Wednesday, 6 April 2016

In Flanders Fields

Belgium and France are quite some countries to cycle in.  It was a fantastic and very inspirational weekend, and, to be honest, I'm going to struggle to find the time to write about everything.  So this is not a detailed timeline, but rather a brainstorm of the highlights, with pictures of course. It is worth experiencing Flanders if you have the time, it's so simple crossing on Eurotunnel, and so easy to cover distance on the incredible cycling infrastructure.

Rafe and I reached Calais before sunset which gave plenty of time to sit by the seafront, eat chips and admire the flare in mid 20th Century building design. I relished playing 'spot the asbestos' and got excited over concrete, whilst Rafe did his normal good job of humouring my busman's holiday.

After last weekend's experience of the Hase, we had decided to reduce our planned distances down significantly, and thus drove to Dunkerque to stay in the Campanile for the night.

Cheap as chips like a Travelodge, but much smellier, with aged cigarette smoke impregnated rooms. It was a relief to get outside on the Saturday morning and build up the bike in the fresh air and warm sunshine.

Travel light they say.  I'm not so sure.  On a cycling holiday there has to be room for luxuries. Luckily Rafe had brought his two Vaude 20 litre panniers, which gave plenty of room for spare warm clothes, a book and lots of food supplies. Flanders and France appear to be shut on Sunday. Ferme. Closed. Starve til Monday or bring your own.

Once we started cycling, it appeared, that in fact, the area was pretty much shut on Saturday too. Like the daytime of a Zombie Apocalypse.  We pedaled for miles and barely saw movement, nevermind a shop. Villages that would once have sustained cafes are now like little ghost towns, residents no where to be seen, yet everything well kept and tidy.

We crossed the invisible border of Belgium before we found a coffee stop, and drank in the sun, listening to the clank clank clank of the flagpoles. It was a breezy day, but the crosswind was mostly of little consequence to our riding and we rolled along gently once back on the road.

Our time was spent on a mix of quiet lanes, motorised traffic free 'green roads' and canal towpaths. The entire cycling infrastructure is set up to give bikes and pedestrians priority, and the drivers are used to it.  So strange, and a little unnerving, to see people stop on roundabouts to let you pedal out of junctions, when in England, they would have priority.

Once in Belgium I became aware that my rudimentary Franglish was not going to get us far and I phoned my very good Dutch friend Billy for instruction on how to say thank you.  If nothing else at least I would be able to grovel whilst pointing and miming in typical Brit 'why doesn't everyone speak English, dammit' ignorance.

It was a little sad riding through the farmlands of Flanders.  Although the arable fields swept for miles, each farm seemed accompanied by an small intensive animal unit. Belgium is one of the largest pork producers in Europe, and yet we didn't see a single pig. At least these two cheeky donkeys got to play in the sunshine.

We cruised on following canals and under the railway before popping out the otherside and into the outskirts of Diksmuide.

Then the dominating structure of the Ijzertoren came into view.

A relic of the mid 20th Century, but far from outdated, with the exterior slogan 'No More War' still echoing resoundingly around the world. Yet we continue to pursue conflict in the name of arbitrary lines on maps, invisible supernatural powers who seem unable to fight their own battles and would rather pitch human against human, and ultimately, to allow a small number of people keep hold of their power and money.

The tower has been modernised and houses the Peace Museum.  It is a profound journey, starting with a lift to the very top of the tower. 22 stories up.

The roof terrace allows viewing across miles of plains, until the horizon disappears into the haze of the vanishing point.

Engraved detail on the coping stones reveal the extent of the war cemeteries across the fields below; the distance marker to Ieper shiny from the wear of fingers pointing in interest.

Dropping through the floors, the Museum provides a window to the horror of war. Lest we forget.

Lest we forget it is not just humans that suffer during conflict, and it's not just the conscripted who have little choice over their fate.

Even those animals we consider 'noble' are left to suffer along side the humans that drag them into conflict. 

I found the charcoal work on level 9 the most dominating of all. Maybe because of the childlike style bringing the suffering alive in such simplicity.  

The vivid and powerful images, endless names of the dead, carved, penciled and engraved.  Ashes internned in empty shells. Trinkets from soilders pockets, their owners long lost in battle, or to the savagery of gangrene.

This statement, on the wall of the cafe nearby, gave pause and time to appreciate our luxurious lives. The ability to afford food, drinks, to sit at our leisure in a cafe, for my rights as a woman to dress and express myself how I want. To be able to travel freely from country to country. To have our health, or free-at-point-of-need healthcare. Living in the UK we take all this for granted, but we must never forget that it can be lost at the turn of a penny.

Our journey continued steadily, with stops to visit the Yorkshire Trench and further war graves before finally reaching Ieper.

It wasn't all somber remembrance though, as the lanes continued to ground us happily in the present, and the miles ticked off with ease.

Ieper is a beautiful town, with the stunning Flanders Fields Museum unmissable in the centre.

Menin Gate. Quite some structure, quite some formal memorial. Name upon name upon name representing thousands of wasted lives, and those of officers, as always, being listed separately and above the lesser ranks. In the end, they were all human, and they were all lost.

I felt mixed emotions to the last post. I personally found the Ijzer Museum an honest recount of the stupidity and horror of war. The last post was intensely sad, and you would have to have a hard heart not to shed a tear. However, the pomp and ceremony, for me almost glorified the waste of life. In addition, it was compounded emotionally a great deal after riding through the intense farming of Flanders. The poem 'In Flander's Fields' has a line "We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow". Yet those animals, kept in concentration camps, as slaves inside from the miserable day they are born to the horrendous end of the day that they die have none of that luxury. We spend all this time 'honouring the dead' but we do so little to make the lives of those we use, and abuse, bearable for the short time we allow them to live on this planet. Even just for them to feel sun on their skin and be able to behave like animals would be a start, but instead, they are held in tiny concrete cells and biological meat factories whilst  people cry over those who are long long long gone and beyond the realms of suffering.

We had pretty deep conversation to get through over Saturday night hazelnut burgers, but it was good to discuss through the day in depth...and still have plenty of time left to laugh at my amazing repertoire of jokes.  Or not, depending on whether you ask Rafe.

Hotel O, Ieper was great. Reasonably priced clean rooms with good facilities including an espresso maker, a subtle military theme and secure bike storage.  The staff were great too, the manager happy for me to swipe some bread from breakfast to top up our meagre rations for the day.  Goodness knows where all the food went, as this photo was taken only the previous lunchtime when I raided the supermarche using Rafe's Euros (guess who forgot the whole world doesn't take Sterling?)

Rafe skidded around on the cobbles as I grabbed yet-more photos of the town, deciding that two feet were safer all round than two wheels in this situation.  

Rafe really is a great pilot on the Hase and I felt happy to be passenger with total faith he could handle the bike, and that he would stay sensible and within his limits.  We did manage to reach quite some speeds at times, with a slight downslope and a tailwind on traffic-less blackjack perfect tarmac, the Hase flies along with accompanying big smiles. 

We visited a number of cemeteries along the way, but Tyne Cot was the most peaceful place of the trip.  There is something about the symmetry and calming of the white stone.  

We sat for a while and just appreciated our lives, whilst pondering those who were lost.

It can be easy to forget there is a human story behind every headstone.  Not for their loved ones though, the ones to whom they never returned.  

We also visited the German Cemetery, Langemark, where bronze reliefs of names, too many to count, timber carvings and low level plaques signify the dead. 

Eventually we moved beyond the memorials and it felt like a relief. We are lucky, we can chose to immerse ourselves into thinking about war and suffering, and then chose to stop.  It doesn't take much to fall back into our comfortable existences.  Before long we were laughing at the 1970s decor.....

.....and 1970s coffee, of a strange, but honestly-down-to-earth Belgium bar.

Just 20 blissful miles of open road left to cross.  The sunshine warmed our skin, and our hearts, and it was just simply wonderful to be pedaling with no time pressure, watching giant hares run in front of the bike, herons loitering by canals and grasses dancing in the breeze.  

There was time to stop and stare. Time to take photos of the first daisies of 2016. Time to try and make the French barman understand Franglish for Fanta Lemon with frantic pointing, and laughing with (or being laughed at by, who knows?) the guys sat at the bar.  

 Not your normal silhouette riding picture.

We arrived back at the car with plenty of time to covert the silhouette into a real image, thanks to a shutter timer delay and some frantic posing, before stripping the bike for the journey home.

The weekend will be etched in memory for a very long time.  My first experience of bicycle touring has left me motivated and appreciative for everything I have, and I am very grateful to Rafe for putting it all together.