Tracing the line of the 1914-18 battle front, the Western Front Way is a proposed 1,000km path for peace and remembrance that runs from the Swiss border in the south, through France and Belgium to the North Sea. As the first 140km section is unveiled, Beth Salt explains how the project got off the ground.
In 1915, a young man sent a letter home from the front: ‘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...’. Alexander Gillespie, aged 26, died days after in the Battle of Loos, but the seeds of the Western Front Way had been sown.
The Western Front Way is a walking route from Pfetterhouse in the French Alps to Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast. It is a path for peace, reflection and unity. This is not a battlefield tour. Although it is steeped in history, the path offers beautiful scenery, delicious food and drink, interesting towns, meandering waterways and charming wildlife. The Western Front Way gives walkers a chance to connect with each other in an environment which has been shaped by, and inevitably has echoes of, compelling human stories, all of which have combined with the landscape to create a very special place indeed.
Be a pioneer of the route!
The route will be organic, in a constant state of change. Walkers experience the walk however they wish, travelling from plaque to plaque. The charity wants walkers to own the walk, sharing their stories and tips about the best spots to stop and visit, enjoying the chance to reflect and connect. In fact, this summer, as plaques go up in villages and towns throughout France, we call on you to be the first to walk our route - be a pioneer of the Western Front Way! Walkers are the key to our project, the lifeblood of its success. Without you, it is just a series of plaques and waymarkers... We have spent four years negotiating and planning – now it is up to the planet’s walkers to bring Gillespie’s vision of a via sacra – sacred road – to life.
The Western Front Way is a UK charity driven by a handful of people who bring different expertise to the table. Sir Anthony Seldon, with his historical and political genius, has been instrumental in the project. Rory Forsyth and Amanda Carpenter, with his experience of event organising and her ability to visualise and drive the ambition, have worked tirelessly behind the scenes, negotiating across Belgium, France and Germany. The charity is also supported by members of Gillespie’s family, including broadcaster and Countryfile presenter Tom Heap, a great-nephew.
We have been working hard with numerous walking groups and tourist offices. In fact, recently we are particularly grateful to the Albert Walking group, who actually gave us the walking path maps from Albert to Arras - which just goes to prove that the joy of walking has no international boundaries. Other key allies include the Ypres tourist offices and Peter Slosse, Head of Tourism and Business Management, alongside many others from Diksmuide, Nieuwpoort and Westtoer in Flanders.
First section opens
The Western Front Way launches its new website, going live with the route, in early June. The first section of the path will open, from Nieuwpoort in Belgium to Albert in France, with waymarkers going up over the summer of 2019. The assistance from our Belgian and French friends has been enormous and absolutely vital to the path’s success. While it was unworkable to negotiate every metre of the route in time for the launch, it was also hugely important to the charity that local walking groups and authorities owned their sections of the path, preserving their right to the stories that their land holds. In order to ensure this, the charity decided to mark the route with plaques in towns and cities, and then make all aspects of the walk free, thus enabling tourist offices and the local walking groups to promote and mark their sections of route with waymarkers and plaques, which are all made out of sustainable and durable materials.
The walk was made possible by donations, but, like every project in this vein, it is not only money which has made this ambitious project feasible. Walkers have tested the route, ambassadors have spread the word and sponsors have opened doors. It is an idea which has caught the imagination of so many, an enduring and sustainable monument to those who sacrificed their lives, to the peace they achieved and to the joy it affords us.
Why the Western Front?
Britain and its allies lost almost a million men during the First World War; most of them died on the Western Front. Stretching 440 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea, the line of trenches, dug-outs and barbed-wire fences moved very little between 1914-1918, despite attempts on both sides to break through.
The young man who provided the inspiration for the Western Front Way, 2nd Lieut Alexander Douglas Gillespie, was of those whose futures were so cruelly cut short. From the battle-torn Western Front, he was able to envisage a time after the conflict and suggest a way of healing the ravages of war - his vision for a path which he outlined in his letter home of 1915. Even then, Gillespie realised that the extraordinary environment of the Western Front, whose name is synonymous with the horror, heroism and tragedy of war, would offer a unique opportunity to reflect on the consequences of war, giving us a chance to appreciate and celebrate the hard won peace. And what better way to immerse yourself in a landscape than walk it. It helps, of course, that the scenery is beautiful and the gastronomy excellent.
More information: thewesternfrontway.com
Beth Salt is the communications manager for the Western Front Way
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