Next week I shall be part of a family group (one flying over from Seattle for the purpose) on a four-day tour of the cemeteries and battlefields of WW1 centred – because of an ancestor’s connection – around the centenary of the Battle of Loos which began on 25th September 1915.
Guiding us will be my fellow Rust columnist Henry Elkins, whose knowledge of and enthusiasm for such matters is comprehensive and all-consuming. As is his devotion to detail and planning – yesterday I was summoned to join him upon an excursion into Western Front territory, both to fulfil his regular habit of conducting a last-minute recce before any tour and specifically to check how the Eurotunnel itself is currently operating. One reads and hears constant stories about ‘Operation Stack’ for lorries going to the continent, the conditions inside in migrant camps on the French side and immigrants jumping aboard lorries and/or storming Calais’s defences including the £7million razor-wire fencing that Britain has recently supplied to help – so Henry’s decision to test the water sounded a worthwhile, not to say prudent, exercise to me and I was happy to go along for the ride.
Added to which, he had contingency plans A and B – one of which involved us flying to Antwerp from London City Airport and then hiring a car just for getting around on the continent – and, with barely a week to go to the ‘off’ – it was incumbent upon us to make some executive decisions on these.
With the summer holidays over and the kids back at school, there was no sign of any problem and little congestion at the Folkestone terminal – in fact this was the case to such an extent that, when we pulled up at the check-in point, we were offered the chance to go on the 0550 hours train, half an hour earlier than we had booked. This we eagerly accepted – as Henry commented, if you can gain even 30 minutes on your schedule you should embrace it with open arms because you never know where you might lose 30 minutes elsewhere.
Once we had emerged into the French countryside we immediately set course for Loos itself, in the heart of what a hundred years ago was the coal mining industry. We took turns to drive and I have to admit that by 9.30am (European time) when we arrived in the town’s main square that – having rendezvous’d at the ungoldly time of 0315 hours on Putney Hill – I was beginning to flake somewhat!
A black coffee and croissant each later we met with Fredo, the elderly curator of the local museum, who is in a state of high excitement as probably the highlight of his current existence (the centenary) is but a week away. He speaks only French and so we conversed via Henry’s ‘O’ level franglais and a set of improvised but expansive hand gestures.
Our business there done, we set off towards Ballieul to check the hotel booking for three consecutive nights [Bingo! Total success with that!] and then scout the restaurant in Armentieres that Henry had been recommended by a previous tourist of considerable gastronomic expertise and knowledge. Sadly at this point we came across our first negative of the recce: the road to said establishment was closed and barred by massive roadworks that would require an estimated two mile detour. I was frustrated by this as we did not have time to tarry by rehearsing said route, but Henry was more sanguine (“A least we know there’s an issue – we can improvise around it on the day …”).
Thence to Ypres and Henry’s recommended ‘Tabac’ shop, from where I needed to purchase 600 Marlboro Lights for the Memsahib (at a cost one-third of what similar would be in the UK) – and I’m not saying whether my willingness to take part in the recce was in part, or entirely, based upon my need to obtain said contraband in order to keep the domestic peace and obtain a ‘pass’ for our family tour next week …
By now the rain – which had been an incessant companion on the road to Folkestone – was torrential and unremitting.
Should we continue scouting some of the sites to which visits were planned and make our booked 1720 hours (European time) Eurotunnel train home … or should we simply say “Sod it!” and strike straight for Calais and try and get an earlier train?
Henry came up with my hoped-for answer. “I know the sites like the back of my hand. Our main purpose today was to test and decide upon our travel arrangements. Let’s get back home early and try to beat the M25 rush-hour gridlocks if we can …”
And that’s just what we did. I eventually pulled up the drawbridge at my home minutes before 1600 hours – exhausted but content.
We’ve tested the route. All that remains now is to make the trip proper next week!