By Eddie Smyth
I took the bike out from its personal garage for the final time and loaded up my belongings with enough straps and bungees to foil Houdini. The two cars set off for Vimy Ridge via the main roads. I pointed the bike to the back roads towards Arras where Vimy Ridge sits just to the north east of the city. Heading for Miraumont is easy, it’s signposted. Sunday morning and the roads are quieter than ever. The only people you see in villages are usually carrying a baguette, or are about to, as the boulangerie will be the only place open as you pass through. Every village seemed to have its own sculpture, dedicated to those fallen in war. It is tempting to stop but again, it would take all day just to reach my intended destination. This is a good road, narrow in places but the surface is good and with the sun shining for the third day running my luck is holding out. Bucquoy and the D919 takes you right into Arras itself.
The whole complex at Vimy Ridge is amazing; the ‘driveway’ down to the junction in the centre is about 2 miles long. So many joggers, cyclists, families with pushchairs and dog walkers line the sides of the road like spectators and competitors in a marathon, conjoined as the road meanders between the bold, tall trees like a forest trail. Once again the terrain belies the tranquillity that was definitely not part of the atmosphere of this place 100 years ago.
The ground is as lumpy as a moonscape but covered in bright green grass and here and there, wild flowers appear like sprinkled toppings. This is the spot where some of the fiercest fighting took place and is marked as a famous victory for the Canadian forces who sacrificed so many for just a few acres of countryside. It seems almost irreverent to see all these joggers and keep fit fanatics running about and doing stretching exercises at gates and styles when the purpose of this place was to offer a respectful memorial to the many thousands that were blown to pieces for merely showing their heads above the trench top.
I have travelled about 35 miles to get here. A dawdle of a ride and a pleasure, every mile of it.
My wife and the tin box brigade had already arrived. I spotted them walking with the crowd towards the fantastic monument that puts every other monument, especially the Thiepval creation, totally in the shade. Gareth and Joy said they heard my bike approaching a while ago as I snaked down the driveway between the trees, some distance away. I think they exaggerate.
I parked the bike and decided to catch them up in a while. A small cluster of folk were gathering around a monument dedicated to the Moroccan forces that fought in the war. I got a few snap shots of some of the dignitaries, one kindly chap agreed to take my photograph with his colleagues and he called out for “John Pierre” to come and join me. A much respected member of the group came over and shook my hand and we stood for the camera. I am proud to have been introduced to John Pierre. Everyone was so pleasant and kind. I wish I understood just one word of what they were telling me.
The monument here really must be seen close up to be believed. I can’t describe it adequately. It is just awesome and the sculptured figures around and on top of this enormous twin towered masterpiece of architecture make your eyes pop in wonder.
Unfortunately, there was a big event planned for the afternoon here with 3,000 veterans from the Canadian forces expected to attend a memorial service and tour. So, the free tour of the trenches and tunnels, bearing long queues already, was not likely to come about. I had fortunately done these interesting little tours on my visit last year so was not too disappointed.
While the tin box party discussed their next points of call I was already revving my engine for my next stage- Back roads to Ypres. The plan was for the others to visit more sites and cafes as they made their way to Belgium while I am charged with reconnaissance and capture of a restaurant for the 8 of us in Ypres town centre for this evening.
It allowed myself to be drawn into the centre of Armentieres and found a lovely high street with a little more bustle and activity than many of the villages I have just passed through. There are several cafés along here and I chose perfect little place for Croque Monsieur and coffee while I could clearly see my bike and bags from the window. At one point around 150 motorbikes passed by, from the opposite direction I had travelled in by. There were toots and revving and waves as this organised procession attracted everyone to step outside to watch the cavalcade go by.
My delightful lunch set me back €4.70. A couple of diners wished me bon voyage as I strapped on my helmet and I was all ready for the second half of this short but sweet trip into Belgium.
Cat Festival Day in Ypres
Within five minutes of leaving the café I was on Belgian soil. I stayed on the N365 all the way in Ypres. I got a shock when I arrived at the walls of the city: It was gridlocked, with cars parking or trying to park in every conceivable space along the road side. There is a festival on today and I am about to fail in my mission to secure a restaurant for the evening meal.
Today, there was to be no through road into the centre at all, the police had blocked off every access street, including the tiny alleys that must make an aerial view of Ypres resemble a tangle of spaghetti. I tried every one of them. I was followed by a Dutch rider on a Kawasaki trying to emulate my incursion but we both had to give up.
I had to think of a cunning plan. My hotel for the night is on the north side of the city and I was stuck on the south side with no roads to connect me today. The Dutch guy headed west and I headed east. I knew west was out because I saw the road was blocked when I first entered the city walls. My plan worked. I followed my instincts by nipping through housing estates and side roads until I found myself to the north of Ypres and could now swivel right and right again to head back in from the north. The hotel appeared before my eyes and I parked up and went inside to chat up the receptionist. She told me today was the festival of the cats in Ypres. A very popular event staged every three years. 50,000 people are expected and all roads into the town are cut off. Ypres doesn’t have a ring road. Huh, town planners eh? Just when you needed a ring road.
The celebrations for this weird festival is based on the throwing cats from the Cloth hall roof, which was a sporting pastime in medieval times. Apparently, during the winter cloth was stored inside the cloth hall (I guess that’s why it’s called that) waiting to be sold. Dozens of cats were corralled to rid the hall of the rats that would otherwise eat the cloth. Once the cloth was all sold, the rats left of their own accord and the cats were no longer required. Hence, they chucked them from the rooftops. Or so the legend goes. Floats and parades march through the centre and the characters are all, to one theme or another dedicated to cats, or rats. Even Garfield and Dr Zeuss play a part. They also burn a bonfire in the town square because it seems no medieval party is complete with setting fire to a few witches. Children are welcome it says but I think it’s because today, soft toys are thrown from the roof top of this grand building and not your neighbour’s moggie. Even if all 50,000 folk don’t all stay for the evening meal, it seems highly unlikely there would be any tables in any restaurant for 8 diners available on this evening.
Taking two pensioner parents into town in the evening to hear the last post under the Menin Gate (this highlight of the trip was part of the plan) was not going to happen. Our Best Western hotel is 3 miles out of town. Ingerborg, for that was her name, booked a restaurant on my behalf in the nearby small town of Poperinge (it has a ring road).
I text Joy to tell her the news of the change of plan and the warning of the blockade in Ypres. She text back, thanking me for my genius but I told her it was all down to the lovely Ingerborg. (You have got to keep these women on their toes you know).
This hotel is cool. The rooms are like cabins and the showers are hot and powerful. The beer might be expensive but It’s Belgian and moreish. What a great way to end the day after so many hard ridden miles through pleasant countryside peaceful roads? I earned that beer.
Poperinge is a smashing little place. There’s history there too. The town square has a few bars and restaurants and quaint little distractions in the other buildings and side streets.
We wandered a bit, enjoyed a terrific meal and similar entertainment from the landlady and her staff as we did in the restaurant in Albert. Gareth spotted a beer called Delirium Tremens which has pink elephants on the label. When it was served to us we realised it was over 8% volume. I’m glad I am not driving tonight.
The evening proved to be a suitable consolation for the loss of opportunity in Ypres. Everyone retired to bed happy.
Back to Calais
Our breakfast at the hotel was somewhat less classy in style and presentation than the Best Western in Albert but no less nutritious. It was almost time to say our farewells. Well me anyway. After visiting the final Welsh memorial of the trip in a newly designated spot just outside Langemark the others were going into Ypres for a look see and then off to Tynecot memorial while I have plans to make my way by back roads back to Calais and home.
It’s only five minutes from the hotel to the Welsh memorial. This place was selected particularly due to the efforts of a Walesophile café owner who runs the Sportman bar opposite. Hed Wynn, the famous Welsh language poet was killed during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The guy in the bar flies the Welsh national flag and holds a memorial service once a month. There’s a connection to the Eisteddfodau here and more recently funds were raised in both countries to erect the dragon memorial and it is well worth a visit, however fleeting if you have Welsh connections. Not many hillsides around here but there’s a welcome in the café.
We stood for photographs and respects and I climbed aboard my own fire breathing beast to head for home.
I just plotted roads here and there until I reached the motorway somewhere that said, Dunkerque and Calais. It took an hour or more and was as pleasant as every other road I’d ridden on, this side of the channel.
I got an earlier train to the one that was booked but I did have to wait longer than I hoped for. Another broken down train had disrupted schedules. I resisted the temptation to buy overpriced, gut rotting food from the Cafes in the complex and noted that the wines on sale: Echo Falls and other distinctly non-French brands actually cost more in Duty Free than Morrison’s at home.
Waiting to board
Once boarded I bantered with a couple biker buddies till Blighty was under our rubber once more and went our separate ways. The sun shone all weekend and it must have been snagged on my bungee straps because it followed me all the way home too.
Gareth, my bike owning brother in law never mentioned it but he didn’t have to. I know where he would have preferred to park his butt this weekend, bike or tin box? But he was elected to drive his folks and Joy to these wonderfully thought provoking and proudly maintained places, and you can’t get 4 on a motorbike. We’ll just have to organise a trip for two bikes next time. Let’s plot a route for those Normandy Beaches perhaps!