The complete guide to Travels with Eric Newby

After a life of adventure, the doyen of English travel writers celebrates his 84th birthday today. Frank Partridge looks back at Eric Newby's career
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The Independent Travel

WAS HE BORN UNDER A WANDERING STAR?

Eric Newby was born in Barnes in west London, on 6 December 1919. At an early age he undertook an adventure to trace the source of the Thames, which flowed past his house. Over the years, he explored many of the world's great rivers, as well as its oceans, mountain ranges, deserts and cities - the more remote and inhospitable the better. Advancing years have restricted his wanderings, affording him more time to collate and add to the millions of words he has written since the mid-1950s. For nearly a decade he combined his passion and profession as travel editor of The Observer, but since 1973 he has been a free spirit, going where and when the fancy took him.

WHEN AND WHERE DID NEWBY ACQUIRE THE TASTE FOR FOREIGN TRAVEL?

Blame the parents. When Eric was a small child, they gave him a book full of photographs and descriptions of exotic places. Frequently away on business, they left the lad for months at a time in the care of a housekeeper. He learnt to be self-sufficient. In 1938, at the age of 18, Newby broke free, signing on as crew on one of the last commercial sailing ships plying the high seas. His eight-month round-trip from Europe to Australia on board the four-masted barque Moshulu provided rich material he set aside for later. Little did the fledgling writer know that he was witnessing at first hand the passing of an era in ocean travel.

The war would put paid to the long-haul windjammers, and the Moshulu ended its days as a dockside restaurant in Philadelphia. Newby, the only Englishman on board, was billeted with an eccentric and initially unfriendly Scandinavian crew. Like all sea voyages, there were numerous highs and lows - bedbugs; ferocious storms in the Roaring Forties; the fearful exhilaration of climbing the 198-foot mainmast; the warm companionship of shipboard life. In his first book, The Last Grain Race (1956), Newby chronicles them all, meeting adversity with the fortitude and wry good humour that would serve him well in the years ahead. He worked hard, earned the respect of his fellows, and stepped off the ship as a bona fide seaman. What he didn't reveal at the time is that he had a camera tucked away, and took some remarkable photographs of shipboard life, many of them published more than 60 years after the event when he retold the story in Learning The Ropes (1999).

The Royal Yachting Association (0845 345 0400, www.rya.org.uk) runs beginners' courses on all forms of sailing for adults and juniors. Details of courses being run in your area are available on the website, or by writing to RYA, Ensign Way, Humble, Southampton S031 4YA.

WHAT DID HE DO IN THE WAR?

The Second World War provided all the adventure Newby could wish for. He was commissioned in the Black Watch and later transferred to the Special Boat Section, only to be captured in Italy in 1942. His effective role in the war ended there. Although he escaped for a time, and spent several months on the run, the advancing German forces caught up with him, and he was a POW until hostilities ended.

There were many compensations. While on the run he met his future wife. He also gathered enough material for a truly moving book, Love And War In The Apennines (1971), which deals with the life-and-death issues of the conflict, and his everyday escapades among the Italian villagers who sheltered him. And at the end of it all, he was awarded the Military Cross.

While on the run from the Germans in 1943-44, Newby lived among remote communities in the Po Valley, near Parma, and, mostly, high up in the Apennine Mountains. The nearest airport is Bologna, served by British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) from Gatwick.

AND THE WOMAN IN HIS LIFE?

A girl called Wanda, who worked in a local bank. Of Slovenian extraction, she assisted the escaped British officer after her father was arrested as an anti-Fascist when the Germans invaded Italy in 1943. Wanda taught Eric Italian; he fell in love with her. They were reunited after the war, and Wanda became his companion through life, as well as on many of his subsequent adventures.

Their relationship underpins much of his work. Wanda is irascible, fiercely logical, unsentimental. She dismisses her husband's flights of fancy, launching into spicy language whenever things go wrong, which they almost always do. For the most part, though, she is Newby's rock - grumbling but steadfast. Her presence is essential to the narrative, providing an often withering counterpoint to Eric's more wide-eyed view of the world, mocking his hare-brained schemes and determination always to go the extra mile. Their flinty interchanges are described with understated affection. After discovering that Ireland's Grand Canal towpath, straight and unbroken on the map, is virtually impassable in places, she launches forth:

"You've had some pretty crazy ideas in your life, Newby," Wanda said, rather unfairly I thought, while we were pouring water on our nettle stings, getting the herbage out of our transmissions, scraping cow shit off our trousers, swatting horseflies rendered torpid by over-indulgence in our blood, and generally smartening up, "but this towpath of yours is the craziest of the lot."

In India, they are shunned by the British Colony in Kanpur, who know who they are but steadfastly ignore them, even after church on Christmas morning: "If they behaved like this with the Indians then they deserved to be massacred", was Wanda's response.

For all the Newbys' moments of disappointment and despair as they get into one scrape after another, you know Wanda will be at Eric's side for the next adventure. The dedication at the front of his Ganges epic says all we need to know: "To Wanda - my fellow boatwoman".

BESIDES MARRYING WANDA, WHAT DID NEWBY DO WHEN HE RETURNED TO CIVVY STREET?

Like many demobbed servicemen, he drifted uncertainly for a while, until his worried parents took a hand, and found him a place in the family clothing business. And so the would-be global traveller cut his teeth as a commercial traveller in grey, exhausted post-war England. His first assignment was to take the firm's new gown collection to Sheffield. From then on he had a ball. His bizarre and hilarious adventures are exquisitely captured in Something Wholesale: My Life In The Rag Trade, which appeared in 1962, when the Beatles had their first hit single, but stuffy old Lane & Newby Ltd was still describing itself as "Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers".

AND WHAT WAS HIS FIRST GREAT POST-WAR ADVENTURE?

A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush. His 1958 story has one of the great titles in travel literature. It is arguably Newby's masterpiece - certainly his best-seller - describing a quintessential piece of old school British exploring, of the sort that makes travellers of other nationalities scratch their heads and assume that such blithe eccentricity afflicts the entire nation. "Thank God England is still cranking them out," wrote one American admirer, "it must be something in the water."

"A short walk", of course, is a typical example of Newby's self-deprecation, as if tackling a formidable mountain in one of the world's remotest spots is akin to a stroll in the park, with a possible detour to the post office on the way home. In fact, the expedition is planned just about as haphazardly as that, after Newby, staring out of his office window wishing he were elsewhere, receives a cable from Hugh Carless, a friend from the diplomatic service: "CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?". Newby accepts, before learning that Nuristan is an inhospitable region of northern Afghanistan, and that Carless plans to scale the formidable Mir Samir, nearly 20,000 feet high. The odd couple decide to do a crash course in climbing - four days of much mirth in Caernarvonshire ensue - and they arrive in the sub-continent hopelessly ill-equipped, with the wrong kind of tent and the wrong size boots. To make matters worse, Carless neglects to purify the water and they both get dysentery.

As the expedition unfolds, Newby hones what will become his trademark style, mixing jaw-dropping descriptions of the landscape with side-splitting anecdotes about the myriad obstacles - natural and human - blocking their path. The tale is peopled with a troupe of larger-than-life characters: from grim, intransigent bureaucrats to fearless fellow explorers afflicted by incurable wanderlust. Somehow, in spite of everything, they get within striking distance of the summit:

"Below us on every side mountains surged away it seemed forever; we looked down on glaciers and snow-covered peaks that perhaps no one has ever seen before, except from the air."

Discoveries like that can't happen any more.

WHAT ABOUT HIS TRIP DOWN THE GANGES?

Forty years ago today, on Newby's 44th birthday, he and Wanda embarked on an expedition almost as foolhardy as the one to Nuristan: 1,200 miles down what they took to be the navigable section of the magical but infuriatingly mercurial Ganges, a river so complex that the communities whose lives depend on it have given it 108 different names. Newby, ever the scholar, takes the trouble of listing and translating them all, in his second classic, Slowly Down The Ganges (1966):

"The consolation about being lost on a river is that if you go on downstream you are bound to arrive somewhere different, unlike being lost in a forest, where you are quite likely to end up where you started at the beginning of the day."

Things go badly wrong, of course. They can't obtain a proper map because of political tension between India and China, and the search for a river-worthy boat brings frustration at the hands of Indian bureaucrats, from whom the Newbys seek favours:

"What we were doing was the equivalent in Britain of waking a fairly senior officer of the Metropolitan Water Board at a quarter to seven on a winter's morning, in order to ask him to wake a yet more senior official and request the loan of a boat from one of the reservoirs in order to go down to Southend."

The vessel they eventually secure has a draught of 20 inches. Two hundred yards into the voyage, the ever-shifting river becomes only 16 inches deep. Crunch. The heavily laden boat has to be dragged across the boulders, and the same thing happens another 62 times in the next six days. Wanda gets the hump and repeatedly threatens to leave, but gradually the river envelops them in its spell.

DO NEWBY'S ADVENTURES ALWAYS TAKE PLACE FAR FROM HOME?

Not always. On his 66th birthday (which both he and Wanda had forgotten, he notes with sadness) they embark on the first of several cycling expeditions through Ireland - the first two in the teeth of winter when few sane people would consider cycling anywhere. Bad weather never troubled Newby, though. Three years later, he pedalled from Rotterdam to Dijon, and got his bicycle clips out again at the age of 71 to follow the imaginary line running through England two degrees west of the Greenwich meridian. Once again, he chose to do it in the teeth of winter.

WHY?

In December, bike travel is unpredictable: you never know where you will finish up each day. Winter was the only time of the year when he did not have to make advance reservations at B&Bs. These days, you can buy maps of the National Cycle Network from Sustrans (0845 113 0065, www.sustrans.org.uk) that will guide you around Britain in all seasons.

AND WHAT HAPPENED

IN IRELAND?

Eric and Wanda ended triumphantly at the source of the Shannon in an unseasonably hot October, and the result is Round Ireland In Low Gear. It's the familiar Newby cocktail of day-to-day thrills and spills, exhaustively researched history, fable and hearsay - there are 61 titles in the bibliography - and wry, acute observations of Irish life: a pub in Ireland can sell anything. In Kinvarra, where King Guaire Aidhneach had his Easter Banquet spirited away by angels, there was a dark, cavernous pub that had its windows dressed with cans of weedkiller.

As they wait to board a train to the west coast, Wanda rushes into the buffet where Eric is ordering ham sandwiches:

"The train, the train is leaving!''

"It isn't leaving, whatever your good lady says," remarked a rather quiet man in railway uniform whom I hadn't notice before, who was only about a quarter of the way through a pint of Guinness. "Not without me, it isn't. I'm the guard," and he took another long draw at his drink. Emboldened by this I ordered a second one myself. Eventually we left more or less on time: the station clock turned out to be about ten minutes fast.

Newby is not over-burdened with political correctness. After spending a small fortune in a public call box phoning someone in the same village, he considers taking a sledgehammer to it:

"This may explain why the IRA spend so much time robbing banks at gunpoint: to reimburse themselves, at least partially, for all the money they have lost in Irish call boxes."

Among the many companies offering guided or independent cycling holidays in Ireland are the Dublin-based Ireland Cycle Safaris (00 353 1 260 0749, www.cyclingsafaris.com) and Emerald Alpine (00 353 61 416983, www.irelandrentabike.com), based in Limerick.

Alternatively, you can explore the whole of Ireland at reasonable cost with an Irish Explorer ticket, which allows you unlimited travel on Irish Rail and Bus Eireann for a selected number of days. A five-day pass, for example, costs €105 (£75) for adults and €53 (£38) for children. More details from Irish Rail (00 353 1 703 4095, www.irishrail.ie).

WHERE NEXT?

Italy. In 1967, the Newbys returned to the region where they first met, and bought a dilapidated farmhouse in northern Tuscany. "I Castagni" (The Chestnuts) is near the town of Fosdinovo in a little-known area in the north-west corner of Tuscany. The town lies in the foothills of the Apuan Alps, best known for its marble mountains - Carrara is about 25 miles to the south-east. Pisa is the nearest airport (90 minutes away by road) and served from the UK by numerous airlines.

All the tiles had disappeared from the roof of the farmhouse, they were plagued by rats as big as cats, and the septic tank was a cholera epidemic waiting to happen. They were the first outsiders to move to a society deeply set in its ways, but unlike other English folk who have undertaken similar ventures, they bonded with their new neighbours by taking an interest in the community and showing respect for the land. In return, they received invaluable help with the restoration, and the farmhouse became their second home for 25 years. Read all about it in A Small Place In Italy (1998).

DID A SECOND HOME IN ITALY CURB NEWBY'S WANDERLUST?

Far from it. He had become travel editor of The Observer in 1964, which gave him the freedom to roam on a salary. But the relative brevity and urgency of newspaper writing did not suit Newby as much as his Big Projects. He is best enjoyed at book-length, as he gently guides the reader through a labyrinth of wrong turnings, setbacks, recoveries and sudden insights, emerging at last from ramshackle confusion into a state of deeper understanding about the place he has just explored. He always succeeds in answering the two essential questions: What is a land and its people really like? And how did they come to be as they are today?

ANY MORE ESSENTIAL READING?

In 1977, Eric and Wanda, plus an official guide and photographer, journeyed across the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Brezhnev was General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, the Cold War was on, and being from the West, the Newbys were not allowed to reach the conclusion of the journey: the railway's terminus, Vladivostok, was off-limits. Even so, The Big Red Train Ride chronicles a journey of nearly 6,000 miles in eight days. These were frightening times, and the visitors received no favours from the locals. He and Wanda were harassed by the train conductor, delayed by red tape, and made ill by bad food and dodgy alcohol. They survived, of course, and Newby is at his most irreverent and amusing as he highlights the most ridiculous aspects of a failing experiment that, as it turned out, contained nothing to fear at all.

These days, another travel writer - Neil McGowan - will take you across Russia. His company, The Russia Experience (020-8566 8848, www.trans-siberian.co.uk) will enable you to travel from Leningrad - as it was when Newby made the trip, now St Petersburg - across to Asia, with the added bonus of being able to go all the way to Vladivostok.

A few years later, Eric and Wanda set off from Tuscany and worked their way round the entire Mediterranean, concentrating on the hard bits. Many a writer has mined this part of the world for material, but few have made it so arduous for themselves. Newby is not interested in fleshpots and holiday island-hopping: instead, he pokes about Mafia-ridden Naples, prises open doors in secretive, Communist Albania and Colonel Gadaffi's Libya, explores the ticking time-bomb of Montenegro, the religious crossroads of Jerusalem and Fez, and the frenzied backstreets of Istanbul. Only Beirut, which was then in the middle of a civil war, escapes his attention in The Shores Of The Mediterranean (1984). His determination to understand the human and political background to places of conflict never flags.

DOES THE QUALITY OF NEWBY'S WRITING MATCH HIS STAMINA?

He has his critics. Classically educated, his style is not to everyone's taste. To the modern reader, his sentences can seem overlong: the one with which he signs off Slowly Down The Ganges falls only two words short of a century:

"Here, at the Sandheads, some sixty miles south of Sagar Island, among the dome-shaped sands to the west of the Pilot's Ridge, invisible twenty fathoms below, where the long tails of sand ran down towards the deeps of the Indian Ocean, where the merchant ships waited for the pilots and the tide and the river, in its multiple guise as Hooghly, Bhagirathi, Ganges, deposited on the bottom of the dark olive mud mixed with glistening sand that shone like iron filings, the last scourings of a sub-continent, we felt that we had come to the end at last."

Thank goodness for that, you might be forgiven for thinking. But if you skim carelessly over such detail, you risk missing the next dramatic twist, or moment of playful humour - as when Newby visits Chairman Mao's tomb in Beijing:

"Lying there, with only his face visible, he looked like an oversized omelette from the McDonald's across the way at the south-west corner of Tiananmen Square."

Only Newby would bother to delay the punch-line by mentioning the compass point of a burger bar. You can visit China's capital with Regent Holidays, 029 7921 1711, www.regent-holidays.co.uk.

Newby's greatest virtue is that he writes it as he sees it, seldom taking the easy option of over-egging his (mis)adventures for the sake of a good line. He encounters many primitive and perplexing characters, but avoids the pitfall of caricaturing them either as noble savages or idiots. Eric Newby is the archetypal old school Englishman Abroad. Whatever privations and setbacks may befall him, he will survive, because he is indestructible.

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