“I made the decision very early on that I was not going to walk in Paddy’s footsteps,” says Artemis Cooper, biographer of travel writer, raconteur, war hero and all-round charmer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Just as well, as his youthful exploit of going “on foot to Constantinople”, as detailed in his book A Time of Gifts, is probably his most famous achievement. That’s if you don’t count kidnapping a German general and force-marching him round Mount Ida, Crete, during the second world war, an adventure retold in the movie Ill Met By Moonlight in which PLF was played by Dirk Bogarde. This must be one of the few cases where a film star was eclipsed by his subject. Leigh Fermor continues to enchant from beyond the grave.
Certainly his biographer is smitten. “I’ve known him all my life,” she says of her old family friend, still apt to talk about him in the present tense (he died last year, aged 96). We have met in the Northamptonshire village of Weedon Bec, where Paddy spent his infancy. In her book, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Cooper describes these idyllic years during the first world war, when he lived with “Mummy Martin”, “Daddy Martin” and their children, adored though unrelated. Why he was there is a mystery; he was reunited with his own mother aged four, but was never to feel strongly attached.
By St Peter & St Paul’s Church in Weedon, the main road passes under the Grand Union canal. We climb some steps to the towpath, where a barge puffs out atmospheric smoke. Although this is a lovely spot to begin our walk, there is no mention of the canal in any of his writings about his childhood. Little Paddy-Mike, as he was known, was clearly not allowed to go near it.
We set off, the first of many brightly coloured barges chugging past us, and glimpse a tiny water vole. Cooper tells me about PLF’s legendary vitality. “His energy was amazing. We went to stay with him in Greece and went for a walk. He was in his seventies and we [she and husband Anthony Beevor] were in our thirties and quite fit and it was hard to keep up with him. He was making a point, but still … ”
One thing I gleaned from her book was that Leigh Fermor hated going to sleep. Why was that? “Because it wasn’t living,” Cooper replies. “He felt you had to get the most out of life, every minute of it.” There are amusing tales of a Christmas turkey stuffed with Benzedrine as he whooped it up in wartime Cairo.
At the second bridge over the canal we ascend to the High Street, where the Martins lived at number 42. After some puzzling, we finally discover the house, formerly divided into two tall, thin dwellings. The date “1849” is visible under the porch. Nearby is The Wheatsheaf, behind whose vanished gates Paddy-Mike would play. This would have been a busy little town, but in A Time of Gifts he speaks of a rural childhood of “barns, ricks and teazles, clouded with spinneys and the undulation of ridge and furrow”.
We nip into the Heart of England pub opposite, and I ask Cooper what it was like to talk to this legendary conversationalist. “He just made you feel so great,” she beams. “I’d never read Hardy’s The Dynasts. ‘OH, my dear, what a TREAT you have in store, I think I have a copy here, you can take it with you to bed tonight. WHAT, you’ve never read The Bridge-Builders by Kipling? It won’t take a second – I tell you what, after lunch I’m going to have a nap, you can read it then.’ That enthusiasm, never making you feel stupid or under-read. One of his oldest friends said, ‘if only Paddy came in pill form and you could take him whenever you felt depressed.’ That’s how he left you feeling. Even in his nineties.”
We rejoin the canal path as it makes a series of lazy wiggles, talking about Leigh Fermor’s mother (“an awful snob and a name-dropper”) and wife (“If it hadn’t been for Joan, I think he might just have been a charming sponger”). We leave the canal at the next humpbacked bridge and turn west, following a quiet road with a view over tranquil fields. “Now can’t you just imagine the young Paddy, roaming around here playing Robin Hood? Always the romantic.”
By the stream running by the path, Cooper takes a photo of a purple flower to identify later. Over the fields lies the village of Dodford, where Leigh Fermor and his mother lived when he was slightly older. At the village green, we turn right past a red telephone box, then left at a set of gates. Cooper has an Edwardian photograph of Vicarage Cottage, his former home, and is eager to find it. Now called Quiet Ways, and somewhat enlarged, it is instantly recognisable; and opposite is the Swan, or “Dirty Duck”, now a private home.
We ascend a footpath and walk through the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin to the A45, which we cross at a place called Four Views. From there, we take a diagonal path across the fields, eventually meeting the Nene Way. A sharp left turn returns us in the direction of Lower Weedon. The soil in the fields is a rich red, the landscape gentle, undramatic, yet quietly beautiful. Our conversation takes a sombre turn as the sky darkens.“The gods gave him great gifts. To be handsome, intelligent, a gifted linguist with a wonderful body … And it doesn’t stop there: to have all that and be charming, a great conversationalist, to be the person everyone loves being with. But with great gifts the gods also make you pay a price. He had periods of depression, and times where he felt that he hadn’t written enough, that he’d wasted his life.”
At Upper Weedon a sharp right turn takes us south, then we turn left on to Farthingstone Road to ascend Weedon Hill, supposedly the site of Boudicca’s last stand. “Well, it’s one of the possible locations. Perhaps the least likely,” Cooper concedes. Leigh Fermor, a magical embroiderer of legend himself, I’m sure would have begged to differ.
‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure’, by Artemis Cooper, is published by John Murray (£25)