Interview: Alistair Sawday

Accommodation: a low, modern L-shaped building with blue-framed windows and doors. A pretty lawn in front with a pond (note: the owner has admitted to a fondness for skinny-dipping, but not necessarily here). Facilities: large kitchen with good-sized wooden table for guests. Internet access. Close to the amenities of Bristol. Atmosphere: friendly, hard-working.

The genial proprietor of this welcoming place isn’t, however, the owner of a B&B, but Alastair Sawday of the eponymous travel-book empire, which seeks to send people off to ‘Special Places to Stay’, as well as teaching them, in other books, how to live Greenly and slowly as they go. Alastair, it’s clear, is a man with a mission. ‘My wife says I’m hopelessly busy,’ he admits, ‘but it all means something to me.’

Alastair’s life changed when, desperate to avoid becoming a lawyer after reading law at university, he went on a VSO in St Lucia, West Indies, which ‘opened my eyes up to another world’. It was there that he met his wife, Em, to whom he’s still married, and they have two boys. After working back home as a teacher, he started up a travel company. ‘We largely sent people off on cycling and walking holidays around Europe, but I also did one or two other things, including taking a party on a walk in Ladakh, by the Himalayas. It’s an immensely civilised country, in many ways more so than ours. They seem to have solved all their problems and are an example of how a society can live in harmony with its environment.’

Running the travel company meant that he ‘accumulated a vast amount of extraordinary places to see’ and published privately the first guide of Special Places to Stay in France in 1994. What was intended to be a one-off venture soon grew. ‘We were the first people to say “Be independent, don’t do what the tour operators tell you to do”. Also, we were clear that what we were after was good conversation and organic food nothing pretentious. People trusted us straight away, but I think the moment for it happened to be absolutely right.’

Tall and groomed with a confident air, Alastair doesn’t just talk Green, he walks it, too. He’s stood as a candidate for the Green Party, founded Avon Friends of the Earth and has been vice chair of the Soil Association: ‘I’m sad I no longer have time for them, as I loved the people I’ve worked with lots of morganisations, and I’ve never been as impressed as I was with them.’ Despite the demands of his business, he’s still committed to eco issues. ‘We’re killing the planet, and it’s just stupid. I helped to launch the campaign to make Bristol a plastic-bag-free city, and I’m also trying to turn the street on which I live into a “slow road”. We’re zig-zagging the traffic and planting more flowers and trees. I want neighbours to say hello more. I really feel it quite deeply if people don’t say hello to me.’

Alastair’s offices have a mass of eco awards because ‘I mouth off a lot about environmental issues and I had to put my money where my mouth is’. I particularly liked the vast rainwater tank buried beneath a hump in the lawn. All of which makes Alastair sound rather convivial. In fact, that’s his favourite word he defines it as ‘to have exchanges which are nourishing, leading to people doing more and more things together’.

However, on the matter of bad taste, he’s a very cross man indeed. ‘I’m powerfully hostile to the cloning of the high street, anything that smacks of mass tourism or vulgarisation. I like eccentrics on the whole. Bog-standard stuff is just awful. I have a memory of staying somewhere terribly pretentious with rows of bookshelves of unread books, glass coffee tables and twee signs telling you what to do. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.’ Alastair’s guides aren’t interested in fashion: ‘We’re supposed to be the antithesis of Hip Hotels.’ In fact, although you might think Alastair would be a terrifying guest, he says that he seeks a little imperfection in return for something more interesting: ‘I want to bring expectations down a bit.’ Which makes for some rather special places to stay.

‘Go Slow England’ is out now, £12.99, from