10 questions with… Bear Grylls
The adventurer lifts the lid on his childhood experiences at Eton, recalls an eventful school trip up Snowdon and explains why he believes the most important learning happens outside the classroom
Bear Grylls is an adventurer, outdoorsman and former member of the SAS – and he also serves as chief scout and chief ambassador of World Scouting. He’s hosted many TV shows celebrating the great outdoors, taking some of the most famous people on the planet into the wilderness and teaching them survival skills – most notably former US president Barack Obama, for the programme Running Wild.
Grylls spoke to Tes about his schools days, the teachers he recalls with fondness, a climbing trip up Snowdon that left a lasting impression and why he thinks it’s so important that young people have the chance to get out into the wild when growing up.
1. Do you remember starting school?
Leaving for prep [boarding] school, at the age of 8, was quite a shock to the system. Seeing tears stream down my father’s face as he left me at the school gate when I began my first term was hard. From that moment, I had no choice but to just get on with it and survive as best I could.
2. Do you have any good memories of that school?
There were some good moments, like snowball fights and making some solid friends for life, but it’s often the small things that we remember, like the weekly chocolate bar or chasing a grass snake through the headmaster’s garden.
The headmaster and his wife were incredibly kind people and I remember it to this day. When picking teams [for TV shows], I put kindness above all else. As the quote goes: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
3. You then went to Eton. What was it like?
Going to Eton was quite a daunting prospect, aged 13. Those imposing brick buildings were quite a change of scene for me, from growing up tinkering around making boats and climbing the sea cliffs on the Isle of Wight with my dad.
I immediately had to get used to the new way of doing things but fitting in to such a conventional system didn’t come naturally to me. Although I had to wear the tailcoat and waistcoat, I still felt more like Huckleberry Finn on the inside.
What I did learn was to put friendship before grades and adventure before imposed sport. That sometimes got me into trouble, but the memories of those misadventures with good buddies are still good and strong.
In many ways, they formed how I live today. Having people you trust at your side is so fundamental to life.
4. Who was your favourite teacher at school and why?
Probably Mike Town, our old geography teacher, who encouraged me to follow less conventional pursuits that I loved, such as climbing and martial arts.
Both of those things have been formative in my adult life and I am so grateful for the encouragement to follow a few of the paths less trodden.
That’s also something we encourage at Scouts – to go for things we enjoy.
5. Can you recall a memorable lesson or moment that really stayed with you?
Getting my black belt [in karate] aged 16 was a big moment for me. It was the first thing I had succeeded at, ever.
I had chosen climbing and martial arts over the conventional sports, but I am so pleased, looking back. Both these passions gave me a pride and identity that have stayed a lifetime.
Also, my housemaster, Mr Quibell, was a key inspirer who paved the way for me to explore the whole idea of believing in a greater power. Understanding that a Christian faith could be rooted in freedom and peace, rather than rules and religion, has shaped my life for the better.
6. What would you say to them now?
Thank you for encouraging me to pursue what was in my heart rather than just the conventional routes.
Schools tend to celebrate the naturally sporty or academic or good looking. If you’re not in those categories, it is easy to slip between the cracks.
Those two teachers of mine were outliers who essentially said that the cracks are where the good stuff always grows.
7. What sort of student were you at school?
I used to love climbing some of the school buildings and steeples at night with a good buddy of mine. Sir Ranulph Fiennes [the explorer] had been a pioneer of night climbing at Eton a generation before me and I loved to try to follow in his footholds.
Ascending the school dome at the top of the library building in the dark was always an epic adventure. To this day, I feel a small tinge of pride in having carved the initials BG alongside RF on the highest bell tower.
I also learned that enthusiasm trumps natural ability in life. My dad always tried to teach me that if I was the most enthusiastic person I knew, then I’d do well in life. Enthusiasm, kindness and a never-give-up attitude is what he used to care most about in the school reports. He was always looking for clues to those things before he looked at any grades.
8. What was your favourite lesson?
I didn’t really have one. I struggled with every subject and dreaded lessons.
9. Did you go on any particularly memorable school trips?
One – a trip to North Wales for a climbing weekend away. We had been preparing for a year for this mission.
Our packs were so heavy that we could barely move and we struggled up Snowdon, only just making it.
We then pitched camp halfway down but, that night, a storm came in and our old tent collapsed under the weight of the wind and rain. We lay all night in a pool of water, shivering.
At dawn, we packed up and hiked out. I looked like a swamp man but I felt like [Sir Edmund] Hillary having just scaled Everest – it was brilliant.
10. Do you think that the chance to get into the wild is important for pupils?
I know, without doubt, that a lot of the most important education goes on outside the classroom. The wild teaches us like no other. Teamwork, respect and trust. It’s where I learned to step up and find my place in the world.
It’s also something we do in Scouting, getting young people outdoors and helping them to take controlled risks to enable them discover their true selves and learn those vital skills for life. Our character is made up of all the stuff we’ve failed at and then overcome – the things we have to battle against.
If school should teach one thing, it should be resilience, because that can carry us far further than any exam results ever will.
That spirit is also at the beating heart of the BecomingX [the education business and charity, of which Grylls is a co-founder] ambassadors programme – we try to demystify what it really takes to succeed in life. Because, sometimes, what we see at school as our failures are often the very things that make us.
Interview by Dan Worth, senior editor at Tes
This article originally appeared in the 2 April 2021 issue