Bear Grylls 'will never forget' family revelations on Who Do You Think You Are?

Bear Grylls is best known for adventuring through the wilds but he goes on a different kind of adventure when he explores his family history in the new series of the BBC’s ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are?

It’s a journey that explores tragedy, faith and courage as he learns about a death that changed the life of his grandfather, how the military impacted his family and how his thirst to explore goes back generations.

The 48-year-old adventurer, whose sister Lara lives in Yorkshire, explains what he discovered, the things he learned and the surprises he uncovered.

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He says of deciding to appear on the show: “They had asked me for years to do this and always been so kind but it has never been quite the right time. But my sister always said, ‘You’ve got to do it for mum. There’s so many unanswered questions, just do it for her.’

Bear Grylls is appearing in the latest series.Bear Grylls is appearing in the latest series.
Bear Grylls is appearing in the latest series.

“And she’s now 82 so it was just the right time to do it and I’m so pleased because it was such a humbling, inspiring, special week for me, I will never forget it.

“Once the film is made, then it’s there and I want my children or grandchildren to see it one day, because it sheds light on all of our characters, so I’m so happy I did do it.

“I was really nervous of doing it, because you never know quite what they’re going to find but I think at the end of it is something really special for my mum. I can’t wait for her to see it. And my sister was right.”

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He adds: “I think I was caught out by the emotion of understanding my great-uncle’s death when he was 16, and that really crept up on me and hit me sideways.

“And I always knew that my grandfather sometimes would mention his brother. He was one of seven, and his best friend brother died at 16 whilst he was a pupil at Eton, and that pain and loss stayed with him for all his life.

“I saw it as an old man but I never could understand where it came from. I knew there was a broken bit of his heart, because his eyes were just filled instantly with tears when anything reminded him about Eton or his brother, or if he saw one of his grandchildren doing something that reminded him of his brother.

“But I never understood how deep that bond was, and I never understood really what the family went through. So actually sitting in the room where my great-grandfather and my grandfather, who was his brother, and all the other siblings gathered after Rich’s death at 16 at that school, I realised how do you go on when you’re this family guy.

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“My great-grandfather is this real family guy and suddenly your great strength is also your biggest pain because now you’ve lost your son and you’ve held his hand whilst he was dying.

“Actually reading an account of Richard, aged 16, saying ‘Papa, read to me from the Bible, be brave, we can be strong.’ Those links of faith and family and courage really whacked me sideways.”

Grylls adds: “I’ve got three boys, they’ve all been to Eton, they’re the same age as Richard when he died and it’s like there’s unbroken continuity in this and it’s always rooted in love and connection, family, and faith.

“We’re all going to face some storms, you’ve got to try and keep that never give up spirit, and try and be brave by holding each other through the difficult times.

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“That’s what I always say to our boys, that life can be full of battles, this is the time to develop that inner muscle, that never give up spirit and the power of doing things together and family.

“Understanding history gives us an insight into the future. I’ve always felt a bit like ‘Why do I feel like this? Why have I never been good at normal stuff, but I’ve always been quite resilient. Why have I never taken the more conventional route when it would have been easier surely, but heart always pulled me back and something’s felt unconnected when I don’t listen to it. Where does this love of the wild places come from? Where does the love of the mountains? Where does all this stuff come from?’

“Going back and understanding that there have been four traits that have shaped so much of my family’s history through centuries, and one has been faith, one has been family, one is (the) path less trodden and the other is never give up, those are the traits.

“Understanding that frees it up in my life, and I think my hope for my children and grandchildren is if you feel that inside, if you feel those things, follow it, it’s God given, it’s in your DNA, it’s in your genes, follow that path less trodden.”

He also learnt more about his family’s military history.

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“I’ve always known the military has been a big part of my family going back a few generations, but the Who Do You Think You Are? journey really took it to a whole other level for me, to actually find out what some of these guys were like and what were the values that shaped them and it answered so many questions of the natural traits that I feel always in my life, but I’ve never really understood where they come from.

“My grandfather had been a brigadier in the war. And he’d always been quite bespectacled and smoked a pipe and was very quiet and loved his dogs. I knew nothing about what my grandfather really had been up to.

“And through this whole journey, I look back and I just wish I spent time with him and finding out. I should have known that he wasn’t just a bespectacled, pipe-loving, quiet, dog-loving guy. The clues were there all along, really, looking back, that he was going to have this ridiculous job that Churchill gave him at the end of the war of heading up this highly clandestine unit, trying to get these high-ranking Nazi officials and scientists, to stop them falling into the hands of the Soviets who were becoming an even greater threat to the West, at the end of the war.

“I wish I had known and I wish I could have smoked a pipe with him and actually heard some of those stories first-hand and not judged a book by its cover by being a young boy, quite intimidated by this quiet, old man.”

Bear Grylls’ episode of Who Do You Think You Are? is on BBC One at 9pm on Thursday, June 15.

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