Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Route I: Un Petit Tour de France (part deux)

We had stayed the night before in a small French town hotel with a very traditional feel. To my narrow British mind rather Allo Allo'esque. All wrought iron furniture, minor chandeliers and doilies. It even came with a slightly pot bellied hotelier and spouse. Despite minor language difficulties they treated us with touching warmth and sent us off with a big breakfast and a wave. Cyclists are treated well in France.

The legs were a little wobbly and the posterior on the achy side (I was quickly learning to appreciate the extra padding on cycling shorts), but overall it felt good to park myself back on the bike and set off under the morning August sun.

Remembrance

Down a winding hill out of the town and into a countryside of gentle hills and wide arable landscapes. At the edge of the corn fields were strips of weeds frequented by blood red poppies. Ever since I was a small boy, the horror of the First World War battlefields have had a strong hold on my conscience and the sight of these flowers which, for those who have little connection to the conflict, are the lingering symbol of its pointless loss, made me quite emotional.
We were cycling along the Western Front not too far from the river Somme. Twice I have visited these sights before and nothing can prepare me for the feeling of sorrow and helplessness that pervades. As one would, those who live in these scarred lands no doubt push from everyday thought the events of less than a century ago. A century sounds like a long time, but my grandfather fought in this conflict and his brother died in a field, I would think, similar to this one. It casts a long shadow.
We stopped at the small graveyard of Quietiste. Like all Commonwealth war graves I have seen, it is kept beautifully. This small corner of a foreign field pays as a good a tribute as could be hoped for for the sacrifice of those who lie there. A low wall surrounds a few dozen white stone gravestones. At the center a solitary stone cross. Many names of those who are fallen and others simply marked “Known unto God”. Words that bring a quiver to the stomach.
One corner of the graveyard holds fallen German soldiers. Part of the idiocy of the conflict is summed up by how natural it feels that soldiers from both sides should share the same small patch of soil. To be there with Jan, a new German friend, shows how far we have come from a war in which Europe ripped out its own heart, gave up its sons and, incidentally, laid ruin to its world dominance.

As we rode on, I thought of Wilfred Owen's poem “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


Fields, water and forest

We kept up a brisk pace through the morning on the slowly arching roads which followed the low ridges of the land. During a brief break we spotted a solitary deer which bounced away through the high crops and watched him until he bounded out of sight.

The roads then broke into windy tributaries through the odd hamlet, before we hit a canal. Broad and mostly empty, we followed the scrabbly but straight tow-path for many a kilometer, only stopping for a brief lunch stop in the park of a small French town.
We then broke out to the South and, via some interesting navigation (a small map, uncertain compass and no fixed plan has its benefits), headed into the forest. At first on minor roads and then onto mere paths, we rode our way in our general South-Westerly direction. Jan's chest wound (see previous article) was holding up OK and we were making good time through the tall trees and green light of the glen.
Having clicked over 120 kilometers we decided to not push it too far and stay the night in the first significant town we had seen since Brussels, Compiegne, just a few more kilometers the other side of the trees.

More steak-frites

We parked our bikes, checked into a slightly dodgy looking hotel and spent the remains of the day in the idyllic central square sipping beer and glugging expensive water. Perfect.
We then wandered through town admiring the sizeable Napoleonic barracks and savoured a proper, mouth-watering steak-frites, washed down with strong, cold beer. Joy filled the tired muscles as the protein kicked in. We just about made it on to “the” (read “only”) club in town, but ran away soon afterwards, the clientele being limited to a group of large, loud women and a couple of middle-aged men propping up the bar.

Back to the room and out like a light. The final leg of the journey awaited...
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