'All the best stories you’ve ever heard’: TV historian Dan Snow talks family life and his passion for history
DAN Snow is late.
His staff don’t know where he is – until the head nanny arrives to say the TV historian has been delayed picking up his children.
A few minutes later he pulls up the gravel drive of his large, secluded house in Lepe, on the shore of the Solent near Exbury, with kids in tow and all showing off wristbands they’ve been busy making that morning.
“They love it here,” he says. “It’s been wonderful to see them grow up here and become confident, going into the bushes and getting covered in mud.
“It’s very different from growing up in the city. I was struck by that. In the summer there’s no TV or computer screens on at all. If it’s sunny it’s ‘out you go’. To be here and live so close to the sea – we’re so lucky. We’re totally blessed and lucky to live here.”
Dan (38) moved to the New Forest from his flat in London around the same time as marrying Lady Edwina Grosvenor (34), daughter of the late multi-billionaire Duke of Westminster, in 2010 after they first met at a friend’s wedding.
“My wife’s a country person and she wanted to buy a house there. She’s very decisive and said she wanted to be an hour-and-a-half from London and by the sea,” he explains.
They had a few locations in mind until the house in Lepe suddenly landed on the market, and Dan recalls the decision: “She said, ‘I really like the New Forest – let’s do it.’ It was pure luck.”
As a historian, who studied at Oxford, there’s typically a story behind Dan’s home. Its previous owners were Amanda and Simon Mann, the former SAS mercenary who spent more than five years in prison in Equatorial Guinea after a failed coup to overthrow its president.
Was it strange moving into the home of a former hired fighter? “I suppose it was a bit odd. But Amanda, who we bought it off, had created the most amazing family home in tough circumstances.
“I have a favourite expression – there’s a 19th century psychologist who said life’s best organised as a series of daring adventures from a secure place. This place just allows me to feel so happy and safe and secure to sally forth on adventures.”
Dan himself grew up in London but knows the New Forest from childhood family summers sailing on Beaulieu River in a boat owned by his father, legendary TV presenter Peter Snow, who was famous for his election night swing-o-meter and is cousin to Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow.
The boat was sold last year, but Dan’s still a member of Beaulieu Sailing Club – although a bit of a “useless” one, he admits.
The longest he’s been separated from the children – two girls and a boy, aged between one and five – is a month when he was part of a team being filmed tracing a 19 century exploration route through the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River.
Another intense TV project was in Canada about the Klondike gold rush series in which he literally shed blood in a collision steering a makeshift boat through rapids.
Being away for a month was “strange”, he says, but it’s worse when jobs suddenly come up and he’s away for “bitty” periods here and there.
He reclines back on the sofa while he describes his home life. But as soon as the interview switches to his passion for history he suddenly sits forward animatedly. He was interested “from the word go”, he says.
Why? “It’s tough to answer this question because I do not understand how you would not be. It’s all the best stories that you have ever heard about anyone who has ever lived – about your family, the local football club, why your town looks the way it does.”
His eyes scan the view over the Solent: “It’s the fun, the curiousness, the mysteries. I look out the windows and I can see where the Mary Rose went on her voyage, where Charles I was imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, and the Spitfire’s maiden flight. It’s all around us – I can never be bored.
“History explains the present, like why the New Forest is like it is now, why the ponies are wandering about, and why are there so few villages in the New Forest compared to the rest of the country.
“I think the New Forest is an amazing place. The more they discover pre-Roman, there was lots of activity here. They are now discovering major stone and iron age settlements on the bed of the Solent.”
On the expansive ottoman in the grown-ups’ living room are neatly arranged coffee table books including World War Two in Numbers, The New Forest National Park, and A Brief History of Everybody Who Ever Lived.
His favourite age is the mid-1700s – when Bucklers Hard was established, he throws in. “I am interested in how our little island ended up conquering the world,” he says, pointing out his Commonwealth links through the Canadian nationality of his mother, broadcaster Ann MacMillan.
Pushed to name his historical hero, he goes for Lord Nelson because of his famed charisma. William the Conqueror is his top villain, partly for his local links founding the New Forest as a royal hunting ground but also for surviving a blood-soaked childhood.
“Most people in history are villains; violent misogynists who used slaves and did not mind killing people to achieve their own ends. So take your pick – there’s people you can’t help being fascinated by.”
But it’s the ordinary lives he’s most interested in, he says. The daring adventurers who made a living crewing dangerous crossings in wooden ships to the Caribbean, for example. It’s a contrast to today’s cleaner, data-driven world, he remarks.
“It’s an amazing privilege meeting the World War Two veterans; and Harry Patch, the last from World War One, I will never forget. And meeting the guy who dropped the torpedo that sank the Bismarck.”
A quick look at his Twitter feed later shows the less glorious side of these “forgotten” lives: one tweet notes the miserable death in 1326 of Londoner Richard the Raker, “emptier of cess-pits” – who fell through a plank floor and drowned among the excrement.
Dan’s favourite TV project was the 2,200-year-old Terracotta Army in China made up of thousands of hand-made, life-size soldiers built to guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
On the other hand, his biggest historical wild goose chase was a fabled “Nazi gold train” supposedly buried in a secret underground railway cutting in southern Poland, which he filmed for the BBC.
It was a fruitless quest but an “amazing adventure,” he says. “I was excited but it shows I was taken in. It was their enthusiasm and the excitement of the story being true. I would do it again in a flash.”
Tall and handsome, he’s become a TV pin-up for some fans which is “nice” but he doesn’t think it will last long as he nears his 40th. He’s a bit bashful: “The grey hairs are spreading but I do not feel like celebrating that. I don’t know really, it’s not something I… I don’t know.”
He might not be sure how to respond, but he knows his wife’s opinion. “No, she doesn’t [mind]. She thinks it‘s ridiculous,” he laughs.
Two or three ideas a year come his way from the BBC, he says, but he sees social media and digital as the most accessible way forward to telling history’s stories.
He has more than 185,000 followers on his @thehistoryguy Twitter handle and his big idea now is to launch a digital history channel – HistoryHit.TV – for which his team is trying to crowdfund £100,000 as 20% of the starter costs.
“Journalists ask me why I’m messing about with this stuff when I’ve got the BBC,” he says. But with an audience that is growing into Australia, America and India, he sees the future as short, smartphone films mixed with bigger, traditional series, responding to viewers’ requests.
It’s a long way from his first TV role in a history documentary alongside his father not long after he graduated – leading to questions about an unfair advantage over wannabe historians without such illustrious contacts.
He almost agrees: “I have had the most unfair life you can imagine; I have had every single advantage you can think of. But they’re not the obvious ones, Edwina’s dad did not give us lots of money.
“I had great parents and they took us to museums, and my dad read to me until I was 16. We sailed on the Beaulieu River on a 35ft boat and we went to French castles. It made me happy and healthy and all those things.”
Despite graduating from Oxford, he describes himself as a “very average student at school” who had to push himself outside his favourite topics of English and history to get the grades for university.
But he says: “I owe everything to luck and circumstances. I am the first to admit that. If I had been born elsewhere with the same genes I would not be anywhere near where I am now.
“I love going to work, that’s a blessing. I am just so lucky in what I do. I work hard at it. But there’s no way I would have got as far without the support.” He adds: “It’s all about luck. But it’s what you decide to do with that luck.”
Asked to turn his historian’s eye to the current political upheavals facing the UK, he describes it as “fascinating” and puts the Brexit vote down to “historical reasons”.
“We used to be the greatest empire in the world and told people what to do. It’s difficult to come to terms with that. I can understand people wanting that sense of power.”
But the UK has never been able to insulate itself from “fallout” from Europe, he says, harking back to the infamous raid by the French on Southampton in 1338.
He remembers the referendum result just over a year ago: “I was pretty disappointed. Mainly I thought it was such needless hassle. It’s 10 years of hassle and at the end of the 2020s our economy might be a bit bigger, but the intervening years will not be worth the stress.”
For himself, the next few years will be spent exploring how to use the latest technology to expand his story-telling, including virtual reality for people of all ages – from the New Forest to India – to experience historical gems like HMS Victory in Portsmouth.
“History can feel like a well-kept secret, a bit like golf,” he says. “But the idea that we can get all these other people into it is so exciting.”