Tag Archives: boulogne

Remembrance, Reverance and Respect

Commonwealth War Graves Boulogne-Sur-Mer

“If I should die, think only this of me: 
That there’s some corner of a foreign field 
That is forever England. There shall be 
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;”                                                                 Rupert Brooke – ‘The Soldier’

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Entrance Tickets – The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques

The Blockhaus d'Éperlecque

The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques was a giant bunker built by Nazi Germany between March 1943 and July 1944 and was originally intended to be a launching facility for the V2 ballistic missile.

It was designed to accommodate over one hundred missiles at a time and to launch up to thirty-six a day all destined to land and explode on London and the South-East of England. The facility was designed to incorporate a liquid oxygen factory and a bomb-proof train station to allow missiles and supplies to be delivered from production facilities in Germany.

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Entrance Tickets – Agincourt Museum

Agincourt Museum Guide

I am not really sure what I was expecting but I was certainly surprised by the place.  I had always imagined that France would have no real stomach for financing and building a museum to commemorate a humiliating defeat but inside there was an unexpectedly balanced account of the battle and the history of the Hundred Years War (which I suppose the French did win at the end of the day so they can afford to be magnanimous about it) and in some of the displays and the explanations I had to remind myself that Henry was the English King and it was the French who were defeated here.

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Travel Review of the Year 2013

Semana Santa Holy Week Siguenza 3

2013 has been a good year for travel and I have managed to make a total of seven overseas trips (my record is twelve in both 2007 and 2008), starting in March with a return to Spain.

Despite the ambition to visit as much of the country as possible this was the first visit to the peninsular in nearly two years since the previous trip to Extremadura in May 2011.  Our destination this time was Castilla-La Mancha and the medieval town of Sigüenza in the Province of Guadalajara halfway between Madrid and the capital city of the Autonomous Community of Aragon – Zaragoza.

One of the reasons for choosing this small town was the desire to see one of Spain’s most famous religious festivals and by all accounts Sigüenza is a very good place to see it.  The Semana Santa is one of the most important traditional events of the Spanish Catholic year; it is celebrated in the week leading up to Easter and features a procession of Pasos which are floats of lifelike wooden sculptures of individual scenes of the events of the Passion.

Turkey Postcard

One day in January when the temperature was hovering around zero and icy rain was lashing at the windows my daughter Sally called me with a travel proposal.  She had booked a holiday and the arrangements had fallen through which meant there was a spare place available that needed filling and crucially – paying for and I was being called up as first reserve.

“You will enjoy it dad, you can spend time with the grandchildren and it’s only for a week.”  I gave in quickly and asked the obvious questions of where, when and how much? “May, Torquay, only £900”. Actually I thought £900 for a week in Torquay in May was rather expensive but I agreed to it all the same and the deal was done and I started to research what there might be to do with three very young children in south Devon in early summer.

A couple of weeks or so later Sally phoned me again and said that she was applying for a passport for her new son William and although I appreciate that we are from the north I wasn’t yet aware that there were visa requirements for British citizens who wanted to travel south within the United Kingdom.  I called her back. “Why do we need a passport for William? I asked, “For the holiday, obviously”, she replied, “But we don’t need a passport for Torquay”, I smugly informed her, “Torquay? Torquay?”, she said, “who said anything about Torquay? We are going to TURKEY!”

Burgos Cathedral

In June we returned to Spain to visit the north of the country.  We started in Asturias and its capital city of  Oviedo and then drove south through Castilla y León  and visited the provincial capitals of León, Zamora, Salamanca, Avila, Segovia, Valladolid, Palencia and Burgos and that is all of them except (and I apologise for this) Soria.  It would have been just too much of a detour as we came to the end of our travels but I have promised to go back one day and apologise for this rudeness because Soria has one of the most bizarre festivals in Spain where once a year local men demonstrate their faith and fearlessness (stupidity) by walking over red hot coals!

But I have a plan to put this right because in April 2014 we plan to return to Sigüenza and I think it may be close enough to this missing city to take a day to visit.

Girona Catalonia Post Card

In July we travelled to Catalonia in north-east Spain and fell in love with the city of Girona. It is said that Girona consistently wins a Spain country-wide poll of citizens on preferred places to live and  I had a really good feeling about the city and as we sat and sipped cool beer I thought that it might be a place that I could return to.

I used to think that it might be nice to sell up and go and live abroad but as I have got older I have abandoned the idea.  The reason for this is that I wouldn’t want to end up in a British ex-pat condominium and I imagine that living outside of this would bring its own problems.  I am English not Spanish or French and my character, behaviour and whole way of life has been created from an English heritage that, even if I wanted to, I could not lay aside and become something that I am not.

But, now I have another idea.  It always annoys me when I see a poster advertising something that happened last week, before I arrived, or will take place next week, after I have gone home, so I think I could be happy to live for a while, say twelve months, in a different country so that I could enjoy everything that takes place over the course of a year in a Spanish town or city and I would be very happy to place Girona on my short list of potential places.  Before we left we walked past a famous statue of a lion climbing a pole and there is a story that if you reach up and kiss its arse then one day you will return but there was too much spit and dribble on its butt cheeks for me to take out this particular insurance policy.

France Côte d'Opale

2013 was a special birthday year for my mum as she gregariously tipped over from her seventy-ninth year to become an octogenarian and as part of the celebrations she invited my brother Richard and me to join her and her partner Alan to visit the north east corner of France and stay at at a hotel that they especially like, the Chateaux de Tourelles in the village of Le Wast, just a short distance away from one of my favourite French towns, Boulogne-Sur-Mer.

Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France.

Normally I have a preference for travelling by sea and always enjoy the short, weather-unpredictable, ferry crossing but they like the Eurotunnel shuttle so on this occasion we took the thirty-minute subterranean route rather than risk the choppy seas of the English Channel and the mad rush to the car deck upon docking.  It was busy at the terminal and on the following day the service set a new record for numbers of vehicles at almost sixteen-thousand. I had been through the tunnel before on Eurostar but never on the vehicle carrying train so this was a new experience for me and overall I have to say that although it is quick and convenient I think I prefer the boats and the rugby scrum.

Puglia Map

Every September since 2004 our late Summer travelling has been to the Greek Islands and it hadn’t really occurred to me that that we would break that habit and that 2013 would be the tenth year in a row, after all there are roughly one thousand four hundred of them and I have only been to about twenty-five so there are still a lot left to visit.

We were persuaded to make a change to our normal September routine when the Ryanair website offered return flights to Bari in Southern Italy for the bargain price of only £70 each (no hold luggage, no priority boarding, no pre-booked seats obviously) so we snapped them up and started to plot our way around the Italian Region of Puglia one of the least visited by tourists and most traditional areas of the country.  We have travelled to Italy several times but mostly to the north and certainly never to this part of the boot.

Iceland Postcard

For our final travels of 2013 we went north in October in search of the Northern Lights! This was a second visit to Iceland and the first since the financial crash of 2008 so there were some significant changes – mostly financial.  Six years previously I had found the country horrendously expensive but immediately after the crash the krona lost fifty percent of its value against the euro and even taking into account six years of relatively high inflation, which even now remains high at over 5%, I was rather hoping for cheaper prices this time and I was not disappointed because I estimate that the tourist cost of living was only about 65% of the costs of 2007.

We did enjoy Iceland, we had a nice hotel, found an excellent restaurant (Harry’s Bar), drove the Golden Circle and on the final night got to see the Northern Lights just as we had given up all hope of seeing the spectacular light show.  I am tempted now to return to Iceland, maybe in June and experience the midnight sun but this time I would miss Reykjavik because I have been there twice now and seen all that there is to see but I think I would hire a car and circumnavigate the island, that would be about one thousand, five hundred kilometres but I am guessing that this would be a wonderful experience.

So now thoughts turn to 2014 and the current plan  is to visit Poland (Wroclaw) in January, Sigüenza in Spain in April, possibly Ireland in June and then a holiday with my family to celebrate my sixtieth birthday in Corfu in August but obviously I hope to slip a few more holidays in between these main events!

Northern France, Images of Pays De Calais

Wimereux France Pays de CalaisDinan Brittany FranceFrance Ambleteuse Pays de CalaisSea Defences St Malo Brittany France

Northern France, The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques

Blockhause d'Éperlecques

The route from Agincourt to Eperlecques took us through the town of Saint-Omer but it didn’t look especially thrilling and it didn’t grab our attention so we carried on to the World-War-Two Museum.  A lot of the old German bunkers in this part of France have been converted to this purpose but I doubt if any of them are as big or as gloomy as this one.

While the French, after six hundred years or so don’t mind having statues of English archers alongside the roadsides at Agincourt the memory of the Second-World-War is much too recent to have Nazi Storm Troopers lining the road here and there was no such military reception as we approached the entrance to the museum.

German Soldiers

The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques was a giant bunker built by Nazi Germany between March 1943 and July 1944 and was originally intended to be a launching facility for the V2 ballistic missile. It was designed to accommodate over one hundred missiles at a time and to launch up to thirty-six a day all destined to land and explode on London and the South-East of England. The facility was designed to incorporate a liquid oxygen factory and a bomb-proof train station to allow missiles and supplies to be delivered from production facilities in Germany. It was constructed using the labour of thousands of prisoners of war and forcibly conscripted workers used as slave labourers who worked in twelve hour shifts of up to four thousand men with the work continuing around the clock, seven days a week, under giant floodlights during the night.

With all these men being moved in, laying new railway track, deliveries of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete and those night time floodlights obviously made this project hard to keep secret and the French Resistance and the allies discovered it almost straight away.

French Resistance

The German engineers were pretty good with concrete and they designed the place to be built in layers of reinforced cement built in a herringbone style which made it almost indestructible and impenetrable by regular bombs.

But the allies had two very good ideas.

First of all the concrete expert Sir Alfred McAlpine (who went on to create the post war construction firm) advised that a good time to bomb the bunker was just after the concrete was laid so that it would then set into any rearranged form after the effect of the bombing.  So that is what they did and the bomb-proof railway terminus was turned into a mass of twisted metal and deformed cement and was immediately rendered completely useless.

Blockhaus

The second good idea was the invention of the earthquake bomb that whilst it couldn’t penetrate the structure could make it unusable. The idea was to drop a large, heavy bomb with a hard armoured tip at supersonic speed so that it penetrated the ground, an effect comparable to a ten-ton bullet being fired straight down. It was then set to explode underground, ideally to the side of, or underneath a hardened target; the resulting shock wave would produce the equivalent of a miniature earthquake, destroying any nearby structures such as dams, railways, viaducts, or bunkers.

Naturally an unstable environment was not very good for storing liquid oxygen which by its nature was highly volatile so the Germans were obliged to abandon the concept of the bunker for missile launches and they went on to develop the alternative method of mobile launch batteries which were less vulnerable to detection and attack.

There weren’t very many visitors today so we paid our entrance fee and then walked along a path through a wooded hillside stopping at every turn to view the exhibits on show and to read the information boards and eventually after a short while we found ourselves at the bunker, twenty-two metres high and the biggest built in northern France and the really good thing is that visitors can go inside and wander around the liquid oxygen plant, the intended launch control and the missile bunker all of which is pretty much intact and then to the underground railway station which isn’t and shows just how effective the bombing advice of McAlpine was.

It is a rather interesting place to visit but also rather sad considering how many men died during the construction, the use for which it was intended and the fact that all the effort involved in building it was ultimately completely pointless and so we walked back to the car park past the guns and the tanks and the full size model of a V2 rocket and then made our way back to Le Wast and the Chateau.

After two days we had had enough of military history so over another exceptionally fine meal we agreed that tomorrow due to a very promising weather forecast that we would return to the coast and the seaside.

The Blockhaus d'Éperlecque

Northern France, Images of Pays De Calais

Boulogne Street Entertainer

Boulogne Old Town

Saint Vulfran Collegiate Church Abbeville France

Wimereaux Northern France

Northern France, The Battlefield and Museum of Agincourt

Agincourt Battle Site

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect”

William Shakespeare – ‘Henry V’

Having visited the British and Commonwealth War Graves, the site of the German coastal fortifications and Napoleon’s La Colonne de la Grande Armée in Boulogne we were getting an appetite for more military history so thought we might be able to visit a couple of sites that hadn’t previously been part of our plans.

Driving south our first visit was to the site of the Battle of Agincourt where almost six hundred years ago the English King Henry V defeated the largely superior French army of the time during the Hundred Years’ War (which incidentally lasted for 116 years, but the Hundred and Sixteen Years War doesn’t sound quite so catchy).

Agincourt French Knight

Our version of the battle is mostly informed by William Shakespeare in the play Henry V but as with most of his histories this was a highly dubious account of what really happened and modern historians have reached the view that far from being gallant and chivalrous and still celebrated as a golden moment in England’s history the battle was filthy, horrible and merciless.

Weapons were crude and brutal.  Arrows from the longbows of the Welsh archers rained down and where the sword of a knight would not penetrate the armour of a noble foe and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, a poleaxe (a long-handled axe or hammer, topped with a fearsome spike) wielded by a common foot-soldier would fell him fast and then it was easy to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye.  That was how hundreds of men died – their last sight on earth a dagger’s point.

Sir John Codrington at Agincourt

It turns out that Agincourt is not a tale of chivalry at all, but rather of armoured men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls.  At the height of the battle, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the captured French prisoners to be slaughtered, an action today that would almost certainly be denounced as a war crime.

In the cold, wet dawn of October 25th 1415, no one could have expected Henry’s army to survive the day.  He had about six thousand men, more than five thousand of them archers, while the French numbered at least thirty-thousand and were so confident of victory that, before the battle was joined, they sent away some newly arrived reinforcements – it didn’t occur to them that they might need to make some half-time substitutions!

By dusk on that Saint Crispin’s Day, Henry’s small army had entered military legend.

After a short drive we arrived at the site of the battle, just a barren field that doesn’t seem anything special now after all this time and we may well have missed what is now a rather unremarkable meadow in northern France if it wasn’t for the roadside decoration where English archers and French cavalry faced each other once again in row after row of wooden statues.

We stopped for a while and surveyed the field which gave no clues to the battle and then we continued to the Agincourt Museum.

Agincourt Museum Guide

I am not really sure what I was expecting but I was certainly surprised by the place.

I had always imagined that France would have no real stomach for financing and building a museum to commemorate a humiliating defeat but inside there was an unexpectedly balanced account of the battle and the history of the Hundred Years War (which I suppose the French did win at the end of the day so they can afford to be magnanimous about it) and in some of the displays and the explanations I had to remind myself that Henry was the English King and it was the French who were defeated here.

Anyway, six hundred years is a very long time and I don’t suppose it really matters that much anymore?

It is only a small museum and it didn’t take that long to walk around, read the history and try the interactive displays and before very long we were out the other end, back in the car and driving north along the rows of archers to the site of a more recent conflict, the Eperlecques V2 Blockhaus north of Saint Omer on the road to Calais.

Agincourt Archers

Northern France, Boulogne-Sur-Mer

Boulogne-Sur-Mer France

After we left the British Military Cemetery at Terlincthun we drove directly to the old town of Boulogne and were fortunate to find the last remaining vacant parking space inside the old stone walls.  I have been to Boulogne several times before and I am happy to declare it one of my favourite cities in all of France.

The old town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the shopping streets.  Here is the beating heart of a medieval city with history oozing from every corner with a castle, a cathedral and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars.

From the car park we walked along the main street full of interesting shops and busy restaurants and under the walls of the huge cathedral which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the 1789 Revolution in which the old cathedral was closed and worship forbidden before it was declared the property of the State and then dismantled and sold, stone by stone.

The medieval cathedral was the site of a shrine to ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ a representation of a vision that appeared in Boulogne in or around the year 646 and which arrived in a boat without sails, oars, or sailors, on which stood a wooden statue of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus in her arms.  The French Revolutionaries didn’t have a lot of regard for this sort thing and so at the same time as they destroyed the cathedral they burned the priceless wooden statue as well.

Anyway, the church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century complete with a massive dome, one of the largest in Europe, and inside there is a modern replica of ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ which is one of four that were sculptured in 1943 and toured France until 1948 when it was known as ‘The Lady of the Great Return’ and is today symbolic of the reconciliation between nations.

From the cathedral we walked along the Rue de Lille and negotiated the pavement table barricades scattered almost randomly across the pedestrianised street and then to the Hotel de Ville with its immaculate gardens like an oasis in the centre of the cramped city where we stopped for a while and enjoyed the hot sunshine and the contrast of a cool beer under the shadow of the city’s twelfth century UNESCO World Heritage Site medieval Belfry.

For the record France has thirty-eight sites, the same as Germany, but is six behind Spain (44) and eleven behind Italy (49) which incidentally tops the World table for the number of sites.

Inside the town hall there was free entry to the Belfry Tower that included a guided tour and history of the building which was helpfully given in English as well as French.  There was a long climb with a couple of stops for informative narrative and there were good views from the top of the tower and we were lucky to be part of quite a small group of visitors because we had time and space to enjoy the rooftop vista.

After the break we walked half of the walls and then returned to the car to go to the fishing port to find some lunch and after we had some difficulty finding a parking spot we strolled casually down the hill into the town past the Nausicaa Aquarium, one of the largest aquarium museums in France.  We walked along the busy docks that smelled of fish and this was a surprise because Boulogne, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats.  A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish based ready meals.

We found a seafront restaurant and asked for menus but things went spectacularly wrong when an unexpected strong gust of wind blew my glass of beer over straight into my mum’s lap which put her off her lunch.  It was getting quite windy now so we tried two or three different tables and then abandoned the seafront lunch idea and returned instead to the shelter of the old town where perhaps we should have stayed in the first place.

Here we selected a restaurant on Rue de Lille and ordered what we thought was going to be a snack but turned out to be quite enormous meals which, although we didn’t know it at the time was going to spoil our evening meal.  Mum didn’t enjoy her Welsh Rarebit, Alan had an oversize omelette, Richard had a pizza that would have been sufficient for all four of us but I did get the pot of moules marinière that I had been promising myself.

Lunch over we tried to walk some of it off by visiting the other half the old town walls and alongside the Castle Museum and the gardens on the other side and then we called it a day and returned to the hotel where we made matters worse by opening the bar and drinking more beer in the couple of hours before our evening meal.

Boulogne-Sur Mer Moules et Frites

Northern France, Commonwealth War Graves

Commonwealth War Graves Boulogne-Sur-Mer

“If I should die, think only this of me: 
That there’s some corner of a foreign field 
That is forever England. There shall be 
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;”                                                                 Rupert Brooke – ‘The Soldier’

As we were in no particular hurry we slept in and took a late breakfast and then as the sun began to break through the clouds we set off for the short journey to nearby Boulogne, bypassing the direct route and taking a meandering drive through the countryside and the villages.  On the northern outskirts of the town we came across a British and Commonwealth war graves cemetery and stopped the car for a visit.

During the First-World-War Boulogne-Sur-Mer was one of three important base ports for the British Army.  The coastline between General Haig’s headquarters in Montreuil-Sur-Mer (actually nowhere near the sea but with a very fine chateaux and wine cellar) and the Port of Calais was an immense logistics zone made up of army camps, munitions depots and hospitals which for the most part were supplied with men and equipment through the Port of Boulogne.

Boulogne was essentially an enormous extended barracks and hospital complex and most of the public buildings including the schools were requisitioned to take care of the wounded who had been evacuated from the front line and the fighting. Thousands of Commonwealth soldiers died in Boulogne and the surrounding area as a result of their injuries and they are buried and remembered all along this coast in immaculately maintained military war graves.

Commonwealth war Graves Boulogne

The job of maintaining the burial sites is that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which, according to Wikipedia:

 “… is currently responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.69 million deceased Commonwealth military service members in 150 countries. Since its inception, the Commission has constructed approximately 2,500 war cemeteries and numerous memorials. The Commission is currently responsible for the care of war dead at over 23,000 separate burial sites and the maintenance of more than 200 memorials worldwide. In addition to commemorating Commonwealth military service members, the Commission maintains, under arrangement with applicable governments, over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves. The Commission operates through the continued financial support of the member states: United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.”

It was early, peaceful and eerily serene and apart from a gardener carefully tending the flowers and the occasional snipping of his secateurs around the graves we were the only people there and there was no sound and I was struck by the quiet solemness that seemed to lay heavily on this place. Each gravestone is the same regardless of rank and they line up in rows as though they were soldiers on a parade ground.  Most of these victims of war were obscenely young but what struck me the most was that many were buried here but simply marked in the words of Rudyard Kipling as ‘An unknown soldier of the Great War’.  I didn’t care to think about the horrific injuries that they must have endured that stripped away their identity.

This cemetery at Terlincthun is quite small with just over three and a half thousand graves but it reminded me of an earlier visit to this part of France with my family when we visited the largest Commonwealth War Graves site in France at Étaples where nearly twelve thousand soldiers are buried.

Because of its strategic position Étaples was the scene of much Allied activity during World War One due to its safety from attack by enemy land forces and the existence of railway connections with both the northern and southern battlefields. The town was home to sixteen hospitals and a convalescent depot, in addition to a number of reinforcement camps for Commonwealth soldiers and general barracks for the French Army.

By all accounts this was a truly dreadful place and most soldiers buried in the cemetery died after treatment in the hospitals.  It is said that after two weeks, many of the wounded would rather return to the front with unhealed wounds rather than remain at Étaples.

It was also a particularly notorious base camp for those on their way to the front. Under atrocious conditions, both raw recruits and battle-weary veterans were subjected to intensive training in gas warfare, bayonet drill, and long sessions of marching at the double across the dunes.  There was resentment against the officers who enjoyed the better conditions of Le Touquet and from which the men were forbidden to visit and this led to a famous mutiny in September 1917 which was brutally repressed.

Apart from the solemn rows of white headstones there was no reminder of this unpleasantness that day as we entered the cemetery through the impressive memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and walked through the carefully tended graves.

I had never visited a war graves site before and it was poignant to read the inscriptions on the graves and sad to see how young so many of them were who never returned to England.  My granddaughter, Molly ran and skipped through the rows of graves and I was struck by the fact that she could only do this because of the ultimate sacrifices made by all those brave men.

Etaples France War Graves