Flanders

Fools’ Tour 2010 (Heritage Article)

Why Fools’ Tour? Well the focus of the tour was a visit to the medieval city of Bruges and the locals are known as Bruges Zots, (or Fools, as in clowns).

The local brewery, and the only one inside the city walls, brews a beer called Zot. Not that beer was on the menu for the Scouts and Explorers heading for Belgium this August.

An early morning start, up before the sparrows, saw us cross by the Channel Tunnel into France where we met with a rain that was forecast to last all week. However, on arrival at our residence for the week, the Scout Centre at Merkenvelde, just outside Bruges, the rain let up, allowing us to head into Bruges for a gentle stroll in the evening sunshine.

It turned out that we had arrived in the middle if Klinkers, a music festival that lasts for three weeks. However, tired from a long day we listened to the bands for just a short while before heading back to base and bed.

Sunday was a day of calm, but nonetheless we walked into the local village of Loppem to visit the chateaux, only to find it closed. But the walk was interesting and allowed everyone to settle down. The only outstanding local feature was a, now, rather incongruous concrete block in the middle of a field. It was a WW1 German bunker, something we were to learn more of later in the week.

Monday was our first day in Bruges. We headed in on the local bus, on a 10 trip ticket, cutting the cost of the round trip from 180 Euro to 60 Euro. Once in town we made the Market Square in front of the Belfry our meeting point, and after a race up the Belfry to the bells and the viewing platform we headed back down.

Even, although the viewing platform was slightly restricted due to renovations, the remaining view was, as always, spectacular. The party was then split into three groups of seven, each led by a responsible Explorer or Scout, and they were allowed to roam the city centre.

Each Scout or Explorer was given 5 Euro and they each bought their own lunch. Then we headed off to the Chip Museum. Who would have thought that there could be a museum about chips? It was actually very interesting and gave food for thought on a number of levels. And perhaps an idea for a Global Challenge project to follow the current Chocolate based project at Clayton West.  A joint ticket also got us into Chocostory, the chocolate museum.

After a short walk and chill-out, we all headed into Truim, an Italian restaurant where the staff were traumatised by serving 29 Scouts – who were all actually very well behaved.

Tuesday was a challenge, we hired bikes in Bruges and cycled along the Napoleonic canal to the town of Sluis on Holland. The flat going was easy going for most, but a challenge for one who, it turned out, had not cycled since she was an infant, but she rose to the challenge and despite assorted close encounters with a hedge, the nettles and a small tree, managed to make it through the 20 mile round trip almost physically unscathed.

Despite the poor  weather forecast, the day turned out to be sunny, and after finishing our visit to Domein Raversijde, we headed to the beach for a paddle in the sea, a few of the Scouts decided that a paddle wasn’t enough and they went for a swim, brave lads. Nev somehow tripped and fell in. It did, however prompt him to change his clothes – much to everyone’s relief!

Thursday was a serious day. The only day where we required uniform. We travelled down to the Ypres Salient, stopping first at Tyne Cot, where in low voices the party took in the very personal stories of the conflict around Paschendale in the interpretation centre. However, not even the before and after aerial reconnaissance photographs prepared some for the extent of the cemetery. There were gasps of shock as the party rounded the memorial wall and the rows and rows of grave markers came into view.

After some time reading the head stones and checking the memorial wall, Bruce and Tom Wadsworth found their Great Uncle’s Special Memorial stone. It was a moving moment for them.

We then gathered in front of the Memorial to the Missing, and Georgia Crossland read “In Flanders Fields” and Ben Pugh “In Dulce Et Decorum Est”, whilst the party stood and listened. The former written by Major John McRae, a Canadian, who saw his friend’s body being carried off at Paschendale, the latter the one war poem that every schoolchild knows, and ever so apposite in the surroundings of Tyne Cot.

The next stop was Ypres itself. After lunch, which we ate in the Great Square where the troops had mustered before marching out the Menin Way, we paid a visit to the amazing “In Flanders Fields” exhibition in the rebuilt cloth hall.

Here, every visitor becomes a real person from the past, and they follow their life, and death, as they move through the museum. It was the second visit to the museum for Ewan and Fiona Scott, but there is so much to see that a return visit is on the cards for another trip.

After some free time in Ypres, we assembled for an evening meal at Poppy steakhouse. It at first seems wrong that the restaurants and shops seem to cash in on the tragedy, but, in reality the very troops who served, and all too often died here, spent much of their free time making mementos which they sold in the remaining local shops. So, today’s traders are simply continuing the tradition begun in the trenches in 1914.

Then, it was on to the Menin Gate, by 7:15 crowds had started to gather, and we arranged for the Scouts and Explorers to be “on parade” at the front of the crowd, whilst the wreath bearers, Jess Dunhill and Troy Llewellyn were positioned to be able to play their part in the ceremony.

Shortly before the ceremony we were told that the Canadian Minister for Veterans was attending, along with a party from the Canadian Vimy Foundation. So, our party was supporting the Canadians at the Last Post ceremony.

As eight o’clock drew nearer the crowd grew quieter, the talk turned to whispers, the whispers to silence. The Act of Remembrance was introduced and we were all instructed not to applaud or cheer. Then silence fell as the town clock struck 8:00.

The Buglers played the last post, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the Canadian Minister, read the eulogy, and the wreaths were laid, followed by a solo rendition of “Oh Canada” by a young lady from the Vimy Foundation. Then the silence fell once more and the Buglers played Reveille.

Then the crowd slowly, and quietly started to melt away.

As the ceremony ended the Canadian Minister said a quick few words of thanks to some of the Scouts, before going off to talk to the Canadian delegation.

Then, as we were about to leave, the Buglers came across and we were all mustered for a photograph with them at the Menin Gate.

It was a day that none of us will forget.

Friday was a free day in Bruges, Callum organised a beer order for those wishing to take a present back to Dad, and Fiona directed everyone to the Dumon Chocolate shop which did a roaring trade. The owner of the Bottle Shop on Wollenstraat, recognised Fiona immediately she walked into the store. Which is odd, given that Fiona doesn’t drink beer!

She explained that whilst the town was busy, the past two years had seen the amount being spent by tourists falling and everyone was just a little quieter than they had been in the past. A sign that the economy is still not quite on the mend, perhaps.

Fiona suggested that if people wanted the best chocolates in Bruges, that they should visit the Dumon Chocolate shop  in the Eiermarkt. The firm also has two other outlets in the town, but this quaint little shop in one of the older buildings has a unique charm. It also has Madame Dumon, who effuses about chocolate and the work her son does. She makes sure every customer gets a free sample (some of us get two!). It seemed that despite the town brimming with chocolate shops, almost everyone who bought chocolates did so from Dumon.

When Fiona dropped in for her regular purchase, Madame Dumon recognised her and insisted that we come in for a chat and a sample.

It never ceases to amaze me that Fiona gets recognised in both the Bottle Shop and by Madame Dumon when we only visit twice a year, but the local shopkeepers in Denby Dale don’t know her and she drops in two or three times a week!

The day was finished with a typical Bruges meal at the Pannier d’Or, one of the restaurants on the square, where most opted for either Flemish Beef Stew, Rabbit Stew or Mussels for their main course.

Saturday was the long haul home, though we had to abandon Callum and the Clayton West Crew at the site as Callum’s car locked itself, with the only set of keys sitting on the back seat! This was where Callum discovered yet another trait of his ex-Police Volvo… it has armoured glass! However, a call to a local garage and some head scratching and light modification to the doors and the keys were recovered.

The Fools Tour was a first in many respects. It was the first self catering residential at a Scout Centre for us. It was the first time abroad for some. It was the first time on public transport for several, and the first time in many years on a bike for one or two. It was, for all of us a first to take part in the Last Post Ceremony, something that we feel we perhaps ought to repeat in the future.

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