My Life In Travel: Gyles Brandreth

'I saw the Treasury at Petra completely alone – amazing'

First holiday memory?

Broadstairs in Kent. My father used to go on holiday there and his father too. It was a very traditional place on the Isle of Thanet. I remember donkeys on the sand, Punch and Judy, ice creams in cornets and people taking trays of tea on to the beach. It's where Charles Dickens used to go on holiday and there were lots of Dickens places we used to visit. I keep going back hoping that it will be the same, but it never is.

Best holiday?

I think the best is yet to be. However, I've had very good holidays in South Africa and I also loved Mexico because of the combination of seeing new things and culture, particularly the art of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

London; I've lived here all my life. I was brought up in Kensington and Chelsea and then in Baker Street and I've been walking the streets and taking the Underground for more than 50 years. I spend a lot of my time thinking about late Victorian England for the detective stories I write and I like the fact that it's a period that still exists in London. I often take tea in the same spot at the Langham Hotel, where Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle first met.

Holiday reading?

The letters of Oscar Wilde. I am retracing his steps for my murder mysteries and went to all the places he visited in northern Italy at a particular time of his life. However, the letters are very heavy, which is annoying because I like to travel light. Other than that, I read Victorian novels by writers like Thackeray and Anthony Trollope.

What have you learnt from your travels?

Not to look at brochures before I visit somewhere. I went to Petra at Christmas and I literally didn't know what to expect – I thought Petra was the Blue Peter dog! I had never seen a photo of it so it was an incredible surprise. I walked down the ravine reasonably early in the day and saw the Treasury, completely alone. It was amazing.

Ideal travelling companion?

My diary. I've kept one since I was about nine years of age. Sometimes interesting places can just wash over me, but if I know at the end of the day that I have to write it all down then I really focus on what I'm looking at.

Greatest travel luxury?

Why do I go on working all the hours that God sends? Because I have discovered the joy of money – it keeps me in touch with my children and enables me to turn left when I board the plane.

Where has seduced you?

I love Sri Lanka, where I have been several times. The people are physically so beautiful and a joy to see. Sadly for them – but I suppose what was an advantage for me – was that there was nobody else there when I visited.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

Essentially I'm a culture vulture. I'm interested in people, culture and civilisation.

Worst travel experience?

Flying on a small plane from Barcelona to Nice, on which I found myself sitting next to a very attractive lady. It was a pretty bumpy lift off – we jerked into the air and although this lady and I had never met before we suddenly held hands through sheer fear. We both smelt smoke and then we saw it coming from under the pilot's door and filling the cabin. The plane dropped suddenly and the cockpit door swung open and there we saw the pilot with a small cheroot in his mouth. There was nothing wrong at all!

Worst holiday?

Turkey was a bit of a disappointment. We were supposed to have a boat that didn't materialise – we ended up on a small motor boat rather than the big catamaran that we'd been expecting. Then there was sea sickness. We were also staying in a hotel that didn't have air conditioning, in the height of summer. It was a bit of a disaster.

Worst hotel?

Somewhere in North Wales. I arrived in August and expected rain, but hailstones were a bit of a surprise. As I pulled up in the car, I could see 'Welcome to the Welsh Riviera' through the windscreen wipers; as I got out of the car, my feet completely disappeared into a puddle. The bed was one where you rolled into the middle and disappeared down a crack. I went to the loo in the night and the door to the bathroom came off in my hand and was so heavy that I fell back onto my bed and I lay trapped on the bed. For the rest of the night, all I could see was a flashing neon light reflecting in the porcelain of the loo.

Best hotel?

I was lucky enough to stay as a guest of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, at the Burj al Arab. I was in the Royal Suite, which had a revolving bed, curtains that open when you command them to and a butler permanently stood outside your door. It was almost comical but fabulous. I was also supplied with a white Rolls Royce that picked me up at the foot of the steps to the plane. At first I thought it was quite vulgar, but after a week I was quite accustomed to it.

Favourite walk/swim/ride/drive?

The Malvern Hills – I was walking there recently to mark the anniversary of the birth of Edward Elgar. It was a lovely day: sunny with a light breeze and totally un-crowded.

Best meal abroad?

Reindeer in Iceland; it was rather like venison.

First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?

Change rooms. I'm also quite good at walking the streets of the town, finding a coffee shop and writing the first account of the diary.

Dream trip?

I'm lucky to have been to lots of places, usually for work. I don't have a list of places I want to go to and I am not that interested in holidays – I like going to places for a purpose. I am going to visit the birthplace of Henrik Ibsen in Skien, Norway this September.

Favourite city?

London! But then I like New York very much and of course Venice.

Where next?

I'm going to Paris for the centenary of the re-interment of Oscar Wilde. He died in 1900 and was initially buried quite modestly but was was reburied in 1909 in the Père Lachaise cemetery. My next trip is to join other admirers for a little ceremony there.

Gyles Brandreth presents 'Knowitalls', which starts on Monday at 6.30pm, BBC Two

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