She’s canoed up the Amazon, flown with the Red Arrows, walked a high wire across the London skyline and even ridden a bicycle to the South Pole, but there’s one adventure even Helen Skelton wasn’t ready for: giving birth at home in France with a couple of firemen gazing on.
‘My husband was away playing rugby league when I went into labour. I was on all fours in the kitchen, naked,’ she says. ‘My eldest, Ernie, thought I was playing dinosaurs, because he was only two, so he was hitting me on the head with a plastic sword.’
The former Blue Peter presenter, 36, is a daredevil who has been in a lot of tight spots, so as the baby started to come she kept her cool and phoned a friend, Jill, who hurried round after calling the emergency services.
She’s canoed up the Amazon, flown with the Red Arrows, walked a high wire across the London skyline and even ridden a bicycle to the South Pole, but there’s one adventure even Helen Skelton wasn’t ready for: giving birth at home in France with a couple of firemen gazing on
‘They do things differently in France. The nearest emergency services were the fire brigade. So these two firemen called Vince and Romaine turned up, never having delivered a baby, beside themselves with excitement.’ Skelton laughs heartily as she tells the story, in the lively Yorkshire accent familiar to viewers of Blue Peter, Countryfile or any of the many television shows she has presented. ‘As anyone who’s been through the childbirth thing will know, you don’t really need two young excitable, gorgeous French firemen in between your knees saying how amazing this is. So I’m like: “Guys, I know we’re all bonding right now but I need you to get up here by my head!’’’
Her friend was more useful. ‘Jill arrived just in time to catch Louis, she cut the cord and everything.’
What about the firemen? ‘They got me lifted into the fire truck and taken to hospital. Now there’s a big picture of my Louis on the wall of a fire station in the South of France.’
That was April 2017. Skelton is now back in England after her husband, Richie Myler, 29, left his French team and signed for Leeds Rhinos. They live on the edge of Leeds with Ernie, four, and Louis, who is now two. ‘My boys are like wild animals, always naked, always scrambling about. I’m always swimming with them in the river.’
Skelton is trying to give the boys the same sense of adventure she had as a child. ‘I had a Famous Five childhood on a dairy farm in the middle of Cumbria. All you could see was fields and fells. We had the run of the farm. My mum said: “Oh I’ll never forget the day I caught you up on that barn roof. You must have been about 11.” Don’t tell her but I did that for months before she caught me!’
Does she let her boys take the same kind of risks? ‘My husband and I clash on this because they go up a tree like rats up a drainpipe and he shouts: “Get down!” They’re never going to get down. Why should they get down? He gets stressed – and this is a bloke who runs headfirst into other blokes for a living!’
Now the 36-year-old has written a book to encourage her boys and other children to live adventurously. ‘They have started to ask me about stuff I’ve done, so I just wanted to get it down for them.’
Wild Girl: How To Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures contains fascinating, hilariously honest descriptions of her trips through the extreme heat of the desert, up mountains, on the water and in the countryside, with kit lists and survival tips. But the book also has young readers in mind, encouraging kids to have achievable adventures of their own, from zip wires and circus skills to just going outside for a snowball fight.
Skelton did a journalism degree and worked on Newsround before joining Blue Peter in 2008. For the next five years she was the action girl who would go anywhere and try anything, although Skelton readily admits she had support crews and production teams with her. ‘I’m not an adventurer. I am a children’s TV presenter who was part of adventures. That’s very important for me.’
Helen Skelton with husband Richie and sons Ernie and Louis. Is there a problem with sexism in sport? ‘No, I don’t think there is. It’s more about the balance of power. I’ve seen women in television say things to young male runners that are way out of order. If that was a man saying the same thing to a woman it would be seen as way off’
On the other hand, the camera crews were forbidden to intervene when it all went wrong, as it did during an ultra-marathon in Namibia in 2009. ‘That was 80 miles in the desert. We’d done nine or ten hours in the blistering heat of the day. I was hallucinating, all over the place. I crouched down behind a bush to try and get some shade and the crew were like: “Amazing. She’s having a breakdown on telly!” I could hear the director going to the crew on their headphones: “Any minute she’s going to break.”’
That was too much. ‘I slammed the camera out of the way. I said: “Oh of course I’m going to f****** break. I want one of you to look me in the eye and say, ‘You can do this, Helen.’ Because I need that!”’
She kayaked the length of the Amazon for Sport Relief in 2010, a record-breaking 2,000-mile journey that changed her. ‘I was getting seasick and throwing up all over myself, doing 18 hours a day in this tiny little boat and my friend Eric said: “Don’t wish it away. Don’t look at it like it’s for ever.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. When am I ever going to be in one of the greatest rivers in the world again, with pink river dolphins jumping over my boat, macaws and sloths looking on and these amazing, alien-looking villages? From then I just enjoyed every bit of it.’
One of her most spectacular adventures was walking a high wire between the chimneys of Battersea Power Station in 2011 for Comic Relief. ‘That building is so temperamental. They said: “In case the towers fall, this is where to run.”’
How dangerous was it though, really?
‘Obviously, to get the health and safety and all the insurance passed, I had to have a harness. People in the high-wire world didn’t give me any credibility for that. Someone did say to me: “If you fall off in the middle, the harness might crush your ribs and you might suffocate. So if you’re going to fall off, do it at either end.” But I wish I’d done the high wire without a harness.’
What is the most dangerous thing she has done? The answer is surprising. ‘I once had a beard of bees. I tied the queen bee to my chin and then had all the bees swarm on my face. The director said just as we were about to do it: “We can’t really do a risk assessment for this one Helen, because you’ll either die or you won’t.” I said: “What?” And he said: “Well, do you know if you’re going to have an anaphylactic reaction to 12,000 bees stinging your face?” I was like, “No”. And he went: “Well, there you go then.”’
How did she feel about that? ‘In a naive, stupid way I was excited. This is dramatic telly, isn’t it? I did get a rush from it.’
Wild Girl points out that not all explorers fit the stereotype of ‘posh white men with beards’, but Skelton insists that in her experience the sexes are treated equally in that world. ‘You don’t succeed because you’re a man or a woman. You succeed because the weather’s on your side, or you’re fit enough, or you’ve got the right attitude.’
Is there a problem with sexism in sport? ‘No, I don’t think there is. It’s more about the balance of power. I’ve seen women in television say things to young male runners that are way out of order. If that was a man saying the same thing to a woman it would be seen as way off.’
Still, no man would have had to put up with the reaction she got at the Rio Olympics in 2016, when the outfits she wore to host the swimming proved to be more revealing than she realised. ‘Oh God, I’d been living in France for a year and a half, it was my first gig back after having a baby.’
Social media and the tabloids had gone crazy. Over in Rio, she was oblivious. ‘I had no idea. You’re sitting by the side of a pool. You’re not looking at yourself. I had no shoes on. Of course I didn’t think my whole body was on show. I would have put shoes on, at least! My brother texted me: “Why is Dad on TV?” And there he was. My dad on This Morning, defending my shorts. I just find it so hilarious that after all this time, everyone’s still talking about it. Now the story’s evolved into something else. Like if I don’t get a gig on sport it’s because of the shorts.’
What does she mean? ‘I did Rio, and then I did the Budapest World Swimming Championships in 2017 and I haven’t done anything else since. So…’ Is there a connection? ‘I don’t know. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Budapest was the last thing I did for BBC Sport. They just said to me they’ve got a responsibility to bring on new talent.’
Fellow broadcaster Sonja McLaughlan accused the BBC of ‘a dreadful hatchet job’ on Skelton when it left her out of the line-up for the Commonwealth Games last year, so how does that feel? ‘If I wanted to work in a fair industry I should have worked at the council. I work in an industry where – as much as we say we don’t – you get judged on your hair colour, your accent, your background, your skin colour, whatever. Sometimes it works out for you, and sometimes it doesn’t.’
Still, there’s no way Helen Skelton is going to give up or go quietly, that’s not the way she’s built. Wild Girl is planning further adventures. ‘I think a week or two away from the boys is doable now. I’ve tried very hard to satisfy that itch with other things and it doesn’t work. I’m obsessed with buying random houses and I went on an interior design course but it didn’t light my fire!’ Of course not. She climbs mountains and runs through deserts. There’s a light in Helen Skelton’s eyes that says she longs to take big risks again. ‘I’m not done yet with the big adventures…’
‘Wild Girl: How To Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures’ by Helen Skelton is published by Walker on Thursday, priced £12.99