Levison Wood has trekked in the world’s toughest places, but doing up his house in Surrey was no walk in the park.
He’s walked the length of the Nile and traipsed across the Himalayas, so you’d imagine that, for Levison Wood, doing up a house in Surrey would be as easy as swatting away a botfly. But no: the British explorer, who has faced down poisonous snakes and drug smugglers, found the whole thing “quite stressful”. And this despite the fact that he had an interior designer and the “kind support of my parents, who came down and supervised the whole thing”.
In the first-floor living room of his home, which overlooks the gardens of Hampton Court Palace, this modern-day Indiana Jones sinks into a studded grey wingback chair. “It was a bit of a madhouse,” he says wearily. “I had five builders living here in camp beds for about three months.” To further complicate things, one of the workmen “had a bit of a mini heart attack halfway through the stairs job, and ended up in hospital”. His eyes widen. “You don’t expect that.”
Wood, 34, bought the grade II listed property, which was on the market for £799,950, in December 2015. “I think an old lady had lived here her whole life, and it had never been decorated.” By the sounds of it, there were plenty of challenges to overcome. I’d expected his latest book, which recounts his hike through Central America, to kick off with a tale of derring-do somewhere like the notorious Darien Gap, in Panama, but it opens with the house.
He describes “the crumbling remains of the bathroom wall” and his horror at wallpaper that belonged “in a 1970s disco”. He recalls the moment his electrician cut through the wrong wire, and how he was so irked by the noise of the drills, the rubble and the chaos that he had to go for a soothing walk in the gardens of the palace.
“The wallpaper hid a multitude of sins,” he tells me. “We were ripping off all the paper and the walls came crumbling away.” The stairs, though, were the biggest challenge. They were so narrow that he couldn’t get the beds up them, so he had to remove the lot and widen the stairwell by six inches.
Clad in blue denim shirt and jeans, Wood seems slightly out of place in his 17th-century abode — imagine Tom Selleck on the set of a period drama and you’ve got the gist. But he had a very particular source of inspiration. “I wanted the house to be in keeping with Hampton Court Palace, a sort of Georgian look. I wanted to keep the same theme in terms of the colour and the style, but add some modern twists, like the glass in the stairs.”
He spent five months transforming the house, and the work was finished last summer, just before he set off on his 1,900-mile trek through the Americas. Once you pass the front garden (“Mum helped me out with that”) and step through the front door, you are straight into the dining room, with its grand fireplace. An aircraft propeller mounted on the wall gives the first clue that this is the lair of an intrepid adventurer.
He offers to take me on a tour of his habitat. First stop, the man cave. He forfeited one of the three bedrooms to create a study to house the souvenirs from his travels, and the room is bursting with all sorts of curios. “This is a Bedouin broadsword from the Sudan,” he says, rapping the metal. “And this is an Ethiopian shield… and my sword from Sandhurst.”
On the other wall is an unnerving selection of daggers. “I collect these things from the tribes I meet along the way.” There are stacks and stacks of books, too. “I have lots of first-edition collections, lots on travel, signed stuff — I have all Kipling’s works, signed.”
Languishing on another shelf is a skull that was once attached to the body of a crocodile: he picked it up in Guatemala. There’s a giant globe by the window and a makeshift bar by the door. He pads out to the sitting room to show me his carpet collection. “All these,” he says pointing to three multicoloured rugs on the floor “are from my travels as well. Afghanistan, Pakistan… the big one there is pure silk, from Kashmir. It took somebody 15 years to make that. It cost a fortune.”
During the renovation, he ripped up the floors and removed the fireplaces. “When I bought the house, there were grates from the 1950s.” The wall leading into the living room is painted in Farrow & Ball Purbeck Stone, and when I ask about the green colour, he answers with a dimpled grin: “Grasshopper’s Fart.”
We head up another flight of stairs to inspect the bathroom, which has plenty of posh-looking products. The two bedrooms are off limits, so I don’t get to see his soft furnishings. I tell him I’ve read that he has a girlfriend. He bursts out laughing. “Top secret, top secret,” he says coyly. “I’m going to keep my mouth shut about that. I’ve made a pact with myself — it’s got me in trouble before, so I’m not going talk about my private life.”
The son of two teachers, he grew up in Stoke-on-Trent. He left the army in 2010 and says he spent the following six years “effectively homeless”. He couch-surfed with friends and took out a few short-term rentals. “All my stuff was in a storage container, so it’s only in these past 12 months that I’ve got it back out. Just to have all my books in one place was the most satisfying thing. It feels nice to come home and not to have to unpack a bag — it’s all there.”
Why did a scruffy-haired thrill-seeker opt for Surrey? “ I’ve always lived in places like Fulham and Putney,” he says. “I wanted to get away from the madness for a while. I like the fact that you’ve got the rivers and the parks. This place came on the market. I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Wood was originally quoted £45,000 for the renovation, but ended up spending twice that. Not that he minds: “I had it valued the other week and it’s more than made its money back.” In fact, now he’s been told it’s worth £1.25m, he’s planning to have another crack. “I could see myself doing this again. It seems a shame, but I am thinking about selling it. If I can get what I’ve been quoted, I can see myself splitting the difference, having a little apartment in town and somewhere bigger out in the countryside.” He’d like a pied-à-terre in Battersea and a country pad in Dorset or the Cotswolds.
What is it that Wood misses most when he’s on one of his expeditions? “It’s the simple things — you miss your friends, family. You don’t really miss luxuries, because you’re mentally prepared for that. It’s more that you can’t get a good cup of tea anywhere else.” While he was away last year, a friend who was staying in the house contacted him for some domestic advice. “He didn’t know how to use the oven, and neither did I, so he had to go on the internet and figure it out.” Today, his publicist is making the tea.
It sounds as if he spends little time at home, relaxing on the Chesterfield sofa. He’s not one for catching up on box sets, either. “This is the first television I’ve ever owned, and I never watch it,” he says, pointing to the giant screen in the corner of his living room. “The only channel that goes on is the news.”
There’s no point in staying home, anyway, now that he’s a fully paid-up celebrity. He gets invited to a lot of events. “There’s always something opening, dinners or awards ceremonies — I met Michael Palin the other night,” he says excitedly.
He even has a few stalkers, who have done “weird things”. Like what? “Fly across the world to chase after me, send me obscene messages, emails and tweets. Mainly women, not exclusively. There’s a few who are on the edge, but it’s fine. Nothing’s been scary yet.”
Walking the Americas by Levison Wood is published on Thursday (Hodder & Stoughton £20)
Get the Levison look
1 If you have a property with gorgeous views, ensure the windows are not obscured in any way. Where possible, take the curtain poles or blinds beyond the window frames so the glass is not covered at all when the curtains are open.
2 When open-plan staircases lead to rooms, it’s difficult to stop and start the colour schemes without it looking messy, so consider shades that complement each other, rather than selecting them separately. We used Farrow & Ball Purbeck Stone for the open-plan stairs and French Gray for the walls.
3 Save on sofas and window dressing so you can splash out on wow-factor statement pieces such as a dramatic staircase or beautiful flooring. All the window dressing was from John Lewis; the staircase was made by Byng Joinery (byngjoinery.co.uk).
4 When working on smaller rooms, ensure you measure the space accurately before purchasing furniture.
5 If you are staining wooden floors, do plenty of practice runs before you decide on the final colour. An untreated floor can change hugely once varnished, so take a small sample and try out five or six finishes. Lev’s oak flooring, which was sourced from Peak Oak, in Staffordshire (peakoak.co.uk), was stained to be as natural as possible.
6 Don’t be afraid to use eBay: there are some real gems to be found at bargain prices, especially if you can arrange collection and are prepared to sit at the computer bidding. That’s where we found Lev’s French oak dining table and Chesterfield.
Tracey Saunders (saundersinteriors.co.uk)