Great British Drives: joining Clare Balding in her Range Rover for a jaunt across Hampshire

Clare balding - Range Rover Evoque - Chiswick House
Clare Balding with her Tibetan terrier Archie and her immaculate Range Rover Evoque at Chiswick House

As the lady at the helm of most of the BBC’s major sporting occasions, it should be no surprise that Clare Balding is useless as a back-seat driver. And she’s the first to admit it. Balding and her wife, the former Radio 4 newsreader and continuity announcer Alice Arnold, found out early on in their 16-year relationship that to avoid domestic fallout is was best if she took the wheel.

The BBC presenter says: “We were driving along a motorway in the middle lane. Despite being held up by traffic Alice wouldn’t overtake in the outside lane. I just had to say something – which, as you can imagine, didn’t go down well at all.

“The only problem with being the driver is I’m much better at reading maps. I’m a bit obsessive about which route we take. I have been known to tell a taxi driver which way to go.”

Balding is travelling west along the A30 near Egham, Surrey, in a highly polished Range Rover Evoque that has clearly never ventured off-road in its life. “Alice cleaned the car especially. It’s a bit like our house in Chiswick, totally immaculate.

“When I came back from the Winter Olympics my bag just exploded in the bedroom, with clothes and coats everywhere. I have a lot of coats – Alice would say I hoard them but a lot of my work is outdoors, so they are a legitimate piece of equipment.”

The equine training and recuperation pool at the stables founded by Balding's father Ian and now run by her brother Andrew Credit: Steve Parsons/Getty Images Europe

We are heading to her family home in Hampshire – the stables at Kingsclere, where she grew up. Her father, Ian, was the Queen’s former racehorse trainer, although his son Andrew now runs the yard.

“Dad’s most famous horse was Mill Reef. He won The Derby in 1971, the year I was born, and many more top-flight races. The Queen would come down to see her thoroughbreds at the yard, too. I once walked into the kitchen and she was sat there having breakfast.”

It’s been a busy first six months of the year for Balding. The Winter Olympics preceded the Paralympics, then followed the Commonwealth Games in Australia. Next weekend (June 1-2) she will be at the Investec Derby Festival at Epsom, before two weeks of smashes and lobs at Wimbledon.

The ubiquitous face of BBC sport also presented at Crufts, fronts walking series Ramblings on Radio 4 and is currently halfway through writing another book, although she has frustrated her publisher by extending the deadline several times already.

Balding enjoys seeing the splendid architecture of Royal Holloway College as she drives south-west from London Credit: Andrew Holt /Alamy

“I sometimes come down the A30 to avoid the M3 motorway. You pass the beautiful architecture of Royal Holloway college, Virginia Water, which is lovely, and there are a couple of great pubs at Camberley, too. If it’s Saturday morning we listen to Graham Norton on Radio 2, or Lisa Tarbuck in the evening.”

Just past Basingstoke the A30 crosses the 70-mile Wayfarers Way, a walking route that Balding featured on Ramblings. “Walking is very important to me. I can take Archie, our Tibetan Terrier, and completely relax. It’s also a good way to stay fit wherever I’m working in the world.”

Balding was educated at Downe House in Berkshire before reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge. She was president of the Cambridge Union Society but her weekends and spare time were spent on horseback.

She was a leading amateur flat jockey in the late Eighties and became Champion Lady Rider in 1990. She later wrote about her experiences in her 2012 autobiography, My Animals and Other Family, which became a bestseller.

The 70-mile Wayfarers Way as it cuts across Hampshire near Denmead Credit: Kevin Freeborn/Alamy

“My first car was a red Mini I won racing. You couldn’t win prize money as an amateur so we were often given prizes. F661 NTF lasted me for years. I started working at the BBC as a trainee in 1994 and needed a bigger boot, so I bought a Peugeot 205,” she says.

While her parents were accepting of her sexuality, her grandmother was initially less supportive. The pair didn’t speak for six months. “That was difficult but we got over it. My mother and Alice became much closer after my cancer scare in 2009. It changed their relationship completely because I didn’t want to talk about it and they did.”

Balding says that being diagnosed with thyroid cancer wasn’t half as difficult as the loss of Arnold’s mother in April this year. “That has been the worst thing we have had to live through together. Alice was incredibly close to her mum, they spoke to each other every day.”

Horses are a frequent topic of conversation on our journey. Our first unscheduled halt is at Calcutts equestrian shop in Sutton Scotney, slightly off piste for Kingsclere but for good reason. The store is loaded with riding equipment and Balding is clearly in her element.

Horse racing is in Balding's blood and she'll be at the Epsom Derby on June 1-2 Credit: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images Europe

“I loved riding as a child and while my brother Andrew went on to play polo, I was into eventing and showjumping. Then I took up flat racing and found it such an adrenaline rush. I was totally hooked.”

Nearby is the Leckford Estate Farm Shop, at Stockbridge, the poshest eatery for miles. “Alice and I have a sweet tooth and they do brilliant fudge, jams and cakes. It’s also a good place for breakfast if we are staying at my parents.”

Balding says she is a workaholic but relaxes by playing golf. “Alice is consistently the better player and beats me at tennis, too. At least I’m a more competent rider. We make the most of the time we have together and pack a lot in.”

The pair are planning a holiday to Mauritius in November when the iPads will be left at home. “It’s great getting away but I love what this country has to offer, too. Driving through the English countryside is always a very special pleasure.”

Clare Balding is an ambassador for Investec, celebrating a 10-year partnership with the Epsom Derby Festival, June 1-2;


Range Rover Evoque SD4 HSE Dynamic

PRICE £48,250

ENGINE 1,999cc diesel

POWER 240bhp

TOP SPEED 135mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 7.3sec

FUEL ECONOMY 48.7mpg (EU Combined)

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Credit: Jessica Saunders