We're sitting in the Ibis hotel in Albert in Picardy, France. There are eight of us here: Julie, Nathan, Abbie, Matt, Sam, Meriel, Hilary and me. We've spent the day trekking across fields and wandering around cemeteries in weather which can only be described as inclement.
The day started at 5am, with a car journey through Kent mist to Dover. The ferry was crowded; rammed to the rafters with spectacularly ugly people. Heaven knows what the French must think of us if that's the calibre of human being regularly invading their country!
We drove speedily down to Albert from Calais, the weather getting steadily more cloudy. There's a moment when you turn off the motorway, south of Arras, when you suddenly realise you're in the midst of the poppy trail, or the "circuit de souvenir" as they call it in these parts. My heart always starts pounding really fast when I see town names like Auchenvilliers, Pozièrs and La Boiselle. Their names fill me with a mixture of sadness, excitement and yearning... Almost as though I were some sort of reincarnated Tommy! Perhaps I am.
Our own tour started at the Lochnagar Crater, which is the site of one of the world's largest ever explosions on July 1st, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was the site of a bewildering number of German and British casualties, and the place where many of the Grimsby Chums met their end.
We drove from the crater to Serre, where the Leeds Pals went over the top. Sadly, our sat nav really shafted us by taking us down a single track road which got thinner and thinner and eventually became just tractor marks on the edge of a cornfield. It was an horrific and fairly terrifying experience, particularly for poor Julie in her Mercedes, which struggled and then broke down with a big chunk of the exhaust becoming dislodged. Google maps have a LOT to answer for...
To make matters worse, when we'd finally limped our way to Serre, we got out of the car, and were instantly drowned by a terrible rain storm. We stood in a cemetery under an arch, shaking in the cold, wondering how much worse the day was going to get. The only positive was that I was able to say a quick hello to my Great Great Uncle, young William Mabberley. We also got to see the mad farmer who haunts those parts stopping tourists, asking them if they're English then asking if they know Judi Dench. When I was there with Sara Kestelman, the answer was a categorical "yes."
We cut our losses and legged it to the Thiepval monument, which we knew had a little visitors centre which would at least keep us dry, and by the time we'd emerged, the sun was shining again.
Hilary and I could hear a random bell-like sound coming from a distant corner of the monument site, and, assuming it was some sort of curious sound sculpture, decided to explore. It turns out it was the detritus of some sort of visual art project involving flags. The rusty flag poles were still standing, with bits of wire bouncing off them in the wind... And it was these wires which were causing the fascinating bell-like sounds. The sign was still there which told us what the original art work had been. I reckon what had been left in its wake was a vast improvement!
After Thiepval, Julie, Hils and Abbie returned to Albert to find a mechanic to help with the car, whilst Mez, Sam, Matt, Nathan and I returned to Serre in the glorious evening sunshine to commune with the Pals. It's such a special place; utterly at peace with itself in a strange sort of way. The fields had just been ploughed which meant there were large amounts of 100 year-old chunks of metal on the footpaths; the remains of shells and bits of barbed wire. Nathan scoured a field and found all sorts of interesting artefacts.
We returned to Albert and met up with the others in the lovely Cafe Higge, which, since coming to these parts is practically the only place I've eaten!
The night ended on the town square, with Julie teaching Sam and Meriel Jewish line dancing around the fountain whilst the golden Madonna and Child peered down on us from the top of the Cathedral. Perfect.