31 December 2007

Vacances par la Mer

After a quiet but enjoyable Christmas Day spent pottering about watching DVDs and Sky whilst house-sitting Steve & Fiona's apartment, I packed my bag on Boxing Day for a quick trip to northern France on the Eurostar. Unlike my last trip under the Channel, this time the train departed from the new St Pancras International terminal near King's Cross, so I took the DLR and Tube up there and quickly filed through Customs. I settled into my seat, and after a high-speed flit through the outskirts of London and through the fields of Kent the Eurostar arrived at Calais-Frethun station, after a journey of 65 minutes. Calais-Frethun is about 10km outside of Calais itself, and here passengers for Calais depart the train in double quick time - it's pehaps a two minute stop before the train roars on to Brussels or Paris.

The station was largely deserted and there were no buses into Calais, so I waited 20 minutes for an almost empty local train service, which rumbled into town in less than 10 minutes for the princely sum of €1.90. It was a kilometre and a half walk to the youth hostel where I was staying, but the night was mild and I couldn't be bothered waiting for a bus, so I just relied on Shank's pony. I was virtually the only person out and about on that dark evening - the rest of Calais was very sensibly indoors. Having found the hostel, I checked in, ate the supplies I'd brought with me from London, and enjoyed tackling the crossword in the Times before bedtime.

It turned out to be a poor night's sleep as I'd left the heater on, so the room was cooking all night. I also managed to wake up with a headcold, but I refused to entertain the notion of missing out on sight-seeing. After breakfast in the hostel dining room (baguettes and jam), I was mildly puzzled to look our the window and notice that it was still dark outside despite the time being 8.45am - and yes, I had set my watch properly after crossing the Channel. It soon lightened up though, and I walked back through town, although little was open at that hour. I was planning to visit the nearby town of St-Omer, but the train wasn't for an hour or so, so I looked around Parc St-Pierre, where this fountain took my fancy:

It's a copy of the Three Graces statue from Versailles. The park also contains an ugly concrete bunker complex that the Germans installed during the WW2 occupation for use as a military command post. Now it houses the Museum de Guerre, but unfortunately it was closed for the winter months. Across the road in front of the imposing Hotel de Ville (town hall) stands the famous 'Burghers of Calais' bronze by Auguste Rodin (1895), which illustrates the six Calaisiens who offered themselves to the town's besieger, Edward III of England in August 1347, in the hope of saving the lives of the remaining inhabitants. This heroism earned the six men their lives, but the town remained in English hands until 1558. I'd seen a full-scale copy of the famous bronze in Canberra, but it was good to see the original (pic); however, the Christmas funfair rollercoaster ride in the nearby carpark detracted from the air of solemnity somewhat.

It was a 25 minute trip inland to St-Omer, and the double-decker train was again almost entirely empty. The sleepy country town boasts the ruins of the formerly enormous Abbey of St Bertin. I say 'formerly enormous' because only the vestiges of the 14th century Abbey remain, but the extent of the foundations is marked out and the dimensions were substantial. The other main sight in the town is St-Omer's impressive basilica, which lies in the centre of town. An inquisitive black cat tried to sneak inside the doors when I entered, but he wouldn't've liked it, because it was deathly cold inside, and like the local trains, there was hardly anyone around. In one transept, the workings of a massive ancient clock over the main doors emitted a stately heartbeat, while nearby candles flickered over the rough-hewn stone coffin of St Erskembode, an 8th century Irish monk. A row of tiny shoes atop the coffin are the offerings of believers praying for relief for their crippled children.

There wasn't much else to do in St-Omer other than admire the little River Aa, which is only known for its alphabetical hierarchy. So I took the train back to Calais (cue really exciting video link)...

...and girded my loins for a visit to the town's contemporary nexus, the reason most of its millions of visitors pass through: the hypermarkets. A 15 minute bus ride away on the outskirts of town, Cite Europe is a gargantuan palace of consumerism. While I didn't bother with the enormous Carrefour supermarche, and the hundred or more shops weren't particularly special, you have to be impressed with a mall that has its own snow-races for kiddy toboggan rides, and even a fake ice floe for kids to try out ice-fishing. The only downside of the trip to the mall was the bus journey back - the penchant of French kids to play tinny techno really really loudly on their mobile phones is even more obnoxious than that of their English brethren. (Hey, I'm in my thirties, so I'm allowed to be crotchety about young'uns).

The next day I took another train down the coast half an hour to investigate Boulogne, or Boulogne-sur-Mer to give it its full title. Up on the hill the old town sits within its imposing medieval walls, which still follow the outline of the walls erected by the Romans in the 2nd century. Outside the main gate into the old town there's a rather incongruous full-size Egyptian Nile riverboat on poles (pic), to commemorate the exploits of local hero Auguste Mariette, an Egyptologist who founded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Inside the walls there's a massive basilica (pic) and the citadel, which was liberated by Canadian troops in September 1944 when they were led by a townsman through secret tunnels in order to surprise the German garrison of 200 soldiers.

Down in the main part of town the cold sea breeze was making a nuisance of itself, so after a quick look around I was pleased to find a branch of the same traiteur we enjoyed at lunchtime in Armentieres six weeks before. Being a creature of habit, I ordered the same traditional repast: a ham and emmental baguette, a slice of chocolate cake and an Orangina to go. Parfait!

Later, back in Calais I went for a walk near the hostel on Plage Bleriot to see the ferries leaving port (pic). Plage Bleriot is known for at least two well-remembered events: in 1875 Captain Matthew Webb arrived here after successfully completing the first cross Channel swim, and in 1909 the superbly-moustached Louis Bleriot departed from here in his 25hp monoplane to achieve the first aerial crossing of the English Channel. As the sun set I strolled back through the town, admiring the Christmas lights adorning the Theatre...

...and avoiding the buzzing scooter riders swarming amongst the Friday night shoppers. Soon enough it was time to retire though, so I took the free navette micro-bus (a glass box on wheels) back through town and turned in for the night, before my 9am Eurostar back to Angleterre.

22 December 2007

Confessions of an occasional runner

It’s been a busy time at work lately, with little time for venturing far afield, and the decline in temperatures in London has meant my morning starts have been augmented first with a warm hat, and recently with gloves to keep the blood flowing. I’ve switched to the Tube for my morning trip to work, although I still take the train home from Waterloo. It’s generally dark and misty when I leave for work, but the eight or so minutes it takes to walk briskly down the hill to Southfields station is a good way to warm up. I usually get a seat at some stage along the journey, which almost never happens on the mainline trains from Putney.

The only journey outside London since we got back from France was a day trip with my former boss from the BOA, Anne, and her husband Bob. I travelled to north London to meet them and we drove in their car to Cambridgeshire to visit the Imperial War Museum Duxford, which is on the site of the former RAF Duxford, a major airfield used in the defence of London airspace during the Blitz. Now it’s a massive aeronautical museum, with a huge collection of aircraft stabled in several broad hangars. In the two most modern hangars the aircraft both perch at ground level and hang from the ceiling, so the air is literally full of the most superb aircraft, old and new. A slender Daimler-built RE8 biplane built in 1918 hangs nearby a hulking Sunderland seaplane, while a Harrier jump-jet looms above. The hangar is dominated by the powerful delta-wing swoop of the menacing Vulcan nuclear bomber in the centre, while at the far end a graceful Concorde lives out its days in airconditioned comfort. Braving the blustery weather, we visited the other hangars too, and one highlight was the American wing. Here there was the chance to see a B-52 bomber close up, and the even rarer SR-71 Blackbird, all menacing jet intakes and sci-fi angles.

A week later flatmate Deb and I held our first official flat party, with good attendances from both sets of pals, despite the chilly night and the distance across town that some had to travel. Steve was most impressed with Deb’s mate’s new iPhone, and I have to admit, they’re certainly very stylish. Now if they weren’t only so expensive to buy and run…

During the following week I met Steve and Helen in Greenwich (Helen standing in for Fiona, who was busy getting her hair done in preparation for a TV cooking show appearance the next day), and we enjoyed a radio recording of a series of standup comedy acts for a new Radio 4 series called 4 Stands Up. Hosted by the genial Michael Macintyre, the two programmes featured about half a dozen acts, most of whom were top notch entertainment. But the highlight was definitely Macintyre himself: unassuming, resolutely non-cutting edge, he excels in simple observational humour and everyday material. And no Estuary vowels for him; his public school elocution is a point of distinction with most other British comedians. Yet he is no toff: his Canadian father and Hungarian mother put him in a flash school for the sake of his education, before removing him after a few years when they worried he was becoming just a little bit too posh to survive in the big city. Macintyre’s material is typified by the simple familiarity of his routine about commuting via public transport (‘Londoners must be the only people who can look like they’re standing clear of the doors to let the passengers off the train while at the same time always moving forwards into the carriage’). A great free night out. Here's a decent clip featuring some of his material from the Comedy Store:

I went to another Radio 4 recording a few days later at BBC Broadcasting House near Oxford Circus – the first recordings in the new series of Clare In The Community, the sitcom based on the control freak social worker character featuring in the long-running Guardian cartoon strip. Clare was played by the talented Sally Phillips, best known for being one of the three female comedians in sketch show Smack The Pony, and for her supporting role as Shazza in the Bridget Jones movies. It was all fairly low-tech and fast paced: the cast of eight sat in a row of chairs along the stage, and each jumped up to the microphone for their scenes, sometimes waiting for the sound effects man to play the background noise to establish the location. The writing was quality old-school situation comedy in the best sense, and the performances were both enjoyable and professional. And I should point out that while the comedy revolves around the life of a social worker, it’s refreshing that there are no cheap jabs at the profession: the writers seem to know their stuff. Of the supporting actors, Alex Lowe is versatile as Clare’s long suffering boyfriend Brian, while comedy ventriloquist Nina Conti (daughter of Tom) is perky and sweetly naïve as Megan, a Pollyanna-like Scottish social worker: Clare just can’t understand why clients always give Megan gifts, even when they’re Clare’s own clients.

A few weekends ago I ventured to Canada Water to the Decathlon sports store and purchased some rather cheap trainers and an equally cheap red wind-cheater, with a view to starting a (semi-)regular jogging routine. And as luck would have it, they had just the thing I was looking for. The shoes aisle was organised into serious runner, regular casual runner, and ‘occasional runner’. You can guess which one I chose. So, for 20 quid I bought the cheapest pair of shoes that didn’t look absolutely revolting, and to my surprise they’re actually quite comfortable. I’ve been for two runs so far at the weekend, venturing out from Southfields to Tibbett’s Corner (the former haunt of a notorious highwayman), then along the fringes of Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common to the genteel surrounds of Wimbledon Village, where I promptly hop on a bus that brings me right back home. Baby steps, you know.

Last week I met up with Raewyn and Mike and a few of her pals for Raewyn’s birthday dinner at Fish In A Tie in Clapham. Raewyn and Mike had recently spent two weeks in America, and were soon heading back to Paris. At the table it turned out we had no less than four current or former Competition Commission employees!

One inner-city expedition last weekend was my visit to the George Inn just off Borough High Street, a short step from the heaving Borough Markets. The George is the last surviving gabled inn in London. Shakespeare used to drink in an earlier George Inn on the same site; Dickens used to drink in the current inn building and mentioned it in Little Dorrit. The present building with its louche sagging balconies dates from 1677.

And as for my media consumption of late:

Movies: Knocked Up, Talk To Me, The Golden Compass

TV: The Genius of Photography, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Cranford, The Mighty Boosh

Books: Ice Cold In Alex, Moll Flanders, The Ocean Railway

It's minus one outside tonight and the apartment buildings are all wreathed in mist. Good thing I've got a hot water bottle.

Next major report will be on my quick trip to Calais and Boulogne after Christmas.


11 December 2007

The Western Front

Whose graves are known only to god

On the weekend of Armistice Day I went with some pals for a quick Eurostar visit to some of the sites associated with the Western Front in the First World War. Travelling with Steve and Fiona and their friend Helen, we took one of the last Eurostar trains out of Waterloo on the Friday morning, buzzing through the southeastern suburbs of London and then skimming across the open fields of Kent. In about an hour and a half we had sped through the Channel Tunnel and arrived at Lille in northern France, where we collected our rental car. We decided to upgrade to a Prius, which only cost a little more and had three things going for it: it was more spacious, it was cheaper to fuel, and it had a whizzy talking satnav console in the dashboard, which would make navigating easier. As soon as we worked it out, that is.

In no time we were driving north from Lille through the broad flat plains of northern France, a collection of wealthy farms punctuated by little old rural towns, each with a town square and a war memorial. Then almost without noticing, we passed from France into Belgium. We entered a roundabout in France and emerged from it in Belgium, with a small roadside sign and a helpful exclamation from the sat-nav voice a minute later: “you have just crossed a border”. Belgium looks the same as France, unsurprisingly.

We found our motel on the outskirts of Ypres (otherwise known as Ieper), dumped our gear, and spun into the town centre for a look. Despite being pummelled to pieces by the massed artillery of both sides of the First World War, the centre of Ypres is a picture of prosperity and stylishly reconstructed architecture. Its sweeping rectangular market square is ringed with grand buildings filled with restaurants, cafes and hotels. The whole scene is presided over by the imperiously ostentatious Cloth Hall, originally constructed in the 13th century, which is Europe’s largest secular medieval building. That’s if you don’t count the fact that it was rebuilt from smithereens after the war. Inside, the wealthy merchants of northern Europe used to gather to barter and haggle, conducting business in the purpose-built double-seated alcoves arrayed along the axis of the hall in a playful counterpoint to the ever-present imposing naves and cloisters of dozens of cathedrals across Europe. Here in Ypres the cathedral was located behind the Cloth Hall, hidden from view from the market square, showing that in this city at least, the pursuit of money was a higher concern than spirituality. Atop the many pinnacles of the Hall stand proud gold statues of burghers bearing cats, in honour of the town’s feline festival (the Kattenstoet), in which locals gather to catch stuffed toy cats flung by a jester from the Cloth Hall’s belfry.

Before sunset we returned to the car and drove a short way north of town to the sloping fields now known as Tyne Cot, which act as a memorial to the many thousands of soldiers who lost their lives at nearby Passchendaele during the war. During the war Tyne Cot was a field of blood – the remains of stern German machinegun bunkers punctuate the cemetery walls. Now the fields perform the solemn deed of commemoration.

Some 35,000 lives are honoured at the memorial, rank upon rank of white stone grave markers surrounding a lone cross bearing the inscription ‘Their names liveth for evermore’. As we approached, the pale sun struggled to breach the rolling walls of thick grey clouds over the memorial, casting firm shafts of light through gaps here and there. There was a hint of hail in the icy breeze whipping amongst the gravestones. But the graves are not why I’m visiting Tyne Cot. Walking past the graves and the solemn cross, the back of the site is marked by two sweeping curved walls, each ten feet high. The surface of the walls is peppered with name after name, neatly engraved and densely packed. These are the names of the men who were never found, the men who died in the mud and fear of the Battle of Passchendaele, in what now is a peaceful rural scene skirted by wheatfields and small cottages.

In the very centre of this wall there is a section devoted to the New Zealand dead. A centrepiece proclaims:

‘Here are recorded the names of officers and men of NEW ZEALAND who fell in the battle of Broodseinde and the first battle of Passchendaele, October 1917, and whose graves are known only to god’

There are many of our names here, because these battles were the most ruinous to ever afflict our country: far worse than the misery of Gallipoli. On a single day, 12 October 1917, the New Zealand Division suffered more than 2800 casualties. This crippling loss was doubly cruel, both in that it had a massive impact on a country with a population of barely one million, but also in that the losses were incurred for no useful military success; at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 the terrible slaughter achieved nothing other than destroying much of the youth of a faraway island nation.

And that day held a certain importance for me. On the last panel of the New Zealand section, in the area reserved for the unfound casualties of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, amidst the Rosses, Pearces, Smiths and Tattersalls, there is one engraved name in particular:


Rifleman Eric Claude Tucker, my grandfather’s uncle, was born in Clive, Hawkes Bay. It’s halfway between Napier and Hastings on the main road; few stop there now except to buy an icecream en route to bigger and better places. One of the few sights in the tiny rundown town is its little war memorial by the bridge. The Tucker clan was plentiful here – there is even a street named after us. But there are many Tucker names on the war memorial too, so perhaps that’s why no-one calls Clive ‘Tuckertown’ like they used to back in the day.

Eric would have grown up in tough times, simply because everyone did in those days. He served with D Company in the Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, until the first day of the futile Passchendaele offensive. Then he met his end, and his body was never found. He was only 28. My grandfather, who had already been named Claude after his uncle, was less than a year old at the time, and had probably never met the man. Such was the impact of the death, the family named a second Tucker boy after Eric Claude: my grandfather’s younger brother Eric, born in 1920.

Now Eric Claude Tucker’s name sits alongside the names of hundreds of other New Zealanders, a testament to the willingness of young men from a callow but brave nation to circle the globe to fight in a war of others’ making. The other New Zealand memorials of the Western Front all bear the same epitaph, as befitting the loss of those who came so far only to perish, the tyranny of distance having afforded them no protection:

From the uttermost ends of the earth

We drove from Tyne Cot a short distance to another cemetery at Polygon Wood, where more New Zealanders were commemorated. A small farm paddock bordered the site, and a solitary donkey patrolled the fence line in the hope of a friendly pat or a stray carrot. (We offered the first, but lacked the second). Across the road was the much larger cemetery of 5 Australian Division – a hilltop obelisk overlooking a field of white gravestones below.

In the early evening we returned to Ypres for the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate, where buglers have played the Last Post every night since 1928, apart from a few years during the Second World War. Hundreds had turned out for the occasion, and lined the interior of the Gate, which is engraved with thousands of names of casualties. The town’s brass band marched up the main street to the Gate accompanied by a small parade a platoon of British Army cadets, and a brace of skirling bagpipers. After the solemn Last Post and a wreath-laying ceremony in the Gate, the crowd dispersed and we went off for dinner in a nearby café. Soon it was time to return to our motel and crash for the night.

Their name liveth for evermore

The next morning we enjoyed the superb breakfast on offer at the motel and then visited Ypres to look at the Saturday market in the square and visit a museum. While the air was chilly, the market was appealing, with many locals emerging to get their weekly produce shopping. If the number of displays was anything to go buy, the locals purchase an inordinately large number of socks. We bucked the trend, making repeated visits to the stand selling boxes of Belgian chocolates for a mere €1. Then we ventured inside the Cloth Hall, which now hosts the In Flanders Fields Museum dedicated to remembering the hardship and heroism of the First World War. Each visitor to the museum is given a ticket with the details of a real participant in the war, male or female, and as you proceed through the museum you learn a little more of their story. Mine was a 19 year old artilleryman named Lancelot from Tasmania, who lost his life near Messines Ridge in 1917. There were also some interesting stories from the participants:

Captain James Dunn, Medical Officer of 2 Royal Welch Fusiliers, described an encounter between an officer and a member of the Fiji Labour Company, all volunteers without pay and all over 6 feet tall. The officer said ‘good morning’ to a man “with a great mop of hair, clad in a loin cloth, scrubbing a dixie. The savage replied, ‘good morning’, and spoke pure English. Asked to account for it, he said he was a Cambridge graduate, a barrister, and a member of Lincoln’s Inn”

Taking our leave of Ypres, we drove a short distance south to visit the New Zealand memorial at Messines Ridge. Here at 3.10am on 7 June 1917, a German salient was destroyed and 10,000 German soldiers lost their lives in a moment, when 19 mines comprising 600 tons of explosives were detonated beneath their position. The night before, the British commander of the mining action, Gen Herbert Plumer, remarked to his staff officers:

Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.

The mighty explosion was heard as far away as Dublin (680km away). Afterwards, the New Zealand Division was one of the nine divisions in Plumer’s Second Army, that advanced to take its objectives and push back the front line 2000 yards.

Driving further south, we stopped in the centre of busy little Armentieres and enjoyed a fabulous lunch from a small patisserie, including superb baguettes and delicious chocolate cake, washed down with the traditional Orangina (even if Coca Cola does own it now).

We took a detour up to Vimy Ridge to take in the views and admire the solemn Canadian memorial atop it. The summit of Vimy Ridge is still pockmarked with shell craters and collapsed trenches, which are now covered with a dense forest of tall pines that have grown since the Armistice. Large areas of the trenches remain roped off with warning signs, as unexploded ordnance still remains beneath the surface. The monument on Vimy Ridge is visible for many kilometres, a great stone tusk piercing the grey sky, honouring the memory of the 65,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war.

Next we visited two cemeteries containing New Zealand casualties: Longueval and Caterpillar Valley. Longueval is a tiny patch of immaculate grass fringed by an arc of tall pines, the only distinguishing feature in the middle of vast farm pastures. Caterpillar Valley is larger, and its roll of missing soldiers includes one of the dozen ex-All Blacks who died in the First World War.

As the light faded, we drove to our accommodation for the night in the town of Cambrai. We were staying on the outskirts of town in a Formule 1 budget hotel, a likeable French institution known for its bright primary colours, communal showers and cheap prices (our rooms cost only €29 each). We finished the day with a café meal, and while the service was relatively slow, my ice cream sundae for dessert was absolutely superb.

A town that holds New Zealand dear

In the morning we breakfasted in the bright red hotel lobby, and then drove into Cambrai for a brief wander around the largely deserted town streets. We enjoyed the sturdy medieval gatehouse built in 1390, the 11th-century cathedral with its spire almost invisible beneath a bird’s nest of scaffolding, and an ostentatious Jesuit chapel across the road, dating from the late 17th century. Pausing only to stock up with pastries for later from a busy patisserie, we then pointed the Prius eastwards towards our next stop, Le Quesnoy, pausing en route only twice. First, for a quick bathroom stop in a village tabac – from which Steve and Helen emerged holding their noses to ward off the ever-present tobacco smoke, and Steve was mildly scandalised by his encounter with a genuine French pissoire, which exhibit somewhat lower standards of privacy than we Anglo-Saxons are generally used to. Second, we paused in another small village while a few dozen locals staged their Armistice Day march with band playing and tricoleurs flying.

Our destination for Armistice Day was the lovely little town of Le Quesnoy, which is famed for its immaculately preserved fortifications, and for its strong bond with New Zealand, for it was New Zealand soldiers that liberated the town from German occupation in 1918 and saved its walls from the usual battering reserved for occupied fortifications. But if you want to read all about that and see a few pictures, the best way to do that is in the article I wrote about the day for Scoop.

After our highly enjoyable visit to Le Quesnoy, all that remained was to drive the 68km back to Lille. We parked in a central underground carpark and hit the streets to explore, admiring the spacious town square fringed with elegant buildings, sifting through old French newspapers and maps in a market, and casting an eye at a bustling ski expo in an impressive hall.

Before long it was time to return our trusty rental car. This proved to be harder than we’d expected, because the usually peerless satnav couldn’t direct us through the complicated motorway interchanges near the Lille railway station, and once we did manage to get the car in the right place and pointing in the right direction, we managed to park it in the wrong parking building (which was adjacent to, similarly named and completely identical to the right one).

Eventually we sorted ourselves out and trundled ourselves on foot back into the restaurant district of Lille, where we enjoyed our last meal on French soil and discussed our enjoyable weekend away. The Eurostar awaited, and all that remained was a quick UK customs and security process before we boarded the train. It turned out that the English woman on the desk used the same line on all of us when she saw our passport visas: ‘Highly Skilled, eh? So what are you highly skilled in, then?’ Well, that’s a rather subjective question, I would’ve thought, but she let us all back in, so I guess we must’ve given the right answer somehow.

Trip photos (Facebook)