Alice Dryden (huskyteer) wrote,
Alice Dryden

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1: Belgium

My fortnight off began with almost two hours spent on an unmoving train in the Channel Tunnel, which is what you get for travelling on Friday the 13th.

The first part of my holiday was a weekend of First World War tourism in Flanders with the London Advanced Motorcyclists. We had a packed schedule which the Chunnel delay had already thrown, so after a brief stop at our hotel in Poperinge to ensure they didn't give our rooms away we got cracking.

First port of call was Essex Farm Cemetery, home of a memorial to John McCrae who penned In Flanders Fields. At every cemetery we visited, we would be staggered by the scale of annihilation represented by the rows and rows of grave markers - and the knowledge that one burial site represented a minute fraction of those lost. Here, gravestones touching shoulders show soldiers who died together, no doubt blown to bits.

Huw, the organiser of the trip, had been to the area several times before, and his local knowledge and GPS skills were essential. How else would we have located the Yorkshire Trench at Boezinge, which now finds itself in the middle of an industrial estate? It's startling, yet rather wonderful that industry has rebuilt itself in the region without entirely erasing the past.

Langemarck, nearby, is a German cemetery. The trees make it dark and claustrophobic, and four sculpted German soldiers stare spookily at you from the far end. It's only when you get close to them that you realise their faces are sad and solemn, not really scary.

The Brooding Soldier, a memorial to the Canadians who fell in the first gas attack of the war, is sad and solemn too, looking down at the ground despite the great height from which he dominates the landscape.

The end of the day brought us to the Menin Gate in Ypres, where the Last Post is sounded every day at 8PM by the band of the local fire brigade. I was less moved by the music than I was by the knowledge that this ritual has been performed without fail every evening since 1923, except during the occupation in the Second World War.

We then returned to Poperinge, where the town clock plays 'Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag', for dinner. I was feeling adventurous so had one of the local specialities, Hennepot. This turned out to be a sort of game pie without the crust, and quite tasty once I'd discarded most of the aspic. Although Poperinge is the 'Hop Capital of Belgium', I eschewed the local beer in favour of jenever and kriek.

Sunday's first item was the Hill 62 Museum in the area once known as Sanctuary Wood, narrowly beating a coachload of young soldiers to the entrance. It's a tiny building crammed from floor to ceiling with items found on the site and other Great War memorabilia. Paintings and aeroplane propellors line the walls. Glass cases hold a jumble of items: postcards, newspaper clippings, hundreds and hundreds of brass buttons with the crests of different regiments.

Stereoscopic viewers, museum pieces themselves in wood and brass, let you look at hundreds of photographs in three black-and-white dimensions. The pictures are filed with no order or system - turning the handle might reveal a group of smiling Tommies, or it might be a disembodied leg lying in No Man's Land.

It's the same story in the woodland outside, with shell cases, water cans and coils of barbed wire slowly rusting in the damp air. The ground is still pitted with waterlogged shell holes, and among the younger trees a few jagged old stumps display the marks of bullets.

A system of preserved trenches with corrugated iron roofs zigzags across the ground. It's possible to walk along some sections (without even stooping, in my case), which really brings home how wet, cold and claustrophobic dugout living must have been.

For me this chaotic museum was a handy metaphor for the war: something of a confused mess, in which it's nevertheless possible to find humour, pathos, courage and horror.

Hill 60 is still dotted with enormous lumps of concrete where pillboxes were blown up. One entire pillbox remains, and we were marooned beside it for some time by a sudden downpour. There's also an excellent café with soldier silhouettes stencilled round the walls, where we ate Flemish stew and chips and the waitress asked me "You are alone with all these men!?"

Tyne Cot cemetery is built on the site of three German blockhouses which reminded the Tommies of Tyneside cottages, one of which forms the heart of the Cross of Sacrifice. Near the visitors' centre a woman's voice ceaselessly intones the names of the dead - but the ranks and ranks of headstones make more of an impact.

More rain trapped us in the porch for a while, then the sun came out and made exploring the Bayernwald trenches rather like hacking through the rainforest. These German trenches are only 1.2 metres high, to discourage soldiers from lurking in them when they ought to be out charging at the enemy.

All this sightseeing was interspersed with riding through the French countryside, on my very favourite kind of road: almost empty, with gentle bends, long straights and pretty views. One of these took us to Spanbroekmolen, a mine crater now filled with water and forming a Pool of Peace.

Peaceful it certainly was, with ducks and lilies on the calm surface and the whispering trees reflected in the water. Eight rowdy bikers spontaneously fell silent for several minutes.

Last on the itinerary were the newly-opened Lettenberg bunkers - one of which has been turned into a shelter for roosting bats.

On Sunday morning Howard and I left the London group and travelled to Reims to meet up with our friends from the Bournemouth & Wessex Advanced Motorcyclists for Phase Two of the holiday. We managed to fit in a few more Great War sights along the way.

The Canadian National Memorial at Vimy Ridge is a magnificent monument, vast in scale, with soaring towers and haunting white figures. The Allied Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval is also large, but I found it ugly and unimaginative. British grave markers on one side are inscribed 'A Soldier of the Great War - Known Unto God', while the French crosses on the other say simply 'Inconnu'.

We walked around the enormous Lochnagar mine crater, and finally visited the Welsh dragon who stands guard facing Mametz Wood, barbed wire in his fist. The memorial is tucked away up a single-track dirt road, but even here, as at every other site we visited, poppy wreaths had been recently left.

The ride to Reims in the late afternoon, taking in part of the Chemin des Dames, was one of the most pleasant of the holiday for me. As we circled our hotel looking for somewhere to park I spotted the back end of a familiar silver scooter. We walked into the lobby just as everyone else - everyone else being Roger, Roy, John and Sandie, stars of many a previous excursion - was preparing to head out to dinner. They were persuaded to hold off until we were ready to join them, and we sallied forth into Reims full of excitement about the fortnight ahead.

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Tags: bikes, hols, scooters

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