16 Mar 2011
Previous to the BBC hit series, Hewer cut his name as a public relations consultant; he set up his own PR ocmpany in 1966, and went on to spend some 21 years at Amstrad. Born in Swindon, he now splits his time between Northamptonshire and southwest France, with extensive travel in between. Hewer has an undying desire to see more of the world, which he revealed more about when European CEO caught up with him.
You have a property in Lot et Garonne, southwest France. Why did you choose that area, and how does it compare with Northamptonshire?
I was drawn to Lot et Garonne back in 1989 because my old business partner had a house in the town of Garonne, and I’d visited a few times and liked it. It’s also brilliantly accessible, from both Toulouse and Bordeaux Airport – and just off the A62 motorway. I didn’t want to buy a place that was like little Britain abroad, and there aren’t many Brits knocking around.
It’s deep in the most magnificent country, in an agricultural and fruit-growing area. The Pruneau d’Agen (a town in Aquitaine on the edge of the prune region) is full of prunes and plums, and there are lots of orchards nearby – and lots of cereals. It’s old-fashioned farming country, with crops rather than livestock, and a fantastic contrast with the bustle of London – there aren’t many wheatfields in Covent Garden.
What’s the climate like? Have you noticed any differences between the English and French ways of life?
The weather in the summer is wonderful, and in the spring – although it can be very wet and miserable over the winter, and very cold too. But it’s uncrowded, which is a delight, and the French as a nation are more country-centric than the urban-centric English. Every Frenchman seems to have a family home in the country – they visit for their holidays or their weddings.
The French look after the countryside wonderfully – there’s no fly-tipping, and certainly no car tyres dumped in ditches. They really cherish their countryside which is a fact that I really admire, and only wish we could have more of here.
Do you have any tips for people looking to invest in property overseas?
You should always go where you want to go, and not primarily have your mind on whether it’s a great investment. What would be more depressing than buying in Bratislava, just because you think you might make some money there? When I went there, I thought it was a pretty dreadful place; it was full of Stalin-type apartment blocks. Go where you really want to go, and think of whether it’s a good investment as a secondary consideration.
Now let’s talk about your travels with Hope and Homes For Children (a charity set up to give hope to the poorest children in the world). You spent some 50 days on your own travelling the Mongol Rally – some 10,000 miles across the world in a clapped-out Renault…
It was fun. My friend bottled out at the last minute so I was left on my own, but I loved it. I went across the Channel and then up through France, Belgium and Germany before stopping in Poland to see a pal of mine. I came down through Slovakia and Slovenia, and then into Hungary, across to Romania and then to Moldova, the Ukraine and Russia. Next up was Kazakhstan and Kyrghistan, and then back into Kazakhstan and into the Altai Mountains – the point where China, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet – before finally reaching Mongolia. There’s nobody at the Altai; no agriculture, no people, just grazing wild horses in flower meadows. If they had an airport, it would be swamped with mountain-climbers and walkers, the wild flowers rushing down from the streams.
I drove through 16 countries at the last count, and caught up with some of the other Mongol Rallyists in Mongolia – which was good, because you don’t want to drive across Mongolia on your own. It was a great adventure, and the car was wonderful.
What were your highlights?
Russia was exciting and frightening. One of the highlights was bantering with Russian police who wanted me to pay them bribes. And I liked Kazakhstan because the roads were so terrible – I had a crash and wrote off two wheels, and a guy came – without saying anything – with a big sledgehammer. Another memorable moment was in Siberia, when I needed to find a car garage.
I eventually found a Renault garage, and all I wanted them to do was change the oil and install new spark plugs – instead, five mechanics spent all day pouring oil all over the car. I thought it was going to cost a fortune, and they didn’t even speak any English. But when it came to it, there was no bill – they said it was a present to me. The vast emptiness of Mongolia was another treat, and getting lost in the Gobi desert for a couple of days with some other people. And then, of course, crossing the finishing line in Ulan Bator. The experience taught me that people are very decent, wherever you are – it’s a wonderful world.
You’ve travelled more with Hope and Homes For Children – you went to Sierra Leone recently, one of the world’s poorest countries, to meet with young entrepreneurs, children and families. Can you tell us more about your experience out there?
Yes, I went out with Hope and Homes For Children. I met some incredible young people who were managing to turn their lives around. The contrasts are remarkable – £20 enables a person to start a small business in Sierra Leone while back in England, it goes unnoticed.
It was very exciting to see that contrast – it shows its development scale. They’re doing great work there for young people, and I was very impressed.
Tell us about your Around The World In 80 Days trip. Where did your route take you?
I went up through Georgia and Azerbaijan across the Caspian and into Kazakhstan – which is a pretty bloody rough place actually, I can tell you. This time I was in a Land Cruiser, a magnificent animal. Although that was better than the poor old battered Renault, it was still a bit rough accommodation-wise – I wouldn’t know where I was going to stay from one night to the next. I’d look for trucks gathered around a hut, particularly in Mongolia and Russia. There were these little huts you’d just go into, for a bowl of soup and and a space on their floor. I’m very disorganised with accommodation anyway, so these trips were no surprise. The same happened when I drove through Morocco in another Renault with my dog, and on a sweeping trip around eastern Europe in a Range Rover.
Where have you been recently?
I’ve just got back from Argentina – I visited just for the chance to get some sunshine, I drove from Buenos Aires to Santiago and Chile across the Andes. The heat was fabulous after the winter here, although the drive was pretty uneventful – the land is absolutely flat and the roads are completely straight for about 800 miles. There was one slight bend and one little hill until we got to the Andes. The beef was the highlight – the steaks were magnificent. I’m going to Dublin in a couple of weeks’ time to see some relatives, so that should be fun.
And where would you like to go? There must be some destinations you haven’t been to.
I’d like to go back to St. Petersburg, even though I got mugged there two years ago – I’d go back to see if I could find my Leica camera. I went for the snow, but it wasn’t cold at all – I wanted 18-feet-deep snow. I’d got the train from Helsinki, and back to Latvia through Estonia. Travelling by train in that part of the world is brilliant. I’m talking about going to see some mates in Minsk in May by train, where you leave at midday and get there the next day at midnight.
I’m not massively one for trains but I took one in India, the Rajistan Express. It was meant to take 18 hours but actually took 27, from Calcutta to Delhi. It was brilliant; there’s nothing better than sitting with your feet dangling down as you go through the countryside in the warm. I’d love to go back to Calcutta – it’s such a big smelly city, it’s great. I’d love to go to Micronesia too.
I wouldn’t fancy revisiting Agadir. A couple of years ago when I was in Morocco, travelling around, we came to pitch up in Agadir in a little hotel. I thought it was a terrible place, a tourist destination full of boring people.
And what three things would you require if stranded on an island?
I’d choose a satellite phone, a map of the world and Shakespeare’s sonnets.