On the evening of 4th June 1901, Catholic journalist Hilaire Belloc set off from Toul, France on pilgrimage to Rome. He intended to arrive in the Italian capital on 29th June, the feast of SS Peter and Paul and after many adventures did just that. In 1905, he published his account of his journey in a book titled The Path to Rome.
For the last few years, I have read The Path to Rome between 4th and 29th June. The book isn’t divided up into chapters but with one or two exceptions, Belloc is very clear about when the days start and end so I have been able to read that day’s entry on the anniversary of it happening and arrive in Rome with him on the 29th.
Previously, I have followed his journey on Twitter; this time round, however, I will do so on the blog. As previously, I’ll use Google Earth to show (roughly) his location. This time round, I’d like to give the posts a little focus by noting the times that Belloc made friends or found friendship. So, without further ado, let’s begin.
After leaving Toul, Belloc’s pilgrimage got off to a quiet start. For that reason, we find him pausing when he should be walking and reminiscing about his time in the French army. As he does so, he recalls ‘the best companions in the world’ (Belloc The Path to Rome, p.17 (Ignatius edition 2003). Who deserved such a great title? No man, as it turns out, but 156 battery guns!
I wonder where you all are now? I suppose I shall not see you again; but you were the best companions in the world, my friends.Ibid
As Belloc walked, he passed a flock of sheep and their shepherd,
… who gave me a good-night.Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.23 (Ignatius edition 2003)
This friendly act, as brief as it was, helped induce in Belloc ‘the pleasant mood in which all books are conceived (but none written) (Ibid)!
It was twilight when Belloc passed through a village which he knew as St. Peter of the Quarries. There, the
… peasants sat outside their houses in the twilight accepting the cool air; every one spoke to me as I marched through, and I answered them all, nor was there in any of their salutations the omission of good fellowship or of the name of God.Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.24 (Ignatius edition 2003)
One man, ‘a sergeant of artillery on leave’ (Ibid) invited Belloc to join him over a drink but Belloc declined – as the days were very hot, he intended to make his pilgrimage in the evening and overnight, so he had to keep moving.
As he left St. Pierre, though, Belloc admits that he ‘was not secure from loneliness’ (The Path to Rome, p.25). The night began to ‘oppress’ him. How much was Belloc affected by his loneliness? It’s hard to say but despite coming across to me through his books, and in books about him, as a strong man, there are one or two hints in The Path to Rome that mentally he did suffer as much as many of us do from a certain fragility. I take comfort from that.
That night, Belloc lit his pipe and began singing. Suddenly,
… I… heard, to my inexpressible joy, some way down the road, the sound of other voices. They were singing that old song of the French infantry which dates from Louis XIV., and is called “Auprès de ma blonde.” I answered their chorus, so that, by the time we met under the wood, we were already acquainted.Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.28 (Ignatius edition 2003)
I love Belloc’s choice of words here. He wasn’t just happy to hear the soldiers’ singing, but felt an ‘inexpressible joy’. If this is how happy he could be at the sound of strangers singing, no wonder he could feel loneliness as well.
In the past, I have held the end of Belloc’s day to be midnight. I will try and keep to that in these blog posts, whether or not he is still walking. If he does keep walking, I’ll note it in the next day’s post.
The singing soldiers were the last people Belloc encountered at all, let alone under friendly circumstances, before midnight on 4th June 1901 so I will end this post here.
Interesting as I love Belloc and was once in Toul on a bike trip with my husband where we got enmeshed in the circular streets, eventually running into a very seedy part of town. We were glad when we escaped! Our wsy also led through Flavigny so happy memories for me! In my book ‘A Bit on the Blind Side’.
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Geraldine, Apologies for taking so long to reply to this. I’m so glad to read that you like Belloc and a very jealous that you have been to Toul! I shall have to look your book up!
Malcolm we did a mammoth cycle trip in 95. We went down thro England then sailed to Zeebrugge and took the train to Strasburg then cycled to Ringsheim where my husband’s mothr lives. After 3 weeks we cycled all the way back to Zeebrugge and sailed to Hull. Fab.