All photographs © Katy MacMillan-Scott

Why I'm walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul

In May, Katy MacMillan-Scott embarked on the first leg of an epic walk across Europe which will eventually take her 2,500 miles from Rotterdam to Istanbul, following the footsteps of travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor.

Katy was inspired to do this literary hike following the death of one of her best friends, Harriet Clarke, from bowel cancer last year. So far, she's completed a three week walk through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. With a full-time job in London, she is doing the walk in stages: this is a walking adventure that will take her several years to complete. She is fundraising for Bowel Cancer UK as she goes.

Over 15 years of friendship, we went through many rites of passage together, from awful first jobs, to break-ups and shared hopes for the future.

Harriet on her wedding day in 2015

Harriet on her wedding day in 2015

How did you and Harriet meet?

Harriet and I met in 2001, in our first term at Newcastle University. We were both studying English literature and immediately hit it off after chatting at a lecture, bonding over our love of books, food and a sense of the ridiculous. We lived together in our third year and eventually moved to London together. Over 15 years of friendship, we went through many rites of passage together, from awful first jobs, to break-ups and shared hopes for the future. It was an absolute joy to see her get married to her wonderful husband Rich in 2015.

Can you tell us a little about the evening you and Harriet spent at the Frontline Club?

Before Harriet became ill, we went to a talk on polar explorers at the Frontline Club. We found the discussion fascinating, but frustrating at the same time, as the all-male panel spoke dismissively about 'lady explorers'. Afterwards, we joked about this and sent each other pictures of 'lady explorers', often black and white images of fearsome-looking women in khaki. However, the interest stuck and I found myself returning to books about Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark that I'd been meaning to read for some time. Little did I know it would go on to become such a huge feature in my life.

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Harriet was just 32 when she passed away. What impact did Harriet's death have on your life?

I recently read Cathy Rentzenbrink's A Manual for Heartache, where she describes life-changing events as grenade and guillotine moments: Harriet's death was the grenade for me. It was a huge shock, and things were no longer the same. Harriet was someone who never let anything get in her way; when she died, a friend had remarked she had 'lived wide, not long'.

I knew that I couldn't carry on as I'd been before. I wasn't happy and I knew I had to do something positive, shake things up: I owed it to my friend to make the most of the life I have. So I left my job of 10 years and set about planning a challenge in Harriet's memory that would take me out of my comfort zone: a 'lady adventure' to make her proud.

I really loved the idea of venturing out into the unknown, relying on the kindness of strangers, and simply walking several miles each day

What made you decide on walking 2500 miles from Rotterdam to Istanbul?

I knew I wanted to do some kind of literary walk to honour my friend, but it was reading Robert Macfarlane's essay The Gift of Reading which made me decide to follow Paddy Leigh Fermor's 1933 route. Robert is a huge fan of Paddy's writing and, in particular, his book A Time of Gifts.  I read the essay just after Brexit, which definitely swayed me, but what I really loved was the idea of venturing out into the unknown, relying on the kindness of strangers, and simply walking several miles each day. There aren't many people who've read Paddy's A Time of Gifts and have come away untouched by the magic of his writing and a plan to follow his footsteps one day. 

'A Time of Gifts' by Patrick Leigh Fermor

'A Time of Gifts' by Patrick Leigh Fermor

You took the first leg of your journey in May of this year from Rotterdam to Budapest . Which highlights or experiences stand out for you?

Overall, I was astounded by the generosity of strangers and the beauty of the places I was walking through. In terms of highlights, I'd have to say meeting Gloria von Berg in Budapest was one. Her parents, Tibor and Berta von Berg, hosted Paddy in their Budapest home in 1934 and she recounted many stories about them, Hungary in the 1930s and their time with Paddy.

Other highlights include: a restorative soak in the gorgeous Gellert Baths in Budapest at the end of my trip; walking across the Mária Valéria Bridge, which joins Slovakia and Hungary, and where A Time of Gifts ends; seeing my first stork nesting on a roof in the Austrian town of Fischamend; a kind couple who took me in from the pouring rain in the Netherlands and gave me coffee and a bowl of soup near the fire; a wonderful breakfast of black bread, eggs, avocado and cheese with Jet, one of my favourite hosts, in the old schoolhouse across the river from Zaltbommel.

And, of course, the trail of fellow booklovers I discovered along the walk (there were many long evenings spent discussing much-loved books). I also loved the fact that I constantly saw reminders of Paddy's trip from the 1930s - I had wondered how much of the world he writes about still exists, but there were many little similarities that were joyful to see.

Tell us about where you have been staying so far

I stayed with different people most nights of the trip. In January 2017, I had sent out a plea for help from everyone I knew via Facebook and email. I had planned out all the locations I would need to stay and the relevant dates, and asked people to share the post with friends to see if they knew anyone living on my route. I didn't expect much, but the post ended up being shared hundred of times and messages of support flowed in from all over Europe. Literary magazine Slightly Foxed spread the word even further, and ended up becoming champions of sorts, posting daily updates during my walk.

It was a wonderful experience and the start of so many gestures of kindness I have received in the last few months. As a result, I managed to stay with friends-of-friends-of-friends (in once case a friend's mum's piano teacher in Holland) from Rotterdam to Budapest, staying in every kind of place you could imagine: an old schoolhouse, several modern houses, one baronial home, a converted barn, an art nouveau apartment, a couple of inns and a hostel recommended by a friendly bookseller from Stanford's.

Walking through Donau-Auen national park, Austria

Walking through Donau-Auen national park, Austria

What kind of preparation have you been doing for your trip?

It sounds simple, but breaking in my boots by walking regularly was the best preparation I could do physically. I received advice from more experienced walkers in terms of what to pack, clothes to take, food to carry (most people agreed I was taking far too much!). However, the advice I had from another Paddy fan, Nick Hunt, was the most important: mental endurance. That was the biggest challenge. There were definitely times when I was muttering expletives about my blisters, or feeling chilled to the bone after walking for hours through wetlands in the pelting rain. However, my overriding sense was one of happiness to be there, and seeing the places I'd been looking at on the map materialise each day. It was pretty surreal, at times, to read a passage from A Time of Gifts and then look up and see that same landscape or town in front of me.

Are you taking any home comforts/ guilty pleasures with you?

My greatest luxury was literary, of course: my books and my Slightly Foxed journal. They added significantly to the weight of my rucksack, but I wouldn't be without them. Otherwise, most things were fairly practical, but I was insistent that my outfit had to reflect the lady adventurer in some way (I had some high-waisted trousers that looked the part and were pretty comfortable too). I also had a headscarf of my grandmother's which was strangely comforting. There are definitely things I will leave behind next time, but the only way to find out was to start walking and learn as I went along.

Thank you SO much Katy. We will be following your progress!