Norfolk character: Tim FitzHigham
PUBLISHED: 13:31 21 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:31 21 August 2018
Tim FitzHigham is king of the bathtub boat, clown of endurance dance, and a brave and loyal Norfolk man, writes Rowan Mantell
He’s rowed a copper bath across the Channel, sailed a paper boat the length of the Thames and Morris danced from London to Norwich.
In the course of completing wildly imaginative, and wildly perilous, charity challenges, dares and bets, he has sustained a broken rib attempting to outrun a race horse, frost-bitten toes racing barefoot in snow and skinned buttocks, and worse, in the bathtub boat. He’s had a toilet named for him, broken a world record for running up a volcano and registered the highest recorded resting tolerance to G force.
Tim FitzHigham is a stand-up comedian, actor, thrill-seeker, fundraiser, daredevil, gambler, family man, author and like one of his heroes, Horatio Nelson, glories in being a Norfolk man.
We meet in Norwich’s Assembly House, where Tim arrives clutching a pair of just-in-case trousers. “You never know when you might need them,” he explains, gesturing at his slightly scruffy shorts and the lavish décor. I am astonished a man who took on ships with a stopping distance of 25 miles, French bureaucracy and excruciating fitness regimes, in a bath, on a whim, would worry about decorum, but Tim not only relishes an insane challenge, he likes to do things properly.
We are soon skimming across an ocean of incredible anecdotes, stellar celebrities, superhuman exploits and near-death disasters which form the day-to-day life of the delightful and less-deranged-than-expected Tim FitzHigham.
Tim spent his first few years in a house gently subsiding into the Norfolk Fens. When it became uninhabitable his family moved to higher ground. As an adult he returned to Norfolk to live in Harleston and all three of his children (now aged nine, seven and five) were born in Norwich.
“I love the fact that we are not the north or the south. I love flying the flag for Norfolk,” said Tim, who knows a lot about flags, particularly those you are allowed to fly from a bathtub which is also an official ship.
As a child he was outdoorsy, sporty and had a very particular career ambition. “I hoped that somebody would make a job which would just let me carry on doing the stuff five-year-olds did,” said Tim. But the man who has cheated death on oceans and mountains admits to being scared of describing his job on official forms.
“It’s terrifying,” said Tim. “In Australia they put me down as ‘gentleman.’ I have also described myself as ‘feckless’ in the space for ‘occupation’ and was asked what it meant at US border control. I said it was kind of like a university professor!”
He was once scared of heights. “Anything over a metre is pretty high if you come from the Fens!” he quipped. He conquered that fear by climbing one of the world’s tallest buildings as part of a project taking on 10 world record holders.
But Tim is not completely reckless. He trains hard so that whether he is challenged to run against a racehorse or roll a cheeseboard, he is ready (the cheeseboard rolling cost him his only permanent injury – damage to a finger knuckle.) There is also a genetic advantage. He is from a family of adventurers. A FitzHigham was part of an accidental cavalry charge at Agincourt. Centuries later Tim’s grandfather swam up the Arabian Gulf as part of a special forces mission.
A great uncle is still officially missing in action after guiding his troops home from occupied Europe during the Second World War. He was last seen diving into the Channel to race them the last mile home.
“It’s a nice family to be in,” said Tim. “What are the chances of success? Non-existent? I’ll have a crack at that! What are the chances of coming back alive? Oh, next to nothing? I’ll crack on with that.”
Where other people see danger and pain, Tim sees the chance to try something new, raise money for charity, and have something to talk about.
He turned his bath odyssey – in which he not only rowed across the Channel, but then went an extra 200 miles up the Thames to Tower Bridge - into a show for the Edinburgh Festival. There was another sold-out stand-up show about dancing from London to Norwich in the bell-jingling footsteps of Shakespeare’s clown, Will Kemp. And this summer, fresh from appearing at Norwich’s Laugh in the Park festival, Tim will be in Edinburgh again in August. He has played stadiums, performed for royalty and runs a comedy club for children. “Children are just the best material! They are so funny!” said father-of-three Tim. So does this mean he no longer feels the need to take on ridiculous challenges? Of course not. It simply gives him more ideas. A child’s swimming pool inflatable down a black ski run? Why not? (Note, there are many reasons why not. Tim can’t remember them as he lost consciousness half way down.)
And has he ever failed? Well the first bath attempt ended badly. You can soak up the story in Tim’s book All At Sea.
Clint Eastwood is a fan and included Tim, giving a reading from it, in his film Hereditary.
Tim also had roles in Paddington 2 and the Dave sitcom Zapped and is working on a television project with Ricky Gervais. He describes himself as ‘chief clown’ of an initiative to mentor and present new comic talent on Radio Norfolk and Radio Suffolk.
And he has raised tens of thousands of pounds for charities including Comic Relief and Sport Relief. “If you can help people out, then you should. It’s a good thing to do,” said Tim, whose parents were teachers, until his mum retrained as a Church of England priest.
His Channel-beating bath was made by world-famous bathroom-ware company Thomas Crapper and modified with a shower-head mast. To celebrate Tim’s success the company created its second-ever limited edition toilet, complete with the legend ‘Mad in England’. The first was in honour of Queen Victoria. And Tim is thrilled that both the bathtub and paper boat are now in the National Maritime Museum.
Now he is planning to add to his portfolio of 18th century bets and dares. And become a knight. After reading Don Quixote he went to live as a medieval knight in a cave in a desert, tilting at windmills in full armour (the windmills won, so Norfolk windmills should be safe from his jousting.) Suddenly a thought strikes him. “I could go for a Knight of the Bath!” For most people that would merely be an amusing joke. For Tim it could be the start of a whole new quest.