Just before 8 am, on July 30, 2014, I made my way to a church in Kensington, London. As I drew nearer I saw smoke rising, and, nearer still, found a young man puffing on a fat cigar. It was then I knew I had arrived at the right place.
I had come to join the Catholic G.K. Chesterton Society’s annual pilgrimage, now in its fourth year. This consisted of a trek from the center of London, beginning at the church Chesterton was baptized in, to the place he now lies buried, some 30 or so miles away in the country town of Beaconsfield. The young man greeted me with a smile as I sat down and waited for others to join us. That said, there was no telling who was going to turn up. On its inaugural outing, the walk consisted of only two people, one of whom was the organizer, Stuart McCullough. So, if nothing else, having spoken to him earlier that week, I was expecting at least one other to arrive. He had better, I thought, as he had the route map.
London at that time of a summer’s day is particularly fine, but that morning the street we waited on was bathed in a gentle sunlight, and, it was through this, with a broad smile on his face, that our leader was to stride. Stuart is a Chestertonian character in his own right. He is as good-natured as he is unflappable, as humorous as he is determined. When not organizing excursions such as this, he is to be found running, with his wife, Clare, the Good Counsel Network, a charity for women who find themselves pregnant with few options available if plenty of “wolves” circulating. It is a venture few would have dreamed possible. And yet, starting with just a few hundred pounds, the McCulloughs have established a permanent presence in central London that has offered, and offers still, hope to many.
Stuart may be a serious man in many respects, but like many in the pro-life cause he wears it lightly. And so, as one might expect, the Catholic G.K. Chesterton Society is all a bit of a joke. When first come across, the expectation is of meetings and chairmen, conferences and annual dinners—not a bit of it. Its sole purpose is the yearly pilgrimage. The society has no members as such, no permanent abode; it is invisible except for the band of pilgrims assembling yearly on a London street, a band with no banners, with most of those assembled strangers to one another, and with a lone map—not only do I think Chesterton would have approved, I think he would have laughed out loud.
Just after 8 am we set off. There were about 12 souls. Male and female, young and not so young, those who looked fit and those who looked resolute, and then others who just looked a bit bewildered. The first thing I had noticed was the footwear. Like most of our merry band, I had come prepared with a pair of battered, if comfortable, walking boots. One of our number, however, a woman, not young, seemed to be shod in the flimsiest pair of sandals, but, nevertheless, looked to be the most purposeful of all those present. And so, with due ceremony, we processed down Campden Hill Road and straight into London’s rush-hour traffic.
Pilgrimage is about journeying together. From the start this “togetherness” was going to be tough, setting out as we did along the crowded pavements of Notting Hill. Rushing commuters pushed by, plugged into headsets, oblivious to all around them, and without a second glance in our direction. It was as if we were wrapped in a cloak of invisibility. Well, not quite: Stuart led the way with a papal flag perched on top of his rucksack and a scarlet t-shirt that called on others to “Join the revolution with Che-sterton.” He garnered a few shy metropolitan half-glances—as it turned out, mostly baffled ones at the t-shirt, expecting the expected before getting the unexpected. One could safely say it was a Chestertonian start.
On through the unfashionable parts of West London we ambled. No signs of fatigue yet, but then we had been going for only an hour or so. At this point of any pilgrimage, with the spirit and the body still joined together, conversation is able to flow quite naturally. And, therefore, we began to talk. My fellow pilgrims were a mixed bunch, impossible to categorize. For some reason I had expected a lot of young men and, of course, got it wrong. The other surprise was the extent of knowledge about the writer in whose name we walked. It varied from the very well-read to those with barely a nodding acquaintance. I gave up trying to sort out who was who, and strolled on in the bright sunshine.
Out to the fringes of West London the mood changed as we came across an abortuary with two individuals praying outside it. Joining them in their silent vigil before that building’s blank exterior, we paused briefly, whilst, all around, people went about their daily business oblivious to the horror on that neat, well-kept street.
We pushed onward, along more quiet suburban streets, with the heat now rising as the sun climbed higher, and the sweat on our brows began to gather.
Then the first unexpected thing happened. Seemingly in the flash of a moment, moving through some undergrowth, we passed from city streets to find ourselves at the start of a canal towpath. It felt as if we had turned a corner and left London for the countryside. Barges, of all shapes and sizes, now drifted by with friendly waves from the relaxed piloting “crews” who also seemed to come in all shapes and sizes. At this stage, as the towpath was narrow, inevitably, our pilgrim band stretched out into a long lean line that grew ever longer and leaner. Some walked quickly, others took their time, but, needless to say, all walked with a sense of purpose regardless of speed. Begun on the busy streets of London, this Chestertonian pilgrimage was now making its way alongside a picturesque London canal—the paradox was not lost as we marched on.
At this point, as perhaps was to be expected, Stuart was at the head; there were a few of us with him, all well ahead of the main group. Collectively we spied a waterside public house, and, as the noonday sun burned down, came, almost without words, to a quick decision. Shortly after, we were stood in a near empty pub, and as the landlady poured four glasses, again something quite unexpected happened: the Angelus began to ring out. I placed my glass down on the bar counter and asked our host if there was a Catholic Church nearby—no, came the reply. Still it continued to ring out as clear as the blue sky overhead, and, therefore, there was nothing for it—hats off…
How many English public houses had a public recitation of the Angelus that day, I have no idea, but I know one did. Hats on, and drinks downed, we were soon on the towpath once more, and yet, I am still not sure where that particular hostelry was, or is. Nevertheless, I am sure it exists, somewhere…
Onwards, past the cool waters broken only by slow gliding craft, as more prayers were offered. All done privately, with little fuss or public show—as befits a walk in memory of a layman and one with a healthy sense of the absurd. Still, that day we carried our intentions with us: for this one and that one, for this situation, for that seemingly impossible dream—but, as the sun grew yet hotter the spirit gave way to the flesh, and with it came the over-riding desire only for our “half way” halt.
Finally, it came, as we made our way from the peace of the canal back to the noise of the streets before being enveloped in the calm of a nearby Catholic Church just as a High Mass was starting. Incense wafted all around as we stumbled into pews that now seemed too small for our feet. Genuflections were made and the bells were rung as we knelt down and gave thanks. Soon after, with the Mass finished, we gave thanks again, but this time as much for the upcoming break in the church hall, even if, having walked about 15 miles, and with the wear on our bodies noticeable, the conversation had now ground to a convivial halt.
Early afternoon we were off once more, but with the pace, like the conversation, slower and more considered. From now on it was to be countryside, but odd countryside: alongside motorways, through concrete tunnels that went under them, and then out into green fields beside them. A constantly changing panorama, it was to be a strange mix of the rustic and the urban, the idyllic and the brutal. Given the times that Chesterton had lived through, this backdrop to our pilgrimage somehow seemed entirely appropriate, however, unlike the increasing mood on the walk—one now overwhelmingly dictated by soles rather than souls—he would have been far more conscious of its beauty than were we, by then anyway, for those last miles proved a slog.
At this point, asking Stuart how much longer was pointless: the answer having become as vague as our destination’s whereabouts. As my legs began to hurt, my pace slowed considerably. It was then I noticed again the sandal-wearing woman; the one I had spied at the start of the walk. There seemed to be no let-up in her pace, or, for that matter, in that look upon her face, still one of quiet determination. At this late hour, she was leading the way.
And then, at last, it appeared, like some fabled land, dreamed of if not quite believed: Beaconsfield.
In the evening’s twilight, almost 13 hours after setting out, a band of weary pilgrims entered a quiet country cemetery. Thereafter, with some standing, some sitting, others kneeling, and one or two flat on the ground, we all gathered around the graveside of the man in whose honor we had come, and, as we did so, beyond the headstone, a gentle night sky unfurled across the vault of Heaven.
It was then I smelt something familiar: cigar smoke. The young man had just lit a fresh cigar, in tribute. Doubtless, Chesterton would have approved.