The Downton Abbey star realised that haggling wasn’t his strong suit when he was almost sold as a camel in Cairo. Interview by Alison Boleyn
Where are you right now?
I’m on the border of West Sussex and Hampshire, in my sitting room, looking out at a soggy garden.
And where did you go on your last trip?
St Moritz. We [Bonneville, his wife Lulu and son Felix, 15] sailed, we mountain-biked and we hiked. My son learnt kitesurfing. We got absolutely exhausted and I needed a holiday afterwards.
What was your typical childhood holiday?
My most vivid memories are of hot and sweaty plastic car seats and the smell of calamari. I remember the five of us getting into a small, un-air-conditioned Volvo, driving for days to a little cove on the Costa Brava in Spain, called Tamariu, which was then a relatively sleepy fishing village. I remember these elaborately complicated canvas tents my dad had from his service days. They’re not like the ones now where you press a button and they pop up. They weighed a tonne and took five of us to erect.
How long would it take all of you to put up a tent?
After the arguments, it probably took – I don’t know – an hour? I remember watching M*A*S*H once and thinking, “Ooh look, that’s one of our tents!” Then there was a small one for when my dad got fed up with us and went off on his own. Mice got those tents in the end.
Do you prefer to wander the streets or check maps?
A map is essential on the first day or I’d end up in the gun-running district. I always claim I’ve got a pretty good internal compass so after day one I’m prepared to go off-piste, so to speak, knowing I can find my way back. Usually.
Has experience proved that claim true?
There was a dodgy moment in Cairo when I was 18. I was backpacking and I either bought a camel or was being sold as a camel – I can’t remember which. I had to backtrack fairly quickly.
Which destination was a surprise to you?
The biggest shock I got was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [in 2005, with medical charity Merlin, which merged into Save the Children], on the border of Rwanda, and seeing a boy of no more than 14 or 15 holding a rifle and a rocket launcher and looking me in the eye with absolutely no emotion. He’d seen and done things that no boy should have. The deadness in his eyes as he guarded a particular post was shocking.
You also travelled to Liberia with Merlin in 2010...
To see how the country had been decimated by civil war and how miraculously it was getting back on its feet was a shock. But an even bigger shock was that in Liberia, I got the best broadband signal I’ve had anywhere in the world. You certainly don’t get decent broadband in Sussex, I can tell you.
When you travel for pleasure, do your tastes lean towards the rustic?
Oh no. I need clean basins and a fantastic wine list.
The pyramids of Meroë in Sudan, a country in which Hugh Bonneville felt truly off the grid.
What’s been your most memorable dining experience?
I was shooting a film in Thailand and two British actresses and I walked for a couple of hours until we came across a roadside shack, where I had possibly the best meal of my life. It was just a bit of fish and some pad Thai with a view down over the bay in Cape Panwa. I can remember every mouthful and it probably cost a dollar. We were all wearing flip-flops. It’s a snapshot of my life that I cherish.
What do you like to find in the hotel minibar?
Is there a destination that you keep going back to?
Ibiza, most summers. It’s not because I like getting covered in foam. It’s just a beautiful island, with a certain part in the north that’s very peaceful. I’ve never been to one of the huge clubs but maybe as I enter my twilight years, it’s time to do so.
Have you ever been fleeced?
It involved a hat in Morocco. I was practising my haggling and, in a wannabe theatrical gesture, I said no and walked away, knowing he would call me back and reduce the price. Unfortunately, he didn’t and I really needed that hat so 10 minutes later I had to go back and buy it at full price.
Is there a city that you could have given a miss?
Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, in Georgia. They have a museum that’s really a shrine to how marvellous Uncle Joe was. They haven’t really woken up and smelt the coffee.
When you’re filming in a foreign city, do you try to see the sights?
The thing about actors is that when they’re out of work, they’re whingeing. Then as soon as they get a job, they ask how many days off they can have. There’s nothing better than being paid to go abroad but the reality is the working hours are so antisocial that all you want to do is raid that free minibar that doesn’t exist and go to bed.
Have you ever gone completely off the grid?
I was backpacking through northern and southern Sudan 30 years ago – something one wouldn’t do easily these days. It’s probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to, passing through the tribal lands of the Shilluk, the Nuer and the Dinka and seeing these great gods of southern Sudan. I felt properly off the grid. Then you come back to reality with a thump as you enter Uganda.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
A tiny hotel out of Jodhpur, called Mihir Garh. It’s a little oasis with views across flat scrubland for hundreds of miles. The owner grew up nearby and his family used to picnic on this particular spot. He had a dream of one day building a little hotel there and he’s done it. It’s as close to pure peace as you could hope for.
On the radar
The British actor stars in Paddington 2, which screens in cinemas from 21 December.
Photography credit: Stuart McClymont