Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,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.
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.
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”.And there is a point there – that indirect, boozy muddling through is often preferable to ruler-straight, sober, logical order.
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”.
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.