Two years after touring the Normandy D-Day beaches, I set off on my second war themed cycle tour, this time the battlefields of Flanders in southern Belgium. Again I researched extensively these infamous battles and related events that have subsequently come to define the futile and brutal nature of war at its worse, which included the first use of chemical warfare. Of all the events that took place across this region over a period of four years, the name of Passchendaele has come to represent all that is most terrible in WW1 and today at nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery is the located the largest number of Commonwealth burials in the world: in all 11,954 with the names of another 33,783 recorded on the adjoining memorial wall. Just 7 miles from Tyne Cot the Menin Gate at Ypres records the names of a further 54,389 UK and Commonwealth soldiers, where almost every night since 1927 at 8.00 pm the Last Post is played in memory of those who fell. In the modern era this might be thought of as The Ground Zero of WW1 and an obvious destination for my WW1 tour, to understand events and honour those who died there.
In general I like Belgium, the people and their food, so prior to reaching my intended destination of Ypres and the surrounding WW1 battlefields, I first intended to undertake a large loop: first up the North Sea coast from Dunkirk to Ostend, then heading inland to Bruges, before finally heading south again to Ypres. With the exception of the morning leaving Bruges the weather turned out to be very good throughout the trip, although there was a very, very strong south-westerly wind for the first three or four days which greatly assisted my progress to Bruges and was extremely unpleasant coming back!
This was to be my first experience of cycling in Belgium, which turned out to be very enjoyable. Whilst I find cycling in France an all-together wonderful experience, it has to be said the Belgium’s have taken their cycling infrastructure, cycling culture and driver consideration to another level:
- Almost all roads have a clearly marked and usually separately demarcated paved track for cyclists;
- Cyclists have right-of-way at roundabouts, which furthermore, have special traffic lights giving cyclists priority over motorists;
- The whole country appears to be criss-crossed by cycle paths called fiets routes, sometimes doubling as minor back roads but where cyclists always have the right-of-way;
- Naturally, facilities for bikes in towns and on public transport (including trams) are extensive and well thought out.
As a cyclist coming from the UK it is like arriving on another planet! Whilst the facilities are outstanding, it is the positive and considerate cultural attitude to cyclists that I found most striking and refreshing. With the evidence of what has been achieved in Belgium and I believe Holland, the way forwards in the UK is clear but I won’t hold my breath; I hate to think what they think when they visit the UK – I was to meet a Dutch couple on the way back at Dover starting out on a UK cycling trip and was ashamed to have to introduce them to the way of things here.
And so with the weather set fair, research and planning completed, I booked my train and ferry tickets and set off on Friday 22nd June.
Day-1 Redhill to Koksidje: 48 miles
Redhill has many shortcomings but location is not one of them. Apart from motorway (M25 & M23) and airport access (Gatwick & Heathrow), the rail network provides very good links too in all directions: North to London, South to Brighton & the south coast, East to Kent and West to Reading, the Midlands and the West Country. On this occasion I was able to catch an early train east to Tonbridge, change and travel directly to Dover, thus providing access to the European ferry ports – this time Dunkirk. Everything was straightforward and just after 9.00 am I rolled up to a small group of other cycle tourists at the dockside waiting to board the ferry. This is not unusual and would inevitably lead to some cycle touring chatter, stories and perhaps advice. To my great surprise this time one of the group of three turned out to be my CTC Forum friend Jack, who I had previously met just once, also on his way to Belgium. I knew he had a trip planned but did not expect to see him there that morning. What a pleasure and we therefore teamed up until later that day when I stopped at Koksidje and they continued onwards to Ghent; I learned later that they had underestimated the remaining mileage and missed a few turnings, so that they arrived very late.
We rolled off the ferry in Dunkirk and headed inland, with the aim of riding northwards, roughly following one of the numerous canals that are common in this flat and sometimes bleak landscape. In short, though pleasant route turned out to be less than direct and even with the strong wind on our backs it took much longer than anticipated to reach Koksidje. I found it very difficult to locate the Amazone campsite (€16) , mainly because I initially went completely the wrong way! The campsite was, to say the least, poor: mostly static camper vans with few obvious tent pitches and generally shabby. When camping I try to find a quiet spot to pitch but on this occasion I was firmly told by the old lady to pitch practically outside their office door, in the middle of the site. It wasn’t the end of the world but was not particularly nice either. This is one of the drawbacks of camping, you have to make do with what you find – almost all the time it is OK, sometimes good or even outstanding but very occasionally it is quite unpleasant.
Day-2 Koksidje to Bruges: 50 miles
I was not sorry to leave the Amazone campsite and was soon enjoying my ride along the canal side towards Nieuwpoort, where it didn’t take long to find a nice morning pastry for breakfast – something of a ritual when in Europe. Nieuwpoort formed the end of the Western Front in WW1 which being on the coast was strategically important, both as a port and as a point from which to flood large inland areas in order to stop the Hun moving south. It is criss-crossed by a network of numerous inter-linking canals which I found it very tricky to navigate my way through by bike. Eventually I was on the right canal heading north again towards Ostend before turning inland and via numerous complex fiets routes found my way to Bruges.
Known as the Venice of the north, Bruges is a very beautiful city with an extensive network of canals and stunning medieval architecture. I had been here once before with the family but as ever, exploring a place by bike is always more efficient and generally more fun. One of my favourite films is also In Bruges and it was good to see some of the locations.
The campsite here might be described as small but well formed. Located to the west of the city within a residential area, for such a large popular city Memling campsite (€12) is pushed for space and could be a real problem at busier times, though I had a perfectly good pitch towards the back of the site where the tents are located. Although adequate the washrooms were also in need of upgrading, so it was good to see that’s exactly what was happening but unfortunately the new facilities were not yet open. Using the cycle tracks into town and thereafter ignoring (carefully) one-way road directions (which is allowed), the site is no more than 10 minutes from the centre.
Day-3 Bruges to Ypres (Ieper): 45 miles
As forecast Day-3 started with heavy rain, which got heavier. After taking the main road that circles the outer city walls, I had great difficulty navigating my way out of Bruges towards Ypres and for a while was repeatedly thwarted by directions onto motorways. Furthermore, having turned southwards I was now riding directly into the teeth of the strong wind that had hitherto pushed me northwards from Dunkirk. To say the least, the morning was not a pleasant ride. But as the title says, round the bend (metaphorical and real) things were to improve, a lot. The thing with cycle touring is that you can either lie in your tent and merely put off the departure or you get up and go.
Aside from the weather, the route to Ypres was quite uninteresting – I suspect I missed a better way? Notwithstanding, by midday the wind had blown the rain away and slowly the ride started to get more interesting. WW1 memorials started to increasingly appear as I passed through the towns and villages, an ominous sign that I was getting closer to the battlefields. And then at a small, grey inconspicuous location I came across a small war cemetery, currently under renovation. Although it appeared nothing significant, as the first of its kind I had so far seen and out of curiosity I stopped to look. To my horror I learnt that the St Julien Dressing Station Cemetery marked the location of the first ever use of poisonous gas in warfare on 22nd April 1915. A sombre thought but just the beginning of the similar places I was to see where such terrible events took place between 1914 and 1918.
I had some difficulty finding the Jeugstadion campsite (€8.50) – looking back I’m not sure why, which like many in Europe was located adjacent to the town’s sports stadium, just 10 minutes’ walk from the Menin Gate. The raised ground was beautifully grassed, with occasional bushes in between and the facilities were outstanding. Last but not least, by the time I was pitching the tent the sun was shining – what an amazing difference from the morning and well worth getting out of bed for.
Like many thousands of people since 1927, that evening I walked to Menin Gate to experience the 8.00 pm Last Post ceremony, together with some hundreds of other people who had travelled from all over the world; this evening a Canadian group had the special honour of reading on behalf of their fallen. The Menin Gate was designed by Reginald Blomfield in 1921 and is a truly spectacular feature covered with the names of 54,896 names of Commonwealth soldiers. I found the ceremony and general experience quite upsetting but worthwhile and a privilege to be there as those of my generation are all touched by these terrible events in some way. I am unsure of the details but I believe my mother’s father essentially went mad after surviving a battle at the Somme in France, whilst after fighting on the Western Front my Dad’s father was captured and spent over three years in a POW camp, only just surviving walking back to the UK at the end of the war.
Afterwards while having dinner nearby I met with and teamed up with a couple of Australians who were touring Europe by motorbike. We went on to the Ypres Inn opposite Menin Gate to watch England v Italy in the quarter finals of Euro 2012. England inevitably lost on penalties but in the end, despite the bad start earlier, I had certainly won that day.
Day-4 Ypres-Passchendaele-Polygon Wood-Wijtschate-Ypres: 36 miles
Staying at Ypres for a second night, today’s plan was to tour around some of the main WW1 battle areas of the Ypres salient. The warfare in this region was complex and consisted of at least four distinctive major elements, with long periods of inactivity in between. First stop was Tyne Cot, about 7-miles north-east of Ypres. This ground marks the centre of some of the most brutal warfare that took place in the area over a period of 4-years. Today the large open vistas are covered by innocuous mostly arable farm fields, with swaying patches of red poppies everywhere, frequently punctuated by small WW1 cemeteries.
After a few miles the landscape starts to rise towards the now rebuilt town of Passchendaele (now spelt Passendale), clearly illustrating the strategic value of this position that was fought over so violently for so many years. Towards the base of the slope is situated Tyne Cot Cemetery: 11,540 white limestone headstones, as usual positioned impeccably in line, mark the resting places a soldiers surrounded at the top by a high, semi-circular limestone wall with another 33,000 soldiers’ names. Outside fields of delicate blue flax flowers swayed gently in the breeze on this sunny morning, belying the horrors that once took place here.
After Tyne Cot I rode on to some small cemeteries at Polygon Wood, an area that has become famous for its Australian battles. Shortly afterwards I had lunch at the nearby Café Taverne de Dreve, a place that has become something of a pilgrimage location for visiting Australians. Inside and out the property is covered with signs, memorabilia, flags and other personal and national items placed to commemorate their fallen Australian soldiers. I spoke at length with the patron Johan who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of WW1 events there and more recent tales which he is only too keen to tell.
Thereafter I weaved slowly south and then south-west through the woodlands for an hour before the land again starts to climb, this time my destination was the Messines Ridge, another iconic location of the Ypres salient. The land here rises particularly high, which made it a key strategic location within shelling distance of Ypres itself. For much of the time during the war it was occupied by the German army but, during the long periods of inactivity, the British secretly dug very extensive tunnels underneath them, planted large amounts of explosives and finally blew-up the top of the hills, together with the German soldiers. Such was the size of the explosions that very large holes remain to this day, often now filled with water. The difficulty and scale of the tunneling required expert engineering and workers, for which purpose large numbers of former railway and especially London Underground personnel were drafted in. Their role is today commemorated by a statue nearby.
Day-5 Ypres-Poperinge-Bergues: 36 miles
I rolled quietly out of Ypres on another sunny morning heading first for Poperinge. First stop was a coffee and waffles (well it is Belgium) in the square and a brief visit to Talbot House. This small innocuous house in the backstreets became a refuge for all Allied troops when they were off duty and away for the Front, which was something of an innovation in its day and highly successful.
Thereafter I zig-zagged across the flat landscape, under what was becoming an increasingly hot sun. Unusually I had no specific destination for tonight’s stop but on the way out had passed through a walled town back in France near to Dunkirk with a campsite (Cassiopee €7.60) and it was to here I therefore eventually headed. Although nothing special the castle walls, canal and derelict church gave Bergues a very pleasant feel and it was a good, quiet overnight stop before heading to Dunkirk and ultimately home the next day.
Day-6 Bergues to Home: 22 miles
Mostly but not exactly, I took the reverse route from Bergues to Dunkirk before catching the train home via Tonbridge again. The only noteworthy point was meeting a husband and wife from Holland, who had cycled for three days down the North Sea coast (into that wind) on their way to start a cycle touring holiday in the UK. I was pleased to see people coming to enjoy the UK on their bikes but as I escorted them off the ferry and through Dover I could see that they were horrified by the cycling conditions and who can blame them? I felt like turning round and going back to Europe.
STATS – MAPS – STUFF
Tour: 22nd to 27th June, 6 days
Mileage: 245 miles
Maps: Michelin 1/200,000 Map 533 – Central Belgium. Although a much larger scale than I would normally use it was perfectly adequate for the tour.
IGN 02 1:100,000
Geocart Belgique Road Atlas 1:100,000
|1||Redhill to Dover||Train via Tonbridge|
|Dunkirque (Gravelines) to Veurne||Loon Plage-Craywick-Coppenaxfort-Canal de Bourbourg NE to Veurne|
|Veurne to Koksijde||LF1 / Canal||48 ml(77k)|
|2||Koksijde to Nieuwpoort||LF1 / Canal||0|
|Nieuwpoort to Brugge||LF1 + LF5Leffinge-Snaaskerkre-Klemskerke-Uitkerke-Dudzele-Damme-Brugge||50 ml(93k)+ 8ml|
|4||Ypres||Passendale-Tyne Cot- Polygon Wood-Messine-Ypres circuit||36 ml(58k)|
|6||Beurges to Dunkirque to home||22ml(18+4)(35k)|
|Dover to Redhill||Train|
A Storm in Flanders – Triumph and Tragedy on the Western Front by Winston Groom.
History of the First World War by Basil Robert Liddell
The First World War by Martin Gilbert
Facing Armageddon by Peter Liddle & Hugh Cecil