The former Countryfile presenter talks to Wanderlust about hiking, life as a working mum, and her love of outdoor showers
Known for her wildlife and walking series and her work as a presenter on BBC One favourite Countryfile, Julia Bradbury is familiar face among UK hikers and globetrotters alike. She talks to Lyn Hughes about building a career in travel, her favourite walks and moments to date, and what lies along the trail ahead.
Were you into travel when you were growing up?
I went to school in Sheffield and grew up in Rutland so I spent a lot of time in the country. We weren't really a camping sort of family but my Dad was keen that I should get to know about the outdoors from an early age. Rutland is a very pretty, sedate county. My earliest memories are of cycling around the reservoir and scrumping outdoors. The contrast to that is Sheffield. The peak district and the moors are rugged and hardy. That's where I used to go walking with my dad. When I was about six years old he decided it was time to get me out there, facing the peaks, to toughen me up a bit.
Back then, did you have any idea what you wanted to do when you were older?
When I was at school I admired Sir David Attenborough and a broadcaster called Joan Bakewell. She does a lot of work on BBC Radio 4 now but she used to be a travel reporter and she also did current affairs programmes, including an amazing programme called Heart of the Matter. I remember seeing a picture of Joan Bakewell in a bikini doing some travel show and I said: “I want to be Joan Bakewell, that's what I want to do.” If I could have been Joan Bakewell and David Attenborough all the better, but that's not such a good image is it!? Joan is now in her 70s but quite recently wrote her first novel. I think that's fantastic, it means you can just keep going and going. I love that prospect.
So when you left school, did you have a plan? How did you get into television?
I didn't really have a plan. All I knew about school was that I wanted to leave as quickly as possible because I wasn't very academic. Both my sister and I were both very keen to just get out there and get working. I left school at 16 and I got my first job in an advertising agency. Then things moved in a different direction as they do. I decided I wanted to be Joan Bakewell and that's when I started on the course to television.
You weren't involved with travel TV straight away, were you?
No, it was more about broadcasting at that stage. I was one of a number of broadcasters, including ladies like Claudia Winkleman, who started working for Janet Street-Porter. Janet had been asked to launch a cable station called L!VE TV with new faces, new producers and new talent. They had an interview process for people to become presenters and I went through that and ended up with a job. Working for Janet is quite an experience. It was a baptism of fire!
And then you became a presenter on Wish you Were Here...?
Yes, the ITV travel show. I was the Hollywood correspondent for what is now Daybreak, and then I came back to the UK and began travel reporting for Wish you Were Here...? That was a dream come true. Travel reporting really is the most extraordinary way to see the world. You do it at breakneck speed and you can see two or three countries easily in a week. It takes its toll on the body though, it's not something you can do forever.
It must have been quite a contrast when you went on to do Wainwright Walks where the focus is on the UK and the Lake District.
The Wainwright series came about because, at the time, I was presenting Watchdog on BBC One. I wanted to get outdoors, not just to be seen in the studio interviewing nasty people from the corporate world who had been misbehaving. It was the ultimate contrast to that. It was a little series on BBC Four and there were no expectations about it. Initially, there were meant to be four walks sandwiching a documentary about Alfred Wainwright himself. For people who don't know, Alfred Wainwright is the Lake District's most famous fell walker, he walked around with a pipe, in sturdy tweeds. It was a wonderful experience to follow his guides, to look at things in a different way and to explore the Lake District for the first time. The show was warmly received. I don't think I've ever had more letters. It just touched people and that's how we ended up doing lots more, and how I ended up here with 50 walks under my belt.
You're not the most obvious person to front the series.
No. Somebody wrote that I was the antithesis of Alfred Wainwright. They weren't happy at all that this woman was doing the show!
You really are associated with walking now a days. When I mentioned to a few people that I was interviewing you they all said; “Is she really into walking?”
Yes, I am really into walking. Everyone always asks: “Do you use a helicopter to get to the top or to get around on these walks?” We walk the walks. Of course, we're filming a television programme so you'll film a 12 hour section and then stay overnight. Then you might pick up from somewhere else. We're not going out to do the full hike filming it every step of the way but we do walk them. Iceland has some of my favourite walks. We had to walk 18km one day when we were filming there. The toughest job is that of the runner who has to carry the tripod.
No wonder you've got skinny legs. When I Googled Julia Bradbury one of the most popular searches is 'Julia Bradbury legs'.
I think that came about not so much from the walking. There was some admirer from Watchdog who took clips of me interviewing people while wearing skirts and clipped them all together and put them on YouTube. It's just me in various guises interviewing people with my legs out. Apparently there's 'Julia Bradbury feet' out there somewhere.
You've also presented a series focussing on UK canal walks. Do you have a favourite tow-path trail?
Either Birmingham-Worcester or the Bath and Avon Canal. I never thought I would say that Birmingham is my favourite place to start a walk, but within two miles you're in the glorious Worcester countryside. Birmingham is also very interesting from an industrial heritage point of view because it was right at the heart of the industrial revolution. The Bath and Avon Canal is stunning and I love the community spirit along that canal. A special kind of people live on canals and we were treated very nicely by everyone we met.
In 2011 you presented Julia Bradbury's German Wanderlust. Good name for a series! Do you have a favourite walk from that?
There was a walk along the Baltic coast which I particularly enjoyed. You had coastline and then you ended up in pine forest as well. You had a real variety of locations and you also came across a place called Prora. Prora was, and is, known as Hitler's holiday camp. He built this camp on a beach and it was for his workers and his soldiers. 20,000 people could holiday in one go. It stretches for around five kilometres. It's now a protected landmark of course. It's just incredible to see the scale of his ambition and his crazy mind. I think the slogan was 'you must holiday': 'You must holiday and you must kill people, but you'll do it for me and you'll enjoy it'. Bavaria is stunning as well. There are castles everywhere.
These days one of the most popular programmes on television is Countryfile.
Countryfile is an amazing programme to work on. You travel up and down the country every week seeing amazing things and interviewing people who are doing incredible things for wildlife trusts, farming, agriculture and the tourist industry. I've been out with lobster fishermen and I've spent weeks on a farm in Yorkshire. It's such a diverse spread of stories and that's what stimulates and excites me.
The team all seem to get on really well together.
It's a genuine family and I can claim to have slept with [my co-presenter] Matt Baker! But only on a train travelling across Russia on a project that we did together for Children in Need. He's a very quite sleeper. He doesn't snore.
Have you been abroad recently?
I recently went to Saint Lucia for the Mail on Sunday. I think a lot of people worry that if you're going Caribbean and you're not into watersports, you're stuck on these tiny beautiful islands but with not a lot else to do. I would say the solution is a bigger island so there is stuff you can do. In St Lucia, you can hike to the top of the Pitons [the Island's two volcanic plugs]. You can also indulge yourself in the sulphur springs at the bottom and cover yourself in the mud.
There's an amazing hotel, situated in a word heritage site, called the Ladera. It's the poshest camping you will ever do in your life. Your room has no fourth wall. It's open to the elements so the wind streams through. You have a shower where you can feel the wind on you as well. You're sleeping amongst the volcanoes but not roughing it at all. I'm obsessed with outdoor showers, I have one in my garden in west London.
It must be hard balancing filming with spending time with your family.
It's very hard. All working mums out there know that. When I was out in Minnesota filming black bears for Planet Earth Live, I had just given birth to my little boy. He was six months old and it was nightmare career woman's choice. It's a real dilemma. If the job of a lifetime comes up what do you do with the kids? I was lucky in this instance. He was small and portable so he came with me to Minnesota. My little bear came with me while I was watching the other little bears which is something I'll never forget. You have to juggle and I think it's important to be a role model in terms of what you want your children to be. It's good for him to see me working.
If you could go anywhere right now where would it be?
I'd go to South Africa. I love it and I've got great friends there.
Is there anywhere you're still dying to visit?
I haven't been Brazil, I haven't done South America and I haven't done Kilimanjaro yet. There are still so many places to explore. Travel broadens the mind it teaches you so much. It's a wonderful privilege. You learn about different cultures and you have to learn to tolerate different cultures as well. We live in a very liberal country and when you travel to the middle east and parts of India you realise that women in India have got a long long way to go. At the moment I think in the Indian community dolphins are appreciated more highly than women. I'm all for saving the dolphins but can we put women up there as well please.
What are we going to see you in next?
That's to be confirmed. There's an exciting project on the horizon. You'll read about it soon. It's another celebration of all that is great in this country.
Are you planning to make more walking series?
The ambition is to make more walks, definitely. We've got a fantastic country and there's a lot still to learn and to celebrate about it. If I can carry on making programmes that do that then I'll consider myself a lucky lady.
Julia Bradbury has since announced that she is leaving Countryfile to pursue other projects. More information and updates about forthcoming series can be found on her website.