Star of The Grand Tour Richard Hammond promised himself two treats for his 50th birthday just before Christmas. The first was perhaps to be expected – a bespoke Morgan sports car painted matte black and furnished with a red leather interior. After all, this is the man who found fame and fortune for his motoring exploits alongside Jeremy Clarkson and James May on BBC’s Top Gear before the trio recreated their inimitable four-wheeled chemistry on Amazon Prime’s The Grand Tour.
Hammond’s second birthday treat required more than one stiff whisky and long hours pondering over a design. ‘The only thing I really wanted when I hit 50 was a tattoo. It will read micris fidelis, which in cod Latin means faithful to small things but is also the perfect anagram of midlife crisis.
‘It took me bloody ages to work that one out. I could have gone for the skull and crossbones but micris fidelis works perfectly – although I won’t tell you where on my body I’m going to put it.’
Hammond is doing what he does best, partaking in some great British banter at the bar of swanky 11 Cadogan Gardens, just off Sloane Square. He’s freshly returned from Madagascar, filming for the documentary series BIG!, screening on the Discovery Channel later this month.
Despite the rite of passage tattoo, Hammond insists he genuinely doesn’t enjoy big birthday celebrations. ‘Fiftieth birthdays are generally full of people you don’t want to see anyway,’ he laughs.
‘Besides, my wife Mindy couldn’t top the massive surprise bash she threw for my 40th. I was helicoptered in to London for what I thought was an awards ceremony. I stood backstage, then the curtain drew back and I thought, “F***, I know all those people in the audience – and what’s my favourite Kawasaki motorbike doing on the stage?”’
Yet despite his professed party phobia (‘We will probably end up doing nothing at all and I will sit there being moody and thinking, “Oh bollocks”’), Hammond had much to celebrate on 19 December – not least because reaching the big 5-0 was far from a certainty.
He has survived two near-fatal car crashes – the first in 2006, when his jet-powered dragster flipped while he was filming Top Gear. He spent two weeks in a coma and is still learning to cope with the mental trauma.
Then in 2017 Hammond tumbled a £2 million sports car down an Alpine ravine, shattering his right knee.
‘It was pinned together at huge expense in a Swiss hospital. When they do the Latin tattoo, I’m also having a Swiss army knife on my leg to show off the scars.’
In reality, the presenter is more circumspect about the first crash, which left Top Gear fans around the world anxiously waiting for news of his condition. ‘I’ve really tried my best not to live long enough to be in Saga. I never thought I’d make 50,’ he says now.
‘I don’t remember anything about the hospital in Leeds. Then I was transferred to Bristol and a doctor explained my head injury could create a tendency towards compulsion, possibly obsession, paranoia and temper loss. My wife, Mindy, just looked up and said, “Did you meet Richard before the accident?”’
Despite his light-heartedness, Hammond is the first to admit the road to recovery has been long and difficult. One of his saviours was the late Professor Sid Watkins, a British neurosurgeon and trackside doctor in Formula One. Known as ‘The Prof’, Watkins helped save the lives of many famous drivers. In 1994, The Prof attended to his close friend Ayrton Senna, after a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix, which later claimed the life of the triple champion.
‘Sid didn’t treat me but he got in touch via Mindy,’ recalls Hammond.
‘When I was in my darkest places, she could pick up the phone to him. The doctors told me it would take two years to get better but Sid took me aside one day and quietly said it would take much, much longer and not to worry.
‘I burst out crying because I was so relieved that I was still on the right trajectory. At that point, I thought I would never be the same again.
‘It takes years to file everything away properly, to re-order your life and make sense of it all. It’s a horrible thing. You spend a lot of time with thoughts spinning around in your head, constantly assessing your own emotions. A frontal lobe injury of any kind lingers for years.’
His rock through it all has been Mindy. The couple met when Hammond was working in the press office for Renault. ‘There was this unbelievably wonderful, feisty, bright and funny woman working in HR. Everybody thought she was just fab,’ he remembers.
Hammond claims he had no idea she was interested in him until he invited her to a ball. The couple later spent the weekend at his tiny house in Wendover and then walked in the Buckinghamshire hills beyond with her two dogs.
‘This will sound terribly sickly I know, but there was a point when I looked back up the hill at Mindy walking down behind me. I stopped dead in my tracks and I thought, “Bloody hell, I’ve fallen in love. So that’s what it feels like then”.
‘We are happier now than we’ve ever been. We have fall-outs and strops for sure, but it’s a living relationship that moves and changes. She is the reason I haven’t pinged off the rails and lost it completely. Meeting her was the luckiest day of my life.’
The couple married in 2002 and live with their two teenage daughters, Willow and Isabella. Home is a £2-million, mock-Gothic castle near Ross-on-Wye, affectionately known as Hamalot, which also houses an extensive collection of cars and motorbikes. A menagerie of pet animals roam the grounds, including a border collie called Blea, named after Bleaberry Tarn, which overlooks Buttermere in the Lake District. Hammond says it’s his favourite spot in the world, a place where he can escape the limelight and indulge in his passion for hiking. His daughters also have two goats called Blitzen and Donald.
‘Those goats both hate me. They are straight at me whenever they get a chance and I have the scars to prove it.’
Hammond gave up smoking eight years ago but sucks on a menthol vape as he explains how he intends to spend the next 50 years.
More episodes of The Grand Tour are planned for 2020, ‘but I’m really putting all my energies into my TV production company, Chimp. I want to step back now and watch it create amazing careers for the young people who are involved. I see that as my future – that and spending much more time with Mindy.
‘I want us to travel to all the amazing places I’ve filmed over the years – the rainforests, the mountains and the glaciers – and see them together.’
Born in Solihull, Hammond later moved to Yorkshire with his family, where his father worked as a probate solicitor. The presenter says the naughty streak he demonstrated as a child would also help see him through his senior years.
‘I was a bit of a scrapper at school – because I was short I had to defend myself in the playground. I didn’t set fire to the classroom or anything, but I was eventually expelled. My end of term report read: “Richard’s difficult and obstructive attitude means his presence will soon no longer be required in this school”.’
He still has his boyish good looks, especially compared with his more grizzled Grand Tour co-stars – though that glossy black hair has attracted some unwelcome attention.
‘Everyone thinks I dye it and I hate it,’ says Hammond. ‘My brothers think I dye my hair and even my own mother thinks I do. I don’t dye my hair! I haven’t even dyed my beard.’
(So indignant is Hammond that he even asks the Saga Magazine photographer if he could add in a few grey streaks on Photoshop to convince everyone it’s natural. Somehow, I don’t think he’s joking…)
With his mid-life crisis tattoo in place, what advice would Hammond offer his fellow 50-year-olds?
‘I’m not sure I’ve reached the right age to offer advice on growing old disgracefully quite yet. I’ve definitely picked up some of my father’s traits though, such as sitting in an armchair, sipping whisky and solving the world’s problems.
‘Lots of my friends are in their sixties and they’re all having a wilder, more fun time than I’ve ever had. I just look at them to see what an absolute riot growing older can be.
‘The best part of my life is yet to come.’