Belloc: The Old Road

May 4, 2010

The Old Road (1904)
Hilaire Belloc (Constable & Co., 1910)
281 p.  First reading.

Belloc was a great walker.  The Bellocian legendarium tells us that, in the wake of a refusal of his offer of marriage by an American woman, he tried to clear his head by taking a walk — from California to New York.  Later he made a pilgrimage on foot from central France to Rome,  a journey recounted in his wonderful book The Path to Rome.  In The Old Road he writes of his attempt to walk from Winchester to Canterbury, a  journey of about 200 km (125 mi) — a mere stroll by his standards.

The Old Road, also sometimes called Pilgrims Road, was an ancient route through the south of England, its origins long preceding the arrival of the Romans.  In the Middle Ages it acquired special significance as a primary thoroughfare for pilgrims seeking the tomb of St. Thomas Becket.  When devotion to St. Thomas waned in recent centuries, the Old Road fell into disuse and portions of it were forgotten.  Belloc’s purpose in this book was to reconstruct the full length of the road by walking the land himself.

I had hoped that The Old Road would be similar to The Path to Rome which, by virtue of its imaginative power, brilliant prose, and great heart, is a book for the ages.  But The Old Road is comparatively pedestrian.  The objective is to reconstruct a lost footpath, so the discussion necessarily occupies itself with niceties: whether the path passes to the north or the south of a church, whether it traverses a side hill or remains in the valley, whether it fords a river here or a little further downstream.  The casual reader like myself could be forgiven (I hope) for hopping ahead a few pages.  I have never known Belloc to write dull prose, and even here his observations occasionally rise to the apophthegmatic (“A barrow is an unmistakable thing.  You open it and you find a tomb.”), but I found much of the subject matter of limited interest.

Or maybe it would be better to say “of local interest”.  If I were myself walking the Old Road I expect I would enjoy having the book along.  And it is difficult to resist Belloc’s evident love for the land he treads and its long history.  The best section of the book is the opening discourse “On the Road and the Fascination of Antiquity”, in which he reflects on the deep and abiding human significance of roads, and fires, and other basic things:

There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has traveled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned.

That, I think, is a suitably Bellocian reflection.  I close with a few others:

[History in the flesh]
To study something of great age until one grows familiar with it and almost to live in its time, is not merely to satisfy a curiosity or to establish aimless truths: it is rather to fulfil a function whose appetite has always rendered History a necessity. By the recovery of the Past, stuff and being are added to us; our lives which, lived in the present only, are a film or surface, take on body — are lifted into one
dimension more. The soul is fed. Reverence and knowledge and security and the love of a good land — all these are increased or given by the pursuit of this kind of learning. Visions or intimations are confirmed. It is excellent to see perpetual agony and failure perpetually breeding the only enduring things; it is excellent to see the crimes we know
ground under the slow wheels whose ponderous advance we can hardly note during the flash of one human life. One may say that historical learning grants men glimpses of life completed and a whole; and such a vision should be the chief solace of whatever is mortal and cut off imperfectly from fulfilment.

[The attractions of antiquity]
No one truly loves history who is not more exalted according to the greater age of the new things he finds. Though things are less observable as they are farther away, yet their appeal is directly increased by such a distance in a manner which all know though none can define it. It is not illusion; perhaps an ultimate reality stands out when the details are obscured. At any rate it is the appeal which increases as we pass further from the memories of childhood, or from the backward vision of those groups of mountain which seem to rise higher and more awfully into the air as we abandon them across the plains. Antiquity of that degree conveys — I cannot pretend to say how — echoes which are exactly attuned to whatever is least perishable in us. After the present and manifold voice of Religion to which these echoes lead, and with which in a sense they merge, I know of nothing more nobly answering the perpetual questioning of a man. Nor of all the vulgar follies about us is any more despicable than that which regards the future with complacency, and finds nothing but imperfection in that innocent, creative, and wondering past which the antiquaries and geologists have revealed to us.

For my part I desired to step exactly in the footprints of such ancestors. I believed that, as I followed their hesitations at the river crossings, as I climbed where they had climbed to a shrine whence they also had seen a wide plain, as I suffered the fatigue they suffered, and laboriously chose, as they had chosen, the proper soils for going, something of their much keener life would wake again in the blood I drew from them, and that in a sort I should forget the vileness of my own time, and renew for some few days the better freedom of that vigorous morning when men were already erect, articulate, and worshipping God, but not yet broken by complexity and the long accumulation of evil.

2 Responses to “Belloc: The Old Road”

  1. aburami Says:

    Just finished the book and went online to see whether his project had held up over the past century. Frustrated at times by the allusions to stories in taverns and towns that I would have liked to hear, but you picked out several of my favorite passages. Good stuff.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks a lot, aburami. This is a book that not many people read, I believe. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for stopping by.

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