On 9 December, 1933, not quite 19-year-old Anglo-Irish Patrick Leigh Fermor resolved to set off, on foot, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (or as he insisted on calling it, Constantinople). He was inspired by Robert Byron’s The Station, and was given the knapsack that accompanied its author to Mount Athos. Into it he packed pencils, notebooks, a volume of Horace and The Oxford Book of English Verse. With a monthly allowance of £5 (Dh29), he lived frugally, sleeping in haystacks and hostels, dosshouses and schlosses as he made his way “south-east through the snow into Germany, then up the Rhine and eastward down the Danube … in Hungary I borrowed a horse, then plunged into Transylvania; from Romania, on into Bulgaria”. On New Year’s Eve, 1934, he crossed the Turkish border at Adrianople and reached Istanbul.
A Time of Gifts (1977) was his first published account of that journey and Between the Woods and the Water followed in 1986, but still he had only reached the Iron Gates, which form part of the boundary between Romania and Serbia. Both works have a Proustian quality. Written by a man in middle age recalling his journey as an 18-year-old, he captures the meaning, value and excitement of travel, combining the romance of youth with the knowledge and wisdom gathered over the following decades. They can be counted, not just in the literature of travel, but in the canon of 20th-century English literature. His boundless curiosity, his infectious enthusiasm, his penchant for the arcane, his fondness for an anecdote, and his gift for language combined with a keen eye and a sharp ear produced some intoxicating prose.
For 27 years, his readers have clamoured for the last of the trilogy to complete that epic journey. And this month – an astonishing 80 years after he set out (and two years after his death) – this much longed-for third volume, The Broken Road, has, at last, appeared. The completion of the trilogy is, in its way, as much of an odyssey as the walk itself.
But first to the man himself. A child of the Raj, Patrick Leigh Fermor (always Paddy to his friends and fans) was born in London in early 1915, the only son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, the sober, distant director of the Geological Survey of India. Aeileen, Paddy’s dramatic, erratic mother, was to her son the most inspiring and amusing figure in his life. She returned to India, leaving him for four years with a farmer’s family in Northamptonshire where he ran wild. He was expelled from most of his schools; the last, King’s School, Canterbury, for being seen holding hands on an upturned apple basket with a greengrocer’s daughter.
Footloose in London, after an affair with one of the Bright Young People, he developed a sudden loathing for the city and left for the continent. In Istanbul, 12 months and 21 days later, his journey was still not over. It was quite some gap year. In May 1935 he reached Athens where he met a Moldavian princess; and so began two great love affairs – with Balasha Cantacuzène and with Greece.
On the outbreak of war, he left his princess and returned to England and was soon assigned to the Special Operations Executive on German-occupied Crete. On the night of April 26, 1944, Paddy and a fellow officer, Billy Moss, impersonating German corporals, kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe. The episode inspired the 1957 film, Ill Met by Moonlight.