TV presenter Lucy Alexander on Homes Under the Hammer and life in her Thames Ditton manor house
Co-presenter of the popular morning TV show Homes Under the Hammer on BBC1, Lucy Alexander knows a thing or two about climbing the property ladder – as her breathtaking Arts and Crafts manor house in Thames Ditton testifies. Here, she chats to Angela Wintle about her idyllic home life in Surrey – and why she’s never been happier
TV presenter Lucy Alexander doesn’t need viewing figures to gauge the popularity of her BBC1 morning show, Homes Under the Hammer. She gets a daily reminder when she walks her two children to school. “All the students who pass us on their way to Esher College start humming the theme tune,” she grins. “Who’d have thought teenagers would enjoy a daytime property show?”
But it seems the programme, which has been running for nine years and regularly attracts 2.79 million viewers, has wide-spread appeal. “We get a diverse audience,” says Lucy. “Men like it because it’s not a fluffy makeover programme, and we have a cult following with students at uni, too. I get a lot of feedback. People love to tell me about a particular property that stuck out in their minds – whether it’s the public toilet in Bristol, which was converted into a luxury one-bedroom house, or the telephone repeater station in the middle of a field in Dover, which was turned into a band rehearsal room.
“The show is the perfect mix of property and human interest. People love following the real-life human stories and watching the highs and lows. And then there’s that exciting auction element. What will the sale price be? Why didn’t they view the property beforehand? And how will they increase the value after the purchase?”
Where the heart is
Lucy, 42, is chatting to me from the luxurious six-bedroom Arts and Crafts manor house in Thames Ditton she shares with her husband, ex-premier league footballer Stewart Castledine, 39, and their two children, Kitty, nine, and Leo, six.
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She admits she broke every rule in the book when she bought her own home at auction because she hadn’t even set foot in it, let alone had a structural survey undertaken or checked the land registry.
“We’re impulsive and gambled on this, but I’d never advocate anyone else doing it,” she says. “I should add, though, that I knew the area well – we only lived 20 doors up – and knew what needed to be done. I could see by looking through the windows that it had been converted into five flats, and whatever it looked like inside didn’t matter because we planned to knock it about turning it back into a family home.”
Besides, Lucy is no newcomer to the property market, having bought and sold no fewer than 12 flats and houses. “I bought my first flat when I was 18, and when it made a profit I was hooked!” she laughs. “It’s compulsive. Almost every time I film Homes Under the Hammer, I think: ‘I should have bought this!’, though I only buy places where I know I can add value.”
The trick, she admits, is choosing properties in the ‘right’ area – and her own home was no exception. “Thames Ditton, sandwiched between Bushy Park and Kingston, is such a lovely little village with charming gift and coffee shops, and all sorts of attractions on the doorstep – from Bocketts Farm in Fetcham, where we take the kids, to the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
“We moved to Surrey 12 years ago and for me it ticks all the boxes – not least because it takes just half an hour to commute to London. Our children love it here. Kitty, who likes singing and dancing, attends the Guildford School of Acting. And Leo, who takes after his dad, plays for the Chelsea Academy in Cobham.”
Lucy cheerfully admits, however, that her filming commitments leave her with little time to pursue her own leisure activities. “People assume television is such a glamorous job, but I can assure you that Homes Under the Hammer isn’t! We often film on cold, wet mornings in crumbling properties riddled with spiders and rising damp. And I love swapping stories with my co-presenter, Martin Roberts – usually, the horror story of the week involving a dead pigeon.
“Martin is great fun. He has two young children, so he’s really into fatherhood. And he runs his own property investment company, so he’s usually rushing about, with his wardrobe in the back of the car. He also borrows my hairspray too often for my liking. People think we’re married!”
The success of the show is due, in no small part, to their bubbly personalities, and this certainly helps to put the buyers at ease in the programme. “They often admit we inspired them to go along to auction in the first place,” says Lucy, though she acknowledges this doesn’t deter them from making fundamental mistakes.
The most common? “People should stick to their budget because they get carried away in the heat of the moment and end up paying too much. One of the biggest mistakes is that they don’t bother to read the legal pack. A new clause has been added stating the purchaser has to pay the seller’s fees, so you can get caught out on things like flying freeholds. We’re also seeing a lot of people who don’t have the finance. They pay the ten per cent deposit, then lose the property 28 days later because they’re unable to pay the remainder.”
On the property ladder
Lucy’s route into the property world was far from conventional. A precocious youngster, she grew up in east Dulwich and was just nine when she talked her mum into taking her to tap-dancing classes. Later, she landed a coveted place at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in Clapham, before ultimately studying musical theatre at the London Studio Centre in Islington, where she met her close friend, fellow actress Tamsin Outhwaite.
She secured her big TV break on the Nickleodeon Channel, then joined Channel 5 where she presented the flagship children’s show Milkshake and the cult gameshow It’s a Knock Out, before jumping ship to Sky’s TV TravelShop Channel.
Meanwhile, she met Stewart, her future husband, through Robin Banks, her co-presenter on Nickleodeon. “He said: ‘You should meet my friend – he’s on the front cover of Mizz magazine.’ I was a bit sceptical, but when I took a peek and discovered how handsome he was, I agreed to meet him that evening! We hit it off from the start and he proposed within months.”
Both she and Stewart auditioned as presenters for Homes Under the Hammer, though, of course, Lucy got the gig, and her hubby went on to present the DIY show Big Strong Boys on BBC1.
The popularity of her hit property programme shows no signs of waning, but does she ever worry about its long-term future? “Of course, but I’m hoping the BBC will use me in other areas,” she says. “I’m looking to do some new programmes, which is very exciting, though I can’t reveal more at this stage. My dream would be to present a hospital programme and a healthy lifestyle show...”
It seems Lucy could be popping up on our screens for a long time to come.
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Ye Olde Swan, a beautiful 13th century riverside inn at Thames Ditton. It’s a traditional pub with a delightful outside seating area, and in winter they light cosy, roaring fires. They do the best Sunday lunch and you’ll often see me there with my family.
Shops: It would have to be The Stitchery and Bradley & Brown, in Thames Ditton, which, between them, sell a wonderful range of gifts and home ware – from cards and chocolates to mugs, jewellery and cushions.
View: From my kitchen window, which overlooks our walled garden. I can often hear our neighbour’s children practising their violins and, for me, it represents security, homeliness and happiness.
Place to relax: The Lime Tree on Thames Ditton High Street. They do the best coffee, home-made cakes and pastries, as well as fabulous organic lunches. I like to sit outside with a magazine and relax.
Place to visit: Bushy Park, near Hampton Court Palace, which boasts woodland and water gardens, not to mention the spectacular 18th century Diana Fountain. It’s a great place to take the kids.