'Empower people through adventure': Bear Grylls' pride as his NEC attraction marks first anniversary
“What young people lack is opportunities,” says Bear Grylls. “It’s not ambition.”
It’s a bold message, but perhaps not a particularly surprising one since it comes from a former SAS soldier who is now at the head of Britain’s Scouting movement, and who is notorious for bunging celebrities out of helicopters and forcing them to survive on their wits.
“Tangible experiences”, he says, can inspire them to try new things and have a positive knock-on effect for keeping them off the streets and out of trouble.
“What all of us are trying to say is get off your screens,” says Grylls, the soldier-turned-survivalist who is now a TV personality and Britain’s Chief Scout.
“As mums and dads, we’re to trying to encourage young people not to be glued to devices.
“What people want more and more, especially for children, are tangible experiences.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that 45-year-old Bear is making these recommendations at the NEC in Birmingham during an event to mark the first anniversary of the Bear Grylls Experience.
The centre, which was built by Merlin, was created and inspired by Bear’s military experiences and past adventures across the globe including skydiving, climbing high ropes and diving.
From swimming with sharks to taking on Europe’s highest outdoor free roam high ropes, Bear believes it’s a place where young people can conquer their fears, try new challenges and build self-confidence.
“This place is designed to empower people through adventure,” he says.
“I think there is a lot of underutilised talent in young people in this country and when they are bored and don’t have these opportunities, people end up doing bad stuff.
“This place is trying to say to young people ‘come and try it’.
“What young people lack is opportunities not ambition. If you bring young people that are standing on the streets here, they’re going to feel empowered.”
There has been increasing concern in recent months about the lifestyles of some young people, driven in part by the rising problem of knife crime in British cities.
Bear says he has seen people of all ages reaping the benefits of testing and pushing themselves in challenging environments.
“It’s exciting,” he says. “I get excited seeing the number of people we’ve given a taste and experience of these cool things to, especially seeing kids who may have watched the shows and are experiencing what it’s like to scuba dive, or the indoor wind tunnel, the highest ropes course in Europe.
“Seeing their pride and their smiles when they can overcome the struggles and do it is amazing,” he explains.
Moreover, Scouting is being used to help provide activities for youngsters in urban areas to help deter them from taking part in trouble.
Since 2014, 1,280 new packs, troops and colonies have been formed in the most deprived parts of Britain.
Bear says he strongly believes that every child has a right to, and a desire, adventure.
“We know through the Scouts what adventure does for young people,” says the father-of-three.
“It improves their mental health, makes them happy, makes them confident, makes them team leaders and when that’s wrapped up in fun everybody wins.”
The old Etonian, who was given his nickname of Bear by his sister, had a hunger for adventure from a young age. His father encouraged him to become a keen climber and sailor and as a youngster he helped found the school’s first mountaineering club.
He later served for three years as a Trooper in 21st Regiment SAS, part of the UK Special Forces Reserve, where he was trained in combat survival, demolitions and close quarter fighting.
At the age of 23, he climbed Mount Everest and guided a team around the British Isles on jet skis.
Between 2001 and 2003 he guided a team on an unassisted crossing of the North Atlantic in an open rigid inflatable boat and in 2005 helped set a world record for the highest open-air formal dinner party, held under a hot air balloon at 25,000 ft. His big break on television came in 2006 when he started filming Man vs. Wild.
The show put his survival skills on display to the world. He demonstrated to viewers what it takes to find your way out of the most inhospitable places on earth with little more than the clothes on your back.
It was during this time that he became the youngest ever Chief Scout, at the age of 35 in 2009, after succeeding former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan.
His lifelong passion for Scouting started from childhood and he believes it is “a worldwide force for good that unites young people with positive values and an adventurous spirit”.
Bear followed up Man vs. Wild, which ran for seven years, with Bear’s Wild Weekends, in which he took stars such as Stephen Fry and Miranda Hart on survival adventures and also Escape From Hell, in which he relived the experiences of people who defied the odds to survive in unlikely scenarios.
There was also the popular Running Wild, in which he took celebrities including Roger Federer on two-day adventures in the wilderness.
In 2015 he ventured into the Alaskan wilderness with then US president Barack Obama to look at the effects of global warming and climate change, and a year later launched his first series for children, the CITV project Bear Grylls: Survival School.
Other television projects have included Bear’s Mission With... for ITV, which featured England boss Gareth Southgate and comic David Walliams among others, and the interactive Netflix series You vs. Wild.
Treasure Island with Bear Grylls where 12 castaways seek water, food, shelter – and £100,000 – on a treacherous island in the Pacific has kept viewers gripped in recent weeks.
And it proved uneventful for a dangerous reason for Bear who was saved by medics after a bee sting triggered a life-threatening allergic reaction during filming.
Last week he received his OBE from the Queen at a royal investiture at Buckingham Palace, for services to young people, the media and charity.
Bear, whose real name is Edward, said at the time the honour was for “every one of those incredible Scout volunteers”.
“We now have over half a million Scouts and volunteers in this country who give up so much of their time and energy to help young people and this award is for you guys, so if you’re a Scout volunteer, congratulations, we share this one together,” he says.
He has been described by the association as an “outstanding figurehead for Scouting” who has overseen of a period of “strong” membership growth.
And he’s no stranger to our region. In 2017, Bear flew in to Halfpenny Green Airport, at Bobbington, for an event aimed at encouraging people to join the Scouts.
He was immediately mobbed by hundreds of excitable children as he stepped off the helicopter, posing for selfies and having countless books and pieces of paper thrust his way to be signed.
The star lapped it up, stopping to speak to youngsters during a tour of the airport, which for the day became an activity zone, featuring adventure climbing, archery and firelighting for families to get involved with.
“My message is to get involved,” he says. “Be part of a family, a family that makes a difference. Scouting works because we ask busy people to give up a little bit of time to inspire young people.”