14th June 1901: Failed Ascent

At three o’clock this morning, the man woke Belloc up. After a quick breakfast of coffee and bread, they set out.

To get to the Nufenen and Gries Passes they had to cross a ravine. There, they trod carefully as they ploughed through avalanche snow. The need to be careful was emphasised not long later when they saw a cross – planted in memory of a man who had fallen and died there just a couple of months earlier.

The walk did not easier.

We noticed… many disquieting things. First, all that bowl or cup below the passes was a carpet of snow, save where patches of black water showed, and all the passes and mountains, from top to bottom, were covered with very thick snow; the deep surface of it soft and fresh fallen. Secondly, the rain had turned into snow. It was falling thickly all around. Nowhere have I more perceived the immediate presence of great Death. Thirdly, it was far colder, and we felt the beginning of a wind. Fourthly, the clouds had come down.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.241

The guide knew what the snow, coldness and wind, and low clouds meant – the passes would be closed, and told Belloc this, but he wanted and needed to advance on his pilgrimage and insisted they continue. Alas, Belloc was not as kind to this stranger as he and his wife had been to him, and it almost cost him his life.

The Nufenen Pass was clearly blocked so they made for the Gries Pass.

Neither of us spoke, but occasionally he looked back to make sure I had not dropped out.

The Path to Rome, p.242

The weather deteriorated – ‘the snow began to fall more thickly’ (The Path to Rome, p.242) and the wind grew in strength; Belloc thought the guide would protest but for now he kept his peace. A ‘sheer steep of snow’ (The Path to Rome, p.243) terrified Belloc as he was no climber. The guide promised him that it could be negotiated safely, and even if he fell, one might only die if one struck rocks.

They began climbing. Less than half an hour later, the wind was at gale force and the snow ‘whirring furiously past out ears’ (The Path to Rome, p.244). They took refuge under a great rock. Here, the guide told Belloc – shouted at him to make himself heard – that they could not continue. In his desperation, Belloc betrayed the man’s kindness and offered him such money as he had in his pocket to continue.

… it was folly in me, because if I had had enough to tempt him and if he had yielded we should both have died. Luckily it was but a little sum. He shook his head. He would not go on, he broke out, for all the money there was in the world.

The Path to Rome, p.245

The evil of our disordered hearts. It makes us do the most foolish things.

The guide told Belloc that they had to turn back. He did not disagree for by now the cold was starting to numb him. They made their way back to the inn; it was not an easy journey, being in its way almost as perilous as the climb. Belloc felt humiliated. Worse, he could not afford to wait at the inn for the weather to improve. He would have to make his way into Italy on the same route as all the dreadful tourists.

So, he did by going ‘over the Furka; exactly as easy a thing as going up St. James’ Street and down Piccadilly’ (The Path to Rome, p.249). He tells us that he stopped at ‘all the inns’ (Ibid) along the way – I wonder how much he drunk – and told whoever would listen about his failed attempt to cross the Gries Pass. But,

… they took me for a liar… I became silent even within my own mind.

The Path to Rome, p.250

In the evening, Belloc reached Airolo. He rejoiced to hear Italian being spoken – ‘the speech of civilised men’ (The Path to Rome, p.251). His lack of money, though, still weighed heavy on his heart. Boy, do I know that feeling. The first few days of my Camino involved plenty of worry over how much money I had and was spending. I never truly got over it.

Needing to get on, Belloc left the Airolians behind. That night, two hours out of Airolo, he left the Ticino valley behind and entered Faido where he slept.

13th June 1901: Take the Stranger’s Case

The Grimsel Pass is marked with an X. I don’t know what route precisely Belloc took so can only say perhaps it was the one I have arrowed.

Like a hobbit, Belloc had two breakfasts; the first at the hotel, where the waiters were very courteous even if they did charge the earth for his food and coffee, and then at an inn. Breakfast there comprised of brandy and, well, just that. Belloc does not say what the inn keeper was like or how much he charged.

Leaving the inn behind, Belloc began his ascent of the Grimsel Pass. In doing so, he left a ‘companion’ behind – the Aar river. A thousand feet later, he was at the top of the pass. It was another misty day. On the way down, he passed the Lake of the Dead, which sounds like it belongs in Middle-Earth. The mist lifted; hopefully, the world now seemed a little less dead.

Belloc continued his descent. Somewhere near the Rhone river, he came to a large hotel. He asked the hotelier what the cost of a meal would be.

… “Four francs,” they said.
“What!” said I, “Four francs for a meal! Come, let me eat in the kitchen, and charge me one.” But they became rude and obstinate, being used only to deal with rich people, so I cursed them, and went down the road.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome p.232

Hilaire Belloc – either making friends or being as annoying as hell towards people. Okay, they were rude, but really.

Further on he met some moree – ‘a sad Englishman reading a book’ (The Path to Rome, p.232), ‘two American women in a carriage’ (Ibid), and then a priest. If he talked to them, though, he doesn’t record doing so. Interestingly, he does mention making an effort to touch iron after seeing the priest. From whence this superstition? The good news, though, is that Belloc felt good again. ‘… I thought myself capable of pushing on to the next village’ (The Path to Rome, pp.232-33) even though he was hungry and his boot was now severely damaged.

Despite this, he did walk on. He passed through ‘a village called “Between the Waters”‘ (The Path to Rome, p.233), and then ‘another called “Ehringen”” (Ibid). Finally, faint from hunger, he stopped at an inn in Ulrichen.

There, he me ‘one of the women whom God loves’ (Ibid) – a simply, kindly soul. She fed him (not very well, it seems, but at least she appears not to have overcharged him) and then persuaded Belloc not to set out for the Gries Pass on account of bad weather. When Belloc told her what he meant to do, she was horrified and called in a man, perhaps her husband, to warn Belloc off making the attempt.

[He] told me that he knew more of the mountains than any one for miles… He said that he had crossed the Nufenen and the Gries whenever they could be crossed since he was a child, and that if I attempted it that day I should sleep that night in Paradise.

The Path to Rome, pp. 236-7

Belloc – albeit reluctantly, for he was mindful of his ever shrinking purse – listened to him. He took a room at the inn but enjoined the man to wake him at three AM the next day and guide him over the mountain. The man agreed. Belloc sent his boots to be cobbled and settled down to read.

Anything that Belloc achieved after this day in 1901 we have the woman and her husband to thank. They proved better friends than many others, even though Belloc was only a stranger to them. They were better friends because of the goodness of their hearts which led them to be concerned for the stranger whom God had put into their home. Their witness to friendship, to love even, is an inspiration.

12th June 1901: Misty Mountain Hop

Belloc stopped walking for the day a little past Meiringen where he heard the horrid tourist traders

Today, Belloc made his way towards the Brienzergrat.

The Brienzer Grat is an extraordinary thing. it is quite straight; its summits are, of course, of different heights, but from below they seem even, like a ridge: and, indeed, the whole mountain is more like a ridge than any other I have seen…

There are no precipices on it, though there are nasty slabs quite enough to kill a man – I saw several of three or four hundred feet. It is about five or six thousand feet high, and it stands right up and along the northern shore of the lake of Brienz.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press, pp.206-7)

He began his ascent. It was already raining, and now, as he climbed the mountain, mist fell upon him. By the time he reached the peak, Belloc had – unsurprisingly – met the sum total of no one.

He met people on the other side, though; which is to say, in Brienz, but did not get on with them – no one believed he had come over the mountain.

However, they weren’t unfriendly: Belloc still managed to get people’s advice on which path he should take next – several ways were open to him, though as it turned out, even though it was now June, some were blocked due to winter weather.

In the end, Belloc decided to cross the Grimsel and Gries Passes and via the latter enter Italy. But, the best laid plans…

It was now midday. Belloc had a big lunch before setting out. He had a long way to go.

From Brienz to the top of the Grimsel is, as the crow flies, quite twenty miles, and by the road a good twenty-seven.

The Path to Rome, p.230

Early in the afternoon, he reached Meiringen. He hated it for there he found the tourist trade in full effect. The traders were

… all bawling and howling, with great placards and tickets… saying, “This way to the Extraordinary Waterfall; that way to the Strange Cave. Come with me and you shall see that never-to-be-forgotten Falls of the Aar,”

The Path to Rome, p.222

Needless to say, Belloc made no friends here.

Afternoon turned into evening. flap flap The soles of Belloc’s boots were coming loose. He stopped, not at a cobblers, but at a hotel (?) or private house (it’s not quite clear which) for a meal before moving on again. Foolishly, he declined an invitation to stay overnight. In doing so, he overworked himself; for,

… that sustaining surface which hides us in our health the abyss below the mind – I felt it growing weak and thin.

The Path to Rome, p.226

Coming off the back of yesterday’s mental stress, this is not a statement to take lightly. It’s a very true one, though. I realise this every time I feel unwell.

Presently, Belloc arrived at a new hotel. There, he took a room and was fed ‘hot rum and sugar’. He did not sleep well –

… twice that night I woke suddenly, staring at darkness. I had outworn the physical network upon which the soul depends, and I was full of terrors.

The Path to Rome, p.226

Nightmares. Fed by – ? Deeper problems than The Path to Rome explains.

11th June 1901: A Black Day

Today, Belloc walked from just before Burgdorf to an inn just before the Brienzergrat

11th June 1901 was Hilaire Belloc’s most difficult day on his pilgrimage to Rome. At the end of yesterday’s ‘entry’ in The Path to Rome, he describes how he thought he was suffering from ‘fatigue’ (Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.188) whereas it as actually ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ (Ibid).

I have read The Path to Rome several times but only really took in that line – ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ – when I read the book last year. What caused it? Is Belloc close to a nervous breakdown?

To answer the latter question first, no; if The Path to Rome is a true account of his pilgrimage, he is nowhere near it.

To answer the former question, Belloc has only been on the road for eight days, so I would rule out the stress of travelling as the cause for the exhaustion. It is more likely the symptom. To my mind, Belloc’s ‘deep inner exhaustion’ has its roots in his life before his departure from Toul.

Belloc left the inn where he had spent the night and began walking.

All that day was destined to be covered, so far as my spirit was concerned, with a motionless lethargy. Nothing seemed properly to interest or to concern me…

The Path to Rome, p.189

Part of the problem was certainly that Belloc felt intensely lonely.

I had the feeling that every one I might see would be a stranger, and that their language would be unfamiliar to me, and this, unlike most men who travel, I had never felt before… I had no room for good-fellowship. I could not sit at tables and expand the air with terrible stories of adventure, not ask about their politics, nor provoke them to laughter or sadness by my tales.

The Path to Rome, pp.189-90

As for being among strangers whose language one cannot not understand – I can relate to this. I took my first solo holiday abroad in 2002. It was to Tuscany, Italy. Upon my arrival at the hotel, I had a two hour panic attack because here I was now in a strange land surrounded by strangers whose tongue I did not speak. There was no one here to help me; I was entirely alone.

Eventually, I forced myself out of the hotel*. Belloc continued walking. He had breakfast at the Burgdorf railway station where he lamented the sight of tourists just as my friends and I did with the ‘tourist pilgrims’ at Sarria when we did the Camino this year.

[It was] a day without salt. A trudge. The air was ordinary, the colours common; men, animals, and trees indifferent. Something had stopped working.

The Path to Rome, p.193

‘Something had stopped working’. This line gives me the chills. When applied to the spirit, it seems so profound. It seems to go much beyond just feeling blue or a bit sad. Again, it takes me back to my panic attack described above, and the time I felt ‘holed’ (see post here).

Nothing went right for Belloc today. He was in a deep funk; to make matters worse, he was also let down by those around him. Case in point – a peasant asked him to hold his horse while he – the peasant – went into an inn. Belloc, being a horse lover, was happy to do so, but on the understanding that the peasant would bring him a drink. The peasant did not speak English or French so this understanding was only implicit. It was also not known, or ignored. The peasant went inside and stayed there. Belloc grew more and more irritated at being ignored; finally, he lost his temper; he gave the horse a whack and sent it galloping down the road. Now the peasant – and his his friends – came tumbling out of the inn. Belloc took hold of his staff and resumed his walk.

That evening, he was cheered up by the sight of children dancing. They gave Belloc the strength to continue walking. The weather deteriorated, however, and it began to rain. Fortunately, he was able to find a hotel, and there he stayed the night.

*I’m happy to be able to tell you that once I left the hotel, all was well. I had a brilliant holiday

Benedicamus Domino

10th June 1901 Belloc walked from Undervelier to the Weissenstein, from where he saw the Alps for the first time.

When Belloc left Undervelier, he walked towards isolation. He could speak French, but no German, and he was now entering the German speaking part of Switzerland.

He probably didn’t help his chances of getting on with anyone by deciding that the man who refused to give him a coffee was a heretic. But still, it inspired a funny song, which he kindly records in the book.

.. Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so,
Benedicamus Domino

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), p.165

This is one of the things that I like about Belloc – his absurdist humour. It comes out again when he says,

I… thought what a fine fellow I was, and how pleasant were my friends when I agreed with them.


Belloc may have been a staunch Catholic but he had friends far beyond the walls of Rome. I wonder if we can see this in the final verse of his song. He writes,

… as everything ends in death, and as that is just what Heretics least like to be reminded of, I ended thus –

“To my poor self on my deathbed,
And all my dear companions dead,
Because of the love that I bore them,
Dona Eis Requiem

The Path to Rome, p.166

Within the context of the song, which is a celebration of Belloc’s Catholic faith, the companions are no doubt meant to be fellow Catholics. But perhaps by not specifically naming them as such, Belloc is creating a space for his non-Catholic friends who might read the book to see themselves as his deceased friends. Belloc was too generous a man to see good in Catholics and no one else.

10th June 1901 From the Weissenstein, Belloc started walking towards Burgdorf. He would not reach it today, though.

Not that he always saw good in Catholics. Belloc is the man, after all, who is quoted as saying,

‘The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.’


But, I digress. Belloc kept walking. He ate and drank in Moutier, and then took a rest under a tree.

By midday he was on the move again, and passing a hamlet named Gansbrunnen. He stopped at an inn there for some inn. The inn keeper was an old lady, witch like in appearance. Belloc says he ‘made the sign of the evil eye’ (The Path to Rome, p.175) to protect himself against her. He really isn’t trying at all now to make friends.

On leaving the inn Belloc walked up a hill. From the ridge at its peak he saw a plain, and beyond it, the Alps. They made a profound impact on him.

To what emotion shall I compare this astonishment? So, in first love one finds that this can belong to me.

The Path to Rome, p.180

He goes further,

… from the height of the Weissenstein I saw, as it were, my religion. I mean, humility, the fear of death, the terror of height and of distance, the glory of God, the infinite potentiality of reception whence springs that divine thirst of the soul; my aspiration also towards completion, and my confidence in the duel destiny.


There is a fly in the ointment, though, for Belloc concludes,

That it is also which leads some men to climb mountain-tops, but not me, for I am afraid of slipping down.

The Path to Rome, p.181

Belloc is being too modest. He loved Elodie Hogan so much, he walked across America to ask her to marry him. For love of God he undertook this pilgrimage. In a few days, he will climb the Alps. He may have been afraid, but he did not let his fear get the better of him. There’s a lesson for us in that.

Belloc walked today until it was dark. He was heading towards Burgdorf but was still a little way from it when he called time and entered an inn. There, he ate, and would have been the butt of the peasants’ jokes there had he not learnt a few words of German along the way. This cut Belloc to the quick as they were fellow Catholics and so shared a great bond with him. He retired to his room, disappointed. Things would not get better tomorrow.

9th June 1901: Friendliness Past and Present

9th June 1901. Belloc walked from a mile past Delle to Undervelier

Belloc’s first impression of Switzerland was of ‘haphazard’ (The Path to Rome, p.124) roads, old way markers, and mossy walls. The country sure has changed a lot in the last 118 years.

It was ‘not yet ten’ AM (The Path to Rome, p.128) when Belloc arrived in Porrentruy. He stopped at the first inn he came to and asked for food and a glass of wine. He was given both, and once again, overcharged for the drink. Still generous minded, Belloc says it was so good he would have paid twenty or twenty three times as much for it.

Recognising the space limitations of his book, Belloc tells us he wishes he could tell us about more of the people he met. The ‘shifty priest’ (The Path to Rome, p.129) and anarchist. The latter expressed a desire for ‘no property, no armies, and no governments’ (The Path to Rome, p.130). Belloc opposed the motion and a debate followed. Neither side turned from their views. But, Belloc did not mind. He,

… gave him… a deep and misty glass of cool beer, and pledged him brotherhood, freedom, and equal law.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press) p.130

Today, Belloc enjoyed a number of friendly encounters. There was, for example, the wood-cutters who gave him a short-cut over part of the Jura mountains, a woman who showed him another short-cut as she knitted, and a boy who gave him a lift on his cart.

Belloc had a good day. No wonder, then, that as he approached Glovelier, he felt that,

… everything surrounding me was domestic and grateful… I was therefore in a mood for charity and companionship when I came down the last dip and entered Glovelier.

The Path to Rome, p.147

Rather unfortunately, the town itself proved a severe disappointment. It had less than nothing to commend it. Belloc happily admits that ‘if the thought did not seem extravagant I should be for putting it to the sword and burning it all down’! (The Path to Rome, p.147).

Belloc’s antagonism towards the town rests upon the unfriendliness of the people he met in the inn. Yes, he looked as dirty as a tramp but he detected in them ‘a native churlishness which bound their bovine souls in that valley’ (The Path to Rome, p.150).

In the last portion of his entry for today, Belloc records the friendliness of people he has known in the past (or in his own imagination if we are being cynical). There was the friend who he helped cure of a drink problem by instructing him to only drink alcoholic drinks that were made before the Reformation. After doing this, the man ‘became a merry companion’ (The Path to Rome, p.154). Unfortunately, it didn’t last and Martin Luther undid him. Then there were the people of Omaha, Nebraska. They were terrible cooks, but ‘good people’ (The Path to Rome, p.163) for all that.

Tonight, Belloc slept in Undervelier.

8th June 1901: An Explosive Friendship

8th June 1901 Belloc walked down the Ballon d’Alsace north-north west of Giromagny to a mile past Delle.

The next morning, Belloc pulled on his boots and left the mother and her daughters behind. After finishing his descent of the Ballon d’Alsace, he arrived in a town named Giromagny. There, he entered a church, which was filled with priests celebrating Mass at the high and side altars. Why were they all there? It was not a Holy Day, and there was nothing special about Giromagny… Belloc has no answers. One thing is certain, he managed to do what we Catholics are very good at doing, namely, attending Mass and leaving without talking to anyone.

From Giromagny, Belloc walked to Belfort, where he ate lunch. In the afternoon, he ‘came to a vast powder-magazine’. He says,

… for my part, I never see a powder magazine without being filled at once with two very good feelings – laughter and companionship.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press), p.112

This is because he was once good friends with two (fellow?) soldiers who were put on sentry duty at a powder-magazine. Due of the threat of anarchists, the men were given orders to challenge then shoot anyone who approached them. On one ‘summer night they killed a donkey and wounded two mares, and broke the thin stem of a growing tree’ (The Path to Rome, p.113).

The day passed. In the evening,

[t]he line of the the mountains rose higher against the sky, and there entered into my pilgrimage for the first time the loneliness and the mystery of meres.

The Path to Rome, p.116

We certainly don’t see enough of meres in literature. I’m sure there are more around but the only other one I can think of is the Mirrormere in The Lord of the Rings – where the companions stop after fleeing from Moria. This, of course, takes place just after the death of Gandalf, so while they do not experience loneliness, they must endure grief instead.

Fortunately for him, Belloc’s experience of the mere that he passed was not so negative. For while the ‘marshy valley kept its character’ (The Path to Rome, p.116-7), his ‘spirit was caught or lifted in the influence of the waste waters’ (The Path to Rome, p.117). As a result,

I wished, as I had often wished in such opportunities of recollection and of silence, for a complete barrier that might isolate the mind.

The Path to Rome, p.117

It’s interesting to hear Belloc say this, and encouraging that being alone in the evening wasn’t always such a bad thing for him.

In the evening, Belloc passed Delle. A mile up the road, he poked his head round the door of an inn to find out if he was in Switzerland.

A German-looking girl, a large heavy man, a Bavarian commercial traveller, and a colleague of his from Marseilles, all said together in varying accents: “Yes.”

The Path to Rome, p.120

Of these people, the commercial traveller from Marseille stands out. For two hours, he talked Belloc’s ears off but then gave up his bed for him after seeing how tired the latter was.

7th June 1901: On Companionship

7th June 1901 Remiremont to the Ballon d’Asace

Belloc didn’t stop in Remiremont but chose instead to sleep that night underneath a beech tree in a neighbouring valley. Now, Alexander the Great is supposed to have said that only sex and sleep reminded him that he was human. Perhaps he said this because they both involve a surrender of the self. Belloc might have been sympathetic to Alexander’s negative view because he says,

In sleep there is something [which] diminishes us. This everyone has noticed; for who ever suffered a nightmare awake, or felt in full consciousness those awful impotencies which lie on the other side of slumber? When we lie down we give ourselves voluntarily, yet by force of nature, to powers before which we melt and are nothing.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), pp.76-7

As a side note, while it might not be possible to have a nightmare when awake it is surely possible to experience a kind of wakening nightmare. For example, one day, a long time ago, I was walking down the street thinking my usual thoughts when another one occurred to me. It was such an evil thought that I felt utterly holed and in fear of myself and what I might do. For the next month, I lived in a state of terror. After a month, the fear died down but two more would pass before it went away more or less completely. I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone – especially if like me back then – they were too ashamed and scared to speak to anyone and had no coping mechanism for dealing with intrusive thoughts. This is why it took me one month for the fear to die down – it took me that long to learn to say ‘these thoughts do not represent me; I do not give them my consent’.

So, with the greatest of respect to Belloc, I have to disagree with him; I think that while awake it is possible for one to suffer what approximates to nightmares. I take his point, though, about nightmares as usually understood.

To go back to Belloc’s quotation, given that night for him is a lonely and oppressive time, it’s no wonder that he has a negative view of sleep. Unfortunately, things did not improve for him in the early hours of 7th June 1901.

… I woke shivering and disconsolate, needing companionship…

The Path to Rome, p.77

The need for companionship – we’ve heard that before; I’ll be very surprised if we do not hear of it again on this pilgrimage.

For now, Belloc found companionship in unusual places today. That morning, he tells us, ‘the end of my companionship with the Moselle’ (The Path to Rome, p79) came. The river had now become a small stream and would soon, no doubt, disappear to its source.

Today, Belloc met few people, and has no particularly friendly encounters with anyone. He does, however, get to Mass. This is important as it is the Feast of Corpus Christi – a holy day of obligation.

But hold on; In 1901, Corpus Christ was on Thursday, 6th June – yesterday. What’s going on? I won’t dwell on the question here but will, instead, direct you to the article whose dating system I am following. It’s a really great post by Brendan Cutter on The Hilaire Belloc Blog here.

After Mass, Belloc retired to an inn where he spoke to a man about anti-semitism in the area. It is a crying shame that in Britain, 2019, this should still – still – be such a relevant topic.

Leaving the inn, Belloc returned to the countryside. He claimed the Ballon d’Alsace. The mountain was heavily wooded. Belloc says of the trees,

… I pushed upward through through [the] immovable host in some such catching of the breath as men have when they walk at night straining for a sound, and I felt myself to be continually in a hidden companionship.

The Path to Rome, p.92

‘[A] hidden companionship’ with, that is, the trees. It seems slightly ironic that they which were so visible should form an ‘invisible companionship’ with him. But the life of trees is, in a sense, ‘invisible’ – in that it takes place within them and underground – so maybe there is a certain logic to what Belloc says.

Either way, Belloc reached the summit of the mountain and continued on until he came to an inn run by a woman and her three daughters. There was no friendship here but the former at least gave Belloc a bed and a meal, and so we leave him resting there until the morrow.

The Friendly Baker

5th June 1901 Belloc walked from 12 miles out of Toul (Dommartin-les-Toul) to Thayon (Thaon-les-Vosges)

Yesterday, I noted that Belloc intended to walk at night and sleep by day. He now clarifies this by adding that he would ‘break these nights of marching by occasional repose’ (Belloc The Path to Rome Ignatius Press 2003, p.30). He continues,

… I had imagined that it was a light matter to sleep in the open. Indeed, I had so slept when I had been compelled to [while in the French army] but I had forgotten how essential was a rug of some kind, and what a difference a fire and comradeship could make.

The Path to Rome, p.31

From what I know of Belloc, this statement sums up his character very neatly – practical and communal, someone who lived intelligently and for (the company of) other people.

With that said, Belloc could also be very sarcastic and bitter sometimes and I am surprised he does not speak angrily of the man he saw smoking from a the window of a house that night, and who he asked for a bed. The man led him on somewhat by asking various questions only to conclude the interview by saying Belloc couldn’t sleep in the house – he only had one room and his family were sleeping in it. Finally, the man,

… assured me he had asked [his] questions out of sympathy and charity alone.’

The Path to Rome, p.33

If this happened to me, I would be pretty annoyed at having my time so wasted, but Belloc concludes, ‘Then he wished me good-night, honestly and kindly, and went in.’ (Ibid). I wonder if this is an example of Belloc, with his love of friendship, giving someone the benefit of the doubt in respect of their character and intentions.

Last night, then in 1901, Belloc was unable to find anyone who would give him a bed. As a result, he took his rest on some hay. He woke this morning just before sunrise. He lit his pipe and started walking; or, as Belloc puts it, ‘hobbled blindly along for miles under and towards the brightening east’ (The Path to Rome, p.36). This does not sound promising! And indeed, aches and pains were not far away for him.

As the sun rose, Belloc ‘found a signpost that told me I had walked thirty-two kilometres – which is twenty miles – from Toul’ (The Path to Rome, p.37). He was one kilometre from Flavigny, where,

… by a special providence, I found the entertainment and companionship whose lack had left me wrecked all these early hours.

The Path to Rome, p.37

Wrecked is a very strong choice of word. I have to admit, I don’t think Belloc’s account of the previous night really justifies it – not in terms of what the word ‘wrecked’ means for me. Could it have meant something different for him?

After several funny digressions, Belloc finally tells us about the companionship that he found in Flavigny: it was a nineteen year old baker who served him coffee, rum and fresh bread.

What commended the young man to Belloc was not so much his table, though that was good, but their conversation. Belloc’s national service came up in conversation. The baker’s brother was in the same regiment as Belloc had been and he himself intended to join the artillery. Dear reader, says Belloc (or would have done, were he Charlotte Bronte),

You know very little if you think I missed the opportunity of making the guns seem terrible and glorious in his eyes.

The Path to Rome, p.43

One thing Belloc didn’t do was tell tall tales of ‘great shells bursting under my horses and the teams shot down’ (The Path to Rome, p.43). Not because he didn’t want to hoodwink the baker but because he could tell by the young man’s expression that he wouldn’t be believed! A story teller must always be mindful of his audience. This slight lack of respect for the baker does not diminish Belloc’s regard for him. When the time came to pay for his meal, he says that he ‘asked this friend of mind how much there was to pay.’ (The Path to Rome, p.44).

Around midday, Belloc arrived in Charmes. There he ate. When he left the inn, the sun beat down mercilessly on him. Unable to endure it, he stopped and laid down in a thicket. He slept until the evening. That night, he passed his fortieth mile from Toul.

… and though the heat had gone, yet my dead slumber had raised a thousand evils. I had stiffened to lameness, and had fallen into the mood when a man desires companionship and the talk of travellers rather than the open plain.

The Path to Rome, p.58

Unfortunately, he could not go back to Flavigny. Instead, he hobbled on, eventually arriving in Thayon (Thaon-les-Vosges). There, he found people getting ready for Corpus Christi. He left the to it, ‘entered the inn, eat and drank, praised God, and lay down to sleep in a great bed’ (The Path to Rome, p.60).

Before I finish, I must note that this is the second night in a row that Belloc has felt his loneliest, or most desirous of company, at night. Will it become a constant refrain throughout the book? And what particular power did the night have over him that he could get by, alone, during the day but not after dark?

Belloc Leaves Toul

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.


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.