THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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The abbey road home

From Frankfurt to Poperinge via Ghent and "Wipers"

We skipped breakfast at our mediocre hotel on Saturday morning; reasoning that €18 each would buy a better frühstück en route. I drove Speranza out of Frankfurt onto the autobahn and we found a suitable place within 20km. We breakfasted Teutonically on rösti, eggs, sausage, bacon and coffee.

Then the Navigator belied his nickname and took the wheel. He had driven Vittoria back in the day so had some prior experience. This was his first drive in a Ferrari however and it was straight out onto an unrestricted autobahn! In his first 20 minutes, after acclimatising himself to Speranza's controls and the road conditions, he hit 150mph.

He found the concentration involved tiring. There are lots of other performance cars driving at high speed on the autobahn, but there are also more modest vehicles popping in and out to overtake. One needs one's wits. Still I don't think his stress compared with my own; sitting by his side while he gave my pride and joy a thrashing! I am no natural passenger.

We took the northerly route to our overnight stop near Ypres. This was to avoid the congested Brussels ring road, but also to have more chance for autobahn excitement. We switched seats at a fuel stop and I drove the last few (speed-limited) German kilometres to the Netherlands and then on to Belgium.

Ghent and Ypres-1 Ghent and Ypres-2   Ghent and Ypres-6  Ghent and Ypres-7

We took an afternoon break in Ghent; a pretty town I had never seen before. We found a central parking place and – after I had drunk a local coffee with inexplicable fruit puree in the bottom – strolled through the pedestrianised centre and along the river. Some of my photos are above. Don't ask about the shoes suspended above the street. I have no idea what that's all about.

We then continued to our home for the night, making another stop to visit the Menin Gate. I am old enough to have had long conversations with a British soldier who probably passed through Ypres ("Wipers") on his way to the front and lived to tell the gory tale. He was my late wife's grandfather and one of my favourite humans. He was shot going over the top during the first Battle of the Somme and lay for hours in no man's land until the daily truce to recover bodies. He was found still to be alive and - after a bottle of whisky as anaesthetic – had a bullet removed with a bayonet.  He was the happiest man I ever knew (as well as one of the kindest) because he decided that day – at the tender age of 16 – that every subsequent hour of his life was a gift to be enjoyed.

Ghent and Ypres-8 Ghent and Ypres-9
I had not expected to be much moved by the Menin Gate. The Great War's warriors are gone now. It is as thoroughly history as the Napoleonic or Boer Wars. However, I thought of Mrs P's granddad Joe as I stood at the massive memorial with its hundreds of thousands of carved names. I thought of how they died and shed a surprising tear. Then I realised he would have laughed and told me to enjoy my wonderful life.

After refuelling for the first stage of Sunday's run home, we drove to our B&B. It was an eccentric but friendly little place in the hop-growing village of Poperinge. While I freshened up for dinner, the Navigator enjoyed a beer from hops grown in the field across the road made in a nearby brewery. 

It astonishes me that little villages in France and Belgium can sustain serious restaurants, while my own home town in Wales can only support a chip shop, an Italian, an Indian and a couple of Chinese take-aways.  Our restaurant had two Michelin "macarons" and a chef – Franky Vanderhaeghe – who is a slightly mad genius.

We threw ourselves on his mercy and ordered the "degustation menu". He combined flavours I would never have expected to work and left us in a culinary ecstasy. It was a perfect end to one of my life's best days. I could wish you nothing better, gentle reader, than that you should have many such experiences. I bet you have never heard of the village of Elverdinge until this moment. I suggest you sear its name into your memory and build a stop at the Hostellerie St Nicolas into your next continental journey!


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Mark C

The Last Post at Menin Gate is well worth an overnight stay in Ieper / Ypres. Extraordinarily moving, though quite dusty. At least, I've been four times now and, dammit, manage to get dust in my eye every time. My grandfather served May 1915 - Nov 1917 at various points on and around the Ypres Salient; as a stretcher-bearer it's something of a miracle he survived as his officer earned a MC with two Bars for his habit of leading his bearers out to within yards of the German lines at night to find and treat wounded. These were men brave on a galactic scale.

In 1919 all grandfather's medals went in the bin when he returned home, sickened and disgusted at what he'd seen.

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