Adventurer, thrill seeker, engineer and presenter Rob Bell has been our Brand Ambassador for nearly a year now, so we felt it high time we sat down and chat over a cup of tea.
Rob first appeared on our screens in 2012 presenting the hit BBC Two series ‘Engineering Giants’. Since then, Rob has hosted a plethora of further documentaries for BBC One, BBC Four, Travel Channel, Quest and Channel 5 where his most recent series, ‘Britain’s Greatest Bridges’ explores the engineering and historical stories behind some of the UK’s most famous structures.
You're incredibly passionate about adventure and exploration, what drives this hunger?
I’m not sure there’s any one thing that drives my passion for adventure but I do enjoy the prospect that things might not always work out as you’d envisaged. I like an element of risk and adversity. That said, I’m far from reckless and I know my limits. I’m also the son of a scout leader - so from as early as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed being exposed to the outdoors and nature. And I like to try new things in new places with new people, so when you add all of that together I guess it’s no big surprise that I do end up spending a fair bit of my time on what you might call adventures.
I also love a physical challenge. I’ve raced in lots of big organised events like marathons and triathlons which I’ve enjoyed no end, especially when I’m with friends, but these days I really enjoy taking part in smaller or less well-known challenges. Occasionally, I’ll just take off on my own little adventures too. In whatever guise it might present itself, I do love a challenge.
In January 2015, you became one of very few people to have ever successfully run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days, that must have been your biggest challenge yet?
As is the case with many a great idea, the 7 Marathons Challenge came about because of a chat in a pub over a couple of beers. It was early in the new year, the excitement of the festive season had passed and one of the boys on the team had been reading Sir Ranulph Fiennes's autobiography. Sir Ranulph was the first to attempt this feat and at that point, to our knowledge, only another 30-odd individuals had done so after him. So we asked ourselves the question: “Why don’t we try it?”.
For me, it was the prospect of an enormous physical challenge that not many people had ever attempted along with the opportunity to work alongside five of my best buddies to make something special happen, that drew me in. The training was extremely demanding. We were regularly running more than 100km per week as well as all the strength and conditioning work. I’ve never run so much before and probably won’t ever again. But there were so many logistics and event details to be arranged and organised too, which we all took on with real enthusiasm - regularly checking in and liaising with people form all seven continents. I got a huge buzz from how close a team we became through this. And finally, we all took it upon ourselves to promote to anyone who’d listen to help raise funds for our chosen charities. We ended up raising more than £100,000 which I’m incredibly proud of.
Completing the marathons in those 7 days was one thing, but the year-long effort that we all put in to actually make it happen almost meant more to me than the achievement itself.
From canoeing the Yukon to rallying through the Sahara, you've explored much of our planet, but where did you enjoy the most?
I’ve been very lucky in my life to have travelled a decent amount. At my last count, I’ve been to 49 countries, but what I think I possibly enjoy the most is exploring my home country of the UK. I just love chucking stuff in the back of my car and heading off. We’re so lucky to have such a huge variety of beautiful landscapes, coastline, towns and villages that continuously surprise me. I was most recently blown away by a trip to the Isles of Scilly (incidentally, it was for a SwimRun race) - I don’t think I’ve swum in clearer or more interesting waters anywhere in the world and I was made to feel so welcome.
I’m also a big fan of the Alpes. They’re relatively easy and quick for me to get to and whether it’s summer or winter, there’s an almost endless list of activities to take on out there. I’ll spend a lot of my time out there biking, hiking or swimming in mountain lakes - but not running. I’m no trail runner. Give me flat roads any day.
A lot of my travels have come about because of international races I’ve signed up for. I think that’s my favourite reason to travel - especially if you’re with friends. A great example was the New York Marathon a few years ago. There were six of us travelling together to run and I was attempting my first sub-3 hour marathon. I was excited and nervous. New York is obviously an enormous city with tourists galore. But taking part in the race, with an estimated two million people coming out to support and cheer you along, it felt like I was an integral part of the city for that one day. It was very special. I’m not sure you could get that feeling any other way.
In 2013 you presented Man v World on the Travel Channel – in which you undertook various journeys using different modes of transport with one overriding rule: No engines allowed. But which mode of transport surprised you the most, and why?
When the idea for Man v World was pitched to me I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe someone was going to arrange for me to travel the world and take part in a whole bunch of different and interesting activities - some of them quite obscure. I think there were 37 different “modes of transport” within the series.
What surprised me the most was how rubbish I am at trail running. When we were in South Africa on the Garden Route, I met up and ran with a professional trail runner. Now, I’m a good runner, but as it turns out, I really struggle when you take away a nice flat surface and add a whole bunch of climbing. Since then, I have a huge amount of respect for trail runners.
The most fun activity was Land Yachting - similar to sailing a small Topper but on the beach and on wheels - again in South Africa. We had a good onshore wind that evening and the acceleration when you really caught it in your sail was a huge surprise. I remember giggling away to myself for the entire time on board my buggy. I was constantly toying on the edge of pulling the most wind in to my sail and toppling my buggy over. Such great fun.
Finally, I think the most memorable experience was riding with a Czech professional road cycling team. When I’m riding with my friends I’m used to having bikes close in front and behind me but riding with the pros was something else. The proximity they ride within was scary. I had bikes centimetres away in front, behind and right alongside me. There was nowhere to escape. I learned a lot about managing my efforts on the bike; when to ride with your heart and when to ride with your legs. But the coolest thing was having your own support car and domestique to bring drinks and food directly to you along the way. Very cool.
At the beginning of the year you presented Britain's Greatest Bridges for Channel 5, something your inner-engineer must have been really excited about, but which bridge impressed you the most?
Of the 6 bridges we visited in the UK, I think I’d have to say The Humber Bridge impressed me the most. It is massive. When it was built in the 1980s, it was the longest single span suspension bridge anywhere in the world! It’s so long, the tops of the two towers are further apart than at the bottom, because of the curvature of the earth.
If you stand on the shore right underneath and look across the water, it feels like there’s a giant runway just floating in the air above you. It heads off into the distance and gives the impression of infinite length. If ever you’re up at the north end of the A15, I’d highly recommend taking 15 minutes to stop and take in this British engineering wonder from the riverside. You won’t regret it.
Otherwise, the UNESCO appointed World Heritage Site of the Forth Rail Bridge is one heck of a structure. As a multi-span, steel cantilevered bridge, it’s a very different type of bridge to the Humber. As is the case with most bridges, you don’t get the best view of it as you cross. You have to make your way alongside to see it properly. And when you do it looks so strong and possibly somewhat over-engineered. In truth, it was designed to give that impression. And when you consider the hostility of the waters it stands in and the technology available to build it at the time of construction, you can’t help but be amazed.
I’m currently filming a series about the World’s Greatest Bridges and I’m looking forward to learning more about how and why they were built.
In June 2015, you teamed up with James Heptonstall and Noel Carroll to Race London’s DLR, and won! Should we all be ditching our Oyster Cards?
I had such a great time teaming up with the Race The Tube boys, James and Noel. Their first video, when James raced the circle line between Mansion House and Canon Street was a YouTube smash hit. It was a real privilege to be invited to take on the DLR with them as a relay team.
I’m not sure it’s as effective a way of getting around town as using your oyster card, but it was certainly more fun. What I really loved about it was the amount of work we all put in beforehand planning the race. Nothing is left to chance with those boys. We did a full recce of the route a few days before the race and even used a trundle wheel! We figured out which doors on which carriage got us closest to the station exit. We researched what time of day would yield the fewest people in and around the stations and we checked for any planned events that might put more people in our way. The route we chose was a real challenge - none of us were 100% certain we could achieve it - everything within our control had to be perfect.
I remember how nervous I felt before we started. I was running the second of four legs where we’d each run around 800m. We needed two attempts to beat the DLR, but beat it we eventually did. If you get a few minutes you should check out some of their other races. What I love the most about racing London trains is how superfluous it is to everyday survival. The only point of it was purely to see if we could. That’s my kind of challenge.
A big thank you to Rob Bell. You can catch him on our TV screens again soon in The World's Greatest Bridges on Channel 5.