The Great British Bake Off's Marc Elliott: Climber, Amputee and Star Baker Interview

© The Great British Bake Off/Channel 4

The Great British Bake Off quarter-finalist Marc Elliott is not only a mean baker, but also a keen climber and a UKC user. Following his appearance on the hit Channel 4 series, we managed to join the GBBO media buzz and chat to him about climbing, baking, obsession, mental health and *that* David Bowie cake that didn't quite make the cut...

If you look hard enough, there are parallels between The Great British Bake Off challenges and climbing: in the Signature Challenge, a tried-and-tested classic bake that you've done over and over again, like a favourite route, is repeated for the judges. In the trickier Technical Challenge, an 'onsight' attempt at a more obscure bake is made, following a frustratingly vague recipe akin to a poorly-written guidebook description. Finally, in the Showstopper Challenge, weeks of preparation and practice culminate in a dicey redpoint of a complex creation with multiple cruxes. Who will over-egg the pudding and fall flat - or worse, who will crumble and end up with the dreaded soggy bottom?

Marc Elliott's GBBO portrait.   © The Great British Bake Off/Channel 4
Marc Elliott's GBBO portrait.
© The Great British Bake Off/Channel 4

There is at least one thing that climbers and successful bakers on the show have in common: the ability to perform under pressure. Cornwall-based The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) contestant Marc Elliott, 51, charmed the audience with his creative bakes and his status as a doting single dad of two young daughters and a cheeky dog named Hamish. While Marc's impressive climbing past didn't feature overtly in the series, save for a mention of knot-tying knowledge coming in handy during one bake, in his '90s heyday he was leading E6, redpointing 8a and was part of the bustling Sheffield scene, working at Outside in Hathersage and serving his grit apprenticeship. Marc's ticklist boasts hard classics such as The Cad and Nosferatu, and his UKC Gallery hints at a life well-travelled, with first ascents in New Zealand and beyond, as well as a talent for photography. Unlike some bakers who rise and fall from week to week like fickle soufflés, Marc's ability to keep a cool head and maintain composure on camera resulted in consistent baking, a Star Baker award in Bread Week and a respectable fifth-place finish after missing the mark in Dessert Week.

Life has not always been a piece of cake for Marc, however. In 2016, a motorcycle accident resulted in the amputation of his left leg and set him on a long road to recovery; one in which baking has played a pivotal role in maintaining his physical and mental wellbeing. A reluctant application to the GBBO show - following some forceful encouragement from his youngest daughter - resulted in success and a place for Marc on the most popular series yet, exposing the bakers to a peak audience of 10.4 million viewers. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where housebound people took up baking as frantically as hotcakes could sell, the show was a welcome serving of light relief amid all the uncertainty.

Along the way, viewers became immersed in and felt a part of the GBBO 'bubble'. Marc's most memorable moments involved his splattering of buttermilk to the face, turning out 'pretzel-like' rainbow bagels, fashioning a Buddhist Dharma wheel from bread, designing an ice-cream cake, making a jelly creation (sadly without wobble), sculpting a cutesy cake model of his dog and botching the unforgettable David Bowie bust that looked 'more like Jabba the Hutt than Ziggy Stardust,' as Paul Hollywood put it bluntly. Even Bowie's son couldn't help but giggle at the misshapen cake, comparing it to the unfortunate restoration of the Ecce Homo painting of Jesus.

After a few years of adapting to his limb loss and becoming a TV star - he now has 49.6K Instagram followers - Marc is returning to climbing and recently led his first trad route since his amputation. He's a man with his fingers in many pies as a social worker, climber, baker, sculptor, photographer, father and now a reality TV celebrity, but while his status has risen, he's very much still the grounded and humble guy that so many viewers felt compelled to support on GBBO.

Praised as the baker who had made 'the biggest journey' on the show by steely-eyed GBBO judge Paul Hollywood, Marc told us about his climbing and baking backstory, his experience in the world's most famous tent and how his life has changed since becoming an inspirational icon for his new fans...

Questions by self-confessed GBBO fans Natalie Berry and Rob Greenwood...

While a great many people that appear on television claim to have "done a bit of climbing" you really are the real deal, having served your dues living in Sheffield and working at Outside - could you tell us a bit more about that time in your life? How did you get into it?

Yes, such great memories! I started climbing when I was around 14. I wasn't really "into" school, I wasn't good in school at all. I had the opportunity to go climbing on an outdoor pursuits course and that was the one thing that lit my fire I suppose! From then on I just climbed constantly to the point when I finished school at 15. I was living in Leicester at the time and I told my mum and dad I was going to school and with my butties in my bag I cycled to local quarries instead! I climbed all day until hometime. From that first moment I climbed I just got the bug completely and it's transformed my life ever since really.

Photo: David Simmonite

I moved to Sheffield in 1992 and lived there for 15 years and worked at Outside for about 8 years. They were great times, it was almost like the heyday of Outside, with Richie Patterson, Glyn Pagett, Jez Portman and loads of guys working in that shop and everyone was just super motivated and we just climbed every minute! There was a friendly competitiveness and it was a really good time to be working there I think.

Are there particular UK routes or crags that stand out as being memorable to you?

Stanage has to be one doesn't it; it was on the doorstep and I passed it every single day. Gogarth, too - I've always had a fond affection for Gogarth and Pembroke was always one of my favourite places to climb too.

What grades were you climbing back then? There are lots of impressive photos in your UKC Gallery and on your Instagram!

At the time I was happily ticking off E5 and occasionally E6s. Working at Outside, you were almost climbing full time - you were climbing before work, after work - you were just going to Outside in between, for a rest really! At that time we were just climbing constantly and it was just the nature of everyone working at Outside - you couldn't help but increase your grades and get better.

First Ascent of Sweetest William -1994  © Marc Elliott
First Ascent of Sweetest William -1994
© Marc Elliott, Jan 1994

Payne's Ford, New Zealand- 1993 new route: Sweetest William 27

There are pictures in our UKC Galleries of you climbing in Australia. Where did you climb on your travels there, and in other countries?

Prior to moving to Sheffield I took a year out and went to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada for the whole year and had twelve months of enjoying climbing in those places and making some first ascents.

Marc Elliott on Desert Gold 5.13a .....
© Marc Elliott

You lost your leg after a motorcycle accident in 2016, but have continued to climb - how have you had to adapt both physically and psychologically?

I had moved down to Cornwall and I'd kind of backed off climbing a little bit. I was still climbing, but doing quite a lot of surfing too. When I lost my leg, the nature of where I lost it (above the knee) meant that surfing was out of the question. I didn't really consider climbing because of my lack of mobility and the fitness and confidence loss. I just didn't think I'd be able to climb again. Then The Tide Climbing Centre opened literally just five minutes from where I live, amazingly, and my two daughters said: 'Oh come on Dad, we really want to have a go down there!' So I said: 'Yeah, I'll take you and you can have a go!' After a couple of times I thought: 'I want to give this a go!', so I took my prosthetic off and started climbing with one leg and amazingly I was really surprised at what you could do with one leg and I just carried on from there. I've not climbed that much recently, partly because I've been busy during and since Bake Off, but I did go down to Bosigran and led my first route without the prosthetic this summer!

Not only have I lost my leg, I lost my head too! :)  © Melanie Collie
Not only have I lost my leg, I lost my head too! :)
© Melanie Collie, Dec 2019

There is a picture of your return to trad leading on UKC. How did that go?

Yeah I led Alison Rib (D) at Bosigran. It was an amazing experience and so incredible to be actually placing gear again. The thing I remember is the enormous leg pump from all my weight being on one leg! It was like going ice climbing again. I am trying to get fitter and work out what I can do and what I can't do, it's kind of like beginning again really. It's good fun and I'm really enjoying it and it's quite nice because I can just do my own thing without having to worry about peers. I think as climbers we naturally compare ourselves to other people and our peers, but I'm kind of on my own and it's quite liberating!

Are you interested in competing in paraclimbing events? The UK paraclimbing scene is very vibrant!

I follow Martin Heald (3 x AL2 (leg amputee) British Paraclimbing Champion) and I think what he's doing is incredible. I think I need to get a lot fitter before I'd even consider competing!

First time leading a route since losing my leg 4 years ago.      © Marc Elliott
First time leading a route since losing my leg 4 years ago.
© Marc Elliott, May 2020

You started to bake as a form of therapy following the accident. In what ways did baking help you?

Shortly after the accident and a couple of months after I got my prosthetic leg I realised that actually, 'You have got to learn to walk again!' and the mental and physical effort that involved was a bit too much on top of everything else and that's when I just rapidly spiralled into an incredibly horrible place. It was really very, very dark and that lasted eight or so weeks. In that time I kind of just needed something to keep my brain active. As climbers we're always thinking and keeping ourselves busy, aren't we, and I needed something. I couldn't really do anything outside or very active as I wasn't really feeling that strong or confident, so I just started baking bread and instantly I found it really therapeutic. It's slightly physically exerting and in that state I was in, just that little bit of physical exertion and mental focus kind of kept me going and very quickly - again as climbers you get obsessive, well I'm quite obsessive anyway - I just carried on and really enjoyed it!

You're a support worker and you speak openly about mental health on social media. Is this an issue close to your heart?

It is, yeah. I think the last couple of years has kind of opened up not only the depression, anxiety and stress I've felt in this period, but it's also allowed me to reflect on my whole life, really. Going through therapy showed quite a few things up: my obsessive nature and the fact I would push myself to climb to quite a hard level was partly due to insecurities and depression, and maybe some social anxiety as well. As you get older I think it's really good to become aware of these things and not hide from them, but almost welcome them really as a way of growing. I want to encourage people to become completely open about things in the good periods of their life, but also the really dark periods of their life, too, as they are both equally as important.

Marc Elliott  © Marc Elliott
Marc Elliott
© Marc Elliott

'I'm not a Buddhist, no but after I had the accident where I lost my leg and wasn't in a very good place, when I was coming to terms with what had happened, I picked up a wonderful book about Buddhism. It made it a lot clearer what I needed to do to still live a life, and make my life worth living so it means a lot to me, this one. I take every opportunity that I can to just take a mindful breath. It's just about bringing myself back to the present moment because when you think about it when we're worrying, we're worrying about all the things in the past, or we're worrying about the future and ultimately we've got no control over that, have we?' - Marc on GBBO, talking about his Buddhist Dharma Wheel creation, which earned him Star Baker in Bread Week.

You also work as a photographer. How did you get into photography, and what do you like to photograph? Do you do much climbing photography?

I've been taking photos all my life on a casual level, but I think when the children came along I couldn't climb as much as I did or even surf as much as I wanted to. I think again I needed something to latch on to. I don't know how I got into it, it was just something that appeared and again I became completely obsessed and enjoyed it and the thing about Cornwall is that you've got great coastline and great moorland. They were places that drew me in; I think as climbers we naturally connect to those places.

I don't photograph climbing on a serious level, more just snapshots at the crag and landscape photography. The kids were fairly young at the time and landscape photography naturally lends itself to getting out early in the morning or staying out late at night, so at that time that activity fitted perfectly in my life.

Gallery for Marc Elliott

You live in Cornwall. What do you make of the climbing down there, and do you have any plans for particular routes now that you're back leading?

I would like to lead some more routes down here. The climbing down here is incredible actually, it's so different to the Peak District. It's got a really good, close-knit community but it's much more spread out and the climbing is too; it's not like the Peak where you can just nip out for half an hour, you have to be much more organised in the way that you do climb, but it's incredible. It's home to some of the best spots in Britain for sure. Bosigran is one of the finest crags in Britain!

At what point did you decide to apply for Bake Off and what inspired you to apply, because - at least from the outside looking in - it looks like an absolutely harrowing ordeal?!

To be honest with you it wasn't voluntary, I only did it as my youngest daughter Rosie kept badgering me for a couple of years to apply; she's obsessed with GBBO, so I just kind of applied for a laugh really just to keep her quiet. I had no intention whatsoever of getting on the show. I just kept getting through these audition processes and then eventually got this phone call saying 'You're on the show!' and felt this mixture of 'Oh that's good!' and 'Oh sh*t! I've got to go and do this thing!'

Your speciality is bread and you won Star Baker in Bread week. How did that feel, and what's your favourite kind of bread to bake and eat?

That was amazing! I think historically winning Star Baker in Bread Week is quite difficult, so to get that was the highlight of the whole event really, so yeah I was really happy. I think it just has to be a good stodgy white bread - there's nothing finer than baking a good white bread and pasting it with butter!

How did you feel when Ziggy Stardust's head collapsed in your hands?!

That has to be one of the most nerve-wracking, anxiety-filled and terrifying moments of my life! You work so hard to practise these things and you're on the show and you've always got a camera on you and you've got the storyteller asking you the questions and that's fine, but as soon as you make a mistake all the other cameras come on you... so this thing was falling in front of my face, falling apart and dripping and cracking and you've just got all these cameras around you with nowhere to hide. It was just really awful!

Marc's Ziggy Stardust bust cake.  © The Great British Bake Off/Channel 4
Marc's Ziggy Stardust bust cake.
© The Great British Bake Off/Channel 4

What was it like living in a 'bubble' with the other contestants and the judges?

Compared to other years it was different, wasn't it? But to us it was a completely new experience so we took it at face value. It was amazing to have 12 bakers from all these different demographics and all these personalities, but we all got on really well which was incredible. The schedule was pretty gruesome, so basically two days of filming at the start of the process from six in the morning to half nine at night for two days, then two days off - those two days taken up practising in the practice kitchens - then straight into filming again, so for the time I was there it was two days of filming, two days practice, constantly. It was an endurance event, basically - really hard work!

Which judge was the scariest? Did the comedian hosts (Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas) help to calm your nerves?

It has to be Paul, yeah. He puts on that show so well that you can't help but get intimidated by him. Matt and Noel were great, just nice people really and what you see on TV is exactly what they're like in real life. They were both genuinely really interesting people and it was great to meet them.

The 12 GBBO 2020 contestants in the famous tent.
© The Great British Bake Off/Channel 4

Paul said you were the baker who'd been on 'the biggest journey'. What did you learn about yourself and your baking from being on the show?

I think for me it was really about facing up to fears. We have all these fears that prevent us from doing things and missing opportunities. I think for me it was presenting myself in front of the world, showing your vulnerabilities and failing. For me, having the Bowie cake fail in front of me was one of my greatest demons, I think, and facing up to those and then watching it again on replay on TV, but then also receiving all these beautiful comments from people who felt that what I was doing resonated with them and people being really supportive was quite interesting with regard to how I perceive myself and how other people can perceive you in a situation. Yeah, I learned a lot from that really.

How would you describe Bake Off in terms of its grade (i.e. VDiff, HVS, E1 or E9) and its style (i.e. Signature and Showstopper = redpoint and Technical = onsight!)

God it's got to be a sketchy E6, it really has! It's like a really long, sustained E6 with some really big run-outs in between on dodgy gear, definitely! I was really rubbish at the Technicals, they really are all onsight and they are really hard!

How has your life changed since being on the show?

Where I live in Cornwall it's not changed that much, the biggest change has been in the social media side of it, companies and people getting in touch and just building that online presence. That's been quite hard work, but I'm enjoying it at the same time!

Have you had any comments from non-climbing fans on your climbing posts on Instagram?

They really enjoy them, yeah - that's one of the things I'd like to do next because a lot of people drew inspiration from my story on GBBO. What I'm trying to do is find an opportunity where I can take that to another level, so maybe I could do something physically really challenging, either mountainous or some sort of climbing situation and maybe push that inspiration a little bit further. I'm trying to talk to a few people and see how we can organise that at the moment.

If you had to bake a picnic for the crag, what would you make?

It'd have to be a white loaf with a big slab of cheese in the middle and maybe just a good energy-giving brownie or something like that!

What did your dog Hamish think of your Hamish cake? I heard he nibbled on one of your sourdough loaves...?!

Hamish, he's such a naughty dog! I think he was quite impressed by the cake, but he didn't really say too much, though!

Check out some of Marc's recipes on his website.

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29 Dec, 2020

What a lovely bloke. Came across so well in the series.

30 Dec, 2020

He was quite nice when he was a youth as well, although we did wonder if he was going to come a cropper when he started out - some poor gear placements and boundless"go for it" enthusiasm.

The closest thing NLMC had to Andy Pollitt 😁

3 Jan

We’ve not knowingly met, but biggest tick last year in my kids’ eyes was an Instagram like from ‘Marco from Bake Off’. What he’s done on and off the crag is ace. Funnily enough I know another unidexter climber that puts my own efforts to shame. He refuses to take the grade for a recent 8A tick because it’s a footless eliminate 😀

Both Natalie and I were extremely excited about this, but up until now I hadn't had a chance to read through his answers. I'm still jealous Natalie got to speak to him on the phone!!

Marc came across so well in GBBO, and this has made me like him even more.

4 Jan

I spent a very happy few months climbing with Marc in Australia back in 1993, I particularly remember working and sending Mr Joshua with him which at the time was my hardest redpoint. Having Marc on the other end of the rope definitely added a grade or two to my performance.

Marc, if you're reading this, drop me a line, it would be great to meet up again once a things get to be a bit more 'normal'.

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