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"I loved standing inside a tornado"

Richard Hammond discusses walking on the wild side

By Jeananne Craig

Whether he's discussing his hair-raising new TV show, his Top Gear road trips, or his passion for Downton Abbey, Richard Hammond brims with boyish enthusiasm.

Indeed, even standing in the middle of a tornado in the upcoming BBC One series Wild Weather - an experience that would reduce most of us to grey-faced, queasy wrecks - the pint-sized presenter can barely contain his excitement.

"It's the most astonishing feeling, it's dizzying," Hammond, known to fans as 'The Hamster', exclaims from inside the simulated twister. "The world is roaring past and spinning around me, but I'm still!"

Similarly, when donning heavy duty clothing before venturing outdoors in the place said to have the worst weather in the world (Mount Washington in New Hampshire, USA), he cheerfully dons his goggles and explains, "your eyeballs can freeze, and any exposed skin, you'll have frostbite on it within two or three minutes".

On three-parter Wild Weather, which aims to "strip weather back to basics", Hammond also creates a 10m high whirlwind made of fire, detonates an avalanche and builds an enormous dust cloud.

But then, such daredevil antics are nothing new for the Solihull-born star, who sustained a serious brain injury in September 2006, when the jet-powered dragster he was driving for Top Gear crashed on a airfield in Yorkshire.

He was back on the motoring show the following January, and reckons work probably helped his recovery. In addition to Top Gear, which visits Belfast's Odyssey Arena next May for a live stage show, he has also hosted documentary series Planet Earth Live, children's science show Blast Lab and the adventure game show Total Wipeout.

Hammond had another hairy - and headline-grabbing - moment filming the Top Gear Christmas special in Argentina, when the hosts (Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May) and crew fled the country after protests over the numberplate on Clarkson's Porsche.

Some interpreted the plate - which read 'H982 FKL' - as a reference to the 1982 Falklands War, but the show's producers insisted it wasn't planned.

"Some members of the crew had a very frightening experience. There's little to add from us now, our view now is; let's put the show together and people will see it and make up their own minds," says Hammond, who seems keen to draw a line under the experience.

"You'll be able to see for yourself, and judge for yourself what happened and what you think of it."

Since joining the award-winning car show for its relaunch in 2002, Hammond has spent much of his working life on the road - which makes the time he spends at home in Herefordshire (in a house nicknamed 'Hamelot'), with wife Mindy and daughters Izzy and Willow, all the more precious.

Even if it means settling down to watch all the "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Dancing Out Of The House type things".

"The thing is, I travel so much that when I get home, I want to spend time with the girls. Unfortunately, they want to spend time watching things I wouldn't choose to watch," he admits fondly.

"I've perfected the art of sitting in the room on the sofa but staring at the wall above the fireplace instead of the telly."

Surprisingly, given the rather laddish show he co-hosts, he doesn't enjoy watching much sport. "Though my eldest daughter likes watching football," he says. "She's a very avid hockey player and she likes watching it for the tactics and strategies. I'll sit and watch football with her and pretend to be massively enthusiastic."

Hammond is much more keen on cosy Downton Abbey. "I can embrace early middle-age, I'm 44, it's time I watch things like Downton, so I do," he declares. "My wife and I sit there and then it finishes and we both just stare at the screen waiting for the next week. But now the series has finished ... Oh God! It's not very cool, but there you go."

Hammond comes across as a highly agreeable, easygoing sort. But how on earth does he cope with Clarkson on those epic road trips?

"By being in a different car, that helps. Switching my radio off, so he can't talk to me. Ignoring my telephone. These are the coping mechanisms that we've both devised and we both use the same tactics.

"To be fair, we have a laugh, actually," he adds. "But yes - it's awful!"

  • Wild Weather With Richard Hammond begins on BBC One on Monday. Top Gear Live comes to Belfast's Odyssey Arena on May 22&23, visit odysseyarena.com. Top Gear: The Perfect Road Trip 2 is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray from bbcshop.com

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