Last week I went to Number Ten, Downing Street, for the first time ever. It was rather exciting to find myself standing outside the famous front door. I was not there to berate the Prime Minister for not doing more about the environment, but rather to find out more about the “Britain is GREAT” initiative.
I hadn’t known in advance who would be at the meeting, agendas and attendee lists not being forthcoming, so I was delighted to find myself at the table in the State Dining Room surrounded by luminaries of British adventure such as:
Sir Chris Bonington (veteran mountaineer, first ascent of south face of Annapurna, who I first met last year at Buckingham Palace)
Colonel John Blashford-Snell (explorer, founder of Operation Raleigh, who I met several years ago at a small lunch hosted by the Peruvian ambassador)
Benedict Allen (renowned for adventures involving variously camels, huskies, and prolonged spells living with indigenous peoples, who I first met at his home in London several years ago after we were introduced by a mutual friend)
Pen Hadow (see featured image, has trekked solo to both North and South Poles – we have met a few times, initially over dinner in Devon via a good friend of mine, Sir John Rawlins. Sir John also first introduced me to Dr Sylvia Earle, the legendary American oceanographer.)
Dee Caffari (sailor, first woman to sail solo around the world nonstop in both directions – she and I were both regular guests on Radio Solent in 2005, while I was on the Atlantic and she was sailing around the world the “wrong” way)
Rosie Stancer (has trekked solo to the South Pole, and will be making a second attempt on the North Pole next year. She advised me on long-distance expeditions in the run-up to the Atlantic, my first ocean row. She is also a cousin of the Queen.)
Looking around the table in the grand dining room, as we sat beneath the oil-painted gaze of great Britons of the past, I couldn’t help but wonder how many accumulated miles of travel on sea, ice, mountain and air we might represent, not to mention how many moments of terror, and how many moments of triumph. I had read enough books and seen enough films about my fellow attendees to know that the numbers would be quite impressive. This was the creme de la creme of British adventure, and I felt honoured to be there.
But the point of the meeting was not to reflect on past glories, but to plan future ones. The British Foreign Office, along with their colleagues in three other government departments, have launched an initiative called This is GREAT Britain (see their Facebook page for more) designed to attract more tourism and foreign business investment into Britain, capitalising on the momentum generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics in 2012. Various initiatives have already been launched, such as Fashion is GREAT Britain, Music is GREAT Britain, Sport is GREAT Britain, Countryside is GREAT Britain, and Technology is GREAT Britain. The plan is now to create a similar campaign for Adventure.
I’m all in favour. For several decades we seem to have been very apologetic about being British, possibly due to some residual post-Empire guilt. But we’re not a bad little country, and have definitely punched above our weight in terms of our contributions to global culture and entrepreneurship. Yet we seem to suffer from a national lack of self-esteem – and I interpret the way we litter our countryside and cities as one symptom of this. When an individual person stops taking care of their appearance, gaining weight or not dressing nicely, it’s often a reflection of the way they feel about themselves. We seem to be doing this on a national level. It would be nice to stop apologising, and to take a healthy and appropriate pride in ourselves – and our countryside.
As for the meetings and conversations that I have been having recently at the House of Commons, I don’t know yet where those are going to lead. For now I am just gathering ingredients for that mental melting pot, and waiting to see what emerges. Stay tuned!