Tom Heap is well known for his work on BBC Panorama, Newsnight and Countryfile but his latest project sees him trying to fulfil his Great Uncle’s dream for a long-distance walking route for peace.
“I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on a pilgrimage along that Via Sacra so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.”
Those poignant words were written in 1915 by 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Douglas Gillespie of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Tom’s Great Uncle. The soldier, who was killed in action three months later, was writing a letter home detailing his vision for a way to remember all who made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War.
He went on to say:
“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.
“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 that the soil should not altogether be waste.”
Speaking with BFBS broadcaster Jade Callaway about his Great Uncle’s letters and The Western Front Way, TV presenter Tom said:
“He wrote a number of letters containing what I consider to be a chillingly imaginative and forward-looking idea.
“He was in the trenches, had experienced the destruction and desolation and wrote saying:
“Wouldn’t it be a great idea that when peace comes, we put a path along what is now no man's land for people of all countries to come and walk and remember what happened here and think about future peace.”
A century later, 2Lt Gillespie’s letters were discovered by author and historian Sir Anthony Seldon who set about getting the soldier’s plan into action by creating charity ‘The Western Front Way’ in 2017.
However, creating a path for peace is not a small project for The Western Front Way. The proposed pathway is 1,000 kilometres long which means The Western Front Way is projected to cost millions of Euros so, to help keep costs down, existing pathways are being incorporated into it. Tom said:
“We’ve got it all waymarked in Belgium and elements of the French route are being marked as well.
“But it is quite a grind of knocking on the doors and getting people on board.
“Once they hear and get the idea, they absolutely love it but it’s getting across that hurdle can sometimes be a bit tricky.”
The charity’s website allows you plot your own route, from plaque to plaque, on foot or on bike - something Tom is hoping to do himself later this year to raise awareness, pay homage to his Great Uncle and fundraise. He said:
“The idea is to spend around ten days cycling from South to North so ending up at The Channel.
“Starting at Pfetterhouse, a town on the Swiss border and I will be doing it on a vintage bike, a bike of the period from the early 1920s.
“I am welcoming supporters, be they on a conventional bike, a modern bike or any kind of bike for any kind of length of time to come and join me.”
Tom is not offering logistical support but is very keen for people to join him and celebrate his Great Uncle’s vision of no man’s land, which witnessed incredible brutality and death, becoming a place of peace and reflection.