Harold Fry’s Moving, If A Bit Pedantic, Pilgrimage

Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a story of a man who breaks from the monotony of his daily life to walk across England to see a friend dying of cancer.  Despite the rather macabre premise, I thought it would be a largely whimsical story because of the absurdity of Harold’s decision: a non-athletic man traveling 600 miles on foot out of the blue.  Joyce’s novel  turns out to be much more than a profile of an eccentric man who decides to walk because “it’s a nice day.”  The novel develops into a moving story of friendship, love, loss, and ultimately forgiveness.

As Harold winds his way through England’s hills and flat country, from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, the novel slowly reveals why this man in his golden years feels compelled to walk 600 miles from his wife of 45 years, Maureen, toward another woman from his past, Queenie Hennessey, a woman for whom he claims to have never felt any romantic interest.  Harold is only sixty-five years old, hardly old by today’s standards, but he feels like an old man in many ways.  Finally facing a lifetime of regrets, Harold believes he is doing something bigger than himself; some would call his conviction faith, others would call it foolishness.  His journey produces a fascinating tale either way.

I love Joyce’s descriptive writing, detailing the scenery of the English countryside and its quaint towns and inhabitants, describing what Harold learns from each person he meets.  This is a novel about “big ideas” (if you’re reading it on a Kindle, the lessons will jump out at you if you have the “popular highlight” feature turned on).  These are lessons that will appeal to a broad audience, an appeal that will likely withstand the test of time, but the incorporation of so many explicit lessons felt a bit heavy-handed at times, like I was being lectured to at a high school graduation about what’s important in life. A gentle, well-written lecture, but a lecture nonetheless.  It does, however, make this book a perfect choice for a book club discussion; there’s a lot of meat here, if you want to talk about it.

While there is much to love about this novel, I must admit that my favorite part had nothing to do with the story, but rather how it brought back memories of my own walk through the English countryside, a much shorter walk, only 100 miles through the Cotswolds.  My husband and I embarked on this walk (beginning at Chipping Campden and ending at Bath) after our wedding (our anniversary was yesterday) between taking the Bar Exam and starting our first legal jobs.  It was the perfect trip–moderate outdoor activity (10 miles a day) and quaint towns with interesting histories.  We stayed in bed and breakfasts, including in some homes that were older than the United States.  Each of our hosts, brimming with pride, served us enormous English breakfasts every morning, and tended to assume we preferred coffee because we are American, even though we only drink tea (I am half South Asian, after all).

During Harold’s journey, which includes some of the towns we traveled through, one person Harold passes debates the merits of the Cotswold Way, concluding, “Of course the Cotswold Trail is overrated.  Give me Dartmoor any day.”  His wife replies, “Personally I liked the Cotswolds… I know it’s more flat, but it’s romantic.”

Indeed, the Cotswold Way is romantic: 100 miles of scenic countryside, including sheep shit, muddy cornfields, belligerent cows, and an obstacle course of fences, can only bring two people together.  I would love to go again with my husband, maybe for our anniversary a few years down the line, when our children are a little older.  Maybe we’ll try Dartmoor next time!

Here are a few pictures from our trip:


  1. I just read this book last week!
    (I put off reading your review before hand as I like surprises!)
    I’m not sure how I felt from reading it…I kind of enjoyed it? It just felt it was a bit “forced” at times a bit like it “had” to address themes and that some of the feelings “had” to be wedged in somehow? Does that make sense?!
    I definitely enjoyed her prose, and the character of Maureen was my favourite; I love her inner monologues and how believable she was.
    I’m looking forward to her next book!

    1. I loved this book, but I agree that Joyce was a heavy handed with some of the “lessons.” Maureen is a great character, and her circumstances surprised me the most. This is a book that I will likely read again.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      1. I’ve been recommending it to some friends whom I know will like it! 🙂
        It reminds me a little of “We need to talk about Kevin”, which if you haven’t read it is a great novel, and very moving (in my humble opinion anyways!).

        Your blog is a favourite of mine, I just rarely comment, it’s always a joy to see new posts pop up on my wordpress reader!

  2. Love your Cotswold pictures! My hubby and I definitely enjoyed our too-brief visit there and I am dying to go back. We did one day on Dartmoor too, and it was lovely – wild and eerie and scenic.

    1. I would absolutely love to go back! We’ve talked about taking the kids on the first day of the Cotswold walk, about ten miles between Chipping Campden and Stanton, but we’ll have to wait until they’re a bit older. Dartmoor sounds wonderful, too.

  3. Now I’m going to have to read this book. I’ve always wanted to bike the English countryside and didn’t realize there are trails you can walk, but of course there would be. One of my fav books is ‘Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English’, also set in the English country. You may like it. Great pictures! Thanks for sharing.

  4. I’ve long wanted to do a hiking trip along some of England’s public ways. Sounds like I might enjoy this book for that reason and also like you had a great trip yourselves.

    1. I highly recommend both the book and the Cotswold Way! The book would be a nice one to take a long in your backpack. I remember reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series during that trip.

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