If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything.... Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not meant to be a crumb.
Don’t Hesitate - Mary Oliver
Sunday 30th April 2017:
London – Harwich, England
On Sunday 30th April 2017, I said a tearful goodbye to family and friends at Liverpool Street station and took a bus to the port at Harwich. I was about to embark on a literary hike in the footsteps of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, walking in memory of my dear friend Harriet, who had died of bowel cancer the year before at the age of 32. At the time I wanted to stay off social media and let Slightly Foxed do the work for me.
When I got back people wanted to hear about my trip, and it seemed to me that the things I had found most joyful sounded like small fry compared to other adventures I had read about. No grand romances, attacks by bears/men/gypsies (as I had been warned, if you can believe it) or general derring-do. Instead, tiny wonderful incidents. I now feel ready to share some of it, so here is 20 days-worth of pictures of damp fields, pretzels, flora and fauna, based on something from each day of that first stage of the trip. I hope it might inspire you to have a little adventure of your own. Joy is not meant to be a crumb.
In memory of Harriet, as ever. But also with my cousin Charlie in mind, as he continues to tell this awful disease to fuck off in his own brilliant way.
Day 1: Monday 1st May 2017
The Hook of Holland – Dordrecht, the Netherlands
The sloping houses of Dordrecht greeted me at the end of my first day of walking in the Netherlands. I had been weaving back and forth towards the Noorde river since my arrival in Rotterdam Centraal early that morning, trudging along cycle paths past low-slung houses and flat fields dotted with irritable sheep and freight containers, my pack seeming to gather weight with every half mile. During the afternoon I thought I saw a barge floating across a field, only to discover a hidden waterway running through the crops. Some things had changed since Paddy walked this way in 1933, but many things hadn’t.
Like Paddy’s, my route was to be navigated by rivers, and I arrived in Dordrecht at the meeting point of the Noorde, Merwede and Oude Maas. I felt kindly towards the town, once a thriving port but now a stately old dame, particularly as it meant I’d made it through day one. Allegedly, a lovesick Proust called it “a place so beautiful, tomb of my cherished illusions.” After the sprawling outskirts of Rotterdam it certainly felt like stepping into a scene from The Miniaturist. On this street (Wijnstraat, near a turning to Schrijversstraat), I could hear someone practising the piano and, soon afterwards, found a noisy café serving warm apple cake and bowls of coffee: the ideal spot for diary-writing. Later that evening, my host Wouter – a baby-faced single dad who loaned me his daughter’s bedroom – served a supper of potato cakes and beer, while acting interpreter for his father, who told me the history of the area, and the story a local nobleman who, imprisoned in a tower during medieval times, managed to escape in a basket of books lowered down on a string. I’m not sure whether it was fact or fiction, but I’d like to believe it was the former.
I can’t write about my trip without an ode to this woman: my grandmother and general style icon, Pamela Ann de Lisle Godsal, whose walking headscarf (pictured) I wore throughout my hike. She mostly dressed head-to-toe in Jaeger, but on occasion she donned walk-wear (she also hated being photographed, so this is a rarity). Picture from the 1970s, somewhere in America, I think.
Day 2: Tuesday 2nd May 2017
Dordrecht – Gorinchem, the Netherlands
I discovered three important things on my second day in the Netherlands: 1) the Dutch aren’t big on toasters; 2) you can never find a café when you really need one; 3) the wetlands of De Biesbosch National Park are exactly that. The rain started as I headed out of Dordrecht; by the time I reached the ferry crossing at Kop van Het Land a fine mizzle had descended, blotting out everything but my immediate surroundings: watery meadows, polders, creeks and hundreds of wildfowl, who provided company with their chorus of quacks and honks and chattering – but alas no sighting of the beavers Wouter had promised. It was a twitcher’s delight. The captain of the car ferry clearly thought I was mad. If anyone had seen me walking along the empty towpaths and roads, sometimes talking to Harriet, often peering into ditches, they would have come to the same conclusion.
Arriving in the tiny town of Werkendem after several wind-and-water-swept miles, I was desperate for warmth and shelter. However, it transpired that everything was shut on Tuesdays. A kind woman named Didi took pity and gave me a lift to the next village, Sleeuwijk, where a café was still open and where I was due to catch another waterbus over to Gorinchem. As I got into the car I made a bad joke about being too tired to be any danger as a hitchhiker, at which she tittered nervously.
The sun was beating down on the Merwede by the time I reached Sleeuwijk’s jetty. The houses nearby, like the one pictured, were straight out of a picture book, goats and chickens grazing in the gardens. The waterbus dispensed school children, cyclists and a motorbike before we puttered over to Gorinchem.
I decided not to follow Paddy’s example by dossing down in the cell of a local police station. I was taken in by friends-of-friends Jeroen and Daphne, a cosmopolitan couple in their thirties, who sent me off for a bath before dinner. Over steak and red wine, I had my first encounter with Sissi - the Princess Diana of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - who I was to come across time and time again en route to Budapest (in this case, played by Romy Schneider - pictured below - in the eponymous film).
In the interest of honesty, this is what I looked like generally on days 1-3 of my hike. I think I was still just about resisting the waterproof trousers at this stage. I was also very sad not to have spotted any beavers. On the plus side, I was very happy with my K-Way mac with its mustard yellow and red detailing. It’s the small things…
Day 3: Wednesday 3rd May 2017
Woudrichem – Neerijnen, the Netherlands
Another day of rain. Map – a derivative of Margaret – approached me, carrying a pot of jam, as I sat on bench in the drizzle in the village of Zuilichem about to eat my sandwiches. When she offered me a cup of coffee by the fire, I didn’t need to be asked twice. Her home, a few minutes away, was a beautiful converted barn with green-silled windows filled with orchids and, underneath, shelves holding acres of books. After hanging my dripping mac and waterproof trousers in the bathroom, Map pulled a chair close to the fire and served me coffee and cream with shards of crystallised sugar. Her husband, Henkel, returned from his errands and they proceeded to tell me, in halting English, about their travels. They were now in their late 80s, but had spent their retirement travelling all over the Middle East, so we had plenty to talk about. Then Henkel told me an amazing thing: as a child he spent time in England. Grantham, to be precise, in 1946. After the war, malnourished Dutch children were taken to England to be fed back to health and Henkel had been one of these. As Map heated a bowl of asparagus soup for me eat, he told me he had never forgotten this kindness from the Brits, and was happy to return the favour by giving me lunch.
Back on the road, the sun reappeared and I had a call from a local journalist. He asked if I’d be happy to be photographed in the next couple of hours by their photographer, Cor de Kock. Harriet would have dined out for days on that name. Cor kept me waiting on the Waaldijk for an hour and a half, so - already camera shy - I was not particularly disposed to doing a photo shoot by the time he arrived (my expression in the picture says a lot). However, we soon made friends and he drove me to a picturesque windmill to do the shoot before giving me a lift to Neerijnen, my stopping point for the night. That evening was to be one of my favourite stays of the trip.
*See entry from Day 1 of my hike*
The story about the man escaping prison in a box of books is true! Ariana Batata, an acquaintance on Instagram, put me straight. It was a chest of books (not a basket), the man was Hugo de Groot and it was Loevestein Castle, on the banks of the Waal. I had forgotten this detail, and the fact that - had I not diverted my route on Day 3 due to an unanticipated tributary - I would have seen the castle for myself.
De Groot is celebrated as one of the greatest Dutch thinkers (a Milton of the Netherlands?) and, even though he was imprisoned for his radical thinking, he was still allowed book post. Most civilised. In 1621, after three years in captivity, de Groot managed to escape from Loevestein in a book chest.
If you’d like to read more, there’s a handy digest on the Dutch Review. Pictured: De Groot and wife Maria van Reigersbergen and said escape chest.
Day 4: Thursday 4th May 2017
Neerijnen – Ophemert, the Netherlands
Jet (a diminutive of Harriet) was introduced to me by Jon Day, a judge on my last Man Booker. She’d taught his mother piano as a girl (nice aside: his mum’s maiden name was Tielnus, linked to my final Dutch destination, Tiel).
I’d been apprehensive about spending my evening with this mystery piano teacher, not least because of the milk-and-cookies Dutch grandmother Jeroen had conjured up at dinner the night before. Instead, I was greeted by a beautifully animated woman with a cloud of white hair, intelligent eyes and a wicked bark of a laugh. She confessed that she’d put away her cigarettes and wine before I arrived, because she thought that someone doing a trip like mine would have ‘high morals’. I quickly put her straight and we enjoyed these vices for the rest of the evening.
Jet lived in an old schoolhouse filled with art and books. Her brother is a well-known artist, and everywhere you looked there were little jewel-like canvases. Before dinner, she took me to visit a neighbour’s garden, filled with riotous beds of tulips, apologising for her own untamed wilderness which I rather loved. We dined on fresh radishes and asparagus risotto in her smoky kitchen whilst swapping travel stories, book recommendations and sharing our love of dogs (her downstairs loo was papered with art depicting women with dogs, something to do with Chekhov’s The Lady and the Dog, as I recall). Aside from her teaching, Jet narrated audiobooks for the blind; her latest project, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, sat on the kitchen table. The next morning, she recommended Harry Mulisch as her Dutch writer of choice. We ate a hearty breakfast of avocado, cheese and eggs before I reluctantly set off for Ophemert; I could have stayed for a month.
“I have the feeling I have endless time. I think you must live as if you will never die. People say you must think each day about death, memento mori. And every book will be your last, and so on. No. Live as if you will never die.” - Harry Mulisch
*See previous entry*
Obligatory tulip shot, taken during the golden hour in Jet’s neighbour’s garden.
Day 5: Friday 5th May 2017
Ophemert – Tiel, the Netherlands
My final day in the Netherlands. I’d spent the night in an eco-farm and woke up in a bedroom nestled in the eaves of a barn. The owner, Ellen-Rose, brought me a breakfast tray of home-made yoghurt and muesli with dried pears and apples from the orchard. Chickens shuffled by outside the window. It was an entirely ‘moralistic' experience of which Jet would have approved. Yet it felt somewhat lonely after the warmth and chatter of the old schoolhouse in Neerijnen.
Despite my now blistered feet and the threat of rain, I made it to Tiel in good time, rejoining the Waal, a river I now held in great affection. Bells were ringing out when I reached the town. It was Freedom Day, a national celebration of the end of German occupation; all the villages I’d passed through were decked with orange bunting. Ellen-Rose had told me that, to celebrate, planes still do fly-overs and drop bread, as the Allies had during the war.
I didn't linger in Tiel, keen to press on towards warmth and a washing machine. A train bore me to Arnhem, where I got a connection to Cologne, my first stop in Germany. It felt strange to be travelling at speed again. I exchanged walking boots for plimsolls, my t-shirt for a merino sweater. I couldn't quite kick my map-reading habit and followed the train's progress through the regional stations of Kesteren, Opheusden, Zetten and Elst. At Elst, the conductor announced the exchange to Nijmegen. I felt a small pang that I wouldn't be stopping at that point on Paddy's route, but also relieved to be missing out on what is now a grotty, industrialised approach to Cologne.
At Arnhem I saw a train headed for Winterswijk and thought of my great-grandfather Philip Godsal. A prisoner of war during World War One, Philip escaped from Germany by jumping out of a train and walking to the Dutch border. It was deep winter and he had to travel under cover of night, hiding in barns by day. Winterswijk, not far from Arnhem, was where he crossed over to safety and was given a hero's welcome by the townspeople.