Before his illness Derek Edwards had organised the Belgium Rally with the help of Isle of Wight tours. Sadly Derek could not be with us as he is in hospital but his spirit very much was.
In order to get to Dover for the departing DFDS ferry at 8am an early start was needed for Jill & Roy Baker’s MGR V8 and Marlise and Bob Zannetti’s MG Twin Cam. It was decided that 5 a.m .in the BP garage going north on the A3 would be a suitable meeting place. On arrival at Dover we were somewhat surprised that no one else was there, but just in time the others appeared having stayed overnight in Dover so they could have a later start. On the ferry to Dunkirk we found that the other tour members were from the MGOC and that the tour representatives from the Isle of Wight Tour company had organised a place in the Premium Lounge with its associated peace and quiet and complimentary goodies.
On terra firma again we decided to stop off in Ypres (now called Ieper) to eat lunch and to see the Menin Gate War Memorial. This world famous structure was constructed between 1923 and 1927 to commemorate the lives of those British and Commonwealth soldiers who died and have no known grave. There are over 54,000 names inscribed on the memorial shown in their UK and Commonwealth and other regiments and every night at 8pm people gather to hear the last post at a memorial ceremony to honour the dead. Only during the Second World War was the ceremony suspended. It was also thought provoking to realise that the magnificent buildings that now occupy the centre of the town including the town hall were all completely reconstructed as the whole centre and most of the town had been completely destroyed in the period of the 5 battles around it between 1914 to 1918.
The onward journey to the Leopold hotel at Oudenaarde was by motorway and uneventful apart from some sometimes rather untoward driving by the locals. The Hotel itself was conveniently situated close to the centre of the town and overlooked a canal that carried quite large barges that plied their traffic to Gent, Bruges, Ostend and Zebrugge. The 1325 church of Our Lady of Palmena can be seen on the opposite bank. The Friday evening meal at the hotel and socialising went well and we were all looking forward to the planned trips for Saturday.
The original plans called for a circuitous tour to the Battle of Waterloo site taking in further visits on the way to other places including a further Commonwealth graves memorial site at Mons. In the meantime the hotel had asked if they could have a photograph of some of our cars outside the hotel for publicity purposes so after this and because of the distances involved and the time deadline for arrival by 12.30 at the latest we both decided to take a more direct route. We arrived at the site on time as did another two couples later on but no one else. This was because of an unfortunate accident when a lovely MGZS saloon was written off when a van collided with it. Luckily no one was hurt but the organisers from the IOW – Shirley and Iain dropped everything to drive back to help them and the other MGOC people at the accident scene.
Meanwhile we enjoyed the Champ de Bataille Waterloo. We started in the Memorial Museum this really is extremely informative. It covers the 19th century European history that lead to the battle, marvellous exhibits of weaponry, waxwork statues of soldiers and their uniforms and horses as well the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon and their generals as well as 180 degree cinema film in 3D of the battle itself. The latter was a truly involving and a remarkable experience of the horrors of war. Afterwards those who were fit climbed up the 266 steps of the Lion’s Mound that was constructed in 1826 and said to be where the Prince of Orange was said to have been injured in 1815. This gives an exceptional view of the battle field and its topography. Further afield was the fortified farmhouse of Hougoumont where a fierce battle raged between the English defenders and the French. There were other sites that we did not have time for including the Wellington Museum, The Headquarters of Napoleon and the Farm/Brewery of Mont-Saint John where the battle wounded were taken and where many amputations of arms and legs unfortunately to be made. Finally there was a demonstration of how the French artillery piece was loaded and fired – a long winded affair compared to modern warfare. By now there were indications that the weather was changing as a strong wind had started and dark clouds were beginning to form.
Luckily the evening went well despite the accident and again the food and conviviality were excellent. Sunday dawned overcast and with some rain. Oudenaarde itself was the centre of a flower market on Sunday morning, and the start of two cycle races of 70 and 100 Km. We walked around the square in between the showers and visited the 13th Century Cloth Hall to see the exhibits there and to trace the history of the town. The town had been the centre of tapestry in the 15th century and during the War of Spanish Succession the French were defeated there in 1708 by Eugene of Savoy and the Duke of Marlborough. It was also a centre of beer brewing and these went from alcoholic range of 3.5% to over 10.0% – one was enough! After lunch we split up and Jill and I went to Gent whilst the Zannetti’s stayed in the town. Gent was of course much larger and its cathedral and other buildings were impressive. There were many shops and the picturesque canal and other buildings were by now largely in sunshine but there was only time for a brief stop there for coffee before returning for the evening meal.
The Monday morning farewells and drive back to Dunkirk took place and with a little more time to spare as we approached the port it was easy to imagine how difficult it must have been to evacuate over 300,00 men from the very open beachhead during the Second World War, Back in Britain again after the flatness of the Belgian countryside it was a welcome sight to see English hills even though there had been a 13 mile go slow on the motorway out of Dover.
We know Derek Edwards would have enjoyed the trip and have to thank him and the IOW team for enabling us to have such an enjoyable time.