‘My spirits, already high, steadily rose as I walked. I could scarcely believe I was really there; alone, that is, on the move, advancing into Europe, surrounded by all this emptiness and change, with a thousand wonders waiting.’
From A Time of Gifts
It remains one of the finest adventures: Patrick Leigh Fermor, eighteen, restless and craving adventure, hops on a steamer in the shadow of Tower Bridge and, upon arrival at Hook of Holland, sets out for Constantinople on foot. It is 1933. His journey takes him through old Europe, a continent fast falling into war and never to be the same again.
Leigh Fermor’s account of what he called ‘Shanks’ Europe’ is told – though not in full – in the books he is best remembered for, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between The Woods And The Water (1985). Remarkably, the author wrote them decades after the events described, years which honed his prose but retained the sense of wonder at discovering new lands, languages and cultures, soon to be altered forever.
Leigh Fermor’s other works are hugely enjoyable. His best are arguably accounts of wandering Greece (Mani and Roumeli), a book recalling time spent at monasteries (A Time to Keep Silence) and a 2008 volume of correspondence with Deborah Devonshire, the youngest of the Mitford sisters (In Tearing Haste). Many are graced with beautiful covers drawn by friend and fellow Hellenophile John Craxton.
All are characterised by the author’s astonishing prose, both extravagant and entertaining, and his remarkable recall of distant events and vivid invocations of people and places. Combined with the richness of his experiences, such as when effortlessly alternating nights in great houses across Europe with sleeping in barns after a spartan dinner, his books are classics of the genre.
This alone would be enough to ensure Leigh Fermor’s legacy as a great man of travel, letters and learning, but is only part of the story. He read, studied and wrote relentlessly, in multiple languages. In the Second World War he performed great heroics, most notably in the astonishing feat of kidnapping the German General Kreipe from Nazi-occupied Crete in May 1944, with modesty and bravery, while also throwing himself into the intrigues and excitement of wartime Cairo.
Leigh Fermor inspired fellow travellers for successive generations. Bruce Chatwin was a close friend, his ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel overlooking the sea at Leigh Fermor’s home at Kardamyli in Greece. He inspired leading writers of today like William Dalrymple, Jan Morris and Colin Thubron, who have all written glowingly about him. Thousands more have been inspired to follow in his footsteps.
In each of the rapturous obituaries published last month, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life is presented as an incredible adventure, one lived with great gusto and huge enjoyment. He may yet have one final gift for the world as it is hinted that sections of the final part of the trilogy completing the journey to Constantinople were written. The writer so relished life he once said ‘we might just forget to die’. A parting gift from beyond the grave would be both appropriate and very welcome.
The excellent http://patrickleighfermor.wordpress.com is highly recommended.
Tom Hall (@tomhalltravel) is Lonely Planet’s UK travel editor