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89 Years of Adventure | How The British Exploring Society Helps Young People Connect With The Outdoors And Why It Matters

Founded in 1932, the British Exploring Society has shaped young people to deal with the challenges of the world. With the pandemic fallout and the threat of climate change now a reality, their work is more important than ever

In the midst of an economic recession and soaring unemployment rates, young people were facing troubling times back in 1932. Putting to one side the obviously not small matter of two world wars that splits the generations, it’s fair to say that recent events (i.e. the impact of the global pandemic) are putting the young people of 2021 under some similar strains. The youth of today, of course, also face some challenges entirely unique to the age we’re living in. 

While society as a whole may make the worlds of 1932 and 2021 seem completely different, one thing has stayed constant across that time; the British Exploring Society and their vital work providing life-shaping experiences for young people through the medium of adventure.

“We’re about building community and tolerance”

Founded in 1932 by George Murray Levick (a member of Scott’s final Antarctic expedition), the British Exploring Society gives 16 to 25 year olds the chance to take part in expeditions. By heading to areas such as the Amazon, the Yukon, and the Indian Himalaya, the British Exploring Society aims to create a level playing field for young people from all backgrounds; giving them the chance to learn essential soft skills to prepare them for real life. 

I spoke with the British Exploring Society CEO, Honor Wilson-Fletcher, to get her thoughts on how the charity, that has lasted for just short of a century, has been able to remain agile in a time where many others have simply been left behind. “We’re about building community and tolerance [within young people]… and doing that in a completely levelling environment (ie: the wilderness) where everyone basically is equal in terms of their ignorance. It’s an incredibly powerful thing,” she tells me.

Pictured: A BES expedition in Northern Quebec (1954). Credit: British Exploring Society
Credit: British Exploring Society
Pictured: BES in Norway (1979). Credit: British Exploring Society
Pictured: BES in Peru (2018). Credit: British Exploring Society
Pictured: BES in Canadian Yukon. Credit: Ben Watts / British Exploring Society

Following the death of Prince Philip, I was keen to ask Honor about a speech he made during a British Exploring Society meal in 1958. In it, the architect of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award claimed that “modern life was making children too accustomed to easy living.”

The Prince, of course, was no stranger to making controversial comments over the years but there’s certainly, to my mind at least, a long-running strand of truth to this statement. Young people, so the argument goes, are increasingly brought up in a society where everything is deemed ‘safe’ and the risks are totally removed from their daily life choices – removing the ‘learn from your mistakes’ mantra that helps to mould people.

“You need to make mistakes, you need to be allowed to take risks and learn from them”

When quizzed about the differences in pressures young people are facing in their day-to-day lives, compared to those living in the early ‘30s, Honor puts it down to development, or lack thereof, of resilience: “It’s something that lots of people in the [youth] development world worry about, quite rightly.”

In simple terms, it comes down to arguments around the near-instant gratification people, young and old alike, are now able to get just by staring at a phone screen.

“There are some really old fashioned things that every young person could really do with to develop and you need space to do that, you need to make mistakes, you need to be allowed to take risks and learn from them,” Honor tells me.

Credit: British Exploring Society

It’s this back to basics approach that the British Exploring Society takes with them on their expeditions. By taking young people into potentially risky environments (with the guidance and expertise of a mountain professional), they hope that these people are able to gain confidence to make their own decisions as individuals, and as part of a team – something that’s been stripped out of many modern upbringings.

“If your life is completely constrained and managed and controlled and scheduled, then you just don’t ever get the chance. This means that you can’t look after yourself. You can’t make the decisions, so ironically having a risk-free childhood if you like, if you’re lucky enough to have a risk-free childhood, this basically means that you approach adulthood clueless,” says Honor.

“The door is open but we spent our energy working with the young people who would never walk through it on their own”

The British Exploring Society has long pushed for an all-inclusive model that looks to focus on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. With this in mind, the Society recently switched to a needs-led model which provides vital funding for those who wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to go on a life changing expedition.

When asked about the disparities in upbringings within the UK’s often harsh and divisive class society, Honor fundamentally put it down to the barriers in education those from disadvantaged backgrounds face: “I think one of the reasons for that is that… in state education, everything assumes stability. So, if you’re doing an exam based curriculum, you need a room to study in, which also assumes that you’ve got a bedroom of your own, which also assumes you’ve got space and peace and regular food. And, adults in the house that you trust, and somewhere that you can reliably go to that’s clean, and that you get to sleep every night, and that you’re aren’t looking after the adults in the house and so it goes on.”

Pictured: The BES in Iceland (1970). Credit: British Exploring Society

With the UK long forcing an exam-based curriculum onto the lives of many young people – who may not be best suited to that style of learning and examination – the adventurous opportunities presented by the British Exploring Society provide an outlet and a way of learning and developing in a more practical setting.

It wasn’t until 1980 before the British Exploring Society began to accept women on their courses. This is something Honor, the BES’ first woman CEO, is keen to make up for with improved inclusivity for all: “I’ve worked in lots of sectors that said basically ‘everyone is welcome’ but you don’t necessarily feel welcome, and it’s still hard for people to feel welcome when they look at our website. As a team, we don’t look as inclusive as the young people who currently join us on expedition, so we know that we’ve got a lot to do.

“We all have an obligation to try to make it more accessible”

“If you just sort of say ‘everyone is welcome’, you’ll never be inclusive because the gate’s always open for some people and it isn’t for others. So you have to make choices in order to ensure that some people who will never reach you reach you. That means not only walking through the gate and inviting people through, but standing next to them and holding their hand through the entire process. So, the door is open but we spent our energy working with the young people who would never walk through it on their own… It’s ultimately about ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’”

By setting up their trainee leader programme, the BES is giving past and present young explorers the chance to gain qualifications – such as the Mountain Leader Award – and experience leading groups in the wilderness. Honor hopes that this scheme will be able to inject some much needed diversity into the outdoors as a whole.

Pictured: BES in Iceland. Credit: Malcolm Leick / British Exploring Society

“I think everyone who reads Mpora, and you’d be the same, would know that the outdoors is startling white for the most part,” Honor says. “It’s basically just blokes with great teeth. We all have an obligation to try to make it more accessible. The idea of going for a walk somewhere with no reason and then coming back is just so culturally alien to some people. We owe it to our young people because otherwise they have a right to say ‘well you don’t look like it, so what’s the story?’”

The current pandemic has been a monumental blow for the opportunities of many young people around the world. But if COVID-19 looks like a crack in the system of youth development, then climate change is going to be a crevasse.

“As long as that’s unequal, then the fight will be unequal as well and it’ll feel like a middle class, largely white, battle”

“The sense of entitlement that everybody should have [with the outdoors] goes back to a bigger issue of sustainability and the environment,” Honor tells me. “The more of us who care about the planet and the spaces we get to enjoy, then the more likely it is to exist – and that basically means having more access to it and enjoying it and experiencing it. So as long as that’s unequal, then the fight will be unequal as well and it’ll feel like a middle class, largely white, battle.

“We’re going to need young people to keep us all going, who are going to have the skills to deal with all this shit. So yeah, youth development organisations who are about giving young people the skills to be able to tackle the unknown, I think there’s a new significance to the work that we do now more than ever – in our history.”

Credit: Simon White / British Exploring Society
Pictured: BES in Iceland (2019). Credit: British Exploring Society
Pictured: BES in Canadian Yukon (2019). Credit: Jo Mclaughlan / British Exploring Society


For more from our England Issue 

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