Monday, 31 October 2011

Graveyard Stroll

Ahhhhh.. tis that time of year again. Samhain or Hallowe'en. Feeling decidedly un-Witchsome this year (even more than last), I have feebly recreated the same remembrance hearth of last year. That said, I still felt the need to actually do something to mark the day. It being an occasion to remember those that have passed, I felt it apt to go for a graveyard stroll (granted, on the day before the day

That may sound a tad weird to some of you, but I grew up playing in a rather large cemetery that is situated behind the old abode of my Grandparents in Southgate, North London. This was due to a childhood friend losing her mother when we were 5. We ended up going their most Saturdays and Sundays to tend her grave.

Not a lot of adults present made it the perfect place to explore. I think, because of said friends personal connection, we were never disrespectful or unruly. I found out many years later that my own Grandfather was also buried there. Oddly, near to where we used to hang out. 

Anywho. This gave me a lifelong fascination with graveyards. I love to walk around them, taking in the peaceful silence and inspecting headstones, especially aged ones. Near me, in Epsom, there is quite a large cemetery. 

On a recent bus journey whereby I was sitting up the top (as I feel is law when upon a double decker -  this too stems from childhood) I noticed what appeared to be a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial. As in, white stoned walls and plaques. I was intrigued. I have not seen one outside of France/Belgium.

So, we headed off on a wet, yet warm Sunday to have a stroll...

I chose to take some photos of graves that intrigued me. I have not seen such decorated headstones before. Angels and tombs, yes. Flowers, ivy and birds captured in stone, no.

We got there pretty early, which in itself was nice. 

I always find cemeteries crowded yet quiet.

As we made our way towards the CWGC memorial I noticed a couple of instantly recognisable headstones. That were not encompassed in the memorial itself. I shall be delving into why they have their own plots at some point...

Approaching the main memorial, it made me feel like I was back, across the Channel.

A little webbing when I got home revealed that the majority of those listed died locally at Horton War Hospital as it was then.

148 men are listed here, with nationalities ranging from Canadian to Indian.

We had a quick sit down and watched a lone Magpie. For Sorrow. How apt.

Before we left, we had a peek at Epsom's War Memorial which commemorates local lads who became the Fallen. Lads and one woman. Who, naturally, I shall now have to try and find out more about. In fact, I shall have to first find out which of the names is actually her. 

Again, I have no clue as to who this photo depicts, or how long it has been sitting there. A while, judging by the damage to it.

So, what I intended to be a nice, calm, humble saunter through resting places instead left me fired up and wanting to investigate.

Ahhhhh.. the Samhain spirit works in mysterious ways....

Enjoy your pumpkins, pumpkins!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

WW1 Vacance l'Histoire - Jour Deux #2


Ok -  so  -  yes. I had to split my last post. I did say it would be long, but I felt it a little overwhelming for one sitting. Even my arse had gone numb. So, I am back with the second installment of Day 2. If anything -  it shows how much was crammed into our days. There is so much history to absorb, my head was swimming. And the afternoon left me slightly spooked...

After we had left Theipval we drove a short distance to The Sunken Lane. This is a place both me and my Dad wanted to visit, on account of the below footage and the story that goes with it.

The men in this short, silent film had been insitu for the whole of the night before. The date was the 1st July 1916, the first, horrific day of The Battle of the Somme. I believe none of them returned alive.

They would have heard the colossal explosion of the nearby Hawthorn Mine and then made their way down this very path. The fact that it remains unchanged, despite the carnage that was occurring nearby, was mind blowing to me. And although it is a quiet out-of-the-way place, the atmosphere is full. It felt almost overcrowded in some way. We kept looking for a place to sit and have a contemplative smoke but each spot we decided on seemed to be "taken". That's the only way I can describe it. So we ended going further and further up the lane, until we felt "out of the way". That feeling still makes me shiver a little when I think about it.

Just at the end of the lane, across the way, is the site of the Hawthorn Mine. Now on private land, belonging to a gentleman who can sometimes greet persistent visitors with a gruff "Oui" and a nod to allow them access or alternatively, a shotgun and a resounding "NON!", we decided to view from afar.

To be honest -  I am not sure I would have wanted to be any closer to where such a huge explosion happened. If you want to see just how huge it was -  click here.

From here we got back in the car (there was a lot of this you will have noticed) and went to visit the Sheffield Memorial. Dad and I came here last year on the 1st July, after attending a morning service at Theipval. When we arrived, I noticed how silent it was. There was a breeze, but no birdsong. This creeped me out a tad, being a gal who believes in things like spirits and echos. What made me a little more on edge was the feeling I got when I was there. I could literally not force myself to go any further than the top of the slope. I felt sick. I felt anxious. I wanted to run.

This year, in the company of The Beard, Ma and my Dad, I forced myself to go a little further towards where the trench would have been at the bottom. I will admit, I expressed a bit of false bravado in the manner of saying out loud "I can do this.. I can.. I can...".

The result?

I felt like I was walking through clay. I physically could not make myself move forward. The anxiety I felt made my heart race. I turned and bolted back past the line of my nearest and dearest who were walking behind me, now saying out loud "No.. no.. no.. f*ck that.. NO!" The whole area at the bottom of the slope feels saturated with fear to me. Saturated. I am in no doubt that the men who were stationed there and who then had to make there way up the hill and over the top in lines of 10 or 12, only to be greeted by German gunfire, have left their echo's behind.

So, I sat and waited for the others to return from visiting the cemetery and then we all headed to another one just across the way. The thing that struck me about it, is although this is, once more, in the middle of a working field, there is a lush and green pathway leading to it. And that the flowers were all yellow roses.

Back in the broom and a quick detour to a small cemetery to take some photos for some of Pop's friends. We stumbled upon this grave, which touched me deeply. A young lad, aged just 16, who in all probability signed up with the men from his street or work place where he could have been part way through an apprenticeship - gone. The fact that he has a grave is a saving grace, I guess. But still - sixteen

A bit of a silent weep, and yep, back in the car. Off to the Canadian Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.

As you can see, by this point in the day, I am weary. My hair has turned into, frankly, a mess. It was so humid on that day that a makeshift plait was the only solution. I was also still feeling rather heavesome from my breakfast fail. The only redeeming feature of this pic is that I am sans foundation or powder. My skin does not look like this in the UK. Ever.

Beaumont Hamel is similar to Vimy Ridge in so much as it has been left. You can still see where the trenches would have been out in the fields, and there are some that you can walk through. It is a huge site and incredibly peaceful.

Last year, we only walked down this far on account of the searing heat (check out that blue sky!) This is known as Danger Tree, on account of it being a  German sniper target that many men could not get past without being hit.

This year, it was cooler and so we walked round the whole place and I am pleased that we did, because we got to see the German Trench above.  It may be calm and serene now, but at the time it would have been a hive of activity.

Before we headed back to the hotel, we cooled off in the fab visitors centre at the entrance to the site. I loved the lay out, the concise and personal accounts, the replica Newfoundland cabin which many of the men would have left far behind them at home and especially the ghostly images that are stuck strategically to the window.

I also loved the way they display personal artifacts. There was something very poignant about the hands passing the postcards.

And so, back to the hotel, via the supermarche and, what shall now be known forevermore as:-

"The Dinner of Disgust"

What you see before you in the remnants of one of the most expensive do-it-yourself-it'll-be-cheaper-than-the-hotel meals I have ever had. The offensive component is not in the photo, as by this point it had been sealed into a tomb of plastic bag awaiting a burial at bin-  but I swear I can still taste it. You must be wondering what the chuff I am on about?

Smoked chicken (gag).

A whole precooked, yummy looking, poule made it's way into our basket, along with some soft cheese, bread and various other nomables. We thought we would have a nice cup of tea and a quiet hour or so to digest the day. What we epically failed to realise was that the chicken had been subjected to "fume". The result, for me who hates smoked food, was one mouthful that I could not even swallow. The stench permeated the whole room. I swear to those above that I can still smell it now *shudder*

And thus ended Day Deux. I hope you are enjoying these post's people. I know that they are a lot longer than my usual ramblings, but we did so much on our trip -  I don't want to miss anything out. 

Signing off for now.... post trois is upon the horizon...

oi! stop that eye rolling at the back!

Friday, 21 October 2011

How to look ridiculous whilst drying ones locks...

Ready for a good chuckle? This little device makes The Beard chortle every time I attach it to my bonce. And I have to say -  it does look comical.


But. Oh! It does the job!! I snaffled this on eBay from this seller - but you can also search "hair dryer hood". 

 Although it is flimsy and I was worried about it melting, I have to say that it has not let me down. It is easy to use, store and it dries my hair nice and evenly. Without blowing it all over the place. And I can flick through a magazine with my free hand.

I have been relying on this for a few months now. A word to the wise. It does get VERY hot on the top of your head. And it will become dislodged if you use a high setting. So the low settting is in order with frequent blasts with the cooling button.

The elastic will is pretty standard and will fit most hair dryers.

Just be prepared to look a little daft. The things I do for curls!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

WW1 Vacance l' Histoire - Jour Deux #1

Well  -  if you have come back for more -  I salute you. I know my first post was a long'un. And this one, I fear may be longer. My advice, if you choose to stick around, would be to get a cuppa, a pack of Jaffa Cakes (other yummy snackage's are available) and settle in for the next instalment.

Now. My old man has a rule when on holiday and paying for a buffet breakfast. Eat. All. You. Can. This served me well last year, as we literally didn't eat from breakfast to dinner. With a large bottle of water inbetween. So, for our first breakfast, I thought I would do that same. What occured was not feeling full, satisfied smug tummness but something more akin to a weeble.

A hot, frizzy haired weeble.

Although it did exactly what it said on the tin, the thought of anything remotely food related made me want to barf until at least 7pm. In fact -  dinner itself nearly made me actually barf -but more on that later.  For me an epic Breakfast Fail.

This did not stop The Beard sneaking out some pain au chocolates. And stuffing them in later in the day. I had to turn away. It was too much.

So, off we headed in the muggy mizzle of France to our first stop of the day - 

I had not been to this before and it is something to behold. Immortalising nearly 11,000 unknown Australian soldiers killed between 1916 and the Armistice in 1918, it is a beautiful tribute.

There were a lot of poppies stuck by various names. Which I always find incredibly touching.

And so began the climb to the top of the tower to take in the view.

Again, situated in the middle of crop fields, the views, I am sure, would have been stunning were it not for the mizzle. But, there was a nice breeze to be had, albeit damp.

Whilst there I noticed some pock marks all around the memorial. We came to conclusion that they must be battle scars from WW2.

And in fact, they were. Turns out that this memorial was used by the French Resistance against the Nazi's due to its high vantage point. Odd that a memorial to commemorate the dead from a previous war, should be used to defend against the onslaught of another.

Back in the car and back on the road to The Devonshire Trench Cemetery. A small plot where the trench once was and the resting place of the men who had once inhabited it.

I find it incredibly touching that the men who survived buried their friends, possibly relatives, in a place that they had all been together not long before.

It was only a short stop over and then off again to visit the Lochnagar Mine Crater. When we visited this last year, my Pop's made me close my eyes and guided me to the edge. I have to say, the impact was immense. The size of the crater cannot be described and no photo's I could ever take would show you the size. I have feebly tried to show you the scale below. I am on the opposite side of the crater.

I walked around in silence, which takes about 10 mins at a slow amble, pondering different things about the site. The German soldiers who died here when the ground erupted beneath them were at the forefront of my mind, closely followed by the English soldiers who died trying to take the location once the mud and bodies had fallen back to earth and are commemorated by various benches. Why all men who perished here are not, in this day and age, remembered, is beyond me, but it is what it is.

The rain settled in as we reached Thiepval Memorial.  On the previous visit, the weather was baking and it was the 1st July, so the place was heaving, due to the annual memorial parade to mark the first day of the battle. The memorial commemorates the near on 73,000 British and South African men who died during the Battle of The Somme and who have no known grave. None of them could be recognised. Seventy. Three. Thousand.

But, on this visit, the place was practically empty. Which I really liked. I am the sort of gal who likes to visit things out of season, as it were, when there is no one else around. On every expanse of Portland Stone that you can see, there are reams of names.

Thiepval reminds me a little of Battersea Power Station for it's strong looking, red-bricked demeanour. It makes me think of home. Which I am sure it is meant to do.

There were various mementos left behind by relatives of someone lost. The above was the most touching I saw. No indication as to who they were to the lost soldier -  but simply showing that, in some way, he carried on.

Now. My hair. It was curled, quite nicely so, when I left the hotel. But the combination of heat and drizzle forced it back into a frazzled version of it's straight self. And this is how I felt about it. Especially that long strand on the right. Eugh.

But -  I was not glum for long, because just at the top of the car park, I found the sort of thing my own one-day-it-shall-be-mine garden would contain. A wildflower meadow. With the biggest, most scarlet poppies, Mediterranean sea looking cornflowers, sunshine yellow dandelions and pearly white daisies I have ever seen.

On that happier note, I shall leave off here. I fear I may be rambling so shall split day two into deux. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

WW1 Vacance l'Histoire - Jour Une

I promised you history -  and hopefully I shall deliver. Here follows the first installment of my second dalliance into the WW1 fields of the Western Front. I went last year with just my Par, but this year we took along Mar and The Beard too. The man we are researching, after all, is my Mum's Great-Grandfather, my G-G-Grandfather -  aka -  Gramps.   

We set off early. And I mean early. It was hot -  hotter than a hot thing on a hot tin roof, so I was pleased to be on the ferry and off to sea and its cooling breeze. Alas breeze equates to wind -  and that, as we know, is generally naff-tastic for curls. So out came the headscarf.

Which got me looks. The difference between this years trip and last, is that I don't really notice the sideways glances any more. Well -  not all the time. Then again, on this particular vessel, if you were not wearing a comfy slacks, screaming at a child or buying more duty free than you could carry, you were bound to stand out. I ignored and got on with catching up with my diary.

Off the ferry and a sweaty drive to Loos Memorial, our first stop. Pops had some pictures to take for some chums back home of their relatives resting places, which left me wandering about, looking for names from a list. The amount of time and care taken over the burial plots and memorial walls never ceases to amaze me. Each and every plot was pristine.

And the location of a lot (and I mean a LOT) of cemeteries are in the middle of working farmers fields. They were crop fields in 1914, and they are crop fields once more. Which makes them all the more poignant to me. This one is by a main road. It is just sitting there -  in all it's white stoned glory.

I think more upsetting than those headstones that have names are, invariably, those that don't. And there are all too many of these.

After this, we headed off to Vimy Ridge.

When I arrived last year, I was a little baffled and taken aback by the undulating landscape and the trees. One of the tour guides, who are all usually Canadian students on a 2-3 month voluntary placement, explained to me that all the lumps & bumps were, once, gaping shell holes.

And that each tree was planted by the Canadian government of the day to symbolise a life lost or wounded defending this ridge.

For more on the battle of Vimy Ridge, have a scooch over here.

There are no words to describe the immensity of this memorial. You can see it from, literally, a mile away. It is a beacon on the local landscape. It is so colossal that I could not even get it all in one snap.

It was a beautiful day with clear skies and blinding, when standing upon a monument made of cream stone, sunshine. It actually hurts the eyes.

We strolled around for a while, until the heat got to us. We bade our farewells and headed off to the town of Arras.

The Arras Memorial holds a special place in my heart. For it is here, amongst the many thousands of names carved into the Portland Stone, that Gramps is immortalised. Proof that, although he has no known grave, he is remembered.

Last year, 93 years after he was Killed In Action on May 20th 1917 near the small French village of Noreuil, aged just 30 years, the same as I am now, I was the first member of his family ever to visit. 

The initial occasion produced emotion on a scale I have not encountered before. This year we returned, with more memorial crosses (which my Dad had made bearing an image of Gramps) and wreathes from his existing descendants. The emotion had not subsided.

Gramps shares the curved walls with the likes of Walter Tull, who's name has been pencilled over by some, I am sure, well meaning Tottenham Hotspur fan. But it goes to a whole new level when indelible marker is involved. I find this kind of act disgusting and the exact opposite of whatever the perpetrator was trying to create. This was not the only one I saw, during my trip. Which saddens me greatly. I do feel, however, that more could be done with some of the names that are up high on the walls, so that they are not so shadowed. But then, there are so many names, I am not too sure how this would be tackled.

We laid our wreathes and said fair well to the name on the wall of a man I never knew, and yet I feel deeply connected to.

We then headed off for our final stop of the day. This was as much a surprise to me as it was to the locals. Driving a Crysler into a small French village -  and I mean small, as in 20 houses , farm buildings and a church -  and getting out looking a bit time warp, tends to make the curtains twitch a bit. And in this case, people to come out and have a good old gawp. With their kids. And dogs. And pitchforks (I jest)

The reason for visiting Ivergny was due to the fact that my Dad had discovered that Gramps had been posted there for 9 days before being sent to the front. I was spooked. It looked no different, to how I am sure it looked then. Minus the Tommies and their khaki uniforms en masse. Chickens checking out the grass, locals peeking out to look at the English. And all I could keep thinking was "...he was here, physically here, walking this piece of road, with no knowledge of what was to come". I had a very quiet smoke and got back in the car.

We had a bit of a joke, which lifted my mood, that we would be on the front of the local rag with the headline:-

"Time Machine Arrives, Time Warp Woman Emerges And Smokes! "

So ended our first, pretty full on, day. We rested up in Albert, where I could see the Basilica from the hotel window. A hotel with Poppy carpet. It took all my willpower not to carve out a nice rug sized piece to take home.

I hope you are still with me & have enjoyed my regaling thus far!

There is a lot more to come in Day Deux


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