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Outdoor Life

Scientist and TV presenter Professor Alice Roberts talks kayaking and camper vans

For anyone who’s watched a science documentary over the last fifteen years or so, the chances are Professor Alice Roberts will be a familiar face to you.

Ever since her first appearance on Channel 4’s Time Team Live back in 2001, she’s been busy writing and presenting a series of high-profile TV programmes and series that have explored a diverse range of subjects, from Ice Age woolly mammoths to the benefits of wild swimming.

Alice’s fresh and engaging style has won her legions of fans, inspiring viewers as she enlightens us on the mysteries of our planet’s history. A professor at the University of Birmingham, Alice has also published several bestselling books, whilst finding time to support worthwhile causes – from heart health to science communication.

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So how did this modest West Country girl rise from being a waitress to one of TV’s best-loved science presenters?

Born in Bristol, Alice was a hardworking schoolgirl with a paper round and a waitressing job in a small hotel. She went on to study medicine at university and after graduation worked as a junior NHS doctor in South Wales. In 1998 Alice took up a teaching job in the anatomy department at the University of Bristol – she fell in love with teaching and made the hard decision to leave her clinical work for academia, becoming a lecturer and researching for a PhD in evolutionary anatomy and pathology.

It was while Alice was at Bristol University that she started to write reports on human bones for Channel 4’s Time Team Live – research which led to regular appearances on the programme from 2001, and then a host of further high-profile presenting jobs.

Off-screen adventures

With such a busy schedule, it’s no wonder that Alice looks forward to down time with her family – and especially opportunities to take off in her camper van for adventures in the great British countryside alongside her husband and their two young children.

“I love escaping in the camper van with the whole family,” says Alice. “We look for new places and new adventures every year, but we also re-visit old favourites, for example the North Devon coast between Saunton Sands and Ilfracombe. Depending on the time of year, we’ll be walking on windswept beaches, rockpooling, swimming, surfing, kayaking and walking the coastpath.”

More than anything, Alice loves to be out at sea, viewing the stunning British coastline from new perspectives.

“Paddling around the coast in a kayak is something I particularly enjoy. In fact kayaking is my absolute favourite form of activity – and the most calming thing I’ve ever discovered. You feel like you’re part of nature, not separate from it, and I think it’s important to remind ourselves of that. We too often remove ourselves from nature, but evolutionary biology teaches us that we’re still part of the great, branching tree of life on earth.”

Staying healthy – inside and out

It’s this intense awareness of our natural surroundings that inspires Alice to live as healthily as she can. She’s a pescatarian (a vegetarian who eats fish), and avoids too much sugar. “I rarely have to resist bars of chocolate,” she says, “because luckily I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth.”

Ethical shopping is important to Alice. She tries to buy clothes from brands that care about sustainability, working conditions and fair wages, organic fruit and vegetables, and cruelty-free skincare products.

“I take time to eat well but I’m fairly low-maintenance when it comes to a beauty regime,” says Alice. “Generally it’s a case of a quick shower in the morning, then I wipe away any lingering traces of make-up and apply some waterproof mascara. I don’t buy many beauty products, but when I do I always look out for ethical and organic lines. But it has to work well too. I’ve recently discovered Green People’s quinoa and avocado hair serum – amazing stuff! It has proven to be just about the only thing that really smooths my flyaway hair.”

Alice has been so impressed by Green People – a family-run organic skincare brand based in rural West Sussex – that she has agreed to act as ambassador for their 20-year anniversary campaign, ‘Change the World in 20 Ways’. Green People has pledged to allocate £1,000 of funds to 20 separate charity projects that have the potential to change people’s lives in a positive way.

“This is a great opportunity for community groups and local charities to boost their funding or get a project off the ground,” says Alice. “I hope it inspires people to have a go doing something they wouldn’t ordinarily have tried. I’d love the campaign to turn into a ripple of positivity. It feels like we need a lot of that right now.”

Seasonal delights

Alice currently has several projects to get her teeth into – but she’ll be taking her work with her into the wild – heading off in the camper van once again – armed with her laptop and her kayak.

“I think I write better, and have more creative ideas, when I can balance that with time with my family, physical activity and fresh air. And I love the freedom that having a camper van offers – it’s great to head off with just a vague plan of destinations. We’ve already enjoyed spending time in Devon and Cornwall this year, but this summer we may well head up to the Lake District and then up to the west coast of Scotland – perhaps even getting across to Ireland. I love to spend days walking on the beach, kayaking along the coast, cooking a barbecue – then tucking the kids up in bed before settling down to read and write for the evening.”

Sounds idyllic. But what of the great British weather, and the damp surprises it can often throw at us?

“I don’t mind rain,” says Alice. “If it wasn’t for the rain, our countryside wouldn’t be so green. And luckily, human skin is fairly waterproof!”

Future Plans

With such a positive mindset, it’s no wonder that Alice has forged an impressive career that’s going from strength to strength. This October sees the launch of her latest book, Tamed, about the domestication of species. It examines the history of ten familiar species, both animals and plants, and the different ways in which they became our allies. In the book Alice reveals how these species – from dogs, cattle and horses to wheat, potatoes and apples – were tamed, and then had their own impacts on human history.

“It’s an epic story encompassing thousands of years of history and archaeology alongside cutting-edge genetics and anthropology,” says Alice. “I’ll be touring all over the UK in the autumn talking about the book, which is why I’m even more determined to make the most of this summer and enjoy time with my family.”

Alice is supporting organic beauty brand Green People and their campaign ‘Change the World in 20 Ways’ which will give away £1,000 each to 20 individuals to help make a positive difference to the communities around them www.greenpeople.co.uk/change