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  • Writer's pictureThe Rail Holiday Maker

Beers & Tears & Bellyaches - an Emotional Day in 'Flanders Fields'

“Priorité à droite! Priorité à droite!”

The elderly woman had got out of the car. The car that she had just driven into our hire car. She was waving her arms around and shouting the phrase over and over again. In France they have an ancient law that nobody cares about anymore, apart from this elderly mademoiselle from Armentières. The law that from a minor road you don’t have to stop at a junction to a main road. You can just simply carry on, smashing into anything that’s in your way. Apparently.

We were on our way from Lille into Belgium. This was the last village in France before the calm of Belgian roads where everyone follows the same rules as the rest of the world about stopping at junctions. With a big dint in the passenger door of our hire car, I pulled it onto the kerb at the behest of the local gendarmerie, whilst Zoë managed to prise herself out of the minor wreckage at her side of the vehicle to dazzle the locals with her French. I’m glad she was there. I was shaken. Whilst I wandered along the side road from which the mademoiselle from Armentières, who hadn’t been kissed for forty years, had emerged for her demolition derby, taking pictures of the STOP signs she had ignored, Zoë did the inky dinky parlez vous. Or something.

I was travelling with my team. In the front passenger seat next to the dented door was Zoë, a vivacious francophone, a Pontefract lass with a fascinating family background even more exotic than Ponte Carlo. And I’m not talking Cas Vegas here (Pontefract’s neighbouring town, Castleford). Mrs C likes to talk and often refers to the fact that women have 20,000 words to get out of their system every day. As opposed to men, who apparently utter far fewer words, particularly dour Yorkshiremen like this one. Well, let’s just say that 20,000 would be a low estimate for Zoë. And that she’s a deep and very intelligent woman.

Men apparently only utter around 7,000 words by comparison. Sitting quietly in the back seat was Jack. I haven’t mentioned him yet, have I? Well, it’s not surprising really is it, as he hasn’t said anything yet! With just 7,000 words to get rid of, Jack is cool, quiet, dry-humoured and considerate. The rain now pouring, the leaking door spraying stoical Jack in the back seat, he didn’t complain at all. He’s loyal, the kind of man you would want standing next to you in the trenches. Which is ironic, as Jack is half-German. And we were on our way to Ypres to plan out a couple of days in the World War I battlefields.

We were trying to cover two days in just one long day, ending with the poignant Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, commemorating those who gave their lives in Flanders Fields a century before. Now a couple of hours behind and with a driver shaken by the accident but determined to show his colleagues everything, we began with our one non-battlefield visit, the St Bernardus Brewery. We were late, so the tour wasn’t possible, but they very kindly took us in, bedraggled by the crash, showed us a very informative presentation, and let us taste their excellent beers. Oh, hang on a minute, not quite. Let’s not forget that muggins here was driving, so whilst Zoë zanily zoned in on her zesty wheatbeer and Jack jostled into his jaw a joyous dubbel, I could only conclude that the water was wet and sparkly. If this sounds, erm, bitter, well I really needed that beer!

I’ve tried the St Bernardus range since, of course. And a fine range it is. The nearby St Sixtus Monastery decided not to sell its beer outside the monastery walls, which is probably the best reason I can think of to ‘find God’ and join their sect. The nearby cheesemaker was allowed to brew it under license and so the St Bernardus Brewery was born, now producing beers as close as possible to the neighbouring abbey’s ales.

I’ve been on lots of trips around Flanders, more than one expertly arranged by Visit Flanders, the tourist board responsible for promoting tourism to the Flemish speaking region of Belgium. We’ve visited great artisan breweries, my favourite memory being at De Dolle Brouwers (The Mad Brewers) near Diksmuide. Their beers are amazing. The Oerbier (original beer) sticks in my mind at 9% alcohol. But the star of the show was the mad brewing brothers’ mum, a feisty and funny 90 year old lady, who came out to give us a little talk about her longevity. She only ate pulses and raw things, so raw vegetables and berries. And only drank beer. She has been a big influence on my life, mad granny, as I’ve adopted the second part of her lifestyle. I hope I make it to 90.

Behind time and with a free morning the following day, we decided to use that free time to return to Poperinge. Heading through Ypres (or Ieper locally in Flemish) we began at the spot just outside the town dubbed ‘Hellfire Corner’ back then, a perilous place monitored by German guns. Nearby is the Hooge Crater Museum. If you haven’t been, whilst the crater doesn’t exist anymore, it is a good little museum filled with artefacts found in the surrounding fields. Nice people too, with a neat café. Just a short walk along the way is a field with original trenches. You are free to wander but encouraged to leave a Euro in a box by the gate.

Crossing back over to the west of town, we visited the Brandhoek New Military Cemetery. Amongst the graves, beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is that of the remarkable Captain Dr Noel Chavasse, one of only three people to be decorated with the Victoria Cross twice. The doctor’s bravery was in saving the lives of others whilst constantly putting his own life in peril. To visit such a place, honouring such a person, is a humbling experience and your own trials and tribulations, dented hire car included, begin to fade into insignificance.

The wind whistling through Zoë’s door was all the air-conditioning we needed as the little Renault rattled over to the Essex Farm Cemetery. Also an Advanced Dressing Station of the Canadian Field Artillery during the Second Battle of Ypres, this is a place synonymous with the poet John McCrae, who reportedly wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ after witnessing his friend’s burial there.

Next stop Tyne Cot near Passchendaele, the largest CWG cemetery in the world with a Memorial to the Missing and nearly 12,000 graves, roughly two thirds of which are unnamed. The scale of this gleaming white memorial brings home the sacrifice of a generation. I had been before and I’ve been back since. Endless rows of unnamed headstones. The sadness becomes no less intense.

With my half-German friend and colleague shivering in the autumnal breeze on the backseat, there was one final visit I wanted to make. It had been a thought-provoking part of a Visit Flanders educational tour I’d previously made, Langemark German Cemetery, a dark and brutal contrast in the day’s fading light to the glistening white memorials of remembrance at Tyne Cot.

There aren’t many German war cemeteries in Belgium. In those that do exist the headstones are of a darker stone and flat to the ground. There is no triumph here. On the memorial at Langemark is the inscription ‘Deutschland muss leben, und wenn wir sterben müssen’ or ‘Germany must live, even if we have to die’. Immediately beyond it, leading to the touching sculpture of the four mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger, is a mass grave containing the remains of nearly 25,000 poor souls. These numbers are inconceivable, aren’t they?

The following spring I led a group of potential tour managers around the same itinerary, without accidents thankfully, although it was my last trip for that company, having reached agreement with a new employer. It was a really mixed group, though sadly they were all male. Half you could describe as learned, urbane and balanced. The other half fell more into the jingoistic category. In total there are over 44,000 soldiers buried at Langemark, including two Commonwealth soldiers. I know this as the jingoist half of the jolly boys’ outing disinterestedly sidestepped the mass grave (25,000 young men, remember, many left forever in their teens) and went off in search of the two graves that mattered to them. Such disregard for human life made me boil inside.

Our emotional rollercoaster of a day ended at the Menin Gate in Ypres, a triumphal arch and a Memorial to the Missing of the British & Commonwealth forces. The daily ritual at 8pm, the Last Post Ceremony, is the town’s tribute to those who fell in the unthinkable hell of the trenches to preserve Belgium’s freedom. I’ve been coming here since last century and the emotions are still as raw. Every time. The bugles, the silence, the goosebumps, the tears are all an important act of remembrance. After the day I’d had I don’t mind telling you I found a quiet spot for a little moment to myself.

You know that feeling when you wake from a glorious but exhausted sleep into a bright new day? When you momentarily remember the car crash, the dented door and it was probably just part of your dream, wasn’t it? Only to car crash back into reality. Yes, that one. I’d have some explaining to do at the car hire place in Lille before catching our afternoon Eurostar back to St Pancras, but first we’d better tick off yesterday’s unfinished business.

Poperinge is a small town just west of Ypres. Known as ‘Pops’ to the Allied soldiers, its location in battlefield terms meant that it was just behind the lines, the place soldiers came to recover, to make merry even, from the infernal hell a few miles away. Driving alongside the flat farmland you can’t fail to notice fields with umpteen poles supported by cables. On these structures grow the local star ingredient. You see, ‘Pops’ is king of the hops!

Once you’ve visited the Hop Museum, based in the town’s former weigh-house, sampling the strong and fantastically hoppy Poperings Hommelbier, or maybe water if you are the now increasingly embittered designated driver, there are a couple of thought-provoking battlefield sites to visit too. At the town hall is the ‘Shot at Dawn’ exhibition, featuring the cell in which ‘deserters’, usually men suffering from shell-shock, spent their last night before an example was made of them the following day at the nearby execution pole. Shot by their own comrades instead of receiving compassion for the illness they were suffering. The pole in the courtyard is a stark reminder.

On the subsequent trip with the tour managers one half of the group wasn’t interested in the fate of the ‘deserters’. I’ll leave you to decide which half. So I’ll just leave here the story of Herbert Morris of the West Indian Regiment, who signed up for what I presume he perceived would be an adventure in an exotic land far from his home in Jamaica. Shell-shocked and disorientated by the guns, Herbert absconded twice and was inevitably caught both times. Court martialled the second time, his death sentence confirmed by Field Marshall Haig, Herbert was first paraded in front of his regiment, then in the early hours of 20 September 1917 was shot at dawn by a firing squad of ten soldiers, seven of whom were West Indian. He was just 17.

Talbot House is a great antidote to the harrowing history contained within the arable furrows of the surrounding fields. When Poperinge was the garrison town of the British Army, chaplains Neville Talbot and Tubby Clayton set up an ‘Every Man’s Club’, where soldiers could rest and revitalise themselves regardless of rank. It’s a very charming place to visit, a lovely museum, a little time capsule in which you can actually stay the night, tinkle the ivories on the house piano or just enjoy a social cuppa, which is exactly what we did.

We could have enjoyed our own relaxation and recreation a little while longer at Talbot House, but we had a Eurostar to catch, a knackered car to drop off and time was starting to get tight. With the minutes until departure from Lille Europe ticking away, the sat nav took us straight across the cobbles of Lille’s main square, juddering away, the door whistling a nice tune to us to remind us of the car’s sorry state. It felt a bit like a scene from the film ‘The Italian Job’, only this was not Italy and let’s hope my own job wouldn’t be on the line when the repair bill arrived. At any rate, the Renault’s door would be a nice job for a Lille panel beater. The battlefields of Flanders now distant, with minutes to go until departure we reached our own final battle – the battle with Alamo! But I’m no fighter. I threw the keys on the counter, told them the car was kaput, then ran. Ran to the comfort of a beautiful train. And a beer. Santé!

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