Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Larks, Still Bravely Singing, Fly

Our bikes – big sturdy 21-speed touring machines complete with carry tray and bungee on the back, lights, and padlocks -- cost 10 Euros each per day and we arranged to have them until 7 p.m the next day. We wobbled off (I hadn’t been on a bike for25 years and the others, although more familiar with two-wheeled transport, were unused to riding in traffic on the wrong side of the road) following the route marked on our maps and signposted by red hexagons every couple of hundred metres.

We did the southern part of the route that first afternoon, the hexagons leading us past several cemeteries and the memorial at Hill 60 to the main road between Menin and Ypres (I’m using the old spellings here – since this area of Belgium is Flemish speaking, the French names have been replaced, but as we were here on a battlefields’ tour, I will use the more familiar spelling from days gone by). We stopped and wandered among the graves, reading the names and the ages, feeling the deep peace that settles on such places, enjoying the flowers.

Padlocking our bikes we wandered among the shell holes that still pit Hill 60, tripping over iron embedded in the earth and skirting the brambles that climb over a collapsed dug out before reaching a main road that led back to Ypres. Realising that we had missed the museum and trench systems of Hill 62, we decided to cut the day short and go back to Ypres for a meal and a rest, catch the train back to Poperinge, then make an early start the following day and ride the rest of the route.

Arriving at the station, we found the train delayed by more than half an hour.

‘You can leave your bikes in the lock up over night or take them for 5 Euros each,’ the station master told us. ‘But why not just ride back? It’s only 12 kilometres and you’ll probably beat the train.’

We did that, but unlike all the other roads we had been on, the Route Nacional to Poperinge was not bike friendly. Halfway there we passed a sign saying that bikes were not permitted on the hard shoulder, and twenty-ton international lorries hurtled beside us. I cycled behind Alex and Sophia wondering what I would tell their father if I lost them to traffic. As we pulled in to Talbot House, Sophia turned to me: ‘Just so you know,’ she said. ‘I’m not riding into Ypres tomorrow morning!’

The next day we were all feeling tender. Muscles long unused protested, seat bones felt bruised. We took the train back to Ypres and set out for Hill 62.

On the way, Sophia decided to get to know the cows. ‘We don’t have cows in Cyprus,’ she said, dismounting her bike and approaching a small herd, camera in hand. We do, of course, but not cows like these. Cyprus cows are kept inside, and rarely seen. They’re smaller than the great Friesians and Charolais who approach eagerly, lowing and licking their noses with great rasping tongues. Sophia was entranced, but I could not let her linger. We had miles to go and had to have the bikes back by seven.

Hill 62 has a partially restored trench system and a chaotic museum, but was well worth visiting. I wish that we had brought torches, and were wearing sturdier shoes as many of the dug-outs are still standing and safe to enter, although dark and muddy. From there we cycled back to the main road, up to the memorial at Polygon Wood and into the village of Zonnebeke.

…Where we got lost. Somehow, either the map was wrong or we took a wrong turn, but we ended up many kilometres out of our way, hot, hungry, and out of sorts. No restaurants. No pubs, even to get a sandwich. I beckoned to the only person on the street to ask directions, and as he swayed blearily toward us, Alex muttered sotto voce ‘You had to find the village drunk, didn’t you mum?’ Well the village drunk couldn’t speak much English, but he waved over a passing ambulance whose smiling driver put us right and about half an hour later we arrived at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Tyne Cot, just outside Passchendaele village.

Tyne Cot is the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It includes 11,954 burials, of which 8,367 are unnamed and its Memorial to the Missing is an continuation of the lists on the Menin Gate and contains the names of 33,783 soldiers of the UK forces, plus a further 1,176 New Zealanders. Our visit coincided with those of several coach loads of British school children who passed among the rows of headstones taking notes, making rubbings, and occasionally calling to each other.

‘I cannot believe,’ said Sophia, looking around. ‘That so many men died over such a short space of time, for that tiny rise of ground. What did it mean? What does it ever mean? Did they think it was worth it?’

We spent about an hour there, resting in the shade by the New Zealand panels naming Missing, and discussing some of the themes that had occurred. ‘Do these memorials create a cult of heroism and glorify war?’ I asked the kids, playing Devil's Advocate to make them consider the possibility. And ‘What about the men who refused to go? Who endured prison, or were killed because they refused to go to a war in which they didn’t believe?’

‘We never talked about Conscientious Objectors in class,’ they said. ‘Dissent was not a topic. Who decides the curriculum anyway?’ That question led to the notion of a standardised curriculum, and the pitfalls that teachers encounter when they are forced to tailor class discussions to the passing of standardised exams. ‘But these things are important!’ They agreed. ‘Does somebody not want us to know that dissent happened? That people were punished, ostracised, imprisoned, shot – for following their beliefs? That going along with the crowd is not necessary?’ For me, these conversations were fascinating. I couldn’t provide many answers, but I was glad that the questions were being asked.

To Be Continued

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