A personal post, last week my sisters and my dad took a really fun road trip to Ypres in Belgium to visit the WW1 battlefields. It all started with my dad wanting to go on a coach trip, but when I looked into it, I felt the itinerary wasn't really suitable for his mobility issues. But myself and my two sisters decided it was a trip we'd love to do too! We set about organising and planning and we had the most fantastic time, making memories, learning about distant relatives and exploring the history of the First World War as well as enjoying the beautiful Belgian countryside (and chocolate) and simply spending time together.
If you've never been, and you have an interest in the history of the two world wars then add it to your bucket list! We've all been to the Normandy Landing Beaches, both as children with mum and dad and then again with our own children - also highly recommended. So finally making it to Ypres filled a few gaps in our history knowledge.
Here is a little summary of our itinerary and a few suggestions of things to do in Ypres (Ieper).
Dover to Calais ferry
We decided on the ferry crossing rather than the tunnel. As children we have such fond memories of family holidays in our touring caravan starting on the Dover to Calais ferry (in those days it was Townsend Thoresen) so we wanted to drive on, have lunch, wave goodbye to the White Cliffs of Dover and enjoy the sea air! My husband kindly let us take 'big truck' for our trip! He has a Ford Ranger so it was ideal for us and our four suitcases, a box of food, and dad's wheelchair!
We had an easy drive from Beaconsfield to Dover, then a smooth crossing and the drive from Calais to Ypres only takes just over an hour. I was very proud of myself for navigating the 'wrong side of the road' with the help of my sister navigating.
We were staying at a gorgeous townhouse located just a few minutes walk from The Menin Gate in Ypres and within easy reach of the main town square. and opposite the ramparts. Birdsonghouse is available to book here and the owner Vincent was very helpful during our stay, he also owns the Hotel Ambrosia nearby.
Above (left) a walk along the ramparts in beautiful Ypres, Belgium, (right) we stayed at Birdsonghouse opposite the ramparts and below the Ramparts Cemetery in Ypres, near the Lille Gate.
In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres and the Loos Memorial and Cemetery
Our first day was planned as an easy one so we didn't exhaust dad too much! We visited the In Flanders Fields Museum in the main Market Square in Ypres. This gave us a good introduction to the First World War and helped us understand a bit more about the background. It was a full morning visit but the museum is very interactive and we also climbed the steps inside the Belfry to enjoy the views over Ypres and the surrounding Salient. Dad was in his wheelchair and it was all very accessible, although obviously not the Belfry!
My jacket is from Regatta Outdoors and my jeans are the Organic Boyfriend Jean from Baukjen - get 15% off using FIFTYANDFAB15.
After lunch sat in one of the pavement cafes in Ypres we decided to drive the short distance to visit the Loos Memorial at the Dud Corner Cemetery. This is where our Great Uncle ... my Great Grans brother has his name on the memorial, he does not have an identified grave.
Corporal William Moore of the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards died on 24th December 1915, aged just 22.
It was much more emotional and poignant than we imagined it would be. None of us had ever met him obviously although we were lucky to know Great Gran as she lived well into her 90s! But the sheer scale and number of British and Commonwealth graves in the area really does make you think about the massive loss of life and the terrible toll it took on those that survived. It is important to stop and think.
When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
Ypres Battlefield Tours with Roger Seward
We decided to book two 4 hour private tours of the battlefields, over two days so as not to exhaust dad! My sister Heidi found Roger Steward who runs Ypres Battlefield Tours and he was totally brilliant! As Heidi is herself a private tour guide in Oxford, we are converts to booking tours whenever we visit a new city and Roger was excellent and looked after us so well. He is British but lives in Ypres, Belgium with his wife and family. He always had a keen interest in WW1 history and then met his wife who happened to come from Ypres! Eventually they relocated back to Belgium and he set up his tour guide business - and is author of two books on the area!
Roger picked us up from our accommodation in his minibus and tailored the day to exactly what we wanted to see, he was very knowledgeable and was happy to answer all our questions.
Essex Farm Cemetery and the Dressing Station Bunkers
Langemark German Cemetery
Sanctuary Wood British Trenches and Museum
Hill 60 and the Caterpillar Crater
Tyne Cot Cemetery
Talbot House, Every Man's Club at Poperinge
Battlefields of Passchendaele and the "Iron Harvest"
Throughout our two mornings together, Roger provided a very detailed commentary on the area and the history. He explained how the war started, the conditions the soldiers lived in, how bodies are still being discovered and how they are identified, told us about life off duty for the soldiers, how the War Graves Commission looks after the cemeteries and how the area was reclaimed for farming and the towns and villages rebuilt. Bombs are still being discovered and have to be managed with controlled explosions but even now accidents happen and lives are still lost. Both tours were very much tailored to our needs and Roger was flexible and adjusted plans to suit us.
Above: (left) Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres and (right) Langemark German Cemetery and Below: at the British trenches, Sanctuary Wood.
Although it was sunny it was still a bit chilly and I was glad of my layers, the ACAI Multi-way jacket was a good addition to my packing! Use my code FIFTYFAB for 10% off.
The Last Post at The Menin Gate, Ypres
Every night since the 1st July 1928 (with the exception of the 4 year period from May 1940 to September 1944 when it was held in England instead - but it returned the very night Ypres was liberated from Nazi occupation), The Last Post Ceremony takes place at The Menin Gate in Ypres. It is a simple and deeply moving tribute to the courage and sacrifice of those who fell during WW1.
The Menin Gate is one of four memorials to the missing in the Belgian Flanders. The site was chosen because of the thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields. The Menin Gate bears the names of more than 54,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. However, when the memorial was completed, it was realised that there was not enough room for the names of all the soldiers who died, so names after 15th August 1917 are recorded at Tyne Cot Cemetery instead.
The Menin Gate is currently undergoing restoration and unfortunately the names are covered by scaffolding. But The Last Post Ceremony continues.
The ceremony takes place at 8.00 pm although people start gathering at 7.00 pm. The night we went was very busy, some nights are much quieter we were told! As dad was in his wheelchair we were able to have better access but not everyone was helpful so our view was a little shielded but it didn't matter. The atmosphere is solemn and dignified, it is thought provoking and emotional and I felt incredibly lucky to be there to witness just one night. Some nights are simpler, on other nights proceedings take a bit longer if there are visitors who would like to lay a wreath.
Go if you can. It is worth it.
A really special few days away. I love learning about the history of our two world wars and so do my sisters and our dad. We were brought up listening to our relatives share their experiences and I think it is important to remember and understand the sacrifices. To our generation it is still relatively recent history and we have a duty to pass that on to our children.
And we got to spend some quality time together ... 'dad and daughters' road trip! Just terribly sad that our mum couldn't be with us.
Love Michelle xx
Don't miss my other recent travel posts ...
Things to do in the Isle of Wight | A 3 night itinerary travelling with Red Funnel Ferries
What to do in London | our stay at The Waldorf and visit to the Churchill War Rooms
A writers retreat in Wales | how I learnt to slow down, relax and embrace my inner creatrix
The War Graves Commission designed the cemeteries in the style of an English country garden, so they were welcoming and familiar to the families that visited, especially in the years immediately after the end of the WW1. The result is stunning, they are peaceful and pretty.
My outfit is from Baukjen, the Noa Blouse in Powder Pink and the Organic Boyfriend Jeans - get 15% off using FIFTYANDFAB15.
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