My Life In Travel: Nick Clegg, MP
In St Petersburg I saw the house where my grandmother was born’
Saturday 21 February 2009
First holiday memory?
The most distinct early memories are of family road-trips across Europe. My parents had a Ford estate car – they would collapse the seats in the back and my brothers and sisters and I would creep into sleeping bags in the boot while they drove through the night. They would play music on the way, like Johnny Cash and Abba, and I remember feeling incredibly happy that our whole family was going off on holiday. Looking back, it was probably dangerous that we weren’t all seat-belted in, but I remember it being secure and cosy fun.
For a mixture of fun and adventure, it would be a trip with Marcel and Louis Theroux, driving across the States when we were 19 or 20. We set off from Boston and drove all the way down south, from campsite to campsite. It was fantastic. We had great adventures – from punctures in the Blue Ridge Mountains, to getting into alligator-infested waters near New Orleans, to running over a roadrunner in Arizona, to open-air rock concerts in Texas. My biggest impression was that it was the first time, as a European, I felt that intimidating sense of space.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
The Peak District. I’m very lucky because part of my constituency takes in the Peak District National Park. Just 10 minutes from my home in Sheffield, I can be clambering with my kids over the great rocks of Stanage Edge. You’ve got forest, peaks, heather and rivers – it’s bleak, open, beautiful and varied.
What have you learnt from your travels?
It’s an obvious thing to say, but I’ve learnt that everywhere might be startlingly different, but people are strikingly similar.
Ideal travelling companion?
My wife Miriam. Before we were married, we travelled as students around Vietnam and she was a great companion. She’s very curious, enthusiastic and not cynical. However, with young children, our travelling days together are temporarily on hold.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
I’m certainly not a beach bum, I am far too restless. I love culture; I’m happy to go to churches and museums. However, I need a bit of thrill on holiday, whether it’s mountaineering in Wales or potholing in the Lake District, or, in the past, travelling through strange places in the Soviet Union. A bit of uncertainty is important.
Greatest travel luxury?
Peanut butter – I’m an addict! I will go to great lengths to find some if it is not actually readily available.
I always have a novel on the go. I’m rereading Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard at the moment. I rarely read non-fiction; I always have a novel by my side.
Where has seduced you?
That’s exactly how I think of my relationship with the barren interior of Spain, where Miriam comes from. The baking plains of Castilla y Leó*can feel quite intimidating at first – it’s unforgiving, harsh and unchanging – but I’ve grown to love it over the years. There’s something very authentic about it, especially if you get to know the people.
Better to travel or to arrive?
To arrive. I never find the airport experience very nice, so I could do without flying. However, I love train travel, particularly on sleepers.
Worst travel experience?
Without a doubt, Uzbekistan, which I am sure has transformed beyond all recognition since I was there about 10 years ago – I was managing European aid projects in the former Soviet Union. I remember flying from Tashkent to Heathrow on Uzbekistan Airways, and the seats were barely bolted on to the floor of the plane. Just after take-off, an air stewardess approached me and asked, “Excuse me, when do we arrive in Heathrow?”. When we did arrive, we discovered some of the people on the plane had come from a plague-infested area, so people got on wearing gas masks and sprayed us with some kind of toxic powder.
A family holiday in Italy when I literally spent the whole week with my head in a bucket.
It’s not strictly a hotel, but I spent the night on an overnight ferry in China about 15 years ago, with my brother. We were going down the Grand Canal to Hangzhou, and there was urine sloshing around the floor, damp mattresses covered in hair, and rats swimming in the waterline beside the porthole.
The best hotels are those that genuinely welcome kids. It’s quite rare to come across ones that do, but Latin countries tend to do them quite well.
Favourite walk/ swim/ride/drive?
My favourite walk was as a teenager, with a friend, on the South West Coast Path in Cornwall. It was either spring or autumn, and very windy and clear – phenomenal.
Best meal abroad?
The small, disc-shaped pancakes in the Netherlands called poffertjes. My mum is Dutch, so I spent many summer holidays at my grandmother’s house in the Netherlands. We’d have about 15 of them on a plate, with a huge slab of butter and icing sugar on top.
First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?
Get a map, walk around and get my bearings.
I saw a postcard of a crystal-clear lake in Montana recently, so I’d love to take my kids camping there when they’re a bit older. I’d like to see those vast, empty landscapes. I went on a trip to the Arctic a few years ago (pictured), and I really felt that sense of space there. I’d like my kids to experience that feeling.
St Petersburg. My grandmother was born there, so I went to see the house where she was born. I found it an utterly unforgettable city. It was the middle of the winter and there were great shards of ice in the bay. I loved the faded glory, tinged with a slight feeling of danger. It was romantic and sinister at the same time.
I’d love to travel to Iran, although I don’t know if it’s politically possible. I think we’ve lost touch with this great Persian culture, and a very proud and important civilisation.
Nick Clegg will be speaking at the Liberal Democrat party’s spring conference at Harrogate (6-7 March; see nickclegg.com)
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