Saturday, 15 February 2014

I'm Looking Over the White Cliffs of Dover!

My photo of the day is of me (again!) on the battlements of Dover Castle, the day after arriving back in England from touring the battlefields of the Great War.

 I am literally looking over the white cliffs of Dover!

 We departed our little bed and breakfast accommodation at Courcelles au Bois in France early on October 4, 2013 and proceeded once again through the rich, green farmland which had seen the horrors of the Great War and a bit of the Second World War.

  Courcelles au Bois was a small village of barely more than a one hundred people and our accommodation was a lovely little place, admirably administered by a bubbly French hostess called Christine.

 One of the reasons I had chosen to stay at this particular place was the fact that Christine advertised that she spoke fluent English and that certainly turned out to be the case which made life easier for us despite the village being a little out of the way.

 Christine was a very talkative lady, living with her family and pets in quite a big compound which included a large barn or outhouse, converted into a two story accommodation unit, complete with kitchen and several guest rooms. We were the only people staying on the two nights we were there which suited us just fine.

 It transpired that Christine's mother had married an Englishman and she had spent a bit of her youth going to school in her stepfather's homeland so her English was very good. She regaled us with the story of her life and revealed her disdain for her French brethren living in Paris who she regarded as rude and arrogant!

 She seemed quite sad to see us go. Perhaps there had not been many patrons take advantage of her hospitality for a while and I'm sure we could have stayed a few more days if we so desired. Unfortunately our ferry awaited us in Calais.

 I had been led to believe that northern France was dull and bland but as we made our way along the narrow country back roads, through lanes and towns which had seen masses of men and machinery pass through in the centuries gone by and been devastated by the obscenity of war on multiple occasions, I found myself feeling sorry to be leaving.

 The lush countryside and and shallow valleys beneath the rolling hills which were trudged over and fought for by hundreds of thousands of men in battle a century ago had captured me and my imagination. I hope to visit again some day.

 I was recently reading a book about the Battle of Pozieres and it noted the letters and diaries of many Australian soldiers contained passages of admiration for the countryside and a particularly mournful attitude which bemoaned the fact that such beautiful farmland was being destroyed by shot and shell.

 It seemed that many Australians found the countryside reminded of them of home and I felt the same thing happening to me. I'm not sure why. The verdant ground of northern France is far more fertile than most in Australia but something of it reminded them, and me, of our home Down Under. Many of them never saw Australia again.

 We soon reached the Albert-Bapaume Road, passing by the bloodstained field of Moquet Farm. The farmhouse which had been destroyed by the fighting is now rebuilt, shiny and new and was glowing in the autumn sun, the tragedy befalling a young nation on the slopes on which she stands but a memory as the farmer went about his daily business. The shadow army of phantoms haunting his land is of no concern to him.

 We turned onto the main road at Pozieres, leaving behind the myth and legend established by our countrymen a century ago, past the windmill for which so much blood was spilt and onward to the motorway junction at Bapaume.

 Just before we reached Bapaume, the village of Grevillers came into view to our left and the white headstones of the British Cemetery stood out in the salubrious surroundings in which it lay and Linda asked me if I would like to visit the last resting place of my Great Uncle once more before we were gone, possibly forever.

 I declined. Why, I don't know and I immediately regretted it. I guess I felt there was no more I could do for him but a wave of guilt at leaving him behind swept over me and I found myself once more on the verge of tears. Rest in peace dear boy. Till we meet again.

 We swept along the motorway, past Arras and Lille and Messines and Hazebrouck, all made famous by the battles which took place in these surrounds. Before us lay Calais, our destination, notable in her own right, baptized in history with a unique story all of her own.

 Anyone who has read anything about the Hundred Years War between France and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries will know that Calais was an English bastion for many years, guarded jealously by the Kings of England who ruled over her. Walled off from the rest of France she provided shelter and safety for many English armies returning from campaigns in the French countryside.

 Alas, Calais was a disappointment, her legendary historic status failing her badly when touched by reality.

 Built on sandflats it is predominately a major point of entry to France and departure for England. There appears to be no visible remains of the English presence in the middle ages and perhaps the French like it that way?

 We made our way into town to fill our hire car with petrol stopping briefly at a tourist information centre for directions. The town was busy, badly signposted and run down but we managed to find a petrol station and I, despite not being able to communicate with the console operator, managed to fill my car and pay with a debit card without any complication interrupting.

 Perhaps I am being harsh on Calais. A fleeting visit before taking ship to England is hardly making the city ripe for authentic recommendation. Perhaps a longer sojourn next time should be made?

 We were soon back at the ferry terminal, safely on board our ship which quickly, easily and smoothly cast off and began her trip across the famous English Channel. The white cliffs of Dover awaited us.

  But, more of that next time.

 Have a nice day.

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