Walking in memory of her late best friend, Harriet Clarke, Katy MacMillan-Scott has just completed the first leg of her 2500 mile journey from Rotterdam to Istanbul. She thought it would be fitting to follow the path taken by travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor in 1933 in his book, A Time of Gifts, because she and Harriet shared an inquisitive curiosity about the world and a love of books. The two English women first met at Newcastle University in 2001, and shared a deep friendship. Harriet very sadly died in March 2016 aged 32 from bowel cancer.
After Harriet’s death, Katy, 34, moved house, launched a film club and quit her job. In November, she began planning the walking adventure in tribute to Harriet, which will be completed in stages over a number of years. She recently completed the first three-week leg from Rotterdam to Budapest, and while she expected the route to look very different these days to the one that Paddy took in the 1930s, she says that the similarities struck her.
“There were hardly any cars in his day, and roads and industry hadn’t overtaken much of the countryside,” she says. “While many things have changed, I felt I could still glimpse the world he travelled through. The quiet life of the people living in the villages on the rivers I walked along, the landscapes, the wildlife, the hospitality of strangers – much of it was as he described. It was a wonderful departure from my busy London life.”
Katy’s favourite city to travel through was Budapest, as she found it a beautiful city with a fascinating history. It was also significant to her as it marked the end of her first leg of her route, and with that came a huge sense of achievement. “It was also the place where I met Gloria von Berg, whose parents Tibor and Berta hosted Paddy in Budapest in 1934,” she says. “The Art Nouveau Gellért thermal baths were pretty good too.”
This was one of her most memorable moments, with others being a plate of warm apple strudel on a very cold day on the Rhine; the sight of her first stork nesting on a roof in the Austrian town of Fischamend; the kindness of the couple who took her in from the rain and gave her a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup near Zaltbommel; and walking over the Mária Valéria Bridge, which joins Slovakia and Hungary across the Danube, where A Time of Gifts ends.
Katy says that the journey was physically tough and she was uncomfortable a lot of the time, but she was amazed at the resilience of her body. She had a couple of persistent blisters but, overall, her boots were comfortable and dry, and her Osprey Kyte backpack was “brilliant.” “The main challenges were the immediate ones,” she says. “The physical challenge of heaving my backpack on every morning as I have a history of back problems; the mental challenge of getting to a town having walked for miles, and instead of finding a warm café or somewhere with shade, finding everything was shut. That had to be the most demoralising feeling! However, in most cases, something good would usually follow and my spirits would be lifted.”
For her next leg, Katy is considering returning to walk between Esztergom and Budapest, because she met some wonderful people in Hungary and doesn’t want it to be another year before she returns. “I’ve still got a long way to cover on this journey, but I’m going not going to be too prescriptive about the order or the time I take to do each bit,” she says. “I may be following Paddy’s route, but this is my version.”
Follow Katy’s story on her website www.adventuresforharriet.co.uk. Katy is raising money and awareness for Bowel Cancer UK’s campaign for the under 50s, Never Too Young. For more information, see here.