British explorer Levison Wood has walked the length of the Nile, the world’s longest river, journeyed along the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountain range; and this year he embarks on an ambitious new project to the Americas.
He has two best-selling books, two hit TV series and several acclaimed photography exhibitions under his belt. Along the way he has created a new genre of TV that blends current affairs, travel and reality; he made it onto Heat magazine’s Lust List, and he’s even designed a pair of Oliver Sweeney shoes.
We’re used to seeing Wood trekking through warzones, evading crocodiles, and climbing mountains, so it’s quite a contrast to find him in his study, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, talking about books.
“Books are what set me on this path,” he says, “it started with fiction, King Solomon’s Mines I think, and before long I was reading travelogues like Eric Newby’s A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush. Books transported me from my bedroom in Stoke-On-Trent to exotic locations all over the world. Everywhere I go, I hunt out second-hand bookshops. I’ll spend hours reading the covers, and that leads me down all sorts of interesting paths.”
He picks out a cracked, leather-bound tome from a row of similar specimens. I can just make out “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom” in gold writing on the spine.
“The stories in the books matter,” he says, “but so do the stories of the books themselves. This is TE Lawrence’s memoir of his time in the Middle East, and I found this edition in Stockholm when I was hitchhiking to India. It was a timely discovery, coming at the beginning of my own adventure, just after university.”
It was Wood’s father who gave him his first book, and by the time he was at school, Wood knew that he wanted to be a travel writer: to visit far off places and share his stories with new readers, to inspire them in turn.
“Back when I was getting started, I didn’t have anywhere to live. Between expeditions, I stayed on friends’ sofas and floors. The only things I’d drag around with me were a few books. I’d always carry the ones most relevant to my next project, or a bunch that I’d found somewhere like the Southbank Book Market.”
After his Himalayan expedition, Wood decided he needed a place to keep that portable library. He found a 17th century townhouse in Hampton Court, which he renovated from a wreck. Now he can look out over the Palace gardens from his writing desk, surrounded by his books and their stories.
“There’s a great temptation to see anything new as better,” he says, “But the character of this old house is amazing, and bringing it back to life was very rewarding. It keeps me grounded, too: after an expedition, where I’m completely disconnected for months, I’m suddenly propelled into the whirlwind of TV and book launches, so it’s important for me to have somewhere to relax.”
And what does he think of his new reputation as a style icon and celebrity?
“Bizarre, really,” he says, with raised eyebrows, “I’m more at home in a jumper and jeans. So if that’s stylish, then I’m no more an icon than my dad. I never planned on becoming a TV personality. All I wanted to do was visit interesting places and write books. But TV brings stories to people who might otherwise not be interested. Ideally, it will help inspire them to go out and see the world for themselves.”
He smiles at a sudden realisation and gestures to the bookshelves. “Just as these writers inspired me.”
Wood films most of the programmes himself, so they feel raw and genuine, with serendipitous conversations and accidental discoveries instead of the heavily produced set-pieces in most travel shows.
Rather than showing us people and talking about them, he engages with those whom he meets and talks to them, participating in their lives, so they warm to him and open up.
“Walking helps,” he says, “I’m not surrounded by a crew, parachuted in somewhere, filming, then leaving. I get to know a place gradually through immersion, so I’m more attuned to what’s going on and how people behave. Walking into a place is unthreatening, so people who live there react well.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing how local people react in different parts of the world. In Africa, people didn’t understand it at all – they thought my car must have broken down. But in India nobody batted an eyelid, because pilgrimages on foot are ingrained into the culture there.”
So where does he like to hang out when he’s closer to home?
“My favourite places in London are Stanfords in Covent Garden and Daunt Books in Marylebone, both of which specialise in travel literature. I’m inspired by the plethora of titles there, which proves the infinite variety of subjects you can explore whilst travelling.
“When Walking The Himalayas was published, we had the launch event at Daunt and was talking to Wilbur Smith. I’ve read all of his books, and admire how he combines his travel experiences with creative writing to weave such vibrant stories. Fiction is something I’d love to try when I hang up my walking boots.”
Explorer, TV presenter, photographer, shoe designer; Wood seems to succeed at whatever he turns his hand to. Don’t be surprised to find “novelist” on that list before long.