Hi, Day 2 started in Folkestone, Kent. I pedaled away under overcast skies with great optimism as the winds from the previous day had subsided. It was actually like being back in Devon as immediately I was faced with a 500ft climb out of the town. I was warned about Dover Hill being steep and they were not wrong. I actually walked the bike up the last bit. I could see little point in exterting myself unnecessarily as there was a long way to go today (10 miles to the ferry and a further 77 on the French side!).
At the summit of Dover Hill stands the pub, The Valiant Sailor and I can only think it was named after some old seadog who used this drinking house as his local but lived at the bottom of the hill. You’d have to be bloody valiant to make that trek every day- although, it would make you build up a thirst!
The remainder of the trip on the English side was a quick downhill all the way to Dover. I arrived on the seafront to a glorious sunrise, a calm sea state and a feeling that today was going to be a good day! This optimism was maintained with a thoroughly painless check-in process and being a two wheeled customer, I got priority boarding along with other cyclists and motorcyclists. I’d also payed an extra supplement (£12) to access the ‘executive lounge’ onboard which enabled some decent seating, unlimited pastries and hot drinks.
Crossing the channel gave me a little down-time and enabled me to write up yesterday’s blog on the trip through Kent and time passed quickly. Soon enough I was back below decks amongst umpteen lorries waiting to be spewed out into France and the lack of passport control meant it was a very speedy exit from the vast Dunkerque port. Speedy that is, even though the winds had resumed – that part of the French coast being so flat and open, it offers no shelter from winds of any bearing. Cyclists are again well catered for straight off the boat with dedicated cycle lanes to keep the 38 ton ‘artics’ away from your wheels.
About half a mile out of the port, I then realised that my Garmin GPS wasn’t on. I could’ve sworn I’d switched it on whilst waiting to disembark. The screen was blank so I switched it on again and it booted up to a unusual screen and then locked. You could get no response from anything. I powered it back down and up again but still it was the same. I took the memory card out (a micro sd card) and switched it on but still no good. I then dropped the damned memory card in the grass verge and had to find it again. Things were fast turning bad. I then googled about resetting the Garmin and without thinking, I did a hardware reset which, whilst restoring its full functionality, I had inadvertently wiped all of my routes for passage across France! All that work in the planning stage now gone. I had them backed up at home obviously on a hard drive but that was no good me on a hard shoulder in Dunkerque. Then I had a bit of a thought – On my webpage, I’d posted google map links to the routes each day. If I could retrieve the link for that day I could use the phone. However, I couldn’t hold the phone and refer to the map all day whilst cycling one-handed for 70+ miles. So, I just plugged in the headphones and listened to the Google instructions guiding me step by step. The software Google uses obviously reads the street names phonetically as written as some of the pronunciations of the French roads were hilariously bad. Anyway, it worked and got me to the destination.
This was my first visit to the Eastern side of the country and I was eager to see it as from what I had read and seen online, it looked very different to other areas I had been. The route was also going to take me into Belgium for a few miles also which again was new for me. The parts of Dunkerque I saw were very industrial. I have to say that the place was an array of different smells as I passed through its outskirts. Food processing, I’ve found out is a bit of thing there and also chemical industries and oil refining. I’m sure there are some nice parts to be seen in France’s third-largest port but my route afforded me nothing remarkable.
Soon enough, Google had guided me south/south-east and the next town I stumbled upon was Bergues. This was once a big trading port as the English Channel covering the lands to its north had not yet subsided or yet to be reclaimed. Its a pretty place and worth a further visit I think. The architecture is typically flemish with the belfry dominating the town. This place was the setting for the french box-office smash ‘Bienvenue chez la Ch’tis’ or ‘Welcome to the Sticks’. Bergues has had its share of bad luck as like most towns in this part of France, it was ‘in the thick of it’ with respect to both world wars – On June 2nd 1940, 80% was destroyed by bombardment – You’d not think so looking at the place. In England, it seemed to be the common assumption that anything blitzed in the early forties would be replaced with concrete. Not here! The town looks to have been restored to its former state. The previously mentioned belfry whilst being the city’s most celebrated attraction was actually started in the 13th century, rebuilt after the French invasion in 1383, again in the 16th century, again during the 19th century, wrecked by fire in 1940 and destroyed by dynamiting in 1944, it was again rebuilt in 1961. Tenacious folk these Frenchies.
Onward then and across the border into Belgium along beautifully lain cyclepaths keeping traffic well away from you. These belgians seem to have got it right when looking after us two-wheeled travellers and all through the villages, provision for the cyclist was made and well signed.
Ypres was a place I’d been looking forward to seeing due to its history – namely the First World War. The city took several hits during 1914 to 1918……..
The first battle that occurred here between the Allied and German troops started on 19th October 1914 and lasted a little under a month when the allies managed to capture the town from the occupying Germans. It was here also that the first use of chlorine gas was used on 22nd April at the town’s second major battle which again lasted around a month. Both Canadian and British troops were on the receiving end of these chlorine attacks as well as Senagalese and Algerian infantrymen (French-africans).
The third (and probably, the most famous) was also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. This bloody conflict raged from the end of July until November 6th 1917 and saw the first use of mustard gas. This became known as Yperite by the allied troops. named after the city. During this battle the allies captured the famous Passchendaele ridge to the east but at an astronomical loss of life. During these 5 months of fighting, over half a million perished for the sake of a few miles of ground. Incredible to think about as it was only 100 years ago.
In 1927, the Menin Gate was unveiled. A beautiful gateway that stands on the Eastern road out of the town. Troops would have marched through this spot en-route to battle – many of which never to return. Within the gate are the names of every allied soldier that never returned home yet has no known grave. To stand there and see such a list of names is somewhat sobering and really brings home the scale of this conflict. Every evening at 8pm, the road is closed to traffic and a bugler from the local fire service plays the Last Post. This tradition has been religiously practiced since 1928 with the exception of the Second World War where the occupying Nazis forbade it. However, it was resumed immediately on 6th September 1944 – the day the City was liberated by the Allies.
Leaving Ypres, I headed for Lille on the N336 and soon arrived at Bedford House Cemetery. I wanted to visit this once I’d realised it was on my intended route. This is just one of the numerous war grave cemeteries dotted around this area of Belgium and France. Out in the middle of nowhere beside the road was this immaculately kept burial ground. Here, arranged in neat rows, were the headstones of those that fell during conflict. Many stones carried no name – just ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ inscribed on each headstone.
There was an almost eerie air of peacefulness about the place. All that was heard was the wind in the nearby trees. All of the lawns were beautifully manicured, each headstone immaculately clean with fresh floral tributes planted at each grave. An atmosphere of peace, and order. An almost serene calm. A striking and stark contrast to the loss of life, bloodshed and bloody mayhem that occurred here a century previously. Again, a very sobering and moving experience. Such an incredible loss of life. This cemetery alone, held over 5000 innocent souls. The majority of which were even yet to reach their prime.
Time was pushing on now and it had been a long day so I wheeled onward to Lille against a semi cross/headwind. Lille was reached during rush hour and it seems they are very good at traffic lights in this city. Again, excellent cyclist provision was made throughout my route through the city with only an abundance of red traffic lights to hinder any swift progress. Like London, Lille also has its own members of the cycling fraternity that are either colour-blind or are hell-bent on running red lights on a regular basis. I would love to have spent more time here but I was getting tired and needing to get off this bike. I cycled along Boulevard de la Liberté passing some wonderful buildings at the Place de la République. I’ll definitely be back for a further look!
The remaining few miles to Cysoing, my bed for the night were pretty uneventful with the exception of misunderstanding a couple of directions and which resulted in ending up in a farmer’s field face-to-face with some puzzled-looking livestock.
All in all a bit of a mixed bag. Hopefully I can get the GPS problem resolved tonight ready for tomorrow’s ride down to the town of Guise.
Many thanks to all of those who have donated and shown messages of support etc.