Simon Reeve: 'We underestimate how brilliantly eccentric this country is'

·5-min read
porthtowan - Getty
porthtowan - Getty

Britain is a wonderful place to go on a journey, says the presenter and author, who's spent 2020 filming in Cornwall

I don't think any of us expected this year to develop as it has. It seems amazing to me now, but back at the beginning, I was in the Amazon, filming the start of a series that was meant to take me from the top to the tip of South America.

We flew home when it became clear that the situation was getting serious, but some of the production team were hopeful that we might be back across the ocean quite quickly. It hasn't really worked out that way.

When it became apparent that we would be in the UK for a while, we started thinking about what we could do with the time. Someone suggested that we film in Cornwall. I wasn't convinced at first – I wasn't sure that it would provide the light and shade that we like to instil in our programmes.

But the more we looked into it, the more we realised that Cornwall would make for a fascinating subject; that it isn't just Britain's favourite destination for a holiday at home, that it's something of a bell-weather for the country, with all its beauty – and plenty of its issues – in miniature. In the end, it was a no-brainer.

I'd been wanting to film more in the UK. We underestimate how brilliantly eccentric this country is – and the tales the British have to tell. But making a programme this summer was always going to be more than that. It has been a historic year, and I wanted to capture a tiny part of a national situation. I don't have much else to bring to help with a pandemic, but I hope that we have been able to cover some of what it was like to be around in 2020.

I live in Devon, so Cornwall is just “down the road”. But, I must admit, I don't know the county inside-out. It's enormous, and it can take forever to get from side to side and end to end. Initially, we were talking about travelling along the south coast, and then coming back along the north, but we soon ditched that idea – because the stories led us elsewhere.

I visited parts of Cornwall that I hadn't seen before. But more than anything, the people were great – whether we were learning about the challenges of lobster fishing, or talking to a sheep farmer who was in the process of releasing his flock into the woods, so he can start forest farming. We did so many remarkable things.

I found myself out with a volunteer group called Fathoms Free, who remove “ghost” fishing nets from the sea. And we filmed some lads called the Taco Boys, who run a food truck by the beach at Polzeath. We were with them in June, and at the outset, it looked as if they were going to lose their business. They were so worried that the country was going to stay locked down; that they would experience “three winters”, as they called it, with a tourist-free summer between the two actual cold seasons – they make so much of their income during July and August.

And then there was the scenery. My favourite place that we “discovered” was Porthtowan – on the north coast, near Truro. People have said to me, “it's the new Polzeath”. Perhaps it is. There was an evening when we were filming on the cliffs as the sun was setting. There was a stiff breeze, the waves were crashing in, and there were maybe 40 surfers in the sea. I remember watching it all – and thinking that it was the perfect Cornish moment.

lundy - iStock
lundy - iStock

We’ve taken our cameras beyond Cornwall as well. Not far beyond, admittedly. But in filming for a separate series, we headed out to Lundy – which is officially part of Devon, but is also very much its own thing, as this little island at the end of the Bristol Channel. It was my first time there – and, well, what a special place it is; an absolute delight to visit.

It’s known for its birdlife – but just getting there and walking around felt like a really adventurous experience. We were all coming out of months and months of just staying at home. I was completely wide-eyed. It was a case of “oh my goodness, we’re on a boat. Oh my goodness, there’s the island. This is all too exciting for words”. I’m not sure that, even if we’d been sailing to the Galapagos, I could have been as joyful about it.

I suppose I haven’t travelled widely enough in the UK. But I’ve always had a sense of the beauty of what really are some of the loveliest islands in the world. We are frequently far too down on our own country. Britain is, without doubt, a gorgeous part of the planet, and a wonderful place to go on a journey.

And if you’re properly attired for the conditions – as everyone should be – then you can enjoy it at any time of the year. One of the journeys which changed my life – when I was depressed as a teenager – was somehow making it all the way to the Scottish Highlands, and clambering around Glen Coe. That trip sticks with me even now. There are glories on our doorstep and we need to embrace them more.

Interview by Chris Leadbeater

Cornwall with Simon Reeve will premiere on BBC2 in November.