Michael Palin’s world travels began in... Norfolk!
PUBLISHED: 17:40 18 November 2020
Ex-Monty Python star and globe-trotting TV traveller Michael Palin’s first holiday was in Sheringham
He is a man who has criss-crossed the world in search of touching stories of people and places that continue to enthral, warm and amuse us. When asked where in the world has appealed to him most, Michael Palin must be stuck for choice; but he does have an answer.
“One of the most spectacular journeys we did was in Peru,” he says. “We went to Machu Picchu and then continued north to a canyon called Pongo de Mainique. It was absolutely stunning, so much white water. But then at one point the river became quite calm and there was silence apart from the occasional call of a bird or a fish flopping onto the water. I thought to myself ‘This is what travelling is all about.’”
But it has only recently been revealed where he travelled to on his very first adventure ever, or at least, the first he can recall. Michael was born in 1943 and was brought up in Sheffield. After the war, few people travelled anywhere but in 1949, when Michael was six, the Palin family went on holiday and it was to Sheringham, here in Norfolk.
“It was the first time I really ever remember going on a journey of more than four or five miles away from my home,” says Michael now. “It was a tremendous undertaking and absolutely thrilling because I saw the sea for the first time.
“We went on the train and there were various points where we had to change. At every change, my father was thrown into complete panic because he had brought his bicycle with him and he was convinced that it would be off-loaded at the wrong station.”
Sheringham made an impact on the Palin family and they went there on holiday every year from 1949 to 1958. “We had walks up Beeston Hill, enjoyed wonderful crab teas, explored rock-pools, played cricket on the beach as the tide came in and had picnics at Pretty Corner. One day, we took a trip to Norwich to see the film The Dam Busters. I also remember anti-aircraft guns practice-firing at targets over the sea and then there was the time I was allowed aboard the lifeboat in the lifeboat station.”
There are some more unusual memories too. “I remember the spectacular, monumental gents’ toilet block at the approach to the beach. My father called it ‘The Club’. Then there were donkey and horse rides back to the guest house. The smell was bad. I never felt comfortable on horseback, and much preferred the donkey – the smaller the better.”
Michael’s most recent travel adventure was to the rather less obvious holiday destination of North Korea in 2018. Nevertheless, the trip made a big impression on him. “The capital, Pyongyang, was very ordered,” he recalls. “But there was this air of slightly menacing unreality. There were roads but few cars. There were streets with some cafés but we were not free to go there unless accompanied by minders. From very early in the morning, publicly broadcast music reverberated across the city. You woke up and heard these chords of patriotic music coming from somewhere – I was baffled by it at first.
“The people were clearly indoctrinated. I suppose that was a way to give hope and inspiration to people in a plucky little country pitching itself against the rest of the world.”
Michael’s travel documentaries have included Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle and Sahara, which have been the focus of this autumn’s BBC Travels of a Lifetime series. The virtual revisits included personal recollections of how the programmes were made, welcome comment from some famous fans and fascinating snapshots of how we the British are viewed around the world – Michael was, for example, once asked on a train in China whether it really was true that people in Britain carried an umbrella with them every day.
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It is frequently cited that Michael’s first travel documentary was actually as long ago as in 1980. It was an episode filmed for Great Railway Journeys of the World and featured the train ride from London to Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast of Scotland.
Following Michael around the globe – even through Sheringham – it is easy to skip over all the other things he has done in his long, busy career. He has, of course, starred in films such as A Private Function and A Fish Called Wanda and he teamed up with Terry Jones to write the Ripping Yarns TV series. He has also taken serious acting roles, such as in the recent BBC drama Remember Me, and has written nine travel books, three diary volumes, children’s books and other works of fiction and non-fiction. And for something completely different, there is, of course, the small matter of Monty Python, for which some sketches were shot in Norwich.
It is impossible not to like Michael Palin. Fellow Python John Cleese once said of him “Michael is not a man who will die on the barricades but he will die with thousands of friends” and Michael has been frequently referred to as Britain’s nicest man.
In his packed days, he certainly finds time to help others. Indeed, when asked what he is most proud of, he does not mention his travel books or his comedy career. He does talk about his work supporting therapy for stammering children. Michael’s own father suffered from a bad stammer and Michael agreed to give his name to The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, a specialist centre for speech and language therapy in London.
“The centre is very successful. It’s incredibly moving to hear parents talk of how their child went to the centre and it ended up changing their life.”
Despite his huge popularity and global experience, Michael remains perhaps surprisingly grounded. He lives in a fairly modest, albeit extended, north London town house that abuts the pavement and is overlooked by a tower block. He has done so for more than 50 years. He met his wife, Helen, when he was on a seaside holiday – unfortunately not to Sheringham but Southwold in Suffolk – at the age of just 16. He is now 77.
Michael has always been fit and active but has not been without medical blips. Last year, promotion of his book North Korean Journal had to be put on hold when he was admitted to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London for open heart surgery.
Today Michael says the whole experience has changed him. “I now feel aware that ageing isn’t just about getting older. It’s also about the body becoming prone to more difficulties. I value each day now. I look out the window and see things more. My heart scare has reminded me that I must know when to stop working as well as when to start. Over the past year, I’ve discovered a rather enjoyable equilibrium, a balance between work and relaxation that for the first time in my life has favoured the latter.”
In terms of travel, clearly that has been on hold for Michael as much as for anyone else this year. We can only hope that will change. In the past, when asked where he would like to travel to next, he usually replied ‘Middlesbrough’, only because he had never been there, but when he was knighted in 2019 and asked the same question by Prince William, he opted for Kazakhstan. That is, of course, a place much lampooned by Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat. Whether they would let an Englishman into the country after that remains to be seen.