The Leading Magazine for Primary Educators
It’s The Scariest Thing I’ve Done
Main Subject: CPD
Author: Lloyd Burgess
From television presenter to adventurer to author, Helen Skelton is living proof of what you can achieve if you give it your all...
Where did you go to school and how did you find it?
I went to a very rural village school in Kirkby Thore. It’s where my dad and my auntie went before me, and my mum still teaches there now. I loved it, absolutely loved it. My best friend from primary school is still one of my best friends today. I feel totally spoiled because it was a small village and you knew everybody. I couldn’t ask for a more picture-book primary school.
Did you have any favourite teachers?
I remember my first primary teacher, Mrs Holder. I loved her. She had really long black hair that she used to knot into this huge black bun on top of her head in a really stereotypical, old-teacher fashion. And I loved Mrs Lucas, who was a supply teacher. She was really arty and played the piano and she drank a lot of herbal tea. She wore these floaty skirts and had huge big rings on her fingers. She seemed very exotic to us, like a creature from a foreign land.
How would your teachers or classmates have described you?
I think I was quite confident and cheeky. I was always the one putting my hand up and asking questions, and I talked a lot. I didn’t get into trouble so much, but we were often up to mischief. If anyone was gonna fall in the pond it was me. If anyone was going to topple off the climbing frame and bust their lip open it was me. I was that kind of kid. I was head girl at secondary school which I was quite proud of. Especially as the teachers didn’t vote me in; they picked someone else. The pupils voted me in – I loved that.
Did you know what you wanted to be when you were young? Did you always want to work in TV?
I always wanted to do something exciting. I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be a pilot but my eyes weren’t good enough. There’s footage of me pretending to be a sports commentator when I was a kid. But I never thought ‘I want to be on telly’. If I’d have said I want to be a telly presenter they’d have just said, “Yeah, whatever.”
Were there many opportunities to explore your sporting interests?
It’s different now as it has a big sports hall, but when I was at school there were no sport facilities. You basically did cross country, or you didn’t do anything. A lot of my friends are in education and they’re under so much pressure to teach and do exams and sort paperwork that they don’t get a chance to encourage kids to have a life experience. You can’t underestimate how powerful sport is for a lot of people. It can give kids an understanding about authority and teamwork, and the psychological benefits are obviously great, as well as getting the endorphins going.
You’ve accomplished many amazing physical feats for charity, which one would you least like to attempt again?
The Namibian ultra-marathon. I’d never done anything like that. I’m not a runner, I just had a go. I started training three months before, and then had to run 80 miles in the desert – it was awful. The worst thing was, a lot the other runners were saying, “You’ll never do it. You’re not built for this. You don’t have any experience.” I just though, ‘You know what? I probably won’t be able to, but let’s have a go’. Some people there even had bets on when I was going to drop out. I found out about it, and it was the best motivator ever.
You completed the ultra-marathon just under the 24-hour limit, was this in your mind while doing it?
Oh my god, yes! It was a really hot year, so even the winner finished around the 21-hour mark. I was nearing the finish and I’d been really ill and the director kept saying that the time didn’t matter any more, that finishing is enough. But I would have seen that as a failure. I asked the camera crew how far I had left, to work out how fast I had to run. They said, “seven miles”. Twenty minutes later, they came back and I asked again. “Nine miles”. What? “Yeah sorry, we got it wrong.”
You’re the first woman to kayak the entire Amazon, and only the second woman to finish the Namibian ultra-marathon. Were those goals you set out to achieve?
No, they were happy coincidences. Hardcore adventurers get really stressed out with me because I’ve done a lot less than most people, but get a lot more credit for it. But my job is to make children’s telly, so I was in a lucky position. At the time when I was on Blue Peter I was fortunate because they had a lot of ambition so I could go and do these great things.
When did you decide to write your book – Amy Wild: Amazon Summer?
I’ve always liked writing and done bits and bobs. I wrote a blog and some online articles while I was in the Amazon. Writing the book was a way of sharing my experience without me having to constantly say “I did this” and “I did that”.
I don’t have any experience in the literary world, but I still want it to be good, and I still want people to like it. So, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done by far. Especially because now I’m in that world and I meet Francesca Simon and Jacqueline Wilson and they’re amazing. So I don’t want them to think that I think I’m anything like them. Jacqueline asked for a copy, and I was just like “Noooo, I don’t want to give it to you.”
What made you want to write for a young audience?
Kids are just nicer, adults can be more cynical. When I went to the Amazon, for instance, some adults found a way to pick holes in it, saying “There are people who’ve done better things than that.” Well, of course there are, there are loads of people who have done better things than I have. But kids don’t think like that. I get so many letters or emails from kids every time I do one of these trips. I’ll never forget, I was having a really, really dark day in the Amazon, and I got a letter from a kid who said “Every morning when I wake up I think about where Helen is and if she’s okay.”
How autobiographical is the book? The main character’s brother has the same name as your brother, for example.
It’s very much me. My brother is one of my best friends, but my husband was laughing, saying: “Your brother’s gonna kill you when he reads this”. It takes until you get to the end to realise it, but it’s actually a complete dedication to him. I grew up with a great brother and great parents who encouraged me to have a good time and adventure and explore and push myself every day. They supported us and let us be whoever we wanted to be. My parents basically said “Whatever you’re going to do, put some effort in. Do it well. Don’t do it half-heartedly.”