A Modern Pilgrim reads Belloc’s “Path to Rome”

There are many books which give an account of the experiences of modern pilgrims. Books by pilgrims to Santiago are a dime a dozen, and their quality varies enormously. In addition, there are many accounts available of other walking tours. One I remember reading years ago that made a great impression on me (long before I became a long-distance walker myself) was “Two Degrees West: An English Journey” by Nicholas Crane. This chap walked from the top of mainland Britain to the south, but not along the traditional route from John O’Groat’s to Land’s End; rather he set out to walk along the longitude line of 2 degrees west of Greenwich. For some reason, one thing that caught my imagination was that he ordered a special walking stick that doubled as an umbrella. It strikes me today as a rather quaint idea.

But to get really quaint, one must go right back to the time before the modern craze for pilgrimage. I am not talking about Egeria’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem or even Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury – no, slightly more recent. In 1901, the Anglo-French Catholic author Hilaire Belloc took a vow to walk from his birthplace in Toul, France, to the Eternal City, Rome, Italy. He gives an account of his twenty-six day, 750 mile (1200km) journey in his 1902 book “The Path to Rome” (free download here). His vow included the following incredible (by today’s standards, and perhaps even by those of his own) plans:

‘I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St Peter’s on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul.’

He admits to breaking all but one of these vows – he did make it to St Peter’s by June 29, 1901 – but he also did keep up that cracking pace of about 30 miles (almost 50kms) a day. That’s Oxfam sort of walking, not just for 48 hours, but for a whole month. Our little pilgrimage saw us walking about 27-32kms a day. My longest day that I have ever walked was the Pilgrimage of Mercy when I walked from Boronia to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne via the bike tracks – a distance of 45kms, and I tell you I don’t think I could have kept that up for a month. Now, on our recent jaunt, we were wearing packs that weighed between 10-12kg – and there is no indication that Belloc took with him anything more than a piece of ham, a loaf of bread and bottle of wine in sack (otherwise relying on whatever he could pay for on the way), but nevertheless it is an herculean feat.

This webpage goes into some of the details of Belloc’s pilgrimage. There the author comments that:

Twenty nine miles a day (more than the marathon in distance) day after day for the best part of a month was a prodigious achievement, even allowing for a certain amount of “cheating.” In the days when students commonly walked between London and Oxford it was Hilaire Belloc’s proud boast that…he held the student record for the fifty six miles from Carfax to Marble Arch in eleven hours thirty minutes. That distance would take the average experienced walker at least two full days. On walking holidays rest days are considered essential and Belloc had none. Furthermore he included a lot of hill and mountain walking where the challenge is vertical rather than horizontal and he had problems with his bad knee, the weather and, at times, in finding his way.

Like I said, this means Belloc’s “path to Rome” was the equivalent of the Oxfam walk over and over and over for four weeks. I am in awe.

There is one thing I don’t quite understand: how did he have time to journal his pilgrimage with all that walking? He tells us he stopped to take sketches (I guess you couldn’t just pull out your iphone and take a snapshot in those days), but mentions nothing about keeping a diary. He writes all this then a year later. Still, I guess some things stick in your mind.

One event from our recent MacKillop-Woods Way pilgrimage that sticks in my mind is the day we walked through the rain from Cowwarr to Maffra, and stopped for lunch at the hamlet of Tinamba, which had boasts one of the best pub restaurants for hundreds of miles around. We arrived absolutely dripping wet, with mud on our boots, and asked for a table. The first question was “Do you have a reservation?”. Sean collected pieces of paper toweling from the bathroom to place on his chair to soak up some of his moisture, and I had left my shoes and rain jacket out on the verandah so was walking around in my wet socks. It was all a bit embarrassing, but when we explained to the diners at the neighbouring tables that we had walked from Melbourne and were on our way to Bairnsdale, suddenly all were interested in our tales.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read in Belloc an account that almost perfectly matched our experience. I reproduce it here for you:

I clambered down the hill to Archettes and saw, almost the first house, a swinging board ‘At the sign of the Trout of the Vosges’, and as it was now evening I turned in there to dine.

Two things I noticed at once when I sat down to meat. First, that the people seated at that inn table were of the middle-class of society, and secondly, that I, though of their rank, was an impediment to their enjoyment. For to sleep in woods, to march some seventy miles, the latter part in a dazzling sun, and to end by sliding down an earthy steep into the road, stamps a man with all that this kind of people least desire to have thrust upon them…

I took great care to pay for my glass of white wine before dinner with a bank-note, and I showed my sketches to my neighbour to make an impression. I also talked of foreign politics, of the countries I had seen, of England especially, with such minute exactitude that their disgust was soon turned to admiration. (Hilaire Belloc. The Path to Rome.)

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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One Response to A Modern Pilgrim reads Belloc’s “Path to Rome”

  1. matthias says:

    i feel more comfortable with Chesterton than i do with Belloc. Is it perhaps due to reports that he was antisemitic?

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