Bruges, battlefields, buttes and beers
After a few members opted out of the planned return to Ypres, the only affordable option for this year (with only two of us traveling) was to return to the organised tours run by Leger. The choice of tour – The Battlefields of Belgium – was a five-day affair, based in Bruges, with visits to both WWI and WWII sites, plus the added bonus of a first-ever look at Waterloo, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the week, despite the worst of the Belgian wet weather hitting us as we arrived.
The first shock of the week was the mega-early departure time…. 3am pick-up for me. At least the coach swap in Kent went well, and with the Dover customs queues being amazingly quiet – the quietest I’ve ever seen the place – we managed to catch a ferry an hour earlier than planned, which meant more time in Bruges on arrival, another plus point! Jon and myself met a couple of solo travellers on the coach down, both called Chris, who joined us for the nights out in Belgium, and who were good company throughout the week. One Chris was ex-Services, with some great tales of life as a medic in various theatres, while the other had travelled the world attending aviation events.
After getting thoroughly soaked at both Waterloo and Mons on the first day trip, the weather thankfully improved greatly through the week, and by the time we hit Walcheren Island on the Thursday, it was like midsummer. Wednesday saw us visit many familiar sites around Flanders, including Sanctuary Wood, Messines, Hooge Crater and last but not least, the always wonderful Ypres for Flemish stew at Den Anker, a beer in The Old Bill pub, and a front row spot for the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. The Gate itself is currently being refurbished ahead of the centenary celebrations in 2027. One for the calendar?
Thursday’s excursion took in the liberation of Belgium in late 1944, dropping in on the fantastic For Freedom Museum at Knocke-Heist, followed by the Breskens Pocket where the Canadians landed on the coast. The afternoon saw us tour Walcheren Island, finishing with a (too long) drive north of Antwerp to the CWGC cemetery at Bergen-op-Zoom, last resting place for many RAF Bomber Command crews who fell victim to the heavy AA presence in the area as they flew missions into the heart of Germany.
One of the most notable presences in Bergen-op-Zoom was Pilot Officer Lewis Burpee, RCAF, DFM, whose 617 Squadron Lancaster was hit by flak and came down on its way to take part in the famous Dambusters raid. Staying in Bruges was a welcome change on this tour, the family-run Hotel Olympia offered good facilities and was located not too far from the city centre so we managed a couple of nights at the bars and restaurants of the Eiermarkt, just off the picturesque main square. Needless to say, the trip home was a marathon rather than a sprint, and after leaving the hotel at 8am, we didn’t get home until 10.30pm, but that’s part and parcel of these coach trips. All in all, it was a great week with great company, an excellent tour guide (Gary Ashley), and as ever, some great food and beers. Mmmm…. mussels and frites….