Monk’s House – Sussex home of Virginia Woolf

We went to Monk’s House yesterday, the Sussex home of Virginia Woolf.  I’m not a great fan of Woolf’s writings but the house is not far from us, and it was such a beautiful May morning we decided to go across and look at the cottage set in its gorgeous gardens.

In one of her diary entries, Woolf wrote about Monk’s House,

Back from a good week at Rodmell – a weekend of no talking, sinking into deep safe book-reading; & then sleep: clear transparent; with the may tree like a breaking wave outside; & all the garden green tunnels, mounds of green; & then to wake into the hot still day, & never a person to be seen, never an interruption; the place to ourselves; the long hours.  DIARIES 1932

In those days, you had to go down a rutted cart-track to get to the house, a path beyond leading to the famous water-meadows where Virginia met her death by flinging herself into the slow-moving but deep River Ouse.  It shows the depth of depression she must have experienced, for the surrounding countryside and nearby coast with its chalk cliffs is spectacularly beautiful and (you might think) would refresh any soul.

Monk's House

Monk’s House

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Review: Walking the Woods and the Water – Nick Hunt

walkingIn my previous article I wrote about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s as covered in his book A Time of Gifts (and two other volumes). This week sees the publication of Nick Hunt’s book Walking the Woods & the Water which describes his own journey in the steps of Leigh Fermor, 78 years later.  Nick Hunt has journeyed through a very different Europe to the one Leigh Fermor walked through, with the Second World War and the creation of the Soviet Empire (and its later fall) having brought vast changes, particularly along the eastern sections of this walk.

I found it a fascinating exercise to read these two books back to back. They are very different in almost every respect, even though both Patrick Leigh Fermor and Nick Hunt both demonstrate in their books an incredibly adventurous spirit which puts both gap-year explorers and mature tourists to shame.   To start off on a journey like this with so little in the way of planning and resources means that you are going to be faced with crises and near-disasters which will at times be dangerous, even life-threatening, particularly in the more remote regions of Eastern Europe.

While Nick didn’t have the aristocratic contacts which gave Leigh Fermor occasional respite from his trudge across Europe, Nick at least had the website Couch Surfing to help him plan some of his overnight stops.  If ever proof were needed of the generosity of strangers this book is a good starting point, for not only did Nick’s hosts provide him with a bed, they often fed him and generally welcomed him into their lives, often inviting him to stay on and meet friends and relatives, visit bars and clubs, see local tourist attractions and then give him a lift to the best place to commence the next stage of his walk.  There is also a network of Leigh Fermor enthusiasts who met up with Nick from time to time and helped him identify locations covered in the earlier books.  These encounters are some of the most interesting aspect of his book and give a real insight into what it is like to live in the places he visited.

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Review: A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermour

patrick lfI’ve been intending to read A Time of Gifts: On Foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople for quite a few years now but have never got round to it.  Perhaps it’s the beginning of spring which has turned my mind to travel but also reading about new books about Patrick Leigh Fermor also made me think that now was the time to catch up with this renowned travel writer.

In 1933 at the age of 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off on an epic walk across Europe. Adolf Hitler had just come to power in Germany and the continent would soon be ravaged by war.  Leigh Fermor set of at the end of December with only a small amount of money and carrying a rucksack containing a few possessions.

Although he kept extensive notes about his journey, he didn’t start writing this book until the 1970s and it was first published in 1977, over 40 years after the events described.  In the intervening period, Leigh Fermor had become a war hero (kidnapping a German Commander in Crete) and an established travel-writer.  A Time of Gifts has none of the signs of immaturity one might expect of a teen-aged traveller although I suspect that even at 18 he already showed many of the qualities that would be evident in his later work.

Not many people would choose to set off on such an epic journey in the middle of winter, but Leigh Fermor embarked on a Dutch steamer sailing from Tower Bridge to the Hook of Holland in mid-December.  Wearing an ex-army great-coat and hob-nail boots, he disembarked in Rotterdam and began his trudge across Europe in the flat lands of Holland, walking along the polders and canals in a bitterly cold east wind.

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Review: Cruel Crossing – Edward Stourton

cruelBack in late 2011 I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Edward Stourton joined an annual walk, Le Chemin de la Liberté, across the Pyrennees which celebrates the Second World War route used by Allied soldiers, Jews, French resistance fighters, spies and many other groups of people who were trying to escape Nazi tyranny.  The annual “pilgrimage” across the Freedom Trail (as it has become known) is joined by many people around the world, including those who travel with the Royal British Legion’s party.

The  “Chemin” has become a “walking memorial” for the Second World War Escape Lines Memorial Society (who have a fascinating calendar of events including various other lengthy walks and bike rides).

Following his radio programmes, Ed Stourton has now written a book, Cruel Crossing, which is a very detailed account of the history of the Freedom Trail and also an account of his own journey on the route.  He has included interviews with fellow walkers on the annual pilgrimage, and also some of the remaining survivors from the 1940s.  His thirteen pages of notes at the end of the book amount to a a meticulous survey of written sources about the trail, many of them previously unseen. These include recorded interviews, published books and original documents.

Stourton has divided his book into themed chapters such as “Tales of Warriors”, “Tales of Children”, “Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal” and “Guides, Smugglers and Spaniards”. Under each chapter he tells the stories of people who braved this challenging mountain range in an effort to escape the Gestapo. We read of many heroic people such as Paul Broué, an escape line helper who carried on walking the trail well into his eighties and who was still participating in the ceremonies which open and close the trek when Stourton walked it in 2011. Other helpers like Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh were betrayed and arrested and experienced a brutalising imprisonment, eventually ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp where with other helpers on the trail, she met her death.

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The Folio Prize and “Doodle Paris”

I don’t usually publish articles at weekend but wanted to recognise two items which don’t fit into my normal review schedule.

folio prizeThe first is this week’s announcement that the Literature Prize has gained sponsorship from The Folio Society and is now to be known as The Folio Prize.  The Literature Prize was first announced last October in reaction to general dis-satisfaction with the Man Booker Prize which seemed to have prioritised readability over artistic achievement. Andrew Kidd, the agent for the new prize told The Bookseller magazine, that the prize “will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition”.

He went on to say,  “We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time.”

The Literature Prize people have obviously been busy since then and this weeks announcement about sponsorship shows that they have not only gained a substantial prize fund (£40,000 for the winner) but also established an Academy of 100 writers and critics including such names as Margaret Attwood, Colm Tóibín, Salley Vickers and Philip Pullman who will select titles to go on the short-list.  Each year, five members of the Academy will be asked to be the judges for the competition.

I am not usually very interested in literary prizes but this one looks like it will be well worth-while.  The Folio Society is a great match for the aims of the prize because, as Andrew Kidd says, “they are about recognising the books of today that will be in print in 50 or 100 years time”.



At a time when many of us are planning short city-breaks I’d also like to mention a little book that came my way called Doodle Paris, a sort of colouring book for grown-ups but just as much fun for a child. When I saw it I thought what a great idea this is for anyone who happens to be spending a few days in Paris.  You can take Doodle Paris with you and use it to record your memories of the visit.  The idea is simple,

“Each page comes with a simple illustration prompt inspired by the French capital, say  the window of a patisserie, a line drawing of the city’s skyline, or a series of picture frames hanging in the Musée d’Orsay, and encourages you to draw in the rest”.

Not many people would have the confidence to take a pencil and a blank sheet of paper and actually draw something while sitting at a café table or relaxing on a park bench.  This book may give you the prompt you need to begin sketching – no other equipment is required other than a pencil or pen.

There’s plenty of space in the book for recording your notes and comments too and I could well imagine that if you took Doodle Paris with you it’s one book you would keep on your shelves for years to come to help you remember your visit.

Review: I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – Tuvia Tenenbom

I’ve read some strange books in my time, but this one certainly pushes the boundaries.  At first glance it seems to be a typical travel book in Bryson-esque style.  But with its title, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – An American Jew Visits Germany, you know from the start that this is not going to be your usual travelogue.

I first encountered it from an article in the English edition of German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, and being a bit of a Germano-phile (I love travelling in the Germany), I thought I would see what it was like.

Tuvia Tenenbom is the son of Holocaust survivors and also Founding Artistic Director of the Jewish Theater of New York.  He was invited to write this book by the publishing company Rowohlt Verlag, one of the biggest in Germany. The company’s representative asked him if he would like to come to Germany, to “travel around the country a few months, and write a book about my experiences”.  By the time Tenenbom had submitted the draft of his book he found himself in serious dispute with the publishers who evidently did not feel that they have got what they bargained for.

The scurrilous, partisan, rude and hilarious manuscript ended up being red-penned to the degree that Tenenbom felt that he could no longer be associated with it and the publishers refused to publish it without major changes.  Tenenbom eventually published the book himself in the USA and finally this year, a German version was published but with quite a number of deletions of passages which may have fallen foul of German law.  In the English version reviewed here, you get the complete text, a book which I found to be one of the funniest and also the most controversial things I have read this year.

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Review: Walking the Hexagon – Terry Cudbird

Walking the HexagonIn my last post I mentioned three books about men on extended walks.  This time, rather than fiction, I am writing about a real-life walk, during which Terry Cudbird retired from work and decided to walk the coast of France, an epic journey by anyone’s standards.

Just before his retirement, Terry was on holiday with his wife in the French Alps and told her that he would like to walk some of the Grand Randonées (the network of long-distance footpaths that cross the country in all directions).  His wife must be either very tolerant or else wanted time on her own, for she replied, “why don’t you do it now, before you become decrepit”.

Terry leapt at the chance and immediately began to plan a journey of 4000 miles covering the edges of France.  He wanted to test himself physically and mentally, and although he had to come home from time to time to deal with his aged parents, he was actually on his own for six of the twelve months in the year he spent walking.

The result is Terry’s book, Walking the Hexagon – a very well produced volume containing many maps and quite a few black and white photographs in-line with the text.  I read the paper edition but no doubt the Kindle edition would work well enough.  The publishers have gone to the trouble of compiling a very thorough index at the back which names hundreds of towns and villages, so Francophiles will be able to easily find what Terry thought about the places they know themselves.

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