Explorer Belinda Kirk relocates to Devon to embark on her next adventure
PUBLISHED: 11:46 17 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:46 17 July 2018
Martin Pailthorpe meets an inspirational explorer who moved to Devon to fulfil the next big stage of her dreams
After a year which saw her named in the Sunday Times’ Alternative Rich List - alongside her idol Sir David Attenborough - adventurer, campaigner and social media enabler Belinda Kirk is undertaking her next big challenge…and it’s a rather different one to her normal escapades.
Her home on the edge of Exmoor is an Aladdin’s cave of expedition paraphernalia - kayaks and surf boards are propped haphazardly alongside enough tents and sleeping bags, climbing and hiking gear, cooking kit and freeze dried food to support a trip to China’s Desert of Death (she led an expedition there after leaving university, having cut her teeth as a teenager with solo trips in Africa and Central America).
After a career in adventure TV (she and I worked together on programmes with the likes of Ray Mears and Chris Ryan) she left to in 2009 to instigate what she terms The Adventure Revolution – which is the title of her forthcoming book about reversing our loss of connection to the Great Outdoors.
She set up Explorers’ Connect – a social media platform that combines the connectivity of Facebook and the networking potential of LinkedIn, and organises everything from talks to expeditions. It has since spawned Wild Night Out – a national day of adventure celebrating the outdoors – and Base Camp Festival – an annual Gore-tex Glastonbury of outdoor activity, inspirational talks and music.
But her next challenge was one for which she was uncharacteristically under-prepared. She and her partner Jim Starr (an internationally acclaimed painter and print-maker) have welcomed their first child into their lives – son Jackson, who was born the week before Christmas.
As we speak in the kitchen of their cosy home – set in six acres of Exmoor farmland – Belinda reflects on the location. “It’s pretty remote,” I remark, when she sends me directions. “I know, great isn’t it!” Despite the rain sheeting down outside, Belinda couldn’t be happier with her move.
“We were living in the centre of Bristol – pubs and clubs, police sirens, the lot. And I loved it, but we spent every weekend escaping,” she explains.
They decided that Bristol wasn’t the place to give young Jackson (they chose the name as soon as they knew they were expecting a boy) the kind of childhood they wanted for him, so after a two-year search that took in South Wales, the Lakes, Scotland and Dartmoor “we kept returning to Exmoor”.
The house is a single storey wooden building split into two self-contained units. It was originally intended as a summer house on the local estate.
At first Belinda had her reservations. “I thought it was too cheap,” she remembers, laughing at the memory. But she fell in love with it when she realised that for the selling price of a small house and garden in Bristol you could buy not one, but two houses on Exmoor, along with six acres of gently sloping farmland, old stable blocks and outhouses.
But Belinda is not one of those starry eyed rural ingénues - rushing in with wild enthusiasm and little practical application. “I’ve got no idea what I’m doing,” she admits. “I’ve never grown anything.” So although she and Jim want to keep chickens, grow veg and plant trees they are going to wait and watch for a year, and talk to neighbours to understand the land and what it will support.
In the shorter term, they have plans to use the space as a base for adventures. Through Explorers Connect she has helped people to embark on 250,000 days of outdoor experiences they might not otherwise have enjoyed – through lack of funding, for want of travel companions, or simply through fear of taking the first step.
By continuing to provide grants, networking opportunities and encouragement, she hopes that figure will eventually hit one million.
One of her aims this year is to host a new parents and babies event for Wild Night Out. With support from the likes of her Exmoor neighbour Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and explorers Ben Saunders and Benedict Allen, the event is aimed at inspiring people to identify and challenge their boundaries.
She hasn’t actually mentioned this to any of her new ante-natal contacts, and she admits that many might be horrified at the thought of sleeping under the stars with a small child. “But if I can help those local mums take that first step, that might inspire others around the country.”
It will be part of her own learning experience as a new mum as well. “This is my next big world,” she says. “My own comfort zones are about to shift - the idea of letting go of my child’s hand is terrifying, but it’s not responsible to be too risk averse. It’s about finding the balance.”
While waiting for Jackson to arrive she and Jim started to explore the new world on their doorstep. One of the things that attracted them was the wildlife. Jim’s prints often feature birds, and here they have buzzards nesting near the house and owls roosting in the barns.
Then there are the deer. Before moving down, Belinda took an Explorers Connect group on an Exmoor National Park guided deer walk, and she now returns regularly to the same valley where she has seen up to 140 deer – including rutting stag – in a single evening.
Both love the options for kayaking and surfing nearby (although Belinda reluctantly had to give up both pending Jackson’s arrival!), and for fuel they have discovered nearby South Molton, with its Pannier Market, and the Moorland Larder for pasties, scotch eggs and “What’s that one they do with potatoes and cheese? My brain’s turned to mush.” “Homity Pie,” chips in Jim, sweeping in to make a cup of coffee.
When the time comes to leave, I’m served a stark reminder of how hard it is to find true remoteness in the 21st century, even out here on the wild fringes of Exmoor. Leaving the property I pass a Waitrose delivery van in a lay-by – maybe that’s another discovery Belinda and Jim have to make for themselves!
Timeline of adventure
2017 - featured in both the Sunday Times and San Miguel Alternative Rich Lists, which celebrate richness of experiences and inspiration.
2010 - skipper of the first all-female crew to row non-stop around Britain, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. The feat was described by Sir Richard Branson as “the most remarkable achievement carried out by women alive today”.
2010 - shortlisted as Cosmopolitan magazine’s Ultimate Woman of the Year.
2009 - set up Explorers’ Connect, to start an Adventure Revolution, saying “I believe that adventure is a necessity of the human spirit. Adventure makes us happier and healthier, giving us moments of real joy.”
As a TV producer, managed filming and logistics for Bear Grylls, Ray Mears and Chris Ryan in Africa, USA, New Zealand, Central America.
As an expedition leader, she has run trips to China, Africa, Alaska and Amazonas.