Sir Ranulph Fiennes is an inveterate explorer. First man to reach both poles by surface travel, and – in 2008 – the oldest Briton to reach the Summit of Everest. Here he tells travel writer and author Jennifer Cox, on behalf of luxury tailormade specialist Cox & Kings, why an afternoon tea in Sussex was possibly the most important journey of all.
My most memorable journey, and the one that had the most impact on my life, occurred when I was only 12 years old. It was a voyage that took me not only from one continent (Africa) to another (Europe), but from the care free childhood of a white boy in 1940s South Africa to an England still recovering from the Second World War.
My father was killed fighting in Italy before I was born and when my grandmother died in 1950, my mother took me and my sister back to England. We found a house which was quite comfortable once we’d chased the turkeys out of the dining room. It had a well that had been a place of pilgrimage since Chaucer’s time. Gradually we got used to the green of the Sussex countryside and began to make friends. One day we were invited to tea by another family with children, so my mother lined us up to make sure we were clean and tidy: “You must put shoes on, Ranulph. People don’t expect visitors with bare feet.”
She then took us outside and pointed over the wood towards the village: “Go through the trees and it’s the first house on the right.”
So off we went, very unhappy at the thought of a) having to wear shoes and b) having to be polite to new children who were bound to be stupid and boring and laugh at our South African accents. When we arrived we were given orange squash to drink, another oddity for us used to proper, fresh fruit juice. Then we went to play with the boy’s elaborate electric train set in the attic. That was very enjoyable except for the attentions of an extremely irritating nine year old girl called Virginia. When we sat down to tea the irritating girl seemed to have disappeared, but I was very embarrassed to feel as if a pin was being stuck repeatedly into my leg. Was this some terrible English insect we hadn’t been told about, or perhaps the strange orange squash was having an awful effect on my skin?
When I looked under the table, there was Virginia methodically loading a toy cannon which fired pins into my leg. As she crawled out I told her to stop, but she just screwed up her nose and went back under the table. Before she disappeared I did notice her eyes were an amazing blue, almost violet.
Four years later I was bold enough to ask her out. Twelve years later I asked her to marry me. So if I’d never left the Valley of the Vines in the shadow of Table Mountain, my life might have been very different.
Cox & Kings offers luxury tailor-made holidays.