Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Visit to Le Quesnoy, Nord - Pas de Calais

2014 has marked a significant change in my life, hence the absence of entries on the blog since February. Cycling has had to take much more of a back seat than I would like, due to these altered circumstances, but hopefully as things change there will be much more opportunity to use the bicycle. 

 One of the highlights of the year so far for me, was a trip to France at the end of April. I travelled via Paris and took the train from Gare du Nord to the Nord – Pas de Calais,Department. It was a pleasant journey through the countryside, but as the train neared the Belgian border, between St Quentin and Aulnoye-Aymeries a small British military cemetery was seen amongst the gently rolling arable fields. A stark reminder, if needed, of the terrible carnage of a century ago. I travelled to a town near the Belgian border, near to the Forêt de Mormal. The Forêt de Mormal offers some excellent off road cycling and is popular with the locals. After the kindness of a superbe lunch, a local dish of sausage and potatoes served with a fresh side salad, I was able to collect my bike and change into my cycling gear. Loading my handlebar bag (sacoche) with a present of two apples for the journey, I set off in the spring sunshine towards Le Quesnoy. The road was undulating, reminding me a little of County Down, but the fields were much larger and without the destinctive pattern of hedges found in that part of Ireland. The local houses, built of rustic red brick with pantile roofs and their painted wooden shutters, are un-mistakenly French. The trees were showing much more foliage than at home in Ireland and the dry soil and growing crops in the fields told their own tale, of a much drier winter . The temperature was much higher than I expected and I had to stop to peel off some of the clothing layers. I feel overdressed. 

On the road I am passed by some local cyclists out for a training run in their lycra club jerseys and carbon fibre machines. Each rider acknowledges me with a friendly 'Bonjour' as they pass by. It is in such marked contrast to the experience of riding my bike at home, where few if any speak, or acknowledge you, especially as I am riding a steel frame. I continue my leisurely journey towards the walled town of Le Quesnoy, as I want to visit the New Zealand War Memorial. I have been advised to purchase my train ticket at Le Quesnoy today for my onward journey to Paris in the morning, as this is a public holiday in France and most places will be closed. I reach the edge of the town of Le Quesnoy and take a wrong turn. This route brings me round the town on a ring road to a roundabout. I am finding riding on the right counter-intuitive, but of necessity quickly adjust. A right turn into the town brings my first experience of 'pavé' for which the region is famous. Even 650B tyres cannot iron out the effect of the cobbles completely, but thankfully the road surface is dry and even the steeper camber of the road surface is manageable as I am forced to the side of the narrow road by passing cars. I cycle through one of the ancient town gateways, through the walls fortified by Vauban in the 17th Century. This is contested ground and has been fought over for centuries. I enquire in the tourist information office for directions to the New Zealand War Memorial and about accommodation for the night. After sorting out where to stay, I ventured up onto the walls of the town and follow the path which will take me to the war memorial. 

The afternoon sun is warm and a family with two young children are on the path ahead. The joyfull, excited shouts of the children bounce off the towering brick and earthen walls of the old town, breaking the late afternoon stillness. I cycle leisurely towards my destination. 

I find there is a low narrow passageway from the gravel path through the walls up to the viewing area overlooking the memorial. I have obviously taken the wrong route, but the passageway is wide enough for the bicycle, and I have to adjust, by stooping down to pass through. The passage emerged onto a small square which overlooks the New Zealand War Memorial. The memorial is fixed to the town walls on the opposite side of the moat from the viewing area. 

There are a number of floral tributes in front of the memorial. One bouquet, of exotic flowers and foliage, particularly marks the sacrifice and commemoration of the loss of life of their sons in 1918 in a far way country. The town was recaptured from the Germans on 4th November 1918 without a single civilian loss of life. The New Zealanders were not so fortunate, but they opened up the Sambre Gap in November 1918 to allow the allied armies into Belgium and Germany and force an armistice. In this foreign field they are still not forgotten. I linger awhile with my thoughts, before quietly taking my leave. 

Lest we forget. I'm glad I made the effort to visit.

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