Harold Fry is a tall, quiet and rather unassuming man in his mid sixties, a retired brewery representative plodding along in a monotonous marriage to Maureen, a woman he’s been with for over 40 years and who seems to be irritated by almost everything he does. The marriage seems to have gone stale over the years and there is very little to differentiate one day of his ordinary life from another until the morning he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a former work colleague he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie is in a hospice, dying of cancer, and has written to thank him for his friendship when they worked together, and to say goodbye.
Writing a very brief reply and leaving Maureen doing the hoovering Harold walks to the post box at the end of the road but then has second thoughts about posting the letter – maybe it was too brief or the words were wrong, maybe he should go back home and rewrite it. While pondering on what to do he decides to walk to the next post box – and the next, and the next, until a chance conversation with the young girl assistant in a local petrol station where he stops to get a snack convinces him that he must deliver the letter to Queenie in person. Phoning the hospice but being told that Queenie is asleep he passes on the message that he is going to visit her and she must wait for him – and so begins the unlikely pilgrimage.
Still in his canvas yachting shoes and light jacket, with no map, compass or mobile phone, Harold is determined to walk more than six hundred miles from his home town of Kingsbridge in Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Scottish Borders, believing that as long as he keeps walking Queenie Hennessy will live. At first he spends each night in various bed-and-breakfast places but with little money and not wanting to use his bank card too much he takes to sleeping out wherever he can find a bit of shelter. Some days he covers several miles, other days only a few, and from each stopping place he sends postcards to Maureen, Queenie, and the girl in the petrol station who gave him the inspiration for his journey.
As Harold nears Coventry he gets chatting to Mick, a young man who buys him a drink and a packet of crisps in a pub. Unknown to Harold Mick turns out to be a reporter for a Coventry newspaper; the story of this modern-day pilgrimage is soon all over the news and turns Harold from an ordinary man-in-the-street to being recognised wherever he goes. Before long he is joined at various points along the way by a stray dog, a young lad who reminds Harold of his son, and an assortment of hangers-on from different walks of life, each with their own personal story and reason for joining the pilgrimage. Though they all get on well together at first, as time goes on and they get further north there are thefts and disagreements between some of them, irritating Harold and making him wish they would all go and find something else to believe in.
Eventually a splinter group is formed and without including Harold in their secret nightly discussions they decide to proceed directly to Berwick without him, where their self-proclaimed ‘leader’ takes the glory for completing the pilgrimage. Harold, now left to continue his journey alone, becomes quite disorientated in the last stages of the walk but finally, after walking 627 miles in 87 days, he makes it to the hospice in Berwick, though at first he can’t face going in. Instead he writes a letter on the back of an advertising flyer to the girl in the petrol station back home, in which he confesses to another reason for doing his walk.
After spending the night sleeping on a park bench Harold returns to the hospice to see Queenie, finding her very weak but still alive. Later on, sitting alone with his thoughts on a bench overlooking the sea, he is joined by Maureen who has driven all the way up from Devon to meet him. Visibly upset he tells her about his visit to Queenie and how ill she is; Maureen then books them into a bed-and-breakfast for the night and the following day they go to see Queenie together.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was initially written as a radio play broadcast on BBC Radio 4 but was later developed into this full length novel, the author’s first, published in 2012. I found out about it recently from someone else’s blog and it sounded so intriguing I sent for a copy from ebay. At first I wasn’t sure if I would like it but a few chapters in it turned into something I couldn’t put down and I had to keep reading to find out what happened next.
What starts out as a journey to save someone’s life soon turns into much more; walking gives Harold plenty of time to think and he reflects on his life, his broken marriage, his failed relationship with his son, and the mistakes he made over the years, while back home in Devon Maureen is also thinking about the mistakes she herself made and how she can put things right. There is much more to this story than I’ve written here; with very believable characters it is by turns moving, amusing, sad and thought-provoking with a couple of unexpected twists towards the end. The writing is so beautifully descriptive that I felt as if I was walking alongside Harold, seeing the same things he saw, meeting the same people he met, and experiencing the different parts of his journey myself.
It’s not often that a book leaves such a profound impression on me but this one did, so for anyone who hasn’t read it I can definitely recommend picking up a copy and walking with Harold on his journey.