TV presenter Philippa Forrester: My early menopause went undiagnosed for more than a decade

Friend and fellow TV presenter Anthea Turner helped the environmentalist and author find answers.

Philippa Forrester opens up her experience of the menopause in new book, Wild Woman
Philippa Forrester (Tina Price/PA) Philippa Forrester opens up her experience of the menopause in new book, Wild Woman

TV presenter and author Philippa Forrester is recalling all the symptoms of menopause that she had in her mid-30s, which remained undiagnosed until she was 49.

“I had years of it,” says Forrester, now 55, who made her name on CBBC and appeared on Tomorrow’s World, The Heaven And Earth Show and Robot Wars, natural history documentaries and has a new podcast, Conscious.

“I had hot flushes, night sweats, brain fog, putting on weight, all of that stuff, which nowadays somebody would immediately go, ‘You’ve got the menopause, go and get your hormones tested’. Nobody mentioned hormones to me at that time. I thought maybe I had a bit of PMT or something. I didn’t have a clue what was happening.

“So my fingers are crossed that if the same thing is happening to somebody else, now they’ll know because we all talk about it way more.”

She talks about her menopause in her new book, Wild Woman, which celebrates women, past and present, working in nature around the world, from female conservationist heroes to botanists and those who do extraordinary work in the field, through grit and determination.

Her research takes her across continents and harsh landscapes as she records anecdotes of discovery and danger.

Those stories are interspersed with her own painful journey – a broken marriage (she was married to wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton James for 18 years) and a reluctant return to the UK after six years in the wilds of Wyoming, her life in disarray, returning to the family home in South Gloucestershire with her three sons and dog, but minus her husband.

That was back in 2020, during Covid. Forrester felt she had completely run out of fight, left to grapple with her overgrown substantial garden which had been neglected during her long absence, feeling loneliness engulf her and her self-esteem at rock bottom. “There was no joy,” she recalls.

“The grief over leaving my wild home in America and all my friends – on top of the relentless pain of losing my husband, the man I loved and thought loved me – became too much,” she writes.

Today, she says that had the marriage not broken up, she wouldn’t have returned to the UK. She had counselling in the US and embarked on a ‘nature coaching’ course, which helped.

“Sometimes when we struggle, there are so many layers. We have so many things going on as humans that our brains are going, ‘All right, can you just do Escape and Delete now?’ That was my state of mind.

“I had way too many tabs open, from the logistics of moving us all across the sea to the emotions around leaving that place, leaving all our friends as we had built such a wonderful community there, and the place itself, the wilderness, which I really felt connected to.

“There were feelings of loss about the marriage and then coming back here into this really strange world – because we came back between lockdowns – and effectively went straight into a lockdown. It was the weirdest of times.”

The depression that enveloped her had begun with menopause, family deaths, her son Fred’s cancer (he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2016 but is doing well now, she says) and finally with what she calls “my husband’s change of heart”.

Today she doesn’t want to elaborate too much on the split.

“Obviously it wasn’t my decision, which makes it even tougher. I think anyone who goes through any divorce knows it’s tough anyway, but when it’s out of your hands then it’s even tougher.

“Anyone going through any kind of tough time, whether it’s grieving a loved one or a shock, or something awful happening to them, there isn’t ever a handbook on how to cope but there are people who’ve been through similar.

“Grief isn’t easy. There’s a reason it’s noisy. There is no ‘Do this and it will go away’. There isn’t that. Humans don’t have the Alt Delete Escape option.”

She says there were duvet days when she didn’t want to leave her bed, or when she felt unable to function because of mental and physical exhaustion. But Forrester finds inner strength outdoors.

The book records that slowly, through the seasons and her wild garden, which she gradually tries to tame, she finds a healing power in nature. She clears the silted pond, swims in the river, watches wildlife, contemplates the great outdoors, and as her neglected garden starts to take shape, so begins her recovery and a path to find joy again.

But the undiagnosed menopause – the constant fatigue, not sleeping properly and feeling depressed for years – had been a barrier to happiness, she reflects.

“I felt awful a lot of the time. I was really struggling with it and not knowing what was wrong with me. Another symptom I had was terrible migraines,” she recalls.

“The doctor said to me, ‘You need to go running more’, but I did go running three times a week, so he didn’t have an answer after that.

“Then another doctor, who was a woman, said to me, ‘Maybe you’re just a miserable person’. And I took that on board for a while until another female doctor said, ‘I’m going to check your hormones’.

“She later told me, ‘I don’t know how you’ve been operating because you’ve got no hormones – you are meant to have some!’”

Forrester says she didn’t realise she had stopped ovulating, because in an earlier procedure she’d had her womb lasered and wasn’t having periods.

Today, she says: “We need to have our bloods looked at regularly. It’s tricky if you are still ‘cycling’ because you get different readings at different times of the month.

“But these things need to be paid attention to because, even if you’re not sleeping well, it affects every other aspect of your life. Certainly my ability just to be present in my own life, my ability to concentrate and write well, are affected.”

She stopped drinking and put herself through an intensive exercise and healthy diet regime to try to lose the weight she’d inexplicably gained.

It was her friend, fellow TV presenter Anthea Turner, who told her to seek further medical opinion and get her hormones tested.

“A couple of phone calls with her and you are back on the straight and narrow. She’s been there, done that and she was brilliant with me. She’s so good at all the anti-ageing stuff and she’ll always be there to listen.”

When she was finally diagnosed, it took some juggling to get her HRT right, she recalls, because she’s not good with artificial progesterone.

“But the difference was extraordinary, even with things like aching joints, because I was aching all the time. By the end, I’d been completely through the menopause and my hormones were becoming non existent.”

Her garden and its once overgrown, disorganised state, seems to have evolved into a less frenetic environment, in parallel with her own state of mind.

“It felt like a metaphor, for sure,” she agrees. At the beginning, she tearfully swiped overgrown brambles with a machete, cutting nothing, until she found a technique, a flow, which gave her the rhythm to move forward. You can see the simile in her life.

And the joy has crept back in, she agrees. She used to scoff at tree huggers, but now she’s tried it and quite likes it.

“There’s a gradual creeping of it (joy), rather than a sudden moment of enlightenment. Any big paradigm shift of change of circumstance for humans takes our brains a little while to catch up to that being a new normal.”

Wild Woman: Empowering Stories From Women Who Work In Nature by Philippa Forrester is published by Bloomsbury Wildlife on February 29, priced £18.99.