Helen Skelton is no stranger to challenges, but her latest one involves making a life for herself and her young family in Leeds. Catherine Scott meets the former Blue Peter presenter.
Blue Peter presenters are known for taking on extreme challenges, but in the six years Helen Skelton fronted the programme she did more than most.
She broke world records for kayaking the Amazon, was the first person to travel to the South Pole on a bike, became only the second woman to complete the gruelling 78-mile Namibian ultra-marathon and walked a 150-metre tightrope between chimneys at Battersea Power Station, to name but a few.
“I did have the most amazing time on Blue Peter,” says the pocket rocket who stands at just 5ft 2ins tall. “It broke my heart when I left, but you have to leave while you still love it and I had a crazy six years going from one place to the next with very little time to think about what I was doing. I still love everything about the brand but it was time for me to move on.”
Cumbrian-born Skelton, 36, recently moved to Leeds when her husband, Richie Myler, signed to play rugby league for Leeds Rhinos.
“Neither of us are from Leeds and really didn’t know anyone here.
“We were living in France when Richie was offered the Leeds Rhinos job and so he had to live in a hotel at first until we found somewhere to live. Leeds has everything. It’s a city but it’s green.”
She says she is starting to settle into Yorkshire life, after spending two years in France, where Louis was born on the kitchen floor.
Press reports claimed that she was miserable in France when Richie was playing for Catalan Dragons.
“Not that again,” she laughs. “I wasn’t miserable at all. I was a new mum, Ernie was three months old and I didn’t know anyone or have any support network but it was really blown out of proportion.
“I was really happy there – who wouldn’t be?”
Skelton is no stranger to headlines. Most often they are about the appropriateness of what she wears, especially while she presented swimming for the BBC during the 2016 Olympics and was accused on social media of being too revealing.
“It comes with the territory,” she says. “I don’t let it bother me to be honest. I remember when it was revealed that I was going to be the 33rd Blue Peter presenter and a newspaper found a photograph of me having a glass of champagne at a relative’s wedding and splashed it all over the place.”
She says being a Blue Peter presenter and keeping up the squeaky clean image is harder for today’s generation. “There was hardly any social media when I was part of Blue Peter.”
Although I get the feeling that Skelton is something of a rebel and wouldn’t really have cared too much.
She grew up living on a dairy farm in Kirkby Thore, Cumbria. Dad was a farmer and mum was a nursery teacher.
“I went to a normal school and did pretty well at A-levels and school were pushing for me to go to university, but my parents weren’t the pushy type. No one had been to university in our family.” But after a stint on her local paper at the age of 18 and working on BBC Radio Cumbria, where she did everything including making the tea, she decided to do a BA degree in journalism at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts.
“I really wanted to be a camera person on Newsround I thought they got to do the best stuff, and go to the best places.” Ironically, just a few years later she would be working on the programme, but in front of the camera rather than behind it.
Her perseverance at Radio Cumbria paid off and she was offered the prime breakfast slot at the age of 22, one of the youngest presenters on the network at the time. “I did that for a year and it nearly killed me,” she admits. “It was a great job but it came 20 years too soon really.”
She decided to move to London. “It was sink or swim,” she says. She did some shifts on BBC Newsround and Sportround.
“Newsround is such a big brand, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I come from a very sporty family. My brother is a footballer and I played a lot of sport at school and so I was always interested in sports reporting.”
Then came the chance to audition for Blue Peter.
“At first I said no,” she says. “I was having the best time of my life, but then someone pointed out that for a television presenter there is no better job.”
She landed the job and in 2007 became the 33rd Blue Peter presenter. “It had the biggest studio in TV Centre and was such a massive brand but you didn’t really have time to think about it. You don’t have time to come up for air. You go from country to country, you don’t have time to sit down and think ‘what’s my public perception?’
“I visited so many places and did so many world firsts it is pretty amazing.”
But she was conscious of being able to move on in her career and didn’t want to get labeled with the children’s TV presenter label.
She is now freelance, which suits her as she juggles being a mum to two small boys. She has worked for BT Sport, presents Countryfile and recently did a live week-long programme for Channel 5 from the Doncaster Wildlife Park.
Sport and keeping fit are a still a huge part of her life. It has seen her take on challenges for Sport Relief. In 2010, she rowed the entire length of the River Amazon by kayak, 2,010 miles (3,230 km) from Peru to Brazil, in just 39 days. She landed two Guinness World Records at once: the longest solo journey by kayak, and the longest distance in a kayak in 24 hours by a woman.
Last year she took up boxing for another Sport Relief challenge which saw her enter the ring with Camilla Thurlow.
“I loved it,” she says despite losing a tooth and getting a black eye. “The guys at the gym are awesome and it is a great stress relief.”
Some were critical of the apparent savageness of Skelton’s win, but it is more the fact that if she does something then she wants to do it properly.
“I didn’t want to be accused afterwards of punching like a girl,” Skelton says.
When we meet, she is at the Brownlee Centre close to her home near Adel, Leeds, surrounded by scores of youngsters on bikes and it is all part of British Cycling and HSBC UK’s Ready, Set Ride campaign to get more children cycling.
“There are few things more important than teaching your kids to ride a bike,” she says. “We are all busy people but it is important to try to spend time outside with your children and Ready, Set Ride is brilliant. It is free, fun and full of games to do with your kids.
“I get asked to do a lot of things, but not only was this one close to home it was close to my heart too. It’s all about family and getting fit.”