Will you go to Flanders: Days two to four

Day Two

The next morning came not with a bang but a whimper, a foggy, cold and damp whimper. We packed down the sopping wet tents, chugged down the horrific, thick porridge and rolled out of the campsite into the mist. The Menin gate was just down the road, there was barely a soul there. The sleeping town was silent as we found the name of our missing soldier, took the wreath and solemnly placed it inside the left arch with the many other tributes. To see the gate is humbling, it is a huge structure, yet every vertical surface is covered in the names of the commonwealth dead whose bodies were never identified. Walking through the archways gives no respite from the procession of names, for the stairway is lined with them, as is the reverse of the monument. And there was still not enough room for all the missing soldiers to be represented. It is harrowing and moving. The pithy notion that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ is here revealed as the nonsense it truly is, war is the complete and utter failure of politics.

Menin Gate Ypres

Howard explained to the explorers how the troops had been made to go ‘over the top’ in repeated waves, only to be mowed down in the machine gun fire, how this went on and on and on… at the end of his explanation he muttered the well known phrase “Lions led by donkeys”.

Disquieted, we left the gate and rode the short distance along the cobbles into the town. We locked the bikes up in the main square and partook of waffles and pastries. Our hunger sated we then went into the Flanders Fields museum which is in the restored cloth hall. The museum itself is incredible, really well put together and filled with sound clips, art, dioramas and artifacts. For me the most compelling part was the audio reading of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est.

…Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! –  An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…

The exhibition was more than a military museum, here we learned of the impact on the townspeople, the families back home, the german soldiers. Individual stories were told and, as with the Menin Gate, the soldiers and civilians ceased to be casualty numbers, and became once again names, distinct and unique souls whose lives ended brutally in Ypres.

Away from the Cloth Hall, we rode out of the town through the Menin Gate and turned towards the Somme. We followed the route out of the town taken by the allied soldiers and rode paralell to the famous ridge. Here and there, we passed the cemetaries, white grave stones beneath the shadow of a tall cross. Memories rode with us on the quiet straight roads, but they did not belong to us. Ninety or so years had not removed the war to end all wars from Flanders, it leached out of shrapnel spattered walls and into the fog that surrounded us.

Slowly and surely the ground started to rise a little, as we crested the first hill of the ride that day, the fog eased off. Above us the skylarks sang, and Mike remembered John McCrae’s poem…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

What is curious about this poem is that the last verse, which is often left out due to its seemingly war-like rhetoric, could be read as an entreaty to the living to never forget the dead soldiers. The poem was written upon a scrap of paper upon the back of a medical field ambulance, just after the death, and burial of McCrae’s friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer.

We took a short stop in a field by a motorway. and Mike was seriously considering taking some purple sprouting broccoli to cook up later. Thankfully I convinced him that this would not be a good idea…

Mike considers the broccoli

We passed into France, the sun was blazing down and we were achieving some great speeds, 19-20mph on some stretches. Mike and I overtook a man on a racer in full racing gear, thrashing him into the town. We pulled onto the pavement to wait for the others, and four minutes later racer man was at the junction waiting for the lights, he refused to acknowledge our bonjours, whether it was because we had thrashed his lycra-clad ass while carrying tents and full panniers, we couldn’t say.

We boiled up some soup beneath the shadow of another war memorial in a sleepy town where nothing was open and ate it on the green. Continuing on, we quickly realised that we were going to not be where we wanted to be when night fell, we’d dallied too long in Ypres and lost a mornings ride. So we stopped off at Lillers, pitched camp in daylight to allow the tents to dry off and headed into town for some nosebag. Our peloton was briefly joined by a teenage couple sharing a bike, the girl was sittting on the handlebars as her young man pedalled hard to keep up with us. We attempted a conversation, but got nowhere apart from a lot of laughter. Gradually we pulled away as he was barely in control of the bike and had to keep putting his foot down. They waved “Goodbye English”…

Day Three

The morning of day three was clear and sharp, and pretty warm. Once more we saddled up and rode out of town. Unfortunately we quickly found ourselves back in town as Mike took us in a circle. This quickly established the style of the day, ride a mile or so, look at the map, try to fix someone’s ailing bike, repeat. It was slow going, and one hour in we were frustratingly nowhere near where we should have been. We seemed to be getting slower and slower, this did not bode well, because we had to be in Amiens to catch the train by 18:20. To make matters worse, the ground was not behaving; long rolling hills started rising out of the french earth. The ups were so much longer than the downs. It got hotter, and we were getting through a lot of water.

Howard musters the troops

Howard musters the troops

A market stall provided us with roast chicken and herbed potatos. We jammed two sticks of bread onto Howard’s rack and tried to find our way. In the end we had to rely on some local knowledge:

Mike and Howard pretend to understand directions

Mike and Howard pretend to understand directions

There then followed a pastoral idyll as we sat by the roadside on a half forgotten lane and consumed bread, chicken and potatoes. In amidst the bucollic haze and chirruping of crickets, we sat and worked out that we still had a pretty good chance of making it to Amiens as long as we rode like the wind. With but the merest hint of further ado, we climbed back into the saddles and prepared for an epic ride…

Your author, checking his watch and about to saddle up - dynamic!

Your author, checking his watch and about to saddle up - dynamic!

…or at least that was the plan. We started off well, with the explorers grasping the concept of drafting and taking turns on the front we started making good headway. Two things counted against us, we were riding into a headwind and it was so drying and hot, we kept running out of water. Then Howard got a puncture. About mile forty I was starting to wonder if we’d make it, we perhaps shouldn’t have stopped cycling so early the day before, we still had a long, long way to go. It was apparent that riding on the big main roads would be suicidal, so we needed to get across country to a slower road. We pulled hard into a valley, riding with the wind at our side and making excellent time by drafting each other. But when we turned onto the road, it was more of those undulating hills, and the youngest explorers were feeling the pace and the heat, often being reduced to walking the hills. At mile sixty we still had a chance of making it, but we couldn’t continue the pace and at mile sixty five we found ourselves lying on a verge in a village looking up at swallows in the sky for twenty minutes. Mike, Howard and I pulled as hard as we could, and we made good time on the level and descents, but two of the explorers were walking every hill. The eldest explorer and myself scouted out the only bar that seemed to be open and got the cokes lined up for when the others arrived. The Tv was showing a history of the Paris-Roubaix bike race and a dog loped lazilly around between the table. To us it was a paradise.

Roadside bar oasis

The youngest explorer downed five Oranginas. We raced off with a new sense of purpose, gliding downhills and hurtling uphills. It was going so well, until one of the explorers came off. He was ok, bar a knocked arm and some scrapes, but his helmet was smashed, so we had to get him into a hospital to be on the safe side. We rode slowly towards Amiens, then suddenly, out of nothing, the city appeared, no suburbs, just straight into the big residential flats. We made it to the centre, looked for a hotel as our injured explorer couldn’t spend a night under canvas and transferred our train tickets to the morning. The hotel manager called us a paramedic and the explorer went off to the hospital with Mike for check up. Howard and I went with the remaining two explorers for a meal before heading back to the hotel. Mike got back not long after midnight, the explorer was fine, though we wouldn’t be cycling tomorrow.

Day Four

It was raining in Amiens as we wheeled the bikes down to the train station. There were no lifts down to the platform, so we had to use the ramps that were running down the stairs. This was a little hairy to say the least. Getting the bikes on the train was a bit of a nightmare too, it would have been fine if we didn’t have so much stuff. Eventually we managed it with about thirty seconds to spare, and my bike left forlornly in the corridor.

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We had eight minutes to change trains at Boulonge Sur Mer, we did it in four. By the time we got to Callais we were experts at getting the bikes up the steep ramps. We wheeled our way to a likely looking cafe and sat down for some lunch. Finally we got on the ferry and headed back to the UK. In all we had completed 156 miles, with 74 of those done on day three. A memorable and eventful trip.

Your author on Belgian Cobbles - Ypres

Your author on Belgian Cobbles - Ypres

* * *Fin* * *

* * *Fin* * *

Will you go to Flanders: Day one

It was an insanely early start on the morning of the 4th April. I strode down to the farm where the Scout minibus was parked up, laden with the bikes we had tied on the night before. The sun had not yet crept over the horizon, and we were due to set off for Dover at 05:45. We were Explorer scouts and our mission was to place a poppy wreath at Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium to honour the memory of a soldier born in our village who is not on our village war memorial. He was missing in action at one of the Ypres battles and his body never identified, consequently his name is carved into the Menin Gate along with the names of the 54,895 other commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no identifiable individual grave.

With the last of the three Explorer Scouts who were coming aboard the bus and myself, Mike and Howard in the front seats we headed for Dover. We unloaded the bikes at the ferry terminal in the midst of a scrum of drunken braying students, luckily they were not going on the same boat as us, they had barely made it out of the coach park by the time we were loaded up with panniers and tents and cycling towards passport control. Immediately we ran into technical difficulties as one of the lads’ wheels came off on the ramp. This did not bode well. We wove in and out of lorries looking for our lane to be loaded on the ferry. The sound of an ill-fitting wheel buzzing against a frame like the engine noise of a buggered moped accompanied us up to the front of the loading ramp where we were loaded first, right at the front of the ferry. A balaclava-clad ferry worker in a grimy orange overall lashed the bikes to the metal insides of the lorry bay. We went upstairs and consumed huge amounts of pasta salad, during the foggy crossing, carb-loading in anticipation of the day’s riding, which was to be, according to Mike, a mere thirty miles.

Dunkirk loomed suddenly out of the sea-mist, alerted by the profusion of bouys in the shipping lane we had headed down to the freight deck, becoming momentarily lost in a maze of tightly parked lorries. Eventually we found the bikes and saddled up as the ferry doors slowly opened. Immediately we dismounted again, having been told we weren’t to ride off the boat, spoilsports.

Back in the saddle and off the ramp we were spat out into an endless stream of heavy freight. Like an overboard sailor all we could do was go with the flow, cycling at speed past chainlink fences, through gates and along long roads with no idea which way we were headed or even facing. The lad with the bust bike was in danger of losing his wheel again so we found a convenient area of blighted tarmac to effect a repair. Beneath the gaze of a brace of parked up Polish truckers, we searched for a bolt to secure his rack, the only one that fitted came off my rack extension for my rear light. A piece of sticking plaster took its place on my bike, most effectively it turned out. After much booting about, straining and choice words, the offending back wheel was bodged into place and we set off again.

For miles we cycled through a flat industrial landscape covered with serious looking factories, gigantic pylons and trainlines running by the road. After the trucks had gone, there was no traffic at all and the roads were dead straight disappearing into the distant fog without a kink or corner in sight. Finally we saw some gigantic wind turbines and headed for them, crossing a main road and leaving behind the industrial area, which we had cycled through for miles:

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Now we were surrounded by fields without fences, here and there a long deep ditch lined the road or cut away at ninety degrees from us, cast iron sluice gates punctuated the waterways and crumbling farmhouses squatted near the tarmac, casually disgorging barking dogs as we rode past. Lapwings rose from the plough furrows, or pecked around amidst green shoots. The mist showed no sign of breaking and it was now four in the afternoon, but we were making good time because the roads were so flat. About an hour and a half later, I was plagued by a pinging sound from my bike, and it wasn’t long before I felt  the back brakes rubbing on the rim of the wheel, I pulled over and my fears were realised, the back wheel was not only buckled, but a spoke had broken, shearing by the thread. Another sticking plaster held the spoke in place and stopped it flapping about. We were miles from anywhere, I offloaded my tent onto Mike’s Dawes Super Galaxy, which if you know anything about bikes is a bombproof tourer on which you can carry anything (unlike my Lemond Etape). I arranged to meet the others in Wormhout, and sped on ahead to look for a bike shop, it was getting close to closing time! I raced through the countryside ignoring the wobble in the rear wheel and actually quite enjoying the speed and thrill of being on my own in another country. I passed through Esquelbecq, wasted fifteen minutes circling the town once looking for a bike shop, nothing, so I shot on for Wormhout. The road rose and fell so gently the incline was barely evident. The sun was starting to droop towards the horizon and now it was way passed closing time on a Saturday night. I burst into Wormhout and began asking about a bike shop around the town centre, incredibly no one I asked seemed to live in the town. I had been there about twenty minutes when I saw the others coming in on the Esquelbecq road. I passed a short man with grey hair and a ‘tache and asked him if there was a bike shop nearby.

“Oui, mais il est fermé”

Drat! He gave me directions to it anyway. The others gathered round as I was preparing to race off and the man noticed the wreath –

“Vous êtes britannique, viennent de trouver la tombe du soldat? Il est moi qui a bip bip à la jonctio et…”, he held up his thumb. The others nodded, we had already been exposed to the novelty of the drivers beeping us and cheering or giving us the thumbs up, a marked contrast to the UK.

I shot off for the bike shop, only to find that as expected it was shut. But, hang on, there was a light inside and someone moving about. I knocked firmly on the door and a tall young man wearing thin-framed glasses came to the door and opened it a fraction:

“Nous sommes fermés monsieur”

“Ah pardon. Quelle heure ouvrez-vous demain?”

“Nous ne sommes pas ouverts le dimanche”

“Oh, mon vélo est cassé”

He saw the worry on my face and stepped out into the street:

“Ce qui semble être le problème?”

I didn’t know the French for broken spoke so I spun the wheel and it stuck against the brake. He nodded, and whipped the wheel off. Calling out a name that I didn’t catch he walked back into his shop and beckoned me to follow him. Another man stepped out from a door at the back of the shop rubbing his hands with a rag. I could see from the oil in his fingernails that this was the mechanic. He nodded once as the bepectacled man handed him the wheel and stuck it in a vice, removed the spoke and fitted another:

Fixing my wheel

Next, he put the wheel in a jig and carefully trued it. The whole exercise took maybe six minutes, I was thrilled to be having my wheel fixed in a French bike shop after hours, I was equally delighteed to see he had fitted a sliver spoke which stood out amidst the older black spokes as a permanent reminder. He took the wheel outside into the dusk and fitted it back onto the bike. It span beautifully. Total cost, five euros and profuse thanks in the most effusive manner I could manage with my broken French. The men waved me off with a bonne chance et bon voyage and I rode back into the town.

The others had not wasted their time while waiting for me, the hungriest of the Explorers had discovered a pizza van that, incredibly, had a massive log-fired pizza oven built into it. It was half an hour before we set off again, now it was getting dark and we were a long way from Ypres still. At some point we passsed into Belgium and immediately we were riding on cobbles. This was fantastic for about three minutes, then I realised why the Paris Roubaix is called L’enfer du nord, it hurt! A lot! And it was shattering.

As the dark came down the mist gathered strength again, we switched on our lights and slipped into the bike lanes. There was more traffic now, but it was always respectful and seemingly unhurried. We attracted more beeps, cheers, waving and thumbs up. As it became pitch black we stopped at some roadworks behind a small renault with music blaring out from its speakers. As the traffic lights seemed to be taking ages we held an impromptu rave, dancing about on our stationary bikes as a tractor pulled in behind us with headlights blazing, setting our lights to flashing mode only seemed to heighten the mood and we were on the verge of getting the tractor driver to step down and start grooving when the lights changed and we were off again.

The miles blended together and our existence shrunk down to a smear of light pooled on the blurring tarmac in front of us. Every now and then the lights from a roadside bar spilled out onto the road, a buzz of neon in the misty air, patrons at the door, laughter in the night.

Eventually we began to see signs to Ypres, or rather Ieper as it is in the Dutch, and at long last we pulled into the town. The night was filled with music and some sort of festival was afoot. Two dancers on ropes were dancing from the Cloth Hall, high above the heads of the enraptured crowd. Eventually we pulled away down more cobbled roads, until we slunk into the campsite, pitching tents in the damp dark at 22:00 before locking up the bikes and crawling into our sleeping bags. 49.82 miles on the clock, some 19 more than expected.

Published in: on April 10, 2009 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Night Riding to the Thankful Village

It’s not long until we go on a cycling camping trip to Belgium and France. I remain woefully out of shape, carrying at least a stone and a half too much weight, the majority of which seems to be round my middle forcing an inadvertant ‘whuff!’ noise to escape from my mouth whenever I bend down to pick anything up. With a barely suppressed sense of mounting panic, I decided that I’d better get another ride in before we go. So I arranged a weekend pedal once again with Mike.

The night before, I made an adjustment to the rack on the bike. I like to have my panniers quite far back so my heels don’t clip as I spin the pedals. Unfortunately this has the unwanted side-effect of obscuring any light attached to the rack. Also, with a tent slung over the panniers, a light on the saddle bag would be covered. So I fashioned an extension bracket out of an aluminum strip. In order to keep it flush to the rack I used my tap and die set to cut some threads into the metal, ensuring a nice snug fit with no wobbling. Using a hacksaw, I carved off a bracket from an old plastic light set and bolted it onto the metal. It worked perfectly, pulling the light out from under the pannier and, as it’s box shaped, remaining strong. I then added the HYmini wind charger to the handlebars, choosing to sling it underneath to keep the top clear of clutter.

As Earth Hour kicked off, I took the bike out for an eerie spin through the country lanes. The Bike Hut Ultrabright front light was certainly bright enough to ride with at speed and confidence in the dark, but it was a little leaky, throwing some of the powerful beams up into my face and ruining my night vision somewhat. However, this did seem to have the effect of underlighting my face in a demonic manner, which is always good. I spent the best part of an hour shooting around the roads, trying to make the rear light fall out of its new location and also testing out the speed I needed to be going to get the HYmini wind charger turning in order to create charge.

I stopped the bike at Tellisford crossroads and propped it up against a five-bar gate. I walked twenty or so yards away down the road and turned back to look at the light arrangement, trying to imagine the right eye-level to get a driver’s eye view of what my bike would look like in the dark. I was pretty pleased with the result. In combination with the Hi-Viz vest, and the stickers on my helmet I should be visible from space.

Away from the comforting pool of the bike lights, the darkness enveloped me. Thick cloud smeared the sky above the horizon cutting out the starlight and I suddenly felt very vulnerable and exposed. This crossroads and these lanes were old and filled with the weight of unspoken and unrecorded events. Mere yards away, the red LEDs on the rear of the bike blinked out an organic rhythm, moving in a line from left to right and back again. For some reason I enjoyed the frailty I felt then, the smell of damp turned earth, the way the searing white light from the front of the bike picked out freshly-exposed flints in the field beyond the gate, the silhouette of the tower of All Saints church.

Arthur Mee's King's England: SomersetTellisford was dark, perhaps because this was still Earth Hour, or maybe the owners of these big houses had retreated into some inner sanctum, unviewable from the outside. As we are going to be visiting some WW1 battlefields in France and Belgium on this ride, I recalled that Tellisford is one of the initial so-called ‘Thankful Villages’; thirty-two villages in England and Wales which lost no soldiers in World War One, all those who left to fight came home again. The writer Arthur Mee popularised the phrase in the 1930s when he wrote ‘Enchanted Land’, the first volume of the The King’s England series of guides. It is sobering to remember how so many communities lost so many people in that first ‘great’ war, what a huge vacuum the loss of so many young men must have created in a village. In WW1, villagers often enlisted as a group, and were kept together in the regiments. They trained, barracked, traveled, fought, and so often, died together. Tellisford truly had much to be thankful for in the return of all her young men from those killing fields.

Arthur Mee wrote especially of Tellisford “We do not remember a more charming place in all our journeyings”. So with that in mind, I remounted my bike and pointed it back through the darkness to my own village.