Known to many as Patsy Stone, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking fashionista in Absolutely Fabulous, Joanna Lumley has reinvented herself into one of the most engaging travel documentary makers of the last decade.
Her journeys have taken her across myriad time zones, from the pristine wilderness of Siberia to the steamy streets of Havana, from the idyllic, taverna-dotted islands of Greece to the Northern Light-flecked skies of the Arctic Circle.
Her latest offering, Home Sweet Home: Travels in My Own Land, sees her venturing across Britain (she finished filming just before COVID struck the country).
Despite her plummy English accent, and appearances in quintessentially British films and TV shows — she had a brief part in James Bond flick On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and once turned down a marriage proposal by Ken Barlow in Coronation Street — Lumley was actually born in India in 1946 (her family, of English-Scottish stock, had served the British Raj from the late 18th century).
One of her best documentaries — released in 2017 — saw her return to the land of her birth to “walk in her family’s footsteps”. Travelling more than 8000km, many on the railways that were built during the British colonial era, Lumley took in the vivid tapestry of landscapes, religions and cultures that undulate from the steamy tropics of India’s south to the Himalayan foothills in the north.
When overseas travel is allowed again, you may wish to visit some of the places she experienced on her trip. The chances of getting a private audience with the Dalai Lama — as Lumley did in Dharamsala — are slim, but you can, for example, make a beeline for the exuberant Meenakshi Temple in Madurai (where Lumley witnessed the elaborate nightly ceremony that celebrates the marriage of the Hindu gods, Shiva and Parvati).
In the fast-changing mega-cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi, you can take a leaf out of her book and absorb the vibrant markets, street life and historic monuments left by rulers of yesteryear.
In Delhi, Lumley was moved by the Humayun’s Tomb, the grand Mughal mausoleum that is said to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, and was where Lumley’s father proposed to her mother.
Follow her trail out into the countryside of Rajasthan and go tiger spotting in the forests of Ranthambore National Park and bed down at the Udai Bilas Palace, an eclectic lakeside hotel in Dungarpur. An even lovelier location is Dal Lake, a beautiful, mountain-fringed body of water in Lumley’s birthplace, Srinagar, in the Jammu and Kashmir region of north-western India. Returning here, Lumley stayed on a houseboat — just as her parents did for their honeymoon in 1941 — and it’s possible for you to do likewise, with companies renting their quaint houseboats out to tourists.
Another Lumley travelogue that captivates was her Silk Road Adventure (2018), when she covered 12,000km — often clad in gorgeous silky attire — of this historic trading route, from the canals of Venice to the rugged deserts and steppes bordering China.
Whether you prefer to travel solo or as part of a guided tour group, you can retrace much of Lumley’s journey (and that of ancient merchants, monarchs, conquerors and explorers like Marco Polo and Alexander the Great).
Silk Road highlights include Georgia, a country famed for its ancient wine culture (vines have been planted here for more than 8000 years), and Iran, formerly Persia, home to one of the oldest civilisations on Earth and sites like the ruined city of Persepolis, founded in 518BC by Darius the Great. Uzbekistan’s trio of stunning Silk Road cities — Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand — flaunt some of Central Asia’s most awe-inspiring architecture, all intricate tiles and glittering domes, with imposing mosques and eye-popping modern buildings infused with Islamic design.
It’s the melding of the past, present and the futuristic that makes Japan such a compelling destination and Lumley’s 2016 documentary did a sterling job of inspiring armchair travellers to tour this Pacific archipelago.
Do as she did and savour the dreamy temples and geisha district of Kyoto or check into the Henn-na Hotel, the world’s first robot-run hotel near Nagasaki. On Hokkaido — Japan’s most northerly, and often ice-clawed major island — you can follow in Lumley’s footsteps and watch red-crowned cranes perform their spellbinding courtship dance, while in Nagano — 250km north-west of Tokyo on Honshu island — watch Japanese macaques, also called snow monkeys, huddling in the steaming waters of an onsen (thermal bath).
As Lumley discovered, no trip to Japan is complete without at least one ride on a Shinkansen — the bullet train that connects urban Japan, spiralling through rural idylls at speeds of up to 320km/h.
There was a slightly more languid pace of travel for Lumley’s 2010 documentary, which saw her fulfil a childhood dream and follow the River Nile from the Mediterranean to its source in eastern Africa.
All manner of vehicles helped her on her way, from paddle steamer and passenger ferry to classic dhows and yachts — as well as seaplanes, 4x4s and the odd camel. For logistical reasons, you may find it tricky to copy her exact route, but you can cover the Egyptian part of the Nile, perhaps boarding a luxury river cruise in Cairo and hopping off for excursions to the temples and pyramids of Luxor and Aswan.
Only the most intrepid of travellers would attempt to do a Lumley and continue south along the Nile through Sudan. But potential rewards include marvelling at the famous whirling dervishes of Khartoum and the archaeological relics of the Nubia, a civilisation that is believed to have predated that of the ancient Egyptians. Lumley also took a detour into Ethiopia’s Semien Mountains — a hiker’s paradise and a training ground for Olympic running hopefuls — before seeing crocodiles and hippos and the mighty Nile at its gushing best at Murchison Falls in Uganda.
Whatever country she’s in, whether she’s beaming at natural delights or mingling with genial and eccentric locals, Lumley has proved herself an enthusiastic, inquisitive, compassionate and good-humoured host; an absolutely fabulous travel companion, some might say.