Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has been in some tight spots, and he used all his ingenuity after missing a deadline for his book Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round My Family. Documents unearthed in the dusty attics at Broughton Castle, near Banbury, were packed into containers and trekked by yak to Everest Base Camp so that he could finish his family history.

“The papers came boxed up in 45 containers and were transported by yak to the base camp. I was able to complete the book by writing in between acclimatisation exercises on the mountain. The pages were handwritten and a senior BBC producer who was with us kindly allowed a BBC photographer to photograph the pages. They were then emailed to my home on Exmoor to be typed up and sent on to my publisher,” he said.

The resulting book is a remarkable record of the extensive Fiennes family going back 41 generations to the family’s French roots to Charles Martel (715-741), who was grandfather to Charlemagne.

Few people researching their family tree can go back so far, but he benefited from a huge archive at Broughton Castle, where 20 of the 41 generations have lived for 600 years. They still own the castle through the present Lord Saye and Sele, Nathanial Fiennes.

However, Ran’s side of the family does not inherit the title as his grandfather was a second son of an earlier Lord Saye and Sele and chose to seek his fortune in the colonies rather than go into the army or the church.

He said: “We found many of the documents in various parts of the castle, including the dusty attics which were once a barracks for soldiers of Cromwell. While other people searching their family history have to go to many sources, including reading gravestones, I was fortunate to be able to draw on 600 years of family history in one place.”

The research has filled a ‘void’ in his life. “I was brought up in a female family because my father was killed in the Second World War four months before I was born. I never knew my grandfather, Eustace, either as he was killed in the same war, having survived the Zulu and Boer wars. I felt I had a black hole or a black void in my life and I wanted to know about my forefathers.

“I began researching those in the family quite close to me, not suspecting my history would go back so far, over 41 generations.”

One of the major discoveries was that his ancestor Eustace of Boulogne nearly scuppered the Norman invasion of 1066.

“When Eustace realised how the battle was going, he told William that their opponents were doing quite well and they ought to retreat to the beach. But William said they must fight on.”

However, Eustace was not disgraced as he is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

And a Cromwellian connection led to one of the ancestors rescuing Banbury from the Royalists, for which he was awarded the title Baronet of Banbury, a title which Ran inherited on birth. And then there was the famous nursery rhyme Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross.

When he was a lad in the 1940s, Ran’s mother told him the rhyme should say: Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross to see a Fiennes lady upon a white horse.

The Fiennes lady was Celia Fiennes (1662-1741), daughter of Gen. Nathaniel Fiennes, who was almost hanged by Cromwell for losing Bristol to the Royalists. Celia decided to do what women of that time did not do — explore the English countryside, riding sidesaddle to every county in England. Her travel notes were published in 1887 as The Diaries of Celia Fiennes.

Ran is famous for his 30 expeditions round the world, including the ascent of Everest and crossing the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps. He was the first to complete a polar circumnavigation of the Earth.

But it could all have been so different.

“I was in Inverness, where my wife worked for the National Trust of Scotland when I had a letter from the William Morris actors’ agency asking me to audition for the next James Bond film. As they were paying for a return rail trip from Inverness to London I accepted. I wanted to go to London anyway because I was interested in becoming an explorer.

“There were 200 applicants for James Bond and I was selected down to the last six. But that six included Roger Moore.”

And the rest is history.

* Mad Dogs and Englishmen is published by Hodder and Stoughton at £20.