England, France, Belgium

Once we got back to Rob’s place in London, after our 10 day interlude in Israel, we found that our TomTom had not been sent back to us.  There was no way we were leaving to drive through Europe without it or a replacement so it was top priority to sort them out at Maplins.  It had been with them three weeks and should have been sent back to Rob’s in 10 days.  After a polite email from Dennis, he was assured they had “just posted it”.  Yeah, right!   It did arrive three or four days later rattling around in an enormous box.  The note included said that there was nothing wrong with it, once they plugged it in it worked well!  In other words they hadn’t looked at it.  By this time Dennis had lost all sense of patience and proceeded to the nearest Maplin store.  He was furious when he left us in Rob’s car but in a little while he emerged with a big grin on his face.  The little shop girl hadn’t stood a chance and quickly gave him a new one!

And the box was poorly wrapped!

Helpful Rob kindly drove us back to our motorhome, still parked at Oak Hall Manor.  Having Rob in London has been such a blessing for us.  He has been “helpful” personified, allowing us free rein to stay in his house and full of local information that has proved so useful time and time again.  We were hoping to have a coffee with Ian from Oak Hall Expeditions but unfortunately he wasn’t home.  We did meet his son though and had a short guided tour through this magnificent Manor.  What a beautiful place.  In Britain, when you buy a bag of sugar the main brand is Tate & Lyle.   Mr Tate is famous for building the two Tate Art Galleries in central London and it turns out that Mr Lyle spent his money building this huge estate just outside the M25.  Oak Hall Manor is now the home of Ian and his family and as the head office of Oak Hall Expeditions is his workplace as well.  They hold live-in Christian conferences here as well, either just for a weekend or for much longer stays.  We walked past the huge commercial kitchen, complete with chefs in their crisp uniforms, and the well-appointed dining room overlooking the beautiful view of the Kent Weald.  

Oak Hall Manor

Gorgeous views from Oak Hall

We drove down to Dover with the intention of hopping on a ferry to Calais as soon as possible.  We had tried to book online but at the last minute their website wouldn’t accept our debit card.  We have had this several times with different companies, they tend to have a standard online form and one of the mandatory questions asks the issue number on the card..Maestro cards do not have an issue number so you come to an abrupt end.  Phoning the company direct usually helps but some businesses have you wait 20 minutes or more, so we thought why don’t we just go and see?  It feels so good to be back in our van, very much a case of feeling at home.  Dover is one of the few cities in the UK that welcome motorhomes and let you park in the public carparks for free between 6p.m. and 9a.m.  Very civilised.   Turns out booking the ferry on the day of travel is far more expensive than if you wait just one day, so that’s what we did, waited until Saturday at 11a.m.  In the meantime we made the most of the day and visited Dover Castle for free.  We managed to gain entry and secure parking for free because we had taken up membership of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust before leaving home, who have a reciprocal agreement with English Heritage.  I would strongly recommend anyone thinking of spending time in the UK to check this out as it has saved us many an English pound. It was quite interesting when we toured the castle particularly the underground hospital and command facilities used during the last war.  There were also radar and lookout posts cunningly placed that gave a great view of the English Channel.

Dover Castle is pretty impressive


Inside the Castle walls there’s quite a wee village

Great view over Dover

The Chapel within the Castle Walls

The day we crossed the English Channel was the first anniversary of us arriving in London.   It seems to be so much longer to me….considering what we have seen in that time and how long it’s been since giving my children and grandchildren a hug!  We took the P&O ferry to Calais, there are many companies to choose from in Dover, and was surprised that it only took 75 minutes to get there.  The ship is probably double the size of the Picton ones, back home. 

Cross Channel ferries are leaving all the time

Seeing those famous white cliffs means we really have left the UK behind

I was so nervous about Dennis having to drive on the other side of the road in Europe.  Malcolm, Janneke’s husband, had calmed me somewhat when he reassured us that driving in a left-hand drive vehicle in England was trickier than driving on the wrong side in Europe.    I was feeling sick in the stomach when we had to leave the ferry and proceed on our way, but Dennis did really well and managed to get us onto the motorway towards Belgium with no trouble at all.  I must admit it did feel better for me too, to be beside the edge of the roadway rather than in the middle with no controls, as in England.  We both had to keep our wits about us when coming up to roundabouts and intersections though.  Contrary to our usual practice we decided to stick to the motorways where there was at least a center barrier until Dennis had mastered the art of driving on the right.

Our first glimpse of Europe

France looks very flat, but still beautiful

Our first impressions of northern France once we were confident enough to look at the scenery rather than the two white lines on the roadway, was how flat it was and how dry it was compared with England.  It is noticeable straight away that the population level is not nearly as dense as in the UK as the villages were spaced good distances apart and they were a lot smaller.  It was lovely to see the cattle out in the fields and it’s obvious that the ground was just as fertile.  Every inch used for agriculture: potatoes, carrots, brassicas, barley and wheat already harvested.  We stopped off at a motorway rest area in France and was immediately confronted with the French open attitude to showing affection.  Dennis’ comment of how “that man must be giving her mouth to mouth!” first alerted me to this very amorous couple on the grass in the layby.  Parking directly in front of them didn’t bother them in the slightest.  We’ve all heard about Europeans’ being more emotional and demonstrative but really!   Our first encounter of another kind was just minutes away.  There were toilets provided at the rest stop and when I walked into the first one I cried out in alarm!  Never having seen a “squat” toilet before it was a shock to my senses, both to sight and smell, thankfully an English version was just next door albeit without a lock on the door.  Nevermind, welcome to Europe!

This is our fifth country so far

We drove all the way to Ypres (Ieper) in Belgium and parked in the centre of town.  I took a second look at our parking ticket before I realised that the one Euro I had placed in the slot paid up from Saturday afternoon until Monday 9.45a.m.  A good start.  What a gorgeous city this is.  It looks so old and was so clean and tidy with no litter at all, a nice change from England.  We had parked right behind the Flanders Field Museum without realising, which is why Dennis had wanted to come to Ypres in the first place, to learn more about WW1.  Thought we would take a look at the Museum and was so surprised when we emerged at the other end, it had taken us four hours and we hadn’t noticed the time!  They had done such a good job of retelling the history around the time of the First World War, with many personal stories in the words of participants on all sides.  It was done simply and told the story without glorifying the fact of war, how could they when 550,000 died near here in five years?   I usually race around these Museums and have to wait for hours for Dennis to finish but in this one we  kept apace and agreed they had done justice to this terrible story.  Ypres occupied a strategic position during World War I because it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and on into France from the north (the Schlieffen Plan).  The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by Britain so after Germany’s invasion the entire British Empire was brought into the war. NZ and Australia at that time in history were part of the British Empire and they were called to serve as well, “to help the Empire”.  The German army surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war.  To counterattack, British, French, and allied forces made costly advances from the Ypres Salient into the German lines on the surrounding hills using trench warfare for the first time.  Both sides used chemical warfare, mainly chlorine and mustard gases.   Ypres was one of the sites that hosted an unofficial Christmas Truce in 1914 between German and British soldiers.  The entire city of Ypres was destroyed and it was Churchill’s idea to leave the area as a monument and a reminder of the futility of war but the locals disagreed and they completely rebuilt all the treasured old buildings from the original plans, such as the Cathedral, Town Hall, the Cloth Hall and many other Churches, using money paid by Germany in reparations.  It is a credit to them.  Each evening at 8p.m. they conduct a Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, they have kept this practise up since 1928 (minus a few years during WW2, when Ypres was once again occupied by Germany).  The Menin Gate records only the soldiers for whom there is no known grave, as graves are identified, the names of those buried in them are removed.  New Zealand chose not to list their missing on this gate but instead they are listed on the memorial sites closer to the actual battle sites, such as at Tyne Cot.   I’m not sure if there was something special about the day we were there, but when we followed the Pipe Band’s slow march to the Gate, we joined with probably a few thousand others to listen to the famous poem read out about Flanders Field:

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

A women’s choir sang a couple of anthems and then that always moving tribute of the lone trumpeter blowing The Last Post.  It was a very sombre occasion and the crowd were very respectful.  What a lovely tradition to do this every night.  I’m pretty sure a choir is not there every night, but it was special to hear them that evening.  In addition it was such a magnificent evening with a beautiful sunset that lent grandeur to the occasion.

The town square in Ypres, on the left is the Cloth Hall, which now houses the Flanders Field Museum

Amazing to think all these buildings around the square were built since WW1

The Cloth Hall in 1911

And again in 1919

Speculaas ice cream anyone?

We parked right behind this Cloth Hall. It’s called a Cloth Hall as Ypres was famous for the cloth they produced and it used to be sold in here.

My camera’s not fast enough or something, anyway if you look carefully in the centre of the picture beside the purple flower you may be able to just see the hummingbird.

The Menin Gate

Ypres Cathedral

We drove through beautiful countryside first to Passchendaele and then on to Tyne Cot Cemetery.  When we neared the village of Passchendaele we had to wait for a cycle race on its way to the finish line in the centre of town.  The place was crowded with cyclists and their families and the local radio DJ shouting out the winners and playing bad taste music very loudly to the waiting crowd. Kind of ruined the expected atmosphere for us.  Having found a park near the edge of town we decided to walk and seek out a War Memorial.  It turned out to be in a small park and the memorial was dedicated to the Canadian troops who had fought a major battle there and recaptured Passchendaele in 1917.  They had crossed about 200 metres from a nearby ridge through a shallow dip, in mud up to their chests at times, with the loss of 16,000  men.  No mention of other nationalities at all, even though we knew the ANZACs had fought and been killed there.   (Dennis tells me there were other memorials to the other countries all around the town of Passchendaele, which I had forgotten.)  Tyne Cot Cemetery was a few kilometres away and is a Commonwealth War Commission graveyard for all known casualties as well as those whose bodies were never found but known to have been in the battles around this area.  The area was captured by the 3rd Australian Division and the New Zealand Division, on 4 October 1917 and two days later a cemetery for British and Canadian war dead was begun.   Looking at all those graves, 12,000 of them, was very sobering.  There’s a curved wall along the back perimeter of the cemetery that has 35,000 names carved into it, these are for the soldiers who are still missing, remembered but not found.  It is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war.  Wandering around and reading the inscriptions we did find a section that was devoted to the ANZACs who were killed at Passchendaele after all.   Dennis has been to the cemetery in Papua New Guinea, also in the care of the Commonwealth War Commission, where thousands of Australians were killed during WW2 and he had told me previously how special these graveyards are.  Unlike there though, they have planted roses, perennials and small shrubs beside each grave and it had softened the place and spoilt the atmosphere somewhat I felt.

The Canadian Memorial at Passchendaele

Entrance to Tyne Cot Cemetery

….we will remember them

So many graves, this is just a fraction of them

…..at the going down of the sun…..

One of the inscriptions along the back wall

The following morning I woke covered in mosquito bites!  I must have been tasty because Dennis had a total of three.  I was awake half the night listening to them dive bombing me and trying desperately to slap each one before they drank too much.  Looking in the mirror it was obvious that I had failed miserably.  We must find ourselves a supermarket and invest in some fly spray.  

Today we travelled to the beautiful city of Ghent, about 50kms north of Tyne Cot.  Ghent lies on either bank of the Schelde River, which was quite muddy and smelly.  The buildings were beautiful and once again very old, what was striking though was that first of all there weren’t many people about (in comparison to any English city) and no one smiled!   We walked into a bar-cum-cafe looking to purchase a coffee but instead got this strange tale about how the boss was away and apparently he was the only one that made coffee in this establishment!   We thought it very odd then the penny dropped,  we observed several men with coffee cups on their tables and then it slowly dawned on us that in fact they were ALL men and we were the odd ones out.  Maybe gay coffee could not be served to non-gay people?   We chose another cafe further along the main street and were served the most delicious coffee we’ve ever tasted!  So creamy and delicious.  Bicycles were everywhere, you had to be careful even on the footpaths as they clearly had right of way wherever they were.  Though we looked in various grocery stores and pharmacies we were not succesful in finding any fly spray.   We did find that they sell stale bread here just as they do throughout the UK, what’s so hard about making bread that’s fresh?

Everywhere in the city of Ghent there are beautiful buildings

So different to England’s architecture

Once you ignore the smell, the view is delightful in Ghent

Taking the dog for a walk?

Now that Dennis has become somewhat accustomed to driving on the wrong side of the road we planned to venture off the motorways and get to see some better scenery.  The motorways are lined with trees or large screens that help to deflect the sound pollution away from the neighbours, as a result travelling along them becomes quite boring.   Our new TomTom is preset to finding the fastest route possible and try as we might we can’t seem to get the screen to instruct it to not travel on motorways!   When we arrived at Brussels (Bruges) the motorway just stopped all of a sudden at the edge of the city, with no warning or explanation that we could see.  One minute you’re on this three lane highway going in both directions and the next we’re in a tunnel that stretches for five kms, by the time you surface the city proper is behind you and you’ve missed the lot.  The road in the tunnel was awful as well – an uneven road surface, I think it was a concrete road that had the eerie feeling it was shifting underneath you and the tunnel was unlined, unpainted and black with what looked like soot, very long and very deep and I found it quite spooky.  The suburb we surfaced into looked like it may have been the Arab quarter, with a huge area of open air markets that we were keen to explore.  Finding a park to fit our motorhome was quite another thing and when Dennis finally managed to manoeuver himself into a just big enough spot between two cars and got out to feed the meter we were upset with the price of parking.  17 Euro for 4 hours, we are used to less than a quarter of that.  Searching for another park did enable us to find a supermarket which did have fly spray and the car wash people were happy to fill our water containers so it was all worth it in the end.  But this area of the city looked very run down and a bit on the scary side of poor.  Referring to our trusty Lonely Planet Guide we realised that we had missed the ring road before the tunnels started,  this circles Brussels and makes access into the different suburbs a piece of cake.   This time our planning was superb and we made our way to the Koniklijk Museum for Central Afrika (Royal Museum for Central Africa), on the way back on the eastern side of the city.  Back in 1885 Belgium’s King  Leopold II acquired the Congo in Africa and this museum had displays dated back to 1910.  The Museum is housed in this amazing building in a park like setting.  Most of the displays were still done in the same style that Belgians enjoyed in the 1900’s, everything in huge display cases with dioramas depicting stuffed animals in their “natural” situations.  Although we had purchased the Audio Guides in English to help us with the language difficulties, only about 10% of what was written around the walls was translated, very disappointing.  When we emerged back out into the sunshine we realised the afternoon traffic rush was in full swing so we did the only sensible thing and got out our books and sat in the comfort of our lovely wee van and wiled away the time until it eased off.  In the meantime I also cooked our evening meal.  At 7p.m. we drove into the centre of Brussels and spent the next three hours wandering the streets.  It is a very cosmopolitan city, being the capital of the European Union, and people from many races were enjoying the happy atmosphere in the area of town dedicated to eating outdoors.  Mostly it was fish restaurants, which surprised me as Brussels is quite some distance from the sea.  We were so happy that we had decided to come into the city, it’s a beautiful place with lots of parks and huge old Palaces, Parliament Buildings, Guild Halls, etc.  No comparison whatsoever to where we had ended up this morning.  After a bit more driving within the city we realised that they use tunnels in the city centre extensively, the other ones were more modern and they proved to be an effective way of moving the traffic around easily.

First impression of Brussels before we drove down into the bowels of the city and emerged miles away!

What a magnificent building where the African Museum was housed

Other than chocolates, I guess TinTin is the most well-known Belgian export

The outside of the Koniklijk Museum for Central Afrika was very grand

We came to appreciate all the tunnels in Brussels by the end of our short stay

Brussels is full of excellent buildings too

and they look good at night

Antwerp was our next stop.  Another lovely city.  These cities have quite a large central area for pedestrians only, which makes walking around a pleasure.  Once again we remarked at how few people there were out and about, when compared with the UK, and how people don’t smile!  It was a lovely sunny day with a bit of wind and I was keen to find somewhere to do our washing.  We couldn’t find a laundromat anywhere in town so we headed to a truck stop a lot earlier than we normally would and I had a lovely time washing everything by hand and hanging it up under the van’s awning.  We ended up staying there the night as well and happily most things dried before the rain came at dusk.   Truck stops are generally beside a service station, on both sides of the highway, and cater for those poor people who drive trucks for a living.  I always feel sorry for them when I see the trucks lined up for the night, it must be such a lonely job.  They generally stick to themselves and draw the curtains in their cabs for a night alone.  Tonight we joined 20 huge trucks on our side of the road, with about the same number on the other side.  The roads in Belgium are generally very bad, lots of potholes even on the motorways.  And the trucks, we had thought England was bad for how many trucks were on the move but in Belgium it was much worse.  The English ones were a lot longer and taller than here so that may account for the increased traffic.  And then there is the graffiti in Belgium, lots of it everywhere.  It does give a bad impression but I must stop complaining, I’m loving it – really!

Some more beautiful buildings in Antwerp

Interesting balcony in Antwerp

Belgium has a continuing problem in that 60% of the population speak Dutch while most of the rest stick to French.  There is also one small area that speaks German, just to confuse everyone.  It actually doesn’t matter what they speak they all make themselves very plain: they don’t like visitors!  Brussels is the only city that is officially bilingual, with all the signs being in both Dutch and French.  I have surprised myself with how much I can understand the signs written in Dutch along the roads, in the shops and also listening to the radio, old habits die hard apparently.  We have been surprised that we haven’t seen any of the 100’s of motorhome and caravans that were in Calais, the rest of them must have turned right off the boat and driven down the French coast.

I see they have magpies in Europe as well