Phil Tufnell tackles his fear of heights with Guildford Cathedral abseil for charity
PUBLISHED: 08:42 20 November 2015 | UPDATED: 09:59 23 November 2015
Having conquered every bush-tucker trial thrown at him in the jungle, you’d imagine there’d be no challenges left to daunt Phil Tufnell. Filming for The Jump, however, left the England cricket legend with a crippling fear of heights, so how did he tackle it? By abseiling down Guildford Cathedral. Here, the Kingswood resident tells all to Matthew Williams
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2015
When Phil Tufnell decided to face his fear of heights by abseiling down all 160ft of Guildford Cathedral, he must have been wondering how to celebrate afterwards. Smelling salts? A duvet and a movie? A dark room? A stiff drink, perhaps?
For the ‘supportive’ friends of the former England cricket legend and now all-round TV entertainer, however, it was an easy call: a leisurely meal at the nearby Thai Terrace – which just happens to be found precariously perched on top of a nearby multi-storey car park. Who needs enemies etc…?
“You’ve got to laugh, right?” says, Phil, chatting to Surrey Life from his Kingswood home just a few days after the feat. “I barely made it up to the top of the cathedral, and was petrified at the thought of coming down it. Have you ever been up there? You can see for miles. It was a little ticklish and I’d never have managed without my wife, Dawn. Although, saying that, she was the one that roped me into it in the first place.
“Oddly, once you get over the edge, it isn’t actually so bad – I guess there’s only one way to go. I 100% blame filming for reality show The Jump for finding it so difficult. I used to be pretty brave but I didn’t particularly enjoy that; going up cable cars to the top of the mountain and then being expected to jump off. Not for me, these days.”
Fortunately, for the man they nicknamed The Cat (due to his propensity to nap at a moment’s notice during his cricketing days), he landed firmly on both feet – which must also have come as a relief to the assembled supporters on the ground too. For the main reason that Phil found himself atop a Guildford landmark with hard hat and carabinas in the first place – other than marital persuasion – was in support of The Children’s Trust, the Tadworth-based charity for children with a brain injury, of which he is a devoted ambassador.
“The abseil raised good money for The Children’s Trust, which is great and made it much easier to conquer my fears,” he says. “Well that, and originally being persuaded to do it while out on a Friday night… at say 11pm!”
Having read the newly-released second instalment of his autobiography before our chat, I can’t help wondering if there might also have been another reason for ticking the daredevil act off his bucket list. The book opens with a lovely prologue about his father, Alan, who sadly passed away at the end of 2014.
“Well, it was a very sad time for sure and I’ll miss him a great deal,” says the 49-year-old, who lost his mum to leukaemia when he was still a teenager. “It was certainly a time that made me reflect a lot back on life, and reminded me of everything that’s happened to get me to where I am today.
“It’s probably fair to say, though, that I’ve never really lacked a ‘lust for life’, so I’m not too sure it had much bearing on this particular challenge.
“In the end, I just had to put my game face on and hope I didn’t fall off or embarrass myself, right? I better be careful what I say, though, otherwise Dawn might rope me into a skydive next – and I’m really not sure I could muster the courage for that one. Crikey; who knows? Never say never.”
Who’s a celebrity?
That last phrase rather neatly sums up Phil’s career post-cricket, which famously kicked off with a then surprise appearance and win on the second series of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here in 2003. With the final watched by nearly 13 million people, the show had a bigger impact than anyone would have ever guessed and opened doors that Phil had previously considered shut.
“It was all a bit of a surprise when it kicked off – both this outside-of-sport-celebrity and the TV work that followed – but it feels very natural these days,” he laughs. “Look, everyone knows I had a rather turbulent lifestyle throughout my younger years and cricket career and I honestly think that if Dawn hadn’t been around following I’m a Celebrity, things might still have got messy all over again. She’s my angel and we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary this summer.”
His affable man-of-the-people character and newly all-conquering profile led to him becoming a popular choice on our TV screens and radio shows, and he hasn’t looked back since – despite the occasional brushes with the press that tend to come with the additional fame.
“Question of Sport remains hilarious; The One Show gives me a chance to explore things that otherwise I’d have no idea about (it also makes me very good at the random questions in pub quizzes!); and I’m still getting to catch up with old friends and have a laugh about cricket – and other off-topic things – on Test Match Special.
“The latter, in particular, was brilliant this summer, as England won a completely mad Ashes series against the Aussies – somewhat against my expectations if I’m completely honest. It was very enjoyable to watch it all unfold, and is the second best thing to actually being out on the field playing.”
While his original autobiography, Where Now?, played on his “wild man of cricket” image, the latest instalment, Where Am I?, published nearly 20 years later, paints a far more rounded picture of this colourful character, who continues to carry a boyish charm approaching his 50th year.
Did he ever worry though that the answer to ‘where now?’ might be ‘not very far’?
“No, never, but I’ve been very fortunate to have done plenty of weird and wonderful things in my life since cricket,” he laughs.
“I always hoped that there would be a second instalment, as it were. I knew there was more to come in my life, but had no idea how things would fall together. I just keep taking the opportunities as they come and am having a lot of fun doing it.
“It was great doing the book; very emotional, with a lot of memories to sift through with my ghostwriter. There were a few fuzzy memories strolling memory lane, but it was fun to chat back through things with friends. It’s that old cliché of being very cathartic.”
Back at the manor
More often than not these days, the party is back at home in the secluded village of Kingswood or “mucking around” in local pubs, away from the prying eyes and ‘glitz and glam’ of whatever we deem to be celebrity these days.
“I really love living in this area and everything that brings,” he says. “Not being from Surrey originally, I’ve made some very good friends round here and it’s a good life: there’s some nice pubs, Indian restaurants etc, so I’m very happy.
“It’s a very relaxed part of the world too; although saying that they’re currently resurfacing our road, so that could cause some neighbourly politics if anything happens to go wrong. We’ll see.”
As thoughts turn to the invading roadworks and then his 50th next year, he mentions that he’ll just be enjoying a “quiet” one with friends in Las Vegas. Presumably, despite conquering Guildford Cathedral, he’ll be avoiding the rides at the top of the 900ft Stratosphere hotel and casino, unless Dawn proves particularly persuasive! For now, you suspect, Phil Tufnell is a man very happy to have his feet firmly back on the ground.
• Phil Tufnell is an ambassador for The Children’s Trust in Tadworth. For more about the charity and how you can support them, pay a visit to their website at thechildrenstrust.org.uk
My Favourite Surrey
Pubs: The Kingswood Arms has long been a favourite. We’ve also been to the newly-reopened Blue Ball in Walton on the Hill, and had a few great Sunday lunches there. We’re pretty blessed round here really and like pottering round various places. We just look for something relaxed that we can enjoy with friends. I’ve also been turned on to real ale lately, having been a lager man most of my life.
Restaurants: We like the little bistro-type places; anything too formal doesn’t really interest me unless it’s a special occasion. There’s the little Italian place in Walton on the Hill (Spaghetti Tree), which we really enjoy. There’s also some in Cheam, Epsom and Sutton that we like, although the names escape me at this point.
Place to relax: At the easel. I don’t get to spend as much time as I would like on my art, but when I can, I do really enjoy it. I’m not necessarily a fan of visiting galleries, but it’s a really special thing to be shown round by someone who is very knowledgeable about the subjects – it’s one of the things I really love about The One Show.
View: Well, when I didn’t have my eyes shut, it wasn’t half bad from the top of Guildford Cathedral. Although once is definitely enough, I think…