Helen Boaden: BBC stalwart on why the Yorkshire coast is the best part of the county

Helen Boaden went from being a reporter on BBC Leeds to becoming the controller of Radio 4, the first woman to run BBC News and then director of BBC Radio. Helen lives in Scarborough with her husband Stephen.

What’s your first Yorkshire memory?

We used to come and visit my grandmother’s house in Vine Street in York, which is quite near the river. The area has, over the years, been totally transformed by gentrification, but 60 years back, it was still poor. And it had an outside loo. The adults all hated it, but my little sister and I genuinely thought that it was fantastic, and very unusual. We felt that every trip down to the bottom of the garden was an adventure into the unknown.

What’s your favourite part of the county – and why?

The South Bay at  Scarborough featuring The Spa and the castle, photographed for The Yorkshire Post by Tony JohnsonThe South Bay at  Scarborough featuring The Spa and the castle, photographed for The Yorkshire Post by Tony Johnson
The South Bay at Scarborough featuring The Spa and the castle, photographed for The Yorkshire Post by Tony Johnson

Just about anywhere on our long, and very diverse, coastline. From cliffs, to beaches, to shingle strands and rocks.

What’s your idea of a perfect day out in Yorkshire?

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As long as it involves a long walk in any part of rural Yorkshire, the company of people that I love, and a good dinner at the end of it all, then I am perfectly happy. The Moors, the Dales, the Wolds and the coast are all endlessly attractive.

I’m also fascinated by the places where wild countryside conceals what were once intensely industrialised areas – like Rosedale, in Ryedale, where you can still see 19th century iron ore mine workings, or the steep-side valley around Heptonstall in Calderdale, where the huge Victorian mill chimneys rise up through the trees.

Helen BoadenHelen Boaden
Helen Boaden

Do you have a favourite walk – or view?

There are far too many walks that I love, so to choose just one is an impossible task – but the favourite view has to be the one from our bedroom window, across the South Bay in Scarborough. The shifting moods of the sea and the sky pull me right in, and I confess to spending a surprising amount of time just staring out of the window!

Which Yorkshire sportsperson would you like to take for lunch?

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I’m not a very sporting person, but the lady who made a huge impression on me was the boxer, Nicola Adams, and for two reasons. The first is that beautiful, open and honest smile, and the second was for the moment when she won her big medal, and when she was asked for her reaction, she replied: “Well, that just made my day!” Shows how down to earth she is, doesn’t it?

Which Yorkshire stage or screen star would you like to take for dinner?

I would love to properly meet Dame Judi Dench – we once exchanged greetings in a radio studio when I was Controller of Radio 4, but you could hardly call that a conversation, could you? She has a reputation of having a great sense of humour, which is a good start, but she’s also a thinker. I’d love to talk to her about her Quakerism, her love of Shakespeare, and of her being a widow for a very long time.

If you had to name your Yorkshire ‘hidden gem’, what would it be?

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Lastingham Grange, North Yorkshire, and the moors above it. We discovered this family-run hotel during Covid, and when we couldn’t travel very far. We completely fell for the lovely house, the unpretentious old-fashioned comfort, and the great walking nearby. The hosts are very discreet, very effective and, best of all, extremely droll.

If you could own, or have access to, one thing in Yorkshire for a single day, what would that object or place be?

The stained-glass windows in the church of St. Martin on the Hill, in Scarborough. They are both stunning, and a complete surprise, pre-Raphaelite gems created by William Morris, Edward Byrne-Jones, Danet Gabriel Rossetti, Philip Webb and Ford Maddox Brown.

What do you think gives Yorkshire its unique identity?

The range and toughness of the landscape has a lot to do with it, and also the diversity of its cities – look how different Leeds is from York, for example. It’s also the pride that people take in being Yorkshire, even though there are so many Yorkshires that none of them really has the identity all to themselves. I get amused by how many passionate local rivalries there are in Scarborough’s Old Town, where it’s almost worse to come from Leeds than it is from London.

Do you have a favourite restaurant, or pub?

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We are very loyal to Lanterna, in Scarborough, because the fish is superb, to Eat Me at the theatre, as the burgers are divine. But Yorkshire is stuffed full of amazing pubs and restaurants, and I use a website called Squidbeak to help me make up my mind.

Do you have a favourite food shop?

Scarborough Market is trying very hard to come back as a destination, but parking doesn’t help, and I’m guessing that also afflicts so many of our traditional markets and high streets. I’m a firm believer in shopping local.

How do you think that Yorkshire has changed, for better or for worse, in the time that you’ve known it?

It simply reflects the changing economic fortunes of our country. When I went to York as a child, to visit my grandmother, it was a city dominated by the railways, Rowntree’s, and the Minster. It’s immeasurably more prosperous, as is Leeds, and great swathes of the county. By contrast, lovely Scarborough was then a thriving seaside town, but was soon to be overtaken by cheap foreign holidays where the sunshine was guaranteed. There are winners – and losers - in Yorkshire, just like everywhere else.

Who is the Yorkshire person that you most admire?

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My father, William John Boaden, he was what you could call “a very tricky customer”, but I am so grateful for his encouraging me to read books, and to love the countryside, and for his openness to new ideas.

Has Yorkshire influenced your work?

This is my father again. He was a proud Yorkshireman, and he raised his six children so that we didn’t whine. We worked hard, and we thought for ourselves. He didn’t believe in praising us, for fear that we might become big-headed, but – were he alive today – I think that he would be quietly proud of our Yorkshire determination.

Name your favourite Yorkshire book/author/artist/CD/performer.

The Bronte sisters, as I love immersing myself in 19th century novels. They are from the past, but the man I admire of today is Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

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If a stranger to Yorkshire only had time to visit one place, it would be?

During the day, it would be Boggle Hole, and all that lovely northern stretch of our coastline. And, at night, I’d urge them to come over to see a show at the Theatre Royal in York – we are trying very hard to take the theatre to the next stage of creativity, to serve our audiences even better.

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