Review by Paul Scraton:
In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor began a walk from the Hook of Holland that would take him across Europe, a journey he would later immortalise in three books – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and (published posthumously) The Broken Road. The first two have, since publication, been long regarded as classics of travel literature. Reading them today you are struck with the sense that these are books written about a time when Europe was at a tipping point – much of A Time of Gifts for instance is set in a Germany where the Nazis are in the ascendant – but also and especially later in Fermor’s journey, in the lands to the East, where the books are filled with tales of aristocrats and peasants it is a world that became decidedly less “modern” the more he walked.
Fermor wrote these books long after the fact – A Time of Gifts was published in 1977 whilst the other two parts of the trilogy were released in 1986 and 2013 respectively – and they are understandably coloured by the knowledge of what happened to the Europe of 1933/34 in the years that followed. But what remains of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Europe today, over eighty years after he set out from the Hook of Holland? Nick Hunt had first read A Time of Gifts when he was eighteen, the same age as Fermor when he began to walk and from that moment he was inspired to follow in the great writer’s footsteps. In 2011 he did just that. From the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, a journey of over 2,500 miles with only a couple of battered copies of Fermor’s works and the kindness of strangers-who-became-friends to guide him. It was possible to follow Nick’s journey on his website – we also published a short piece here on Under a Grey Sky – but the aim (after Istanbul) was always the book of the walk. And now, with the appropriately titled Walking the Woods and the Water we have it.
In the opening pages Nick explores his motivation for the journey, and one in particular:
“One passage from A Time of Gifts – spoken by an old polymath in Austria in 1934 – particularly haunted me: ‘Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power-dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East – they would never come back. Never, never, never!’
Those words articulated my quest. Had Europe been tamed? Had everything vanished?”
And indeed, as Nick walks he discovers dams across the Danube that have buried villages under a water and made almost immeasurable changes to the landscape through which Fermor once walked. Nick also finds himself doing battle with other trappings of the modern world that not only make much of Europe tamely similar, but also make walking decidedly difficult. Especially in the west of our continent it is clear from Nick’s journey that there are places that we are simply not supposed to travel on front. Many times he finds himself pushed to the verge of a busy road by the weight of the traffic flying by beside him, with no footpath or pavement granted to the would-be-pedestrian. And this is a feature of much of the literature of walking we read nowadays, such as Will Self attempting to walk out of an airport and finding that nobody actually considered the possibility.
To my mind, though, Walking the Woods and the Water is not really about how Europe has changed in the years since Paddy laid the trail for Nick to follow. And, indeed, its strength comes not from the comparison between the world Fermor observed to the one we can walk through to this day. Nick’s book works because it is about him and his journey. It is about the importance of taking our time, of walking and of travelling slowly, perhaps even especially because of how much the world has changed over the last eighty-odd years. The past is there on the pages – and the scenes where Nick abandons each of the Fermor books as he reaches the last page on the road itself are quite moving – but what I take most from it are the tales from here and now.
For much of his trip Nick was accommodated by a collection of souls who had discovered the project either through the internet (and requests made on the couch-surfing website) or friends of friends who found themselves playing host to an ever-more-scruffy vagabond with holes in his boots and a beard that grew out of control. Some were nice and some were strange. Some showed Nick an almost unbelievable amount of trust and others managed to persuade him to stay, for a few days longer at least, to rest his weary feet. The people of the present illuminate the pages of the book, helping Nick guide himself (and the reader) through the many different and sometimes subtle cultural changes that he found himself passing through.
At other times he was genuinely on his own, sleeping in the woods or the walls of castles, crossing mountain ranges and speaking to no-one but himself for days on end. There are moments of joy and of boredom, of countless acts of hospitality and of snarling dogs, of ruin bars in Budapest and melancholic castles all along the route, and all the while Nick is an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining companion. This is the trick the travel writer has to pull off. Do you want to spend your time with this person as they take you on a journey? For over two and a half thousand miles, from the North Sea to the Bosphorus, the answer when it comes to Nick is a resounding yes… and I cannot wait to read about where he walks to next.
Words: Paul Scraton