This week should have seen myself, my partner Stacey and our friends Andy & Helen,their daughter Ella & father Brian over on the Somme. Around this Easter period is when we usually visit each year as a group and I have done so for the last 20+ years. So being honest it’s been a really difficult week to get motivated. Like almost everyone lockdown has become difficult with a mix up of emotions on a daily basis. Being stuck at home or restricted to where we can go is hard for us all I know.
It’s difficult for those without a Great War connection to understand the pull of this place. It’s somehow like the landscape, it’s features and those who rest there or were witness to events have become a part of oneself. It and they seem to call to us. When you talk about it with people that don’t have an interest they’re like “Why do you keep going to the same place & doing the same things?”. And as much as I try to explain why they just don’t seem to get it.
One good thing that’s come about from lockdown is so many more individuals seem to be sharing photos of their own visits to the Somme or the Salient over the years as well as those who are lucky enough to live out there sharing their daily walks & visits etc. It provides us all with some kind of valuable connection and whilst it can never supplement actually being there it reminds us of all the wonderful ( if it’s appropriate to call them that) places that we’re so longing to visit and will do again one day.
For me though it’s not just about the pilgrimages to the cemeteries or walking the old front lines that makes for a good trip but it’s the whole experience that’s even better when shared with friends. From that moment when you arrive in France and see the now familiar places as you head down the A26 & A1 to that feeling of coming home when turning off the Peronne- Albert Road and heading to Hardecourt aux Bois to stay with Richard & Michelle at Chavasse Ferme.
The experience of going to the local bakery in nearby Fricourt in the morning & evening to purchase fresh baguettes, opening the door and being greeted by the smell of fresh bread and then using my pigeon French to order is something that I strangely miss. The aroma of the rapeseed & crops blossoming in the fields filling the air ,which we’ve nicknamed frite plants since my friends daughter was young, is a weird but familiar thing that I miss.
The sound of farmers on their tractors in the distance going about their daily routine in the fields that once were covered in miles of trenches & littered with battle debris & in many places of course the fallen many of whom still lay beneath the sacred soil . The incredible silence & calm & peace of the cemeteries is also an element of this whole sensory experience that has become such a huge part of many of our lives.
But as well as the reverence of these visits they can also be full of joy and laughter as well. Would the lads who gave their all want it any other way? Personally I don’t think so, they were just like us and I’m sure wouldn’t want us to be all wandering around miserable or solemn. We often share a joke or two especially when a bee is spotted, apparently they pop out of my arse! Buzz Buzz! Or we have a laugh because one of us is wearing a weird hat or something or I’ll get ribbed as I’ve got mud on my boots or wellies so I will have to wash them again! ( I have OCD)
Having a few beers or whatever your poison is on an evening and relaxing & reflecting on the day you’ve had is also part of the whole experience. When in Ypres little things like going for a burger & refreshing Jupiler before heading to the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate is part of the day. A hot brew at the Ulster Tower or lunch at the Old Blighty Tearooms in La Boiselle is also most welcome especially on a chilly day.
Whatever it is that makes your visits special or having your own routine is of course a personal thing and what works for one person doesn’t necessary work for someone else but I do hope that we are all able to get back out there as soon as it’s safe to do so.
My next visit is planned for October, whether we’ll get there or not is still open to debate but whenever we return it is going to be so emotional. Until then I’m sure that many of us will still experience days when the pain of not being there can feel overwhelming but we will all return and those individual feelings we have when we’re over there will come over us again. If we all continue to share our photos, stories, blogs & podcasts we can keep a connection going until then.
I know this blog is a personal reflection and not my usual kind of post but I thought I’d share with you my thoughts and I hope that you’ve got something out of it and appreciate you taking the time to read it. And I can’t believe I told you the story of the bees!!