For decades I’ve been an admirer of Hilaire Belloc’s The Path To Rome, so in a charity shop in Lancaster I grabbed at Peter Francis Browne’s account of his late-20th-century retracing of the same journey. Belloc’s walk had been a pilgrimage, the fulfilment of a vow which he made when stationed in 1891 at Toul in south-east France, to walk from there in a straight line to Rome; he carried this out 10 years later. Browne replaces Belloc’s Catholic motive with a literary one: his was a vow made on reading Belloc’s account, to retrace Belloc’s steps. Subsequent vows form a theme of both books: Belloc’s to use no wheeled transportation; Browne’s not to deviate from the earlier route – both were broken.
The details of Browne’s ‘pilgrimage’ are interesting in themselves: where Belloc followed goat tracks, and found inns in every hamlet, Browne has to negotiate juggernauted dual carriageways and a tourism industry often hostile to the lone bedraggled walker; the characters he meets are memorably well drawn; and Browne’s depiction of himself – the character of Browne – is strong and clear. What sticks in my mind most, however, is the centrality of weather to the world of the long-distance walker – Browne successfully makes the reader feel not only a companion, but also out of doors.
Just before arrival in the Eternal City, Browne muses (p278): “I remembered the Moselle, along whose valley I had walked all those weeks ago. Only weeks? It seemed many months. I pictured myself there, far beyond the Apennines, the Alps, Jura, Vosges, limping along rainy lanes with my blistered feet and the apprehension I could not share.
I hardly recognised that stranger. The man who had left Toul no longer existed.
And that, I suppose, is the only criterion by which one can judge a journey.”
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