Rise of a star baker leaves Nancy in demand

Nancy Birtwhistle
Nancy Birtwhistle
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Great British Bake Off champion, Hull-born Nancy Birtwhistle, has seen her life change completely over the last year. Catherine Scott finds out what has been happening for her since Bake Off.

Nancy Birtwhistle had been looking forward to retirement.

“I’d worked full-time for 36 years and I was looking forward to retiring and not having to go to work every day,” says the former GP practise manager.

But retirement wasn’t everything Nancy had thought it might be.

“I didn’t like it all that much,” she admits. “I was bored and so I decided to bake. It went from one day a week to almost a baking obsession.

“I was hungry for more and more knowledge to try to improve. I soon realised the more you know about baking the more there is to learn.

“I would spend hours reading books, the Internet, demonstrations and You Tube videos.

And all this hard work paid off. So much so that this year saw her crowned the fifth Great British Bake Off champion, after she consistently impressed judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.

It was actually the second time Nancy had applied to be on the Bake Off.

“I first applied for series four and I got through to the last 50 or 60. I then realised it was my bread that let me down.”

But it didn’t put her off.

“It made me even more determined to get better at bread.”

She applied again the following year and got asked to attend an initial audition in Manchester.

“We had to take two bakes with us – one pastry and one bread and one had to be sweet and one savoury.

“I decided to go on the train and my husband told me to get a taxi from the station to the Exhibition Centre where the auditions were. But I am a true Yorkshire woman and so I wasn’t going to waste money on a taxi. There was a bus to the exhibition centre and so I got on it.”

But when she arrived at the centre there was no one else there.

“I asked at reception and they said I had the wrong exhibition centre and there were no taxis that could take me. I had ten minutes to find my way carrying all my baking. I just made it and told them they were lucky to have me as I nearly didn’t make it. I think that was one of the things in my favour.”

It was this cheeky attitude which also got her noticed when she eventually got through the audition process on to the main programme.

She wasn’t scared to argue her corner with Paul Hollywood who she often referred to as “the male judge”.

“He said one of my bakes was dry and I said it isn’t. But I think he was probably right. He’s actually really lovely and when I got through to the final and was really nervous he was very supportive.”

Nancy didn’t tell even her closest family that she had applied for a second time to the Bake Off,

“I told everyone the first time and then had to untell them so I wasn’t going to do that again. It is a very long process and eventually I was told I had made it into the final 14 – although only 12 would make the actual show. That was hard but then I found out I had been chosen and then you get a mixture of feelings. You are excited at being chosen, but then reality sets in about what is going to happen.” For the next few months Bake Off, and the secrecy surrounding it, took over her life. “We weren’t allowed to take any of our bakes out of the tent and everyone had to sign an agreement saying they wouldn’t reveal anything.

“From the end of April until the end of June the Great British Bake Off was filmed in the grounds of Welford Hall near Newbury. It was the most difficult thing I have ever undertaken in my life, but equally the most enjoyable.”

She says she never let herself think about winning the coveted title. “I just didn’t want to be first out. I wasn’t bothered about being star baker I just wanted to get through.”

Nancy was born and brought up in Hull and the surrounding towns and her first recollection of baking was Christmas baking with her grandmother.

“I now realise that she did indeed have a significant part to play in my love of baking. She was a true home cook and never used a recipe book. The first thing she taught me to bake was a custard tart,” she explains.

She left school at 16 and took various secretarial jobs until she finally obtained a position as a GP practice manager. In the late 1990s she moved across the river Humber and now lives in Barton upon Humber with her husband Tim. “Life has changed so much since winning the Bake Off,” says Nancy who has since had to employ an agent to help look after her affairs.

“I have three diaries to keep track of everything.

“The good thing is that I can pick and choose, which means I still get time to spend with my family – especially my eight grandchildren.”

When I meet her she is preparing to give a demonstration to an invited audience at Bettys Cookery School.

“I came on a cookery course here 12 years ago, just after it opened. I was very nervous and now it seems unbelievable that I am the one giving the demonstration.”
Nancy is much in demand for cookery demonstrations and talks and has appeared on stage with Paul Hollywood, which she found great fun.

Despite reports that a cookery book is in the offing, Nancy is quick to point out that she hasn’t been approached by any publishers.

“I would love to write a cookery book. I would like to pass on all the things I have learnt to others – I think we are duty bound to do that.”

Twitter@ypcscott