Sunday, 12 June 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor

‘If they fall short of the double vision which turns Salisbury Cathedral into Cologne, they invest the scenery with a lustre which is unknown to total abstainers.’
Patrick Leigh Fermor on the potential benefits of hangovers while travelling

Not long after Patrick Leigh Fermor was born his parents moved to India and left him with another family in Northamptonshire, where he spent a happy three years ‘as a wild-natured boy. I wasn’t ever told not to do anything’. At school, he resisted academic structure. Expelled when caught holding hands with a local greengrocer’s daughter, he educated himself from there on, reading Greek, Latin, Shakespeare and History with hopes of entering Sandhurst.

However, at the age of 18 he decided instead to walk the length of Europe, ‘like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar’, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). With a longing for freedom and an image of himself as a ‘medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots’, he set off on 8 December 1933 with just a few clothes and books of poetry. He slept in hayricks and shepherds' huts, but also in the castles and country houses of aristocracy.

He kept notes and sketches along the way, hoping to write about the journey, but his rucksack was stolen in a youth hostel in Munich, which he saw as something of a blessing for lightening his load, although he lost not only notes but his sleeping bag, money and passport. It was not until 40 years after his long walk across Europe that he published A Time of Gifts and almost a decade later Between the Woods and the Water, describing the events of that time with a wealth of historical, geographical, linguistic and anthropological information – and possibly some creative storytelling.

After his walk he moved to Romania for two years, but in 1939 became a major in Special Operations Executive during World War Two. Living on Crete after the British retreat, he kidnapped the German commander in reprisal for his assault on the villages, events retold in Ill Met By Moonlight by his comrade, W. Stanley Moss. In the 1950s, he explored the wild region of the Mani in the southern Peloponnese, where he made his home. At the age of 69 he swam the two kilometres of the Hellespont (Dardanelles) in the manner of Lord Byron.

Excerpt from The Traveller's Friend: A Miscellany of Wit and Wisdom (Summersdale Publishers)