Gerald Thompson -
Walker of Greek Paths
Text by Souzana Raphael from an interview with Gerald in 2011
We are sad to report that Gerald Thompson passed away on 8th February 2015. He will be missed by so many!
It has been my great pleasure these past several years of living on Aegina island to have become friends with Gerald Thompson, author of A Walking Guide to Aegina, first printed in Great Britain (1997), later in Athens (2003), and now also available in Greek translation. Gerald lives in a country house built for him in 1989-90 on the edge of the ravine that traverses the inland village of Mesagros, with a fine view of the 5th century BC temple of Afea on a high hill to the east. I first met him on Sunday hikes on the old foot paths of the island, hikes which he led from the early 90s up until 1 ½ years ago, when a fall resulting in a broken hip prevented his continuing. He coined the term Aegina Rambling Club for his group of hikers. The hikes continue without his (always cheerful and witty) presence - from October until Easter, led by long-term fellow hikers Martha and Graham.
Gerald began travelling to Greece more than 50 years ago - in 1961, during his 28 year career as a classics teacher at a boys’ school in England. He was born into a working-class family in 1933, in Wakefield, Yorkshire (northern England), and won scholarships to both grammar school (ages 11-18) and later to Oxford, something that would have otherwise been impossible, given his family background. He studied classics (Latin and Greek language, history, philosophy, literature) and taught at Hymers’ College (then a boys school) at Hull, Yorkshire, from 1957-85. His teaching career ended when studies of classics, seen in those years as unrelated to the job market, were replaced by Spanish.
He first came to Greece in 1961 under the auspices of the Aegina Club, founded in 1958 by a Greek who studied in England, and whose aim was to enable English citizens of limited means to visit Greece and see the sights. Gerald brought his first school group of 11 pupils during Easter vacation in 1961 and fell in love with Greece, bringing groups of pupils annually at Easter time for the next 26 years. That first trip in '61 landed the group in Aegina by a curious fluke. The pupils had made the long journey from England by rail and sea and reached Athens quite exhausted. The program had included a 6-day stay in the capital, but when the sink in the boys' hotel room was found plugged up with vomit, plans were changed, and the group spent a full 2 weeks at the old Hotel Brown in Aegina instead.
Gerald traveled to Greece on his own during the summers from 1961 until his retirement in '85 and found Greece a totally different world from England, with more warm-hearted and hospitable people, which he sees as characteristic of the Orient in general. Upon his retirement, he was hired by the head of the Aegina Club as a courier (a paid position) due to his extensive knowledge of Greece. He was engaged to lead tours to both the Mani (high mountain territory in the Peloponnese) and to Mt. Olympus - both of them places he had long wanted to visit. Gerald later devised three new tours for the club and revised others. He also wrote a guide to 46 islands, complete with slides, which unfortunately was never published, and is now completely dated, due to the extensive development that came with tourism. He has climbed the best-known peaks in Greece, including 8 times for Olympus, 4 times for Tayetos (in the Mani) and 3 times for Dirfys on the island of Evia (Euboia).
A curious coincidence in Gerald's life was his arrival in Aegina on his first trip to Greece in 1961 during the same month that Agios Nektarios was proclaimed a saint by the Orthodox Church. In addition, Gerald's birthday is the same day (9 November) that Agios Nektarios died, though in a different year (Gerald was born in 1933, Agios Nektarios died in 1920).
"My whole life seems to have been governed by seemingly chance events," Gerald told me, during our discussion of his life.
Such an event occurred when hiking with an English friend who had come for a walking tour in 1987, and the friend commented while walking in the ravine below Gerald's future home on what a lovely site for a house this area would be. Emerging from the ravine, they came upon a local villager and Gerald asked him if there might be any lots for sale in the area. The villager came up to him and gazed at him in a most intense fashion, asking him if he was truly interested in building in the vicinity, and upon hearing an answer in the affirmative, showed him the site where he would build his home.
It turned out that the villager had had another buyer for the site, but the man had backed out of the deal when he wife expressed fear of living so close to the sheer cliff-edge of the ravine. Interestingly, it was this ravine that also prevented others from building close to Gerald's house and blocking his fine view of the temple.
In the introduction to Gerald's guide to walks in Aegina, he describes Aegina as an ideal island for hiking due to its diverse terrain within a smallish area (compared to that of much larger islands), the small size also making possible departure and return to the same spot far easier. Many of the old footpaths of Aegina have disappeared for lack of the donkeys which kept them open in the old days, as they both ate and trampled the vegetation that has now choked those paths. Road building has also played a role in path destruction, and Gerald once wrote to Greek magazines about destruction of a Mycenean wall near an old mountain village on the island.
Gerald has also written a long autobiography, which he published at his own expense, and a book about his experiences with local Albanian immigrant workers, titled Ilyrian Monopoly. Those interested in Gerald's books can phone him at (+30) 22970 71414 (but not during the traditional Greek naptime between 14:00 and 17:00 pm) and not after 21:30 in the evening. His walking guide to Aegina is also available in Aegina bookstores.