Less walking, more talking

28 January 2015

Here are my latest dates on my peripatetic Walking the Woods and the Water book tour:

31st January: Stanford's Travel Writers Festival, London Olympia, 3pm - with fellow tramp/pilgrim Harry Bucknall

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, 7.15pm

Read and comment

Review in the Wall Street Journal

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

Travelling Quickly is a Waste of Time: TEDx talk

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

Travel Writers Evening

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

Anglo-Hellenic Review

13 October 2014

Just had a very thoughtful and perceptive review from Paul Watkins in the Anglo-Hellenic Review.

Read and comment

Talking the Woods and the Water

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!

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, Wiltshire

Read and comment

Romanian Playboy

2 July 2014

This is undoubtedly the highlight of my career: an interview in the Romanian edition of Playboy magazine.

Read and comment


2 July 2014

A nice write up in Wanderlust magazine...

Read and comment

Butterfly Man

20 May 2014

A couple of years ago I met a man called Dr. Mike Edwards at a dinner party. Mike is a climate change advisor and lecturer in global crisis, and I was so compelled by one of the stories he told round the table I asked him to write it into an essay, which later appeared in the fourth Dark Mountain book. Now that story has metamorphosed again into a play called Butterfly Man, scripted by me and co-directed by Caroline Hunt and Dan Jones – it's playing in Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatre as part of this year's Mayfest.

Butterfly Man tells the story of Ben, who fell in love with butterflies as a child. But when the wood behind his home was felled the butterflies disappeared, with profound implications for his mental health. Psychiatric treatment helps him ‘cope’ with severe depression – but should we really be medicating the ones who cry when a butterfly dies?

You can read more about the play in this short interview I did. There are performances on May 23rd and 24th, and tickets are available here. Psychiatry, mental health and species loss in the Sixth Extinction – this play is a journey into some really important stuff, too often told badly. I believe we're telling it well. If you can, please come!

Read and comment

BBC Radio 4 Saturday Live

3 May 2014

I was interviewed on Saturday Live this morning. That's me, sandwiched between presenter Richard Coles and food critic Jay Rayner. If you like you can listen to it here.

Nick Hunt on Radio 4 Read and comment

Go East: A Review in The Spectator

10 April 2014

Another lovely review by Artemis Cooper in The Spectator today.

Walking the Woods and the Water Nick Hunt

Nicholas Brealey, pp.336, £10.99, ISBN: 9781857886177

When Nick Hunt first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his youthful trudge across Europe in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, he knew ‘with absolute certainty’ that one day he would make that journey himself. When I embarked on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s biography, I made an equally firm resolve that I wouldn’t walk a step of it. Paddy’s books had left me with a vision of a timeless Europe suspended somewhere between memory and imagination, and I didn’t want that vision distorted by layers of personal impressions.

But to Hunt the books posed a question. Eighty years on, was there anything left of the ‘gifts’ Paddy had enjoyed in prewar Europe? Was there still room enough for wildness, freedom and spontaneous hospitality? In this moving and profoundly honest book, the answer is ‘yes’.

Hunt was in his late twenties when he set out from London, and he got off to a bad start. In Holland and Germany he was obliged to walk for miles on tarmac, under motorways and across industrial and suburban wastelands. He had done no prior training — after all Paddy hadn’t, and what was more natural than walking? The result was tendonitis so severe that he was laid up for a week in Ulm, cursing his stupidity and looked after by a couple called Dierk and Dora.

He found that the kindness of strangers — who included musicians, caretakers, house-painters and Buddhist soap-makers — was an ever recurring miracle. And like the grandees Paddy met, Hunt’s benefactors contacted their friends and relatives, urging them to help the traveller too. He found these guardian angels online, through the Couch Surfing network. Their website is designed to weed out loonies, but it still requires a high level of trust — a trust that was never misplaced. His hosts gave him food and drink, took him to the pub, lent him their laptops — and not once did he feel uncomfortable or threatened by them. At the same time, Hunt was more willing than Paddy to brave the elements. He often slept in the open, twice in sub-zero temperatures; and he became expert at ‘castle-squatting’ — finding snug holes in ancient walls.

As he walked on, the industrial sprawl gave way to landscapes that Paddy would have recognised. Hunt is often haunted by the ‘unimaginable inhumanity that lay between his walk and mine’, but at the same time many things remained startlingly similar. Swapping cigarettes is still a great ice-breaker; the sheepskin coats and cross-gartered moccasins were gone, but in a bar one morning Hunt could see that all the men there had known each other since childhood, and worked in adjoining fields. Hungary still mourned the loss of Transylvania like an amputation, and still hated the Romanians. Just like Paddy, Hunt was told that the moment he entered Romania he would be attacked by bears, gypsies, wolves and thieves. But as the author observes, people became nicer as he travelled eastwards, although their dogs got nastier.

Hunt is not Paddy, and never pretends to be. Baroque architecture and princely lineage leave him cold, and he never plunges into historical speculation or conjures fantasies out of thin air. But one of the most moving passages in the book tells of his meeting with Ileana Teleki, the great-granddaughter of Count Jeno Teleki, one of Paddy’s hosts in Transylvania. With her, he visits a number of the country houses described in Between the Woods; but now they are gutted, abandoned or used to shelter those who would never recover from the experience of being a Romanian orphan: ‘Traumatised children,’ writes Hunt, ‘housed in the ruins of a traumatised culture.’

The reader familiar with Paddy’s oeuvre will find that something of him has rubbed off on Hunt, which is hardly surprising: he took no other books on the journey, and he feels intimately connected to his predecessor. So in walking through the wooded Pilis Hills, or in watching for changes in physiognomy as he crosses from one territory to another, he is — consciously or unsconsciously — paying homage to Paddy by absorbing his way of looking at things.

At the same time, I’ve learnt so much from the vivid way Hunt describes the physiological effects of trudging on for month after month. Sometimes it brings a sense of unlimited freedom, sometimes joy, sometimes an extraordinary, dreamlike dislocation, always accompanied by a dazzling sharpness of hearing and vision. I see now how that youthful walk informed so much of Paddy’s style. Before embarking on his journey, Hunt was going to write to Paddy. The letter was never written, and by the time he set off, Paddy was dead. How touched and fascinated he would have been to read this book.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £9.89, Tel: 08430 600033

Read and comment

E&T magazine review

9 April 2014

I've just seen a lovely review by E&T Magazine:

Nicholas Brealey Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn By Nick Hunt, £10.99, ISBN 978-1857886177

There’s a certain sadness about most ‘following-in-the-footsteps’ travelogues - a recent trend that is threatening to become a new full-scale literary genre. Sadness and repetitiveness, for it is hard to avoid excessive, at times over-excessive, quoting from the original.

Having turned the last page of ‘Walking the Woods and the Water’, I am pleased to say that none of the above applies to this delightful, balanced and extremely well-written book.

Hunt does try to retrace the 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps across 1933 Europe - from Holland to Constantinople - as much as he can, but he seldom resorts to direct quotes from the classic preferring to convey the latter’s experiences descriptively, often by overlaying them with his own attitudes and observations.

Hunt’s narrative therefore, while carrying an inevitable retro touch and a lot of affection for his literary mentor (to whom he often refers as “Paddy” - a token not of familiarity, but of warmth), is never self-effacing. Nor it is in any way self-promotional.

Fans of Patrick Leigh Fermor among E&T readers (I am sure there are many) will be attracted to Hunt’s powerful descriptions of Europe’s altered and ever-changing industrial landscape: roads, factories, power stations and means of transport - particularly as he is walking through Germany and the Ruhr area.

In short, an impressive and timely effort. A worthy literary tribute to a classic of British travel writing.

Vitali Vitaliev

Read and comment


Subscribe to News