Simon says Devon was a simple choice
PUBLISHED: 09:00 30 June 2014
Simon Reeve, travel documentary presenter and writer, has a tale to tell from every corner of the globe. The intrepid explorer speaks to Devon Life about his favourite places - both nearby and further afield.
"Home for me is Devon. My missus moved us down there, it was part of our marriage contract"
Not too many Devonshire locals incorporate air travel into their commute, but needs must for Simon Reeve. The former mail sorter turned investigator has been circumnavigating the globe under the enviable job title of documentary presenter for the past decade, yet he’s a man with a rather unusual career trajectory.
“It’s been a strange career path to go down, and I’m constantly reminded of it by friends who call me a lucky bugger,” Simon chuckles, as we sit down with him in a London hotel suite.
“I started out working as post boy at The Sunday Times. It was a case of starting my career from the engine room, I guess! I served my time there and finally got the nod to start writing correspondence rather than delivering it, and terrorism was always high on my list of interests.”
Following the terrible events of 9/11, Simon’s work suddenly became relevant to a wider audience. His insight at a nervous time for the Western world led to a spate of television interviews, book deals and documentary offers. The book that really got people talking was The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism - the first of its kind about al-Qaida, and a huge resource for his post-9/11 readership. Now, with programmes including Places That Don’t Exist, and Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, the investigate journalist has been able to scour the globe in pursuit of his art, at times befriending locals in the most dangerous states in the world.
The challenge, Reeve admits, is keeping a clear head in some awe-inspiring places. “I’d say Madagascar is probably one of the most spectacular and beautiful places, yet very upsetting – it’s a weird contradiction. There are so many extraordinary things to see there and the people are amazing, with lots of wonderful and bizarre traditions…some of them good, others not so pleasing.
“There’s also Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa, which I’ve been to a good few times and still isn’t actually recognised as a country. As you can imagine, there is a huge amount of friction there and to understand the people is really to appreciate what they have been through.”
When he’s not exposing the living conditions of Equator-lying fishermen or being detained by the KGB, however, Reeve enjoys a quiet life.
“Home for me is Devon. My missus moved us down there, it was part of our marriage contract. We are both Londoners, and we’re doing the middle-aged, middle-class thing of moving to the countryside.
“When I’m not on my travels, which accounts for anything between a third and half of the year, I’m back here, and honestly, I just love the place!”
This is a man whose working week can involve activities as diverse as trudging through radioactive dumps or scuba diving in the Indian Ocean, so what attracts such an adventure junkie to the Devonshire countryside?
“Well work often means doing something slightly awkward or dangerous, so just having a chance to relax and play trains with my son is a wonderful privilege. I love being at home and doing really mundane things, because the adrenaline kick from trekking into occupied Burma or dodging military personnel in South America has to be tempered.
“I’ve had the privilege to visit between 25 or 30 countries in Africa alone,” Reeve explains. “There are the lions, the people, the wildlife…the sheer joy of sitting out on the great plains in Kenya having a cup of tea with ladies of the Masai tribe and gossiping about the world and their families. It brings a smile to the face.”
A way to channel these memories is to collect mementos of your journeys. And sure enough, Simon’s Devon home is adorned with some rather unusual imports, much to the annoyance of his better half.
“My wife has banned me from bringing back anything more!” he laughs. “I’ve got an interesting collection of knives from various parts of the world that have been given to me.
“One of my favourites is from when I was adopted by a tribe of former head hunters in Southern Borneo. We’d all had a bit too much rice wine and they presented me with a short sword that, it turned out, they’d been using in battle against another tribe. There were loads of knots on the handle and each one indicated a head that had been taken. So I’ve got that slightly gory memento to keep out of the reach of my son.”
Whilst this rather gruesome keepsake can help keep nostalgia at bay, whether at home or abroad Reeve cannot escape the knowledge that the political, religious and environmental actions of humans are having a debilitating effect on the world.
“They are all colossal problems,” he sighs. “With a job like mine, I feel a certain responsibility to point out what the consequences of hosting seven billion people means for planet Earth.
“We are transforming it, we are terraforming it and ripping it down. We all know about climate change - a clear danger - but we are also losing our species and our wilderness areas.”
Of course, the somewhat precarious position of our natural environment comes at a period in history whereupon travel is becoming more and more accessible. And though he recognises the contradiction of sorts, Simon admits it’s difficult not to encourage us to discover and explore.
“What is magnificent about travel is that it offers experiences that test you. Trying some food you’ve never eaten before and making an idiot of yourself by dancing in a local bar…it’s all spirit-building stuff!”
In contrast, Devon seems overly ‘safe’ perhaps – can Reeve eek out any danger close to home? “Oh there’s plenty here if you want to find it,” he laughs. “But my time in Devon is about relaxing and being thankful that I can come back to such a fantastic county.
“Of course, there are things I see on my travels that make me so grateful to have a home to come back to.
“And when you live here,” he continues, “there are some fantasies that even Africa or Asia can’t fulfil, like The House of Marbles! We go to Newton Abbot a lot and my two-year-old son is absolutely obsessed with marble runs. It’s not far from where we live, and the town is lovely, with the castle and the race course.
“We’ve also been meaning to fulfil a long-time ambition and head to the Gidleigh Park Hotel for a meal. We’ve lived in Devon for a year now and keep promising ourselves we’ll go, but haven’t made it yet. But there are so many great places on Dartmoor that have a unique feel to them.”
We can’t help thinking this could spell the beginnings of a new Devonshire adventure all of its own...
Simon is an ambassador for The Times Destination Show, which returns to London Olympia in January next year. See destinationsshow.com for more.