The Keswick Mountain Festival is a meeting of like minded people on the shores of one of the UK’s most famous lakes. With talks by mountaineers including Sir Chris Bonnington, hang out areas with a live band and beer, and have a go sessions with adventure providers, it is a magnet for a family like us. And Friday afternoon brought an audience with BBC Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, as she gave local schools and families a talk about her adventures…
An audience with Helen Skelton
The first thing I notice about Helen Skelton is the lack of muscle. As this small ball of energy climbs onto the stage and bubbles away about her extreme adventures, I wonder where her strength is stored. The second thing I notice is her Mum; Helen introduces her, sitting calmly at the back.
In the last five years Helen has undertaken a raft of extreme challenges. She ran the 24 hour, 78 mile Namibia ultra marathon. She kite surfed, walked and biked to the South Pole. She canoed the Amazon (the river not the online shop) She walked the high wire suspended 75 metres in the air above Battersea Power Station. In her day job as Blue Peter presenter, she is also the action girl. She lists one of the quirkier moments as beating the world power boat champ at his own sport (he gave her a head start and lived to regret it) and she talks about the sheer terror of the downhill skateboarding she recently tried.
You get out of life what you put in
Helen has met The Queen. And countless other celebrities. Yet, when she’s asked by one of the gathered schoolchildren about her role models, she credits her mum and dad, sharing with us their motto for a healthy life. “I’ve always been told you get out of life what you put in,” she grins. Other family members are obviously a big influence too, supporting her through the endless hours of training, “My brother kept saying ‘Think of training like a bank account, the more money you put in the more you can take out on payday.’” And it’s clear that when she goes on her extreme challenges her crew become her family, forging emotional bonds that last beyond the end of the journey.
This Blue Peter Presenter and Comic Relief sportswoman is a Cumbrian local girl made good, and a role model herself for the hundred or so children that have gathered here today to hear her speak. The excitement is thick when she appears. While they listen happily to her talk, the kids are really here to ask questions, which go on as long as the speech.
“How do you get all your determination,” one little girl asks. It’s a pertinent question as Helen is a believer in the power of mind over body. Her Antarctica expedition finished with a bicycle ride on snow because she was determined to pedal, even though the bikes hadn’t been tested before on snow. She describes one moment in her desert marathon where she hid behind a teeny tree, crying and hallucinating, with the crew convinced she was about to break. It was sheer force of will that spurred her on to run faster than she ever has before, despite gashes in her skin and blisters in her feet to finish ten minutes before the race closed. The messages from Blue Peter viewers helped her keep running too; reminding her of all the people willing her on. But what brought a tear to my eye wasn’t her crossing the finish line. It wasn’t her hugging her supporters or receiving her medal. It was the surprise appearance of her mum.
I want to ask a question about how much adventure featured in their family life as a child but all the other interviewers are kids and I don’t want to look like I’m muscling in.
“Ask her what she’s doing next,” I nudge Matthew.
He shakes his head, petrified at being in the spotlight.
“Ask her what she’s doing next,” I say to Cam
He shakes his head. “I want to ask her if she was called Helter Skelter at school.”
Even if you think you can’t, you probably can
Helen’s opening video is emblazoned with the words, ‘One girl, one mission; failure is not an option.’ And you do get the sense that this is the case. It’s strength of will that gets her through these huge missions. And throughout her talk she constantly tells us ‘I can, so you can.’ “If anyone says you can’t do anything just get your head down and get on with it, because you probably can,” she smiles.
She is full of confessions. Her most embarrassing moment was a singing audition. She hates running. Training for nine hours every Sunday and four hours three times a week was a lonely business. Her worst experience was being trapped in a coffin, with rats, on Halloween. (Her response to this is typical, “I was hyperventilating in the coffin and someone said calm down and I thought, it’s only rats, it’s only a coffin, it’s all going to be fine.”) Walking the high wire over Battersea scared her so much she couldn’t speak, particularly as the wire pointed downhill and she’d only ever tight-roped on the flat. “But just because I’d never walked downhill didn’t mean I couldn’t.”
And that’s what I take away from her talk. At Keswick Mountain Festival, as the massively toned male climbers huddle at the bar, this slight slip of a girl with a massive personality and spirit of adventure reminds me that I can do anything if I tell myself I can, whether or not I’ve done it before. It’s a good message for both me and my kids to hear.
By the end of the talk, my unvoiced question about where Helen Skelton stores her strength is answered. It’s in her head. But Cameron never gets round to asking if she was called Helter Skelter at school. I guess we’ll never know.
What do you think of Helen’s message?
This post is part of our Family Adventure Capital Season. We’re exploring different ways families can adventure together in and around Cumbria, sharing ideas and inspiration to encourage families to get out, get active and adventure together.
Got some ideas for things we should try? Let us know.
You might also like:
- Meet Adventure Mum Jane Yates
- Interview with Adventure Dad Charley Boorman
- Kids need adventure, parents need to teach them how
- 10 reasons not to be a cotton wool parent
- My Dad taught me to be an everyday explorer