Growing up in the Middle East and spending most of his childhood years abroad, Dom Joly admits holidays to see his gran in rainy Cheltenham were trying.
“This was in the Seventies. The place stank of death; it was God’s waiting room,” he sighs. “It was so miserable.”
Forty years later, he has a home in the Cotswolds town with his wife and two children. His latest audio travel book, Such Miserable Weather, released exclusively on Audible, partially asks ‘how the hell did that happen?’ while also attempting to take a fresh look at his overlooked homeland.
“I’ve written four travel books and been to 106 countries, but I never set off to anywhere in England with the same excitement,” admits the 53-year-old.
“I thought, maybe I’ve been a bit remiss. Perhaps it’s time I go out and explore England.”
Here are a few of the discoveries he made along the way…
Learning to love Birmingham
“Historically, I’ve always had a problem with Birmingham. I have terrible memories of going there when I was 17 to see a band called Gong, an over-the-top psychedelic bunch of hippies with names like High Tea Moon Weed and Magic Teapot. One person was playing a digeridoo and someone else gave me mushrooms. It was the worst 24 hours of my life. People say with hallucinogenics you can experience beauty, but not in Birmingham.
“So, one of the challenges I set myself with the book was learning to love Birmingham. I realised it’s not a city built for pedestrians, but once you discover the canal system, life gets a lot better.
“I also realised it’s the home of heavy metal. Artists like Ozzy Osbourne grew up on the thumping sounds of manufacturing. If you’re into punk, you can go to the King’s Road, if you’re into hip hop, you go to New York, but there is no place for heavy metal fans to visit. I think Birmingham is missing a trick.”
Revelling in mundane tourist attractions
“The Trough of Bowland is a really interesting place. It sounds like something from Lord Of The Rings, but it’s actually behind Lancaster. Everyone’s heard of the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, but this place was an incredible drive. Right in the middle, there’s Britain’s most central telephone box. It was formally opened by Ranulph Fiennes and was one of the most pointless tourist attractions I’ve ever seen.
“But there were two contenders for the dullest – or, depending on which way you look at it – greatest museums in Britain. One is the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District. I thought there must be a lot of pencil excitement in there, but it was terrible. You enter through a papier mache tunnel, which is the most exciting thing about it, but it was just one giant pencil and some stuff on the wall. I did it in four minutes, which I’m quite proud of.
“The other place I loved was the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport. There were a couple of celebrity lawnmowers, including one from Lee Mack. But my favourite bit was a picture of Charles Darwin with his lawnmower pulled by a donkey. The plaque read: Charles Darwin and his famous lawnmower. Below, as an afterthought, it continued: Also author of On The Origin Of Species.”
Unearthing historical facts
“One of my favourite stories from the book is about Ilfracombe, in North Devon. I went there to see the statue in the harbour that’s been erected by Damien Hirst – a massive woman with a sword and you can see her organs, which I thought was brilliant.
“It was a sunny day and people were wandering around with ice creams. I traipsed up the hill to this little chapel, where you can see the whole town, and found another one-minute museum. Britain is full of one-minute museums.
“On a yellow piece of paper pinned to the wall, I noticed a story about a late 19th-century beach attendant called Alf. A tourist from Germany had been throwing rocks at bathing cabins, so Alf asked him to stop and he told Alf to get lost. So Alf punched him in the face and gave him a bloody nose. Unfortunately, this guy turned out to be the future Kaiser Wilhelm on his first foreign vacation. So, there is a theory that Alf caused Wilhelm’s hatred of the English and was sort of indirectly responsible for the start of the First World War.”
Having a dip in the British sea
“I got into the water several times, including Whitby, which was a big mistake. But I did discover an interesting fact in Ilfracombe, which was historically inaccessible to swim. Because they were miners down there, they drilled tunnels through cliffs and made two swimming pools in the sea: one for women, one for men. The men would swim naked; women would swim in massive Victorian bathing suits.
“There was a man who sat on a high rock in between the two pools and if any naked man tried to swim around to the women’s side, he played a bugle. That’s the kind of thing I want when I’m swimming in England.”
Accepting England’s downfall is the weather
“If we had South of France weather, there would be no greater destination in the world but England – hands down. But the weather is an issue, which is why global warming could be a bonus for us. We could be the lucky ones. Yeah, sure, there’s going to be massive flooding, death, starvation, but on the upside – it might make the Bristol Channel swimmable…”
Such Miserable Weather by Dom Joly is available now on Audible (audible.co.uk)