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In Her Father's Footsteps

September 1943.  A young Gunner officer watches a lorry unloading rations in his prison camp in Bologna.  His "muscles turned to jelly" and his "heart a steam hammer", he decides on a bid for freedom, dives under the lorry's tailboard, and pulls himself forward over the back axle until his belt catches on a cross frame and stops him wriggling further forward. He's sure his feet are visible from behind but he can only hope for the best, and wait . . .


September 2013.  The 70th anniversary of my father's 400-mile walk down the spine of the Apennines behind enemy lines to reach freedom;  the 1st anniversary of his death;  the 60th anniversary of my birth.  Too many anniversaries to ignore;  and so I find myself climbing up Monte Falterona in the Apennines to the east of Florence, puffing and panting with a 20 kg rucksack on my back.  A large cross finally emerges from the mist;  I realise I'm at the top and stop to check my position on the GPS.  Panic!  It puts me in my garden at home.  I rather wish I were there too.  I'm a bit nervous about not knowing what lies ahead and my poor navigational skills - but remind myself that Dad had only a home-made button compass to find the way - and after some hapless fiddling, I finally achieve a position that seems to make sense, and off I head into the mist in a south-easterly direction, treading the ridge path my father walked 70 years earlier.


It was definitely the tail-end of the walking season in the Apennines.  Some days I hardly saw a soul as I followed the mountain ridges, just an occasional stooped figure glimpsed through the mist, picking its way slowly through the trees, foraging for mushrooms.  The air was cool, even when the sun was shining, and smelt earthy and, well, mushroomy.  The trees dripped.  The main ridge formed a divide between two weather systems, so that often there was a cloudless blue sky on the northern side and thick cloud rolling heavily up the southern side, curling onto itself and evaporating somewhere above and around me 


Sunlight shafted through the trees ahead of me.  It was very quiet.  There was an occasional clearing with sweeping views across a sea of further ridges, but mostly I was enveloped in these vast, hushed beech forests and a sense of timelessness which connected me to Dad's journey as he followed the same ridges 70 years ago. 


I didn't walk very far, only about 65 miles over 9 days - 36 hours of which I spent holed up in a rifugio, drying out my kit during downpours.  The intention had never been to get as far as possible, but rather to savour the essence of the walk and experience the journey in a way similar to Dad's own experience, albeit with tent, stove and provisions and not expecting to bump into the enemy around every corner.  I was sure that, like him, I would encounter the kindness of strangers along the way, and wanted to leave myself time to enjoy these encounters.


My worries started to dissolve into the mist.  I'd wondered if I'd be able to carry 20 kilos, but quickly got used to the weight.  More of a problem was loading up the old donkey.  If I couldn't find a place to stop with a suitable boulder or tree stump, I would have to wriggle into my backpack on the ground, roll over to get my knees under me, heave myself up onto all fours, regain my breath, lurch into a squat, regain breath again, then stagger upright trying to avoid the momentum of the pack continuing onwards and pulling me over flat on my face on the ground again.  I spent ages looking for the right spot for these contortions and - perhaps even more important - making sure there was no possibility of anyone arriving to witness them.  I remembered slipping off the undercliff path at school once on my own and the ignominy of being unable to extricate myself from a thorn bush, half hoping someone would find me and pull me out, half praying they wouldn't!  So, being a bit unbalanced with the weight of my large red travelling companion, I was very careful - there were often steep drops to one or other side of the path, but even falling on the flat could have left me floundering on my back like a great overturned red beetle.


Finding suitable camp sites wasn't easy - everywhere was on a 45 degree slope and I wanted to find spots well away from the path as camping wasn't allowed and there were wild boar hunters out and about for the start of the hunting season.  When I wasn't trying to work out if a thunder storm was getting closer, I was trying to guess if gunshots were.  I had a little wobble one night when I heard an animal outside the tent (there are wolves in the Apennines) and texted my son to say there was something which sounded big outside the tent and was it better to put my food inside or outside? He texted back saying it didn't really matter since it would only be the starter anyway.  Sons can be so comforting!


I particularly wanted to find a cottage below a small church on a hill where, in the book he wrote about his escape, Dad mentions spending a night.  Following the few clues he had given, and talking to people I met, I pinpointed an isolated hermitage on my map, and arrived there as the campanile bell was tolling midday on the day he left it 70 years earlier.  It's an extraordinary place, perched high on a cliff on the hillside.  I tried to explain to the priest living there in halting Italian why I was there and got a bit choked.  He simply put his arms round me and language wasn't needed.  I'm not religious, but perhaps I edged a step closer to redemption that day.


As ever, it was the people I met along the way who made the trip special:  the priest;  the caretaker at the beautiful home of the Contessa who helped Dad and others and who was imprisoned by the Germans as a result and had her home blown up (it was restored after the war);  Marco, the rifugio owner, whose father had been a partisan and whose walls were lined with old photos of him and his comrades;  Guiseppe, my B&B host the night before I started my walk, who insisted on driving me to the base of Monte Falterona and on me texting him when I got to the top to tell him I was OK.  From local mushroom gatherers to international trekkers following the St Francis trail which criss-crossed my path, everyone was incredibly kind. 


Finally, I met three generations of the family in Bologna who were the first to shelter Dad on his escape from the camp when they found him hiding in their manure heap.  He had spent eight hours under the lorry, with no opportunity to escape from under it, until he found himself back where he had started from - still inside the camp but now fortunately outside the prisoners' compound.  He was able to crawl out unseen and climb over a wall into the Loros' garden.  With them I was enveloped by kindness, warmth and a cacophony of talk, almost none of which I was able to follow.  But I did understand how important our families' continued friendship is to them.  Dad returned several times to visit them on his beloved Moto Guzzi - an incongruous sight with his ancient helmet and umbrella - the last time (still by motorbike) at the age of 83. They told me that, of the 20 or so prisoners they had helped, at huge risk to themselves, only Dad and one other had returned after the war to find and thank them.  It was enormously important to them - and humbling for me.


The bravery of the Italian farming folk - the contadini - who risked their homes and lives to give food and shelter to so many escaping POW's is little known and has not been given the general recognition it deserves.  A happy spin-off from my walk was the money I was able to raise (£3500) for two charities building important bridges:  the Monte San Martino Trust, which acknowledges the bravery and self-sacrifice of the contadini in a past war and awards bursaries for young Italians to come to England to study;  and Afghan Connection, which actively promotes education in remote regions of Afghanistan - surely the best way to help prevent future wars.  My thanks again to those generous OH friends who donated towards my fundraising efforts.


Past and present merged as I followed paths Dad had followed 70 years earlier, in a region where little seems to have changed in the intervening years;  and I feel I experienced a tiny bit of what he experienced during those months in 1943 when he revelled not only in his new-found freedom from the prison camp but also in a freedom from all the rules of society which had dominated his life from the nursery to the army.  For those two short months on the run he was governed only by the desire to get back to his regiment and continue fighting, and the instinct to survive.  It was a huge adventure for him, and an experience which must have done much to form the older man whom I knew as my father.  I think - I hope - he would have approved of my little adventure.


My walk was part of a family 'relay', following the whole of Dad's escape route (I was No 2!).  When Dad finally reached the enemy front lines near Cassino, he spent several days on a high mountain ledge, watching troop movements and trying to signal information to the allies with a home-made heliograph, which he hid up there before making his break across the lines, not wanting to be caught with it on him and being shot as a spy.  My plan, when we have reached that point, is for all of us who have participated in the walk to climb up to the ledge and celebrate Dad's achievement with a bottle or three of something appropriate.  And wouldn't it be a great end to the story if we found the heliograph?!


But, for now, the path leads on for the next member of the family to take up the baton (Dad's notebook) and continue south following his long walk to freedom.


Myf Adams (Gregson) - (M 1969 - 71)