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Over there (for a short while)

As previewed in my previous post, I spent yesterday in France in the company of the Rust’s Mr Elkins, whose famous enthusiasm for things WW1 knows little bounds and prompts in him both a boyish gushing enthusiasm and verbal diarrhoea of biblical proportions. I was aware of this before our expedition only by reputation but, having experienced it on a one-to-one basis primarily hurtling around the countryside just south of Bapaume on the plain of the River Somme, I am able to testify just how tiring a pastime as apparently passive and benign as ‘listening’ can be over the course of seventeen continuous hours!

We had begun the day by rendevous’d shortly before our scheduled 0400 hours on Putney Heath, on a road of houses that I should estimate begin at a value of £5m and rising, where my companion habitually shelters his car from the attentions of the local traffic wardens during daylight hours.

Our 100-minute drive to Folkestone and the Eurotunnel terminal was smooth, swift and unremarkable. At that stage we were catching up on our respective family news, opinions on sporting issues of the moment and general gossip and – as main driver on tour – I became acutely aware of how the simple fact of having a passenger on board helps to pass (and seemingly reduce) time at the wheel.

[Inevitably, amidst the chit-chat, there were occasional passages of speculation and black humour about whether the reported strikes in Calais and the expected hordes of would-be migrants throwing themselves at British travellers in the surrounding area might affect our progress on the inward journey.]

Over on the ‘other side’ by 0800 hours local time, we then high-tailed it to Ypres in order to ‘pot’ our one non-WW1 obligation and get it out of the way so that we could concentrate on our principal task at hand. Henry was on a three-line whip to buy 1,000 fags for his missus and I was buying 500 similar for a lady and 40 packets of Gold Leaf roll-your-own tobacco for a couple who are friends of hers.

Taking everything into account, I’m reliably informed that the cost of tobacco in Belgium is just 50% of that in the UK. What we learned from the lady running the ‘Tabac’ shop on the road leading to the Menin Gate in Ypres is that, on the continent, packs of 20 cigarettes only actually contain 19 by law – a secret that Henry and I have agreed to take to our graves for the time being.

From there we set a sat-nav course for Albert on the D929 road from Bapaume. I say ‘set a sat-nav course’ – but sadly my vehicle’s sat-nav system is not working properly. After I had lent my car to friends for a previous similar expedition in May, they returned with the news that the system went on the blink during a violent monsoon-like downpour and since then I have never quite got around to arranging the fixing thereof.

As a result, whilst the lady with the cool voice issues all necessary instructions, the screen map is ‘frozen’ and it remains impossible to view where we are or indeed what progress is being made. It is as if you are blind and taking instructions from a guide as you drive along. A bit disconcerting whenever, as occasionally happens, the landscape has altered somewhat from what the software ‘remembers’ being there (courtesy of the last time you updated it!) …

hyggeAt Albert, by happy chance, we found a very acceptable brasserie just down the hill off the main square called the Hygge Café.

The twenty or so tables outside were totally filled on this scorching day, which was indicative of the venue’s popularity (always a good sign) and also allowed us to ‘acquire’ a table inside – a much–preferred location for us because it offered a cool refuge from the heat. We had onion and leek quiche for starter and for our mains I opted for a Caesar’s Salad whilst Henry went for the boeuf bourguignon – dishes that in the event were uniformly well chef-cooked and presented. The toilettes were spotlessly clean. Ninety minutes after arriving we walked out into the warm sunshine once more having agreed that the Hygge Café had definitely ticked the ‘quality’ box to become one of our recommended ‘on tour establishments in the region.

As for the ‘business’ aspect of the trip, I’m afraid that my companion’s machine-gun delivery of facts and figures, whether or not accompanied by reference to swathes of laminated ordinance survey maps and/or copies of one hundred year old unit diaries and memoirs that mysteriously emerged from the back seat of our vehicle as if it was a Tardis, caused me to ‘glaze over’ in the first two or three minutes on every occasion. Nevertheless I was pleased to be part of an expedition recce team that was plainly achieving success after success.

terminalBy 1600 hours we had both done – and had – enough and ‘set sail’ for Calais.

The roads to and from the Eurotunnel terminal was thick with traffic but we never knowingly saw a migrant anywhere.

We had hoped to board a train early that our booking (1950 hours) and eventually managed it by scrabbling onto one twenty minutes before, this after an hour waiting in the terminal shopping area where (as no doubt the reader can imagine) ‘all of human life was on display’ – a fact that at time caused both wonder and not a little mirth.

Back in Blighty, it wasn’t long before we had the narrowest of escapes. I shall never be able to complain again about road traffic conditions.

stackingWithin two miles of leaving the Folkestone terminal, we saw signs of a major ‘stacking’ operation being mounted by the police on the opposite (southbound) side of the motorway.

[The reason was soon gleaned from the radio – the Calais ferry workers were on strike once more, creating chaos as all ferry traffic had to try and squeeze onto the Eurotunnel trains].

There was a tail-back of lorries going north of at least ten miles and it seemed that the police were syphoning all non-lorries off the M20, presumably to get them to Folkestone via another route.

I reached home almost on the dot of 2100 hours, having set off some seven and a half hours and 410 miles earlier.

‘Weary’ didn’t come into it …


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About Martin Roberts

A former motoring journalist, Martin lists amongst his greatest achievements giving up smoking. Three times. He holds to the view that growing old is not for the faint-hearted. More Posts