“Walking the Woods and the Water” by Nick Hunt

When you read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s magical walking memoirs, you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to attempt that journey now – would people still be as kind? Would there be any sense of wilderness left in Europe? Would it even be possible to follow in his footsteps, or has urbanisation wiped PLF’s route from the modern map? Happily, I was directed to Nick Hunt’s memoir, Walking the Woods and the Water by someone who was kind enough to comment on my review of A Time of Gifts. In 2011, Hunt attempted to answer those questions by retracing Paddy’s route – as far as it was possible to do so, given that his journey pre-dated publication of The Broken Road – and this is his account of that modern journey.

At first, I struggled. I didn’t want so much brutal reality. The romantic in me wanted to hear that little has changed; that from the very beginning the journey was like travelling back in time, somehow, to Paddy’s prelapsarian Europe. Having just finished reading This Changes Everything, I was especially primed to despair at the way in which Europe has altered over the course of the last century – and Nick Hunt, quite rightly, doesn’t try to sugar-coat the fact that so much is different now.

“The glimpse I had of Rotterdam was almost as brief as Paddy’s own – he walked on at once, pausing only for eggs and schnapps – but the continuity between our two cities was absolutely severed. The Rotterdam of the Middle Ages has been blasted into the realms of fairytales, and the new reality of McDonald’s and Lush, Starbucks and Vodafone, had rushed in to fill the vacuum. The destruction seemed less an act of war than apocalyptic town planning, a Europe-wide sweep of medieval clutter to clear the way for the consumer age.”

It was heart-breaking reading – genuinely quite painful – and the prospect of seeing the utter dismantling of centuries of history through Nick Hunt’s eyes was almost too much to contemplate. Of all the things that might have brought Naomi Klein’s words home, this was it. And yet – the thing that pulled me through that first wave of unhappiness was the fact that it obviously made NH wretched too, and I quickly learned to trust him because of the way he articulates that disappointment: “From Rotterdam, Paddy had plunged into winter countryside, a landscape like a Brueghel painting, children skeetering down canals on fantastical ice-yachts. The reality was so distant it almost physically hurt. Now browns and greys seeped in from all sides and nothing shone or sparkled.”

That sense of loss never disappears – sitting next to Paddy’s this memoir makes it starkly apparent how much has disappeared through the course of a world war, various communist regimes, and an explosion in consumerism. What makes this such a special book, though, is that it is so much more than a lament. Yes, Paddy’s rural tracks have been covered by motorways, and yes, swathes of concrete have suffocated many of the bucolic fields he marched through with his putteed legs, but there is still a great deal of magic to be found, if you are willing to look beyond Starbucks and Lush. As NH says towards the end of the book, the further East he walked the kinder people became – and his narration of that generosity becomes all the sweeter because it is somehow unexpected now. Just like Paddy, Nick finds himself enveloped by groups of people in every country who ply him with alcohol and tell him stories about their homeland, and he is frequently offered food or shelter by complete strangers.

It would be trite to say that the one thing that evidently hasn’t changed is the kindness people are willing to show to a wandering pilgrim – but I think what NH does show is that he encountered both a comforting continuity, and also something entirely new. There is a sense that the world Paddy encountered is lying dormant in people’s stories, and in the landscape – to quote the beautiful phrase NH uses: “In certain lights, history could be glimpsed as a shadow under the skin; I saw it now, under the brightness of his smile.” As a result, you feel as though the intangible charm Paddy found in his version of Europe still exists. That is not all, though – it is not simply a kind of latent past NH finds, but also the promise of a change he cannot quite put his finger on. Paddy wrote the first two books in his travelogue after the second world war, knowing that the world he was walking through was about to plunge into war and thereby change forever. The Europe NH finds has been scarred by that, without question – at one point he even describes the houses and gardens in Romania as being in convalescence – but whereas Paddy was lovingly describing something he knew would soon be lost, NH finds a Europe-wide feeling that something is about to shift. In Holland, he spends an evening in the local Occupy camp, talking about alternatives in capitalism; in Romania, he finds a peasant culture so intact and self-sufficient that young couples are travelling there from Western Europe to find a simpler way of life; and in Germany, he meets a broken-toothed drunk “babbling about the freedom of Germanic tribes against imperial oppression.” As NH says, “This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.” Perhaps it is just an antidote to the creep of homogenisation, this feeling that ripples of history could unsettle consumerism and lead to the emergence of something both very old and very new – but (in the context of Naomi Klein’s call to arms in particular), I hope it is more than that. In any case, there is a magic in the not knowing, which NH very much makes his own.

Ultimately this is a much grittier exploration – NH stays in post-communist mental hospitals, talks about how much he smells, and is occasionally chased by feral dogs – and whilst it has been inspired by PLF, it has the stamp of an entirely independent personality. Nick Hunt is a very talented writer, and achieves the very difficult thing of adding something to PLF’s body of work rather than trying to assimilate it into this own. It did not quite have the alchemy of Paddy’s vision, but having ground my teeth at the first mention of Starbucks, I can say that I was both relieved and hopeful by the end of the book. If you want to know whether PLF’s journey could be attempted in the modern age, this is the fascinating response – there are still wild boars, bears and dangerous mountains, and the traumas of the past eighty years have not changed the rhythms of rural communities too dramatically. What a young wanderer might find in eighty years’ time, however, is anyone’s guess – that is the mystery, “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

“A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Fiction is yet to create a hero as magnificent as Patrick Leigh Fermor. He was an extraordinary man, with a talent for writing which matched his talent for living.

When he was eighteen, PLF fell in love with a greengrocer’s daughter and, having been caught holding her hand, was expelled from King’s School in Canterbury. With no particular desire to set off for university and having decided that a life in the military during peace-time was not for him, he decided to walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul in a bid to find adventure and cultivate his talents as an author. He permitted himself an emergency fund of four pounds a month but otherwise resolved to live by his wits alone, and, one cold November day and with the encouragement of his remarkably supportive mother, set off for Europe “through a secret door.” By the end of “A Time of Gifts” he has reached Hungary. It is a remarkable account of Europe in the years before the second world war.

My copy of the book is dense with annotations and under-linings; every new sentence offers up something to savour. He has a unique, lyrical style, keenly curious mind and love of detail which gives his account a sense of absolute veracity – but also a clarity which is almost other-worldly.

It was pitch dark out of doors and with the extinction of each flame the interior shadows came closer. It heightened the chiaroscuro of these rough country faces and stressed the rapt gleam in innumerable eyes; and the church, as it grew hotter, was filled by the smell of melting wax and sheepskin and curds and sweat and massed breath.

The language alone makes this a book to treasure; and then on top of that, of course, is the fascinating subject-matter and the sheer courage it took for such a young man to undertake a journey of this magnitude.

I wonder if it would be possible now, for a wandering student to experience the kind of generosity of spirit which carried PLF across the first leg of his journey? From time to time and when he was in a particularly rural area, he slept on beds of hay, hidden in barns; more often than not, however, he was welcomed into people’s homes, pressed with food and books and clothes, and invited into fascinating, alcohol-fuelled conversations by roaring fires. I like to think that an enterprising young spirit would still find kindness like this, but I fear that this was indeed the end of an era  – a time of gifts which ended with the Second World War. There is an entirely unsentimental sense of this imminent loss of something precious throughout the book. Through his growing interest in history, PLF places his journey within the context of ancient, long-dead Empires, the Thirty Years’ War, and noble families who have long-since vanished into the shadows of history. As he encounters more and more brown-shirts in Germany, however, and as pictures of Hitler begin to adorn the walls of every bar, there is a feeling of escalating doom – a sense that there is something coming unlike anything which had touched Europe before. The account is written in retrospect and many years after PLF’s remarkable turn as the head of Cretan resistance during the war, which means that these wonderfully generous encounters with the German and Austrian families are coloured with a knowing sadness.

On the first day of the battle of Crete, the memory of these Vienna weeks leapt back to my mind…No chance now, like Cardigan and Radziwell recognizing each other from London ballrooms, of exchanging brief and ceremonious greetings through the smoke of the Russian guns. Again and again in those whistling and echoing ravines, where a new and unknown smell was beginning to usurp the scents of spring, my thoughts flew back to the winter of 1934 and the tunes and jokes and guessing games, the candlelight and the scent of burning pine-cones when nothing was flying through the air more solid than snowflakes.

What an unspeakably difficult thing – to have spent the years leading up to war living with, and depending on the kindness of, the families he would then have to fight. As I say this is all conveyed without self-pity or sentimentality, but it underpins the exquisite language of the account with a dark sense of what was to come.

As with “A Time to Keep Silence”, though, PLF also has a keen sense of the ridiculous, and fills his account with wonderfully strange human details. When talking about the famous Alchemist John Dee, for example, he recounts how the wizard was stripped of his Fellowship at Cambridge for arranging a public demonstration of the device by which Trygaeus travelled to Olympus in “The Peace” by Aristophanes; “As this vehicle was a giant dung-beetle from Mount Edna which the protagonist refuelled with his own droppings on the long ascent, the exhibition may well have caused a stir. I would have liked to have seen it.” He is also not in the least afraid to send himself up – and when rereading his youthful diaries seizes upon the fact that as an eighteen year old he had obviously enjoyed the pensive image of smoking a pipe. “I always seem to be “puffing away thoughtfully” or “enjoying a quiet pipe”, in these pages.”

With the innocence of youth, he passes through these countries with a deep fascination for people, history, and idiosyncrasy. It is an infectiously vital tale and I am, once again, very grateful to Susan Hill for introducing me to a man who has swiftly become one of my favourite authors. Forget James Bond; one need look no further to find the quintessential English hero.