Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

Whenever I mention Transylvania to friends and acquaintances most express a strong desire to visit this land of mystery. Few however, can place Transylvania on a map and even less ever actually travel there. Readers of the Paddy blog will know that PLF passed through in 1934 and returned during communist times. I have had the privilege of working and travelling there, and it is through this association that I met Lucy Abel Smith who is the organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival 2016 and author of this new Blue Guide.

If you are thinking of visiting Romania with all its cultural, historical, and natural riches, it may be difficult to decide where to start for it is a large country with a relatively small population. Transylvania itself is an area three times the size of Wales with diversity in all corners. The recently published Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley helps by picking one area and offers a detailed insight from someone who has been living and travelling since the time of Ceausescu, describing a journey through this one part of Transylvania, the fabled “Saxon Lands” of the south-east that Lucy knows so well. It essentially takes as its theme a 120km long journey along the course of the Tarnova river from Odurheiu Secuiesc in the Gurhui mountains, westwards along the Tarnova valley via Ruritanian cities like the beautiful Sighisoara and ends in Blaj.

Lucy herself describes the area thus:

“… there is still to be seen the stunning landscape, ancient farming methods and extraordinary botanical variety. But there is so much more. We travel through a fraction of ancient Hungary to encounter a vast array of the peoples of Central Europe, all up until recently living together, yet in distinct communities with different customs, architecture, costumes and languages. We find the Vlachs and the Szeklers, the Hungarians, the Saxons, and the the Jews, the Gypsies and others, such as the Armenians, who settled here to take advantage of this tolerant and diverse land in the very heart of Europe.”

The landscape that these peoples crafted and the architecture that they developed is both beautiful and unique. Accommodation is plentiful and will suit all budgets, with food on the whole being local and organic in many cases. It is easily accessible with flights from Vienna, London, and Munich amongst others, direct to Cluj, Turgu Mures, Bucharest, and soon Brasov. Above all the people are welcoming and it is safe. If you take Lucy’s excellent guide you won’t go far wrong. Your journey can be extended north to the baroque city of Cluj, west to Sibiu (a Saxon city and European City of Culture), or south to the large Saxon city of Brasov which is not far from the so-called Dracula’s castle (the violent warlord Vlad Dracul did live there) in Bran.

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy writes from a very personal perspective and is an engaging writer with an informative but never patronising style. She is an art historian and her explanations of church art – frescoes, altar-pieces and statues – are thorough but never boring. The guide is packed full of useful information, including accommodation details, and background history. There are some useful maps and illustrations. It could do with some colour photographs but other than this, the Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley would be an invaluable aid for the independent traveller.

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

If you are thinking of an alternative holiday in Romania you could do worse than combine a tour of the Tarnova valley with a few days at the second Transylvanian Book Festival which runs from 8th to 11th September. Full details can be found on the Festival website.

For those who have any questions about travel in Transylvania I would be more than happy to attempt to answer them. See the About and Contact page for details of how to get in touch.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation to Fully Repair and Restore Patrick Leigh Fermor’s House

Patrick Leigh Fermor working at his home studio on 3 October 2004, then aged 89. Kardamyli. by Sean Deany Copyright 2012

Patrick Leigh Fermor working at his home studio on 3 October 2004, then aged 89. Kardamyli. by Sean Deany Copyright 2012

At last some very good news about the house at Kardamyli. The Benaki museum has made the following announcement in a press release as follows.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation has approved a grant to the Benaki Museum to fully cover the repair and restoration works as well as the cost of the necessary equipment for the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor House in Kardamyli. This unique property will soon start operating as a centre for hosting notable figures from the intellectual and artistic worlds as well as a centre for educational activities in collaboration with Institutions in Greece and abroad.

The donation of Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor

For many years Patrick and his wife Joan Leigh Fermor lived in Kardamyli in Messenian Mani, in the house which was designed by the architect Nikos Hadjimichalis in close collaboration with the Leigh Fermors.

In 1996, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor bequeathed their home in Kardamyli to the Benaki Museum, while still in life, with the intention that ownership of the house would be transferred to the Museum after their deaths. The option of donating the property to the Benaki Museum was suggested by their close friend Tzannis Tzannetakis. The bequest was accepted unreservedly by the Benaki Museum, particularly given Leigh Fermor’s close relationship with the Museum’s founder Antonis Benakis and his daughter Irini Kalliga.

According to the donation contract, the property must be used to foster the success of the Benaki Museum’s work, based on the decisions of its Board of Trustees. In addition, it may be used to host researchers seeking a quiet and welcoming place to work, while there is also provision for the option of renting the property for three months every year in order to secure its operating costs. Taking into consideration the donor’s personality and standing, the Museum added certain categories of guests such as writers, poets, artists and so on.

The Museum acquired full ownership of the property after the donor’s death, in the autumn of 2011. After receiving the gift, a study on its future use was initiated, and in parallel, a preliminary study on the repair and restoration of the property’s buildings was undertaken in collaboration with architects Andreas Kourkoulas and Maria Kokkinou and a budget was also drafted for the project. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, in response to the Museum’s initial request for funding for the repairs and the acquis ition of the neces s ary equipment for the operation of the hous e, commissioned—and funded—a feasibility study, which was conducted by AEA Consulting, a firm specializing in the organization and management of cultural institutions. This study, which was based on the Benaki Museum’s proposal for the future operation of the house, led to a number of changes, mainly in regard to the financial planning respecting the sustainability of the project.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation announced the approval of the Benaki Museum’s request to fully cover the repair works and the restoration of the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor House as well as its equipment, so that it can start operating as soon as possible.

The Benaki Museum’s Board of Trustees would like to once again thank the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for its continued and very generous support, and the inclusion of this project in its arts and culture grants. The unique location of the Leigh Fermor House, its distinctive architectural form and the luminance bestowed upon it by the author himself, in conjunction with the Benaki Museum’s supervision and the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, guarantee the creation of an exceptional centre which will gain a high place among the many similar centers in Europe and the United States.

The property

The property is located in the Kalamitsi area on the outskirts of Kardamyli, in Messenia, and has a total area of about nine stremmata, a little over two acres. It is, by general consensus, one of the most beautiful properties in Greece. Its direct contact with the sea—narrow stone steps lead to a small pebble beach just below the estate—the low, discreet, stone buildings and the Mediterranean garden that goes down to the water, comprise an ideal environment for focus and the creative process.

In short, a sojourn in this place is a great gift that Greece can offer to notable figures from the intellectual and artistic worlds.

The vision

The creation of a centre in Greece (working title: The Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Centre), the operation of which, will commence in stages and planning of the following years will be based on evaluation of its activity.
The operations of the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Centre will include:

– hosting of young writers and scholars for work and research purposes,
organization of higher-educational activities in collaboration with Universities and Institutions in Greece and abroad,
– honorary hosting of notable representatives from the fields of literature, the arts and other fields,
– organization of educational and cultural events for the general public and residents of Kardamyli,
– scheduled tours of the property, focusing on the donors, the history of the house and its use by the Benaki Museum,
– short term honorary hosting of benefactors and major supporters of the Benaki Museum.

As per a decision by the Museum’s Board of Trustees an international committee is to be set up, which will form and advise on the operation program of the Centre. The advisory committee will be unpaid, it will monitor the project underway and it will make recommendations regarding the selection of guests.

The Benaki Museum’s legal, financial and other services (including departments such as Educational Programs, Sponsorship and European Programs, Public Relations and Communication, and Conservation among others) will support and assist the project taking place at the Leigh Fermor House.

The Benaki Museum is aiming for the creation of an endowment based on third-party donations, which will be able to cover operating expenditure of the Centre and allow the proposed educational activities to evolve and grow.

Brief history – Up to date
– the archival material found in the house has been delivered to the executors of the will, in order for it to be handed over to the National Archives of the United Kingdom, as stipulated in the will,
– the staff selected by Leigh Fermor himself have been retained to ensure the ongoing care of the buildings and surrounding area are on a daily basis,
– the property has been insured,
– cataloguing of the library has progressed,
– detailed photography of the house and the recording of the household effects have been carried out,

– artworks and valuable books have been transferred to the facilities at the Benaki Museum in Athens for conservation and safekeeping, until completion of the requisite repairs,
– detailed mapping of the property has been completed as has the architectural and electromechanical study for repair of the buildings and maintenance of the gardens, with the principle of maintaining all those elements that render the property so unique (study team: Maria Kokkinou-Andreas Kourkoulas, Pantelis Argyros, Dimitris Pastras, Helli Pangalou),
– the process of legalizing buildings on the estate has been completed,
– the feasibility study by AEA Consulting on the future use, operation and viability of the house has been completed with funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation,
– two successive disinsectisations have been carried out for the protection of the house and
household effects, and in particular the wooden elements of the house such as the ceilings of the rooms, furniture, and so on,
– one bank account has been set up in Greece and one especially activated in the United Kingdom, in order to facilitate donations,
– discussions with Greek and foreign educational institutions regarding collaboration in the future operation of the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Centre have been initiated,
– an implementation study for the repair work is in progress,
– a book in honor of Patrick Leigh Fermor, dedicated to his life and work, is in preparation and will be completed in 2016, and another publication about the house will follow,
– finally, a short—for the time being—presentation of the Leigh Fermor House has been uploaded onto the Benaki Museum website. A separate website for the house is currently in preparation, where detailed information about the project’s progress, the operation of the house, and scheduled events and guided tours will be posted. These presentations will also provide all the necessary details for donations to the endowment for the future operation of the Centre,
– from the day the Leigh Fermor residence came into the ownership of the Benaki Museum, the Museum has organized and/or coordinated a particularly large number of visits. During many of these visits, individuals working with the Museum have informed the guests about the house’s prospects and future programs. Revenue from visitor tickets is used exclusively for the needs of the house.

From now on:

– The commencement of the repair work is entirely contingent on the issue of the permit. It is anticipated that work will be completed in about 12 to 18 months from its commencement. Until such time as the preparation of the house for the repair work begins, the organized visits, upon arrangement with the Museum, will continue. (
– The Benaki Museum is in the process of creating an endowment for the collection of donations, which will ensure that the operational expenditure of the Centre is covered and that the proposed educational activities will continue to evolve and grow.
– With the dual objective of informing the public of developments and the collection of donations, the Benaki Museum is planning a series of detailed presentations on the progress of the project and its future operation.
– More specifically, it is organizing a detailed presentation in early November 2016 in London, where there is a keen, ongoing interest in the author and the Kardamyli House, while in the interim, similar presentations are planned for Athens and Kardamyli.

For information about the Leigh Fermor House please contact Irini Geroulanou or Myrto Kaouki at the Benaki Museum, on the following numbers: 210 3671010 and 210 3671090, or by email:

Download the full press release here.

Who was Stavros Niarchos?

What is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation?

Transylvanian Saxon and polymath, Rudolf Fischer – obituary

Rudolf Fischer

Rudolf Fischer

Rudolf Fischer, who has died aged 92, was a historian, linguist and polymath who advised and guided foreign writers through the minutiae of eastern European history, language, etymology and ethnography; the foremost of these, Patrick Leigh Fermor, acknowledged in 1986 that his debt to Fischer was “beyond reckoning”.

First published in the Telegraph 12 June 2016.

Fischer’s friendship with Leigh Fermor began after Fischer wrote a letter to him full of praise for A Time of Gifts (1972), the first volume of Leigh Fermor’s travel trilogy, with, attached to it, a long list of all the inaccuracies, misspellings and contradictions. Months passed without a response, and Fischer feared that his constructive criticism had gone down badly. In fact, Leigh Fermor was delighted, and wrote, eventually, asking if Fischer could bear to advise on his next volume. Gradually drafts of Between the Woods and the Water starting appearing in parcels from the Peloponnese which Fischer pored over meticulously.

There resulted a correspondence which lasted for decades, thrashing out the finer points of Transylvanian history, language, costume, traditions and legends. Fischer also read and made corrections to Leigh Fermor’s final, posthumous, volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, published in 2013, and edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron.

Among others he also helped Bruce Chatwin, Robert Kaplan (who devoted an entire chapter to him in Eastward to Tartary), Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Robin Hanbury-Tennison, Adam Sisman and William Blacker, many of whom made the pilgrimage to his small book-lined flat in Budapest.

Rudolf Fischer was born on September 17 1923 in the medieval city of Brasov, Kronstadt, in the Transylvania region of Romania. His father, Josef Fischer, was a Hungarian Jew, a descendant of the Hatam Sofer, the 19th-century leader of the Haredic movement which resisted modernisation and mysticism. His mother, Bertha Meldt, was a Saxon Lutheran. Rudolf attended the local Saxon school. But talk of war prompted his father to migrate with him to Australia, leaving his wife and younger son behind, for fear that the older one, Rudolf, would be enlisted.

The next few years were spent helping his father on a chicken farm on the outskirts of Sydney and serving in the alien corps of the Australian army in New Guinea, before attending Sydney University, where he met his first wife, Janet Gleeson-White.

At university Fischer studied under John Anderson, a Scottish philosopher, whose acolytes formed the libertarian movement known as the Sydney Push, one of whose principles was that no statement or assumption was to remain unchallenged. This, as one writer on Australian philosophy, James Franklin, later observed, was all very well but “hard on the wives and children”.

In the early 1950s Fischer moved to Britain, earning a living as a teacher. He felt that cultural life of London compensated for the poor living conditions in an attic flat; it was a view not shared by his wife, who was struggling with small children. So in 1957 the family travelled back to Australia. The marriage broke down, however, and Fischer returned alone to Europe in 1962 where, on a visit to Romania, he met his second wife, Dagmar von Melchner, a distant cousin.

After living in Greece for eight months, the couple moved to London, where, in 1968, Fischer became English Language editor for the New Hungarian Quarterly – an achievement given that his first language was German – and so they moved to Budapest, where they remained for 48 years. There, with Dagmar, he brought up his second family, deepened his knowledge of Central Europe and became a guide, critic and friend to writers of all nationalities who passed through Budapest.

Fischer’s library was packed with obscure 19th-century reference books on the Balkans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as a large map from 1853 of Europäischen Turkei – more accurate, he assured everyone, than the modern ones. Rudolf Fischer was a link to the pre-war Saxon world of Transylvania, and with his fine moustache, upright and dignified manner, collection of exotic Eastern European hats and excellent grasp of all the relevant languages, he more than fitted the part.

He was buried in Brasov in the family grave in a small Saxon Lutheran cemetery at the end of the street on which he had been born.

He is survived by his second wife Dagmar and his five daughters.

Rudolf Fischer, born September 17 1923, died February 18 2016

The Sabotage Diaries – video by author Katherine Barnes

The Sabotage Diaries from Katherine Barnes on Vimeo.

I first wrote about this excellent book in March. Author Katherine Barnes has now produced a video which is worth a watch, even if only to view some of the extraordinary photographs showing SOE operations in mainland Greece.

The Sabotage Diaries is the thrilling story of Allied engineer Tom Barnes, who was parachuted behind enemy lines in Greece In 1942 with eleven others to sabotage the railway line taking supplies to Rommel in North Africa. The target chosen was the Gorgopotamos bridge. Tom led the demolition party to lay the explosives while fighting raged between the Italian garrison and a combined force of Greek resistance fighters and Tom’s fellow-soldiers. A great story of courage and endurance.

Buy The Sabotage Diaries

Five years on – the house at Kalamitsi

The house in Kalamitsi, September 2014 (John Chapman)

The house in Kalamitsi, September 2014 (John Chapman)

Today marks the fifth anniversary of Paddy’s death, an opportunity to ponder a little on his full and colourful life, and to think about his memory and all that he left us. This includes the house at Kalamitsi which to this day remains in some sort of limbo: uncared for; mouldering away; and its future unsecure. Most importantly, nowhere near meeting Paddy’s intentions that it should be available as a writers’ retreat and part-time holiday home to provide an income. To mark this anniversary I am happy at last to publish some thoughts from regular correspondent Dominic Green, FRHistS, who is a writer and critic who resides in Newton, Massachusetts. Dominic wrote to me following reports of frolicking nudes at Paddy’s house in 2014. It retains its relevance two years on. Dominic discusses an idea that I had shortly after Paddy’s death that the house be leased to a UK based charity or society that will carry out his wishes.

Dear Tom,

It was reading your website that sparked my interest in writing about the posthumous saga of the PLF house. So I’m delighted to return the favour by contributing some personal reflections.

I spoke with Irini Geroulanou, the deputy director of the Benaki, a couple of times on the phone, and also sent her lists of queries. She always replied promptly and helpfully. Without her help, I wouldn’t have been able to get inside the house, and might have suffered the disappointments of Max Long. Irini is, by the way, a reader of your site.

My impression is that Irini and the Benaki are committed to honouring the terms of the bequest, but on their own terms. My impression is also that this may take many years, if it’s done according to the Benaki’s current plan for what Irini calls a ‘holistic’ solution; ie, that no work be started until all the funds are secure. When I asked if the Benaki, having failed to raise funds, would sell the house, she insisted that this would not happen.

As we know, the Benaki has had severe financial problems. The outgoing director, Angelos Devorakis, has spoken of severe salary and budget cuts. Irini told me that the financial problems are not solely due to the expansion in Athens: since the crash of 2008, the museum has been obliged to restructure its relationship with the Greek government. I’m not an economist, but this also suggests that not much will happen for a long while.

Another of the questions I raised with Irini was whether the Benaki would be amenable to working with a British-based charity, which could raise funds for the restoration. I had heard that something along these lines was proposed to the Benaki a couple of years ago, and that the museum turned it down. Irini said she hadn’t heard about this offer; perhaps Angelo Devorakis might know.

Irini, though, was against the idea anyway. She said the museum preferred to receive direct donations, and a request directing the money to the PLF house, as opposed to the Benaki’s numerous other projects. She was under the impression that donors could do this through the Benaki’s website. But, at the time of going to press, this was not the case, at least on the English website. To me, this shows how high the PLF house ranks on the Benaki’s to-do list.

I thought that a combination of money troubles and institutional inflexibility might be the source of the problem, and that both might reflect high professional ambitions. So I was astounded to find that the house has no resident caretaker, and that many of PLF and JLF’s personal possessions are still in place [as seen recently by Rick Stein]. Having read PLF’s books and Artemis Cooper’s biography, I was able to identify some of the items as biographically
important. Anyone could break in and walk off with them.

While Benaki has stored the most important books, the majority of PLF’s possessions, including almost all of his books, items of handmade furniture and clothing, and many original photographs, are not secure. It is this majority of items that preserve the ambience of the house. If the Benaki is allowed to rent out the house, then there is no reason for it not to install a local person or a couple of interns as permanent caretakers. I suggested these ideas to Irini, and she rejected them.

This is not a safe state of affairs, andnot one I had expected to encounter, given that the Benaki is a major museum.

Clearly, the Benaki cannot find the relatively small amount of money needed for restoration – or even to secure the place in the meantime. Therefore, it should either sell the property to a institution capable of fulfilling the terms of the bequest; or allow a foreign ‘Friends of Paddy’ group to raise funds – perhaps on the understanding that it wouldn’t have a say in how the Benaki spends its donations. But I have the strong impression that the Benaki would rather do nothing in the hope of dealing with other institutions: EU funding was mentioned. To me, this is the wrong kind of inflexibility: the kind of bureaucratic inertia that is creating a dangerous situation at Kalamitsi.

I am not unsympathetic to the Benaki’s financial troubles, not all of which are of its own making. But I left the house deeply concerned by the risks the Benaki is running in its handling of the bequest, and disheartened by the apparent absence of prospects for improvement. Three and a half years have passed since PLF’s death. Publicity from the publication of The Broken Road and Artemis Cooper’s biography has created a unique opportunity for fundraising. But the Benaki seems determined not to use it. Perhaps my article will stir things up a bit. If the Benaki changed tack, and invited a British group to raise funds, I would contribute immediately. I’m sure that many other PLF readers would too.

Finally, I was greatly impressed by Elpida Beloyannis and Christos the gardener. Both have both done their utmost to keep the house going. Shutters aside, the interior is clean and cared for. It was a privilege to visit the house, and see their devotion to it and the memories of JLF and PLF.

With thanks for your website,


Paddy’s Irishness

Paddy by Mark Gerson, bromide print, February 1954 (National Portrait Gallery)

Paddy by Mark Gerson, bromide print, February 1954 (National Portrait Gallery)

This gets better as you read it. I wasn’t going to publish it but I thought you might like the second half at least:-)

By Michael Duggan

First published in the Irish Examiner 7 June 2016.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died five years ago this month, aged 96, and though he claimed to be part Irish, he was a man of the world, who walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in his teens, and who later became a great travel writer.

British soldier and travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, on April 25, 1966. Pictures: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
ON the third of May, 1810, Lord Byron jumped into the waters of the Hellespont and swam the tumultuous four miles separating Asia from Europe.

In Greek mythology, Leander used to swim across this same stretch of water every night to visit his lover, Hero, who would light a lamp to guide his way.

Byron claimed that swimming the Hellespont was his greatest achievement. 174 years later, another English writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor — also, like Byron, revered by many Greeks for his part in a war of liberation — repeated the feat. Leigh Fermor, however, was 69 when he did it. Byron was 22.

The Hellespont swim, with its mix of literature, adventure, travel, bravery, eccentricity and romance, is an apt metaphor for Leigh Fermor’s life. ‘Paddy’, who died five years ago this month, at the age of 96, seemed to embody the lot.

And he claimed Irishness, too.

Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915. His father was in Calcutta, where he worked in the Indian civil service. His mother, Aeileen, had planned to follow him, with Paddy and Paddy’s older sister, but the sinking of the Lusitania frightened her that both her children might die at once.

Paddy was packed off to a small terraced house in Northamptonshire. He was loved by his foster parents, and allowed to roam free around the town and countryside with their other children.

In June, 1919, his mother and sister returned from India and Paddy was whisked back to London. He did not adapt well to school. His education was a series of disasters and recoveries, experiments and ignominious expulsions.

After a time living it up with the fast set in London, Paddy decided to walk every mile from the Hook of Holland to the Gates of Constantinople.

Aged 18, this is more or less what he did. He disembarked in Rotterdam on December 8, 1933 and reached Istanbul on New Year’s Day, 1935.

By then, he had mingled with bargemen, peasants, nobles and gypsies, made countless friends, learned songs and languages, had love affairs, slept rough, slept in castles, and savoured a culture on the eve of extinction.

During the Second World War, he led a party of English commandos and local guerrillas, who, disguising themselves as German soldiers, kidnapped the general in command of Crete and smuggled him off the island.

After the war, he began to write, while continuing to indulge his eclectic tastes for travel, wild parties, seedy nightclubs and monastic retreats.

He eventually settled in Greece. where he was loved, with his wife, Joan, and became a legend among travel writers.

Patrick with Joan Rayner, after their wedding at Caxton Hall, Westminster, London, January 17, 1968. Picture: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The centrepiece of his achievement was a trilogy of books about his epic trek across Europe.

To get a flavour, new readers might try the opening pages of Between the Woods and the Water. The author is crossing the bridge at Esztergom, entering Hungary for the first time.

He attends the Holy Saturday ceremony at the cathedral. He is in the company of a local grandee, who “carried his scimitar slung nonchalantly in the crook of his arm” and who polished his rimless monocle with a silk bandana.

The passage concludes with the words “I kept wondering if all Hungary could be like this.” The first-time reader is left wondering whether all of Patrick Leigh Fermor could be like this. The books sometimes feel like a never-ending purple passage.

But this is not to say that everything they have to offer is there glittering on the surface. In A Time of Gifts, there is a charming vignette in a little tobacconist’s shop in Goch. Paddy picks up a ‘stocknagel’, a curved, aluminium plaque about an inch long.

On it is a view of the town and its name, and he tacks it onto his walking stick.

Then, with no preamble, the camera angle widens out to show a town hung with Nazi flags.

We hear “the crunch of measured footfalls” as Stormtroopers march into the square. It is the restraint of the writing that deepens the sick feeling in the reader’s stomach.

Intriguingly, Paddy liked to claim he was descended from Counts of the Holy Roman Empire, who came to Austria from Sligo.

Paddy could recite ‘The Dead at Clomacnoise’ (in translation) and perhaps did so during a handful of flying visits to Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, partying hard at Luggala House or Lismore Castle, or making friends with Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Faolain in Dublin pubs.

He once provoked a massive brawl at the Kildare Hunt Ball, and was rescued from a true pounding by Ricki Huston, a beautiful Italian-American dancer, John Huston’s fourth wife and Paddy’s lover not long afterwards.

And yet, a note of caution about Paddy’s Irish roots is sounded by his biographer, Artemis Cooper, who also co-edited The Broken Road, the final, posthumously published instalment of the trilogy.

“I’m not a great believer in his Irish roots,” she told me.

“His mother, who was a compulsive fantasist, liked to think that her family was related to the Viscount Taaffes, of Ballymote. Her father was apparently born in County Cork.

“But she was never what you might call a reliable witness.”

“She was an extraordinary person, though. Imaginative, impulsive, impossible — just the way the Irish are supposed to be, come to think of it. She was also one of those sad women, who grew up at the turn of the last century, who never found an outlet for their talents and energies, nor the right man, come to that. All she had was Paddy, and she didn’t get much of him.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper
Paddy never tried to get to the bottom of his Irish ancestry, afraid, no doubt, of disturbing the bloom that had grown on history and his past, a recurring trait.

“His memory was extraordinary,” Artemis notes, “but it lay dangerously close to his imagination and it was a very porous border.”

But she is in no doubt about how exceptional a man he was: “The thing that inspired me most about him was his responsiveness to people, whoever they were.

“I had known him all my life. When I wrote the book, I was in my fifties and he in his nineties.

“He didn’t have to impress or charm me, and he never set out to do so. But he was so curious, so responsive.

“Every time I mentioned a book I thought he might like he, he made a note of it.

“Every time I told a joke, he roared with laughter. Every time I told a story, he sat forward, eager to hear how it was going to turn out.

“That wasn’t me, it was him. He made me feel funnier, better-read and more intelligent than I ever could be, and he did that to everyone,” she says.

A bugler from his former regiment, the Irish Guards, delivered the ‘Last Post’ at Paddy’s funeral five years ago.

It marked the passing of an extraordinary man: soldier, writer, adventurer, charmer.

We may not see his like again.

The life, times and legacy of geologist Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

Geoscientist Cover Dec_Jan15_16This article is by Ted Nield on the life, times and legacy of geologist Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, as seen through the eyes of his more famous son.

First published by The Geological Society, in Geoscientist, December 2015.

“…having made the most solemn oaths to me [he] has quite cheerfully broken them all – you can never guess just what a blighter and a mongrel that man is – he even astonishers me – and I thought I knew him pretty thoroughly … there is one thing I regret and that is that I didn’t leave him straight away the first time I longed to – which was three days after my wedding day. He is impossible.”

So wrote Muriel Ӕileen Fermor (née Ambler, 1890-1997) on 1 February 1923 to her mother – convinced that her austere geologist husband Lewis Leigh Fermor (1880-1954) had been cheating on her in far-away Calcutta, where he was then Acting Director of the Geological Survey of India. (He became Director in 1932.) Their desultory marriage – already a separation in all but name – had but another two years to run. They were divorced in May 1925.

The marriage resulted in two children, Vanessa Opal (b. Calcutta, 1911) and Patrick Michael (b. Endsleigh Gardens, St Pancras, 1915). It is perhaps fortunate that ‘Paddy’ was born in England, away from Lewis, else he might also have copped a mineral for a middle name. After the Lusitania was sunk, Ӕileen decided to leave the baby in England rather than risk losing both her children. Thus Paddy was farmed out to friends and grew up hardly knowing his father at all.

For this reason, little of what we know of Lewis comes to us via him – despite the fact that Paddy grew up to be a great (and largely autobiographical) writer. However, his books do contain rare, but often highly touching glimpses of Lewis, illuminating the peculiar upbringing that colonial service often imposed upon the children of its staff.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor at his desk in the Geological Survey of India, Calcutta.  From the Geological Society’s photograph collection.

By the time Paddy was 19, having been sacked from just about every school he was ever sent to and very far from achieving either his father’s ambitions (that he should study at science-strong Rugby, Haileybury or Oundle) or his mother’s (that he should go to Eton and join the ruling class) young Fermor was becoming tired of idling away his adolescence in Metropolitan dissipation. Aware he ought to become a writer but knowing he lacked material, he conceived the romantic idea of taking his meagre allowance and walking, alone, across Europe to Istanbul (or ‘Constantinople’, as he resolutely persisted in calling it), like a mendicant scholar of old.

The idea came to him in a flash, was the making of him, and met with (by today’s standards) shockingly little parental or other opposition. It was to prove the first in a lifetime of adventures, culminating most famously in his wartime work with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, and his kidnap of the island’s commander-in-chief, General Kreipe – described in William Stanley Moss’s book Ill Met by Moonlight (1950) and the Powell & Pressburger film of the same name (1957), in which Paddy was dashingly portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.

The epic walk was described in three of the greatest travel books ever written in English (each, as they were published up to five decades later, a truly prodigious act of recall), marking the beginning of Paddy’s remarkable career as traveller, linguist, Hellenophile, polymath, autodidact, author, war hero and all-round national treasure. But when he set out for the Hook of Holland, just before Christmas on 8 December 1933, nobody would have believed that, one day, like his father, he too would become a Knight of the Realm – still less that his fame would completely eclipse that of his worthy forebear.

However, the eclipse is not quite total. The Society, at least, remembers Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, through the gift of a substantial bequest that supports the Fermor Fund and the Fermor Meeting. But who was he, and what did he do?

Lewis Leigh Fermor (his middle name, given in honour of a family friend, was perpetuated through his children – but there is no hyphen) was born in Peckham on 18 September 1880, eldest of six. His father was a bank clerk. Adept at winning scholarships, after an initial 4d/week education at Goodrich Road Board School, Lewis moved to Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell, and the Royal School of Mines, studying metallurgy (with a view to a job in the Royal Mint).

Invited by Professor J W Judd (1840-1916, he became Student Assistant in Geology while working for his BSc. Judd also persuaded him to apply for a vacancy in the Geological Survey of India before graduating. He was appointed in 1902 – the year he joined the Society. He subsequently gained his degree by research, in 1909. Imperial later also bestowed upon him its DSc, for work he would perform in India: most notably a monumental tome on manganese ores.

We cannot be certain, but it is likely that his geological work in India led to his first marriage, because Muriel Ӕileen Ambler was the daughter of a quarrying magnate there. Educated by a series of governesses at the family home in Dulwich, she had returned to India, where the family had built a villa a few miles outside Dharhara, at Bassowni. While her brother Artie entered the family business, Ӕileen and her mother began the search for a husband in Calcutta. Ӕileen, spirited and venturesome, a lover of the theatre, was given to effusions and purple ink and liked to ennoble her Anglo-Irish family tree with glamorous royal connections of dubious accuracy.

She and Lewis met in 1907, probably in connection with the Survey’s work – the Survey had done load-bearing tests on the family’s product – and it was she who began the tradition of unofficially hitching the ‘Leigh’ onto the Fermor, even though it was only Lewis’s middle name. They seem an unlikely match, he so austere and ambitious, she so wild; but Lewis was, by all accounts a very elegant figure on the dance floor and his ambitiousness undoubtedly recommended him to his in-laws – and perhaps to Ӕileen, at least initially.

Colonial service staff received furloughs once every six years, so little Paddy was six when he first met his father. Embarrassed at being unable to impress this remote figure, Paddy camouflaged his youthful slowness, according to his biographer Artemis Cooper, by memorising long passages of literature by heart. Thus began his voracious love of books, and the first flexing of his prodigious memory.

Ӕileen never returned to India after World War 1, and (curiously for one so addicted to travel) Paddy never visited his father there. In 1924, Lewis once again came back to England, travelling with his family to Zweisimmen (near Gstaad). Paddy at that time had no school to go back to (having just been sacked again), so when sister Vanessa departed with her mother for England, Paddy stayed on with his father, who was joining a geological conference in Milan.

This was the first time Paddy and Lewis spent any time together, and sadly they were never to be as close again. Two particular memories turn up in Paddy’s writing about this special week. In the train to Lake Como, Lewis proudly demonstrated a knife he had just bought, by peeling an apple without breaking the skin. This he did – then tossing both peel and knife out of the window. Paddy became helpless with laughter. His annoyed father banished him to another carriage, where Paddy then tried to open the window – by pulling the communication cord.

Arriving in the Dolomites Lewis dressed for the field, where he collected specimens both geological and botanical. Paddy remembers cringing with embarrassment when he saw his father in this bizarre attire – his Norfolk jacket and ‘vast semi-circular cap, I think originally destined for Tibetan travel, like a bisected pumpkin of fur, armed with a peak, and with fur-lined ear-flaps that were joined (when not tied under the chin, which was worse still) by a disturbing bow on the summit.’

Worst of all, there was the geological hammer at his belt, bearing an arrow, marking it as government property. Lewis had joked to Paddy that only members of the civil service and convicts carried such hammers. Far from being amused however, and horrified by the thought that people might think his father a convict, nine year-old Paddy tried (under the guise of adjusting it for comfort) to turn the hammer around so that the arrow could not be seen.

This was to be the last time that father and son were to spend any extended time in one another’s company. As Cooper observes, Paddy was to grow up feeling ill at ease with his father, and the suspicion that he was a disappointment to him. On the other side, his mother was contrastingly jealous of him, seeing him as her, rather than Lewis’s, son (though she too, despite her possessiveness, blew hot and cold, turning clingy one minute and distant and uncaring the next).

Lewis had not been pleased to receive his gadabout son’s London tailoring bills (though he helped to settle them). So it is possible that Paddy’s proposed expedition may have seemed to him like a washing of hands. The hope that his son might become a scientist had died years before. Lewis (no doubt in desperation, because mathematics was one of Paddy’s many weak suits) had even suggested his son might consider a career in accountancy, so at a loss was the family to know what to do with him. At least this mad expedition was a goal, and his son’s own idea. His reply to news of his departure included a birthday gift of five pounds. (This was not the only birthday on which Paddy would have occasion to thank a geologist. On turning 21, two years into his trek, he learned that Sir Henry Hubert Hayden, one of Lewis’s predecessors as Director (1910-21) had bestowed a gift of £300 on him.)

Paddy would arrange for letters to be sent to him poste restante at various points along his projected route. Most important were those containing pound notes, but occasionally he found letters from his mother, often whimsical and amusing, and occasionally, more formal missives from Lewis: ‘full of geological advice’.

At the time when her favoured child was departing for Europe, Ӕileen herself was having a hard time. Divorced eight years, and suffering that diminution in her status, news had come through that Lewis was marrying again – to a certain Frances Mary Case. Within a year, Lewis was knighted, and thus her supplanter became ‘Lady Fermor’. Artemis Cooper speculates that this might have been a severe blow to the social-climbing Ӕileen; though in the days when directors of the British Empire’s geological surveys were habitually knighted, she surely realised what she was giving up – though this may not have made it any easier to bear.

Fermor’s main geological interest was (as reflected in the terms of the Fermor bequest) the rocks of the Archaean. Sir Thomas Holland had asked him to report on the manganese ore deposits of India, little expecting that Fermor (renowned for meticulous attention to detail) would take until 1909 to publish, nor that his report would run to nearly 1300 pages. Not only did this work earn Fermor great renown (and his FRS), it also revealed six new manganese minerals.

The experience gained in this work led to his being placed in charge, in 1911, of a systematic survey of the Archaean rocks of the Central Provinces (Madhya Pradesh), much of which he surveyed personally, at four inches to the mile. War interrupted this work, and Fermor finished his part of it in 1926.

His economic work continued – on copper, coal, iron ore, and mica, which led to an avalanche of publications in the Annual Reviews of the Mineral Production of India between 1921 and 1934. He also worked on the Deccan Traps, and even on meteorites (though his ideas about the origin of chondrules were incorrect – he thought they were formerly garnets). Finally, before retiring to Bristol and then Surrey, he began a memoir entitled ‘An attempt at the correlation of the ancient schistose formations of Peninsular India’. Sadly, this herculean project was destined never to advance beyond the opening general discussion (published 1940) and remained incomplete on his death.

His retirement in 1935, a year after being elected FRS, marked the beginning of a closer association with the Geological Society. He had already won its Bigsby Medal (1921), and he now joined Council (in 1943), and served as Vice President from 1945 to 1947.

When Paddy  learned that his father was dying, in 1954, he paid a final visit to him, in his new home near Woking. This at last was a home with the space to display his collection of early English glassware, as well as the fine Persian rugs he had collected. It was the first proper home that Lewis had ever owned – aptly named ‘Gondwana’ – and here he had hoped to finish his Archaean memoir. These hopes were dashed only a few months after moving in, when his final illness struck.

‘We had only met twice during the last six years and corresponded as little’ Paddy wrote. Hollow cheeked, and a sickly colour, ‘his enormous and luminous eyes, talking very slowly and almost inaudibly… The only consoling thing is that he has no idea he is dying. “Such a bore, being all cooped up when all the flowers are out”’. He died on 24 May. “What a strange business Daddy’s funeral was, a sort of nightmare’ Paddy wrote to Vanessa. ‘I am so glad you were there too – I don’t think I could have taken it if there hadn’t been your eye to catch now and then’.

In 1976, having just been declared clear of cancer himself, Paddy finally decided to visit India. After Christmas in Benares he went to Calcutta and found his way ‘rather timidly’ to the offices of the Survey. To his surprise, he found that ‘They seem to worship Daddy’s memory’. Indeed, Dr S V P Iyengar (1921-2012), Deputy Director General and a former pupil of H H Read and Robert Shackleton, described Lewis as ‘the most imaginative, helpful and constructive [figure, who] …contributed more than anyone else, and all his prophecies and conclusions have been proved right’ – a slight exaggeration, considering the chondrule theory, but understandable. As Cooper observes, such was the bitterness about Lewis that Paddy and his sister had absorbed from their mother, it was ‘strange’ for them to ‘discover him both loved and admired’.

The story of the Fermor bequest began in 1961, and in all took nearly 20 years. Lady Fermor wanted to make over a sum to be held in trust, the income being used to pay her a pension during her lifetime; but this was later shown to be impossible because of the Estate Duty that she would have to pay. Then, in October 1969, a letter from her solicitors arrived at Burlington House announcing her wish to make ‘a substantial bequest’. In March 1979, Lady Fermor presented the Society with a cheque for £1000 to establish the Fermor Lecture, held every three years, the first in October/November 1980. She was (eventually) granted Honorary Fellowship, and invited to attend the Fermor Lectures, which she did – enjoying the luxury of a free night in the ‘Fellows’ Bedroom’.

Lady Fermor died in November 1990, leaving the Society the residue of her estate minus some bequests to others. It is not known if the Society blushed about having made her sleep in the cellar when it found out that this residue amounted to £500,000-£600,000. It was, and remains, the Society’s biggest fund.

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