Patrick Leigh-Fermor

Transylvanian hay-day

An afternoon’s diversion on the way to Constantinople, 75 years ago

An afternoon’s diversion on the way to Constantinople, 75 years ago

One day when we were invited to luncheon by some neighbours, István said, ‘Let’s take the horse’ and we followed a roundabout uphill track to look at a remaining piece of forest. ‘Plenty of common oak, thank God,’ he said, turning back in the saddle as we climbed a path through the slanting sunbeams, ‘you can use it for everything.’ The next most plentiful was Turkey oak, very good firewood when dry, also for stable floors and barrel staves. Beech came next, ‘it leaves scarcely any embers’; then yoke elm and common elm, ‘useful for furniture and coffins’. There was plenty of ash, too — handy for tools, axe-helves, hammers, sickles, scythes, spades and hay rakes. Except for a few by the brooks, there were no poplars up there but plenty by the Maros: useless, though, except for troughs and wooden spoons and the like. Gypsies made these. They settled in the garden and courtyard of the kastély with their wives and their children and whittled away until they had finished. ‘There is no money involved,’ István said. ‘We’re supposed to go halves, but, if it’s an honest tribe, we’re lucky to get a third. We do better with some Rumanians from out-of-the-way villages in the mountains, very poor and primitive chaps, but very honest.’

In a clearing we exchanged greetings with a white-haired shepherd leaning on a staff with a steel hook. The heavily embroidered homespun cloak flung across his shoulders and reaching to the ground was a brilliant green. His flock tore at the grass among the tree-stumps all round him. Then a path led steeply downhill through hazel woods with old shells and acorns crunching under the horses’ hooves.

It was a boiling hot day.

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