Borrow was born at East Dereham, Norfolk, the son of Army recruiting officer Thomas Borrow (1758–1824) and farmer's daughter Ann Perfrement (1772–1858). He was educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh and Norwich Grammar School. He studied law, but languages and literature became his main interests. In 1825, Borrow began his first major European journey, walking in France and Germany. Over the next few years he visited Russia, Portugal, Spain and Morocco, acquainting himself with the people and languages of the various countries he visited. After his marriage on 23 April 1840, he settled in Lowestoft, Suffolk, but continued to travel both inside and outside the UK.
"Wild Wales" recounts Borrow's personal experiences and insights while touring Wales alone on foot after a family holiday in Llangollen in 1854, and has come to be regarded as a source of useful information about the social and geographical history of the country at that time. It has been described as "robust, dramatic and cheerful", and the author as "an agreeably eccentric, larger-than-life, jovial man whose laughter rings all through the book".
He decribes his visit to Chester and his stay at the Pied Bull:
- "we put up at an old-fashioned inn in Northgate Street, to which we had been recommended; my wife and daughter ordered tea and its accompaniments, and I ordered ale, and that which always should accompany it, cheese. “The ale I shall find bad,” said I; Chester ale had a villainous character in the time of old Sion Tudor, who made a first-rate englyn upon it, and it has scarcely improved since; “but I shall have a treat in the cheese, Cheshire cheese has always been reckoned excellent, and now that I am in the capital of the cheese country, of course I shall have some of the very prime.” Well, the tea, loaf and butter made their appearance, and with them my cheese and ale. To my horror the cheese had much the appearance of soap of the commonest kind, which indeed I found it much resembled in taste, on putting a small portion into my mouth. “Ah,” said I, after I had opened the window and ejected the half-masticated morsel into the street, “those who wish to regale on good Cheshire cheese must not come to Chester, no more than those who wish to drink first-rate coffee must go to Mocha. I’ll now see whether the ale is drinkable;” so I took a little of the ale into my mouth, and instantly going to the window, spirted it out after the cheese."
Borrow is often what might nowadays be called "politically incorrect" - but he is still fun to read.