June 23, 2021

A call to adventure

Globe-trotting TV presenter Helen Skelton talks about her record-breaking charity challenges and adventures around the world

Helen Skelton is as well known for her adventurous exploits as she is for her TV career, with roles presenting Blue Peter and Countryfile opening doors and feeding a taste for adrenaline-fuelled activities and philanthropic wanderlust.

Children’s TV was a gateway to action and adventure, leading vivacious Skelton to undertake incredible challenges for charity. She’s not only famously kayaked the length of the Amazon solo (breaking two Guinness World Records), but tackled the treacherous 500-mile icy Antarctica terrain, enduring extreme temperatures of -48C to reach the South Pole by ski, kite and bike. Helen’s Polar Challenge for Sports Relief pushed her limits, gaining her yet more world records.

“On Blue Peter, I had colleagues who didn’t think I was mad for wanting to take on crazy adventures, so I ran with it! You get out of life what you put in, and I get a buzz from pushing myself,” says Skelton.

Other notable accomplishments include becoming only the second woman to have completed the gruelling 78-mile Namibian Ultra Marathon, and her ‘Magnificent 7’ which saw her fly with the Red Arrows and face a daring rope bridge trial.

Her most hair-raising moments? “High-wire walking between the towers of Battersea Power Station was nail biting. I was so scared I could barely breathe!”

She says living on a boat in the Amazon, not knowing where or when she would eat or sleep, was “an adventure in every sense of the word”, while driving a camper van across Turkey and travelling in India top her most memorable and exhilarating experiences. “They were trips that challenged me every single day. Turkey was scary at times… I got grief for travelling as a solo woman. I was swarmed at times in India and, in Bangladesh, people couldn’t get over how pale and blonde I was. Seeing so many people so shocked by me made me realise how different and varied the world is.” 

Returning to her rural roots as a presenter on Countryfile, Skelton’s UK-wide adventures and travels for the show have taken her all around the UK, seeing her mud wrestling, capsized in a canoe in a raging torrent, and stuck in a dry suit after helping fish in a canal while heavily pregnant.

As an ambassador for Sports Relief and Comic Relief, Skelton’s also journeyed overseas, to Sierra Leone, Uganda and India, where she supported Operation Smile.

“I helped charities perform facial surgery on children living with cleft lips and palettes. In Bangladesh, I met children struggling with malnutrition and physical disability, while in Peru I spent time with children living on rubbish dumps and making a living there.”

She says her travels have taught her “empathy” and has top tips aplenty for staying safe abroad. “Research, research, research… Don’t travel alone. Don’t get too drunk, and keep valuables out of sight. I got mugged once for wearing earrings.”

The waterbaby was in her element living by the sea, having relocated to Canet-Plage with a toddler in tow, when her rugby league player husband, Richie Myler, signed with the Catalan Dragons in 2015. “We loved the weather, importance of life and amazing food. We never had a bad or expensive meal in Perpignan. The local market is so cheap, and we could get five litres of wine for €5 from the vineyard next door!”

The slow pace was another bonus during their two-year French stint. “We couldn’t get over how relaxed everything was, taking two hours for lunch. We’d spend summers outdoors, on the beach, people watching.”

Now back in Blighty, the future holds further epic challenges. “I’m attempting an ultramarathon relay in a couple of months, running 10km chunks with six girlfriends from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.”

Born and brought up on a dairy farm, farming’s in the family blood, but does her rural upbringing influence her travel choices? “Yes and no. I’m happier amongst greenery and I like fresh air. A perfect holiday to me is swimming in natural water over anything else. That said, we’ve always lived so far from cities that going to the city is always a treat.”

Summer is for switching off. “I live in my campervan. I love the Yorkshire coast, and I want to take the van to Switzerland,” while recent family winter travels took in Cyprus. “We found fantastic hidden beaches and  quirky places, ate unrecognisable food and watched sunsets every day… it was perfect.”