The day of our departure from the UK was also Jacqui's dad's birthday so we took him to Thrupp from where 3yrs ago on his 80th we had hired a narrow boat and he became Captain for a day. It was a lovely May day, the start of that hot spell and we had coffee and cake and a picnic, hand picked from Waitrose no less. We had a lovely time and whilst John and I walked the town path, Jacqui chatted with her Mum. The time flew by and we were half an hour late leaving Abingdon, consequently the M25 was a nightmare and we missed our check in at Eurotunnel. Add that to delays of the trains and we didn't leave Folkestone until 21:30, this meant we didn't get to an aire until about midnight, so a long day for us. When we arrived and tried to connect up to the electric, I tried 3 sockets and no joy, turns out you have to arrive by 19:00 and the office turns a socket on for you!
Apart from all that, the aire was very pleasant and next to a petting zoo and canalside walks and cycle path, so we had a wander round before we set off to meet Andrea and Jeff, our Kiwi pals we met on the Douro. We had picked an aire near Ypres, now returned to the Flemish name of Ieper after a hidden stream. The aire was at a small bar and restaurant, with an unusual private museum.
The bar owner, Johan, had been excavating WW1 tunnels for more than 40 years and his collection of military hardware and personal items was both amazing and moving. The tunnels were originally dug to undermine the opponents trenches and lay explosives. This area in 1917 was at stalemate, with thousands of men dying.
We met a Yorkshire couple called Elvin and Sylvia who had been coming to Ypres for many years and asked us if we were going to hear the Last Post at the Menin Gate, well we had heard of the Gate but not the nightly performance. We all drove in one van to nearby Ypres and waited for the performance to start, the Lost Post Association had organised this nightly event since 1928, soon after the Menin Gate was finished.
The crowd swelled to a couple of thousand and silence fell as the local fire service band marched the various flags into the centre of the Gate, followed by a 100 or so UK soldiers from several regiments. A bugler played the last post, to remember all the names chiselled into the Menin Gate, those men and one woman whose bodies were never found to be buried, there are 54,896 names. I don't mindS admitting it made me well up.
Then, in pairs and singles, members of the audience laid wreaths, mostly of poppies but other flowers too. Local junior school children, British teenagers, Harley Davidson chapter members, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, Moslems; we even witnessed a group with German insignia on their leathers laying flowers.
Then they played the British and Belgian national anthems and I just about managed to crook my way through ours; again the unexpected had delivered us an emotional evening. We still found it staggering that, apart from WW2, this ceremony had taken place, nightly for nearly 90 years; the crowds at the 11th November commemoration are huge.
The next day, the kiwis and us visited the Cloth Hall and St George's Church in Ypres, both as grand as any structures we have seen on our travels. The Cloth Hall was used for storage and sale of Ypres cloth in the 14th century, but was demolished by bombardment in WW1 to be beautifully restored to the grandeur of one of the largest medieval commercial buildings. The information available was brilliant and we gathered up leaflets to read more of this towns
A hot day called for ice cream and I couldn't remember better!
But at the bar we decided on a couple of beers as a payment for our two night free stay and Elvin asked Johan to show us the film that an Australian TV company had made about some unidentified soldiers remains that Johan had exhumed from roadworks near the bar.
If this is long winded please bear with me.
Johan exhumed 5 bodies from a grave that was found by road workers, he is recognised as an expert locally and licensed by Ypres council. Something struck him as odd because of the way that one body had been interred, one hand was placed over the heart, the body was pointing toward home, Australia and had be covered carefully with a ground sheet. This protection had mummified the remains to such an extent that the colour of the soldier's eyes were still identifiable.
DNA was taken from the five remains and records studied to try and narrow down the search for the families of these forgotten soldiers. Eventually two of the five were identified and Johan told us that soon a third may be verified, he has personally provided the identities of 236 lost soldiers to their families. He sees this as his mission in life and can't stop doing it.
The soldier who was buried with great care was found to be an Australian called John Hunter who was buried by his younger brother Jim. This connection started Johan's quest to erect a memorial in dedication to the two brothers as a symbol of all Australians that fought in this horrendous battlefield.
To read more this is the website: