It was a long walk, the one that Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on more than 80 years ago. Eventually he wrote about it, two volumes appeared, with the trilogy completed after his death.
And in his footsteps, 78 years to the day since Paddy started, Nick Hunt set out alone to follow the same route, on foot, from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. Walking the Woods and the Water is Hunt’s account, his tribute to Paddy’s walk. And he writes about it well, in his own way.
The world has changed in all those years. 70km of autobahn have become 70,000; wars have been waged, borders shifted. And Paddy has died.
In the modern tradition Nick Hunt planned his start, across Holland and through Germany, with the aid of a network of friends, expanded to friends of theirs, and with a bit of couch-surfing. But he sought the places that his predecessor had found and he sought the descendants of those that his predecessor had met.
Hunt’s only two guidebooks were the works of Paddy, and as he came to the end of each then into the waters of the Danube they went at the appropriate places. He is at his best in the most interesting parts of the journey, and for me that is across Hungary and Rumania, into Bulgaria. These lands have a rich and varied past, riddled with ancient rivalries and hostilities, and in parts little changed from Paddy’s days.
But where once there were aristocrats in stately piles now there are hospitals. Aristocrats became enemies of the state, their piles – the stately ones that is – seconded, then sold when the regimes changed. But people have memories.
Hunt doesn’t dwell too much on the hardships of the road, giving us just enough of injuries, solitude, and his girlfriend flying in for a couple of days. There is pain on the road and wild dogs, locals to be met and beds to find. There are hills to climb, and snow and ice with trousers disintegrating. And all the time, never far away, is the man who walked the route, who lived and loved on the route, before him.
The Istanbul he arrived in, broken boots and shredded feet, after seven months on the roads and mountains, had changed. Paddy arrived on the first day of 1935, to a city of several hundred thousand. Today it plays host to 13 million. But as Hunt says, the further east he walked the nicer became the people, the nastier became the dogs.
It is a terrific homage to a pretty unique man and to a great writer. Between the walking and the writing we had Cooper’s biography published, and that enhanced the final stretch of Hunt’s work, across Bulgaria and into Turkey. Hunt’s own writing stands up to the test every bit us much as his feet.
Next up, having read The Broken Road and now Nick Hunt’s journey, I think it will have to be that biography of PLF, from Artemis Cooper. It’s been sitting on the shelf for a while now, and of course she’ll be at the East Neuk Festival talking about it.
And as I finished the book I found this wonderful PLF blog, which is going to be visited regularly. I learned there of the recent death of another great writer, Peter Mathiessen. And I read too of the Transylvanian Book Festival, with William Blacker amongst others. Having walked those hills, visited that castle, I wish I’d been there that weekend.