Simon Reeve did not have an easy childhood. The presenter and author – whose on-the-road documentaries have taken BBC audiences everywhere from Colombia to Kazakhstan – spent his teenage years spiralling into destructive behaviour to the point where he considered suicide. Now an ardent believer in adventure as a force for good, he spoke to The Journey about his passions, his programmes and his plans for the future.
You didn’t get to travel much as a youngster. What was your first great outdoor experience?
I remember being taken to the Lake District and Scotland when I was a stroppy pre-teenager. They were walking holidays, and my brother and I were very aggressively opposed to the idea of them but, of course, we absolutely loved them when we were there. It was a bit of a community we were going into, like we were joining a clan, a tribe of people who wanted more of an outdoorsy holiday. They were brilliant, lovely people. We did a 23-mile walk one day, which was a hell of a thing at that age. It was adventurous – it was exciting! I’m just sad I didn’t do it more into my teens. I think it would have a physical and emotional tonic for me when things got a bit darker.
Did that lack of travel as a boy feed into what became a bug for exploring the wider world?
Yes, I think so. More than anything it means I’ve never taken it for granted. I’ve always felt that the adventures I’ve been on have been a real privilege – not something I was born to. I really appreciate them. I know how wonderful and valuable and what a treat they are.
You’ve made documentaries all over the world, focusing on places as diverse as Vietnam, Russia, Greece and the Holy Land.
What do you aim to capture when you make these programmes?
All these places have stories to tell, but it’s less about the destinations in some senses and as much about the way we travel when we’re making the programmes. We try to explore both the light and the shade, which is a slightly pretentious description but it’s pretty straightforward really. With the filming team, we look at as many aspects as we can of life in a country, and in doing so we have a more interesting experience. We try to learn about the reality of a place by not shying away from the darkness and the problems. I don’t want the programmes to be seen as an annoying whingeing traveller complaining about issues in foreign countries. I’d rather it was seen as taking an interest and giving a damn, and by discussing these issues and getting them out in the open, hopefully, one day we can try and make them a little bit better.
What do you enjoy most about the journeys you make?
More than anything, it’s the people that I meet on the journeys. We’re often sold an idea that what we should really be doing is lying on a beach or sitting on a pool lounger, indulging ourselves by getting a massage or drinking lots of fancy cocktails.
That can be enjoyable for an hour or so, but sod it – I want to get up and get out and meet people. That’s where the real memories are, and I think it’s really important we reinforce that. The whole ethos of YHA is very much to be there in nature, with your brothers and sisters on this planet, experiencing the best Earth has to offer. That’s a bloody wonderful thing!
What kind of holidays do you enjoy taking these days?
I’m away from three to six months of the year on long, tiring, brain-draining, heart-filling journeys so I’m quite happy to be back at home playing football with my lad when I’m not working. We do go on little holidays to see family in Denmark – my wife’s half-Danish – or to Greece, but I try to incorporate little adventures into our weekly experience. We live on Dartmoor which is beautiful and wild and wooded and remote, so I try and make sure we’re having adventurous experiences as much as possible. We live in a country where there are staggering sights to be seen and experienced.
Have you had much hostelling experience?
Yes. I stay in them for work fairly regularly. It’s something ideally that you start early then take on for life, as part of a love and acceptance of the outdoors and an interest in exploring.
People so often think that for adventure you’ve got to travel to the other side of the planet. Let’s be honest, you can certainly find more predictable weather in further-flung areas, but there’s something vital and very grounding and romantic about knowing and loving where you’re from, and we forget that at our absolute peril.
I’ve met so many people abroad who are searching for meaning, Brits who have travelled to the other side of the planet looking for a sense of purpose and actually they discover it back home, often around the corner from where they live.
If you want to start teaching your children how to be adventurous or you want to exercise your own adventure muscle, there’s a lot worse you could do than getting a map of your home area, drawing a ring around the edge of an empty glass, then exploring that area as much as you can. And if you’ve got a National Park within striking distance of where you live, you need to be exploring that place, hostelling there overnight and then heading further afield. Get out there!
What does the rest of the year hold?
I’m doing a tour of the country, it’s absolutely surreal. I did some dates at the end of last year and now apparently those went pretty well so they’ve booked a whole lot more for me, which is frightening and exhilarating at the same time. I’m chatting about my adventures and my tricky start in life. I don’t come from the traditional background for a telly traveller, I don’t have a degree, I never went to university and I was a very naughty boy when I was a lad. I talk a bit about that but really about the experiences that I’ve had and the people I’ve met along the way.
I’m also going on another big bloody adventure! I don’t think I’m allowed to say where yet – but it’s a big adventure in two parts over two years, a whopping great journey across continents, from the extreme heat to extreme cold. I’ve got a pile of research books and maps to go through as we try and work out what we can do and where we can go – it’s very exciting.
Simon will be performing in 20 towns across England and Wales between October 2019 and February 2020. Find further details of ‘An Audience With Simon Reeve’ at simonreeve.co.uk