Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

From Action Man to History Man; from the Jungles of South America to the Grandeur of Gibside, Karen Dent Meets Action Man Turned Heritage Consultant Tony Walton

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

From Action Man to History Man; from the Jungles of South America to the Grandeur of Gibside, Karen Dent Meets Action Man Turned Heritage Consultant Tony Walton

Article excerpt

GIVE them as near as lifethreatening experience as you possibly can' was Tony Walton's brief before he headed to Chile for the first of the 26 expeditions he would lead for Operation Raleigh.

But he didn't realise he would have to organise a full-scale international rescue for four members of staff when their plane crashed in one of the most remote areas of the country before the expedition even started.

Fast diplomacy and calling in favours resulted in a US reconnaissance satellite being shifted from its usual orbit to spot the downed plane and a pair of Chilean helicopters heading off to find the victims. The pilot and all four passengers survived.

"After that three-month period, nothing has ever fazed me since, because if anything could go wrong, on that expedition, it did," says Walton. "Everything from four staff being seriously injured in an aircraft at the start, to the entire expedition missing their flight home at the end, three days before Christmas."

A retail manager with more than 15 years' experience with the Territorial Army under his belt, Walton was head-hunted from John Lewis in Newcastle, initially for a three-month period, to lead the first Operation Raleigh project.

A scion of the Isaac Walton department store family in Newcastle, who had "crossed the road" to John Lewis 12 years before, Walton ended up as Operation Raleigh's field director and a team leader.

The charity - now called Raleigh International - takes young people on projects worldwide to work with local communities and learn leadership and team skills.

He said: "That was life changing, absolutely life changing. On each expedition I was responsible for 150 young people and some staff who generally speaking weren't that much older than the young people.

"My initial verbal brief was 'Tony you've got to give them as near a life-threatening experience as you possible can' and there's no doubt about it, that was what they wanted, that was really what the youngsters wanted.

"So we set up some of the most challenging projects, in addition to that there would be scientific projects and there would be community projects. Quite often the challenging project, the real lifethreatener, that was getting from one project site to another because there was no way was I going let them do it the easy way!

"They would either have to cross country or raft down that river or climb that mountain or whatever it might be.

"And since I learned how to use Facebook, so many of them have been in touch - 'you absolutely blew my mind, you changed my life!' I've now got some extremely good friends, I've given away PAs to boat handlers, I've spoken at weddings; it's been just a life changing experience - not just for me, but for everyone else involved."

On one trip, the expedition members included Princess Alexandra's daughter Marina Ogilvy and two lads from Glasgow who had opted for Operation Raleigh rather than going to prison.

"I said 'Look you two, if anything happens to her, you are in the Tower with me!' and to Marina 'You've got to keep them right!' "They became really good friends because they realised it wasn't all that hot being royalty - it was an awful lot of nasty stuff that went with it as well."

His own experiences with Operation Raleigh led indirectly to his current career as Tony Walton: the heritage consultant. The man who organised the redevelopment of the Gibside estate and worked on the revamped Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh found his love of history revived during an expedition to find a forgotten fort in Guyana.

"The Government knew there was a place called Fort Guyana somewhere deep inside the jungle that the British had built and we went off to explore that, find it, clear it, map it.

"That was the start of the hook, the actual fascination because I've always been interested in history - but the fascination of finding something and bringing it forward, especially things that had been forgotten - bringing it forward in people's minds and saying this is what we've got here, look at this incredible history. …

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