A CONVERSATION WITH: GEORGE BULLARD

The record-breaking explorer and endurance athlete on reconnecting with nature and embracing the outdoors in all seasons

01 October, 2020

THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: How did you, as an explorer, cope with lockdown?

GEORGE BULLARD: One of my favourite things that I was really keen on doing during lockdown was going outside, sitting under a tree and just being. All of my projects and businesses were totally up in the air, no-one knew what was going on in this global pandemic, the news was horrid. So, I would just sit at the base of a tree and watch and look around. I would feel incredibly grateful and happy to be alive, content in my own skin, even though I was doing nothing.

I was supposed to be preparing for my next expedition – the Dark Ice project. A team of us were going to head out to the North Pole in the depths of winter, to gather never-before-seen data, content and imagery. We had sponsorship from amazing partners – Adidas, Woolmark and Breitling – and then we had to cancel it because of the pandemic. The coast of Canada closed – and it’s looking like it’s going to remain that way for a while – so we simply couldn’t get to our start point, which is a crying shame.

But I’ve continued to give talks online, engaging with schools, youth groups, businesses and charities about embracing strengths, overcoming weaknesses and embarking on adventures. I’m a partner at travel company IGO Adventures, so I’ve been working to adapt it to meet the requirements of the current times. I have also been developing a new initiative called City Camping, which is very exciting.


TRE: You say that your overarching mission is to ‘rewild humans’. What do you mean by that?

GB: I believe we’ve lost touch with nature and the outdoors, and I believe that through the outdoors we can change lives. Simply stepping outside – whether it’s pouring with rain or whether it’s glorious sunshine – can have a positive effect on you. And that effect isn’t just a physical one, it’s an emotional one and a mental one too. All of these things are linked, and I believe they’re all linked to the outdoors.

There was a very interesting study done, back in 1984. It was pretty basic, but very compelling. They had two sets of people recovering in hospital from operations where they’d had general anaesthetics. During their recovery, half of the patients had a hospital bed with a window that looked out onto a brick wall. The other half had a window that looked out onto green plants and trees. You already know what I’m going to say next. The people who looked out onto the green trees – simply looked at green trees, and green plants and greenery – recovered quicker. Every time.


TRE: Why do you think looking at, or spending time in, nature is able to have such a profound effect on us?

GB: From a physical wellness perspective, going outside and getting fresh air – filling your lungs with oxygen that’s coming fresh from a tree – and becoming active has all sorts of ramifications on your health – your digestion, the way you sleep, the list goes on and on and on.

On the emotional side, one of the reasons spending a little bit of time in nature is good for us is because the outdoors doesn’t judge. There are no straight lines or right angles in nature, you can just go out there and be whoever you want to be. There is no stipulation, you don’t see a tree wearing a mask and worrying about what shoes it’s going to wear today. It’s a judgeless place, where you can totally be yourself.

But everyone feels it differently. One person who goes for a walk in the park might benefit from the feeling of being in a free place, where the trees aren’t judging you. But someone else might pick up on the fact that some of the trees have been there for hundreds of years, and they’ve been motionless and still, and they are very peaceful. Becoming aware of that sense of timelessness can give you a perspective on your current self and help you to transcend current times for a moment.

And then there are the mental benefits of going outside – being happy in your own skin and content in your current situation. Taking a break from being worried or scared about what lies beyond the horizon, and from controlling the controllable elements. I think you learn to find all of these things out in nature.

TRE: What advice would you give people heading into autumn and winter, to encourage them to continue to embrace the outdoors?

GB: Heading into winter, I understand that not everyone feels like going outside, but my biggest recommendation is that once every day, irrespective of the weather, you put a warm coat on, step outside and walk around. Go and stand beneath a tree for three minutes. Lean up against the trunk and look, and be, and exist. Do nothing. Think about nothing. Stare, look, smell, feel, whatever, just live in that very moment.

Even if it is pouring with rain, and pretty miserable on the face of it, you always feel better once you’ve gone out and had a walk. You might get a bit wet but once you come back inside, and you’ve got a warm cup of tea in your hands, you feel a million times better, every time. That’s my best piece of advice as we go into winter. Let’s all go out at midday, stand at the bottom of a tree for three minutes and be grateful for everything that we have.


TRE: How important is it to have the right equipment – a good pair of boots, for example?

GB: Honestly, I think if you’re always wanting to have the right equipment, you’re just using that as an excuse. Obviously when I go to extreme environments, equipment is very important. In my day-to-day life, however, I’ve got very little equipment. I don’t have a pair of shoes that I go tree climbing in, and then another pair of shoes for walking on grass and a pair for walking on gravel. I just have a good pair of shoes. For me, keeping life as simple as possible is important.


TRE: So, it’s more about mindset, and just taking that first step?

GB: Absolutely. It’s more about the mindset. I think the whole idea of a doorstep mile is pretty powerful actually, because that is the hardest bit. Whatever shoes you are wearing, getting to the front door with the intention of going out is a very hard few paces.

You have the impending uncertainty of what might happen outside, which may be a bit more uncomfortable than what’s happening inside, with the TV and central heating and all that lovely stuff that we probably don’t appreciate enough, because we’ve got so used to it.

We’ve disconnected from nature and we need to challenge ourselves to embrace it and interact with it more again, even in – especially in – the colder months. That’s when we stand to benefit the most from it, actually. Staying indoors all the time is not healthy for us.

It’s amazing what you can discover on your doorstep if you just go for a walk and look around


TRE: Living in London can feel quite removed from nature. Can you share any advice for seeking out nature and wild adventures in the city?

GB: I can certainly give you an example. There’s a huge river that runs through the middle of London, that we kind of forget about. The river travels both ways, because it’s tidal. The current flows downstream – out to sea – for six hours, and then flows back in for six hours. So, every 12 hours there is a low tide, and that tide unveils a secret riverbed path along both sides of the River Thames.

Sometimes the path is very muddy, so it can be quite dangerous. For me, it’s a fantastic place to go and walk along, because no-one else does it. Of course, if it’s too muddy for you to walk, then you turn around and go back. But there are lots of slipways and ladders and steps and stuff – obviously the steps might be slippery, so hold on, go slowly, take care. 


TRE: How careful do you have to be with the tide times?

GB: Of course, you have to be careful, but the tide isn’t going to catch you by surprise. It’s going to come up over six hours, so you’ve got six hours to walk 300 metres to find another ladder.

I want people to take risks and push themselves out of their comfort zones – go down to the Thames and maybe lose a shoe in the mud, or get their clothes dirty climbing up a ladder, so that they realise these things aren’t the end of the world. This is how we learn and become stronger. What I don’t want to encourage, of course, is for anyone to behave irresponsibly and put their own or other people’s lives at risk.

When embarking on adventurous activities that aren’t organised, you have to consider your own capabilities and experience, do your research, be responsible and use common sense. Depending on the activity, you might want to take a course first, or find a group who are experienced that you can go along with. There are so many activities happening across the city that you can find on apps such as Meet Up and Eventbrite, so it can be a great way to stay social and meet new people, as well as getting outdoors and keeping active.


TRE: Any other activities you’d recommend for autumn and wintertime in the city?

GB: Something I do regularly, in all seasons, is wild swimming. There are loads of places in London where you can do this now, from the bathing ponds at Hampstead to the Serpentine in Hyde Park. It’s becoming more and more popular, as people realise the physical and mental benefits of immersing yourself in cold water.

Again though, you must do your research and make sure you swim in safe places and never alone. It’s very important to acclimatise slowly to the cold as the temperature drops, so if it’s something you’ve been doing and enjoying throughout the summer months, maybe consider just not stopping, and carry on into winter. Starting the day outdoors in your bathing suit, feeling the air and sunlight on your skin, surrounded by nature, really gives you a boost and a sense of accomplishment that sets you up for the day ahead.

And then, at the less adventurous end of the spectrum, I’d really recommend just making sure you step outside at lunchtime every day. In the winter you need to make sure you still see some daylight and get some vitamin D, so taking a lunch break becomes even more important.

Take your sandwich and eat it under a tree. Make use of London’s many garden squares and green spaces. It’s amazing what you can discover on your doorstep if you just go for a walk and look around. Part of London’s magic is that it’s so full of surprises, and you really can find a bit of nature anywhere, if you look for it.

TRE: Let’s talk about your travel company, IGO Adventures. What makes it unique?

GB: IGO Adventures has created a series of unique adventures with purpose. All over the globe, including in and around the UK. It allows people to go on an adventure and do something too. Give back to nature at the same time.

For example, I just took a group to Scotland for a weekend to walk up Ben Nevis, which a lot of people do. But the IGO trip involves walking up Ben Nevis, picking up litter as we go. Some of the participants said they got more satisfaction from picking up the litter than they did from actually summiting the highest mountain in the UK.

We go to parts of the world which are slightly off the beaten track. We won’t go to Costa del Sol, for example. One of our adventures is in the Azores, also known as the ‘Hawaii of the Atlantic’. The IGO adventure we host there involves hiking and camping on the Mount Pico volcano, traversing part of the ‘Wall of the Atlantic’ – a string of some 200 volcanoes – and sailing on the Atlantic Ocean. During the trip we will help to prevent the extinction of the Azores bullfinch in collaboration with the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA) and provide vital monitoring of the blue whale migration.

It’s all about adventures with purpose, adventures with a raison d’être, which I love. All of the trips are small group trips, with four to ten people. And each adventure is graded – from a mountain lion to a hedgehog – in terms of how challenging it is. For some of the adventures we stay in nice hotels, some of them we stay in other forms of shelter, other times we might be camping in log cabins or tents. There’s a lot of variety and each trip is different, from that perspective. They’re all totally unique, and they are designed for anybody, from 18 to 80 year olds.


TRE: How has IGO Adventures had to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic?

GB: Yeah, great question. I guess we just did what everyone did, and cut our costs as much as we could to keep the business alive. And what we’re doing is launching more local experiences and adventures, in and around the UK, that don’t involve a flight anywhere.


TRE: Talking of adventures closer to home, let’s finish by talking about your City Camping initiative.

GB: City Camping is a new concept. We want to put up secure, pop-up campsites, in parks and green spaces, in cities across the UK. We have exclusive permission to put up a pop-up, secure campsite in London, for example, so people can come and stay for a night under the stars, in a tent. We will put up the tents, and inside the tent it will be waterproof and you’ll be warm. Cooking facilities will be quite minimal, but there will be campfires, loos and showers. It’s really simple, really basic – a camping experience in central London, which is pretty cool and unique.

The plan is to partner with corporate clients, who will sponsor each camp for a week. They will have use of the camp for a few nights, to spend time with their colleagues in the environment for team building purposes or even showcasing their products to clients, then we’ll sell tickets for the other nights. We’ll use some of the funds raised to host underprivileged, inner–city kids to allow them to come and enjoy the experience of sleeping under the stars and spending a night in nature.

We want to launch this next year and we would love to hear from any corporations who are interested in getting involved. 

For further information about George Bullard’s expeditions and public speaking, visit georgebullard.co.uk and follow George on Instagram @georgebullardexplorer; to learn more about IGO Adventures, visit igoadventures.com; to register your interest in the City Camping initiative, visit city-camping.co.uk

A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange