Why Isabella Bird, the Victorian explorer forgotten by history, became my heroine
Everyone has heard of Amelia Earhart, the great aviator. Or Florence Nightingale, the revered statistician. But what about Isabella Bird, the 4ft 11in Victorian adventurer who rode 800 miles across Colorado solo on a horse? The tragedy is that this pioneering explorer has largely been forgotten by history – until now.
In April, alongside the Spice Girl Melanie Brown and the comedian Emily Atack, I travelled to the Rocky Mountains to retrace Isabella’s footsteps and pay homage to this trailblazer. As I became immersed in her life, she quickly became my heroine.
Isabella was a talented author, writing about her adventures as she travelled the equivalent of three times around the world, by boat, on horseback and foot. But she also suffered from debilitating chronic pain. After spinal surgery in England to remove a tumour, in 1873 doctors advised her to get out to the fresh air of the Rocky Mountains to heal her general malaise. At a time when women only really had two options – to be a housewife or work in a factory – she ventured halfway across the world in search of healing.
Once there, she spent months living boldly. The adventure inspired her travel book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which became my bible as we revered this incredible woman in the Colorado wilderness – until a pack of wolves ripped it to shreds and returned it to me coated in saliva (this scene will become clear if you watch the show).
She weathered freezing ice storms wearing just a kaftan over her Victorian dress for warmth. She slept in the snow for three days – when we climbed Pikes Peak, we braved snowy conditions but only for a few hours. Despite our layers of technical thermals, we were left with burned skin from the perishing conditions.
She climbed mountains, reaching dizzyingly high peaks on foot and horseback. She fell off sheer ridges on her horse a lot and once broke two of her ribs. Despite being a confident rider, I knew I didn’t want to do that. The trip was the first time I had been back in the saddle since a terrible riding accident in my youth. But flanked by camera crews, two RVs and a health and safety team, I was reassured by the idea that if my horse fell, the crew below me would soften the blow. Isabella, though, was alone.