The Big Interview: Julia Bradbury

Julia Bradbury is known as the television presenter who’s walked, scrambled, climbed and even abseiled over some of the world’s most spectacular terrain.

But now the Countryfile host, who is usually seen unencumbered apart from the occasional rucksack, has a new role and it’s one that’s proving just as challenging.

After she had resigned herself to being childless, Bradbury became pregnant last year. Now four-months-old, her son Zephyr often travels with her strapped into a papoose, and she can’t help but describe him as a “miracle”.

“I’m so lucky, he’s the most wonderful, chilled little boy,” she says. “My mum’s Greek and his name comes from the Greek word Zephyr, which means a breath of fresh air, and I know it’s unusual but it’s so appropriate because his coming into my life is like a breath of fresh air.

“He’s caused a complete gear change in my lifestyle and as I honestly never thought I’d have children at this stage, he’s truly a miracle and a blessing,” she says of her son who was born two days before her 41st birthday.

Over the years, the driven professional has been consumed by her flourishing career. After a modest beginning on cable TV, she landed a plum role in Los Angeles reporting on the red carpet for GMTV and went on to appear on BBC’s Watchdog. A firm favourite with viewers, she has now become part of the Beeb’s fixtures and fittings.

So much so, her hugely successful series, Wainwright Walks, which was only supposed to last for four programmes, went on to win regularly weekly audiences of more than a million and 50 programmes have since been made. In June, she presented a BBC3 series, Kill It, Cut It, Use It, focusing on how animal products are used outside of the meat trade and she admits that for a long time work was her main priority.

“I did what many career women do, I’d focused on my career, as I really enjoy my work and find it challenging and stimulating. There was always a project here and then a new project there, and the years slip by,” she explains.

Her hopes of having a family had also suffered a blow when she was in her early 30s and discovered she suffered from endometriosis, a condition that can affect fertility.

“I’d always wanted to be a mother, I’m very close to my family. After that diagnosis, and as the years passed by, I did have dark moments when I contemplated life without children and how hard that would be to bear.

“Of course, you wonder about all the other routes such as surrogacy or adoption, but most of the time I just tried to be pragmatic, positive and optimistic and think, ‘What will be will be’. You have to appreciate what you’ve got in life rather than yearning for something that might not be.”

Her delight and astonishment when she discovered she was having a baby with her partner, 51-year-old Irish property developer Gerard Cunningham, was understandably tinged with nervousness. Worried about breaking the news early on in her pregnancy, she also had to find ways to avoid her normal competitive challenges with Countryfile co-presenter Matt Baker without alerting anyone to her growing bump.

“I confided in Matt, he’s a great mate and a dad, and was brilliant at helping me out. I’m so outdoorsy and active and it was tricky finding excuses not to abseil down a cliff, fly to all parts of the world, or generally do anything which could to risk the baby.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘What’s wrong with Jools?’, until I could finally tell them,” she says.

While Zephyr is clearly now her number one priority, Bradbury isn’t about to quit television. Although she will not return to Countryfile until next year, just 12 weeks after Zephyr’s birth, she has been back on the small screen presenting another BBC1 series That’s Britain! with Nick Knowles. The light-hearted consumer-style programme investigates everyday issues from potholes and lost luggage to junk mail.

“It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind – I’ve done all the things you’re not supposed to do. We moved house just before he was born, and now I’ve taken on this new job straight after his birth, but it’s so much fun that I couldn’t resist it,” she says. “I’m determined to combine work and family, so Zeph comes with me wherever possible, and so far he’s been up to the Scottish Highlands, the South Downs and Birmingham.

“Of course, instead of scrambling down like a mountain goat as I normally do, I take it a bit easier when he’s on board. And I can often be found sitting in a car in car parks with a shawl over me looking rather furtive and suspicious – but actually I’m just expressing breast milk, so he can have a bottle of it if I’m on set.”

In many ways, Bradbury now seems to have it all and seems to effortlessly manage the juggling act of work and family – in typical no-nonsense style within two days of the birth she held her birthday party for 35 people.

However, it’s not all been plain sailing. A year ago her world was rocked when both her parents were diagnosed with cancer.

Bradbury, who was born in Dublin, but grew up in rural Rutland and went to school in Sheffield had her passion for the countryside ignited by her father, Michael, a retired steel-industry worker, who took her walking in Derbyshire’s Peak District. She says she inherited her sometimes emotional nature from her Greek mother, Chrissi, a fashion designer and has always described her childhood as being pretty idyllic. The reality of seeing both her parents undergo treatment for cancer has inevitably left its mark.

“It’s been very worrying, tough time. They’re both in their 70s but had been so fit and well and suddenly Dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer and Mum with colon cancer,” she says. “Thankfully they’ve both been treated successfully but Mum’s recovery is proving a little slower. She’s getting so much joy from Zeph though, he’s helping to give her courage and strength to get well.”

Bradbury’s seemingly unstoppable enthusiasm and optimism is part of her charm and she looks much younger than her years. However, if she ever needed an lesson in how fickle television can be when it comes to older women, it came last year when former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly took the BBC to an employment tribunal, accusing the broadcaster of both ageism and sexism. The 53-year-old claimed she had been unfairly dropped from the rural affairs show when it moved to a primetime Sunday evening slot in April 2009. While John Craven was kept on, O’Reilly, who won the tribunal, although her claims of sex discrimination failed, watched as Bradbury and Baker took over.

Reports of the tribunal where O’Reilly said she had been asked if it was “time for Botox” and was warned to be “careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in” made uncomfortable reading for the BBC, who immediately after the decision issued an apology.

While Bradbury is still some years from being described as a veteran presenter, she is fully aware that for those working in front of the cameras, age will always be an issue. To deny it, would she says, be foolish, but it’s not an issue which keeps her awake at night. “I’m aware that this is an age-conscious business and I realised the other day that now I’m an old bird,” she jokes. “I was sitting in a car with the crew and suddenly noticed I was the oldest person there. It’s not something I worry about and my philosophy is to avoid getting type cast and keeping my work as varied as possible and to keep enjoying every opportunity. Of course, I’m conscious that I have to look after my appearance, especially as I’m often out in all weathers. I’m a big fan of Bio-Oil as I have dry skin. I slather it on after a shower and used it throughout my pregnancy to avoid stretch marks. It’s brilliant.”

Bradbury, first stepped into the spotlight as a school girl in a production of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan at Sheffield’s Crucible. Sharing the stage with actresses Joanne Whalley and Paula Wilcox, she donned a fishtail to play a mermaid, the best part of which was getting afternoons out of the classroom. Always an outdoors sort – she says her five year plan is to get more people connected to the natural world – Countryfile has allowed her to combine her two loves. These days, there’s little spare time to get out into the countryside. However, she still takes pleasure in walking, even if these days she has her baby in tow.

“Have another one?! Good heavens, I’ve only just had this one and that’s hard enough work,” she says. “What’s hilarious is that you have two adults here who are mature and experienced in life, and yet this little bundle, less than a stone in weight, is completely ruling our lives. Everything revolves around this little being, but it’s wonderful to have a different focus – someone to take care of who brings so much joy.”