5 August 2016
Intrepid Times interviewed me about my walk across Europe in Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps. Many thanks to Nathan Thomas for asking such insightful and thoughtful questions - I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation on the joy (and the frustrations) of walking, the layering of memory and the spirit of adventure.Read and comment
8 March 2016
A few months ago, microadventurer Alastair Humpreys interviewed me about my walk to Istanbul. We had a great conversation about walking, travelling cheaply and the complexities of memory, and the interview appears in his new book Grand Adventures, which you can order here. In the meantime, Alastair has kindly given me permission to reprint the interview below. Hope you enjoy.
Alastair: Tell us about your walk.
Nick: I walked 2,500 miles across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. This was a dream I’d had since I was eighteen – following in the footsteps of the late travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who did this walk in 1933-34 [the same as fellow Adventure1000 interviewee, Andy Ward]. My walk took me through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, starting in the depths of the Central European winter and ending in the heat of the Balkan summer. I followed two major rivers and crossed three mountain ranges, finding accommodation in the homes of hospitable strangers, wild-camping in the woods, squatting in abandoned castles, sleeping rough when necessary – during the course of my journey I stayed in a Hungarian school, a Romanian nunnery, a Bulgarian monastery and a Transylvanian psychiatric hospital.
Alastair: How did you find walking? Obviously, it’s hard work, but what else became apparent as you got going?
Nick: The adjustment was hard at first, but I learned to love the slow magic of walking, the gradual shifts in landscape, culture, language and understanding, and the joy of solitude: what Tove Jansson called ‘one part expectation, and two parts spring sadness, and for the rest just a colossal delight at being alone.’
Alastair: I know you were inspired by Paddy Fermor (great choice, by the way!). But how did you turn your dream into reality?
Nick: First and most importantly I set a date for departure, a year in advance, and told ten people I was doing it. If you tell ten people you are doing something, you have no choice but to do it, otherwise there will always be someone saying “you know that thing you said you were going to do…?” You’ll never get any peace.
Then I started saving, and began a crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money to set off – perhaps more importantly than the money, this had the effect of publicising what I was doing even more, and when people I didn’t know started getting excited on my behalf, I had absolutely no chance of backing out. Other than this, however, I did very little preparation – I didn’t research the route, I didn’t look on Google Maps, I deliberately avoided travel guides, and I didn’t do any physical training. My idea was to use Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books, eighty years out of date, as my only travel guide. I wanted to let the continent surprise me, to have as few preconceptions as I possibly could.
Nick: A lot of crowdfunding can seem like that, yes – asking people to pay for you to do something exciting or fun – especially as more and more people take that route. I think it’s only perceived as worthwhile if it’s genuinely of interest to people apart from yourself, and of course the quality of what you produce – whether that’s a book, a record, an exhibition or anything else – will be what people judge your whole endeavour on. I was certainly fortunate in that people took a certain vicarious pleasure in following me doing this journey, as thousands of people seem to have dreamed of doing it themselves and never quite got round to it. I’m happy that the walk wasn’t just for my benefit – other people were able to enjoy it through me.
Alastair: What do you know now that you wish you’d known before your trip?
Nick: That a bit of physical training would have helped. I went through a fair amount of pain.
Alastair: How did you manage to live on the cheap?
Nick: Living cheap when walking is easy, especially if you’re prepared to rough it a bit and use sites like Couch Surfing for free accommodation instead of relying on hotels. Apart from food, wine, beer, chocolate and cigarettes – my psychological reward system at the end of each day – I didn’t really have anything to spend money on!
Alastair: I like the bit near the start of your book when you say “I took a few steps then stopped, not knowing how to start. All I had to do was walk. Surely it couldn’t be that simple?” I have been arguing all year that beginning is the hardest part of any project. Is that fair?
Nick: Yes, the first step is the hardest. But once you’ve decided to do something, and made the essential mental shift that binds you to a certain course, you’re over halfway there – once your plans have reached a certain momentum it suddenly it becomes much harder to stop than to carry on.
Alastair: You talked about “flirting with freedom” and “skirting the wilderness”. Did you feel that the relatively built-up nature of Europe was a bit of a safety blanket to your fears of being truly out in the wild, or did you find it frustrating and yearn for a bit more of a sense of being out on your own and alone?
Nick: I feel that all adventures walk the line between safety and danger, the familiar and the unknown, the thrill of being lost and the relief of safe return. It’s a fascinating psychological space, and the joy of my walk was balancing on that line and stepping from one side to the other, testing my reactions. Seemingly modern, built-up Europe can still feel surprisingly wild, mysterious and exciting if you’re in the right frame of mind, if you open yourself to possibility and allow imagination to flow – whereas you could put yourself in the middle of the Gobi Desert with an iPod and experience nothing more exciting than you would in your own front room. The freedom and the wilderness are inside you, not outside. There’s a great Arthur Machen quote: ‘He who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by Gray’s Inn Road will never find those secrets elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa, not in the fabled hidden cities of Tibet.’ I’m a strong believer in that.
Alastair: How true did you feel Paddy’s journey was (i.e. how much did he make up)? And did that matter at all to you? (I ask this because in a book I wrote about walking across India I felt that I really had to manipulate and shuffle the truth to be able to tell the “truth” of how the journey felt to me. Does that make any sense?
Nick: Paddy didn’t write about his journey until four or five decades after he’d finished. He must have had a truly astounding memory, but all memory is an act of re-imagining the past, building it back up again layer after layer. I wouldn’t say he made it up, I’d say he recycled it, putting it back together in an order than wasn’t necessarily the same as it was originally, but was still completely honest in the truth it told. All writing is like this – there is no objectivity, and any act of storytelling involves shuffling the truth.
Alastair: What do you mean by the phrase “the sadness of arrival” when you reached the Black Sea? (I always feel this too.)
Nick: Throughout the course of that seven and a half months, I came to appreciate walking for its own sake, not for its usefulness in getting me somewhere. It became less a means to an end than an end in itself. There’s a great paradoxical disappointment in the act of arrival. Reaching the Black Sea, or indeed Istanbul, were things I’d looked forward to and imagined as an enormous triumph – but so often, travelling is more fulfilling than the destination, and when I finally got to those places, I felt a great sadness to think that the process of getting there was now at an end. Achieving something – anything – robs you of your purpose. I think this is why walking – or any other form of travel – is so addictive.
Alastair: If you did it again would you change your attitude to taking the occasional lift / public transport? This isn’t a loaded question – something that is “right” or “wrong” – I’m genuinely curious!
Nick: My intention was to follow Paddy’s journey as closely as I could, and he actually travelled by boat, train, horse and motorcar on various parts of this route. No-one offered me a lift on a boat, no-one lent me their car or their horse, so I actually ended up walking further than him in the end. I resorted to public transport when I injured my foot, and hitchhiked once or twice in a similar manner to when you’ve given up smoking and think it’s safe to have a cigarette – ‘I’ve beaten the habit now, so it’s okay to try it.’ But after weeks or months of walking, being on motorised transport was a deeply unpleasant experience – totally disorientating, incomprehensibly fast, and, in terms of understanding the journey utterly meaningless. The contrast was useful to think and write about, so I don’t regret doing it. I never aimed to be a puritan. But walking is definitely better!
Alastair: If I were to give you £1000 for an adventure, what would you go and do?
Nick: I’ve never taken a long sea voyage. If you were to give me £1000, I’d like to build some sort of craft to travel the old Viking sea-routes linking the Orkneys, the Shetlands, Faroe, Scandinavia and Iceland, to Greenland if I could. I’ve no idea if £1000 would even cover the cost of timber, but that’s what I’d like to do. Hopefully it would at least buy me enough rum to stay warm.Read and comment
23 January 2016
Some words about my next book...
In October 2015 I set off on an unlikely quest: to follow four of Europe's winds across the continent.
The Helm, Britain's only named wind, led me to Cross Fell on the bleak uplands of the Northern Pennines, in the footsteps of Cumbria's fearsome border reivers and the demons believed for centuries to inhabit the air. The freezing Bora led me three hundred miles from Trieste through Slovenia and down the Croatian coast, from the stony emptiness of the Karst plateau to a blizzard high on a Balkan mountain. My hunt for the 'snow-eating' Foehn became a meandering journey of exhilaration and despair through the Alpine valleys of Switzerland, where I experienced first-hand the symptoms of Föhnkrankheit, the notorious Foehn-sickness believed to cause everything from headaches to high murder rates. My final walk traced an ancient pilgrims' path in the south of France on the trail of the Mistral: the 'wind of madness' which animated and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.
These walks – from a lonely bothy on the fells to a cabinet of bottled airs in the backstreets of Trieste, from a blizzard on a Balkan mountain to the stony desolation of Western Europe’s only steppe – were journeys not only into wild wind, but into wild landscapes and the people who inhabit them: meteorologists, eccentric wind enthusiasts, mountain men and shepherds. They were also, inevitably, journeys into myself. Finally and unexpectedly, they were journeys into what I can only describe as animism, in the original sense of the word: an understanding of the world as a living, breathing body. Soon I found himself borne along by the very forces I was pursuing, through rain, blizzards, howling gales, and back through time itself. For, where the wild winds are, there are also myths and legends, history and hearsay, science and superstition – and occasionally remote mountain cabins packed with pickles, cured meats and homemade alcohol.
Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe's Winds from the Pennines to Provence will be published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing on 7 September 2017 in hardback, paperback and ebook. You can pre-order it here.Read and comment
14 December 2015
This is a live recording of a recent storytelling I did at the Russet in Hackney -- a new version of a Greek myth, with accompaniment from the incredible Owl Parliament choir. Thanks to Caroline Williams and Ellie Rose Rusbridge.Read and comment
7 July 2015
Last week saw the launch of the experimental audio-video project I've been working on with photographer Tim Mitchell:
Gonzo ornithologists on the trail of London's green parakeets
I'm not going to give anything away here. To find out what it all means (and share your parakeet sightings and dubious origin myths), watch Episode 1 on the FLYWAYS website.Read and comment
3 July 2015
Last night Walking the Woods and the Water was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year – and Robert Macfarlane said some lovely words about it in the announcement. I'm honoured to be in the company of Helena Attlee, Philip Marsden, Horatio Clare, Jens Mühling and Elizabeth Pisani, not least because it decides my reading list for the next few months. The winner will be announced in September at Stanfords in Covent Garden – watch this space!Read and comment
28 January 2015
Here are my latest dates on my peripatetic Walking the Woods and the Water book tour:
6th February: Solway Centre, University of Glasgow, Dumfries, 4pm
8th February: Red Cross tea at Elsieshields Tower, Lockerbie, 3pm
9th February: Waterstones Glasgow Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, 5.30pm
11th February: Hatchards Piccadilly, London, 7pm
9th March: Talk for the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society, Hellenic Centre, London, 7.15pmRead and comment
28 November 2014
Dominic Green has given Walking the Woods and the Water a fantastic review in the Wall Street Journal. Full text reprinted below.
In the winter of 1933, 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on foot from London for Constantinople. Traveling “like a tramp, a pilgrim or a wandering scholar,” with a notebook and a volume of Horace in his rucksack, he hoped to catch Europe’s castles and peasants before they faded away entirely. “Everything is going to vanish!” cries a morbid Austrian to Leigh Fermor along the way. “They talk of building power-dams across the Danube . . . They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East—they would never come back. Never, never, never!” But neither man could foresee that a greater erasure was imminent.
Decades later, “Paddy” Leigh Fermor wrote two books about his epic walk and the “part-remembered, part-fabulated landscape” of his lost youth and interwar Europe. “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986) are elegant, elegiac and among the best travelogues of the 20th century.
Nearly 80 years after Leigh Fermor made his trek, another intrepid young Englishman, Nick Hunt, has repeated the same trudge. For seven months and 2,500 miles, Mr. Hunt pursued Leigh Fermor’s erratic diagonal down the Rhine and Danube, transecting Europe from the Dutch coast to the Black Sea.
Retracing a legendary journey is the literary equivalent of method acting. The friction between inspiration and emulation generates heat, if not light. With “Walking the Woods and the Water,” Mr. Hunt has created an illuminating addition to what the travel writer Robert Macfarlane calls “the literature of the leg.”
Mr. Hunt is pedestrian only in his footsore method. Like Leigh Fermor, he walks in an alarming “time of collapse.” It is 2011. The euro is faltering, xenophobia toward Arab and North African immigrants is rising, and Europe seethes in debt and resentment. “I want to see how things have changed,” he puts it to an anarcho-hippie at an Occupy camp in Holland. “Has all the mystery and wildness gone? What has Europe lost in the last eight decades?”
From the Atlantic to the Ruhr, Mr. Hunt wanders a “nowhere space”: a noisy mesh of suburbs, warehouses and factories, sliced by motorways and hostile to pedestrians. Walking to his first objective, Rotterdam, Mr. Hunt heads for a church spire. It turns out to be the minaret of a mosque. Burnt by the Luftwaffe, rebuilt by the welfare state and repopulated by immigrants, Leigh Fermor’s Rotterdam survives only in name. At Worms, the Nibelungring has no Wagnerian dwarves and treasure: The name is a municipal pun, for the ring road around the city. By the Rhine, Mr. Hunt sleeps rough in “cracks in the landscape,” burrowing into shattered castle walls.
Then, halfway across Germany, Mr. Hunt detects Leigh Fermor’s world. The beer still foams at the Red Ox in Heidelberg, where Leigh Fermor met his first Nazi, a “lint-haired” youth with schnapps on his breath and Jews on his mind. Today, the inn is identical, still jammed with heraldic and hunting trophies. Sleeping in Leigh Fermor’s old room, Mr. Hunt, awaiting “some echo from the past,” receives news that his grandfather, a man of Leigh Fermor’s generation, has died.
Exhilaration and terror still await the wanderer in the snowy woods of Bavaria. “The world is muffled in white,” Leigh Fermor wrote, “motor-roads and telegraph poles vanish, a few castles appear in the middle distance, everything slips back a couple of hundred years.” The only sounds that Mr. Hunt hears are the chopping of “far-off axes” and the “shuddering reverberations of woodpeckers.” As Leigh Fermor staggered at dusk into peasants’ huts, so Mr. Hunt reels frozen into kebab shops and mountain cottages.
In Austria, Mr. Hunt sleeps poorly in quaint Mauthausen, its pleasant villagers seemingly untroubled by the atrocities perpetrated in the nearby concentration camp. But beyond the old Iron Curtain, the people become more hospitable, the dogs more hostile and history more palpable. The Iron Gates of the Danube, once rocky battlements against Ottoman invaders, are now a lake, their rapids dammed for hydroelectric power. The Romanian salmon are denied their spawning grounds above Ada Kaleh, the drowned island where Leigh Fermor saw his first Turks. Now, monster catfish patrol the waters among the bones of Romanians who, fleeing Cold War, swam for the milder coast of Yugoslavia only to be shot by border guards.
Since 1989, the past—pristine or rotten—has floated to the surface. The peasant costumes may be gone, but the antagonisms endure. No one confuses a Slovenian with a Slovakian. The Hungarians still drink palenky (plum brandy) for breakfast, then itch the “severed limb” of Transylvania, lost to Romania in 1920. Nobody talks about the Jews. And everyone still hates the Gypsies.
Descending the wild mountains of Bulgaria, Mr. Hunt finds the Turkish villagers and Karakatsani nomads vanished. The Black Sea coast is a concrete dystopia of all-day breakfasts and all-night techno. One night, Leigh Fermor nearly drowned here among the rocks, then caroused in a cave with Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen. The shepherds and the fisherman are long gone, but Mr. Hunt controls his nostalgia and mostly avoids mimicking Leigh Fermor’s flamboyant style. Still, his inspiration rubs off, like the skin on Mr. Hunt’s feet. Camping by a river in Hungary, Mr. Hunt swats mosquitoes at sunset: “The Körös turned molten at dusk, a murky golden soup lit with magnesium-bright flecks from the dying sun. Clumps of twigs floated past like knots of hair.”
Leigh Fermor was a champion charmer—Somerset Maugham dismissively called him “a middle class gigolo for upper class women”—and his path eastward was gilded with parties, picnics and bicycle polo on the lawn. (The communists killed or exiled the aristocrats who feted him.) Mr. Hunt is not similarly celebrated. In Romania, the author meets the great-granddaughter of one of Leigh Fermor’s friends, who shows Mr. Hunt the family seat, now a dilapidated mental hospital. Her family has reclaimed the house but cannot afford its renovation. They lease it back to the state, and retain a guest room where, as Mr. Hunt puts it, travelers sleep in the “post-aristocratic world” and awake into the nightmare of history.
Yet as Mr. Hunt advances, he sloughs off Leigh Fermor’s shadow. Tenderly, he kicks his copy of “A Time of Gifts” into the Austrian Danube. “Between the Woods and the Water” takes the plunge at the Iron Gates.
Leigh Fermor never completed his long-gestating third and final volume about his trek, though an edited version, “The Broken Road,” appeared after Mr. Hunt’s walk. Thus, on the last third of the journey from Bulgaria to the Golden Horn, we encounter Mr. Hunt without Leigh Fermor’s guiding ghost.
Bearded and filthy, his boot soles flapping, Mr. Hunt staggers through Istanbul, a megacity of 14 million. The Islamists are erasing what’s left of Ataturk’s secularism; the new minarets resemble “telecommunications infrastructure.” President Erdogan’s convoy roars past and Mr. Hunt reaches his journey’s end: “There was nothing left of Europe,” he writes.
—Mr. Green is the author of “The Double Life of Dr. Lopez” and “Three Empires on the Nile.”Read and comment
15 November 2014
A video of the talk I gave at the amazing TEDxYouth@Manchester on November 5th 2014. Thanks to all who were involved - it was a fantastic event, and I'm most honoured to have taken part.Read and comment
15 November 2014
I'm appearing at the Stanford's Travel Writers Evening at their Covent Garden shop on the 20th November alongside Harry Bucknall, Tim Cope and other fantastic authors. It should be a fun evening - come if you're around. Harry and I will also be reprising the double-bill we did at the Henley Festival in the new year - more news on that soon!Read and comment
13 October 2014
Just had a very thoughtful and perceptive review from Paul Watkins in the Anglo-Hellenic Review.Read and comment
3 July 2014
There are still some dates left on my itinerant book tour, and more in the pipeline. If you'd like me to come and talk, whether at a festival, bookshop, front room or field, please get in touch! email@example.com
Wednesday 26th March -- Oxford Literary Festival, Oxford 6pm
Tuesday 1st April -- Hungerford Bookshop, Hungerford 7.30pm
Thursday April 3rd -- Book launch at London Review Bookshop, London 7pm
Tuesday 8th April -- London Book Fair, London 12am
Wednesday 14th May -- Mr B's Emporium, Bath
Saturday 17th May -- Carrying the Fire, South Lanarkshire
Wednesday 28th May -- Broadway Bookshop, London
Sunday 8th June -- Dovedale Arts Festival, Derbyshire 12am
Saturday 9th August -- Wilderness Festival, Oxfordshire 6.40pm
Sunday 21st September -- Walking and Book Festival, Richmond, North Yorkshire 7.30pm
Wednesday 1st October -- Henley Literary Festival, Henley-on-Thames
Friday 10th October -- Malmesbury Philosophytown Festival, Malmesbury
Thursday 30th October -- Wantage Betjeman Literary Festival, WiltshireRead and comment