Karen Wright was one of four Yorkshire contestants in the 2018 Bake Off. Laura Drysdale speaks to her as she prepares for another tent - at Wakefield’s rhubarb festival.
Yorkshire baker Karen Wright raised a few bemused eyebrows when she sat munching on a packet of crisps as her fellow Great British Bake Off contestants raced to get their biscuits completed on the first episode of last year’s series. The moment was certainly one of her most memorable in the five weeks she was on the show - though the 60-year old also stood out for her flamboyant personality and colourful fashion sense.
Week two of the programme saw Karen give a nod to her home in Wakefield, part of Yorkshire’s rhubarb triangle, when she chose to create an almond and marzipan traybake with rhubarb jam. It received mixed reaction from judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith who told her that although it looked “very elegant” the sponge was “quite dry”.
But it has not put her off creating a similar recipe, a rhubarb traybake, in the demonstration marquee on day three of Wakefield’s Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb -Sunday February 24 - her debut demo in the district.
“Whenever I get the collywobbles, I remind myself that I have been in the Bake Off tent,” she says. “If you can do something in the tent, then you can do anything anywhere.
“That experience of being on Bake Off has set me up to be able to take on so much more. It has given me the confidence to take myself forward and stand up and do things.”
In fact, the mum-of-two, who spent five weeks on the show, has plenty in the pipeline. Just days after the festival she will speak about her experiences on the show in a talk - An Audience with Karen - in the Walker Studio of the Theatre Royal Wakefield, she has just begun a regular column for her local newspaper and is midway through penning a novel about her life.
March will see her and husband John head off on a sponsored blogging motorhome holiday to Austria, with fellow Bake Off contestant and now close friend Terry Hartill, and she has a similar trip in the pipeline to France in June, though then she’ll go solo.
“The opportunities haven’t knocked on my door necessarily. I have knocked on theirs. There are lots of opportunities out there but sometimes you have to knock and push.”
Six months after Bake Off aired, she is still in disbelief she got the chance to appear on the show. A love for baking started in childhood for Karen, who grew up in Featherstone. Her mother baked each week and was keen to pass on her skills. But it wasn’t until later in life that Karen really took to it.
Following jobs in a bank, opticians and a stint working abroad in Greece, she began working as a receptionist at Wakefield’s Woolley Hall, a country house and former wedding venue. Fascinated by the occasion cakes that would be delivered, she was inspired not so much to bake, but decorate, cakes and began researching and teaching herself techniques.
After that, she and John went to work in France for a holiday company looking after mobile homes. With time on her hands in the winter seasons, she began making more cakes and learning new skills, something she did more once they returned to the UK, with John retiring and Karen becoming an in-store sampling assistant.
Her daughters Kit and Vanessa sent her the link to the Bake Off application form. “Every aspect of baking you had to be able to do and do well - and I could only do cakes,” she says. “I almost said no, but then I thought, well, how hard can it be?” She set herself a challenge and every few days taught herself how to do different bakes, from pastry, to biscuits and bread. “A lot of things I had only done once before I went on the show. I still think it’s a dream I ever got that phonecall.”
There was adrenaline, upset, excitement, anxiety and “lots of laughs” in the tent she says. “It was a brilliant experience, one I will never be able to recreate.”