How We Met: Alastair Sawday & Patrick Dawson

'It was wild – the locals in the hills had only recently had their first contact with Europeans'


Patrick Dawson, 58, is the commercial director of publisher Footprint Books, whose travel guides cover destinations and activity themes such as surfing and travel photography. Its flagship guide, the 'South American Handbook', is the longest-running travel guide in the English language. Dawson lives in Bath with his wife

Alastair and I go back to about 1974, when we were both heavily involved in VSO [Voluntary Service Overseas]. I went out to Papua New Guinea as a volunteer and Alastair was our field officer. We may have met before, but my first clear recollection of him is in an idyllic little place called Wewak on the north coast. Alastair came out to see some of the other volunteers and we all jumped on a plane and went down to a settlement called Angoram, on the Sepik river. We'd sit around talking in the evenings. He was a larger-than-life character – and still is. He was so enthusiastic about volunteering, full of fascinating stories about people he was looking after around the world. His liveliness is infectious.

He didn't come back out to New Guinea while I was there but we heard about each other long-distance for as long as we were both involved in VSO. Our paths didn't cross properly again until the 1990s, when a mutual friend invited us both to lunch; Alastair didn't seem to have changed at all.

We have kept in touch regularly ever since. Usually we get together for lunch in Bath and put the world of publishing to rights. The brave new digital world is a big topic of conversation for us – these are difficult times but we both have the same approach to challenges and neither of us are the kind to bury our heads in the sand. We do a bit of moaning about the good old days, but I think we both find it exciting, too.

We have always had values and interests in common and it's interesting that we have both ended up in the publishing world and in the south-west. Alastair is very much into the green movement and publishes books which largely concentrate on the UK and Europe. Footprint is more about long-haul destinations, so flying is an issue that we disagree on. It rears its head every now and again between us, but Alastair is very steadfast in his views so I haven't won him over at all.

We don't argue, though, and what I really admire in him is his principled stance. He maintains that while also being very willing to listen to people, which is a great skill.

Alastair Sawday, 64, is the chairman and founder of Sawday's 'Special Places to Stay' series of guide books, which recommend a total of more than 5,000 inspected hotels, B&Bs and self-catering properties across Europe and beyond. A former vice-chairman of the Soil Association, he promotes sustainable travel in his books. He lives in Bristol with his wife

I met Pat at a VSO training course in Tottenham around 1974 when I was the desk officer for Papua New Guinea. He was out in the field so we had regular contact until I met him out there in a little place called Angoram and we went together to visit another group of volunteers who were running a small hospital. It was incredibly wild out there – the Papua New Guineans who lived in the hills had only recently had their first contact with Europeans.

My first impressions of Pat are much as they are now – an utterly solid man, low-key, self-effacing and very kind. He was an accountant then, and I suppose in a way those are all the qualities you would want in your accountant. I was responsible for matching him up with his project and I obviously thought he could cope with being somewhere very remote and just getting on with the job.

The way we came together again was quite extraordinary. I'd been running my publishing company for a few years and hadn't paid a lot of attention to Footprint. Then a senior manager at Footprint became a director of my company and said I must meet Patrick. Amazingly, the name didn't ring a bell at first and when we met I didn't recognise him. He was always a big man but he's a hulking man with a beard now – a big, cuddly teddy bear.

We meet at book fairs and it's always nice to see him because he is so authentically himself. A lot of the publishing world has become rather corporate and there's quite a lot of greed, so I'm always delighted to meet people who are different. Every now and again we just need to talk, so we meet at the White Hart in Bath for lunch.

We have shared values of honesty and integrity but I am driven by my environmental interests, which isn't Pat's priority, although he is massively sympathetic. Because Pat's company is in a slightly different field to us, it is in a tougher game in some ways. But he is very optimistic and doesn't get panicked by it all. You have to be steely to survive for two years on your own in a remote part of the world, and I see the same qualities in him now that I saw when he was sent to Papua.

Pat's wife Liz was on the same VSO programme as him back in the 1970s, and my wife and I are also a VSO marriage. It's not unusual for people to meet their partners or make friends for life through organisations such as VSO, because they attract people with common values, so I don't find it surprising that Pat and I still get on so well after all these years.

For more on Footprint: footprintbooks.com. Sawday's publishes 'Eat Slow Britain' later this year; for more: sawdays.co.uk

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