I am still pinching myself to make sure that I am not dreaming. Last night’s reception for adventurers at Buckingham Palace was simply jaw-dropping. It is a testament to the irresistible allure of royalty that practically every big name in contemporary British exploration was there. I only wish that I could share photos of it with you, but no cameras or mobile phones were allowed, so I will have to resort to the official shots of some of the glitterati of adventurer that were in attendance (more photos here).
The event was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. I was delighted enough to receive the original invitation, but even more excited when I was also invited to a press preview in the afternoon. The Royal Collection and Royal Archives had put together an exhibition of material relating to exploration and adventure especially for the evening, to showcase British Exploring and Adventuring through history. Just a handful of people were invited to this earlier event, including Sir David Attenborough, Michael Palin, Bear Grylls, and my co-winner of National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year award, Ed Stafford.
In fact, Ed was the first person I ran into as I arrived at the Palace on a blustery and raw winter’s day here in London. I saw a tall, designer-stubbled man asking a policeman where the Privy Purse Door was to be found. I recognised him immediately, and we chatted as we made our way around to the front of the Palace. There we bumped into Falcon Scott, grandson of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the man in whose honour this event was being held. Scott Jr was having some difficulty getting past a particularly over-zealous policeman on the gate, but eventually he succeeded. Would have been a bit of a shame otherwise, having traveled all the way down from Scotland. As we walked across the darkening forecourt to the Palace entrance we were joined by Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Chris Bonington, both of whom have written books that I devoured back in the days when I was still an adventurer of the armchair variety.
My first impressions once inside the palace were how bright and magnificent it was – and how very nicely warm. Gilt and mirrors were everywhere, and thick carpets hushed our footfalls. We heard dogs barking, and as we passed along a corridor we saw a footman herding a half dozen corgis into a lift – a reminder that this is actually a home, and not just a monument. The exhibition included such amazing things as journals written in longhand by Queen Victoria and Ernest Shackleton, as well as photographs of the Queen as a Girl Guide, many moons ago. She is now 85.
During the afternoon event I had lovely long conversations with Chris Bonington and David Attenborough, both of whom proved to be absolute gentlemen. At the same age as the Queen, Sir David looks amazingly robust and has the most beautiful complexion, despite his many years of traveling to extreme environments. Sir Chris looks a little more weatherbeaten, but still very upright and vigorous.
Once we had all taken turns in speaking to the cameras, the other guests started to arrive for the evening event and the champagne started to flow. The Queen and Prince Philip arrived and we lined up to shake their hands. We just got a brief hello at that stage, but later on 8 or 9 of us were once again picked out to meet the Queen for a longer encounter. I was first in line, and standing next to Thames swimmer and TV funny man David Walliams. He started joking about Tourette’s Syndrome and had me snorting with laughter. I had to fight hard to paste on a straight face before the Queen approached. We had a nice little chat, very polite, although she grimaced at the news of my adventures. I guess my life is rather different from hers, although for a while back there I had my own (Purple) Palace.
After that the evening became rather surreal. Everywhere I turned there were faces familiar from newspaper articles, books, and TV. Many of these names may not be familiar to non-British readers, but take it from me, these are the who’s who of British exploration. Given how much traveling all these people do for a living, it was absolutely amazing to find them all together in one place. I could say so much about all these people, but to stop this blog from getting too long, I will just list them here.
I spoke with many, many people during the 2-hour reception, including:
Ben Fogle (TV presenter, rower, runner, polar – very nice guy, with jelly bean stuck in throat)
James Cracknell (Olympic gold medal winner, rowing, polar – has recovered well from his bad cycling accident)
Dame Ellen MacArthur (sailing – intense)
Miles Hilton-Barber (blind adventurer – so inspiring)
Benedict Allen (adventurer, filmmaker – very tall!)
Pen Hadow (polar – very amiable)
Ollie Hicks (rower – still planning to row the Southern Oceann – I do worry about him!)
Alastair Humphreys (round the world cyclist – great bloke)
Col John Blashford-Snell (explorer, especially Peru – a legend)
Ray Mears (TV presenter, survivalist – the first)
Bear Grylls (TV presenter, survivalist – the second)
Jo Royle (skipper of Plastiki – great to see her again)
Prince Edward (very pleasant and friendly)
Bruce Parry (TV presenter, Tribes – very funny, swears like a trooper)
Brian Jones (record-breaking balloonist – lovely guy)
Also there, but I didn’t actually get to talk with them:
Ben Saunders (polar)
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (sailing)
David Hempleman Adams (polar)
David de Rothschild (Plastiki)
And no doubt many, many more.
All in all, it was an amazing night to remember. Somebody suggested that they should hold it again every year. I agree. My only complaint about the evening was that it was way too short, and I would have loved to have so much longer to exchange ideas with these incredible individuals. Beyond the stardust, there is an important aspect to what so many of them do: as I said to Sir David Attenborough when I thanked him for all he has done to educate the public about the wonders of nature through his long and distinguished career in TV, people are more likely to care about – and preserve – what they know.
P.S. I see in today’s Times that Sir David Attenborough is denying being a true adventurer. “Any bloody fool can be uncomfortable. If I see a five-star hotel, I’m not going to go on living in a tent.” (Lucky for me there aren’t too many five-star hotels in the middle of the Pacific, because my philosophy would be exactly the same – especially if the BBC was paying.) He is then quoted as saying after his conversation with me: “She said she was going to hang up her oars. I would have hung up my oars a long time ago.” Regardless, Sir David, you have probably done more for conservation than all the rest of us put together. Thank you, and I hope you will carry on doing it for many years to come.