Up until 2013 I had only visited Tyne Cot cemetery for a quick stop whilst on a band trip. It made a lasting impression and the thought was there to visit the battlefields someday and the memorial at Arras upon which my great grandad was commemorated on.
In early 2013 whilst discussing holidays I mentioned my idea of heading over to France and Belgium to my friend Tracey, she was up for it and offered to drive. I embarked on planning a suitable trip which would take in the main sites of the western front.
Although Ypres seemed the natural place to start, I noticed that the Somme battlefields looked a bit more of a relaxing holiday out in the countryside type of place so ordered a guide book. This was Major and Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to the Somme. With routes already laid out in the book our tour was well on its way and a visit up to Arras was planned to see where great grandad was commemorated. This one guidebook purchase back in 2013 has now been joined by around thirty others, see links for book recommendations.
Reading through the guide book I realized that some of Queensbury’s war dead must be buried or commemorated in the area, so photographed the war memorial and began researching, see research page for more details.
September 2013 the two of us set off in the trusty Ford Focus, ‘Delila’, for the first of many visits to the Western Front, in September 2019 we paid our first visit to the Normandy battlefields. If you have ever considered a battlefield tour, then do it. There are several major tour companies that run tours, and these are great way for your first introduction to the battlefields, but as you can see we chose to do it our self, here are few ideas to help you out if you take this option.
Living up north raises issues, as France and Belgium are not on the doorstep. For most of our trips we have opted to travel via ferry using P&O’s Hull to Zeebrugge overnight route. Although a little pricey it cuts down on driving and gives a holiday feel to the trip. I have found that when booking, don’t take the option they give you, strip down to saver and build up, if you do, you will save money.
We have used the Dover crossing several times, including a few trips when Tracey has been replaced by the lads. An early start, around 05.00am on a Sunday will see you get an easy drive down and with luck you will be on the 11.00am crossing. Coming back can be a trek, so we now go out via Dover and return overnight via Zeebrugge.
We have used the Portsmouth/Le Havre route once, allowing us to get to the costal cemeteries before then heading inland and for our Normandy trip we used the Portsmouth/Caen crossing. It should be noted that if you go for the overnight sailings you get only a few hours sleep before it is time to wake and climb back into your car. It was a bit of shock to leave the ferry at Caen still in the dark, luckily we had a plan and arrived at our first cemetery as the sun was rising.
If you wish to fly, you can fly from Manchester to Paris Beauvais. This will see you an hour or so from Arras and the Somme battlefields and is good option if you don’t wish to take out your own car and are happy to drive with the steering wheel on the wrong side.
Following the Queensbury fallen has taken us well off the tourist trail, used by the organised tours. To do this I have put in a lot of work before we travel. Sat nav does work and will get you around. However, to make best use of time on the ground and to take in as much as possible a study of google maps is required. Hours have been spent looking for a cemetery then planning how to get to it, what is near by and what order to visit in. Some days have seen the two of us visit 20 locations and planning was the key to not getting too lost or too grumpy. Also make sure you have a good map with you as the Belgian’s have a habit of closing the road you want.
Accommodation is of course a personal choice. When visiting the Somme, we go for self-catering staying at Chavasse farm in the village of Hardecourt-aux-bois. The town of Albert is just a few miles down the road and along with supermarkets has several places to eat out in an evening, although I wouldn’t recommend the Japanese or was it Chinese restaurant. If you prefer a B&B then Number 56 in the village of Ovillers-La-Boisselle is recommended, which reminds me, make sure you have car breakdown cover.
Ypres has many options for accommodation, ranging from hostels to 5-star hotels. We use a B&B just on the edge of the town by the Lille gate, B&B Hortensia, in the evening it will take you 10mins to walk to the Menin gate for the Last Post Ceremony. Ypres has many places to eat and many beers to sample.
For stays in Arras and Compiegne we have used the major chains, you know what you are getting, and prices are reasonable.
We stayed in Bayeux for our Normandy trip, booking an apartment, it was a great base for our trip with easy routes to all the D-day beaches and plenty of bars and restaurants.
Driving in France and Belgium has not caused us many problems, if anything we have found they have an obsession for road signs and you will often see signs for somewhere 189km’s away. Local wise the French have a habit of pointing direction signs at an angle you can only read on passing, this is often the case on roundabouts.
Many motorways have tolls, so make sure you have loose change at hand, they also take cards. Aim for the picture you want, cash or card, upon pulling up you will usually find it is the opposite to what you wanted. Finally make sure you have all emergency requirements including, in the car, high vis vests.
As stated you can opt to visit the battlefields on an organised tour, we though have found that our way, setting a project such as finding lads from your village and then planning your own trip leads for a much more rewarding experience. If you would like assistance in planning of a trip and visiting the Queensbury fallen please contact me.