Simon Reeve’s Pilgrim’s progress leads him into sadness

Simon Reeve’s new series sees him following pilgrims’ trails but, closer to home, he tells Keeley Bolger about being an emotional wreck and owing his adventurous spirit to his grandmother

Sunday, 1st December 2013, 6:10 am
Simon Reeve at the Vatican City
Simon Reeve at the Vatican City

For a man who claims to be living the “middle-age, middle-class dream” by moving to the countryside, intrepid TV presenter Simon Reeve sounds pretty far removed from the twinsets and pearls crowd.

For instance, rather than displaying the usual trinkets and tat in his Devon home, Reeve has a short sword – with a long gruesome history attached to it.

“The Dayak people in Borneo got a bit carried away on the old rice wine and started offering me their ‘longhouse’ [a Bornean home],” says the friendly broadcaster, who was filming Equator at the time.

“Then they settled on giving me a sword that they’d used to take various heads,” adds Reeve of the implement that has notches on it indicating how many skulls it had taken.

“They’d just been telling me how they’d been massacring newcomers to their area and then they said, ‘We’d quite like to adopt you though, you’re all right’.”

The memory is still “very fresh” in the 41-year-old’s memory, despite the series airing back in 2006.

Such gifts might be part and parcel of Reeve’s life now, but he started out in less exotic surroundings.

Brought up in west London, he spent his teens as a post boy in a newspaper office before working his way up to becoming a reporter.

He went on to write several books about terrorism, which led to TV spots, and he consequently landed work as a BBC presenter, best known for making travel documentaries which explore the natural and human world.

There have been series on the Indian Ocean, Australia, the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, as well as the Equator.

On the home front, life changed recently when he, his camerawoman wife Anya and their son, Jake, moved from London to Dartmoor – something that was always Anya’s dream and was part of their “marital contract”.

“I may have neglected to read the small print but there came a time and promises had to be kept,” laughs Reeve.

His only condition for married life was that they had children – “and we’ve got one so far”, he says.

Toddler Jake has already made his presence known. “

Reeve is looking forward to instilling in his son the same sense of adventure that his grandmother did with him.

“My grandma loved driving, so when we were really small my brother and I would go with Gran in the car,” he recalls. “We were allowed to say, ‘Gran, go left here’, and she’d turn into somebody’s front garden or down somebody’s driveway.

“She’d say, ‘Oh dear, look at that’, and we’d go, ‘Oh, Gran turn around!’, and she’d turn super-fast and go away another way.

“For all the journeys I’ve ever done, the excitement of doing that with Gran will be with me forever.”

He credits his grandmother with inspiring his curiosity. “I don’t know, but I think it would be unfair not to [do that with Jake], because it’s such a fun thing to do with a child and it feeds their imagination and gives them confidence.

“The world can seem like such a big and scary place but when you get out into it, whether it’s me exploring the backstreets of Acton as a child or discovering the world now as an adult, actually it’s very hospitable and welcoming.”

Reeve has had plenty of experience in finding out just how hospitable humankind can be. In turn, he has a “very strong sense of good fortune” and a realisation that living in Britain, “where fresh water comes out of the tap”.

He counted his blessings again while filming his latest BBC Two series, Pilgrimage With Simon Reeve, which involved travelling to Norfolk, Lincoln, Italy, France and Jerusalem to find out about our ancestors’ need for pilgrimage, and to quiz modern-day pilgrims on the motivations behind their journeys.

“You can have some very moving moments with people, where just a question which you wouldn’t normally socially be able to ask, can provoke and prompt a very open and honest, emotional response,” he says.

“They were walking all the way across northern Spain for example, they were on an adventure that was exciting and memorable for them and they wanted to share it.”

Sometimes, though, the gravity of people’s plights can be a heavy burden to bear.

“I carry an intense sadness about the suffering I see,” says Reeve, admitting that he confides in his wife to lessen the strain. “I don’t find it easy to just get up and walk away from somebody who is telling me about how they’re losing their entire way of life, or who’s starving, or who’s suffering in any form, frankly.

“That’s not getting any easier.

“The sheer number of tragic stories I hear weighs quite heavily on me, and has made me an emotional wreck in some ways.”

:: Pilgrimage With Simon Reeve starts on BBC Two on Tuesday, December 2