OUTDOORS: THE STRENGTH OF FAMILIES

Life without TV
Adventures on a Shoestring
I just had to write about this story because it made me smile.

Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own 'Matterhorn'
Kerry Meek and the children conquer their own ‘Matterhorn’

It’s appearing on the inside pages of some the regular suspects. It began with the Daily Mail, was pursued by the Telegraph and who knows what will happen in the future: publishing deals and a slot on CBBC perhaps. It’s a young family from Nottingham, Kerry and Tim Meek, both teachers, and their two girls Amy and Ella, who chose to switch off the TV a bit more often and do something less boring instead. Their website dotrythisathome.com is inspiring, full of ideas from ‘going on a reptile ramble’ to cooking with snow. Yes, adventures don’t have to be epics.

Over the past two decades, outdoor activities have seen bad press. Landmark events, like the Lyme Bay kayaking accident of 1993 or the death of Alison Hargreaves on K2 in 1995, helped form public perception that our waters and mountains were dangerous. Regulatory boards sprung into existence. The qualifications industry burgeoned. Proposed school trips were canned. Lord Baden-Powell tussled in his Kenyan grave while our culture forgot that pursuits in the wild are healthy, engaging and developmental.

What makes the tale of the Meeks special is not that they are having adventures, because lots of other normal families do this kind of thing, but that mainstream media is behind them. Furthermore, they’ve been commended for sticking to a shoestring – the Nottingham four enjoyed their first 100 adventures for less than £500. Half a grand won’t buy harnesses, Canadian dugouts and waterproof jackets all round. During times of austerity, the family has tooled up on resourcefulness.

The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure
The family lists hundreds of ways of having an adventure

When I asked Kerry Meek where the inspiration originated to do the first 100 trips, it was from other adventurers, including Dave Cornthwaite. He’s swum 1000 miles along the Missouri and completed other long journeys, but doesn’t limit himself to the extreme: his current project is finding 50 ways to make £50. Al Humphreys is another favourite: he rowed the Atlantic last year, but he dedicated 2011 to microadventures, like sleeping out on a hill after work: ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ he says… ‘you get a bit wet, get a bit cold… big deal. I think it’s worth the risk.’

The next step forward for the Meeks, in terms of growing the impact they’ve had, is to get more parents involved. Unlike schools, mums and dads don’t have to fill in risk assessments and, once it’s clear to them that getting outdoors is good for concentration, ability and contentment, they’ll be motivated to encourage their children and their children’s teachers.

In Scotland, thousands of people are enjoying the outdoors – walking, paddling, climbing, biking, running … exploring. I’ve not looked at the figures of hours spent outdoors over time and perhaps it’s impossible to measure, but I feel that this has fallen since the 1990s. Rock routes seem more lichenous. The bogs and the forest have subsumed formerly well-trodden paths. Perhaps it’s fear – of the known or the unknown, or being judged for not having the ‘right’ kit, or encroaching consumerism and time pressures. My argument, as always, is that more people should benefit from the mental, emotional physical pluses of getting outdoors.

Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw
Being out of doors as a family lets children experience life in the raw

I’ll take intellect for a start. There’s nothing that generates creativity better than challenge. If you cross a stream using a spattering of slimy boulders that protrude from the froth, the brain begins to churn. It recalls similar patterns from the past, calculates how balance will be compromised and ascertains what’s needed if that manoeuvre doesn’t work. In one millisecond, you’ve done risk appraisal, spatial co-ordination, future planning and disaster recovery. This is also possible on the Playstation without getting wet: it’s your choice.

Our emotional state alters when we’re in nature. Broadleaf woodland is particularly calming, perhaps through the diversity of flora and fauna, the wholeness of this type of ecosystem and how light and shade interplay randomly. When we’re engaged in pastimes that require focus, our minds forget the minutiae of problems and deadlines. We can, for some brief period in time, switch off.

You may get wet!!
You may get wet!!

I’m guessing that the closer an activity comes to actual or perceived risk and the nearer it is to something our ancestors might have done and the better your level of skill, the more chance there is to rediscover the sense of flow. That’s a wonderful feeling.

The outdoors is also good for the body. It might be cold and rain often, but being resilient is a really positive attribute. When exerting ourselves, we force our muscles to work and burn off fat. Okay, so there are things that can hurt and cause physical trauma, like slipping on that rock when crossing the burn, but developing the skills over time and resting between adventures is good antidote to this.

When I spoke to Kerry Meek, she sounded very keen to return to Scotland with the family for more adventures. The girls wanted to undertake a ‘source to sea’ journey and sleep on a mountain. Hopefully, she’ll be joined in spirit by hundreds of others doing the same kind of thing. With our wonderful landscape, there’s probably no easier place in the world to get involved.

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NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline