Sunday, 29 September 2013

Coming back to earth

We went to the Museum of the Great War in Peronne today. It was informative and clean and in the stunning setting of a castle by a lake  but I've known better museums. I had a strong sense that the place was determined to tell me the story of the war from the perspective of the French, which, particularly in the room dedicated to the Battle of the Somme (where French losses were relatively light) felt a little insulting, particularly when we consider that quite a lot of bloodshed was brought about by French military decisions. It was the French, for example, who insisted the offensive happened in broad daylight. Yeah, yeah, shoot me down, I've developed the true mentality of a Brit abroad. Next I'll be donning a pair of stillies and asking Nathan to hold my hair whilst I vomit. 

Peronne itself is a charming enough town with a lovely market place and a smattering of shops, all of which were closed because today is a Sunday. Yawn. That said, Picardy seems to be empty most of the time. The shops close at any opportunity and, with the exception of Amiens which was buzzing, there never seems to be anyone wandering about in the streets give or take the odd old lady holding an obligatory French stick. It would seem that this is one French cliche which was born out of absolute truth! They also serve frogs legs and snails in the restaurants. I thought this would prove to be another myth. That said, I've not yet seen a French person actually eating any of that crap, and wonder if they fill the menus with these "delicacies" so that they can laugh at the silly tourists who want to do things the Gallic way! 

From Peronne we travelled north-west to Arras, one of those French towns with a name that makes you shudder. Those Pals who survived The Somme ended up here, where they were subjected to another absolute blood bath in the great battle of 1917. The object of our stop in this particular town was really just to have a spot of lunch in a pleasant environment, and we sat in a lovely square eating an omelette. I have, as ever, struggled to find vegetarian food here. In fact, I've struggled to find anything which isn't hugely rich. They love their butter and cream and I'm craving simple, rather plain food like soup and pastas.

The weather has been fabulous every single day. The forecasts have always told us to expect rain in one way or another, but, apart from the gloriously misty mornings, we've had nothing but sunshine and powder blue skies. 

We treated ourselves to patisseries from a shop just behind the square in Arras. I had a rather disappointing eclair whilst the others went for more adventurous-sounding things with totally unpronounceable names. 

We ate them at Calais whilst waiting for the ferry to arrive. An uneventful ride across the channel brought us safely home to the UK, and, as ever, I was stirred by the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. I'm sure most of the First World War "Tommies" returned home via Southampton, but there's something so romantic and welcoming about these particular cliffs. They do welcome the Brits home rather brilliantly. 

So what have I learned from my magical trip to Flanders? Well, I now know there's an artistic community who farm an area of marshland in Amiens. I know how to play bar billiards on account of a brilliant games corner in our hotel bar. I know that British soldiers carved their names on church walls in the villages where they were billeted. We've learned that shell holes weren't always used for killing purposes, but often used as a form of defence and protection (particularly when attacking up hill.) 

I've driven through villages like Corbie where my heroes Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon penned some of their finest poems. I've heard ghostly sounds being carried through electric fences and gusts of wind. I've walked into no-man's-land and stood in shell holes and trenches. I've explored man-made tunnels and recorded the sounds of bells tolling, trees whispering and cathedrals weeping. I can safely say I would never have expected to see, experience, feel and learn so much in such a short period of time, and return to England absolutely ready to write a very fine musical! Wish me luck! 

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