Kate Humble’s 100-watt smile dims momentarily. “There were times when I wanted to get as far away from this place as possible,” she says. “It all just seemed so hopeless.”
We’re standing ankle deep in Monmouthshire mud. Somewhere amid the sprawling detritus of repair and renovation is a farm. The farmhouse windows are boarded up.
Outside it is an overflowing skip. In truth it’s all a bit bleak. But from a nearby lambing shed comes the sound of bleating, and the smile returns. It’s her mud and it’s her farm.
Humble, 43, and her film-maker husband Ludo Graham had to remortgage their home and use all their savings to buy the council-owned farm to prevent it falling into the hands of developers. That wasn’t the plan. They were simply looking for a few extra acres to supplement the bit of land they have with their own home six miles away. But they hadn’t banked on an emotion-charged meeting with the retiring tenant farmers, Ros and Arthur Edmonds.
“We met them on a very cold February day in 2010. We were sitting with two people who were facing 33 years of their life’s work disappearing in the stroke of an auctioneer’s hammer. The council wanted to dismantle the agricultural barns, put planning permission on the old stone barns and parcel up the land and sell it off in bits. And it just seemed wrong.”
Bafta-winning Ludo – we fall at his knees for giving inspirational choirmaster Gareth Malone his TV break – quit his lucrative job to immerse himself in business plans and contracts. “It’s not about making a living,” says Kate. “But if you have a set of beliefs and you find ￼￼yourself in a position to stop something happening you think is wrong, you get taken over by it. You do become evangelical about it.”
But evangelism, as they both found out, doesn’t cut through red tape. They were ensnared and frequently thwarted by it for 18 long months.
“We were frustrated by the whole thing. We wanted to keep it as a working farm, to keep it tenanted so that we could give a farmer an opportunity he otherwise might not have. The longer it went on the longer we were going with not much income. Should we stop, should we give up, should Ludo go back to making programmes again, when does it get to the point when it’s so ridiculous that we actually give up?”
It didn’t help that for much of last year she was away filming a series about Earth’s journey around the Sun, which starts this week. “I got to the stage when, because things were going so slowly, I would wake up in the middle of the night wherever we were on location and compose the most cutting, furious emails, but Ludo banned me from sending any of them directly!”
Two years down the line the farm is now theirs. All 100 acres of it. New tenant farmer Tim Stephens and his wife Sarah are living in a caravan on site while the farmhouse is refurbished, but he’s already introduced his own cattle, sheep and pigs. “We have given them an opportunity but they have taken on a big risk because if we fail, we may not be able to keep on the farm. Although we’re trying to put assurances in place it’s still a risk for them and we do lie awake at night wondering about their future. It does feel like a huge responsibility.”
Kate and Ludo manage – and fund – the daunting renovation project and at the same time look for ways of putting the farm on a secure business footing. Courses on hedge-laying and tree-planting are already organised. They have 2,000 trees of their own to plant and an orchard to plan. She pulls out a shopping list of hardware requirements: 4,000m fencing wire, 1,200 wooden posts (query machine-rounded or peeled), a mobile hay feeder. The list, and the expense, goes on.
Later, over a pub lunch (apple juice and tuna jacket potato out of respect for the Offa’s Dyke 20km endurance run she’s training for), she ponders the changes in her life. Twenty-odd years ago she was squatting in a London mansion previously owned by the Bay City Rollers. Today she’s landowner and landlord.
The irony isn’t lost on her. “I have had this life change where I have moved from London to here. I don’t feel like I have had an epiphany because I was a country girl and in many ways London was my blip. It was exciting at the time but I don’t miss it for a single moment.”
It’s been a long road travelled for the naturalist and occasional naturist (“not in public, small, quiet, private moments where I take all my clothes off and have a big dance and go, ‘God, the world’s great!’). Disenchantment with school saw her spurn studying at university and pursue the adventure she craved. Stopping-off points included modelling in South Africa and a crocodile farm in Zambia. Her first TV appearance came on Holiday in 1997. She quickly secured roles on other BBC mainstays: Rough Science, Tomorrow’s World, Top Gear and latterly Springwatch and Autumnwatch.
She’ll be missing from Springwatch again this year, but doesn’t rule out returning in the future. “TV is a fantastic job but I have never wanted it to be my life. It’s also a job that you have very little control over. It can be all or nothing. At this point I don’t know how my year is going to pan out. That’s exciting, frustrating and nerve-racking.
“The types of TV I’m being asked to do I’d be an idiot to turn down because it’s wonderful stuff. But if I get to the stage where I’m not being offered that stuff and it’s a choice of being on the telly or on the farm, the farm would win every time. The reality is I’m either not going to want telly or telly is not going to want me. I’m not going to start sobbing into my beer because I’m getting older and old women don’t get on the telly. It’s just a fact.”
Like the lambs on the farm, these are new beginnings for Kate Humble, though she hopes her prospects will be better than theirs. “I’ve thrown my life, my brain power and money – all of it – at this farm. We still wake up in the middle of the night and go, ‘Are we nuts?’ But however panicky we get, it never feels like what we are doing is foolish. It’s our project and we are going to work our socks off to make sure it works.”
Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey is on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC2 (10:00pm Northern Ireland)
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 28 February 2012