Belfast Telegraph

Ruth Sanderson... on her childhood growing up in a Presbyterian manse and graduating from university at St Andrews alongside Prince William and Kate Middleton

As she returns to our screens for BBC One NI’s Home Ground, the Banbridge woman talks about her whirlwind romance, why she has returned to the Christian faith she was brought up in and how she became a broadcaster

Ruth Sanderson
Ruth Sanderson
Ruth Sanderson
Ruth Sanderson with Home Ground team Gavin Andrews and Jo Scott
Ruth Sanderson and husband Harry's wedding day
Ruth Sanderson with husband Harry

By Linda Stewart

For many, the news that you could be attending the same university course as a royal could be quite exciting - but for a teenage Ruth Sanderson, it was a disaster.

The 36-year-old Home Ground reporter laughingly describes her schoolgirl reaction when she discovered that Prince William was eyeing the same Art History degree at the University of St Andrews to which she had longed to go from a surprisingly early age.

"My oldest brother went there when I was seven and we went to visit. I remember looking around at all the yellow sandstone glistening and thinking, 'Wow, this is where I want to go to university'," she says.

But just when Ruth was poised to embark on her university career, she was outraged to make the shocking discovery that Prince William was also planning to study at St Andrews. Her fury was documented in a diary she kept while she was revising for A-levels.

A now calmer Ruth explains what she found when she re-read the diary recently: "It was all 'This is the worst news ever! People are going to think that is why I am going there!'

"As if anyone would ever care!" she laughs.

In the end William and Kate were both in her year group and her graduating class, so the graduation was attended by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Camilla.

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"My dad gave me the communist salute when I went up on stage to get my degree. I think he questioned why there was still a monarchy - but it was more in jest!" Ruth says.

Now based back on her home turf of Northern Ireland and embroiled in preparations for the second series of the BBC's Home Ground, Ruth says she has just been recognised on the plane for the first time ever.

She says: "This woman came up to me and said 'Are you Rachel [sic] from Home Ground?' And I said YES!"

Not only is the team embarking on their second series of Home Ground, a rural affairs magazine programme celebrating the richness of life in Northern Ireland's countryside, but they've set themselves a major challenge with a live broadcast from Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula.

Starting on Monday, May 6 on BBC One Northern Ireland at 7pm, over the course of three nights Ruth will join presenters Jo Scott and Gavin Andrews in the grounds of the National Trust property and the surrounding Strangford Lough area.

They will be meeting some of the people who keep the Mount Stewart estate going throughout the year, taking cameras behind the scenes to find out what it takes to keep the estate running, as well as checking out the local wildlife, including red squirrels, badgers and raptors.

"We did an hour-long live broadcast from the Balmoral Show last year but this will be three hour-long programmes from Mount Stewart, focusing on the Ards Peninsula and Strangford Lough," she says.

"Half will be in Mount Stewart and the rest is out recording around the peninsula - the loughs, the food producers, environment stories, the farms and estates. A bit of everything.

"Mount Stewart will be open to the public as well. The National Trust have been so wonderful - so up for everything."

Asked who her heroes are, Ruth cites her parents Bill and Margaret. Her dad was a Presbyterian minister for 40 years.

"They were both Belfast people, from the Shankill and Ardoyne," Ruth says.

"When they first married, they lived in north Belfast, at the start of the Troubles. They were there when everything was kicking off in 1969."

Ruth says she will be exploring some of that period in a forthcoming Radio 4 programme called Breakdown 69, to be broadcast in August.

"My dad was a student minister of 24, and the local clergy put their collars on and went out to try to get people to go home. To go out into that with your collar on, aged 24, trying to get people with guns to go home - I didn't know until recently that had happened."

After moving to Banbridge, her dad became very involved in inter-church co-operation, encountering a certain amount of resistance from people on both sides of the community.

"He was always big on emphasising our similarities rather than our differences. Even talking about it now, those days seem so long ago - but they aren't," she says.

"It was interesting watching Derry Girls and remembering all those feelings you had of never feeling entirely safe and always feeling slightly on edge. It's only been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and it's still a very fragile situation, I think."

Ruth admits the arts and rural affairs have been her two "weird niches" throughout her career, having studied art history and grown up in rural Northern Ireland.

She dredges up fond childhood memories of life with three older brothers in an old Presbyterian manse in Ballydown outside Banbridge, overlooking a river frequented by herons and otters.

"We spent our early years in this big rambling Victorian manse which had bats in the attic and a cricket lawn garden, and then we moved across the road to the new manse, which had the great benefits of central heating and not having bats in the attic," Ruth says.

"It was cool, a bit like Swallows and Amazons. We spent all our time in the attic where there was a model train track - that and Subbuteo were the two great loves in the house.

"We used to have people from the DOE coming out to look at the pipistrelles [bats] every year. You opened this cupboard and it was full of bats hanging upside down sleeping. One of my brothers - we used to lock him in there from time to time! I was so tiny, I was just a foot soldier when all this was happening, but there was definitely a lot of mischief going on."

Ruth says the house was always full of people - people coming to visit, church group meetings, people staying to dinner.

"For a wee show-off like me, it was a ready-made audience. I used to make people listen to my impersonations - there was John Major and, I think, Michael Fish at one point as well," she says.

"Mum and Dad were really, really cool. They were just themselves and never became any other version of what people thought they should be.

"I was definitely encouraged to be myself and not worry about what anybody else thought. To be fair to people in the church, l think they loved us for us. There was never any expectation that you had to be a certain way - they lavished us with care and love.

"It was really special. Thinking back now, what a special way to grow up, being looked after and cared for by dozens and dozens of people as well as your immediate family.

"It's nice growing up having all these influences of people who have known you from a wee tote, encouraging you, giving you guidance and wisdom and inspiring you. What's the phrase - it takes a village - that is pretty pertinent."

She says one of their favourite games was to put tape on their parents' cassette so that they could record their own radio programme over it.

"I still have a cassette tape of me interviewing a teddy bear and getting my mum to record a musical number. It's quite funny to listen to it now, but the problem is getting a cassette player now," she says.

At the time, broadcasting would have been her dream job, but it seemed an impossibility.

"I was growing up in a Presbyterian manse in rural Banbridge and I would never have known anyone who worked in the Beeb or did that kind of thing - how do you get from A to B? I can't believe that this is what I do - it's ridiculous now."

University was brilliant, Ruth says. "Just a whole new range of people with different opinions, different world outlooks, from different countries. It makes you think about who you are and your place in the world, where you fit into everything, how you relate to people."

It was at university that she first met Harry, now her husband, but they didn't get to know each other properly until years later.

"Harry is a plant ecologist. We were the same year at university but didn't really know each other... only to say hello really. In fact, he lived next door to me," she says.

"Then 11 years later we met a mutual friend's wedding and it was an immediate thunderbolt! We got engaged just 11 weeks later."

After coming home - "with my very useful art history degree" - Ruth says she didn't really have a clue what to do, but managed to get some work experience in London through a friend of her brother who worked in ITN.

"It opened my eyes to London, to newsrooms, to that national aspect - something just clicked. I liked being at the middle of things," she says.

Back in Northern Ireland after her work experience, she managed to get an entree into the BBC through the CSV scheme which no longer exists.

"It was a brilliant scheme; you signed on the dole and they trained you up through the bowels of the BBC for six months," she says.

"It was a chance to make connections and to try and get a job. It was totally egalitarian, you didn't have to have wealthy parents who could afford to sub you through work experience for six months.

“It took people from all backgrounds and it’s a shame it’s gone because the media is one of those things where you have to know somebody before you can get in.”

That was a valuable opportunity to learn the nuts and bolts of the industry, and then she managed to get more work at the BBC.

“I started off doing call logging, then I was in the Radio Ulster phone room, then I was working on the Nolan Show for three years, which was my introduction to radio news and live radio. It set me up for doing almost anything else.

“That was at the time of the Iris Robinson affair. It felt like every day there was something that was huge. It was intense and it was busy and it was full on, but when everything has fallen down and everyone’s rushing to try and get the right people on to understand the dynamics of the story and where it’s going to move to and how it’s going to move... things were happening every single day.”

After this she moved to Radio 4, working for Farming Today in Birmingham — “my first taste of being on air”.

It was a great opportunity to do things on a slightly bigger scale and refine the journalism skills. “It was great just having a conversation and recording it in a field somewhere. It’s amazing how much people are willing to tell you when you ask them.”

After this she worked on Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra and did some film and book programme production work on Radio 4 — which she still does from time to time — before going freelance and presenting On Your Farm on Radio 4.

The next big leap was when a role came up to take part in a new rural affairs programme in Northern Ireland, Home Ground. Once she came back to Northern Ireland to film for the series, she fell in love with the Ards Peninsula and both she and Harry decided to move back.

“It was a big leap of faith, suddenly having to think about putting make-up on in the morning and brushing your hair before you do a report! It’s a different beast,” she says.

“Basically the countryside is fizzing with activity, whether it’s on farms, up mountains, in rivers, or in the seas or the loughs. And it’s about being there for those big moments that are happening, whether it’s harvesting or renovating a sheep hut or doing the yearly bird surveys, or lambing.

“We’ve been lambing. Mount Stewart has been opening lots of new trails and we helped with cutting down trees and doing a bit of coppicing. We looked at the history of Mount Stewart, we walked across sand flats and looked at invasive turtles on the Ards Peninsula.

“Presenter Gavin Andrews’ reaction to the lambing was quite funny — he looked brave but stricken. When you watch it, you’ll see what I mean!”

On Brexit, she says: “When you get the majority of people who work in business, in agriculture and economics, saying this is going to be detrimental, you’ve got to listen to that.  I think we are living through unprecedented times politically at Westminster and I think the Westminster government isn’t really set up to deal with the polarisation that we have in politics. I can see it stretching under the strain. It seems to me that this has exposed bigger fissures in British society that we maybe didn’t realise were there and I guess that has to be dealt with.”

Ruth is passionate about tackling the gender pay gap and pays tribute to the likes of radio editor Di Speirs and Countryfile presenter Charlotte Smith as great influences.

“I’ve been really lucky to work with such brilliant women. I think it’s important to have female role models, women who help us and give us a pat on the back and give us words of advice,” she says.

As for the MeToo movement, she adds: “I think anybody who grew up before the MeToo meme would have come across situations where they felt uncomfortable or undermined, especially as it’s often women who are starting work at 21 or 22 and have never seen much of life before.

“Having good women round you is brilliant. I look at people starting in the industry now and they are so much more assertive and ballsier than I was and much clearer on boundaries.

“I do a bit of mentoring through our church, which is good because when I was growing up I had women who I would have been able to talk to, who had more life experience.

“They’re a good sounding board so it’s nice to do that as well, to have a chat.

“Sometimes that is where the important stuff comes out, being able to talk to someone and get their advice and tell them about your life and see what they think. I had that growing up with the older women in church and it was invaluable, that collective wisdom.”

Ruth admits she had grown away from church for a while but says she still has a faith and has got involved again.

“I didn’t for a while — it was very up and down. I think everybody goes through that time of introspection and wondering what their path is. I went through that. You accept all the freedom that comes with growing up and living away and wanting to try life in a different way,” she says.

“(Returning) was a gradual thing that happened, but I’m currently getting involved in church again and it was really good because I missed it so much, being somewhere and helping out and making the tea.

“It’s been great to come back to (my faith), not on anyone else’s terms but for myself rather than any other reason.”

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