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May 2011
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old church Bookworm
By John Andrews

I hope you all enjoyed the jokes in last month’s recommendation, Starter for Ten, and that you will equally enjoy this month’s choice, for we are going on a long walk to the middle Danube with Patrick Leigh Fermor.

A Time of Gifts, published by John Murray in paperback, was first published in 1977 and immediately became a best-seller with all of us who relish well-written and original travel books.

At the age of 18 Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, equipped like a latter-day medieval pilgrim with staff, sketchbook and rucksack as well as a useful understanding of Latin, a general flair for languages, an insatiable curiosity and a vast store of arcane knowledge.

In 1916, soon after Fermor was born, his mother and sister sailed away to India where his father worked for the Indian Government. It was felt that the young Patrick should stay safely behind in the care of what he describes as a very kind and very simple family. During this period, Fermor was left to roam the countryside with little or no supervision.

His first school was at Salsham Hall in extensive grounds and in what he describes as “a many-belfried expanse of Suffolk”. Things do not work out well for the young Fermor at Salsham, but somehow he scrapes through his Common Entrance to the King’s School, Canterbury. However, Fermor finds the attentions of the local girls more arresting than his studies and is soon caught with Nellie in the back of her father’s shop, and after many warnings by the headmaster his school days are over.

So in the winter of 1934, with snow on the ground and a promise from his father of an allowance of only one pound a week, he sets out alone from Sloane Square via the Thames and the Hook of Holland to the Danube. Not only is this a journey of physical adventure, but one of cultural awakening. Architecture, art, genealogy, quirks of history and language are all devoured and passed on with a gusto uniquely Fermor’s.

I think you will find this book a treasure chest of descriptive writing: the resplendent domes, the monasteries, the great rivers, the hospitable burgomasters, the sun on the Bavarian snow, the storks, the frogs, the grandeurs, the courtesies – all are recalled with a sweep and verve that are almost majestic.

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