Map taken from The Folio Society edition of A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Map taken from The Folio Society edition of A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A literary hike from Rotterdam to Istanbul

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When I first read A Time of Gifts I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out – to walk into an adventure. Robert Macfarlane, The Gifts of Reading

This May, fellow bibliophile Katy is embarking on a 600-mile journey across Europe, in memory of her best friend Harriet Clarke and to raise awareness for Never Too Young, Bowel Cancer UK’s campaign for the under-50s. Her route will follow the first leg of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s 1933 journey, from the Hook of Holland to Budapest, recounted in A Time of Gifts.

We first heard about Katy’s journey through an old school friend of Jennie’s and felt it was a very Slightly Foxed thing to do, and that it would be something that our readers would appreciate and might like to help with. During Katy’s three-week trip we’ll be mapping her route and sharing news of her progress here on the website and through our Instagram feed. Of which, more in due course. Meantime please read on for Katy’s story.

From Katy

Most would agree that 2016 had its ups and downs. From a personal point of view, it will be remembered as the year my friend Harriet died. She was newly married and expecting her first baby when she was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer. She died just six months later, on 3 March 2016. She was a gorgeous, vivacious girl; what a huge hole she’s left in the lives of all who knew and loved her.

Harriet was spirited, adventurous and never let anything get in her way. When she died, a friend remarked she was someone who lived wide, not long. It’s been amazing to see how many people have been inspired to do all sorts of things in her memory. I found myself turning over the idea of doing some kind of literary walk. Harriet and I met studying English literature at university and a shared love of books was one of the foundations of our friendship.

Before Harriet became ill, we went to a talk on polar explorers at the Frontline Club and laughed afterwards about the way the panellists kept referring patronisingly to ‘lady adventurers’. Afterwards, we exchanged pictures of Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark and other inspirational women. Later, when I read Robert Macfarlane’s beautiful essay, The Gifts of Reading – which is about friendship, giving books (Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts particularly) and the cathartic power of walking –  a plan crystallised in my mind to go on an adventure Harriet would have loved.

On Monday 1 May 2017, I am embarking on a 600-mile journey across Europe. My route will follow the first leg of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s epic 1933 journey, from the Hook of Holland to Budapest, described in A Time of Gifts.

Paddy was 18 and had no deadline; I’m 34, have a history of back problems and only three weeks in which to do this first leg. However, in that time I’ll be making a literary pilgrimage of my own, on a shoestring of my own, travelling between Rotterdam, Nijmegen, Cologne, Bingen, Vienna and Budapest. Walking most of the way, I’ll be crossing five countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

I’ll be doing it to raise awareness for Never Too Young, Bowel Cancer UK’s campaign for those under 50. I’ll also be doing it to spread the message of Harriet’s joie de vivre, and how it’s inspired me to walk into an adventure of my own. I plan to walk a little bit of the rest of the route each year in her memory, eventually ending in Istanbul.

How to help

Can you help me on my way? This isn’t a plea for donations. Instead, in the sociable spirit of both Paddy Leigh Fermor and Harriet, I want to meet as many people as I can along the way. I would love to beg bed and board from anyone willing to put me up for a night or so. I’ve included all the stops of my route on my website here. Please share this with friends far and wide, to anyone who might live on or near any part of the route, or who might know people who do.

For more information please visit: www.adventuresforharriet.co.uk


About the contributor

I’m Katy, a 34-year-old bibliophile living and working in London. Let’s get one thing straight: whilst I like a walk, I am not sporty. It is with a certain amount of trepidation I embark on this journey.

Losing somebody close makes you re-evaluate your own life. Since Harriet’s death, I’ve changed my job, set up a club I’d been talking about for years, and am now going on a personal challenge that will take me out of my comfort zone.

However, this is not completely out of the blue. I have always had a taste for adventure and a love of travel literature. And as for Paddy – I first came across him in my teens, when I was given a copy of his only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques. I loved the book and later, when I read about his friendship with Debo Mitford, I knew this was someone whose company I’d like to keep.

I’d urge anyone reading this to order a copy of A Time of Gifts. It is a life-affirming story about old Europe, about the kindness of strangers and the joy of setting out into the unknown. For those who find his style too flowery (I don’t, but I know others do), try Nick Hunt’s brilliant 2014 account of following Paddy’s route, Walking the Woods and the Water.

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