On Monday, when I appear in BBC Four’s Winter Walks series, my 30-minute programme about a hike through the glorious Yorkshire Dales – a county I was born in, and returned to after a 30-year career in broadcasting – could be the last time I’m seen on screen.
My trek follows the fast-flowing River Wharfe, accompanied only by the music of the wind, the bleating of sheep and occasional conversations with people I meet along the way. The 360-degree camera and mic I hold records my thoughts, while a drone high above captures perfectly the lonely beauty of the landscape.
After another Covid Christmas, it is perfect New Year viewing – and the perfect way for me to say goodbye to appearing on television.
I have had an eventful career that has taken me on assignments round the world, leading me to anchor ITN’s News at Ten, launch BBC Breakfast and meet the rich and famous, some of whom became confidantes, and some who didn’t – like Donald Trump, who took offence at my clear-eyed view of what he stood for, long before others woke up to him.
It is not that I have any desire to bid farewell to a career that began as a 24-year-old ingenue in Aberdeen. I have come to realise that no matter how much energy or worldly knowledge I have gained in my 70 years, television and society has very little time for women of my generation.
A decade ago, when the former Countryside presenter Miriam O’Reilly successfully sued the BBC for ageism, crocodile tears were shed by the corporation to defend itself against charges of discrimination. By that time, I had already bought a 16th-century farmhouse with 180 acres of land in the Hambleton Hills, in the old North Riding of Yorkshire. I still had my flat in Kensington, but increasingly the challenge of restoring the land won me over.
I found myself devoting more and more time to restoring the medieval interior of my farmhouse, stripping back old plaster to reveal ancient timbers and stonework. As the seasons passed, I discovered the numbers of red-list birds, such as curlews and lapwing, were increasing. So, too, the endangered tree sparrows who, once again, bounce up and down on the hedges, twittering and fighting. The miracle of how nature renewed itself re-energised my efforts.
Over the last 20 years, with the help of the Countryside Stewardship scheme and Woodland Trust, I have planted – much of it with my own hands – more than a thousand oak and other native species, and excavated a two-acre spring-fed lake now colonised by all manner of wildlife. I have rebuilt ancient stone boundary walls, created miles of hedges, sown wildflower meadows, set aside six-metre field margins for voles and barn owls, and planted wild bird seed for overwintering endangered species. This year, I plan to turn 20 acres into a wetland for wading birds.
Earlier in my life, I was focused on my career. These days, I hardly watch television, disenchanted at the patronising fare served up for women like me.
I have no desire to sound disgruntled. Nor do I have a need to see my mug on television any more. It is a delight to have more younger women on screen today – I was one of them, after all – and I wish them well. But things haven’t changed much. Higher up the food chain, the BBC is still run by the suits. Men have helped me enormously in my career, more so than women, but it seems to me men at a senior executive level put greater trust in their own sex.
Spike Milligan once said to me on BBC Breakfast, off camera, that I reminded him of a fawn on the edge of the forest ready to take flight. In a way, he was right. I was ready to take flight because I didn’t want to conform to the obedient behaviour that was expected of young women like me in those days. Like playing the ‘second wife’ to the more important man, like Frank Bough on BBC Breakfast, which I quit in 1986, three years after its launch and at the height of its success, determined to take on other challenges.
These took me to CBS in the United States, then on to the launch of satellite television in the UK and documentaries made by my own production company. Always determined not to play the game meant knowing the consequences – that I would be not allowed back into the game.
I am not alone in this. In Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming, she talks about the need to “swerve”, by which she means being brave enough to defy convention and take a risk. It is something I recommend we all try in our lives.
My most idiosyncratic swerve came when I was 50 and sank all my savings into my Yorkshire farm. All my friends thought I was mad – leaving a life of elegant parties, first nights and my face on the cover of magazines to a life of preserving the habitat of badgers, woodpeckers, bats and bees. It seems beyond belief now, but I bought the place in 2003 without viewing it, instead sending my younger sister, Fiona, to have a look to tell me what she thought. I didn’t even bother to get a survey.
I have been lucky. I love the old house and the land it sits on. Despite the hours of toil, the hopes and sometimes the disappointments, it has enriched my life immeasurably. I have made many new friends here and renewed old ones. Like many of those who sold up during the pandemic to live in the countryside, life lived close to mother nature can be unforgiving, red in its tooth and claw. I have seen animals that I nurtured fade and die. The other day, I wept at having to pick up the lifeless body of a beautiful swan that had fallen victim to avian flu as its heartbroken mate stood guard.