The day John Noakes scaled Nelson’s Column unaided on Blue Peter

13 September 2023, 17:23

John Noakes climbing Nelson's Column
John Noakes climbing Nelson's Column. Picture: BBC

By Tom Eames

John Noakes, who died in 2017 at the age of 83, was one of the most popular and adventurous presenters of the children’s show Blue Peter.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

He was known for his daredevil stunts, such as parachuting, bobsleighing and climbing. One of his most memorable feats was scaling Nelson’s Column in 1977, without safety harness or insurance, for an episode of the show.

Nelson’s Column is a monument in Trafalgar Square in London, honouring Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The column is 52 metres (170 feet) high and topped by a statue of Nelson. To reach the statue, Noakes had to climb a series of wobbly ladders, some of them tilted at a 45-degree angle from the vertical.

Noakes described the experience in a voiceover as he climbed: “At this level, the plinth on which Nelson stands overhangs the column. I found myself literally hanging on from the ladder with nothing at all beneath me.” He also said: “It’s a long way up, really,” as he stood on the plinth with Britain’s naval hero.

1977: JOHN NOAKES scaling Nelson's Column is TERRIFYING | Blue Peter | Classic clips | BBC Archive

The stunt was a risky one, and he later said that he was not afraid of heights, but of falling: “I don’t mind being up high providing I’ve got something really solid underneath me.”

Noakes was accompanied by cameraman Terry, who also climbed the column with him. The episode was broadcast on 10 March 1977 and watched by millions of viewers.

The clip returns to the public consciousness after going viral on social media every few years, with some people comparing him to fearless steeplejack Fred Dibnah.

It was one of the many examples of Noakes’s courage and charisma that made him a favourite among children and adults alike.

Noakes left Blue Peter in 1978, after 12 years on the show. He continued to work in television and radio, as well as writing books and pursuing his hobbies of sailing and flying.

He also remained fondly remembered for his partnership with Shep, a border collie who was his co-star on Blue Peter. Noakes once called Shep his “straight man”, as the dog often disobeyed him and caused mischief.

Noakes was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014 and moved to Majorca with his wife Vicky. He died there on 28 May 2017.

His former co-presenters and fans paid tribute to him as a “legend” and a “one-off”. His legacy lives on in the memories of generations who grew up watching him on Blue Peter.