BBC sports presenter Jake Humphrey is the new ambassador for the Norfolk charity Break.

But as Angi Kennedy discovers, he's happy to champion the whole county.

Jake's life in the fast lane

BBC sports presenter Jake Humprey is the new ambassador for the Norfolk charity Break. But as Angi Kennedy discovers, he's happy to champion the whole county.

Picture: Simon Finlay

There can’t be too many young men who, when asked to suggest a place that would be appropriate to photograph them, would immediately suggest their parish church.

And this is no vicar but TV sports presenter and face of BBC’s Formula One coverage, Jake Humphrey. Yet Caistor St Edmund’s church, nestling beside the silent remains of the Venta Icenorum Roman settlement, holds special significance for Jake.

It is where he married his sweetheart Harriet – daughter of former head of Great Yarmouth High School Ivan Pegg – “on the only sunny weekend in August” two years ago. His sister Rachel, presently on maternity leave from the NHS, married there and his brother Thomas, who works at the Hewett School in Norwich, plans to do so next year.

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“Not too bad a spot to be buried ... or to be married!” quips Jake, as he picks his way between the gravestones in the churchyard overlooking the Tas Valley. It’s just a couple of miles from the delightful family home at Stoke Holy Cross, where Jake grew up and where he returns to as often as his long-haul travels following the Formula One season around the world allow.

It is obvious that his family ties are still tremendously strong and rooted in Norfolk. He adores his young nephew and niece; Joseph is nearly three and equally mad about his uncle, while nine-month-old Matilda breaks into a wide smile at the sight of Jake.

The family banter at home is relentless but good humoured, as his parents, Liz, a retired teacher at the Hewett School, and Rex, retired chief executive of Age Concern Norfolk, reveal how Jake’s commitment to his television work has affected their lives in the past 11 years since he took his first steps in front of the camera with Rapture TV’s G@mers series in 1999 after beginning as a runner with Anglia TV.

“It’s true,” he grins. “The first thing I do when I’ve finished any broadcast is ring home. I ask them to be brutally honest and tell me what they thought of it and if they noticed any mistakes, oh and to tell me how Norwich City got on.”

Rex agrees: “He’s been like it throughout his career – it’s meant we have had to watch so much TV. It’s okay now with the sport, but in the early days it’d be something like a monster lobster and he’d say ‘Dad, was that gunging good enough?’!”

It was Rex who was instrumental in linking up Jake with the Norfolk-based charity Break. He has just become their “celebrity ambassador”, a role he is determined to fulfil in far more than name alone.

“It all came about because of Dad,” explains Jake, over a cup of coffee at his parents’ kitchen table. “I wanted to do something long-term with a charity in Norfolk and I asked his advice on which was a well-run, great charity in the county. He came up with Break, so I visited some of their projects and asked them what I could do for them that might be useful.”

For over 40 years, the Sheringham-based charity has been helping vulnerable children, adults and families through its range of inspiring initiatives. The services Break provides across East Anglia include supported holidays, short breaks, respite care, and day care for individuals with learning disabilities, homes for looked after children – including one specialist home for young people with profound disabilities, care and rehabilitation services for women with enduring mental health needs, assessments for families in crisis and e-mentoring and transition work with young people leaving care.

Break has recently opened a brand new purpose-built residential and short break facility in King’s Lynn for children aged five to 18 with complex needs. “Life can be a real struggle for the parents, brothers and sisters of these children,” explains Jake. “By having somewhere that the child can go for a few days, they can have a little bit of a break and a chance to centre themselves again.

“I want to get across to the people of Norfolk what a fantastic national charity this is, based right here in Norfolk but affecting the lives of kids and their families across the country.”

As well as raising awareness of the charity, Jake hopes to organise a fundraising effort for Break, possibly with two of the big names in F1, David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan. He is also organising a competition prize of a trip to the McLaren headquarters to be raffled off at the Royal Norfolk Show ball, of which Break is the beneficiary this year.

“When you are flying around the world in this business it is easy to forget how hard it is for charities, especially in the current economic climate,” he says. “But I would really like to be involved and make a difference.“There are billions of pounds washing around the F1 paddock. Just 0.1pc of that money would make such a huge difference to a charity like Break.”

His involvement has also given Jake another excuse to visit Norfolk – not that he ever stays away for long. In recent months he has given his support to inspiring young people from Norfolk and Suffolk at the Bernard Matthews Youth Awards, as well as promoting eco-driving at Lotus’ Hethel base, near Wymondham.

“I have a real love of my county,” says Jake proudly. “I can’t put my finger on why Norfolk is so special, but whether I am in Australia or Abu Dhabi or Canada in between, it is Norfolk that I love. Harriet feels the same – we were very close to buying a house here not so long ago and I feel sure we will do.”

The couple met at a nightclub on Prince of Wales Road in Norwich in the summer of 1999. “I had just started working at Rapture, and it was three weeks before she was going off to university,” recalls Jake. Harriet, 29, now works as a production manager for Endemol, the company behind TV series including Big Brother, Deal or No Deal and Total Wipeout.

Jake, who went to Framingham Earl High School and sixth form at Hewett, continues: “We had such a nice upbringing here and we would love our children to have the same. I was born in Peterborough but we moved to Norfolk when I was about seven, first to Thorpe St Andrew and then here to Stoke Holy Cross. I remember the day we moved in and my parents sent me to cycle up the road to have a look around – it was so lovely.

“I got a little job delivering the EDP and when I’m walking round the village today people still say to me that they remember when I used to deliver their papers. “I really love the support I get from people here. I am a Norfolk boy and I am proud to say so. I would love my kids to have that sort of a lifestyle and sense of belonging too.

 “We have a lovely tradition in our family of going for a New Year’s Day walk on Winterton beach, with a bit of lunch at the Fisherman’s Return – perfect. “I feel that I am ready for children now, but I do wonder how I would cope with having to be away from them so much – I have just agreed to do F1 with the BBC to the end of 2012, and there is so much travelling involved. But I love having my niece and nephew; they are great practice for when we have our own.”

Securing the Formula One slot with the BBC has been a dream come true for Jake, who has also presented Football Focus, Final Score and Match of the Day, as well as the Super Bowl, the 2008 Olympics and Sports Personality of the Year. “Formula One was always a love of mine,” he says. “I remember watching Ayrton Senna in the old Lotus, and also my uncle, Michael at Wisbech, was a stockcar champion.

“I longed to go into sports presenting. I can remember watching the Anglia TV sports presenter Kevin Piper and thinking ‘Man, he’s got a great job!’ But I knew I couldn’t expect to walk straight into something like that – I’m not a trained journalist or ex-sportsman – so it was  just amazing when I got the job in sport. I was fresh out of children’s BBC; I    look back now and think how brave they were.”

But if the BBC was willing to give him his big break, Jake has certainly repaid its confidence, quickly winning over critics who suggested he was too young and inexperienced. There were two glittering moments for Jake last year – the first when his hero, the iconic F1 commentator Murray Walker complimented him on “doing an absolutely fantastic job” and the second when Des Lynam chose him as his  sports presenter of the year in his newspaper column.

Such endorsements have led Jake to approach this year’s new Formula One season in a slightly more relaxed frame  of mind. “One of my aims is to allow myself to enjoy it a bit more this year. When I got the job I felt I had to prove myself. Massive kudos to the BBC for giving a 29-year-old former kids’ TV presenter the opportunity to present Formula One but it is only now when I talk to people do they admit what a big risk it was.”

As the engines start to roar and the pit lanes buzz with activity again though, Jake knows he is ready to be gripped by the adrenaline rush of being at the very heart of this most high-octane and glamorous of sports. The season began in Bahrain in mid-March, through Melbourne in Australia on March 28 to the Malaysian race on April 4 and Shanghai for the Chinese leg two weeks later.

Jake admits he will have a close eye through the season on the fate of the new Lotus grand prix car from the Norfolk manufacturer, which marks the return of the once-world beating name to Formula One after some 15 years. “I think Lotus will do all right,” he says. “Mike Gascoyne, the technical director, has worked with some of the greatest teams in F1; they have two drivers who are race-winners in Kovalainen and Trulli, and there is the pressure of the legacy of all those years of Lotus.

“Having been round the factory, I have seen that it is by and large Norfolk lads doing this – I think there is going to be a real sense of this being Norfolk against the world. That’s the sort of spirit that galvanises a team – I am getting a good feeling about them.

“When I am on air I will be the impartial man with the BBC, but I am sure that beneath it all I will still feel a flutter of excitement when that Lotus rolls out of the garage.” He believes the return of Michael Schumacher, seven times world champion, will also bring a fresh sense of excitement to the racing this season. “To get someone who has already achieved so much in his life is amazing,” he says. “They say they had forgotten how driven he is and what a will he has to win – that’s what makes him something special.

“I think we will look back on 2010 as one heck of a year in Formula One. We have Alonso in a Ferrari, Lotus coming back after all those years, two British drivers in the same team and the return of Schumacher, it’s mindboggling and more than I could ever have wished for.

“I love presenting Formula One and the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, and to present the 2012 Olympics is a massive dream of mine too – I would love to be lucky enough to do that. “I rang my mum the other day and said to her I really am the luckiest man alive – I have a lovely wife, a nice house that we are doing up and a fantastic job. I am just so happy with my lot in life.”