The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Rachel Joyce

When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else's life.

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I was completely captivated by this wonderful book from the first page. I know that I will re-read it, often, with unfading pleasure. It’s one of those special stories that don’t come along that often; a triumph of warm, compassionate writing, by turns uplifting, amusing, deeply sad, and magical.

Harold Fry is a recently-retired office worker. He lives quietly with his wife Maureen in the South Hams of Devon. One morning he receives a letter from Queenie, a colleague he hasn’t seen or heard from for years. She explains she is writing to say goodbye: she is dying. Her address is that of a hospice run by nuns at the other end of the country, in Berwick.

Harold is seized by the belief that if he walks from Kingsbridge to Berwick – nearly 600 miles – he will save Queenie, in an almost mystical deal with fate. But he has to walk all the way - no trains, planes, or automobiles – and he must start at once; there is no time to lose.

So he steps out of his suburban house in his jacket and tie, leaving his astonished wife behind him. He has no map, or phone, or compass, or waterproof, still less walking boots (he is wearing impractical yachting shoes). As Harold makes his painfully slow progress north, his dead marriage and a broken relationship with their only child slip further and further behind him – and yet, simultaneously, into increasing clarity and focus.


Queenie once did something wonderful and kind and unforgettable for Harold. And then she left the brewery they both worked for and he never saw her again.

Now, on his steady pilgrimage to her death-bed, he sends her a message. I am coming. Wait for me. Live for me.

Rachel Joyce’s writing is sublime; simple, yet wonderfully eloquent. As Harold trudges doggedly along in his silly shoes and unsuitable clothes, he meets other travellers on the road. Many are bemused by his quest, but some grasp the almost courtly nature of it.

I was reminded of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; this book is a series of vignettes; stories within the story. I loved the chapter headings – ‘Harold and the Barman and the Woman with Food’, or ‘Harold and the Physician and the Very Famous Actor’. They promise rich episodes, and do not disappoint.

The early 20th-century travel writer H.V. Morton (‘In Search of England’) would have loved this book. The descriptions of life on the rural – and urban – road are as good as anything he ever wrote. In fact this is as much a road book as it is the story of one man’s pilgrimage against despair.

The final chapter had me in helpless tears of mingled sadness and happiness. It will you, too. Enjoy this book. It is a rare and beautiful offering.

Reviews & Comments

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  • Stop even thinking about reading this book!!! I read it as The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate son of God and quite frankly it was one of the worst books I've ever read. Would be staggered if people in the book club enjoy this and I'd love to save your precious time when there are so many other awesome books around. I'm a massive fan of the Richard & Judy book club but this time it's a big thumbs down


  • I am sorry to stagger you sarah, but I really did love this book and couldn't disagree with you more. This is such a delightful, engaging and charming read. I'm so glad to see it here so many more people may experience it!

    sam rossiter

  • That is a different book by a different autor entirely. I would thoroughly recommend this, it's a delightful read.

    Gary Bourne

  • I have no idea what Sarah is talking about. Did not read this as Harold being deified in any way shape or form. It was a really gentle but lovely read, with the reveal around why their marriage had gone into decline, truely making me gasp. This novel is sad, poignant, funny, but ultimately a really uplifting story showing that anything is possible if you believe in something bigger than yourself.


  • SOBBED my way through the final chapters. A stunning novel. LOVED IT!


  • I really enjoyed this book. It was a nice gentle read in the vein on Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.


  • While this is a decent book, some might think a little predictable, but nonetheless it is well written and very evocative aof an England that is probably many years past, it is in fact almost a straight pinch of the Spring Madness of Mr Sermon by R F Delderfield, where the central character (Mr Sermon) ; experiences something in his life that causes hm to leave home and wife to go on a journey, discovering things about himself, his relationship with his family and others, how he becomes a man who has a clear aim and achiebves it wand wins back the relationship with his wife he always wanted.

    With some slight variations, that's the plot of Harold Fry, too.

    Of course, Richard and Judy and the other critics may not have read the Spring Madness of Mr Sermon, but if you can, (remembering it was written in 1963), do so - you may be surpised!

    John Hughes

  • Gosh no I felt that the book was just as much about Maureen as it was about Harold, also so many other characters had so much to say.


  • This was one of my top books of 2012, I absolutely loved it and was thrilled that it was long listed for the Booker prize. Can't wait to read more from this brilliant author. If that was her debut, how far can she go?!


  • January 15, 2013, Press Dispensary. British paramedics' blood is boiling at an article written by Richard & Judy - Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan - in Saturday's Daily Express. And members of the College of Paramedics are reporting a backlash from members of the public. They are calling for Richard Madeley to apologise unequivocally and to donate his Daily Express fee to the Ambulance Services Benevolent Fund.

    On Saturday January 12, 2013, under the heading "RISKING A BABY'S LIFE FOR LUNCH" the Richard & Judy article asserted the "grotesque truth" that "West Midlands Ambulance Service's finest continued to munch their lunch after a six-week-old baby boy suffered a heart attack" and that "Incredibly, paramedics refused to interrupt their lunch break despite an emergency call for an ambulance to attend"(1).

    "It's simply not true that this crew sat 'feeding their faces' knowing that a patient, in this case a baby, was suffering a life-threatening heart condition," said Andy Proctor, Paramedic spokesperson for College of Paramedics members in the West Midlands.

    "It's absolutely outrageous to suggest that this or, indeed, any paramedic or ambulance crew would knowingly sit eating a meal whilst a child's life is at threat . We believe that this article has totally misreported the facts in this case."

    Proctor continued: "What he also didn't mention is that a paramedic was already at the patient's side within minutes, providing life-saving treatment.

    "Not only has it caused worry and humiliation to the individuals concerned, it has also caused worry and concern in the local population."

    Jim Petter, Director of Professional Standards, for the College of Paramedics, said: "This inaccurate and poorly-researched journalism has resulted in not only abuse and threats to one of the country's most dedicated and selfless professions, paramedics, but also potentially caused anxiety, stress and concern for others, including the family of the patient referred to."

    Chair of the College of Paramedics Council and Consultant Paramedic, Professor Andy Newton, said: "The College of Paramedics has grave concerns over this unfortunate and poorly articulated news story, which not only serves to defame the paramedics and ambulance crews in question, but also undermines the public’s confidence in our emergency services.

    "Richard & Judy have long been seen as the bastions of sensibility and fairness and have, I understand, previously complained about inappropriate journalism. However, on this occasion it would appear that they have made a grave error of judgement. It is for this reason that I am, on behalf of our members, writing to complain directly to the Daily Express Newspaper, as they do not fall under the remit of the Press Complaints Commission to investigate our complaint."

    Chief Executive of the College of Paramedics, David Hodge said: "Very importantly, our thoughts are with the child and his family, and we sincerely hope that he is able to make as full a recovery as possible.

    "But it is extremely disappointing to read such an article which plainly has not reported all the facts clearly. While we are disappointed that the child had to wait so long for a transporting ambulance when being so ill, I must stress that he was being attended throughout by a life-saving paramedic and that the paramedic crew, so criticised in this article, would not even have been aware of the call.

    "We fully support paramedics throughout the UK and also in this instance the West Midlands Ambulance Service. We recognise the immense pressures placed on paramedics, which sometimes involve entire shifts of 12 hours or more, under high pressure, without a proper meal break.

    "Paramedics and ambulance crews across the country work under great pressure and under relentless demand. Their well-being has to be considered otherwise they simply wouldn’t be fit to carry out their jobs which are so vital to the public."

    The College of Paramedics calls for an unequivocal public apology from Richard Madeley and donation of his fee from the Daily Express to the Ambulance Services Benevolent Fund.


    - ends -

    Notes for editors 1. The College of Paramedics is the professional body for UK paramedics. Formed in 2002, originally as the British Paramedic Association it represents the professional interests of paramedics and student paramedics. It is not a trade union. 2. There are more than 18,000 paramedics registered in the UK with the Health and Care Professions Council ( 3. Paramedics are health professions are regulated by law and form one of the Allied Health Professions (as defined by the Department of Health). Although not directly representing other non-registered ambulance service clinical staff, the College is equally concerned for other frontline emergency ambulance staff, such as ambulance technicians and emergency care assistants, who routinely work under the leadership of paramedics. 4. West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust has issued a number of statements in relation to this article and associated local press, which can be found at:

    FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT: David Davis, College of Paramedics Tel: 07973 316 787 Email: Site:

    TWITTER: @ParamedicsUK FaceBook:

    Name name

  • Easy read, nicely done. Big disappointment for me was that author had clearly never been to Berwick Upon Tweed. It is a beautiful, shabby chic, evocative place , the town wrapped around with the Tweed on one side and the sea on the other. I had hoped the big reveal at the end would have included the magic of the place. 'twas not to be.


  • This is a wonderful, wonderful book. There are not many times when I really envy the person I loan a book because they are about to read it and I have just finished! This was certainly one of those times. How could anyone not simply love this book! A great read.


  • I loved this book, I really had an empathy for the characters,I agree with the previous comment too, the book was as much about Maureen as it was Harold. I felt that I had a real empathy with the characters. I liked the plot twist at the end, didn't see it coming at all!! Would thoroughly recommend this book.


  • I completely loved this book from the first page and it had me laughing and crying (even on the bus). I would love to meet a Harold on any journeys I make and didn't guess what was going to happen at the end. Truely delightful and would recommend to others!

    Karen Smillie

  • I do not think you read the same book as I did.


  • I loved this book and didn't want to finish it as I adored it! My son Josef enjoyed the map plotting and asked where Harold had reached when we settled down at night! I cried and laughed in equal amounts - embarrassing when you do a lot of reading on the bus!!! Recommended and not to be missed!

    Karen Smillie

  • Absolutely loved this book,fresh and thought provoking,I laughed,I cried,great writing and credit to Rachel Joyce,what a lovely read.

    joanne gomm

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