My Countryside interview: Bill Bailey

The comedian, musician and actor discusses the creative power of walking, the necessity of a thermos of tea and his grand plan to tour the Thames by paddle board

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I’ve thought about what nature does for me many times and I think it’s what religion does if you’re particularly religious. Nature is something that I take great comfort in. I feel like it sustains me. It’s somewhere where I’d go for solace, to think and to meditate and to be reinvigorated. 

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St Botolph’s Church, Swyncombe, where Bill was welcomed by biscuits

When I did the Ridgeway walk, the welcome we had in St Botolph’s Church in Swyncombe was so wonderful. We’d done a long hike the day before – over 17 miles and hard going – and in the morning it was raining, a persistent rain. I’d emailed the church warden to say I was passing through, and they put all these biscuits on, and somebody even left me some flapjack. We all tramped in, soaked to the skin, and had cups of tea and biscuits in this beautiful little church, nearly a thousand years old. Churches are places for weary travellers – we were slouching past and suddenly we had this wonderful welcome.

Ramble the Ridgeway with Bill Bailey

Gallery: seven fascinating country churches to visit

We’re regular walkers in the Lake District. My wife’s family have lived for many years near Ullswater. So we’ve spent many merry holiday traipsing the hills around Buttermere up to Haystacks and we’ve been up to Helvellyn, Striding Edge and all around Glenridding, on the other side of Ullswater. I used to go up there alone occasionally when I had this rather romantic notion – “like the Lakeland poet, I’ll go and walk the fells and inspiration will follow”. It didn’t really work. You just get a tremendous appetite and think “I need to have dinner now and a pint” and then you’re very tired and you go to bed! I could have just stayed at home, sitting around. But what’s the fun in that!

Ullswater lake curves through the mountains of the English Lake District at Glenridding, looking down on the lake from the crags of Birkhouse Moor.
Ullswater Lake at Glenridding, looking down from the crags of Birkhouse Moor. Credit: Getty Images

While walking the Ridgeway, I was slightly amazed that there weren’t more people getting out into the countryside. There were very few people about. We have the very perception of Britain as a built-up place, but it’s complete myth. There are huge swathes of the countryside that are less populated than you may imagine. And there’s a great amount of good to be got from it. The countryside is an enormous, wonderful resource for your well-being and health and we’re not using it enough.

Apart from the fact that the Ridgeway is very beautiful, it’s ancient. To me, it encompasses the essence of old England. You sit above the chalk downs above the vale of Aylesbury, and look down to see gardens, fields, spires and little villages – or red kite and deer and all manner of bird life and bug life. This ancient nature of it is what appeals to me. Great sections of track are worn into the ground – these are not constructed gravel or tarmac paths – these are ruts that have been scoured into the ground over thousands of years. There are cart ways, track ways and drovers where Roman centurions have walked. When you tread into these footsteps, you feel like you’re connecting to the past.

Ancient footpath leading to Ivinghoe Beacon, Bucks/Herts border. Great views across The Vale of Aylesbury
The ancient footpath of the Ridgeway leading to Ivinghoe Beacon, overlooking the vale of Aylesbury

The physical act of walking is what I now consider essential for the creative process. It’s a great time to think, to collect your thoughts, to take lungfuls of air. You see the way the countryside works, you get a better handle on your own thoughts, you get ideas, and things tend to settle. If you don’t get outdoors, there’s always some pressing or mundane issue, having to deal with bills and domestic responsibility etc. After walking a few hours, thoughts settle in a much more ordered fashion. It’s a way of resetting. More and more these days, I find that I need that. It’s a great balm for the soul.

My most treasured piece of outdoor kit is my thermos. It’s no ordinary thermos – it’s a branded bit of merchandise from the fantastic John Shuttleworth. He presented it to me at a show I did with him at the London Palladium, and it’s a constant companion. You can’t go anywhere without tea – it’s the most restorative drink. When you do long-distant walks, somehow tea takes on a mythical quality. I could pick my thermos up a couple weeks later and the tea would still be tepid.

The wildlife species closest to my heart is the barn owl, because it’s a strange and an ancient species, which has long been a part of mythology. And also it just looks a bit odd, and people don’t really know what to make of it – which is what people think of me sometimes.

A portrait of a barn owl typo alba perched on the top of a gravestone
Legendary, odd-looking and enigmatic, the barn owl is a kindred spirit to Bill Bailey. Credit: Getty Images

I’ve recently taken to exploring the whole of Hertfordshire as it’s so close to London. You can be walking in a valley with red kite and woodpeckers – or be in a middle of a wood, by a lake, by a stream – and the 21st century has just gone. Me and a mate Sean, we sit there, have a bite to eat, some bread and cheese, and it feels that this could be any time in the last 150 years. And what I love about it is that all kinds of people can get to it easily. The British countryside has all the things you want from countryside but it’s right there on your doorstep.

Countrylane in chiltern hills at dawn, Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire border, England, UK.
A country lane in Chiltern hills at dawn on Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. Credit: Getty Images

I love going on the mountain bike, but paddle boarding is probably my most satisfying thing to do. Gliding along on flat water, on a river, canal, lake or estuary. This year, I hope to paddle board down the Thames. The full length is 215 miles from source to sea, so I may just do one section of it, perhaps the upper Thames, which is wonderful. Maybe I’ll take in a few pubs on the way.

I’d love to try to connect up all the Ridgeways and the Peddars Way. The Ridgeway is just a section of a huge coast-to-coast path that starts in Lyme Regis and ends in Cromer, which is 400 plus miles in total. I’d love to do that one day. Connect all of them together; walk the Norfolk Coast Path that becomes the Peddars Way, which in turn becomes the Icknield Way. And the Icknield Way then becomes the Ridgeway, and the Ridgeway runs out in the West Rodham at Long Barrow by Avebury, and there’s a 38-mile gap. It picks up again in the Wessex Ridgeway, which goes all the way to Lyme Regis. But that in that little gap, there must be a way round. I would love to do that.

Having a plan come together is one of the most satisfying things in life. To get a bunch of people together and walk across this the countryside. That’s one of the times I’m most happy – family and friends striding across a beautiful path across the meadow in England, in the summertime. There can be no finer place to be.

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Music, merriment and a bit of mild ranting – Bill Bailey in his latest show <em>Larks in Transit</em>

My new show Larks in Transit is about my travels really, broadly. It’s about 20 years of being a travelling comic around the world, and about where comedy takes you. I’ve grown up doing it, so it’s about how you change as a person and how that’s reflected in comedy. There’s also a lot of music in the show. It’s more long-form than shows I’ve done before, with longer stories and longer routines. And there will be the usual thing of me getting on the high horse about something, with a bit of mild ranting and getting worked up.

In the creative process there’s an intense period of writing when I spend a lot of time researching, reading around a subject and trying to write out stories in long-form before trying them out. The trying bit is when I test this stuff out at a little theatre somewhere, and actually say it out loud for the first time to gauge a reaction of a crowd. It’s always an unknown quantity – that’s one of the great things that I love about comedy. It’s still such an unknown – you don’t quite know what is going to connect with an audience. After a number of years of doing it, you have an instinct to think “well, this is in the ballpark of funny”. But who knows? That’s the exciting bit. Then later when you get the show in some kind of shape, the next exciting bit is travelling to places where you’ve never performed before. Almost feel like I’m blazing a trail!

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Larks in Transit is touring nationwide from 29 January to 9 June 2018, www.BillBailey.co.uk