FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Brussels unpacked

Posted in Belgium, Brussels by folkestonejack on November 27, 2011

My long weekend in Brussels is now all but done. I had vastly underestimated the number of museums in the city and we only managed to see a fraction but this was still quite sufficient to induce information overload after three days. Our trip had taken in the archaeological site of the Coudenberg Palace, BelVUE, the comic strip museum, the Magritte museum, the museum of musical instruments, the Halleport and the museum in the Maison du Roi.

Added to this, we stumbled across a number of monuments and historic buildings that we hadn’t planned to see but couldn’t ignore. The Anglo-Belgian Memorial was one of these – a sight instantly recognisable as the work of Charles Sargeant Jagger and as striking as the other monuments that he designed (such as the GWR war memorial at Paddington, the British Memorial at Nieuwpoort and the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner). The monument stands in recognition of the support given by the Belgians to British Prisoners of War during the First World War. The nearby monument to the Belgian Infantry outside the Palace of Justice was also quite stunning, though none of the photographs I took in the miserable weather really captured this.

If I had to pick a favourite museum it would be tough. I particularly enjoyed walking around the archaeological site of the Coudenberg Palace as we had the place to ourselves and it was amazing to see the extent of the cellars and sealed off streets that were hidden away beneath the Place Royale. I also loved the art nouveau interior of the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (Belgian comic strip centre) which was incredibly once just a warehouse. I think it is one of those rare occasions where a building’s new use is actually a better showcase for its splendour than the original purpose.

It wasn’t much of a gastronomic adventure, but I would have to recommend the Horta Brasserie at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre for a tasty lunch and great beer in an amazing setting.

Anyway, all of that is now behind me… a swift return journey on the Eurostar should get me back into London in time for a sunday roast and a return to reality.

The irresistible lure of the atomium

Posted in Belgium, Brussels by folkestonejack on November 26, 2011

The atomium has fascinated me ever since I saw some pictures of it as a child, so first thing this morning we took the metro out to Heysel to get a better look. It must all have seemed incredibly futuristic when it was built as the centrepiece of Expo 58 and it is remarkable that it retains that wow factor to this day. It manages to be even more impressive as you draw closer and begin to appreciate the scale of the structure from underneath.

I was among a small group of early arrivals who took the lift up to the panoramic pod for a view out over the exhibition grounds and nearby stadium, which keeps you entertained for five minutes before you head back down to visit the remaining pods. In all honesty the remaining displays in the atomium are not terribly impressive – a rather lacklustre display about Expo 58 and a very dull temporary exhibition about immigration.

Maybe it is always going to be impossible to live up to that exterior view, but it rather feels like they are not even trying. Don’t get me wrong – it was still fascinating to explore the interior using a combination of stairs, escalators and lifts (which have a glass roof that allows you to see all the way up to the top) but I just wish that it left you a little more inspired.

A journey from Lego to Tintin

Posted in Belgium, Brussels, England, London by folkestonejack on November 24, 2011

I have long intended to spend a weekend in Brussels after catching a fleeting glimpse of the city at night years ago, but in the end it has taken me sixteen years to make the trip back. It is also my first opportunity to take the Eurostar from St Pancras. All my previous trips on Eurostar had been from Waterloo International and as convenient as that was for a south londoner it’s impossible to deny the vast improvement in departure lounge facilities that the move north has brought about.

I had feared that I wouldn’t reach St Pancras in time after getting to my local station to find announcements about a ‘major signal failure at London Bridge’ but luck was on my side today. I somehow still managed to be early, so had a chance to wander round and admire the freshly installed lego christmas tree. As something of a lego-addict as a kid it was hard to resist a smile at seeing the towering tree which has been made from 600,000 lego bricks (with 172 branches and 1200 baubles also made from lego).

LEGO Christmas Tree at St Pancras

Close up of the LEGO Christmas Tree at St Pancras

It seemed somehow appropriate that after leaving St Pancras and it’s lego christmas tree behind the first sight we saw in Brussels was a giant mural of Tintin clinging onto a steam locomotive at Brussels Midi. In fact, this mural set the theme for the day. As we had arrived too early to check in we used the comic strip walk as a useful way to wander around the city centre and get our bearings before heading to our hotel. The trail is marked out on a map (available from the tiny tourist information office at the station for 0.50 euros) and it was remarkably good fun to follow the route without knowing which mural we would see and quite where in each street we would find it.

The preparations for christmas were well under way with market stalls being installed across the city centre and rehearsals taking place for the first of the electrabel nights (a rather wonderful sound and light show played out across the Grand Place). It was a challenge to wander round the city without stumbling across a chocolate shop every few yards but thankfully the prices were sufficiently high to help me resist temptation!

A landscape of cemeteries

Posted in Longueval, Neuve Chapelle, Villers-Bretonneux, Ypres by folkestonejack on August 28, 2011

Anyone who has driven through the countryside of northern France or Belgium will recognise the dark green road signs that indicate a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery is approaching. The sight of the beautifully maintained roadside cemeteries, large and small, soon becomes a familiar part of the landscape. Our drive from Ypres to Amiens presented many such moments of recognition.

Ypres at sunrise

Our drive took us out of Ypres, south to Messines Ridge British Cemetery, and then on to the Indian War Memorial at Neuve Chapelle. The memorial is located at a busy roundabout where the D947 crossses the D171 and it is rather remarkable that the moment you walk through the gate this world slips away. The beautiful space inside exudes calm and peace.

The Indian War Memorial at Neuve Chapelle

Detail from the Indian War Memorial

Our third stop was Arras, where we re-visited the Arras Memorial, having once again discovered that a distant member of the family was listed on the panels here. It seemed like a bad day to be crossing Arras as half the town seemed to be dug up for roadworks and it was the day of a marathon so many roads were closed or reduced to single lanes. Nevertheless, we eventually made it through to the memorial where we paid our respects to Frederick Henry Kent.

Exterior of the Arras Memorial

Interior of the Arras Memorial

The next stop was one of the smaller cemeteries, Grove Town Cemetery at Méaulte. After a number of frustrating drives in the past trying to locate small cemeteries we had taken the precaution of doing our homework this time and came armed with printouts showing the location of the cemetery on satellite images of the area. This proved very necessary as many of the printed and online maps that we consulted showed roads that seem no longer to exist following the construction and subsequent extension of Albert-Picardie Airport.

Grove Town was the name given to a casualty clearing station at Méaulte which dealt with the casualties from the Somme battlefields from September 1916 to April 1917. After the war the cemetery must have resumed a more peaceful aspect at the end of a dirt track amongst the fields, but these days it is just a short walk away from the perimeter fence of the airport (which apparently sees regular use in the transportation of aircraft parts from the nearby Airbus factory). Nevertheless, at the time of our visit all was quiet.

A quick check of the cemetery plan showed us where to find Thomas William Bailey and we paid our respects. I wonder what he would think, as a worker in the GWR factory at Swindon, of the modern day engineering taking place at the nearby Airbus factory and flying out above him.

Grove Town Cemetery from the roadside

Cross and graves at Grove Town Cemetery

Grove Town Cemetery

The penultimate stop on our journey was Delville Wood, Longueval, where my grandfather’s cousin, Cecil Henry Bushell, died on 3rd September 1916 just eight days short of his 18th birthday. The wood today is the location of the South African War Memorial and its tranquilty is as far removed from the horrors of the past as you can imagine.

Cecil Henry Bushell (1898-1916)

Our final stop of the day was the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens. The memorial commemorates all Australian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium, with the panels listing those who died at the Somme, Arras and in the battles of 1918.

The Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux

Th steps up to the The Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux

The Menin Gate

Posted in Belgium, Ypres by folkestonejack on August 27, 2011

Three trips to Belgium have taken us to the Menin Gate. On the first occasion we had no knowledge of any family names inscribed on the panels, but by the time of our second visit we had discovered one name from one of the Wiltshire families on my father’s side. Not long after we returned we discovered a further name, this time a distant relation on my mother’s side of the family. It was for this reason that we had come back, to pay our respects to Frederick Ernest Phillips of the Australian Infantry Force.

The tales don’t get any less tragic, but in this case the added detail provided by the red cross files somehow gives it a brutal edge. The files for Sergeant Phillips record that he was “killed outright at Passchendaele, at the hop-over, by a shell” and a second witness stated that he had seen him “lying dead in a shell hole”. Sadly, the story is a familiar one – as the names of many Australian soldiers on the neighbouring panels testify.

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