Book review by Patricia Cleveland-Peck
Like many people I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account in his books A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods & the Water and The Broken Road of his walk as an 18 year old, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul and harboured a secret fantasy of doing the same. Nick Hunt however, actually did it and although very different from the books which had inspired, him Walking the Woods and the Water is no less memorable.
Nick says that he identified with Paddy ( we’re all on first names here) when he first read the book at eighteen, exactly Paddy’s age when he set off to tramp the 2,500 miles. Nick too was ‘a young man setting out to find his place in the world,’ even thought it did take him a further twelve years to make this dream come true. At the outset however, the walk more closely resembled a nightmare because Nick had fondly imagined that he could just set off and walk and walk, initially through rain and snow, without any training or preparation: result, some agonising leg and foot problems.
Nick writes well and of course the reader who is following him vicariously from the comfort of his or her armchair, is as interested in his pain ( of which there is enough – encounters with wild boar and really unpleasant dogs and a scary time lost in the mountains – but no axe murderers lurking in the woods ) as his pleasures.
To find an actual bed for the night when not sleeping rough, Nick like Paddy, relied on the kindness of strangers, something which he found still exists even in a less wealthy society. Nick used Couch Surfing which he located via the internet. This is a group made up of people who offer the use of their spare beds or sofas to travellers in the vague hope that the same will be done for them. Paddy on the other hand, with the help of one letter of introduction, was regularly and opulently entertained by castle dwellers and aristocrats. Both groups however, had in common the fact that they passed their guest on like a parcel to their friends and contacts.
Nick managed the walk in seven months, about half the time it took Paddy – not that he was hurrying. He makes the point that he learned to appreciate the walk as a thing in itself, not simply a way of reaching a destination. He was eager to find wildness – something he suspected might almost have disappeared in modern Europe but although there were vast stretches of tarmac and hideous suburbs to cope with, once off the beaten track, to his delight the wild areas were still there.
It is soon clear to the reader that although the route may have been the same, many things were different and it is analysing and comparing the things which have changed and the things which have remained the same which is one of the most interesting aspects of the book.
The map of Europe has altered considerably but Nick found that deeply rooted ethnic prejudices remain as sharp as ever. This I remember myself from a visit to Hungary during which I met an old man who, boiling with anger and shaking his finger, showed me a picture. I asked the interpreter what it showed and she replied that it was a battle which had taken place in the twelfth century. Slovaks it appears still don’t like Hungarians, Romanians don’t like Hungarians and everyone hates Gypsies.
Although Nick found the people he encountered on the most part friendly, the social life on offer was mostly heavy drinking in scruffy bars. Some of the most beguiling parts of Paddy’s books on the other hand, are his descriptions of the days he spend with the European aristocrats, riding, going on expeditions and discussing such arcane literary queries as whether Shakespeare thought that Bohemia had a sea coast. Nick did nevertheless come across pockets of intelligent conversation – at one stage in Romania the interesting point was raised that EU regulations are out to strangle the self-sufficient life style that the peasants have been leading for generations. In fact Nick says of this, “ My time in Arad was as leisurely as Paddy’s county-house sojourns , only with more marijuana and fewer servants” .
The aristocratic way of life described by Paddy has gone for ever, the castles and country houses now abandoned or turned into institutions. This change is summed up for me by comparing the passage in the book when Paddy arrives to spend 3 weeks at the country house of Count Teleki at Kapolnas. “Loping exhausted across the lawn… double flights of steps mounted to a balustraded terrace where people were sitting out in the cool moment before the sun set; there were glimpses through French windows of lighted rooms.”
Nick, at the same place, also tired and dirty writes, “if I squinted it was almost the same, though the people on the terrace wore dressing gowns rather than evening wear. Dogs slumbered in the sun and a powerful stocky man was strolling in the garden…wearing what looked like a walkie talkie…” The castle had become a mental asylum.
In fact this section of the book, in which Nick meets Ileana, the granddaughter of the Count and learns of the dreadful suffering of her family, aptly summarises for me all that war, communism and the fall of communism has done to eastern Europe – and alone is worth buying the book for. Although all their possessions were confiscated the family were allowed one room in the castle in which Nick is invited by Ileana to stay. They go to see various places including the count’s grave in the woods which the family had originally been forbidden to visit – so they threw flowers over the wall – and Nick begins to feel at home in this odd rather sad place, finding there, “ a gentle even tender sense as if the house and gardens around it were like the patients themselves, deep in convalescence.”
So much of this region is an area recovering form history and Nick, writing with sensitivity had produced a book which informs the reader of this very readably. It deals honestly with the lives and situations of the people he meets and offers an accessible mini-history of this complex region.
Paddy’s adventure was more glamorous and the language with which he described his preoccupations with such things as lineage, uniforms, history and baroque architecture ( which even at first reading, I did not believe for a moment an 18-year old could have written at the time) more seductive. Nick has taken us on a very genuine journey though regions which in managing to survive, have been changed. Thankfully Nick too survived and no one could have experienced all that he did without being changed – he may have been a good writer before but I suspect It took him up a few notches and I for one,look forward to his next book.
Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing @£10.99