BBC Two’s The Real Marigold Hotel became one of the big TV hits of last year, with viewers of all ages hooked as actor Miriam Margolyes, dancer Wayne Sleep, actor Sylvester McCoy, comedian Roy Walker, chef Rosemary Shrager, darts champion Bobby George, singer Patti Boulaye and former newsreader Jan Leeming journeyed to Jaipur in northwest India. There they tested out medical facilities, yoga and meditation, were diverted by gurus and elephant rides and negotiated the seething streets. Back home, a seed was planted and bookings to Jaipur shot up.
Read our review of The Real Marigold Hotel
The celebrities stayed at the Khatu Haveli (a kind of guest house) in the centre of Jaipur, where Brigadier Amar Singh and his wife Susha open part of their private residence to guests. The Brigadier’s great-grandfather built the haveli, and he says that since the series aired most of his guests have been older Brits.
‘They want to do all the things they saw on the programme such as health checks, cookery classes and getting glasses made,’ the Brigadier adds. ‘One lady got her cataracts operated on for a third of the UK cost.
‘Hosting the celebrities was unforgettable. They were touched by the happiness on the faces of even the poor and carried this home in their hearts and minds.’
We wanted a health MOT!
Sharon Tynan, 59, from Hampshire, travelled to India last September with Helen Johnson, 67, from Glasgow. Both have retired from working in social services
Sharon says: Since I was widowed, Helen and I have been to America and holidayed in Tenerife, but I’d never considered India. Too hot and dirty, I thought. Helen has ulcerative colitis and has a stoma (bag) and can’t eat spicy food. Yet we found The Real Marigold Hotel so utterly inspiring we booked to go the minute the series had ended. Our aim was to go through the list of what the celebrities had done.
Driving down the main street of Jaipur, we saw cows and people lying together on the concrete. It was a shock to the system, but not as much as it would have been if we hadn’t seen the TV series. It was a relief to arrive at the haveli and our air-conditioned room with lovely chunky Indian furnishings and patterned bedspreads.
With its dazzling breadth of experiences and deep spirituality, India never fails to delight the senses and uplift the soul. Find out more here.
The Brigadier put us in touch with Janu, who actually drove the celebrities around. Like Miriam (Margolyes), we wanted to have our eyes tested and Janu translated. It was no different from a British eye test and we ordered reading and sunglasses each, which were ready in a week at half the cost back home.
Jan (Leeming) had seen a guru and Janu took us to see him. He began by telling me things I already knew, tapping dates and ages into his calculator, then went on to tell me some alarming things about family members.
Like the celebrities, we went to the Fortis Clinic for a full health check-up, ECG, echo scan of the heart, pulmonary test, X-rays, and ultrasound scans of our organs. It was £84 for six hours of tests and reports. In the UK, this would have cost about £1,500.
"Forget materialistic stuff – it made us think about what really matters." Sharon Tynan
The trip reinforced for us the idea of making the most of each day. We wanted a bit of a spiritual experience, as both of us believe in the afterlife, and we got that. Forget materialistic stuff – it made us think about what really matters. The climate was too much for me and I wouldn’t return but Helen is very keen; she found a real sense of peace there.
We wanted a winter retreat
Neill MacKenzie, 60, formerly in the Army and then with the police, runs an online gifts business. He and his wife, Yvonne, 59, an office administrator, live in Warwickshire. They went to Jaipur last March
Neill says: We saw the trailer for the TV series and thought, yes, that’s for us. Like the celebrities, we were keen to see if India could be somewhere – not necessarily to retire to – but to spend the colder British months. A few years ago, we spent the winter in Andalucia, Spain, but everywhere we bumped into ex-pats. We’d rather get away from all that and meet locals in our winter hideaway.
"The locals wave at you and children come up and practise their English." Neill MacKenzie
We loved the series and went to India really to see if this was somewhere we could have a second home. What we loved about Jaipur is that there are few tourists. It’s the opposite of Spain. The locals wave at you and children come up and practise their English, but a minute later they’re gone. The children are bright-eyed and smiling; they don’t walk around in gangs, shouting.
We respected the people. We’d look down from the terrace at night and we never saw them stop work. We’d take a tuk-tuk and the driver would take us to see his ‘relatives’ who all seemed to be selling something. But it was interesting to hear them tell us how things were made, although a strong sales pitch came with it.
We took the train to Agra Fort for the Taj Mahal. We got into a taxi at the station and a man hopped in and said he was our guide. I was a bit iffy, and thought it was a scam, but he was so knowledgeable, we couldn’t have done it without him. He sorted out our entrance fee and was with us for three hours.
It came across in the TV series that Jan had found her heaven and Bobby rented somewhere while he was out there and brought his wife over. As a non-Indian, you can’t buy property but we won’t be renting one for the winter either. We had a great time but we couldn’t put up with that amount of hustle and bustle. India never sleeps. It was exciting and exhilarating, but do we want that every day?
I don’t think the trip has changed us on a day-to-day basis. We didn’t discover anything new about ourselves, but we went out there with an aim and achieved it. We know India isn’t the place for us. We want somewhere less frenetic.
We wanted to find a sense of purpose
Jan Hulse, 59, and her husband Bill, 71, live in Essex and run an insurance- broking company. They holidayed in Jaipur last October
Jan says: We’ve travelled extensively and I don’t know why, but I’d never really fancied India. Yet after watching the third episode of the TV series we looked at each other and said: ‘That looks amazing’. What really attracted us was that the celebrities were living within, and really getting to know, the community. The next day Bill booked us into the Khatu Haveli.
We had a lot of cricket equipment, new and used, left over from a charity project and we thought, what better place to bring it to than India? We thought we’d give it to some deserving children out there. Luckily for us, Etihad Airways has a good luggage allowance as we had two huge bags in addition to our own suitcases.
We read in the guidebook about a purpose-built village in Udayan, about 40 km outside Jaipur, run by the Vatsalya Foundation to care for orphaned and abandoned children. We rang them on arrival and they invited us on a tour of the school. The children were polite and sweet, and the boys were so excited unpacking our gift of cricket bats, stumps, wickets and nets, and wanting us to throw the cricket balls to them.
The moment that got to me was over lunch, sitting near a tiny girl of four with huge brown eyes and a shaven head – treatment for lice. We’ve got young grandchildren and she tugged at my heartstrings as she peeked shyly at us. So many of them had been traumatised and I thought, what on earth has this poor little girl gone through?
I didn’t want to leave the school; I wanted to talk to more of the children, especially the girls, as we’d been playing cricket with the boys. In Jaipur the children go up on to the rooftops and fly their kites in the late-afternoon breeze. You can see hundreds of them from the terrace of the haveli and Bill had the idea that we should go to a kite shop and buy 50 to send to the school, so at least the girls could have a go at that.
Back at the haveli, everyone was excited to hear what we’d experienced that day and the glimmer of an idea took shape. We’d always felt that when we retire we’d like to give our time to a good cause. This, we think, is it.
"It’s been life-changing." Jan Hulse
The trip lived up to our expectations and more. It was so much more than a holiday. It’s given us a real connection with India. It’s been life-changing. We’re very fortunate and now I’m always thinking: ‘Do we need this? Could we spend our money in a better way?’
This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of Saga Magazine