TV presenter and writer Mary-Ann Ochota loves to pick up an OS map and go exploring, often with her dog Harpo. And she’s keen to help more people discover the hidden outdoor gems across Britain.
As a TV presenter and writer, anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota inspires a wide public audience. Last year she made a series of short films for the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) on hillwalking, wrote about her first orienteering adventure race for the Daily Telegraph, and she’s about to publish a book about interesting archaeology you can spot in the British landscape.
Mary-Ann says: “The outdoors is for everyone. It’s free, fun and open 24/7, 365 days of the year. There are loads of people to reach with the #GetOutside message.”
How does it feel to have been chosen as a #GetOutside Champion?
So exciting! I feel very privileged - OS is an institution! Many people’s first experiences of getting outside involved OS maps, orienteering in the scouts or off on a family walk. It’s exciting to open up a map and work out what journey you’re going to embark on. And now there’s the OS Maps app – you can go on a spontaneous adventure and know you’ve got the best mapping in the world in your pocket.
What does being a #GetOutside Champion mean to you?
Our job as #GetOutside Champions is to share our passion and enthusiasm for the Great Outdoors! That might be swimming, running, biking, camping, riding or just picnicking. You don’t need to take a ‘trip of a lifetime’ to have the experience of a lifetime. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, or go somewhere exotic - some of the best adventures might start from your own front door. I think some people think that little adventures don’t ‘count’ – if it’s not record-breaking blood and guts, it’s not an adventure. That’s not true! It’s not a competition.
What are the benefits to you of being outside?
People talk a lot about ‘resilience’ – the ability to bounce back when things don’t go your way, the ability to cope with stress, to fail but not feel defeated, to work with and support each other – getting outside teaches you all of that, and more. It’s about teamwork, friendship, sharing experiences and building trust. I’ve learned so much about myself by spending time outdoors.
What’s your favourite terrain to get out in?
I like woods and lowlands, where natural landscapes have been shaped by human hands - my heart sings when I see trees and fields and cows. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Cheshire! A holloway, a deep, sunken footpath, makes you realise you’re walking exactly where people have walked for hundreds of years. Or a ridgeway path on high ground could date to the Stone Age from five or six thousand years ago! That’s awesome. There are archaeological features in the landscape all around us and they all tell a story.
What’s your best memory of being outside?
I have so many! The first time I went wild camping on my own I had the BEST night’s sleep. I woke up just as the sun was coming up. It was so simple and good for the soul. A couple of years ago I did a winter skills course for hillwalkers at Glenmore Lodge training centre, in the Cairngorms. I learned how to move safely with crampons and an ice axe. The first summit felt like a real achievement, and I realised that those simple extra skills mean that a whole new world of mountain winter walking is open to me. Oh, and then there was the day galloping a huge 18-hand Clydesdale horse down the beach at Millom, in the southern Lake District. It was epic – scary and exciting in equal measure!
What’s your worst?
I was bivvy bagging with my dog Harpo, and it was raining, so I zipped us both into my bag. In the night Harpo got up, turned around, lay down, and we both started slithering down the rainy, grassy bank on to the footpath below. I hadn’t quite appreciated how close to the edge we had been! It was pitch dark, we were all twisted together and I couldn’t find the zip to unzip us! Poor Harpo was disoriented but he kept really calm, thank goodness. We had a lucky escape. I learned an important lesson – NEVER zip a bivvy bag (or a tent) all the way up.
What do you like about Great Britain?
All the amazing activities you can do – with world-class instructors and great safety standards. People do adventurous things on holiday but why wait until then? Get outside, find a local club, instructor or guide, and have a go.
Where is your favourite place in Great Britain to be outside?
I was really impressed with the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. I was walking there in the winter and Harpo and I mostly had it to ourselves! We only saw two other people in a day and a half. There are so many places I haven’t been to and would like to. I won’t ever tire of exploring the UK.
What are your favourite outdoor pursuits?
Straightforward hill walking. Keep it simple. Use your feet and off you go. I’m also getting into scrambling, which is somewhere between rock climbing and walking. There’s hand on rock, maybe routes that are a bit steeper, but it’s not technical. Orienteering is good fun too. I’m not very good or very fast but it’s all about map reading at speed so it improves navigation – and all abilities can take part.
There’s always more stuff to learn and try!
How would you describe the feeling being outside gives you?
I’ve had the whole range of emotions. The absolute calm and peace when you’re totally in the moment and not thinking about anything except where to put your feet. At other times I’ve been scared, cold and exhausted – ‘Type 2’ fun, where it’s only fun afterwards, when you’re telling the stories over a pint or cup of tea!
When you’re outside how do you change as a person?
It makes me happy - in a really basic way. When you come back from a day outside you’re tired in a good way and you sleep like a baby! A sleepy baby.
How do you plan to inspire people now you’re a #GetOutside champion?
Map and compass reading aren’t taught any more in schools. Lots of adults half-remember but they’re not very confident – if I can help people build those skills so they can get outside safely and confidently, that would be great.
What would you say to someone who never goes outside to get them outside?
Don’t think you’re going to do it wrong; don’t worry if you’re not doing something epic. It doesn’t matter if your adventure is one hour or 48 hours, the main thing is to get out and have a go at something. Try different activities and see what takes your fancy. And if you’re the one taking less experienced people out on a trip, stop while everyone’s still having fun – leave them wanting more, rather than wishing it was already over!
What are the most important things a person should do or take when they #GetOutside?
Tell someone where you’re going, and when you’re coming back. Be self-sufficient: Take a head torch, a map & compass, adequate food & water and layers of clothing. Don’t assume the weather at the car park will be the weather at the top of the mountain. Have fun.
What music do you listen to when you get outside / does music inspire you?
Personally, I leave my music at home. When I’m outdoors I want to hear the outdoors. I want to experience it with all my senses.
What are your backpack essentials?
Lip balm, first aid kit, dog food and a woolly hat. I also pack really horrible emergency rations so I’m not tempted to eat them. And a man-sized cloth hanky to blow my nose/use as a bandage/tie up kit, as required!
What’s your favourite food when you are outside?
I champion the one-pot gumbo. Take noodles, ham, milk powder, some veg and a stock cube – cook together in one pot. It’s nutritious, tasty, warming and the liquid will help re-hydrate you.
I can also recommend my friend Jenny’s fruit cake. I don’t know what the secret ingredient is, but it’s rocket fuel for getting me up a hill!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I reckon outdoors people are those who get the most out of life.
Mary-Ann's new book Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape will be published in the UK in October 2016.
Read more from Mary-Ann Ochota