Helen Glover MBE: ‘I was definitely a wilding’
One of Britain’s greatest Olympians, Helen Glover MBE, tells us about her lifelong love of the countryside, why she’s passionate about getting children outside, and how the most chaotic outdoor trips can also be the best.
I was definitely a wildling as a child; always outdoors, and rarely in shoes. I grew up in Cornwall, and my brothers and sisters and I would spend hours on the beach or in the woods. That passion for the outdoors definitely started with my parents. They loved it, too; plus the outdoors was the ideal place to tire out five energetic young kids, for free!
One of my earliest memories is of family trips to the beach. We’d park really far away to avoid paying car parking fees, then everyone had to help carry something down there: buckets, spades, the picnic. I remember us dragging our loads right down to the far end of the beach that nobody else had walked to yet, and feeling like it was all ours; like we had discovered it.
My first real sense of independence was on a bike. It was the first time my parents had let me and my brothers go off on our own, and it probably wasn’t more than a couple of miles, but it felt like the most complete freedom you can imagine. It was also a little bit scary, because we had to keep looking at the map to find our way. That little bit of uncertainty was thrilling.
Embracing the outdoors
Spending a lot of time outdoors kept us free-spirited and inquisitive. I’m sure it was fundamental in my becoming an athlete and Olympian later in life. It makes you understand, appreciate and observe the environment around you. It helps you communicate. It makes you a good leader. All skills that you need in the world of sport.
I’ve always loved sport, whether that’s in a sports hall, up a mountain, or on the sea. I love going to the gym and working out, but if I want some real headspace, I usually head outside. Being outdoors isn’t the one and only answer to improving our physical and mental health, but for me, it’s an important piece of the puzzle. There aren’t many people it doesn’t help in some way.
After growing up by the sea, I’ve always been drawn to water, so rowing felt like a natural fit. We’re about to go on a kayaking trip to Dorset, and I look forward to the endless possibilities and the changing environment: might we see a dolphin? Could a seal pop up? In summer, the river where I train is full of ducklings and cygnets, while in the winter, it’s quiet and beautiful, and you can be the only person out there in the mists on the water.
Inspiring the next generation
Sharing your enthusiasms with your kids makes a big difference. Our three, Logan, Kit and Bo, feel very at home around water, because we’ll take them out on paddleboards or kayaks or canoes, and they’ve seen our genuine enthusiasm for all that. Steve might have been away on a remote trip to discover a new species, but he’ll come home and see a toad in the garden, and get overwhelmingly excited about showing that to the kids.
It’s so important for kids to get to spend time in the countryside. No child should ever think ‘that’s not for me’, because it’s there for everyone. I know we’re extremely lucky to live right next to the River Thames, with hills to go walking and tonnes of environments to explore. But both Steve and I have lived in towns and cities as well as by rivers and coasts, and every area has its unique opportunities to get out there. I hate to think anyone ever felt excluded from spending time outdoors based on where they live, or by a lack of prior knowledge.
One of the most rewarding outdoor experiences for me and Steve was taking a group of 14- to 16-year-olds wild camping in the Lake District. About an hour in, it started raining torrentially, and didn’t stop for the remaining 23 hours. We were all soggy and cold; I don’t think anyone slept a wink! But the next morning, the kids were buzzing. They were so proud of themselves for putting up shelters to sleep in, and cooking their own dinner under a tarpaulin. They got more from that experience than they would if everything had been sunny and easy.
As a parent, I know it’s not always easy to get children outside. Quite the opposite – some days it seems impossible to get out of the door! But every time you get out there, you’re armouring them better for the rest of their life; whether that’s in terms of practical skills or simply creating an emotional connection with the environment. It could be a big camping adventure in the woods, but equally it could be a five-minute activity, like turning over stones to see what insects you can find.
One of our favourite places to visit is the Isles of Scilly, particularly St Martin’s. We’ve had some special times there when the kids were very small, getting away from our busy routines and just living a simple, outdoor life. We’ll go kayaking for hours, ending up on empty beaches, and Steve and I will turn to each other and say ‘Yes!
This is the childhood we want for them.’
Caring for the countryside
We definitely try to be aware of our environmental impacts. We live in an eco-house we built. But we also try to do smaller things, like litter-picking with the kids. A global problem like climate change feels so huge that it’s difficult to explain it to them. But if you distil it down to something practical, like picking up and recycling litter from their local park, they feel empowered and excited to help. The pockets of every coat I own are full of old packets and wrappers we’ve picked up on walks. When our eldest, Logan, was three and a half, the only Christmas present he wanted was a litter picker. As Steve said at the time: ‘We’ve done our job right!’
I do feel optimistic about the future of the natural world. We’re seeing a generation of children coming through who are informed, inspired and excited about changing the planet. What concerns me is that we need to adapt far more quickly than we are doing. We need to be as proactive as our kids would be, if they were in charge.
About the author
Helen Glover MBE is a former number-one British rower who has twice won Olympic gold. She lives on the borders of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire with her husband, naturalist Steve Backshall MBE, and their three children. Helen and Steve’s new book: Wildlings: how to raise your family in nature is out now.