I’ve just finished reading A Time of Gifts, the first in the trilogy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his journey from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, which he began in December 1933 at the age of 18. Most of the journey – at least to the Hungarian border, at the end of A Time of Gifts – was on foot, although there’s the occasional deviation, notably on a boat on the Rhine.
Quite apart from it being an extraordinary achievement at any age and the book being quite beautifully written, there are a few things that have struck me. I’ll comment on the historical perspective another time; this is more about the journey and what the traveller experienced.
Trying to undertake a walk of that type today seems to be far more difficult because of the extensive road network that’s available and the number of vehicles that would be on even quieter roads that might be used. In a way, there doesn’t seem to be space left to undertake a walk of that type.
Walking then would have been far more daunting and far more of a step into the unknown. There wouldn’t be the option of searches for each place in advance or being in touch with family and friends at home if there was a problem, but that seems to have been part of the appeal for Mr Leigh Fermor in undertaking the journey. Towards the end of the book, he’s ecstatic at sleeping outside for the first time and realising that nobody knows where he is. Where could someone travel today for three months, covering 1200 miles and not be in touch with home at any time?
The hospitality that’s offered to this strange traveller is quite remarkable to modern eyes (particularly those of a Londoner). He’s taken into stranger’s homes – from castles to townhouses to inns to village cottages – and given food and shelter through the winter months. There appears to be little concern that he’ll steal from them or attack them. Where in Europe would that level of hospitality be found today?
To finish on a lighter note, there are extracts from Mr Leigh Fermor’s diary in the last two chapters of the book. One word that I’d thought had acquired its meaning very recently – twigged, in the sense of understanding something – sits squarely in a sentence, thoroughly earning its keep. It feels like slang from no early than the 1960s, but it seems that it was alive and well and being used in exactly the same way in March 1934.