Science, self-confidence and a 300mile hike around Cornwall

By Sophie Pavelle

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.
— Albert Einstein

I came across this little line by the great Einstein not too long ago - and unsurprisingly, it really stuck with me. Not only is it the perfect quote for that inspirational life-lover shot lined up for Instagram, but dig deeper and it says so much more about daring to go the extra mile for something, daring to do something a little bit different, daring to push yourself for a good cause.

I’m Sophie Pavelle, I’m a 22-year-old Zoology graduate from Bristol University and currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication. In June, I decided to ‘do something a little bit different’, and hiked 300 miles solo around the entire Cornish coastline on the UK’s longest national trail - the South West Coast Path. Why? I wanted to test whether changing my conventional use of social media, could inspire an interest in science, the local environment, wildlife and conservation - to the infinite ready-made audience that lingers almost obsessively online. I was curious to see whether people might be more receptive to learning about science if it was presented in an informal, punchy way that aligned with people’s social media feed. Oh - and I also managed to persuade my masters professors that hiking 300 miles would most definitely fit the criteria for an MSc dissertation...

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

So this is crazy, impulsive idea slowly became Sophie’s Wild Cornwall. The low-down of the actual walk and how it worked will be given in a separate blog post, but it became a three-week mission to show off the incredible Cornish landscape and wildlife, forming a 22-part YouTube vlog series, all filmed, edited and produced on my iPhone as I plodded round.

Ever since I was little, I far preferred grubbing around in the dirt wearing a pair of my brother’s camo shorts than playing hairdresser’s. Nowadays, I have more respect for makeup and love hanging out with my girlfriends, but give me a pair of hiking boots any day! That being said, I have always found it difficult to find other girls my age as bonkers about hiking and nature as I am. I’ve often noted an assumption that you can’t both be girly and enjoy hiking - that hiking is for older people with nothing better to do - what?! So that offered a huge motivation for me to get out and do the hike on my own - to try and show girls that YES THEY CAN be adventurous and that there is nothing wrong with a bit of grit and determination to break away from that crowd and show them what you are made of. And you can look pretty cool doing it at the same time!

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

Sure, leading up to the challenge I had a writhing knot of self-doubt, anxiety and fading self-esteem simmering away. Had I trained hard enough? What if I couldn’t pull it off and all the hype I had built on my social media pages was for nothing? What if no-one takes any notice and it’s all a big embarrassment? Leading up to the trek I was losing sleep and feeling anxious about the 300 miles that lay ahead of me, but overcoming the distances each day felt like a mini triumph – which slowly amounted to a huge boost in self-assurance and confidence in my ability. Despite my exhaustion, I was astounded by the intense calm and clarity of thought I felt each day. Having wildlife and the environment as my sole focus each day was a total tonic.

The real tests were of course the huge range of weather conditions. Hiking terrain that rivalled Swiss Alpine trails in a freak heatwave totally exposed was not fun. Traipsing through driving rain feeling totally isolated was, at the time, not fun either. BUT - wildlife was plentiful and landscapes beautiful and it was often those sights that really kept me going. I love how nature doesn’t care what you look like or where you come from, it simply rewards these efforts - an amazing view at the top, a group of seals below, an unforgettable sunset all to yourself. Setting myself goals each day of climbing that cliff, walking around another headland and safely reaching my destination, meant for lots of little daily accomplishments. This, coupled with the amazing support I gathered online, boosted my confidence in ways I never expected.

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

I have always loved being outside and looking for wildlife. I can’t stress enough the relationship that I’ve found between being outside, and allowing that to develop and nurture an empathy for the natural world. As cheesy as it sounds, once you open your eyes to wildlife and quirky habitats and feel the power of the weather, you begin to become addicted - you want to see as much as you can - feed the questions that pop into your mind - be openly curious and engage with other people you encounter on the trail. I often found myself asking total strangers, “did you see that buzzard just then?!” or “how cool was that kestrel?!” - even if I did get funny looks, my excitement about the UK’s immense biodiversity was bubbling.

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

Photo by : Sophie Pavelle

Sophie’s Wild Cornwall made me realise the incredible potential social media presents for science communication. The touch of a few buttons enables an unrivalled sharing opportunity to a global audience, to spread good messages and form like-minded communities and present science as something worth talking about. So many of us make social media part of our day and instead of lamenting the digital shift of society, we should embrace it and learn to harness the unique opportunities it presents to make adventure, science and wildlife trendy and ‘instagrammable’! It is our responsibility to ensure nature is protected for years to come - and only if we encourage people to develop a relationship with the natural world will that happen - and I believe social media can have a hugely important role in fostering this. As the wonderful Dame Jane Goodall so beautifully said, “Only if we understand, will we care.”

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