Since my last blog I have ridden over 1000km, taking me along the South Downs way to Dover and down the Western Front of the First World War. The weather has continued to try its hardest to dampen my spirits, with each day bringing both severe headwind and rain.
From Portsmouth I followed the South Downs Way to Dover, stopping in many seaside resort towns, including Brighton and Eastbourne. When I researched the trip I was expecting an ‘easy’ ride along this stretch, but the incessant headwind made it far from a pleasant flat ride. At times it took a lot of imagination… to battle the wind as I passed two long military rifle ranges I imagined I was in hot pursuit from armed thugs! The gunfire took me all the way to Dover, my last destination in England. It was during this coastal route that I tried WarmShowers for the first time – a special thanks to Matt, Kim and Antony for kindly hosting me in Worthing and Dover. Antony also gave me some extra cycling shoe covers which would be crucial for the rain to come in France and Belgium.
For my video of France and Wales click here.
On the 19th I caught the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk. As I watched the white cliffs of Dover on the horizon I realised how much I’m going to miss the island. The real ales and traditional pubs (with their fireplaces to dry my wet gear) will be greatly missed on the road ahead. However, one thing I won’t miss is the road signs in miles. Kilometres give the illusion of moving faster, and it’s been a relief to be back to the metric system for the ride.
From Dunkirk I rode into Belgium for a day to explore the Ypres Salient of the First World War. The landscape was featureless except small villages with their churches on the horizon. Gradually the cemeteries and memorials became denser as I rode towards Ypres. The Menin gate, through which thousands of British soldiers marched to their deaths at the front, was an iconic site of the war. The nearby Passchendaele 1917 Museum was a moving experience, and at the site I found myself giving a presentation to a group of English schoolchildren. It was to be the first of many Cycling4Cancer presentations at various battlefields in the coming week. My time in Belgium was a sombre experience, with dark clouds continuouslyenveloping the land.
There have been some beautiful cities so far on the continent, with Leper (Ypres) and Lille being the pick of the bunch. But as I continued down the Western Front, with the long hours of silence on the saddle, I began to recite poems that I have both learnt and taught over the years.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Throughout the past week the bike has provided a unique perspective to appreciate the tragedy of the First World War. This is especially the case for the subtle changes in the elevation of the landscape, through which I now appreciate the importance of strategic positions such as Vimy Ridge, Bullecourt, Pozieres and Le Hammel. On Vimy Ridge the landscape was still churned up from all of the destruction of the conflict. I usually grunt and grumble to myself during such steep ascents, but as I struggled up to the spectacular Canadian War Memorial the pain of the cycling gave way to a deeper understanding and affiliation with the thousands who charged these very slopes all those years ago. It was an eerie experience camping in places where thousands of soldiers died during the war. In Pozieres I slept in a gentleman’s garden where the entire town was destroyed in the war. It proved to be a restless sleep thinking about the senseless death of so many young lives.
When I did eventually reach the Vimy memorial I met a tour group from Southern England. The group leader Andy explained that someone had pulled out of the group and that there was now a free hotel room and meal waiting for me in Arras. Score! I quickly dashed down towards the city. I couldn’t believe it when the reception at Holiday Express Inn handed me my keys with a smile, and when I entered my spotless room I did a blissful song and dance. Two showers later (and after leaving my clothes soaking in the bathroom sink) I found myself with a lovely battlefield tour group consuming a delicious three course meal. A buffet breakfast and lunch followed, and with my batteries recharged I rode eastwards towards Cambrai. I was to meet Andy and his Australian tour group at the ANZAC Ceremony a few days later in Villers-Bretonneux.
The best thing about cycling in France in undoubtedly the patisseries found in each village, where I consume various gastronomic delights each day. Every time I ride into a new town at lunchtime I seek out the nearest shop and watch where all the locals buy their bread. I still cannot work out what exactly the French do with their baguettes; everyone seems to visit the patisserie twice a day and leave with hands full of bread. I guess I have a certain lack of creativity… at the moment my baguette meals involve dipping the bread into a vegemite jar – yum! It was while having such a meal outside the Somme Museum in Albert that Garry and Dianne took pity on me and kindly bought me lunch. I needed the energy too after going off road along La Somme on a dirt track later in the day.
It was in a patisserie in Bapaume last week when I first tried my magic letter. The letter, written in French, more-or-less introduces who I am and what I am doing to the bewildered stranger. When I arrived to the small patisserie I had had hours of wind and rain. Shaking by the door, I must have looked like a drowned rat as I munched on her scrumptious treats. When it’s raining I use the patisseries as a sanctuary, and when she began asking questions I handed the owner the letter. “Bravo” came the response, and when I went to leave she refused my money (by this time I had accumulated about ten euro in bread) and before I could refuse she quickly filled my panniers with more croissants.
In Villers-Bretonneux I sneaked into the Australian Memorial before the gendarmerie blocked the entrance, stealth camping behind the site ready for the dawn service. It was a cold morning, but luckily the rain held off. After studying the ANZAC myth at Sydney University I didn’t quite know what to expect at the ceremony; but the Australian and French speakers gave a moving and accurate portrayal of many personal experiences of the soldiers. I was particularly interested in the civic-religious rituals that took place, and I still remain perplexed at the annual ceremony. Historians had believed that the ceremony would just fizzle out like Empire Day had done, but the phenomenon only increases in popularity each year.
The ANZAC story is inherently masculine and militaristic, one that overrides many other developments in the nation of Australia. Moreover, the story simplifies the diverse experiences of Australian soldiers during war. One example is ‘The Bullecourt Digger’, whose plague reads ‘(he) is sturdy, arcadian, audacious and resolute’. Are we to believe that every Australian soldier serving abroad had these characteristics? The very notion is absurd. Interestingly, many Australian memorials along the front have only emerged in the past twenty years through the auspices of the federal government, who have also spent millions promoting the ANZAC legend in schools across Australia. One has to ask the question: to what extent has this historical narrative been promoted in order to detract from our tragic colonial past, which most observers now equate with a form of genocide? (To find out more about the ANZAC legend I would really recommend reading ‘Whats Wrong with ANZAC? The Militarisation of Australian History’).
I had testing time in Reims yesterday. It was the first day with no headwind, and as I descended into Reims I had clocked up over 130km. The big mileage was effecting my concentration, and when I used my arm to brush off a scary looking bug I had my first crash. Losing balance with heave traffic next to me is never a good thing, but luckily I slammed safely into the side rail. My afternoon became worse when I had someone steal my horn from my bike! The horn took five weeks to receive in the mail from Hong Kong, and is a key characteristic of my bike Wilson. He just isn’t the same without it, and I will have to order one in at an advanced address in the coming weeks. Otherwise my time in France has been absolutely brilliant, and tomorrow I will arrive in Verdun where the French were nearly ‘bled white’ during the First World War.
I’m now in Au Soleil d’Or bar in Epoye, where I’ve been for hours using their wifi and having lunch. When the owner found out what I was doing she kissed me on both cheeks then disappeared into the back behind the bar. Minutes later she emerged with Juice, chocolate, baguettes, cheese, salami, biscuits, water, mints, yoghurt, milk and toilet paper. She has since refused to let me pay for my food and drinks, and has taken my smelly clothes to be washed and dried in her home. What a champion! If you are ever in Epoye drop into Au Soleil d’Or to meet the lovely owner and her energetic puppy (who keeps chewing my shoes and laptop chord).
In a few days I will be taking a sharp turn left and cycling north to the Arctic Circle. It’s going to be strange cycling in the opposite direction to my destination in the coming months. I’m sure the adventurous detour will be worth it!