown,’ she says, ‘big hugs from the kids.’

Clare Balding supports Childs Farm, which will be launching a special-edition range in August to support and celebrate para-sports.

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