Riding The Western Front: Day 4 – Thursday 28th June
I got up at 7 a.m. But it wasn’t a good sleep. A couple of doors up from me was a French family who didn’t seem bothered about anyone else trying to sleep. I loaded the scooter up and got my breakfast which consisted of a double Espresso a couple of glasses of orange juice and my travel mug filled with a triple Espresso.
The sun was out and I was on my way to ride the Western Front. I was genuinely excited. It was going to be a busy day, with a lot of stops. Even though the ride for the day was only around 110 miles to my next hotel at Lille, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do all the stops. I rode the 22 miles up the coast and crossed the border into Belgium, along to Nieuwpoort. This was a coastal town which was the furthest most point of the Western Front, which had it’s fair share of shelling, with the front lines going up onto the beach.
I rode along the Nieuwpoort promenade to get a photo at the very top of the Western Front. An old man was asked to take the photo. Job done.
I took off to the next stop which was only a mile or so away. The Albert Memorial. Beside it is The Memorial to the Missing. It has a small museum inside and a lift to the top of it’s circular structure, which you could walk round with a fantastic view of the surrounding land. This place is definitely worth a stop. After spending enough time here and taking photos, I moved on.
So, I continued on and made stops at the following places:
Ramscappelle Belgium Cemetery, Nieuwpoort. 635 Belgium soldiers are buried here. Most of these died in the Battle of The Yser in August 1914
Vladslo German Cemetery. This cemetery once contained over 3,000 soldiers. Now the number is over 25,000. Another place well worth a visit.
The Cross of Reconciliation. This is a large cross on the side of the road about 6 miles North of Ypres. It’s the spot where the first gas attack of the First World War took place in 1915.
Tyne Cot Cemetery. The biggest British Cemetery in the world with nearly 12,000 buried Here. Over 8,000 are unidentified. It’s my second time here. Always worth a visit. It’s the biggest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. It is in the area of the Third Battle of Ypres. Another of the Western Fronts bigger battles during World War One. There are many books on Ypres/Passchendaele and the battles that took place here. It was one of the truly horrific areas of the Great War.
I then stopped for a break in the centre Ypres, parking the Lambretta outside the famous Cloth Hall. I had a walk round and rehydrated with a couple of bottles of water. Ypres is a great place with plenty to see and do. I’ve been here a few times now and love the place. On leaving Ypres, I had my first incident of panic. Half a mile or so out of Ypres, I wasn’t sure my Sat Nav was taking me to the right place. So I thought I’d stop and check my phone. I stopped, but couldn’t find my phone! Sheer panic. Checking my pockets, all twelve of them! Then as I looked up, there on top of the luggage, on the back of my Lambretta sat my phone. I sat it there as I was preparing to leave Ypres and didn’t put it back in my pocket. At the time my GoPro was on and I took a still from the footage that shows the camera on the luggage. Also with the phone was my bank card. I only had a couple of hundred Euros. This loss would have put an end to my journey.
With the panic over I rode on to the following landmarks:
Island of Ireland Peace Park. Messines. This place commemorates those who served in the First World War from the island of Ireland.
The Christmas Truce Memorial at Ploegsteert wood.
There’s a good cafe across the road at Ploegsteert Memorial. There you can sit in or outside and relax with a beer, Coffee, whatever. I chose to stop here. I was stressed after nearly losing my phone at Ypres and having the electrical issues. I had a coffee and relaxed for a while.
Time to move on. Another incident then occurred. I put my jacket on and rode off to the next stop, but as I pulled away, a bloke on a Vespa GTS coming towards me waved at me in an annoyed manner. “What the hell’s his problem” I thought. I shrugged my shoulders and carried on. About a mile or so down the road, I checked my mirror and coming up behind me was the bloke on his Vespa! Following me. He pulled up alongside me and gestures me to pull over. The only thing I could think of was trouble, but what did he want? What did I do?!
As soon as we pulled over and stopped, he leant over reaching towards me…..with my Nikon DSLR camera in its pouch. I couldn’t believe it. He said in excellent English “As you rode off I saw your camera fall off your scooter, that’s what I was gesturing at”. I couldn’t believe my stupidity. I couldn’t thank him enough. Two incidents that could have ended the trip.
Before heading on, I checked under the panels because of a sound that didn’t seem right. Sure enough, there was a horrible rattle. I had decided that something was badly wrong at the top end and it was terminal. But I thought I’d keep going until it went bang. Of course, it didn’t go bang because the next day I had a closer look and it was a loose cylinder cowling.
The last stop of the day before reaching my hotel was Armentieres, but roadworks with diversions sent me off-course. By the time I realised this, I was nowhere near Armentieres, so I just headed back across the border into France for the Hotel at Lille. My mood had dropped from the events that seemed to bother me more than maybe they should have.
I arrived at the hotel and I noticed a small computer touch screen next to the entrance. It was an automated check-in service. This was ideal, with my low mood I just wanted to check in without the struggle with my lack of understanding French. (I can’t believe I’ve gone another year of visiting France without learning or making the effort to learn French).
After getting a shower, I walked across the road for a couple of bottles of beer and some food at Carrefour Hypermarche and I was back in my room. I wrote in my diary notes for the day’s events and checked my plans for the next day.
Lesson for the day: Sort a way of checking everything when getting off and before setting off on the Lambretta. I was making too many mistakes
Total miles covered: 457
Riding The Western Front: Day 5 – Friday 29th June
Once again I was up early. After struggling with the heat yesterday, I thought I’d get up and leave earlier. I would avoid the late afternoon heat riding and I also wouldn’t have to rush my stops. It was forecast for another hot day.
Lambretta loaded up, I had my coffees and orange juice and headed off. Today’s destination was Laon. I had seven stops planned along the way.
Before setting off for France I was pre-warned by my friend Mary Freeman. “Beware of the Lille Traffic. It’s not good”! When I first set off all seemed well. The traffic in Lille was fine. Maybe my early start has beaten the traffic? Then I arrived at a roundabout that was heaving with traffic and everyone honking their horns and shouting through their windscreens at each other. Had there been an accident? No, this was normal.
Fifteen minutes later I don’t think I got more than three hundred yards. I could hear Mary’s voice. “What did I say Rob”. Indeed. Lille was tricky. After several wrong turns and riding the wrong way up one-way streets, I found my first stop of the day.
There are many cemeteries, memorials and monuments of dedication to those who served in the First World War. This was one for one of the smallest servants of the Great War, but one that the war could barely do without. The Pigeon. More than 100,000 pigeons were used in the First World War and the success rate of the messenger was over 95%. So it’s safe to say they deserve their place in being remembered. The Memorial in Lille is a bit awkward to get to and I had to ride up a footpath in the centre of Lille forcing people out of the way. I don’t think I should have done that.
I left Lille, moving on to Mons and so back across the border into Belgium. A great ride through lots of small villages, avoiding any major towns. I reached Mons with no dramas, but with my electrics still messing up my Sat Nav, I was unable to find two locations I wanted to visit. Somewhat fed up with this, I then visited the memorial to the 6,000 civilians killed by the German army. I then headed on to my next stop at St Symphorien Military Cemetery. This one I found and was more than happy to spend a bit of time here. It’s a unique spot that was first used by the Germans soldiers burying their dead and British dead here from the Battle of Mons and was in German hands until the Wars end. It contains the graves of John Parr and George Ellison, believed to be the first and the last British soldiers to die in the First World War and by pure coincidence they are buried with their graves facing each other. I really liked this place and would really like to come back here again.
Now, happier my time in Mons wasn’t wasted, I moved on, my next stop was back across the border into France and the cemetery and grave of Wilfred Owen at Ors Communal Cemetery. The ride here was a very pleasant 35 miles through beautiful countryside approaching the small village of Ors. The communal cemetery was found by the Sat Nav easy enough. Wilfred Owen was one of the foremost poets of the Great War who was killed a week before Armistice. His mother only learnt of his death on Armistice Day, while many were celebrating the end of the war.
The next stop was Laon. I would be staying here for the night. Riding on to Laon was good, although bloody hot. The heat was the hard part to deal with. Occasionally when in towns I’d take the gloves off to air them a bit, but it was only briefly, on the open road I put them back on.
Riding south, there was the constant reminder of the First World War with cemeteries and memorials in the fields and dotted along on the sides of the road. The further south I went they became predominantly French and very big.
Soon I was to arrive in Laon. I’d end up not liking Laon. My hotels all had a Hypermarche nearby but here in Laon, the nearest was a mile away, too far to walk in this heat. So after checking in, I unloaded my luggage into my room and jumped on the Lambretta and headed round to the shop for some food and the usual couple of beers. On returning to my Lambretta a couple of local lads on mopeds starting asking questions. My only response was “Je viens d’Irlande du Nord”. This only prompted the arrival of more lads on mopeds who were riding round me as I got ready, trying to intimidate me. I got on the Lambretta and started it up. They now tried to block me in, but I revved up and let the clutch out lunging the Lambretta at the twit who blocked my exit. At this point he thought I was going to ram his moped and he moved. As I rode off I exclaimed “Effin Move you twats….Translate that!” I sped off to what I thought was the exit, it was the entrance and I had to circle back and ride round and past the gits on their bikes. Then they started revving up and chasing me. I got out onto the road and opened up the Lambretta, by the time I reached the first roundabout, they were were well behind. I then turned off the road to my hotel and I had lost them.
After getting a shower I ate my food with a couple of beers. I wasn’t in the mood for going anywhere, so I did a bit of preparation for the next day deciding I’d start earlier than usual. I set the alarm for 5.30 and got my head down for the night.
Lesson of the day: Learn French
Total Miles covered: 652