Peter Steward's Web Site
The following is a transcript of my daily diary written on day one of the trip.
Monday 9th September, 2002
Off to the First World War battlefields today which meant a very early start.
Somehow I awoke yet again well before the alarm went off at about 4.30 a.m which gave me plenty of time to have breakfast, finish packing and load the car up and set off at 5.20 a.m for the hotel on Boundary Road where I was leaving the car and picking up the coach which arrived at about 6 a.m.
We left shortly afterwards for the two day Rotary Club trip on the 30 plus seater coach with just 23 of us on board. It came all the way from County Durham!
There were only a few people I knew but I sat next to Bill, who was a friend of Jane and Trevor Bond. That meant there was somebody to chat with on the journey. Then it was off to Folkstone with just a stop for a ridiculously quick coffee at Birchanger Services in Essex.
There was a very good and relatively cheap CD shop there and I bought the new double Muse album. Then it was on to Folkstone for the Channel Tunnel journey and so into France and Belgium on our journey to Ypres.
First stop was Essex Farm. That was due to the fact that the first part of the trip had to be cancelled. When we arrived at the shuttle we found we were booked onto a later train and that meant we couldn't stop at the village of Poperinge. That was a shame.
Essex Farm gave us the first feel of the vastness of the conflict and the waste of life. It was just one of 144 cemeteries in the area.
We then went to the German cemetery at Langemark which was a great contrast. The British troops were buried in individual plots, whereas the Germans had mass graves. This was one of the only cemeteries allowed the Germans after the war.
Next stop was Vancouver Corner which celebrated the Canadian war effort and then on to Tyne Cot Commonwealth war graves site and Sanctuary Wood to bring the first afternoon of the trip to a close.
There was certainly plenty of walking round and getting on and off the coach. It was all very interesting and poignant and Mike Mizen was a wonderfully knowledgeable guide who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject.
At the end of the tour, there was quite a long drive to the hotel which was in the French border village of Neuville en Ferrain - the Hotel des Acacias. We arrived at about 6.30 p.m and booked in and were back on the coach by 7 p.m. I was sharing a room and got on very well with the other guy. We only had time for a very quick wash and then it was off to the town of Ypres.
Had a wander around the shops before the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate. The short 10 minute service was very moving. It was in English and included prayers and the Last Post. Apparently it has been held every night since 1928 apart from a couple of days during German occupation during the Second World War.
At the end of the ceremony we walked to the main square to have an evening meal at the Den Anker restaurant. Surprise, surprise it was chicken and chips (what else could it be for a group of English tourists?)
At least there was some good entertainment. We were in an upstairs balcony area, looking down on the diners below and there was a chap who was quite the rudest eater I have ever seen. He kept stuffing food into his mouth like there was no tomorrow.
Ypres itself is a fascinating place. It was raised virtually to the ground during the Great War and has been completely re-built with an astonishingly beautiful cathedral. The reconstruction has given it the fell of an ancient Flemish town once more.
At the end of the meal we got the coach back to the hotel and I was so tired I only had the energy to drop into bed and was asleep in a matter of moments.