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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Review: In the Dolphin’s Wake – Harry Bucknall

In The Dolphin's WakeTravel writer Harry Bucknall is an experienced wanderer with a background in both the military and in theatre production – an interesting mix of talents which has enabled him to write a distinctive travel book in which he describes his travels through the major (and many of the lesser) Greek Islands.  The book has received acclaim from masters of travel writing Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor (the latter now sadly deceased).

Of course, in choosing Greece as his subject, the question facing any potential reader is, Will the author be able to get behind the swathes of tourist gloss to find the authentic Greece?  I am pleased to say that while Harry does not try to make out that his travels were wholly in isolated villages or mountain paths, on the whole, he does manage to present a picture of a land where the old ways still run in parallel with the coastal strips and tourist destinations.

Harry’s aim was simple – “a dream of a journey through the scattered islands of the Ionian and the Aegean spanning centuries of exotic history and all the time travelling on a hotchpotch assortment of ships trailing the azure seas”.  He states at the start of his book that no-one knows how may islands go to make up the Greek Archipelago – perhaps 1000 to 6000 (it all depends on the size of rock to be counted as an “island”!).  In the end Harry classified the islands into seven groups – The Ionian, The Dodecanse, The Cyclades, The Argo-Saronic, The Sporades, The North Eastern Aegean Islands, and Crete.

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Review: Best Foot Forward, a 500-mile walk through hidden France – Susie Kelly

Best Foot Forward

I enjoy reading about the adventures of lone travellers, particularly when they are travelling under their own steam.  In the middle of winter, its particularly good to read of someone setting off on a spring morning to see where their journey is going to take them.

I’ve already reviewed Susie Kelly’s book The Valley of Heaven and Hell in which she cycled with her husband on the trail of Marie Antoinette as she fled from Paris to Rheims (only to return later to meet her death).  Now, Blackbirdebooks have published Susie’s earlier book, Best Foot Forward in which she walked alone from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast right across France and into Switzerland, carrying a flimsy tent and a few essentials – an adventure indeed.

Having done quite a bit of walking in France myself, I could only marvel at Susie’s ability to find her way through such a great distance in the French countryside.  Many’s the time I’ve been lost while walking in France even when walking for just an afternoon and with the car usually waiting for us just over a nearby hill.  While there are way marks on all the major routes, a west-east journey like this required a lot of route-finding across dull terrain which the major walking routes never passed through.  Susie was equipped only with a large scale map which frequently misled her and often had to rely on the knowledge of passers by who turned out to be far from reliable.

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Review: Olivia Laing – To the River

To the River is an unusual book, combining local and literary history, a walking journal, meditations on the topic of rivers and water, and a hefty amount of biographical material about Virginia Woolf.  The author, Olivia Laing, walked the Ouse Path during a time of great personal sadness, soon after she had broken up with a long term man-friend, and something of the loneliness of this time, even a sense of personal desolation, also comes out in her writing.  Indeed, as she describes her walk down through Rodmell where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, we readers almost feel a concern that this walk may be too much for her to bear at this stage of her life (but of course, the fact that she wrote the book showed that our fears were ungrounded).

The Sussex Ouse is a short river (less than fifty miles from its rising to the sea), and it flows through a rich countryside of woods and fields before flowing down between a gap in the range of hills known as the South Downs, until it reaches the port of Newhaven.  I live in this area and walk bits of her route regularly and would say that it is on the whole a cosy landscape, containing a few pretty villages and the ancient market town of Lewes.  Although it may lack drama, the route is steeped in history and this has given Olivia Laing a considerable amount of material to enrich the account of her walk which took place over the course of seven days in September, a couple of years ago.  I could not help but be impressed by the huge list of sources at the back of her book which takes up eight pages of small print – although the walk may be short, Olivia Laing’s readers won’t be lacking information about it.

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Review: Forgotten Land – Max Egremont

In Forgotten Land, Max Egremont describes his travels among the old lands of East Prussia, bringing to the task a deep knowledge of modern history and the proficiency of an experienced writer.  The book is a mixture of history, travel-writing and personal interviews, a fascinating mix which builds up a compelling picture of these lands and the changes that the last couple of centuries, particularly the post-Second World War settlement, have brought to them.

For after the Second World War, the lands of East Prussia were parcelled out between Russia and Poland.  Those of the German population who could, fled westwards in the face of the retributive zeal of the advancing Russian troops.  Many others were recruited as forced labour by the Russians and found themselves in the Gulag system.  Towns and cities were renamed, gravestones were used as paving stones and so far as was possible, all traces of German residency were obliterated. The excellent Wikipedia article on East Prussia records that “a population which had stood at 2.2 million in 1940 was reduced to 193,000 at the end of May 1945”.

It is difficult for those who live on an island to understand what it is like to live in an area with fluid borders where skirmishes with neighbouring countries redraw the shape of your nation several times each century.  The reshaping and re-ordering of East Prussia however far exceeds that of anywhere else in Europe, involving the forced emigration of well over a million people and yet it is largely forgotten by a Europe which prefers not to dwell on the terrible events of the 20th century.

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Review: The Valley of Heaven and Hell – Susie Kelly

The Amazon Kindle has provided a versatile publishing platform for people who want an alternative to getting their books published through the usual route of finding a “paper” publisher and persuading them to invest in their life’s work.  Some of these Kindle-only books have done incredibly well. perhaps not least because they provide very economical reading – not many people would baulk at paying a pound or two for an interesting-looking book.

Although Susie Kelly has a number of print books to her name, the book under review here, The Valley of Heaven and Hell – Cycling in the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette, (non-UK readers and people with ereaders other than Kindle can purchase from the links at the end of this review) is published only in ebook format, and as someone who enjoys reading about travel on foot or bicycle I can say its as good as any I’ve read and is a massively entertaining and satisfying read.  Not only is is about a cycle ride, but Susie Kelly has linked the journey to a historical journey, in this case, the route Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XV1 took to escape from Paris.  The escapees were apprehended at Varennes and then had to return to Paris under escort, thus providing the modern-day cyclists with a return journey of equal interest.

One advantage of an ebook is that hyperlinks are provided to many of the places visited. By using the Amazon “Kindle for PC” as well as the Kindle itself, it was easy to click on the links and see photographs and further information about the various locations.

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Review: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes – Robert Louis Stevenson

Since buying a Kindle e-reader I’ve been tempted by the vast number of free books available on sites like Project Gutenburg (and many others).  I don’t think I’ll be spending a lot of time reading these as generally there are so many new books coming to my attention that its difficult to devote a lot of time to these often lengthy classics.  However, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is a book I remember enjoying from a long time ago, and I thought it was about time I re-read it (the link is to a printed copy but there are many free e-versions available which can be reached from a quick search on Google).  And what a good read it turned out to be.

Travels with a Donkey, covers twelve days during which Stevenson made a 120 mile hike while in his late twenties.  His journey took him through the remote, mountainous region of the Cevennes in southern France, and to make his passage easier he decided to load his packs onto a donkey, whom he christened Modestine.  Alas, poor Modestine proved to be a very difficult beast to manage, needing the stick rather than the carrot for the majority of the journey.  Even sticks proved to be largely ineffective in driving Modestine on, and it was only when the inn-keeper of Bouchet St Nicholas made Stevenson a goad (a stick with a sharp point on the end) that any progress was made.

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