Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head

G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Rolling English Road is not as well known today as it used to be, possibly because its sentiment is now considered politically incorrect:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
However, in past decades it was much anthologised and was almost part of the furniture for people of my parents’ generation. My late father would often remark, if we were out in the car and encountered a particularly twisty section of road, that it must have been made by the rolling English drunkard.

It isn’t widely realised, though, that the poem actually comes from a strange novel by Chesterton entitled The Flying Inn which was published in 1914 and is described by Charles Moore in the linked article, which oddly fails to name it in its title. As he says, “The novel is mostly quite silly, and occasionally objectionable.”

The theme of the book, which in a way is prophetic but at the same time very wide of the mark, is a takeover of England by Islam, albeit one that is sponsored by members of the ruling class in the name of order and progress. Obviously this involves a clampdown on beer and pubs, and the book chronicles a campaign of disruption and civil disobedience to undermine it. From this, though, Chesterton draws a moral:

Its patriotic and – being Chesterton – paradoxical argument is that the straightness of the English character is expressed in his rambling, drunken road. It gets you to the right place by the wrong way: “a merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread/ The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head”.

Drink, pubs, and the companionship of the meandering road express the liberty of England and imply a Christian journey: “For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen/ Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”.

And there is a point there – that indirect, boozy muddling through is often preferable to ruler-straight, sober, logical order.

Chesterton often ends up being confused with his contemporary Hilaire Belloc, who held similar views and whose work often covered similar themes – at the time the two were sometimes lumped together as “Chesterbelloc”. I had sort of got it into my head that the famous quotation "When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, For you will have lost the last of England" in fact came from The Flying Inn (where it would not be out of place), but that is Belloc, not Chesterton.

Incidentally, a pint in a Stockport pub of your choice goes to the first person to identify the location of the particular stretch of “rolling English road” shown in the map excerpt above.


  1. Interesting. Even though I studied English, I've never come across this poem.

    I suspect its obscurity is mostly down, not to political correctness, but snobbery and/or fashion -- Chesterton hasn't been 'trendy' in recent decades -- and that poem in particular must have seemed quite old-fashioned on publication.

    At any rate, your favourite newspaper made it poem of the week back in 2011.

    He wrote some stirring polemics on the subject of temperance and prohibition for the Illustrated London News (I think) between the wars. If you get the chance, you should hunt them down -- very much your kind of thing!

  2. I reckon the map is either of :

    1.An old Native American Indian burial ground it would be dangerous to build a modern Wetherspoons on lest it be haunted by poltergeists unhappy there is no cheap Ruddles in the afterlife, forcing Timbo to employ a squeaky voiced midget and Native American Indian to exorcize the gaff. Though noisy kids being sucked into the telly might be a saving grace when Mudgie is wolfing down his gourmet burger.

    2.The site of a long knocked down old pub where Mudgie first got pissed and had a knee trembler with a barmaid. Now a Tesco Express. A blue plague on the wall marks the history. Mudgies soiled underwear are still allegedly buried in the foundations of the Tesco.

    3.A bus route you regularly take when on the piss with your beardy mates

    4.The site of a secret pub only Mudgie knows about that serves a legendary beer no one believes exists anymore that is famed for its brownness, it’s boringness and it’s cheapness as being the cheapest most boring and brownest bitter ever made. Also smells of cat piss.

    5.The site of Mudgies buried treasure. Not trusting banks and never spending owt unless it’s cheap brown bitter, Mudgie has buried his fortune at this secret location. If you find it, it's yours.

  3. @Bailey - I doubt whether that would have been included on any post-war English curriculum. But it's part of a canon of (then) relatively contemporary poems that were familiar to many people brought up in the inter-war period. Two others are Cargoes by John Masefield and The Listeners by Walter de la Mare.

    What poems, if any, are people familiar with today?

    @Cookie - wow, must be a really slow day in the world of IT consultancy today...

  4. I was born in 1961 and I remember this poem from school, together with Cargoes and The Listeners. Don't know what poems people are familiar with today although I have have a bit of Betjeman in my head and also Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas (who liked a pint) Now then. Here's a challenge. The mighty Dylan drank in Brown's Hotel in Laugharne. What on earth beer would he have drank?

  5. I would guess (and it is a guess, based on looking at a couple of handy books) Buckley's Bitter.

  6. Just checked out Under Milk Wood where Cherry Owen has drunk "seventeen pints of flat, warm, thin, Welsh, bitter beer." Sounds like Buckley's.

  7. Cookie

    He's not daft: find no 4 and you'll also have found no 5.


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