The day I was caught shoplifting: Picked on by snobbish girls at her boarding school, Clare Balding turned to petty theft to be part of the gang. But the shame of being exposed and thrown out of school turned out to be the making of her
08:31 GMT, 4 September 2012
Ask my father what happened in 1971 and he’ll remember it as the year that Mill Reef, the most famous horse he ever trained, won the Derby. What he won’t remember is that 1971 was also the year that I was born.
One of the first photographs of me, following my apparently inconsequential arrival in the world, shows me riding Mill Reef — or rather, sitting on him. Turning to the camera and smiling, I’m leaning forward like a jockey but there’s no saddle. I have a light grip on the reins and no one is holding me.
Yes, that’s right. I’m barely 18 months old, clinging to one of the fastest horses in history, and there isn’t an adult in sight. He could have bolted. I could have lost my balance and smashed my skull on the floor. But clearly that mattered little to the people around the great horse. That is, my parents.
She was the daughter of the Queen's racehorse trainer: But in her inspiring autobiography, Olympics presenter Clare Balding reveals that her childhood was far from an easy ride
Mill Reef is seen here in 1972 ridden by Geoff Lewis
I am indebted to Mill Reef for far more than taking care of me that day. After he had retired to stud, his owner, American philanthropist Paul Mellon, wrote to my father, thanking him for helping Mill Reef achieve greatness and offering to set up a trust fund for me and my younger brother, Andrew.
The money paid for our schooling, and 18 years later I wrote to Mr Mellon, expressing my gratitude for his helping me get to Cambridge. What I didn’t mention was that, alongside Latin and lacrosse, the private education he funded had given me a grounding in petty crime.
I got off to a bad start from the moment I went to board at Downe House, a girls’ boarding school which was less than 20 minutes from our home near the Hampshire village of Kingsclere. I was then ten, and Andrew, who had been sent away to school two years previously, made the whole experience sound fun.
Early on, his class were asked if they could name the seasons of the year. Andrew’s hand shot up.
‘Flat and National Hunt,’ he said, his confusion giving rise to much appreciative laughter among his apparently numerous friends.
Our rural upbringing did not play so
well at Downe House. On my first night, I found myself in a common room
where 12 other girls were sitting on squishy sofas and beanbags.
‘What’s that pong’ I heard one say.
think it’s coming from over thar,’ said another girl, pointing towards
me. I sniffed at my clothes and realised that I did smell of Flossy, the
boxer dog who was my constant companion.
Teenage tears: Clare was bullied at 10,000-a-term Downe House School
I’d begged my mother to let Flossy accompany us on the drive to the school. When the time finally came to get out of the car and say goodbye, Flossy had snuffled at me as if to say ‘Be strong. Be yourself. You’ll be fine.’
As the other girls stared at me, I tried to tuck myself into a tight ball, hoping I would disappear, but the pack had scented blood.
‘What does your father do’ another girl asked, winding her long blonde hair around her index finger.
‘My dad’s a racehorse trainer,’ I answered. There were snorts and giggles and I heard the word ‘Dad’ being uttered with incredulity.
‘You mean your father’s a stable boy’ the blonde girl said.
‘No, he’s a trainer. He trained Mill Reef.’ Usually, that was my get-out-of-jail card.
‘Mill Reef Never heard of him,’ said a girl whose father was a colonel. ‘But that explains why you stink of manure!’
The other girls laughed hysterically. I got up and silently left the room.
In that first week I was rescued from my misery by a brand-new best friend called Jenny, who shared my love of horses and ponies. Every day I saved her a place at lunch, and she laughed at my jokes and invited me to stay with her during the holidays.
All seemed well until my first weekend at Downe House. After lessons on Saturday morning, we changed out of our uniforms into our own clothes. What I hadn’t realised was that the girls’ self-imposed rules for mufti were stricter than those for uniform.
‘What the hell are you wearing’ demanded Jenny, when I emerged from my dorm in blue cord flares, slightly worn at the knees and with creases down the front, ironed in by our daily, Mrs Jessop.
Clare (left) and brother Andrew (right) were keen on sport from an early age
‘These are my favourite trousers,’ I explained.
‘Well, you’re not coming anywhere near me — not dressed like that.’ And with that, Jenny turned on her winkle-picker heels and marched off.
I saw her later with a gang of girls who, like her, were wearing fashion-able drainpipe trousers and baggy jumpers pulled over their hands. She looked at me with an expression that smacked of something much more dangerous than hatred. It was pity.
I spent most subsequent weekends pretending I was on my way to or from lacrosse practice. That meant I could wear tracksuit bottoms and my green games jumper and get away with it.
After a month, we were allowed a long weekend home. As I waited for my mother outside the school, I watched the other girls greet their parents. A kiss on both cheeks, a bear hug from their fathers: it was physical.
We didn’t do that in our family. My mother’s idea of a public display of affection was a wave, from a distance. As for my maternal grandmother, even a wave was pushing it.
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From 1988 to 1993, Clare was a leading amateur flat jockey and Champion Lady Rider in 1990
spent much of that first year at Downe House in tears, and things did
not improve when it was time to move from the lower to the upper school.
The other three girls in my dorm all seemed infinitely more sophisticated than me. I so wanted to belong to their gang, but they largely ignored me and it seemed impossible that I could ever win their friendship unless I impressed them by being even cooler, even more daring, than they were.
My chance came on a school outing to Oxford. I joined them on a detour into W.H. Smith, led by a girl who, for some reason, was nicknamed Bear.
‘Time for some fun,’ she said. ‘The one who comes out with most free gear is the winner.’
gauntlet was laid down. With my heart thudding against my chest, I
emerged from the shop, my school cloak hiding pockets bulging with
regrouped we were all talking at the same time, asking the same
questions. None of it made any sense, but, if you could smell relief, we
stank of it. I was high on love, laughter and adrenaline. Adversity —
well, crime — had allowed me into the group for the first time, but our
new-found camaraderie wouldn’t last long.
another Saturday morning a few weeks later, we hopped on our bicycles
and headed off to Foxgroves, the local village store. It was approaching
Christmas and I had saved up my pocket-money to buy presents for Bear
and the others, but a girl nicknamed Snorter made it clear that a gift
would mean nothing unless I stole it for her.
chose a tiny pair of plastic mechanical feet which marched forward when
you wound them up. She distracted the shop-keeper, Mr Fell, as I
slipped them into my pocket.
that all’ asked Mr Fell, giving me a strange look as I paid for my
other presents and walked out. ‘Yes,’ I smiled. ‘Thank you so much. You
have lovely things in here.’
If I had looked back, I would have seen Mr Fell shaking his head as he picked up the phone to our headmistress.
Clare has reported from five Olympics, including: Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London
After a dressing-down which filled me with shame, Miss Farr announced that I was to be suspended from school for the rest of that term. I returned to the dorm and started packing.
A tear trickled down my cheek, but I took consolation in having told her nothing which implicated the others. As I dragged my trunk down the stairs, I saw Bear in the hall.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Looks like I got caught — but don’t worry, I didn’t say a word.’
She walked straight past without even looking at me. So much for our special friendship. That hurt me more than anything that had happened that day.
Back home, Mum punished me by banning me from riding. But once Andrew was home, it was harder for her to keep me inside doing schoolwork, and she relented.
My horse, Hattie, was being rested for the winter, so I had to ride Mum’s hunter, Ellie May. She was as plain as you like, with an enormous backside and a bushy tail, and, in my ridiculous Downe House way I was a bit snobbish about her, feeling faintly embarrassed as I rode her through the yard. My suspension from school had left me full of self-loathing, and my head felt dull, as if I was recovering from concussion. Ellie May decided to wake me up.
Not far from the stables were a series of hunting fences, some of which I’d never dared to jump. As we approached the first, a heavy log over red barrels, I lost my nerve and tried to steer her away — but Ellie May ignored my tugging. I could only sit tight and try to go with her.
Fence followed fence, until finally we cleared a set of straw bales topped by a telegraph pole. They were sizeable for an 11-year-old riding an unfamiliar horse, but Ellie May soared over them before finally slowing to a trot.
Puffing with the effort of it all, she turned her head, looked straight at me with her left eye and nodded as if to say: ‘That’ll teach you, you stuck-up little posh girl.’
As we walked home, I thought about where I had gone wrong at Downe House, valuing appearance and possessions above all else and losing my respect for honesty, for kindness and for hard work. Ellie May was the proof I needed that I should not judge anyone on looks alone.
That realisation stood me in good stead when I returned to school the following term. Miss Farr had put me in a house away from the influence of Bear and the others, and in this new environment I made proper friends — friends I still have today.
Suited to the outdoors: Clare was made Head of House after a school trip to the Lake District
I threw myself into all the normal things girls do at school — mainly recording the Top 40 on Radio 1 on my cassette player, and squashing around the TV on Saturdays to watch Dynasty and Dallas.
We knew every character, every eyebrow-lift of Krystle or pout of Alexis, and the whole house hummed as the closing credits rolled. It was enthralling stuff, but no twist of the plot could match the implausibility of my own turnaround in fortunes at Downe House.
Shortly after our O-levels, we went to the Lake District on an Outward Bound course, and on our return I was summoned to see our housemistress, Miss Houghton. She told me how impressed she’d been by the course leader’s report on me and, in particular, how I helped other girls who found the going harder than me.
‘Clare, it has been the making of you,’ she said, then delivered the line I never expected to hear. ‘I would like you to be my Head of House next year.’
I thought she was joking. How could I be Head of House If I’d run a book on it, I’d have made myself a 100-1 shot and would have had no takers — and yet Miss Houghton was clearly serious.
I found coins for the payphone and rang home. Mum sounded as surprised as I was and thrilled, whereas Dad was matter-of-fact.
‘Quite right,’ he said. ‘I always knew you would be.’ I genuinely think Dad had forgotten that I had ever been in trouble.
Sometimes, it’s quite useful that he never remembers a darned thing I have done.
Extracted from My Animals And Other Family by Clare Balding, to be published by Penguin on September 13 at 20.
2012 Clare Balding. To order a copy for 15.99 (incl p&p) call 0843 382 0000. Clare Balding will be a guest speaker at the Daily Mail Literary Lunch on Wednesday, October 17. For information on how to book tickets, visit dailymail.co.uk/books