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Clare Balding’s School Days - “I Missed My Dogs and Ponies”

Growing up in a racing yard before heading to boarding school isn’t your typical childhood tale – and it was a big change for Clare Balding...

  • Clare Balding’s School Days - “I Missed My Dogs and Ponies”

Where did you go to school?
I went to Downe House boarding school from the age of 10 to 17. I remember that feeling of confusion on my first day when mum dropped me off, and I thought ‘I’m never going to get to go home again’.

Was it an intimidating environment?
To start with. I was the youngest in my year, and so the youngest in the school for the first 12 months. I had a tough time academically and probably mentally too. I was very homesick; I missed my dogs and ponies – I thought, ‘They won’t know where I’ve gone!’

Playing sport helped me a lot. At school I enjoyed tennis, lacrosse and swimming. Plus, I would watch any sport on TV because that what mum and dad did. I figured if I could master the rules of cricket, everything else would be pretty easy! Drama helped too. So by the end I loved school, and I made some really good friends. In fact, a lot of my friends now are from my schooldays.

What were you like at school?
I was probably the one trying to make people laugh. I wasn’t naughty, but I did get into a bit of trouble. Never in classes, though. I wanted to do well. I loved English especially; I concentrated and tried really hard and put my hand up for everything.

How did you get into broadcasting?
I did a lot of speaking in public, debating at university and a lot of writing. But I got offered a chance to work in radio, so I did that. Writing is very much what I wanted to do, but you can get into a state where you think, ‘I’ll never be as good as Edith Wharton, or F Scott Fitzgerald, or Jane Austen, or whoever᾿. Then you think ‘If I can’t be that good, I shouldn’t bother’, which is stupid because that’s not the way it works. You have to give it a go.

But you got over this fear?
Writing my autobiographies definitely provided some of the impetus for my first children’s novel, but the desire to write fiction had never left me.

The subject of your new book – racehorses – must be close to your heart?
Having two nephews and a niece who are devouring books was the big thing. There isn’t a story out there that relates to their upbringing – it is unusual growing up in a racing yard, as I did – so if you can write about a world that nobody else can, you might as well do it.

I’m very conscious that racing is a sport that makes a big effort to try to appeal to more schoolchildren. They do a lot of work through an organisation called BHEST, educating kids through racing, and I wanted to help broaden its appeal. So if more kids get interested in racing because of reading the book then that’s fabulous, I’ve done something positive for the sport that I love.

Does the book do more than tell a good story?
The main character, Charlie, has a lot of determination and gets the best out of the people around her. She inspires her family to become a top training team, and helps Noble Warrior (the racehorse) overcome his nerves. There are moments when she feels insecure – she’s teased by her brothers for having ‘thunder thighs’, but those ‘thunder thighs’ help to save the farm. She learns to be resilient and becomes confident in herself.

I’m very aware of body issues girls face, but we need to help them to think not ‘What do my legs look like?’ but ‘What can my legs do for me?’.

The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop by Clare Balding is published by Puffin on 22 September

For more information, visit www.clarebalding.co.uk or follow @clarebalding

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