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Toby Gutteridge: founder of the Bravery sportswear brand

Toby Gutteridge with his partner Savannah Turner in the garden of their house in Poole. (Photo: Peter Yendell)
Toby Gutteridge with his partner Savannah Turner in the garden of their house in Poole. (Photo: Peter Yendell)

Toby Gutteridge was serving as a Marine in Afghanistan when he was hit by a bullet.
Paralysed from the neck down, he refused to give up on life and now has a shop in Poole showcasing his Bravery sportswear brand.

I don’t know quite what to expect when driving to see Toby Gutteridge who, 14 years ago, was shot through the neck in Afghanistan and became quadriplegic aged just 24. The one thing I’m not expecting is so much beauty: his house – open plan, filled with surfboards and floor to ceiling windows; his garden – a backdrop of towering trees swishing in the wind; his girlfriend; his relationships with all those around him. And Toby’s spirit. Meaning that two hours later I leave feeling fundamentally changed by having met him. Grateful for my mobility, yes, but also in awe of his resilience.

At the time of the shooting Toby was on his second tour as part of the Royal Marine’s Special Forces, making him one of the youngest, and fittest, infantry men in the world. Determination is a word that regularly crops up when talking to him. He’s written how, ‘before my injury my greatest pleasure involved identifying an ambition, relishing its difficulties, and immersing myself in achieving it, to the point of obsession.’ Nowhere was this more in evidence than when, aged 17, he drunkenly announced in a downbeat bar that he was going to become a Royal Marines Commando.

Great British Life: Toby talking to guests at the opening of the Bravery shop in November. (Photo: Jeneson Studio)Toby talking to guests at the opening of the Bravery shop in November. (Photo: Jeneson Studio)

Born in Johannesburg in 1985, Toby’s family life was ‘complicated’. His parents had emigrated from England a decade earlier, and his father walked out on his wife and four children when Toby was three. His stepfather briefly became a solid presence, but Toby’s childhood was marked by instability. This included being relocated to the US for eight months, then moving to the UK, aged 12, ‘feeling like human driftwood’; before returning to South Africa.

By the age of 14 he was ‘out of control’, caring only about girls, drugs and drinking; truanting from school and getting into fights. Finally, a gun held to his head at 17 forced him to acknowledge he needed something ‘bigger than himself,’ which turned out to be moving back to the UK, training ferociously – both in mind and body – and, sure enough, being accepted by the Marines.

Seated in the office at his house in Poole, strategy post-it notes covering the walls, we begin by talking about his book, Never Will I Die, first published in September 2022. ‘I don’t think it’s a best-seller,’ he says, his voice softened by its South African lilt. ‘Although it was in the Sunday Times list, and it’s now gone into most supermarkets. I haven’t had one bad review – it was hugely well received. Which sounds a bit arrogant, but that’s the truth.’

Great British Life: Toby alongside the cover of his best selling book. (Photo: Peter Yendell)Toby alongside the cover of his best selling book. (Photo: Peter Yendell)

After assuring him it is a best-seller, I wonder what’s the best experience to come out of it. ‘People getting in touch, saying how it’s really helped them with what they were going through. I like to help people; it makes me feel like I’m contributing to the world. Because one of the things about being so very seriously injured and leaving such an impactful career is needing to still have purpose. Without it you find yourself at a loose end, and that’s very dangerous for anyone. Spreading my story, inspiring others and trying to help keeps me positive.’

Never Will I Die was co-written with award-winning writer, Michael Calvin. At first Toby was sceptical about the collaboration. ‘In my previous career we had to be very secretive about what we do. But when we met, Michael was such a nice guy and so genuine. We built up such a great friendship and rapport, so I could be open and honest, knowing I was in a safe place.’

As we talk, I’m struck by how animated he is, even though he can only move his head. This is also down to his determination. ‘Initially I stopped breathing for 20 minutes. I could hear the doctors talking to my family about switching off my life-support. It’s still a mystery how I didn’t have a serious brain injury from oxygen starvation, an aneurysm or a stroke.’ He also had 52 staples in his head, and initially he couldn’t eat, swallow or talk. But as soon as he could, he started on his own rehabilitation, despite the medics telling him to rest. ‘I was raising my heart rate, trying to move my fingers, my toes. I believe the reason I’m as healthy and have as much movement as I do is because I started pushing myself really hard from the get-go.’

Great British Life: The lion's head Bravery logo hanging outside the newly opened shop in Poole. (Photo: Jeneson Studio)The lion's head Bravery logo hanging outside the newly opened shop in Poole. (Photo: Jeneson Studio)

Toby relies on a ventilator for his breathing. However, he’s designed it to go beneath his minimalist wheelchair, which also has customised mountain-bike wheels so he can get out into the nearby woods or the beach. ‘I was supposed to have a heavy powered chair with all this medical guff, and I was like, I don’t need that. Same with the medication. Once I started getting myself together, I was asking, “Why am I on this, do I really need to take it?” It turns out that 80% of it was unnecessary so I just cut it all out.’

It’s clear that he’s strived to make his daily life as mobile as possible. ‘If I want to go downstairs, get in my car and go somewhere I just do it. With the other kind of chair, I’d still be here, trying to navigate through doorways and around furniture; whereas my set-up means I can just ask someone to take me downstairs.’

However, for someone who was fiercely independent, having to ask for help was one of the hardest challenges. ‘It was the kind of thing that really broke me at the beginning of the journey; having to be so reliant on others. Particularly as I’ve never been very sociable.’ How he’s coped is to surround himself with people he trusts, whose love and respect for him is immediately apparent. ‘Eventually you learn to let go, just a little bit. Because if you don’t adapt, you’re going to be stuck in a rut.’

Great British Life: Retired commodore James Patrick with Toby at the opening of his Bravery shop in Poole. (Photo: Jeneson Studio)Retired commodore James Patrick with Toby at the opening of his Bravery shop in Poole. (Photo: Jeneson Studio)

One of the most remarkable parts of his story is that, in order to emerge from that initial rut, Toby decided to go back to school: taking GCSE’s and A Levels, then gaining a First in Business Studies from Bournemouth University. Gill Akhurst, who became his PA, first got to know him when she retired from the police and became his scribe at college. Savannah Turner, Toby’s partner, was at university herself when part-time work as a carer introduced the two of them. She’s now studying for a Masters in Health and Nutrition. Before Gill’s recent retirement, the three of them all worked in Bravery, the company that Toby registered in 2014.

Bravery began with a clothing line. ‘I wanted people to proudly wear a t-shirt with a message,’ he says. The range has since expanded to include equipment for board sports – surfboards, leashes and skateboards. Wetsuits are also in development. Most exciting of all was the opening, at the end of November, of the Bravery HQ and Coffee Shop on Lagland Street in Poole. The business combines retail space with a café, health and nutrition bar. And the plan is for it to become a supportive hub, bringing people together through talks and other events. Designed to reflect the ethos of the Bravery brand, Toby has fostered connections with local artists, musicians and entrepreneurs: inviting them to display their work, perform and host events.

‘A lot of the beauty you see in our home and at the new HQ is down to Toby,’ Savannah tells me. We’re watching him have his photo taken and she steps forward to tuck his hair behind his ears. ‘He hates it when things look clinical or sterile.’ When it’s her turn to join him for a photo, she laughs, telling him, ‘You’re the star, normally.’

Great British Life: Toby's pin board in his office showing the plans for the new shop. (Photo: Peter Yendell)Toby's pin board in his office showing the plans for the new shop. (Photo: Peter Yendell)

Despite Toby’s restrictions, theirs is a life clearly full of love, surrounded by a strong network of friends. Many of Toby’s former commando buddies still live locally. Both his sisters live in the UK, while his brother is based in Dubai. ‘They all have children now, so I’m an uncle,’ he says proudly.

I ask what the most enjoyable part of his day is? ‘Getting out with my dog, and just being a part of the world. I work a nine to five day, Monday to Friday, and recently we’ve been doing a lot of R & D (research and development) which I love. When I see development in my company it gives me a lot of pleasure.’

It’s only at the end of our conversation, when we talk about the winter months, that I get a glimpse behind the positivity. ‘If I’m honest, every winter I struggle. I can’t get out as much when it’s cold because I can’t control my body temperature. Being stuck inside then has a knock-on effect and my health always deteriorates, despite the two 24-hour carers who live with me. Every morning I have chest physio, do stretches. I regularly see a spine consultant and I’m on a strict diet because my body can’t process food properly. I also must be careful with what I wear because of pressure sores. There’s a lot to deal with. And it can wear you down.’

Great British Life: Toby Gutteridge photographed in the garden of his house in Poole. (Photo: Peter Yendell)Toby Gutteridge photographed in the garden of his house in Poole. (Photo: Peter Yendell)

I ask if there are any medical advancements on the horizon that could help. ‘There are a few things going on, but there is still so much risk. For me, it’s best to stay in the present, doing something with my life and staying positive.’

He brightens. ‘One of the best things is that I’ve made a real difference to VSI (very seriously injured) veterans.’ It’s one of the most shocking points in his book, when he reveals his lack of aftercare whilst still in the military. ‘There’s now a VSI fund for people like me, providing lifelong treatment and much better aftercare, with more safeguarding in place.’

Might he be awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list? He smiles. ‘I don’t think anyone really knows about my work, and I didn’t do it because I wanted the recognition. I just wanted to help.’ MBE or not, this is a man whose humility and determination are the north star of inspiration. And I feel privileged to have met him.

Never Will I Die is published by Bantam, priced £8.99. Bravery HQ, Shop and Café is at 12 Lagland Street Poole. Follow on Instagram @braverycafe_uk or view the range online at bravery.co.uk

 



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