She’s the poster girl for good, clean country living, but don’t be fooled by the wholesome image. Kate Humble tells Francesca Babb what makes her happy – and what makes her really lose it.
‘My husband thinks it’s hilarious that I’m described as wholesome,’ TV presenter Kate Humble tells me with glee, down the phone from her farm in Wales’s Wye Valley. ‘He’ll say, “Do they know that you use the C bomb, all the time?” I’m one of those people who will get absolutely furious, often at myself. I break things – including my own hand once smashing a wall – but then it’s done. I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t lose their s**t every now and again.’
I’ll be honest, I was not expecting fighting talk from Kate, so affable and, well, yes, wholesome on Channel 5’s A Country Life for Half the Price or BBC’s Animal Park or HGTV’s The Weekend Workshop. But, an hour in her company – even if it is on the phone rather than our scheduled Zoom date because, it turns out, she ‘loathes’ a face call – and it sort of makes sense. Sweary, unabashed, passionate, she’s all or nothing about everything she does. Quitting London and its noise for a farm in the remote Welsh countryside, quitting her regular presenting gig on Springwatch in 2011 after six years because she’d got ‘too comfortable’ – she’s either in or she’s out.
It was a longing to move away from the drama of everyday modern life that partly led Kate to her new book, A Year of Living Simply. The title was a phrase that popped into her head while out on one of her regular 10k runs with her three dogs, Teg, Badger and Bella. After a conversation with her publisher, the idea evolved into a guide to living your life without the complexities we perhaps add purely out of habit or convenience. It’s a look at taking life back to a more old-school approach, and finding the joys in the smallest of things: growing vegetables from seed, picking dahlias from your own garden (‘an appreciation for dahlias is a fantastically middle-aged thing that hits you, a bit like menopause’), repairing things rather than throwing them out and jumping straight on to Amazon for a new version, forging community and, my personal favourite, an ode to the pure ecstasy of a perfectly proportioned piece of buttery toast and Marmite.
‘It wasn’t hugely dramatic,’ she says of the epiphany that led to this, her fifth book. ‘It wasn’t about thinking I need to give up everything, put on a hair shirt and only eat gruel, but rather figuring out the real elements that make me happy. And I know that there is nothing unique about me – lots of people, even more so now, will get overwhelmed by life feeling so crowded and complicated, and there must be another way. This book was my response to that. The book is not a polemic, it’s about reprioritising and embracing the little things that do make a difference.’
A Year of Living Simply is timely, given that the pandemic has forced most of us, in some way, to simplify our lives, whether we planned to or not. Kate wrote it before any of us were aware of the upcoming crisis, but it captures the current moment perfectly. There is a recipe for banana bread, included, she swears, before we became a nation obsessed; advice on making the most of your outdoor space; thoughts on stepping away from our phones and social media obsessions (‘I couldn’t be less interested in what people are having for breakfast or what they’re wearing’). It’s not necessarily a ‘how to’ book, more of a ‘why not try?’ approach.
‘People got creative during lockdown in a way that, in real life, they don’t have time for,’ she says. ‘Those small joys that people discovered in a time when they might have been scared, sad, were finding things difficult or were finding the idea of the future really daunting. They found comfort – real comfort – in going out and picking a flower or planting radishes or talking to somebody on the phone as opposed to just texting. I really hope we take that away, these things that you can’t buy on the internet and cost almost nothing. Sometimes we remember they’re the things that properly sustain us in really difficult times.’
While documenting this shift to a simpler way of life is a new project for Kate, she’s been moving towards it ever since she left her London life and headed for remote Wales. Her relationship with London sounds as though it had always been a little lukewarm: she grew up in the Berkshire countryside, surrounded by horses and nature, and only moved to the city because she felt it would give her a better chance of succeeding as a television producer.
‘London was really fun for a bit, but then I realised I wasn’t in my right habitat,’ she says. ‘I was a fish out of water; a hippo at Heathrow. I’ve never liked parties. I don’t want to wear high heels and a sparkly frock. I was there for 20 years and for probably the last ten, I had this increasing consciousness of discomfort. The feeling that this isn’t really making me happy increased in strength and became more insistent. For a long time, my husband Ludo [a TV producer] and I felt like the careers we found ourselves in meant we had to be in London. Then I got to a point where I thought, I can’t be here any longer, I just can’t. I’m done. I do not want to start my day running down the pavement, then standing on the tube under somebody’s armpit. I don’t want to live like that.’
It took Kate a little while to convince Ludo that the move was the right one. ‘It’s not that he didn’t want to move to the country,’ she says. ‘It’s more that he’s the practical, pragmatic one in our relationship, whereas I’m more, “f*** it, let’s do it”. We make a good team. We would probably be in a debtors’ prison right now if life were entirely up to me and my spur of the moment, slightly ludicrous decisions.’
It turns out that there was nothing ludicrous about the decision to move to Wales. The countryside gave her the peace she craved. She threw herself into it, gathering animals and vegetable patches as she went, making friends of all ages from the local area on her daily dog walks. It also allowed Kate to successfully continue in television, her new country life giving her all the opportunities London had offered and more.
She describes it as ‘fate’ that she ended up in front of the camera in the first place, a job she never particularly wanted, instead favouring the anonymity of work behind the scenes. It was her boss on The Holiday Programme who changed her career path at the end of the 90s, asking her to do a screen test for a presenting role on her second day on the job as a researcher for the show. She said no initially, horrified at the thought of subjecting herself to the scrutiny of celebrity. But eventually she relented and has been presenting a variety of different shows ever since, although you still get the impression that the job needs her more than she needs it.
‘I’m basically bloody nosy,’ she laughs. ‘I loved working as a TV researcher because I had licence to call anyone I liked, people at the top of their field in whatever it was, and ask them anything I wanted. That is a really cool job and I was good at it. And so, effectively, I don’t need to be a journalist or on the telly, as long as I have some sort of outlet for my being nosy. That’s the joy of doing these books – I get to meet people and hear fantastic stories. I don’t ever want to be in a crowd, but people on a small scale, one to one, I find fascinating. I love finding out what makes people tick. I think everyone is extraordinary.’
It seems people are as fascinated by Kate as she is by them. I bring up her status as a bit of a sex symbol, to which she absolutely screams with laughter. ‘Are you thinking of a different Kate?’ she guffaws. ‘That’s hilarious. I smell of pig s***! How does that work with being a sex symbol? I’m now of the age where quite handsome slightly younger men will come up and say my dad really fancies you, so maybe I’m a sex symbol for people who are 80 or above and who can’t really see any more. A demographic? Well, you could call it that – the deranged and desperate, possibly. I think Ludo would be in hysterics at the thought of me being a sex symbol – as am I!’
Kate first met her husband Ludo when she was 16, at a family party hosted by her beloved step-grandfather, ‘Wicked Willie’, who was friends with his parents. ‘There were a lot of old people in the room at this party, then one person with spiky hair who was smoking and looking unbelievably handsome and cool. He ignored me for the whole party and years later, when I had a go at him for it, he said, “I was 24 and you were 16 and I wasn’t entirely sure whether we were related or not, so it could have been very inappropriate in every way.” We met again when I was 18 and he did deign to speak to me, but then I went to Africa for two years. I came back, aged 20, with this ridiculous idea that I wanted to work in telly. My mum said, “Why don’t you phone that nice Ludo guy? He works in telly and he’ll be able to help.” He wasn’t able to help but he was very good at kissing.’
The couple live on their farm with three dogs, 20 hens, one cockerel, eight ducks, four pigs, a flock of sheep and ‘by the sounds of it, lots of squirrels in the roof’. They are child-free by choice and Kate is astounded by anyone’s shock at that fact. ‘It’s 2020! People have been on the pill since the 60s,’ she says, with a small flash of wall-punching fury. ‘Apparently we can have a “choice” and yet it is still seen as something bordering on freakish if your choice is not to have children. If people think that choice is weird, well I’m sorry, I think that’s their problem and not mine. I’ve had people coming up to me, saying, “You’re so lucky not having kids” – but you didn’t have to have them! No s***, it’s hard having a kid – it’s not like it hasn’t been written about and spoken about for generations. It’s hard having a dog – that’s responsibility enough!’
There she is: Kate Humble, all or nothing, with a refreshing lack of time for grey areas in her world. There’s certainly something to be said for her style of simple life, and while not all of it might be achievable for every one of us, there are so many small joys she lives by that really are within reach. After such a turbulent year, I ask what her hopes are for us as a nation. ‘More than anything, I hope that we use our experiences of 2020 to understand what genuinely makes us happy,’ she says. ‘And that we’re kind to each other. I hope that this pandemic has reminded us that, actually, one of the most powerful, potent and enriching things in life is kindness.’
Kate’s joy of little things and big mugs
Most used emoji I never use emojis. Words are better.
Last thing you put on your credit card I don’t have a credit card, but the last thing that went on my debit card was animal feed.
Your karaoke tune ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ by Nina Simone.
Your favourite tipple Gin and tonic.
Your go-to takeaway order There are no takeaways near me, but if there were I’d always go for veggie curry – hot, no rice, dhal and chapatis.
The last time you cried I cry a lot. I like it. It’s cathartic. I cried yesterday.
The last person you texted My friend Emma. She is staying at my cabin in France and had seen a kingfisher for the first time in her life!
How do you take your tea? Very strong with a little bit of milk. And in a mug – a big one.
Last great book you read I’m in the middle of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. It is, as I expect from her, captivating, haunting and beautiful.
What superpower do you wish you had? I’d like to be able to teleport myself from one place to another like Harry Potter.
Finish the sentence: Love is… a big mug of tea being brought to you without you having to ask.
Your house is on fire – what do you grab? My dogs.
Who’d play you in a film of your life? Animal from The Muppets.
What are you having for dinner tonight? Thai curry made with vegetables from the garden.
Earliest memory? Sitting on the back of a huge horse and feeling like a queen.
Kate’s book, A Year of Living Simply: The Joys of a Life Less Complicated, will be published by Octopus on 17 September, price £20. Order a copy for £14 until 6 September at whsmith.co.uk by entering the code YOULIVING at the checkout. Book number: 9781783253425. For terms and conditions go to whsmith.co.uk/terms. Don’t miss our exclusive extract from A Year of Living Simply in next week’s YOU.