Many women agonies over how much they should bring their children to work – not necessarily literally, like today, but about how much they talk about them, and how their family situation impacts on professional decisions.
‘You can’t,’ she admits. ‘You can just about do it with one. With three it’s just not possible. Before you have kids I don’t think you appreciate how life-altering it is. Every aspect of your life has changed forever.
‘Every career decision, every night out, requires a thought process you didn’t have to make before.’
So how many nights out does she manage? She snorts with laughter and reminds me she’s 47 with three small kids.
It’s going to get worse too. Next year her twins go to school, and it is the policy for them to be in separate classes.
‘Think of the number of birthday parties we’ll have to reason into a weekend,’ she says, in mock horror. ‘It’s the thing, too, to invite all their classmates, so we’re looking at two different parties on the same day, with 70 kids involved.’
But Julia wouldn’t have it any other way. She still has the air of a mum who can’t quite believe she has three children, because the path to motherhood has been harder than she’s previously revealed.
When she first decided she’d like to give Zephyr a little brother or sister, it didn’t happen. It took five stressful rounds of IVF before she became pregnant – against all the odds.
‘I was 44 when they were born. I was high risk in every class. By all statistical chances I shouldn’t have got pregnant, even with IVF. I should have lost one of the twins. As every single month of the pregnancy passed I was just so grateful. I hate the term “blessed” but I was.’
There’s nothing rose-tinted about her memories of the twins’ birth, though. The girls were born 45 minutes apart – an unusually long gap with twins.
A planned C-section because one of the girls was in the breach place was scrapped just the day before she went into labour because the baby had turned, meaning a natural delivery was possible. Xanthus emerged without too much difficulty, but Zena was more problematic.
‘She’d turned the wrong way and suddenly it got very complicated and medics were running into the room.’ Amid the commotion, Julia was suddenly acutely aware it was her own life that was in danger.
‘They couldn’t stop the bleeding. I remember looking down and there was so much blood. You hear of women bleeding out, don’t you? I remember saying to the consultant, “Please don’t let me die”, and he was shaking his head and saying, “I won’t, I won’t”.
‘But there was blood all over the place, on the floor. I was thinking, “Please don’t let this be the way”.’
She shudders, and the laughs coming from the girls trying on her shoes suddenly seem more poignant. Little wonder she seems pragmatic about having had to wave goodbye to certain types of jobs just because she can’t be away from home for weeks at a time.
Although Julia says she and her partner, property developer Gerard Cunningham, ‘absolutely work as a team’, she admits her children don’t want her to go away at all.
‘My kids hate it. Zena in particular gets very upset when she sees me packing a bag. She’ll always cry, “Mummy, I don’t want you to go to work.”’ Is it a necessary evil?
‘It’s not just about the money. It’s your identity. It’s also about being an example to them. But I do think you have to be honest with the people you work with and say, “Yes, I can do this” or “No, I can’t do that”.
‘I wouldn’t want to short change anyone. I wouldn’t want to take on a job I couldn’t fulfil if the constraints of motherhood made it more difficult. You don’t want people saying, “Her heart isn’t in it.”’
Few are as candid about this sort of struggle. Once, she says, her honesty was used against her when TV bosses tried to pay her less because she was up front about the hours she could work.
‘Was it used against me? Yes, it was an excuse [to pay less] than a negotiating tactic, I think.’
At the time, a few years ago, she did not make a fuss. ‘I let it go. Sometimes the right thing to do is to fight and create a hoo-ha, sometimes it’s to let it go.’
The landscape is very different today, given the controversy about equal pay in TV. She shrugs. ‘Maybe if it happened again now it would be a different story.’
Julia believes that there are still issues with the gender pay gap when it comes to presenters
On paper, her latest show sounds like exactly the sort of job that would be tricky for her to take on, given it involved filming in gorgeous locations in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and throughout England, from the Lakes to St Ives in Cornwall, up hills and down dales. Britain’s Favourite Walks: Top 100 is a two-and-a-half-hour programme based on a poll of 8,000 walking enthusiasts that takes the viewer to all corners of the UK.
It must have taken more than a few breakfasts away from home to film, then? ‘Well, for this one I didn’t get to do every walk,’ she admits, explaining that she physically completed only a handful herself, while other enthusiasts, some celebs among them, were brought in to do the rest.
Famous faces like Robert Bathurst, Ade Edmondson, Janet Street-Porter, Larry Lamb and Cath Tyldesley take off on their own favorite walks, while walking experts, nature aficionados and members of the public offer insights into the hikes. These include the Rye to Camber Sands walk in Sussex and a trip up the stunning Scafell Pike in the Lake District.
Julia’s long been a passionate advocate of walking, whether as a hobby, a fitness tool or a way to stay sane. She’s had her own mental health issues (she’s been very open before about how she had counselling in her thirties) and says walking helps her ‘clear her head and think things through’.
‘I wasn’t actually diagnosed with clinical depression, I was just struggling with some personal issues and work, and things got on top of me. But I’m not squeamish, I don’t think subjects like this should be taboo. We all need help sometimes. I saw someone for about three months and he was brilliant.’
There’ve been no similar life wobbles since? This chapter of her life, juggling young children and a demanding job does sound particularly stressful. ‘No, because this is what I wanted more than anything. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, you’re permanently snickered. But I wanted my babies more than anything. It’s my job now to make it work.’
Her own favourite walks are in the Peak District where she grew up, because they’re tied with childhood memories. ‘That was where I walked with my dad. Long gone are the days when we’d walk mountains together. His knees are going. But we still do gentle ambles.’
And her mum? She laughs. ‘My job is all about getting people to walk and I haven’t managed it with my mum. When Dad and I did a walk she’d meet us at the end with a picnic but she’s never been up a mountain in her life. I’ve failed there.’
She says she’s a ‘complete mix’ of her mother and father. Her dad Michael is ‘quite reserved, very British’ and her mum, Chrissi, who’s Greek, is the opposite. Julia says she herself can get quite ‘Greek’ with the kids. ‘The Greek bit is definitely in me – bubbling over, fierce, passionate. I can be a handful. The kids don’t want me to get angry. I don’t think I’m a shouty mum but they do say, “Mummy, don’t shout.”’
She says she’s promised her partner she won’t talk too much about him –‘This isn’t his world’ – but it’s clear that household and childcare chores are shared equally is key to her success.
‘There’s parity there. We’re both housewives. I think things have changed so much in homes – it’s not the 1950s any more – but it would be good to see that reflected in workplaces. Everyone loves to see pictures of the Hollywood star who’s hands on with his kids, but what about the man who works in the tax office? There’s still a culture that it isn’t OK for him to say he needs to go to the nativity play.’
She and Gerard have never married, and have no plans to do so. ‘I’ve never had the vision of the big white wedding. It’s not my cup of tea and I don’t think we need to. We’re individuals. You don’t need marriage to have a strong family unit. Plus have you seen how long people spend arranging weddings? I can’t think of anything worse.’
Interestingly she’s had a string of TV ‘husbands’ – being paired up with, among others, Nicky Campbell, Nick Knowles, Ben Shephard, Tim Vine, Richard Hammond, Adrian Simpson and Matt Baker. Oh and John Craven on Countryfile, of course. ‘But don’t call John my telly husband. He was most definitely my uncle. I still call him Uncle John.’
For Britain’s Favourite Walks her sidekick is presenter and 2016 Strictly winner Ore Oduba. ‘We had a lot of fun filming,’ says Julia. ‘He tried to teach me the samba and I taught him about scrambling fells!’
Julia’s stint presenting Country file came after the departure of Miriam O’Reilly, who successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination following her removal from the show’s presenting team. When in 2014, after the employment tribunal’s verdict, Julia said the decision to drop Miriam was not about age, Miriam was furious, accusing her of ‘****-licking’ [male BBC executives] on Twitter.
In light of the furore over the male/female pay divide at the BBC, what’s Julia’s opinion? She says it’s ‘difficult’. ‘As a general rule I believe there should be parity. If you’re doing the same job and have the same level of experience, then yes, absolutely there should be equal pay. But there’s a slightly muddy area in TV where you have a different measure of celebrity, or star quality. It’s a difficult area to define.’
The BBC pattern, however, would suggest it’s always the male star that shines brighter. ‘Yes, and that’s clearly not the case,’ she says. Has Julia personally been in the situation where she discovered her telly husband was being paid more than her? ‘No,’ she says.
‘At the start I never knew what anyone else was earning. You’d never ask. But one time I discovered my male co-presenter was earning less. I know he got a pay adjustment very, very quickly, bringing us up to the same level. Would that have happened the other way round? I don’t think the female would have reached equal pay as quickly.’
The male-female TV pairing is oh so traditional, though. Has she ever been paired with a woman? ‘No!’ she says, ‘But I’d love that. Why not? I know the convention is to have a man and a woman but look at Strictly – Claudia and Tess disproved that.
‘I’d like to see it happen more. I understand they want to have people both men and women can relate to, but audiences know you don’t need a man to tell you one thing and a woman to tell you another. A telly wife? Bring it on!’
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