“It was in the seventies. The place stank of death; it was God’s waiting room, ”he sighs. “It was so miserable. “
Forty years later he has a home in the Cotswold town with his wife and two children. His latest audio travel book, Such Miserable Weather, published exclusively on Audible, asks in part ‘how the hell did this happen? while trying to take a fresh look at his neglected homeland.
“I’ve written four travel books and traveled 106 countries, but I’ve never been anywhere in England with the same enthusiasm,” admits the 53-year-old.
“I thought, maybe I was a little careless. Maybe it’s time I got out there and explore England.
Here are some of the discoveries he made along the way …
Learning to love Birmingham
“Historically, I’ve always had a problem with Birmingham. I have terrible memories of going there when I was 17 to see a band called Gong, a bunch of over-the-top psychedelic hippies with names like High Tea Moon Weed and Magic Teapot. One person was playing digeridoo and someone else gave me mushrooms. It was the worst 24 hours of my life. People say that with hallucinogens you can experience beauty, but not in Birmingham.
“So one of the challenges I took on with the book was learning to love Birmingham. I realized it wasn’t a city built for pedestrians, but once you get to know the canal system, life improves a lot.
“I also realized that this is the homeland of heavy metal. Artists like Ozzy Osbourne grew up with the muffles of making. If you like punk you can go to King’s Road, if you like hip hop you go to New York, but there is no place for heavy metal fans to visit. I think Birmingham is missing a turn.
Enjoy the mundane tourist attractions
“Bowland Trough is a really interesting place. It sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, but it’s actually behind Lancaster. Everyone has heard of the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District but this place was an amazing walk. In the middle is Britain’s most central telephone booth. It was officially opened by Ranulph Fiennes and was one of the most unnecessary tourist attractions I have ever seen.
“But there were two contenders for the more boring – or, depending on how you look at it – Britain’s biggest museums. One is the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District. I thought there must be a lot of pencil excitement in there, but it was terrible. You enter through a papier-mâché tunnel, which is the most exciting thing about it, but it was just a giant pencil and some stuff on the wall. I did it in four minutes, which I’m pretty proud of.
“The other place I loved was the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport. There were a few famous lawn mowers, including one by Lee Mack. But my favorite piece was a photo of Charles Darwin with his donkey-drawn lawn mower. The plaque read: Charles Darwin and his famous lawn mower. Below, after the fact, it continued: Also author of On The Origin Of Species.
“One of my favorite stories from the book is about Ilfracombe in North Devon. I went there to see the statue in the harbor which was erected by Damien Hirst – a massive woman with a sword and you can see her organs, which I thought was awesome.
“It was a sunny day and people were walking around with ice cream. I walked up the hill to this little chapel, where you can see the whole city, and found another one-minute museum. Britain is full of museums within a minute.
“On a piece of yellow paper pinned to the wall, I noticed the story of a late 19th century beach attendant called Alf. A German tourist threw stones at bathing cabins, so Alf asked him to stop and he told Alf to get lost. So Alf hit him in the face and made his nose bleed. Unfortunately, this guy turned out to be the future Kaiser Wilhelm on his first vacation abroad. So, there is a theory that Alf caused Wilhelm’s hatred of the English and was somehow indirectly responsible for the start of WWI.
Bathing in the British sea
“I got in the water a few times including Whitby which was a big mistake. But I discovered an interesting fact in Ilfracombe, which was historically inaccessible for swimming. Because they were miners there, they dug tunnels in the cliffs and built two swimming pools in the sea: one for women, one for men. The men would swim naked; the women swam in massive Victorian swimsuits.
“There was a man who was sitting on a high rock between the two pools and if a naked man tried to swim on the women’s side, he would play the bugle. It’s the kind of thing I want when I swim in England.
Accept the fall of England is the weather
“If we had time in the south of France, there wouldn’t be a bigger destination in the world than England – hands down. But the weather is a problem, which is why global warming could be a bonus for us. We could be the lucky ones. Yes of course there is going to be massive flooding, death, famine, but on the rise – this could make the Bristol Channel suitable for swimming… ”
This Miserable Time of Dom Joly is now available on Audible (audible.co.uk)