From Esher to Downing Street

How to get from Esher to Downing Street? On this new one-day route, the walker starts from a church patronised by the Duke of Newcastle; then follows in the footsteps of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, plotting his way to Westminster and the eventual goal.

It is out of care for my home village that I present this new walking route:  Esher to Downing Street.  It begins at St George’s Church, then runs  across towns and parks, shunning the everyday run of things and allowing one who has set his mind to the goal to reach it in a very pleasant and direct manner.

Why should any map want to make this journey?  Well, it beats the daily commute that so many undertake, so I have reinvented that commute into London as an 18-mile adventure of the wild and the suburban.  It is within the capabilities of most fit men, and for those unused to the determination it would take to get there, well, ambition is a fervent master.

How at the end you get into Downing Street, I leave to you.

Route map

As they fall silent and we look ahead

So here we are, a hundred years after the guns fell silent. As the smoke cleared, the world the men had fought to protect was gone. But plant a boot in the earth and see that men are men still. It seems so recent, familiar.  We hear the names read each year, and it is not long since the last fighting man marched off to his final billet. We can see photographs and film footage and recognise our family features in an old, sepia picture tucked in a drawer.  Did the Battle of Waterloo seem so close for those who landed in France 99 years after those guns ceased?

When we think in terms of memorials we ask if it was worth it. Yes – I wrote about that in the Salisbury Review as we marked a hundred years from the beginning of the war.  I could not hike careless across the timeless Downs if they had been churned up in industrial war as France and Flanders were. It might have come to that.

The world looks very different.  Machines in every household can tell you exactly how far it is to Tipperary, I can sit here typing on an electronic machine unimagined in those days, which is a product of the peace of the English-speaking world whose norms are now those of the world because of what was done in the bloody fields of Europe a hundred years and seventy years ago.  In this world I can be confident that my children will not see what their great-grandfather did.

A hundred years then, a hundred years in which some ill-favoured souls have laboured relentlessly to destroy from the nation all that sense of patriotism and duty which achieved victory (and they have drunk deep of the tax money paid by Britons to do so, to our shame).  Yet we are here, unbowed and honouring those who gave all to defend our land and Empire.

Those faces are familiar because men are still men the whole world over, and there is no peace because men are men, nor ever will be.  We can however learn, and channel that vigour to better things, even as we that are left grow old.

Peace in the shadow of millennia of wars

Of course I took my walking boots to Israel.  It is a land where you are either removing your shoes in the presence of holiness, or scaling a scorched mountain ridge.

I had more surreal experiences in the Holy Land than anywhere else I have wandered and I will not even try to set them all down, but they will live with me forever, as they have all these years. It is a place where texts which were becoming bland through familiarity leap into life, so that they can never lie flat in the book again.  Beyond that are the people living in the land and living the land and all that lies beneath it.  That mound at the edge of town; that was a city in King David’s day.  The writing carved in that stone; it names Omri King of Israel.  That well in the quarter beyond the valley – there a blind man waited for an angel to stir the waters, until Jesus gave him sight.

Somewhere outside Jericho, in the Judean desert, I got lost on the wrong mountain – I needed a better map – and found a monastery where after a brief exchange in Greek an elderly nun explained I was on the Mount of Ill Counsel, several miles from where I thought, and so I climbed down and rested in the timeless landscape, my radio playing Elvis Presley from the Kol Yisrael transmitter above, so maybe not so timeless.  This was one of my more normal days.

Back to the centenary; yes, the date is heavy on my mind.  One hundred years ago the guns fell silent and the smoke cleared to show an unfamiliar world.  We think of the trenches, but there where I sat in the desert the war had swept through too. General Allenby advanced from Egypt through the Holy Land to dislodge the Ottoman Empire.  He took Jericho and the desert where I sat; in 1917 he entered Jerusalem, dismounted to walk like a pilgrim, a walk I also took.  Then he advanced north.

Another day I walked along the olive-clad summit of Mount Carmel.  At its southern end is the ancient fortress of Megiddo, and the reason for it is clear; as I stood on the ramparts before me stretched the broad, fertile plain that is the valley of Jezreel, a rich farmland and a gathering place for armies.  I looked out on a place where battles have been fought since time out of mind – Egyptians and Canaanites clashed here, and later Israelites and Midianites, Philistines and all the great empires which swept through.  A hundred years ago, in 1918, Allenby came here too.  Like the Egyptians, Israelites, Philistines, Assyrians and others lost to memory, he struck beneath the fortress of Megiddo, and was the final great victory which forced the Ottoman Empire to surrender.

At the foot of the mountain where it reaches the sea, in Haifa, is a war cemetery, with 305 burials of soldiers of the British Empire in the Great War, and 36 of the Second World War.  There are no poppies here on the bleached hillside, but like those in Flanders’ fields, they shall grown not old as we that are left grow old.