A photograph of Matt Baker, with his dog, at home on his fam. Image: Penguin
A photograph of Matt Baker, with his dog, at home on his fam. Image: Penguin

From his smallholding in the Chiltern Hills, the veteran TV presenter Matt Baker is extolling the virtues of the changing seasons. “It's the smell of autumn,” he says. “You can smell a change in the air.”

Baker is a familiar face to millions from his years on Blue Peter, The One Show and Countryfile. As fans of his Channel 4 series Our Farm in the Dales know (a second season is being edited when we speak), that country rhythm is incredibly important to him – and so to his readers, who have catapulted his first book, A Year on the Farm, which documents some of the backstory to that latter series, into the Sunday Times bestseller lists

“I think you get to a point in your life where you suddenly realise that there's a whole world to discover,” he says. “When you open a book, you're instantly popped into that world, aren't you, and to have some nature right when we've all been experiencing the craziest times – it's such a brilliant form of escapism. It's not like nature writing’s a trend, it's just people want more of it because it feels good.”

His extremely jolly book is mostly “ramblings”, he says. “It’s not a fact book, it’s not an autobiography book, it’s just me wandering around the farm chatting.” It’s wonderfully fitting that the cheery boy who went from driving quad bikes and practising gymnastics on the family farm in Durham to travelling the world with Blue Peter wrote it outdoors. 

“It's a story of how the countryside has made me who I am,” he says, “and [what happens] when you grow up in a way where nothing's off limits. The farm allowed me adventures like you could never have even as an adult. I had such a practical outlet with my sport, but also with where we lived. I had the opportunity to just open the door and go.”

His parents Janice and Michael very much inspired their children’s get-up-and-go natures: the Bakers became farmers when Janice decided to move the family up a notch from their smallholding, went to agricultural college, and snapped up a farm in Durham. Baker’s dad, up until that point a newsagent, is equally zippy: to support Baker’s budding gymnastics career, he bought a full school gym set at auction, having initially planned to buy “one or two” bits.

“Mum and dad will never push you, but when they recognised that I was into something, they would support wholeheartedly,” Baker says of his close-knit family. “Whenever somebody needs that help, then we're all in all, and that's where the TV series came from because we literally gave up life and went straight back.”

This time, his parents needed the help, after his mother was knocked over by an 80kg ewe and needed a knee replacement. It was the obvious decision for Baker and family to pack up their animals and move north – for one thing, his wife Nicola is a physiotherapist – resulting in first Our Farm in the Dales and then Baker’s book.

A photograph of Matt Baker, with his dog, at home on his fam. Image: Penguin

Matt Baker: 'Having dyslexia has been so helpful for me.' Image: Penguin

“I never plan or plan for anything, but I'll react to how I feel,” says Baker. “You don't just sort of wait and wonder what might happen, you actually really go for it, and then other doors open in other ways.” 

That gut feeling, he says, was instilled by his parents without him even realising it. Janice and Michael encouraged their children to give things a go, which in Baker’s case, became gymnastics, which he started as a physical outlet. He made newspaper headlines as a teen when he obtained a perfect 10 in a national competition – viewers of Strictly later became fans of his tumbling routines when he appeared on the show in 2010 – but he retired after developing anaemia at 14. He ended up in performance by chance after he acted as a stunt double for the lead in a school production of Grease, taking over when the lead pulled out, and was shocked by how much he loved it. 

That instinct led to him changing plans to become a physiotherapist and pursuing drama school, where those doors began to open. When Nicola’s aunt sent him an advert from Blue Peter looking for presenters, he went straight to directory enquiries and rang up the editor’s office. “They’d already booked people for the auditions, so I asked what I needed to do, and if they’d look at it, then I shouted out to me Dad, ‘Get a video camera, we're going to make this thing called a showreel!’” 

Michael filmed Baker on the farm unicycling and backflipping, lambing, and hedge laying (“We didn't have any edit facilities, obviously.”). A couple of days later, he got a call. “I said, have you seen the video, she said, ‘Oh we've all seen the video, it’s been all round Children's BBC’.” 

Ringing the show directly was the obvious choice to Baker, who has long championed dyslexia as his ‘superpower’. “It's interesting because you don't know any different, but what you do know is that you are reacting differently to how other people react,” he says. “I find I can sort of see an outcome, because your brain works so fast, almost 10 times faster than a normal person. 

“With calling up directory enquiries on Blue Peter, to me I couldn't think of any other way to do it. I cut to the chase, very quickly. If I had the chance to rerun my life again, 100% I'd tick that box, I want dyslexia, like up there with the most important things because it's been so helpful for me.” 

That instinct led to him changing plans to become a physiotherapist and pursuing drama school, where those doors began to open. When Nicola’s aunt sent him an advert from Blue Peter looking for presenters, he went straight to directory enquiries and rang up the editor’s office. “They’d already booked people for the auditions, so I asked what I needed to do, and if they’d look at it, then I shouted out to me Dad, ‘Get a video camera, we're going to make this thing called a showreel!’” 

Michael filmed Baker on the farm unicycling and backflipping, lambing, and hedge laying (“We didn't have any edit facilities, obviously.”). A couple of days later, he got a call. “I said, have you seen the video, she said, ‘Oh we've all seen the video, it’s been all round Children's BBC’.” 

Ringing the show directly was the obvious choice to Baker, who has long championed dyslexia as his ‘superpower’. “It's interesting because you don't know any different, but what you do know is that you are reacting differently to how other people react,” he says. “I find I can sort of see an outcome, because your brain works so fast, almost 10 times faster than a normal person. 

“With calling up directory enquiries on Blue Peter, to me I couldn't think of any other way to do it. I cut to the chase, very quickly. If I had the chance to rerun my life again, 100% I'd tick that box, I want dyslexia, like up there with the most important things because it's been so helpful for me.” 

And indeed, for years, Baker’s audition tape was used as an example of what producers are looking for. “Certainly, in this day and age there's that much technology around that you can self-edit things to with an inch of their lives and you can't really get a sense of what that person's about.”

Presenting was a natural fit for Baker, whose upbringing in the farming and gymnastic communities helped him talk to anyone from scientific experts to nomads and royalty. “I think if you're interested in them, then all people open up,” he says. “I hate the term ‘interview’, I always have. It's always a conversation. Prince Charles and all of that, I just wanted to talk to him about life as a farmer.” He met Prince Charles in 2013 while filming Countryfile, and the book notes that he has a true farmer’s handshake. “That’s not a handshake that you can buy into or fake – it’s earned,” he writes. 

Zoom rather hampers testing out Baker’s own handshake but it’s clear how wholehearted he is, something that comes from a place of confidence rather than overthinking. “Be sure of who you are to yourself; don’t feel like you’ve got to be sure of who you are to other people,” he says.

It was from this place that Baker shared his hobby sketches on Instagram, and was soon tagged in his followers’ own art. It’s a true hobby for him, and evocative sketches of farm wildlife weave through the book bringing it to life as much as his stories. Inspired by a memorable passage from the book, a sheep accidentally named Two Great White Sharks – the Clarkson’s Farm rams Leonardo and Wayne simply cannot compete – I mention a wildlife drawing class I went to sketching sharks in an aquarium, which prompts a Blue Peter-esque mini-segment on sketching.

“Don’t get into conflict with yourself about it, just go’ I put that line there and I’ve scribbled that bit in there because that’s what I felt like it needed’,” he says enthusiastically as I nod and take notes. “If you want to make something absolutely perfect, take a photo. Be honest with yourself. No-one’s ever going to see what you were sketching in the first place! They’re never going to go back to the place and go, ‘So: where were you standing?’”

And that sums up the joy of A Year on Our Farm, with its sketches of farm life through the seasons, and Baker’s career. It’s recognisable and real – and if you read it with a pencil in hand, so much the better.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

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