As the news of the tragic death of Henry Worsley settles and his legacy begins to resonate through the worn tomes of great explorers, it seems fitting to ask what drove him and other British adventurers, to redefine the limits of human feasibility. At the end of January, when Worsley had perished from complete organ failure, while attempting to be the first man to cross the Antarctic alone, it occurred to me that Robert Scott also perished on the return from his polar expedition little more than 100 years earlier. It seems one of fate’s vicissitudes that both died so close to their goals, but their similarities stretch further than their formidable reputations, military background and tragic ends. Indeed they were both British.
As I think back to Year 6 lessons of various explorers I try to recall more of Britain’s legacy of adventure. It was not just Worsley and Scott who refused to limit themselves to that which was known and known to be possible: Ranulph Fiennes, George Mallory and Kenton Cool also had this quintessentially British mindset. The list sailed away with Shackleton, Drake, Cook and Raleigh, and reached unknown lands with the Livingstone’s and Henry Morton-Stanley. Even Bear Grylls, whilst battling through advert breaks, displays comfortable familiarity with a panoply of survival skills, carrying a high quality camera next to his black oxide coated Leatherman. It would, however, be patently untrue to claim that all notable explorers are British. One need only look at the great age of Spanish exploration in the sixteenth century, Neil Armstrong, Zheng He and Marco Polo, trailblazers, in whose footsteps we can only poorly follow on our Silk Road journey. But it still stands that the United Kingdom is the birthplace of a disproportionate number of explorers. Why is this?
It is unlikely that British explorers are inherently more driven and tenacious than their continental counterparts; there are countless examples which give lie to this. We are, however, a small island people and a nation with a great maritime legacy, could it have been the expansionist ideals of ‘Empire’ that drove these thawed men and women to seek out new horizons? Or was it the spirit of intellectual enquiry cast off by the Scottish Enlightenment that manifested itself in physical exploration? Perhaps these reasons manifested by themselves or perhaps it was British eccentricity (particularly in the aristocratic circles which many of these explorers came from) and tolerance that fostered these activities. While I am not entirely sure of the true reasons for the British exploratory tradition, I am sure that this tradition flourishes today at all levels of British society (just look at the French voting us the most adventurous eaters link).
The cycling world shows no exception to this. In 2008, Mark Beaumont became a world record holder, cycling around the world in an incredible 194 days and 17 hours. This link will take you to The Next Challenge website which is ‘probably the largest bicycle touring data set in the world’. You can view journeys over 10,000 kilometres and see that the British demolish all other countries, constituting over 40% of all riders (101/248) with the USA trailing in a distant second with 36 dust-caked hunchbacks. Hopefully we can make that 103/250 after cycling the Silk Road from Beijing to Tehran.