What’s the Story
In 2015 we decided to head back to the continent to continue the theme of the first trip to Paris. This time we opted for the first World War as our historical target. With the 100th anniversary of the war approaching it seemed a fitting place to go. With a large group and so many war dead, during those four years it was very likely that we could find the graves of some of our relatives, so this became the focus of the trip and helped bring it together with a personal theme for everyone. The idea was to start cycling right from the ferry and ensure we covered the Menin Gate for the last post and the Canadian War memorial at Vimmy Ridge. Why Vimmy Ridge, because one of our number is a lumberjack and he is planning the route. The route would not finish at Calais because that meant a lot of wasted cycling back the way we had come. As per usual accommodation dictated where we would stay each night and the route was planned accordingly. We incuded a visit to Salisbury art House to watch the Wypers times.
Friday – Dorset to Calais
Saturday – Calais to Ypres via Tyn Cot Cemetery and other sites ending at the Menin Gate where the last post is performed.
Sunday – Ypres to Cambrai via Vimmy Ridge
Monday – Cambri to Tournai via Somme area and first tank battle sites.
Tuesday – Tournai to Dorset, back by 8pm we hope.
Getting a group of 20 cyclists with their bikes and kit to Dover
Secure Parking for transport vehicles
Van big enough to take 20 bikes and luggage and food +2 support drivers
Accommodation for 20 in Ypres to watch the evening Last Post at the Menin Gate
Transfer to Dover and cross to Calais for evening in the former British colony. We try to depart Dorset after lunch to allow half day work for most. Arrived at Dover 1600 and took a very jolly ferry ride to Calais arriving at 1800. A good chance for cyclists to get to know each other over a beer and prepare for our first 2 miles in France to the hotel. Found a wonderful hotel in central Calais with huge spiral staircase and spacious rooms for the first night. Headed out to L’hovercraft restaurant in town, a fairly touristy joint but happy to fit a rowdy bunch in. Steak Frites at Bier all round. Needless to say, the town welcomed us with open arms and we had one hell of a night.
Day 2 Calais to Ypres 51 miles 1,000ft
Day 3 Vimmy Ridge to Cambrai 64 miles 2,132ft
We departed Ypres in the morning to head towards our first stop Vimmy Ridge. First the obligatory photo stop at the Menin Gate and the chance to locate some relatives names. Yes, its a major site but on the way out of town something really shocking strikes you. Having spent 12 hours passing cemeteries spaced out, the surroundings of Ypres are literally covered in them and not just the allied ones. Every mile you pass a new cemetery featuring he graves of over 50,000 graves. Yes, thats every mile or two. We even pass a German cemetary where each cross represents 3 dead. Onwards to Vimmy now and a bit of climb which is a shock for the low country. Only a few hundred feet and the memorials stick out above the horizon letting you know where some of the hardest fighting of the war took place. As you ride under the trees to the cemetery you are surrounded by more evidence of the power of war. The ground is pockmarked with shell holes, thousands of them so it looks like a teenagers face. The destructive power that must have been unleashed here speaks volumes of the tragedy of the fighting. We have lunch at the war graves while the group takes time to explore the area. Our resident Canadian delivers a moving speech on what happened here and how hard the Canucks really were. Our route then leads us past Arras and on to our accommodation in Arras. One of our number had identified a relative who was one of the first pilots to fight in the war and we headed to a memorial dedicated to him. We even had a copy of a book written about this pilot who talked of spotting the first mustard gas attack from his plane. The road to Cambrai it has to be said is a never-ending bitch. Straight as an arrow rolling up and down for 30 miles. Not too steep but just mind-numbing and not the most inspiring countryside.
Tonight we have booked the finest accommodation in an old chateau and the group arrives in dribs and drabs to a nice cool beer in the town centre. There isn’t much going on in Cambrai but we located a lovely restaurant owner who nearly died when we said we were twenty. Snails and steak followed by good wine was a pleasant treat for all. The restaurant was called Les Escargot and is definitely to be recommended.
The hotel didn’t disappoint for the first arrivals with three wedding suites. Comfort assured and our bikes locked away in the venue for the night. The later arrivals, however, had to put up with a slightly less comfortable affair in portacabins down the end of the Jardin. Situated a few feet from the towns recycling centre it was quite amusing. Especially since we found a half-finished barrel of beer from the previous wedding, needless to say we went to bed a 4am having drunk it dry from our water bottles.
Day 4 Cambrai to Roubaix and Tournai 66 miles 2,200ft
The tour now gets much more personal and the research pays off. Our leader, the illustrious Scot Donald has managed to find a few dead relatives and where they now lie in peace. Our route diverted from the better riden ones to lead us to a series of smaller cemetaries where we located the stones of his grandfather and great uncle. Jamie even had letter written home to their wives describing their heroism and it touched us all deeply to think how they had died away from home serving as surgeons in the this hell hole.
The morning continued with a visit to the buried MKIV tank called Deborah. http://tank100.com/tanks/d-51-deborah/ Well worth a visit if you can find her. She was buried after one of the first tank battles and remained preserved until ploughed up by a local farmer. Call ahead and you can book a visit and see the remains along with other finds from the surrounding fields.
The afternoon contained and all too surreal homage to cycling, moving away from the theme of history, Rufus our resident fanatic had located a part of the Paris Roubaix bike ride. What is special about this? Well its only miles upon miles of cobbles and not small ones either. We rode for 14 kms down what would be a farm track in the UK wobbling a bobbling until our teeth fell out. Luckily there was a bit of mud at the side to cheat on certain bits. One of our number even broke their Garmin due to the vibrations. Worth the trip though to understand the elite cyclist’s pain points. Arriving in Tournai our final destination was a pleasant surprise. the town was once ruled by the English in 1513. It features an enormous cathedral with huge buttresses leading up to the sky it seems.
Our hotel was a very pleasant find although the other guests might not have thought so. A fine dinner was followed by the usual fun of naked seal wrestling in the lobby.
Day 5 Homeward Bound
The final morning saw us wave goodbye to our bikes as the van begin its 500 miles journey back to the UK. The rest of us headed to the train station for the trip to Calais. Not the most pleasant journey but fun all the same with an arrival in Dorset of 7pm. The final mile took 1 hour due to a herd of cows getting lose and our driver being a passionate farmer lending a hand.
If you are looking to do the battlefields trip then I would highly recommend it by bike. You get to see a whole lot more, maybe not as quickly but more in depth. The cycling isn’t too challenging and you can pick your route according to your needs and relatives. The food is a joy as is the beer of course. If you want to know more please contact me.