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, written up in A Time of Gifts.
I am walking in memory of my wonderful friend Harriet (pictured centre). She was newly married and expecting her first baby when she was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer. She died six months later in March 2016, aged just 32. 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, gifting 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.
Paddy was 18 and had no deadline; I’m 34, have a dodgy back and only three weeks to do this first stint! 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 and Vienna – Budapest. Walking most of the way, I’ll be crossing five countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. It's safe to say I'll be out of my comfort zone.
I'm doing this walk to raise awareness for Never Too Young, Bowel Cancer UK's campaign for under-50s. The cause is close to my heart, as I know a number of others whose lives have been affected by this, including others in their 30s:
Thank you in advance. Whatever your plans, make 2017 an adventure. It would be unfair on Harriet not to.