Sunday, 12 April 2015

Powder blue

Our day started this morning with a buffet breakfast in our lovely hotel. It is an absolute treat to eat proper French baguettes in a French hotel. Crispy on the outside, soft in the middle: a dollop of cherry jam and a smear of Nutella = joy!

We went to a supermarket first thing. Nothing tends to be open in France on a Sunday, so we were hugely lucky to find anywhere to buy anything. It turned out that we didn't actually have anything to buy, but trips around foreign supermarkets are always a treat... Although these days there are disappointingly few differences between supermarkets and their supermarché cousins,

We spent the morning at the Beaumont Hamel monument to Newfoundlanders killed in the First World War. It was my third trip there and the place never ceases to amaze, move and surprise...

We had a guided tour with a very charming young Canadian student called Brendan, whom we all fell in love with a little! I think he was a little surprised and impressed to find a group of people who knew so much about the Battle of the Somme! The questions we asked him forced him to think quite hard!

We learned a great deal from Brendan. We learned that all the trees on the site are all native trees in Newfoundland, planted there so that the men buried on the site could feel like they were spending eternity in familiar surroundings. We also learned that the land itself was initially bought by Newfoundland women; one assumes the wives and mothers of the dead who were unable to think of another way to process their grief. It turns out that their decision to leave the site exactly as it had been during the last moment of battle, and merely to let grass grow over the jagged scars of No-Man's-Land, was inspired. It meant people like me could stand on a vantage point and look across the battlefield, getting a true sense of the scale of events, and exactly what a hell zone those men had faced on July 1st, 1916.

We walked around the site, across No-Man's-Land and over the German front line trenches. It's such a tranquil, beautiful place. Our conversations turned philosophical and spiritual. I did a bit of communing with nature. I think the place made us all contemplate the meaning of at least something.

We took ourselves off to Bus-Les-Artois, which is where the Leeds Pals were billeted. Things in those parts are always a little Groundhog Day-like. You go to Serre, and the farmer comes up and asks if you know Judi Dench. When you go to Bus, a lovely chap called Lobel appears and offers to show you his tiny museum to the Pals in a barn in his garden. This is a place which so inspired Brass. The little doll's tea set there, for example, inspired Harry and Emmie's story and the barn Losel went on to show us the first time we visited the place was used as Erik's inspiration for the show's set.

It was particularly lovely to see Lobel today as we were able to hand him a copy of the programme which he is thanked in. I thought what a surreal experience it must have been for him to meet a group of seeming strangers, all of whom knew his name, and were handing him a programme with his name inside!

From Bus we went to Auchenvilliers, and had lunch in the Ocean Villas Tea Rooms which is what the Tommies fondly called that particular village. There was a tendency for British soldiers to parody and Anglicise all French and Belgian place names, and Ocean Villas was a particularly good one in my view.

The tea room is run by Brits, and has a charmingly Greasy spoon vibe. The place also has a trench in the back garden, which has been reconstructed on the site of one of a number of communication trenches which ran through Auchenvilliers and on to Serre during the war. I think I'm right in saying that the Leeds Pals were in this particular village the night before they went over the top, so standing in a communication trench, which some of them might have stood in at that terrifying, life-changing moment, felt incredibly poignant.

I could think of a lot worse than running a little tea room in the Somme region in my retirement...

I jumped in Julie's car for the short hop from Ocean Villas to Serre, namely because she had the roof of the car down and I wanted to experience the joy of driving through the beautiful spring French countryside with the sun-kissed air battering my face. There was blossom everywhere. Daffodils. Primroses. Aubrecia. The joy of a late spring is that everything bursts into colour at once.

We walked around Serre for an hour, and Abbie, Hils and Julie finally got to see where so many of the Pals had lost their lives. One of the little cemeteries there has fewer than seventy graves but more than half of them were Leeds Pals.

From Serre we drove north-east, beyond Vimy Ridge and Neuf Chapelle to a cemetery on the outskirts of Hazebrouck, where Sam's Great Uncle Bertram lies at rest. It was incredibly moving to see Sam paying his respects, silently staring down at the little white grave, eyes filled with dignified tears. Seeing his surname on a gravestone was strange for me, but must have been even odder for him.

I'll struggle to forget the sky which hung over us throughout the day: powder blue always, and, in the morning, criss-crossed with white vapour trails. Whilst we communed with Sam's Great Uncle, layer after layer of tiny fluffy white clouds appeared, neatly spaced across the entire sky.

As we reached the ferry, the sun started to set, and by the time we'd reached the deck, there was a glorious sunset which made our faces glow orange. A stunning end to a very special day.

We listened to Brass as we headed home. It felt appropriate, somehow.

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