Last night I reached home after very nearly 48 hours ‘before the mast’, which in this instance in my case meant touring northern France and Belgium with my brother and a small party of virgin – and I use that world advisedly – tourists of the battlefields and Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries of WW1 Flanders.
Previously I had known our fellow travellers – Bob Ticker, Nancy Bright-Thompson and Daphne Coulthard – only by reputation and our common cause as occasional contributors to the National Rust.
My brother and I make regular visits via the Eurotunnel shuttle to the continent in pursuit of our amateur hobby of researching WW1 and – in my brother’s case – usually whenever he obtains (or is given) a domestic ‘pass’ by his spouse to buy industrial quantities of Marlboro Light cigarettes at almost exactly half the price that they are on sale in the UK.
From time to time, as a break from our researches, we take groups of family members and/or those who approach and/or are recommended to us on small group tours of the Western Front.
On these we tend to operate a programme built around a mix of ‘greatest hits’ (if that is not too glib a term) of the iconic monuments, places and cemeteries that could broadly come under the heading ‘must see’ and then some specifics that might be of relevance to the tourists in the group – e.g. an ancestor relative who was killed in WW1 and is buried in a Western Front cemetery, or perhaps the places at which a particular notable or celebrity poet, sportsman or politician served and/or remains.
As you can imagine, each group tour’s experience is unique. Much depends upon what firstly, we as organisers have produced as an a la carte, or indeed a set, menu of ‘things to do’. In addition, the specific characters and interests of the tourists is of huge importance – are they all friends of many years standing?
Are they strangers?
Have they detailed knowledge of WW1, or are they complete novices?
How will the group chemistry develop as the tour unfolds, for inevitably it does – depending upon tens of tiny incidents day by day, in-jokes that spring up, themes that emerge in conversation and, of course, the team camaraderie that (hopefully) grows and in my experience always does.
By the conclusion of each group tour – and this analogy is perhaps stretching things too far, for inherently it draws a connection between social touring a century later and the experience of army units in the trenches – a collective sense of an ‘ordeal’ shared has grown, which makes those involved stronger for the experience, and may in the future be rekindled whenever two or three of them are gathered together again. “Do you remember when we …?”can become a staple of these future meets.
In that sense our 36-hour tour at the beginning of this week was no different to many others. In other senses, it was not at all similar.
Bob, Nancy and Daphne brought a new dimension to our dinner table conversations. These could, of course, turn to sport, history, politics or sex at any time – as all tours can – but when it came to appreciation of the fine arts and gastronomy, these three were in an exalted class.
The days of Belgian steaks of unknown animal with fries, washed down by two grand biers, were a distant memory as our travellers took us to The Garden of Alice restaurant at the Chateau de Beaulieu towards Lille and then the classic fish restaurant La Matelote in Boulogne. My brother and I were introduced to a Garden of Eden of culinary delights. It was a different world, way beyond anything we had come across previously.
I say that in a positive sense. The experience opened our eyes to new possibilities and perhaps indeed potential new volunteers for future tours.
The other huge factor in this tour was the weather. This was a shock only because – in over twenty years of touring – I cannot recall a single instance of when the weather had ever been a significant influence (save in bursts of perhaps an hour here and there), but this week has taught me a lesson that I should guard against complacency, even under this heading.
Frankly, from about 7.00pm on Monday evening, we were subjected to strong winds and monsoon-like torrential rain and occasional squalls, which added a certain poignancy to some of our conversations – Nancy hit the nail on the head as she hitched up her dress and trudged off through rain bouncing calf-high off the pavements to our restaurant “If those poor Tommies in the trenches a hundred years ago could withstand such conditions for months on end, we can surely do so for minute or two on our way to a 2-star Michelin meal!”
Yesterday, as we drove across northern France towards Boulogne-sur-mer – having abandoned three specific items on our tour agenda because of the tempestuous weather – my brother, at the wheel, announced that he had never driven in condition as bad as this.
The fact that his in-vehicle satellite navigation system had given up the ghost (unable to maintain contact with its satellite signal because of the strength of the downpour) may have something to do with his comment.