Bettany Hughes: ‘I end up in tombs all the time, but I’m scared of the dark and claustrophobic’


My earliest memory is being in an empty reservoir with my father when I was three. It was a hot summer afternoon and the grass was bleached and golden. He’d just started an allotment and I toddled off while they were picking blackberries. People were petrified. I remember thinking, “Why are they looking so anxious?”

My childhood was incredibly happy. We didn’t go anywhere as there was no ready cash – my mother and father were actors – but it was full of love and interest. It was a mix of very Victorian and bohemian. It was strict. They taught us manners, principles and values, but in a broad-minded way. And what I definitely got from my parents was how important it is to share stories.

I was a complete tomboy. I only wore trousers and army fatigues until I was 13. Then I added an ancient Greek-inspired gold headband. Very fancy. It was a bit Xena: Warrior Princess. I pretended to be a boy so I could play on the cricket team. I spent most of my childhood in the garden being target practice for my brother’s bowling. I had to get very fast reactions. Simon ended up a professional cricketer.

I am ridiculously optimistic. I learned it from my parents. I was very aware they had no idea where the next day’s work was coming from and you have to be optimistic in those situations, otherwise you’d crumple. I’m not relentlessly cheerful, though. I’m often overcome with sadness and sorrow. I spend quite a lot of time weeping, but I almost think that’s inevitable if you care about the world.

My worst habit is late-night chocolate and, occasionally, late-night gin and tonic too. I write late into the night and at half 11 or quarter to 12 I feel I need a bit of a treat.

I remember saying to my mum I was going to marry a bankrupt circus producer and watching her face slightly rearrange. I knew quite quickly when I met Adrian [Evans, with whom she has two daughters: Sorrel, 27, and May, 22] that he was the one. He’s very optimistic and incredibly talented. He’s a freelance arts producer of large-scale community-based events. He was the pageant master for the Diamond and Platinum Jubilees. The secret to a happy relationship? Maintaining mutual respect.

In my line of work, I end up in tombs the whole time, but I’m scared of the dark and I’m claustrophobic. I got trapped in an underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey, 35 years ago. There were no lights, I was on my own. I ended up in a tunnel that was getting smaller and smaller and deeper and deeper. Petrifying.

My greatest regret? There was a pair of electric pink jodhpurs from Jigsaw that were in the sale in 1989 and I didn’t buy them. That’s lived with me.

I love getting older because I get wiser. Every day you learn so much about yourself and the world. I don’t like the belly fat, which has appeared overnight. I was sitting down and thought, “Oh my God, there’s something in my lap.” Then, I realised it was my belly…

I was the first female historian to present a history series on TV in the UK in the year 2000. Extraordinary. I had no idea.. I did the Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture on BBC2 and said, “Can you find out who was the first?” They said, “It’s you.” Young girls write to me all the time to say they want to do things like me and it’s the best thing. It makes everything worthwhile. People ask, what’s my proudest moment? That response is…

Bettany Hughes’s Treasures of the World is on Channel 4 each Saturday at 7pm

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