Writing Portfolio


Reading the woods and the water

A few years ago, I followed a blog written by a man called Nick Hunt. The blog was about a journey he was undertaking across Europe; this, though, was not just any journey but a walk, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, which he was doing as a result of having been inspired by the late, great Patrick Leigh Fermor, who had walked the same route as a young man and who later wrote about it in three books, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, the last of which he did not live to conplete and which was published posthumously.

After Nick completed his walk, it wasn't long before a publisher got in touch. The blog became a book, and last year (not long after the publication of The Broken Road, in fact), it hit the bookshops under the title Walking the Woods and the Water. Having enjoyed the blog, I was looking forward to the book and I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.

This book gives us what could be described as a behind-the-scenes view of modern-day Europe; the continent may appear to be somewhat homogenised nowadays, but the Europe that he walked through was anything but. He stayed with people he'd met online via a couch-surfing website, and later is amazed when people he stays with offer to call their friends in the next village to get them to offer him a bed for the next night; on an individual level, the people he encounters are for the most part generous and friendly.

Groups of people are perhaps less so; Slovaks are rude about Hungarians, Romanians are rude about Hungarians and Bulgarians, while Hungarians are rude about just about everyone who isn't Hungarian. These are old forces at work.

Indeed, we see in this book a continent still reeling from the ravages of history - not just the Second World War and the Cold War (which hang over Paddy's books like storm-clouds on the distant horizon) but centuries of it. The bit where he crosses the border between Austria and Slovakia is particularly good; once he's across, everything - even the smell - is different, for this is not only the old Cold War frontier but also the even older boundary between the Germanic and Slavic worlds.

Modernisation is there too, as shown with the Dutch and German cities that were flattened in the War and whose old medieval centres that Paddy saw are long gone, replaced by pedestrianised shopping-precincts. Elsewhere, the Danube has been tamed by the building of vast hydroelectric dams and the Bulgarian coast has become a line of concrete holiday-resorts. The author does not enjoy walking through seemingly endless suburbs either.

But that is only a part of the story. This, rather like a book I read a couple of years ago about another writer's walk between the 1066 battlefields, is about taking things at a slower pace than much of modern life allows, about allowing oneself to gradually absorb the changing atmosphere on the journey from place to place. It's not all pleasant but it can be vivid (his description of the aridity of the huge, empty horizons of the Great Hungarian Plain remained long in the memory after I'd finished the book) and it is never dull.

Being inspired by the journey someone else took decades previously, the concept itself is not original but that doesn't matter so much; many fine travel-books are all about following a journey first made by someone else. I once read somewhere that the age of discovery is never over when you are the discoverer, and I heard somewhere else that every journey is new to the person making it for the first time. Nick Hunt was fortunate to be in a position where he could walk in Paddy's footsteps, and we armchair travellers are just as fortunate to be able to read about his journey.

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