Kate Humble: Science and nature
PUBLISHED: 15:18 10 May 2012 | UPDATED: 21:22 20 February 2013
When TV presenter Kate Humble learned that a council-owned farm was about to be broken up, she was determined to save it.
Kate Humble: Science and nature
When TV presenter Kate Humble learned that a council-owned farm was about to be broken up, she was determined to save it. Katie Jarvis enrolled on one of the rural-skills courses that Kate and husband Ludo Graham are now running at Meend Farm in the Wye valley.
Photography by Antony Thompson
Anecdotes tell you everything. So if you want to know what Kate Humble is really like, then listen to this. Were standing in a barn, surrounded by the white noise of sheep baa-ing, and Kate is introducing me to various people. This is Katie Jarvis, a journalist Ive worked with, she says.
By worked with, she means that I happened to be part of a crowd who had turned up to see her at Slimbridge once; and that, even though she was really busy, she still managed to spare me a cheekily-demanded, off-the-cuff, five-minute interview. In other words, thats way up in my top five of Most Generous Professional Things People Have Ever Said To Me.
Not really worked with, I demur, but very, very quietly, as Im not actually that keen to contradict the impression.
So lets leave it that I have indeed, of course, worked with this engaging TV presenter who loves science and nature and who puts her money where her microphone is. For if you want an even more in-depth picture of Kate Humble, then go to the 117-acre Meend Farm she and her husband, Ludo Graham, have acquired, just over the Forest of Dean border, high on the stony hills of Monmouthshire. And enrol just as I have on one of the courses theyre now running there. Im about to learn Orchard Planning and Planting despite the fact that my garden can barely accommodate a bag of apples, never mind the tree. Not that that matters a whit to Kate.
Id love it if a lot of the people who came and did courses here maybe the How to keep a pig course lived in a flat in the town, she says. The point is that theyll have had a day coming up-close-and-personal with a pig. If youve not met a pig before, its so exciting. Actually she says, come and meet Myfanwy, who is the most perfect pig in my eyes. And she drags me willingly off to meet a Berkshire pig the size of a three-seater settee, who, despite some serious sunbathing, graciously finds the time to accept a scratch.
And thats typical of the sort of experience youll get at Meend Farm: its organised but spontaneous; its friendly but serious, all at the same time. Indeed, despite the obvious affection between Kate and Myf, the relationship is a highly professional one on both sides: Shes not a pet; shes a farm animal. Shell be bred; her piglets will be used for meat and you will eat the product. Kate even begged a local abattoir to let her in to see the killing process, Because if I dont like it, then Id better stop eating meat and I certainly shouldnt keep animals that are going to be meat.
I was literally sleepless the night before, worried about my reaction and thinking it was all going to be men stripped to the waist, with blood all over them, and screaming animals. It was nothing like that. It was quiet, it was respectful; there was a vet on site, making sure everything was done properly. The whole process is so fast and totally stress-free. I thought: OK, I can keep sheep.
And so to the orchard course Oh, um, via the lambing shed where, as a touching aside, we nine novice tree-planters are taken to see three tiny, floppy bundles of wool, just a couple of hours old. Its like Lambing Live, live: Now a ewe only has two teats, so what happens when she gives birth to more than two lambs? Kate asks Tim Stephens, her tenant farmer, whos looking after them.
You have to bottle-feed or adopt, he explains. If another ewe has a single lamb, shell happily adopt one of these if its done within two or three days of the birth.
The temptation is to leap up and down with my hand in the air, shrieking, Can I bottle-feed? Choose me! But, as I rightly suspect, this is a charmingly fleeting distraction. For the only bottles involved in my course are filled with cider from the rosy apples well have grown (in several years time, that is). In the meantime, horticultural expert Aisling Judge is going to teach us how to choose the ideal spot and the perfect specimens for creating orchards full of apples, plums, cherries and pears. And so begins one of the most fun days Ive had, in which we get to know the other course participants (such as Chris, a medical researcher; Helen, who lives in London but grew up in Berkshire in the days when you could ride a pony without juggernauts thundering by; and Hari and Colin, who run the nearby Tudor Farmhouse Hotel); test soil for acidity; eat some fantastic food; drink a lot of cider from Broome Farm at Peterstow, a few miles down the road; and dig some very big holes. Great idea, getting us to pay to come and plant your orchard! joshes one of our crew, but with a wide grin; and Ludo grins back, good-naturedly.
This is only the second-ever course run by Kate and Ludo, who bought the farm last year to save it being sold off piecemeal by the local council an act both reckless and generous. (In fact, every time the subject comes up, their expressions spontaneously vacillate between naked terror and eye-shining excitement.)
What on earth were they thinking of?
Kate clearly doesnt quite believe it herself. Wed actually only been looking for a bit of extra land to add to the four-and-a-half acres weve got at home, but we were told about a couple who were retiring from a local council farm and we arranged to meet them. We sat in their kitchen, having a couple of tea, and learned that, as soon as they went, the farm would be broken up and sold.
I looked at these two people who had been on this land for 33 years; they brought up their daughter here; theyve cherished it for so long. And it just seemed so wrong.
Thus was born (some might say) an utterly madcap plan. Kind, empathetic and wholesome but madcap nonetheless. Luckily, Ludo a BAFTA award-winning TV producer shared the insanity. To cut a long story short, this inspiring couple convinced the council to sell the land to them (with the council keeping a minority share, just to ensure they couldnt sell on for a quick profit.) (As if.) They then let the farm to Tim and Sarah Stephens, who rolled up with their Welsh ewes, Hereford cattle, horses, dogs and a cat. Sorted Oh, except Ive missed out the clever bit.
For Kate and Ludo wanted real involvement, so theyve put together a host of rural-skills courses for the general public that theyre running from one of the barns on site. Things like hedge-laying, foraging, animal husbandry, as well as todays orchard course. So committed are they that Ludo has given up his TV work (I hit 50 last year and thought: I dont want to be doing television for the rest of my life) and Kate will be around as much as filming permits. Today, for example, she does everything from helping to serve the delicious lunch pork stuffed with apples, celery and chorizo with balsamic and crab-apple chutney and baked pear pots to washing up afterwards.
And, yes, she is fantastically busy. Shes stepped down from Springwatch because, If I were to carry on with it and the other things Im doing, even my mum would be bored of me on telly! Her recent BBC 2 series, Orbit, saw her travelling the world, following the orbit of the sun, and shes just about to embark on another as-yet-top-secret live series; all she can intriguingly say is that its something thats never been done before.
Ive been very lucky that Ive been able to make a living from television but its not going to last for ever, she says, pragmatically. Next year, people might not be interested in the countryside, farming or science from a television point of view; they might want more sequins and Strictly Come Dancing. Well, Im not that kind of girl.
In the world of television, you have very little control or say over your destiny. But the thing about the farm is that this is Ludo and me. If it fails, its our fault; we cant blame anyone else.
With the love and care theyve put into it, it shouldnt fail. I leave my course with mounds of user-friendly information (including a recipe from Kathers Kitchen, who produced the fabulous food), a newly-born enthusiasm for fruit trees, and a healthy outdoor glow.
Despite the fact that, tomorrow, Kate Humble will probably be catching a flight to goodness-knows-where, talking to millions through a TV camera, she says she doesnt do glamorous. Undoubtedly true.
If you want to understand the real Kate, turn off your TV, put on your wellies, come down to her farm, meet Myfanwy, and dig a few holes.