It was uphill at the start. Up the steep lane out of Goodwick, by Fishguard. Up the path where the rain dripped from hedges and the breath came short and blackthorn was in bloom. Up onto the headland where the meadows were near emerald green and black and white cows grazed in sodden fields and a farmer’s wife whose complexion was all peaches and cream confirmed the direction. “Just you keep right on then”, she sing-songed in a vaudeville Welsh voice. “You mind the boggy bits now or your feet’ll be soaked before you’ve gone very far”.
For those who created the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path it was uphill all the way. Designated in 1951, confirmed by ministerial order in 1952, minuted to and fro between committees, in 1959 there were still 31 miles where even public right of access had not yet been obtained. Then at last, in May of 1970, ten years of bureaucracy further on, there it was in all its triumph and beauty: the triumph of dedicated individuals fighting for a dream; the beauty that man could so easily mar but never could have made.
There was a wind up there. It whipped and slapped the skirts of the long cape against my legs. It catapulted the gulls up over the edge of the grey slate cliffs, and they wheeled and soared and dived and cried their wild cries over the gorse and the stone walls and the young wheat. There was salt on the wind and I tasted it and laughed aloud in exhilaration and minded not at all the flurries of rain. There was a smell of the sea and recently turned plough.
The path is truly a coastal one: rarely in all its 160-odd mile from Cardigan to Amroth, beyond Tenby, does it stray far from the edge of this westernmost county of Wales. There by force of circumstances (the nature of the terrain, long-established rights of way, the occasional refusal to grant new ones) it faithfully, at times almost perilously follows the contour of the meeting between the land and the Atlantic. In places a careless pace or two could preface a long drop to the depths of dark fissures in the grey-black igneous cliffs, or to narrow pebble beaches, secret except from the ocean and sea birds and a few others whose business it is to know them. The sound of the waves is seldom far away.
It is not a metalled path, except where it traverses outcropping rock; not of stone or macadam or concrete laid by road engineers. But man-made it is by many feet over the centuries or by the recent baby bulldozer, often in defiance of gradients that test the lungs and muscles of a heavy-laden traveller. So new were parts of it that here and there were brown disfiguring wounds across headland and hillside, but in a year of two there would be little to distinguish the work of the county council from the wear of the sheep and foxes or the ancient Welsh themselves. And not of the aborigines alone: the Vikings left their memorials in place-names ending in ‘holm’and ‘wick’ (holmen = island; vick = haven). The Normans left their mark in church architecture.
Mostly, the path was adequately signed, or obvious. Spared serious preoccupation with map or compass, I plodded steadily on, none but seabird and raven and buzzard to observe my passing. Wide were the views, very good was the air. On the first evening, after seven or eight miles as the coastal path goes from Fishguard, rain came on and I rejoiced to find a youth hostel with hardly any other walkers in it and no inflexible rules about age or membership, and with a fire. While boots and stockings slowly dried I sat with an Islay malt from my flask and the dark sea far below. Later, I made a supper of Mountain House macaroni cheese in the well-appointed kitchen; later still snuggled down into my sleeping bag and fell asleep to the sound of the rain on the windowpanes.
For breakfast there were milk and eggs fresh that morning from the neighbouring farm and the sun breaking through. It was May. Early summer was following hard on the heels of a late spring. There were primroses and bluebells and thrift and lichen-covered grey rock and acres upon acre of full-flowering sweet-scented gorse. Evening found me miles beyond the youth hostel near Trefin (“Treveen”) on the headland above Porth-egr. Cautious as a frontier scout, I sought a hollow out of the wind, level-bottomed, yielding but not sodden, as close as I dared to the cliff edge so that I might sleep within the sound of the sea. Here, I set up the 4-lb tent that I had bought at an outdoor emporium in Seattle and fetched out the Islay malt and the little gas stove and the Mountain House shrimps and rice. Long after dusk, when the feast was finished and the camp candles had expired, I lay for what seemed a long time, listening to the breakers and birds still calling, remembering walks in Scotland and Brittany and the Canadian Rockies and on the Sussex Downs and thought that this coast of my ancestral Wales (my mother was a Griffiths, and her father a Thomas, and her maternal grandmother an Edwards, and very beautiful) was in its way the equal of any of them.
Next day I came down to Whitesands beach and made my way inland to St.David’s and the cathedral and said a prayer or two for things and people I love, including the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and caught a bus to Haverfordwest and a train to London.
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*Adapted from the Sunday Telegraph, May 1970.
One of the most eagerly -awaited books in years, ‘PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR: An Adventure,’ by Artemis Cooper, has just been published* by John Murray and extensively reviewed. The following piece first appeared in my column in the Sunday Telegraph in October 1986.
WHEN HIS GREEK MANSERVANT called out “the gentleman’s here” he came from somewhere out of the shadows, glass in hand, countering my apology with eager reassurance. No; not at all; it really didn’t matter. The only thing he was a bit sad about was missing the sunset. But look here! What was I going to drink?
To have watched the sun go down beyond the Gulf of Messema from the cypress-flanked stone seats at the extremity of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s terrace would indeed have been something. My late arrival had frustrated not only my host’s desire that I should enjoy the experience for its own sake, but also his wish to show me a moment of which he was especially fond. What we both drank was rather a lot of whisky: enough at least so that at some stage before dinner I was asking whether perhaps in both A Time of Gifts and Between The Woods and the Water too much space was given to somewhat recondite detail. He suffered the near impudence with characteristic courtesy. Oh dear! Did I think so? But it was such fun looking things up and tracking things down!
The fun has resulted in a small but classic collection of titles. The first, The Traveller’s Tree (1950) remains probably the best account ever published of travel in the Caribbean. The Violins of St Jacques (1953) provided a unique portrait of Martinique. After what he himself has called “monastic travels and halts” came the short, but intensely personal and moving A Time to Keep Silence in 1957. The following year, Mani, the account of his travels— many with Joan, his wife— in the southern Peloponnese. In 1966 Roumeli was hailed as, among other things, “a masterpiece of intellectualism.” Then, in 1977 came A Time of Gifts.
Expelled from his school in 1933 at the age of 18, Leigh Fermor set out to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople. The journey took him almost two years. A Time of Gifts (1977) was the first part of his intended three-volume “travel autobiography” based upon the achievement. Between the Woods and the Water is the second. Work has started on the third. “If one is settling in the wilds”, says Leigh Fermor, “a dozen shelves of reference books is the minimum”. His many reference volumes occupy only a very small part of the notably eclectic library accommodated in the large, beautiful room that the Leigh Fermors designed from the ground up and to which the rest of the stone-built house seems incidental. Much music is played there. But tonight is mostly talk. “Wasn’t that a lovely lot of wine we got through?” says Leigh Fermor next day, meaning the quantity as a measure of conviviality, assuming the quality. Lovely enough for the visitor to misquote what he confidently announces as Verlaine, and which is easily and accurately continued for a while by Leigh Fermor. Next morning a copy of Victor Hugo’s collected poetry accompanies my breakfast tray, open at the verses of the night before. In others the gesture could have been unsettling; in Leigh Fermor it was flattering.
“No point in hurting feelings,” he says, seeking a precautionary assurance that there will be no identification of several well-known contemporary writers whose names we have mentioned but none of whom he admires. Newby? “Oh, yes. I like him”. Thubron? “Oh, yes. Absolutely”. Jan Morris? “Oh very good too. She’s been here”. Glancing through the visitors’ book, one wonders if anyone of much achievement in serious contemporary letters has not been here. Socially also, a well-used path appears to lead to the deliberately- hard-to-find Leigh Fermor door. Conspicuously missing are the jet set and the pop, the fashionable communicators, the egregious new rich. It is nothing to do with a reputed (and, Leigh Fermor thinks, not entirely merited) reputation for reclusiveness. Long resident in the Mani, he is yet a member of Whites, Pratts, The Travellers, The Beefsteak and the Special Forces clubs, and when in London uses all of them.
“He really quite likes being a bit of an enigma, you know,” says one of his oldest friends. If so, he has little need to work at it. Not innocent of vanity or unaware of the practical value of publicity, he is yet far from easily accessible. Able to ask almost any price he likes for a thousand words, he rarely engages in casual journalism. Equipped with firsthand experience enough for half a dozen best-sellers about World War II (parachuting into Crete to fight with the guerrillas and capture a German general was only part of it) he has written none. “He ought to,” says Joan, as Leigh Fermor goes to get another jug of the Nemea red wine. There are those (“the Russians of course”) who are concerned to falsify the account of what happened in Crete. Leigh Fermor finds it “rather upsetting.”
That he never will write such a story seems more than likely. A Time Of Gifts took him ten years. Between The Woods And The Water, nine. “I’m going to do the third book much faster. Other people do that sort of thing in a year; there’s no reason why I shouldn’t”. But who are the fast-working authors whose every published word was originally written with ink and pen? The question is not put. It is a flawless early autumn morning and heads need clearing. Besides, Leigh Fermor likes to swim every day. Plunging from a rock, he begins the sort of slow, lazy side-stroke that two years ago, at the age of 69, took him in a trifle under three hours across the Hellespont; a distance of some four miles.
Now, returning to swim more gently beside me, he says, “Do you know what we call that rock? Jellicoe’s Leap!” Then later, wistfully as it seems to me, “Do you remember? It was such fun!”
I remember. I had been on a yacht chartered for an extensive Aegean cruise by a Greek general with whom Leigh Fermor had been closely associated in various wartime exploits of unconventional soldiering and whose other British guests had included two of the same ilk. Leigh Fermor was known to be building his own house on the coast of the Mani and it was decided to pay him a surprise visit.The legendary self-taught scholar and adventurer of towering capabilities and achievements had been living in a tent on the cliffs while the works were in progress. Spotting the yacht approaching, fearing intruders, he had fled his camp; cautiously, almost furtively appearing again only when word had reached him as to the welcome identity of the invaders of his jealously-guarded privacy. Luncheonhad been conjured up. There in a truly Arcadian olive grove we had sat until flagons of local wine and the sun had gone, accompanied by moments of boisterous reminiscence and celebration.
Now the Greek general, too, was long gone. On the rocks, dry in the sun but loath to start the business of the day, Leigh Fermor and I sit without talking, listening to the gentle lapping of the water. Then, gazing out to sea at nothing in particular, he sighs, “Oh dear!”
What is he thinking about? That it is almost noon and his packing for an imminent journey not yet started? That another summer is over? That the luncheon in the olive grove was 20 years ago?
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*Available from books.telegraph.co.uk