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Sir Anthony Seldon’s long walk of peace

11 November 2022

The vision of a WWI soldier inspired the historian and former head teacher to walk across Europe, Sarah Meyrick reports

Anthony Seldon

The Dodengang (Trench of Death) memorial site in Belgium (from the book)

The Dodengang (Trench of Death) memorial site in Belgium (from the book)

A DECADE ago, the historian and former head teacher Sir Anthony Seldon was researching a book on the First World War and its impact on public schools. About one fifth of the public schoolboys who fought in the war died, and it had a devastating impact on the survivors.

The book’s co-author, David Walsh, showed him a letter that a young officer, Douglas Gillespie, had written in 1915 to his former headmaster at Winchester College. Gillespie, a Second Lieutenant with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was stationed on the Western Front between Vimy Ridge, in northern France, and the Belgian border — just a stone’s throw from the place where his brother Tom, who had rowed for Britain in the 1912 Olympics, was killed in October 1914.

Although it would be another three years before the war was over, Douglas Gillespie had a vision for the future. “I wish that when peace comes, our government might combine with the French government to make one long Avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea,” he wrote.

“The ground is so pitted, and scared, and torn with shells, and tangled with wire, that it will take years to bring it back to use again, but I would make a fine broad road in the ‘No Man’s Land’ between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot, and plant trees for shade, and fruit trees, so the soil should not be altogether wasted. Then I would like to send every man, [woman] and child in Western Europe on pilgrimage along that Via Sacra, so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.”

Swiss Federal Archives“Kilometre zero”, the Swiss border, in wartime

Douglas Gillespie was killed in September 2015, in the opening hours of the Battle of Loos. His body was never recovered. His devastated parents published some of the letters they had received from both sons in a volume, Letters from Flanders, which brought the proposal of a Via Sacra to public notice. The concept attracted some interest — The Spectator described his “great Memorial Road idea” as a “brilliant suggestion” — but it was never taken up.

The idea lay dormant for the best part of a century until Sir Anthony read Gillespie’s letter, and, as he writes in his new book, The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way, “sensed something substantial and potent” in the scheme. “I had one of those rare moments when time stands still,” he says now.

He wanted to know more about Gillespie, and soon discovered that his niece, great-nephews, and great-nieces were alive and were just as enthusiastic about the vision. The BBC Countryfile presenter Tom Heap is a great-nephew, which gave the project a boost. Supporters emerged, and the Western Front Way charity was formed.

Sir Anthony at the same spot, 2021

But further exploration soon cast doubt on the viability of the project. Most people think of the Western Front as the area in Belgium and northern France. Typically, visitors “to the trenches” go to Tyne Cot, at Passchendaele, the world’s largest British cemetery, or the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing in the Somme, where the names of 73,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were so badly disfigured that their bodies were never be identified are commemorated. Indeed, these are the places that Sir Anthony was most familiar with, having led more than 50 educational tours there over the years.


IN FACT, the Western Front is a staggering 1000km long, stretching from Nieuwpoort, on the Belgian coast, south through France all the way to Pfetterhouse on the Swiss border, not far from Basel. It was immediately apparent that there was nothing approaching a walkable track. Less than one per cent of the lines of trenches remains, the rest having long since been reclaimed and ploughed over.

“Creating Gillespie’s vision now would be seriously hard work,” Sir Anthony writes.

Life was also very busy. For all the enthusiasm of a handful of individuals — given greater poignancy by the Brexit vote — no one had time to dedicate the uninterrupted attention the project needed.

At the same time, Sir Anthony was approaching a crisis in his life. He had left Wellington College, where he had been head or “Master” for a decade, in 2015, to become Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University. But his beloved wife Joanna had cancer; she died in December 2016, something that he describes as “ripping him in two”.

He threw himself into his job, working harder than ever, “but without Joanna I had lost my touch,” he writes. In late 2019, he contracted shingles and pneumonia, and realised that something had to change. He left the university the following summer, and found himself with no job, no home, no wife — and no idea what to do with the rest of his life.

US Library National ArchivesDamaged cathedral at Armentières (from the book)

The answer seemed to be to walk: “I would walk all the way from Switzerland to the English Channel, just as the young Douglas Gillespie had envisaged. And I would shout about it and lobby everyone I knew to ensure that his idea for the path came into being.”

Sir Anthony hoped that by walking the entire route he would help to raise awareness of the project and its value. In particular, he was hoping for backing from France, which lagged behind its neighbour Belgium in realising the economic, social, and cultural benefit of establishing a permanent waymarked Western Front pathway.

He might now have the time, but setting out was still far from straightforward. The Covid pandemic threw all planning into disarray, and his departure date — originally 9 June 2021 — kept being delayed by the evolving restrictions. He finally set off in August that year, just after his 68th birthday. He walked almost entirely alone, but with some back-up by car.

The Path of Peace documents his journey. The book is a compelling mix of travelogue and history, nature-writing and reflection. He describes walking through the stunning rural scenery of Picardy, Champagne, the Ardennes, and the Vosges, travelling alongside the rivers Somme, Oise, Aisne, Meuse, and Moselle, and staying in historic towns such as Ypres, Arras, Rheims, Verdun, and Colmar.

He writes about visiting the final resting places of the poet Edward Thomas, the musician George Butterworth, and the novelist Alain-Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes — all victims of the war.


IT IS also an intensely personal story. Sir Anthony travelled to the very spot where his grandfather Wilfred Willett was shot in the head. Willett survived, but was seriously injured, and had to give up his hopes of becoming a doctor, something that had a ricochet effect down the generations.

He writes about his Jewish grandparents, who fled Ukraine a century ago in search of peace, and the crippling anxiety that was passed down the family. He reflects on the loss of Joanna, and whether he could move on, into a new relationship. He explores a lifetime of drivenness, a nagging fear of failure, and his desire to move into a less manic way of living.

On a purely practical level, he suffered the pain and indignity of a dog bite, heat exhaustion, and blisters that were so badly infected that friends consulted by phone insisted he went to A&E in case of sepsis. (“After two hours I emerged with heavily bandaged feet and an instruction not to walk for at least seven days. I pleaded with the doctor. Short walks, please? He nodded his assent, and I interpreted this as permission to walk 15km a day.”)

It was clearly very tough going, both physically and emotionally. “Not since my twenties have I had more highs and lows,” he has said of his walk.

It was a journey of exploration and discovery, but also, importantly, a pilgrimage. “It was a pilgrimage, because it was about honouring that one soldier. . . I was doing something for Gillespie that he couldn’t do himself,” he says now. Fittingly, Gillespie carried a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress with him.

He was able to take stock. “With my life as it was, I needed this pilgrimage as much as anyone,” he says. “Doing something so radically different is what helps me to move towards God, towards something more elemental.”

US Library National ArchivesCloth Hall in Ypres (from the book)

The long walk was lonely. “While I loved the quiet, and not reading the papers daily for the first time in my adult life, the burden of hourly decisions and worries took a toll,” he says. “Life is much easier when there’s someone to share it with.”

That said, the silence also fed him. He found solace in the withdrawal from the daily routine. “I found myself meditating on the word ‘Maranatha’ [Come, Lord]. I say that twice a day, ideally for 30 minutes, and it takes me to a place beyond fear, beyond striving,” he says.

He hopes others will experience the route this way. “At one level, it’s a walk . . . something to knock off and say you’ve done, but it’s much more than that. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life. To ask, what is my life, the life I’m living? How can I change it? How can I make use of the time?”


IT IS very easy to lead “blunt” lives, he believes. “One thing I’ve noticed, writing about Prime Ministers, most people don’t really think through what it is they are doing. Life just happens.” (His books include biographies of Winston Churchill, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron.)

“Every Prime Minister I’ve written about has said they will regret they didn’t have more time to reflect. And, for me, the heart of reflection is faith.”

Making the journey along the Western Front Way would pay dividends for anyone. “It’s partly about the difficult physical challenge, and partly the withdrawal from the conventional life and conventional meals and predictability,” he says.

“There’s something about doing things deliberately, and intentionally finding things which are going to be challenging at the end of your life, and taking them on.”

As a historian, he was also struck afresh by the suffering of the First World War. “I think the historical takeaway was in terms of understanding that the war was about much more than just what happened on the Somme and Ypres,” he says.

(no credit required)Map of Nivelle offensive (from the book)

“There was this huge Western Front, all the way down into Switzerland, through Alsace and Lorraine. And the war ripped the soul and confidence out of the French people.”

One thousand kilometres represents a million steps, he says. “For each step, ten soldiers had died or were badly wounded. So there was a sense there of really being in the presence of death.”

The walk has changed his life, enabling him to find greater peace personally. He married again earlier this year. Now, the ambition of Sir Anthony and his fellow enthusiasts is that the Western Front Way should become one of the great long treks in Europe: a northern equivalent of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela — something that offers a mix of physical challenge and camaraderie alongside the possibility of spiritual growth.

The Western Front Way’s patrons hope that the new route will provide a new way of interacting with the past and of “rebooting remembrance” as living memory fades. The project website and app offer maps and guidance, in an attempt to link together all the trails, networks, museums, tourism offices, and national sites along the way, so that people can travel the route on foot or by bicycle. Tom Heap recently completed the route on a 1920s upright cycle.

The leg through Belgium has been waymarked with the Western Front Way logo, and more than 300 communes in France have now pledged to support the scheme.

Sir Anthony is clearly delighted. “There are things in life that feel like an ideal project from the moment you start,” he says. He pays tribute to the colleague who first gave him the letter, and others who have become part of the team.

“This is the world’s biggest commemorative project,” he says. There is interest in Germany, and he would love to see if it is possible to extend the route from Canterbury Cathedral to Freiburg. “That would be an extension to join two of the greatest Christian centres in Northern Europe.”

Sir Anthony will mark Armistice Day at a service and a ceremony at the Cenotaph, and, on Remembrance Sunday, he will be at church in Windsor, as usual.

“I for one am happy to devote the rest of my life to seeing Gillespie’s magnificent roaring dream become a reality,” he ends the book, before quoting from Matthew 5.9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Sir Anthony Seldon will be talking about his book at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in February.


The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way by Anthony Seldon is published by Atlantic at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-83895-740-7. Profits from the book will go to the Western Front Way.

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