Arras & Vimy Ridge

We are currently next to a park on the outskirts of Arras, having had a good overnight here, and looking for a second. The town itself is quite pretty and worth a visit in its own right, but the reason we are here is to visit some of the 20th C battlefields and memorials.

Canadian War Memorial, Vimy Ridge

We woke up outside Calais, having committed to a more rapid flight south as the rain teemed down, the wing sped up, and we were doing circles in our ‘what’s next’ discussions.

Beachside, north Calais. Really time to head South!

True to form, we had made a plan and then immediately gone and broken it. We were in France, it is November, Armistice Day Centenary commemorations were going to be held, so why not make the most of this, literally, once in a lifetime opportunity? Resorting to google we found Arras, Vimy Ridge and the Canadian Memorial to be fairly close by – well, 160km away in any case.

Vimy Ridge

What a good decision. The memorial centre is tastefully done, focusing on people and the consequences of war rather than on the heroics. Particularly poignant is the photograph of the last Allied soldier, a Canadian, killed in the war, at 10:58am on 11 November 1918. Two minutes …

Landscape showing shell craters
Many craters remain metres deep.
Compare this cultivated area to the landscape that has been preserved from 1918.

The landscape bears the scars of the conflict, twisted and gouged, thrown up in humps and hollowed out in overlapping shell holes. Although much of the area is now peacefully wooded in autumn colours, a 100 hundred years after the last shells, the walk is deeply affective. The sheep? The area remains mostly undisturbed, and sheep are used to graze the grass short, due to unexploded ordinance still being a hazard.

In this particular area the trenches were preserved in the 1920’s, and show how the Canadian and Bavarian lines were, in some cases, only 25 meters apart.

Canadian Memorial, looking from the Cemetery.

The monument is, well, monumental, in the best senses of the term. It is inspiring, thought provoking, evocative, deeply symbolic. The statue of a young Canada grieving is particularly apt, given the losses in this area.

A Young Canada mourns her loss

The cemetery, of course, tells its own story. Out of interest Niki and I counted tombstones which had names, as opposed to the unknown soldiers: 12 named versus 55 unnamed, in one section of a row. Bears testimony to the role played by artillery, the fact that soldiers literally disappeared in the blasts. The Canadian memorial lists the names of almost 12,000 servicemen whose bodies were never recovered or identified. A sobering experience, and one I’m very pleased to have shared with Niki. Having lost friends myself in conflict does add poignancy and reflection to a day like this.

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GPS Deteriorates ….

Oh hum. ‘In the Old Days’, I’ll tell the grandkids, ‘We had paper maps, with lines all over them, and you had to learn to read, and hold them the right way up, and memorise 6 digit locations, all at the same time!! And bugger GPS, ’cause most of the time Nana got us there.’

Leaving Nonancourt for our ferry at Dunkirk we used the GPS locations provided by the ferry company. Then proceeded to get lost at consecutive roundabouts as both directions on signboards and our GPS insisted on sending us either to Dunkirk itself (wrong) or back to Calais (WRONG!!!). Following our GPS took us instead to a campsite in the middle of a town that required more one-way traffic negotiation, raised eyebrows and lots of shrugging. Arrived safely to find that we were nowhere near to our ferry stop. Some helpful Brits provided us with very detailed directions, which proved to be of no help at all. So, stuck (again) on a narrow road with no opportunity to turn around, cursing the GPS (need to find a name, not complimentary, for her) we kept going in a deepening silence … to arrive at the ferry port. All forgiven! However, now that we had arrived, hours early, we decided to take an earlier ferry, had a bit to eat, and went to sleep.

Wide awake (not really) at 1:30 am we passed through Customs (one lonely Brit), through inspection (one lonely officer), and boarded in a very orderly fashion. Methinks that Brexit might create some complexity in this process…

Arrived in Dover to a beautiful sunrise, a bit of mist, and traffic chaos. Made me wish I was back in Chartres Cathedral … Proceeded slowly down the M20, slowed down on the M25, and then cam to numerous halts on that and every subsequent road. Ouch!!! 2 1/2 hours to travel just over 65kms, and then another 300+ after that, all on 2 hours sleep. A conventional 3 1/2 hour drive turned into a 8 hour marathon. The last 40km were on delightful country roads – please add your own intonation to this, to aptly convey roads that wind, are not quite wide enough for 2 vehicles, and then pass through villages where a single vehicles’ progress can be inhibited by Mrs Smith opening her front door.

Nevertheless, here we are in that most delightful of British institutions, the Country Pub, in this case, the Blue Anchor outside Watchet, right on the coast. We are making use of the Britstops scheme that sees lots of places (mostly Pubs) providing limited parking for a few campervans, with the mild expectation that you’ll have a pint or a meal. We’ve filled up with water, I’m planning on a veggie/sausage/couscous dinner while Niki salivates over plates of prawns – let’s see how this ends. We’ll post some photos of the region tomorrow. For now – internet, great cider, soccer on the box, beach right off the van… Ah, I can cope with the pressure!

GPS … Not!

A day that had a little bit of everything….

Yesterday our household goods were delivered to friends who have kindly offered a room at their house to store our possessions while we meander across Europe. Delivery was a little chaotic, and certainly more so than Niki was hoping for. In any case, we carried 25 cubic meters of furniture into a room and then played Heavy Tetris as the afternoon temperature climbed into the 30’s. Beer after the event seemed to do more than just rehydrate, a trend that continued as we watched England – Bolivia streamed to a Mac Air. Got to take what you can!

Said goodbye to the Langston’s in Central France and headed north(ish) towards Dunkirk, having decided to do this in two stages. Wise decision as by 5:00pm I was very tired, obviously feeling the effects of the previous day’s rehydration exercise. Being very new to this, we both have outsized concerns about overnighting. I’m sure we’ll relax soon, but at the moment we would like some idea of where we will be spending the night.

On the way up to Nonancourt, our designated overnight stop (more later), we stopped at Chartres Cathedral – What a fantastic 2 hours! I’m so sorry that the photos do no justice, but what an awe-inspiring edifice – and I use the description with knowledge aforethought 🙂 Had to take a photo of the Camino Trail for Lewis – perhaps one day a ‘Cathedrals of Europe’ cycle tour is in the offing.

I found a free aire in Nonancourt, plugged in the gps coordinates, and off we set. Nonancourt proved to be a bit of a challenge. The town centre (??) has blue lines through the square, either indicating traffic direction, pedestrian passage, parking places, or all three. Consequently cars were seemingly at all angles, at all directions, in various places. Extricating the van proved difficult. We then proceeded down a narrow, perhaps two-way street, after waiting obligingly for all oncoming traffic to pass us. About hallway up the hill, however, local impatience took precedence and a car came down towards us. I kept going, he got gallic, Niki smiled, I didn’t, and he reversed in time for us to squeeze by in the narrowest of gaps. Then things got interesting us the GPS had us turn right onto a narrow road that turned into a path, happily indicating that ‘You have arrived at your Destination’. NOT.

All’s well at the end of the day. Niki found a wider spot, we retreated to find the sought after aire on the other side of the road, next to a wonderful wooded area with a river flowing by. Some more vino rehydration and we were, if not happy, at least Contented Campers.


The Middle of … France

A long day’s travel from Staufen to Saulzais-le-Potier along a mixture of roads, not made any better by the innumerable road works, deviations, let’s make this narrower, I think we can slow traffic down here kind of approach to summer travels. The 600km took around 8 hours to drive, letting us know that a) the van is slower than a car b) I am a slow driver c) narrow roads slow you down even more. Can’t wait to see the result when the three above will be added to d) mountains in Norway.

So here we are, in the centre of France (with a picture to prove it). Fortunately today we awoke to a thunderstorm, relieving the heat of the past few days. In fact the aircon barely dented the heat on the drive down. Lovely waking to the sound of rain – and not having to step out of a dripping tent to make rain. Lewis, where are you, mate?

Interesting town, perhaps not noted for rapid movement in any particular direction. Bakery closed on Mondays, (large) police station only open on Tuesdays and Saturdays (half-days, if you please), and a car covered in thick green moss parked on the main street. A slower pace, perhaps, in rural France.

Took time out after the morning rain to cycle to Saint-Amand along the newly renovated canal, or parts of it in any case. Workmen at the one end were very happy to wave us through a section clearly marked as No Entry, and then waved us back when we returned, defeated by a fence across the path some 2 km down the road. They all seemed happy …

We did get to see the Centre of France (according to a local Abbe), or one version of that, as well as the very nice Ainay  le Chateau, complete with moat. Lovely day out, followed by a well deserved swim and fresh, rehydrating beer – just what the nutritionist ordered. Just as well our shipment did not arrive today, ‘cos we weren’t home!