In 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.
Arriving at Rotterdam on a ferry from Harwich, Nick initially found Holland to be rather a grim place for a walker.
The winding alleyways were replaced by generic high streets, retail units and chain shops, steel and glass insurance buildings, a clone of every other post-war city in Western Europe. Squinting my eyes to blur the street signs, I might have crossed the North Sea and walked my first twenty miles to find myself in Coventry city centre.
The many cycle paths did not necessarily make for easy walking with so many Dutch cyclists hurtling along and a very hard surface which before long gave Nick a nasty case of shin-splints (greatly helped by a German doctor – a great advertisement for the E111 card which enables European Union travellers to get help in other member states).
Another aspect of the European Union is the absence of border controls and Nick was disappointed to find that his walk across the Dutch/German border was not marked in any way and it was only when he heard a passing couple greet him with a Guten Morgen that he realised he had crossed into Germany.
Leigh Fermor managed to hitch a lift on a Rhine barge from Cologne down to Coblenz but so many years on, Nick found that the only barges moored up in Cologne were, “tour boats full of elderly Americans on private holiday cruises, glimpsed through the tinted windows of cocktail lounges”. The walk down the Rhine was often hard work, not least because the busy road ran very close to the river with little room for pedestrians. Nick began to sleep rough occasionally, ascending through the woods to gaps in the walls of derelict castles or hidden hunting hides finding that “sleeping out produced a sense of enhanced connection with the land, a feeling almost akin to ownership: the paradoxical entitlement of the rough sleeper”. In the depths of winter this was not the most comfortable of options and sometimes led to some painfully awful nights, particularly as he progressed eastwards:
This (hut) was flimsier than the previous night’s, with no glass on the windows and gaps between its boards so wide I could slip my fingers through. I struggled into down vest, ski mask and over-trousers and stuffed myself into my sleeping bag to wait for unconsciousness. When I awoke, it was still pitch black. Cold was rushing through the floor like an invasive force. Cramp had gripped my legs, and exposing my face to the air was like plunging it into iced water.
The walk to Constantinople is immensely long and at Vienna, which is roughly half-way, Nick’s girl-friend joined him for a week - a well-earned break, but one which led to an increased sense of isolation when she eventually left home and Nick had to hit the road again. Throughout the book I could only admire Nick’s determination to keep slogging on. As he walked through Hungary and Romania any pleasure in the walk seemed to be lost when faced with semi-derelict towns, great plains, vast reservoirs and dams and a sometimes hostile population.
The dangers for the solo traveller are many, and Nick describes some horrendous encounters with feral dogs in which he as lucky to escape without a dose of rabies at the least. Many wilder stretches of his walk had their dangers too. In Romania when traversing a range of the Carpathian Mountains Nick found himself high up on a rocky ridge in deep snow, and a thick fog, when if it wasn’t for the fact that I was reading his account I would have been seriously worried for him,
The shock transmuted to numb disbelief. Was I really capable of this? My boots were leaking, I had no equipment, no crampons, no ice axe, no partner. I decided to go just a bit further and reconsider from there.
The descent was as bad as the climb up onto the range, but fortunately a welcoming peasant couple invited him into their cottage and fed him and provided him with a bed for the night.
It was while walking through Hungary that Nick realised what the walk was doing to him:
. . . this was the point at which I started to look, and feel, like a tramp myself. The constant sweat, and drying of sweat, created Rorschach patterns on my clothes, discoloured from the effects of dust and sun. My forearms and neck tanned purplish-brown, and my beard, untrimmed for weeks, took on an alarming aspect. Sometimes I became aware of a cloying, homeless stench I didn’t recognise as my own. There was something transcendental about it; my body was starting to smell like another person’s.
Leigh Fermor had often managed to stay in castles and other aristocratic great houses. In the earlier stages of his walk, Nick tried to identify some of these locations but where he met with occasional success, the results were usually depressing. Sometimes they had been turned into mental hospitals or other institutions, but often they were simply ruined during the years of communist rule. In Romania, with a helpful guide, the great-grand-daughter of one of Leigh Fermor’s hosts, Nick writes,
. . . we broke in through a shattered door to explore the shell of the house where Paddy had stayed with Mr v. Konopy, a learned wheat-breeding enthusiast. Dust motes swooshed as we passed through the rooms. Traces of silver-patterned wallpaper still gleamed on the walls. In the family chapel the ceiling had collapsed in a downward sneeze of straw, and a crack running down the wall bisected the painted face of Christ.
The second half of Nick’s walk takes us into unfamiliar territories, with many surprises along the way. Transylvania sounds entrancing with its beautiful scenery and hospitable people. Bulgaria turns out to be a land with many ancient monuments and a friendly population. In Turkey Nick winds his way along the coast before turning inland to see Istanbul in the distance with its tall city buildings and affluent suburbs.
At this point Nick reviews his amazing 30 week journey, in which he’d walked two and a half thousand miles, passing through eight countries and crossed three mountain ranges, picking up “fragments of seven languages” along the way.
Although I’ve read both Nick’s book and Leigh Fermor’s I have to say, I enjoyed Nick’s much more. While Leigh Fermor launches off on lengthy lectures on cultural and historic matters, Nick writes as a contemporary travel-writer where personal experiences and anecdotes take priority. Nick’s book is less scholarly perhaps, but also much more accessible, while also inspiring a sense of wonder in his readers at his fantastic feat of walking such a great distance with so little in the way of resources. While the style of writing may be different, the adventurous and resourceful spirit is the same, and for modern readers, Nick’s book will I think be more enjoyable than Leigh Fermor’s.
Nick Hunt is an established travel-writer and his great-uncle was mountaineer John Hunt, who led the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953. Nick has a very interesting website which is well worth a visit.