It’s a chilly autumn day and beside a stretch of the tidal Thames at Fulham, Bill Bailey, dressed in a sweatshirt, shorts and thermal underwear, is inflating a stand-up paddle board. With his mad professor hair and owlish eyes, he’s immediately recognisable. A couple of passers-by spot him and do a double-take. Then they lock on to their target.
“I’ve just watched Black Books again,” says one. “Thank you for everything you do.” Emboldened, a third passer-by asks for a selfie. “Can I just have a photo?”
I’m anxious for an instant that he’s going to tell them to get stuffed. A big part of Bill Bailey’s appeal is that he seems approachable – an easy-going eccentric uncle. He strikes me as just the kind of person who it would be fun to go paddle boarding with – not something I think is true of, say, Hillary Clinton or Piers Morgan. But who knows? You’re never sure if a celebrity is going to be as advertised.
I needn’t have worried. Bailey puts down the pump and poses graciously for a series of photos. His persona as an amiable oddball survives this encounter, and someone gets to post a picture of Bill Bailey in long underwear on their Instagram feed. In fact, little do we know, but there’s a much sterner test of character to come. About 30 minutes later, out on the water, the fin of his paddle board catches on something and he takes an unexpected bath in the Thames.
The moment is captured on my phone, which is dangling in a plastic bag around his neck, recording our conversation. I know from bitter experience the combination of shame and physical discomfort that accompanies falling into the chilly water. But, amazingly, Bailey doesn’t swear or even express any obvious irritation at his bad luck. There’s a schoolgirlish “oops”, some gurgling, and he emerges calmly from the water to warn me away from the shallows. “I hope your phone’s all right,” he says, as he clambers back on his board, clothes dripping. “We’ll find out, won’t we? We’ll test the efficacy of your waterproof cover.” And he gives a good-natured giggle.
The boards we are paddling are a model that Bailey helped design. It’s called – obviously – the Billboard, and is the culmination of a five-year love affair with the activity that began on a visit to Indonesia. He’d just finished filming a documentary about one of his heroes, the Victorian naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. (Bailey contributed an introduction to an edition of Wallace’s magnum opus The Malay Archipelago.) “We were up in Sanur in Bali and we tried out paddle boarding, but of course I got on a race board and it was impossible.”
Undeterred by the failure, he decided to keep going. “I persevered, and then I came back here and thought, this is something I’d like to try more of. I just bought a board and I went off on trips on the river, lakes and canals and I really loved it. I got completely hooked on it.” Bailey fell in love with its simplicity and freedom – and the eerie naturalness of standing upright on the water, which he claims has long cultural precedent.
“I just think it’s an ancient thing. When you’re on the board and you’re on water it always feels like it’s an old thing that humans have done. I always thought this was some fanciful notion and then a few years ago I was in Tasmania, down in the south in Melaleuca, an old Aboriginal settlement. We were taken along these walkways to this beautiful lagoon that looked like a mirror and there on the side of the bank was what looked like an ancient paddle board. It was the same size and dimensions and length as this board but it was made out of bark. They stood on them and used a paddle, 40,000 years ago.”
It’s sometimes hard with Bailey to know whether you’re having your leg pulled, but he insists that his tale of neolithic Australasian paddle boarders is genuine. Yet even if the pastime has a millennia-old pedigree, on the Thames it’s the rowers who behave like the rightful aristocracy.
As we paddle upriver towards Kew, we have to give way to the eights, fours and scullers who are exercising an ancient privilege to row on the wrong side of the river, known as “working the slacks”. We manage to weave between the crews of rowers without incident. Bailey is surprisingly quick and I find myself struggling to keep up with him. He has been an enthusiastic and intrepid traveller throughout his adult life. “I look to being outdoors, encounters with wildlife, getting away from people, away from crowds, somewhere that you can feel recharged. It seems like a cliché but it’s true. Travelling, being away, going to a new place. I mean, doing the comedy there is great fun, but the comedy is a way to go to these places, it’s an excuse really.”
The river, too, is an escape from importunate fans. “Well, on the water, that’s one of the few places I don’t get asked for selfies. It’s a relief. You learn how to manage it, how to deal with it in a way that’s good for everyone. But being away from it is a joy.” He’s passionate, above all, about Indonesia. He’s been there often enough to be able to suggest plausible-sounding Indo-Malay translations to the sentences, “Can I have a cup of tea?” and “Where can I put my paddle board?” He waxes lyrical in particular about the tiny island of Wayag, in the north Moluccas, where he’s paddle boarded. “It’s east of the island of Halmahera. And it’s an absolutely stunning, magical place, like something out of a fantasy novel.”
It’s somewhere he visited initially to satisfy one of his birdwatching ambitions, as it’s one of very few places where you can see birds of paradise. “It’s a real pilgrimage to see these things. They’re only found in this tiny area of Indonesia. It was an amazing trip, so remote, so inaccessible and so beautiful.”
Even parenthood hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for long-haul travel. He took his then two-year-old son on a trip to Sumatran jungle. “We had a big huge tarpaulin that we rigged up by a river, a wonderful holiday it was. A lot of people say, ‘How are you going to do that with a child? Is he going to be safe?’ He was absolutely fine. In fact, after that we went to Los Angeles and I was more worried about him there.”
Now he’s become evangelical about paddle boarding, he brings a pair of inflatable boards everywhere he goes. He’s just returned from a tour of the Baltic states, where he paddled in the Latvian capital, Riga. I wonder how it went down in the former Soviet Union? “There was no one else doing it, just me,” he admits. “In fact people have written folk songs about it. “He sings, tunefully, but in a reedy Borat voice: “And this strange man with a beard came and floated along the canal. And we had to kill him.”
For all his appetite for foreign adventures, Bailey says he’s just as happy in the British Isles. One motive for designing the Billboard was to create the perfect vessel for touring the UK’s waterways. It’s supposed to be comfortably stable, efficient in the water, and also capable of carrying enough equipment to camp.
“That would be my ideal day. You get the board, you go up the river somewhere, find some nice slow-moving river, paddle along, find a little beach. Get the Primus out, make a cup of tea, sit there and commune with nature. And of course, it being Britain, there’s always a Tesco within 100 yards.”
Bill Bailey’s Larks In Transit is touring from Jan 29 to June 16 2018. For more information and to book tickets, see billbailey.co.uk