He’s been pinned down by a polar bear and dived in some of the world’s most remote waters, but Paul Rose tells Sarah Freeman why he chose the Wolds Way for his latest expedition.
Paul Rose is used to bringing something home from his far- flung adventures. Sometimes it’s a small piece of rock from a Pacific island, often it’s a photograph of a remote place he’s not sure he will see again, and once he returned home knowing a mountain had been named after him. However, at the end of a rare expedition on home soil Rose found he had the early signs of what has since developed into a full- blown obsession. For penny farthings.
“That was something I definitely didn’t expect,” says Rose, who walked the 79-mile Yorkshire Wolds Way for a new two-part television documentary. “One day we met the Huntington family who are penny farthing fanatics. I’d never seen one except in a museum and I’d always wanted to have a go.
“Tony is a bit of a legend. He has ridden 50,000 miles on his bike and has become something of a world authority on penny farthings, so much so that people from all over the world now send him their bikes to repair.
“The one thing I can tell you is that it is a lot higher than it looks and trying to relax and convince yourself you are in control when you are 10ft above the ground is not easy, but I loved it. So much so I have now bought my own.”
Rose is best known as a Polar explorer and ocean diver, but having spent so much time abroad he was keen to discover the natural treasures on his own doorstep and inspire others to visit an area which is still often overshadowed by the Dales and the North York Moors.
“The Wolds Way is one of the least populated trails in the whole of the UK,” he says. “It’s off the normal tourist track, which means you can often walk for hours without seeing another person, and there are few places like that left. I know so much about places thousands of miles of way, but the Wolds were somewhere I knew so little about and so it was just as much a voyage of discovery as walking across the Greenland ice cap.”
Walking from south to north, Rose began at the Humber Bridge, ended in Filey and took in the likes of South Cave, Millington, Market Weighton and Thixendale along the way.
“There is always a sense of excitement at the start of any expedition, but I don’t think any of mine have begun in the shadow of such a spectacular piece of engineering as the Humber Bridge. It might have been overtaken in the record books in terms of length, but it still looks pretty incredible and for me at least it still stands as a symbol of what can be achieved when you push at the boundaries of what is possible.”
The documentary throws light on the area’s past, like the 4,000-year-old boats discovered in silty mud at North Ferriby, and introduces some of the Wolds’ current residents, such as wildlife artist Robert Fuller, who has a gallery at Thixendale.
“At first glance you think, ‘well these are lovely rolling hills’, but there is so much else to the place and it might sound like a cliché, but there was something interesting around every corner. There are not many pieces of British countryside which are home to the Kiplingcotes Derby, the oldest horse race in the country, and have inspired David Hockney, who is arguably our greatest living artist.”
Rose’s own taste for adventure and the outdoor life was sparked as a teenager growing up in Essex. When he left school at 16 he had few qualifications, but he did have a passion for diving born out of watching the likes of Jacques Cousteau on television.
“We weren’t an outdoorsy sort of family, but something had been sparked in me at an early age. When I left school, like a lot of my peers I went to work at the Ford plant in Dagenham. It was good, steady work, but it wasn’t enough. I joined the Ilford branch of the British Sub-aqua Club and then when a job opportunity came up in America making outboard motors I grabbed it.”
It wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Rose also had to move his young family to the US, but it was there that his career really took off. Soon he was providing diving training to police search and rescue teams as well as the RAF and could add qualified climber and guide to his CV.
“I guess I have always had a bit of wanderlust and eventually I applied for and got a job with the British Antarctic Survey. As soon as I got there I really felt at home. While I was there I climbed Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s most active volcano, to help Nasa test its Mars lander and dived in the sub-zero waters to identify marine sites. It felt like you were doing something important.”
Rose spent 10 successive seasons working with the survey and admits there were some hairy moments, like the time he was nearly “run over” by an iceberg and the day he was attacked by a polar bear.
“The bear had ripped a hole in the canvas of my tent,” he says of the incident in 2015. “The first thing I knew was when I woke up unable to move as it had me pinned down. Somehow I got out from underneath the bear, only to find I was staring right at it after I carefully opened the zip at the front of the tent to look outside.
“My first instinct was to fire a flare, but I didn’t want to anger the bear so we had more of a tense stand-off. Eventually, the bear fled and I escaped with just a bit of a sore shoulder.”
Rose’s efforts, however, have not been in vain. He is the former vice president of the Royal Geographical Society and current expedition leader for the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas Expedition. He is also one of the few people on Earth who has had a mountain named after them.
“It’s out in Antarctica and yes, that’s pretty special. Totally unexpected, but very special.”
All of which must have made the Wolds Way seem a little tame, boring even.
“Not at all. Wherever I go, the interesting thing for me is finding out what makes the place tick. One of the surprising things about the Wolds Way is just what a rich military vein runs through those valleys. This was a place that was home to the famous Blackburn aircraft factory during the Second World War; the glider school at Pocklington was a former RAF bomber base; and then there is the radar base which is still operational at Staxton Wold.
“I was also lucky enough to go down one of the Cold War bunkers. From the surface, you could easily mistake them for the cover of a water drain, but at the height of the Russian nuclear threat there were 1,500 of these bunkers scattered across the country and they were only officially stood down in the early 1990s.
“It was quite eerie going inside. Had an attack happened, three volunteers would have been stationed in the bunker. Their job was to retrieve the recording equipment which was designed to monitor how severe an attack had been and then wait for the nuclear fall-out to subside.
“They might have been doing it for Queen and country, but in hindsight it’s all too easy to see how these bunkers could have become concrete tombs.”
And Rose hopes that when the programme goes out later this month it will help give the Wolds Way the recognition it deserves.
“It is the most northerly outcrop of chalk in England. The soil is so rich in calcium that on a summer’s day when the wildflowers are out and the sun is shining it honestly feels like Provence.”
Yorkshire Wolds Way is due to air on BBC2 later this month.