I had first thought about doing a tour around battlefields of Belgium and Northern France a year before I set off on this trip. I hadn’t quite managed to get a good route sorted out and, finding myself running out of time to plan it properly had swapped over to my other plan of riding across the top of Scotland for that summer’s tour instead. So, still wanting to create my own tour that would take me around some World War I battle sites before the end of the 100 years anniversary of the end of that war I started my planning again at the turn of 2018. This time a plan and a route fell into place surprisingly easily. Everything fitted in nicely. The Eurostar service to get me to the start at Brussels. Some decent looking accommodation at appropriate locations and reasonable prices. The ferry back to Dover from the French coast. Over the next few months I made a couple of minor tweaks to the plans but they stayed largely as first conceived. So it was that I was ready to give the world the “Four War Tour” taking in the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo as well as some key sites from both World Wars.
As is usually the case with my tours the dates were chosen to fit in around my other half’s annual two week “busman’s holiday” at the Ness of Brodgar excavations in Orkney. As such my plans settled on a Tuesday start in early August with a return home on the Saturday evening. The Tuesday start was partly chosen with the Eurostar timetable in mind as that gave me the best train to Brussels from my nearest International station at Ashford. There were some logistics to arrange though. The one downside to using Ashford International station is that you are not able to load large luggage, including fully assembled bikes, there. They have to be loaded on at St. Pancras. That might naturally therefore suggested my having to go into London to join service there. However one cannot also carry bicycles on the morning commuter trains into the city. I therefore had to conclude my preparations the day before and on the Monday afternoon I took a special trip into London for the sole purpose of checking my bike in with the Eurostar Dispatch service.
That all went to plan; however the day before I made that trip I had received a message from Eurostar to inform me that my train was no longer going to be stopping at Ashford and that I would have to get to Ebbsfleet instead. Although only another 30 miles away this was a major headache. I could no longer get the early train from Hastings as I would not be able to get from Ashford to Ebbsfleet in time to check in. Instead I would have to get up stupidly early, drive to Ashford and park the car there for the week, and then get an early train to Ebbsfleet.
So it was that the Tuesday morning came much earlier than originally planned. My bike was already in London and would hopefully be there to meet me in Brussels. I was out of the house at an unearthly hour (it had a 4 at the start), had a top notch breakfast from the early morning McDonalds Drive Through in Ashford and was soon getting on the fast train to Ebbsfleet – looking a bit odd in all my cycling gear but without a bike. The amended plans, although adding a lot of time and a fair bit of money to the start of my trip (which I’m in the process of trying to claim back), had worked out well and I was soon checked in at Ebbsfleet and taking on more coffee to wake me up.
The train arrived on time and left ten minutes late; mostly I think due to the quite unprecedented levels of faffing about required by some of the people getting onto the same carriage as me. I’ve never seen such levels of incompetence when it comes to working out how to board a train. Once we were on the way the journey went as smoothly and quickly as one expects from Eurostar and we were soon pulling into Brussels Midi station.
My fears about not meeting up with my bicycle were very quickly alleviated. As I walked down the platform I came across the luggage wagon in the process of being unloaded – with my bike very clearly amongst the items on the train. I showed my paperwork to the staff who were happy to hand it straight over to me without my having to go to the luggage office to collect. Instead I was able to get straight out of the station (having first arranged all my bags and equipment and having filled up my various water bottles) ready to begin my adventure.
It took a couple of minutes to work out precisely on my maps where I had exited and in which direction I should be heading. Once my GPS had fully kicked in it became clear, I plotted my immediate route, and headed off. I only needed to take a few short sections on road before coming onto the Brussels Canal which would (largely) be my route out of the city. It was nice to be on my way and lovely to be starting out on a canal tow path; so often riding through cities can be an unpleasant experience but this was lovely. The sun was out (I’d already slathered on the factor 50) and the day was hot. After just a couple of miles however it was time to take a small diversion. I’ve done many silly diversions to take in some odd sights on my rides but this was probably the silliest. However if you’re going to start a “Grand Tour” in the home of the grandest tourer of them all then it seems wrong not to pay a little tribute; and this was just such a little tribute.
About a mile off the tow path, just up a fairly non-descript road is a building in the central reservation. It’s the above ground entrance to a suburban station on the Brussels Underground. I bought a ticket from the machine outside and, as they seem enlightened enough to allow bikes to be taken on the trains I pushed my bike through the ticket barriers and down the lift onto the platform. At the far end of a fairly dull and slightly dilapidated station was the artefact I was looking for. For this station is named “Eddy Merckx” after the five time Tour De France winner, and there at the far end of the station is a glass case containing the bike that he broke the one hour record (by riding 49.431Km in that time) in 1972.
Tribute completed I returned to the surface and, after a small concern when I couldn’t initially get the bike out of the station, headed back towards the canal and carried on out of the city.
At Lot I left the tow path behind me and headed onto the roads. At Eisengen I stopped at the Okay Supermarket and acquired my lunch for the day; bread rolls, a net bag of babybels, some chocolate, a packet of mini saucisson sticks and a couple of small bottles of a random flavour of Fanta. Around the corner I found a church bench and tucked in. The day was now very hot and the next 15 or so miles were largely uphill – not by much but enough of a constant small drag to notice. Somewhere along the way I passed a pharmacist with an electronic sign claiming the temperature had reached 40 degrees. I’m not sure I quite believed that but it was as hot as any cycling I’ve ever done. My water bottles were beyond warm. My throat was drying out within seconds. I was going to need to keep my water levels topped up throughout the day. The following miles were at least fairly uneventful and before too long I was riding into the town of Waterloo.
Before heading to the battle site first of all I had decided to take a look at the museum based in the building that served as Wellington’s headquarters before and after the battle. I locked the bike up outside and the lovely people on the front desk were happy for me to leave my panniers with them whilst I wandered around. I bought a ticket that also included access to the main museum at the battle field (and some other nearby museums as well) and went in. The museum was a pretty standard local/military museum and quite enjoyable for it. I also found a water fountain which I drank my fill from and returned before leaving to fill up my bottles.
I headed South along the main road, over a few busy junctions, and finally, once out of the town, came upon the road junction at which Wellington based himself during the battle itself. At the junction I turned right to head towards the Lion Mound and Panorama Museum. I parked the bike up and wandered down into the bunker that is the new museum and visitors centre. I showed my ticket from the Wellington Museum and threw my paniers into one of the many lockers that were available. The visitor centre is pretty good and quite a lot more than I was anticipating.
There are lots of waxworks showing the troops of both sides as they march towards battle and depicting them setting themselves up ready; there was a genuine guillotine in one room with a display outlining how France had come to be led by Napoleon; there were all manner of interactive displays and more traditional museum cases; there was an upside down horse (no idea why) and a model hot air balloon (so you can get an ‘aerial view’) of the site. It is a great little museum and I might have liked to spend some more time in there but I was hot, it was already well into the afternoon and I still had 2/3 of the day’s riding in front of me.
Instead I left from the little stairwell that takes you into the old Panorama exhibition where I did have a look at the virtual reality experience that gives you a view around the battle site. This is something that particularly interests me. Back in 1994 at University I gave my final undergraduate lecture on how new technology, most notably this new “Virtual Reality”, might revolutionise the presentation of heritage sites. Here we are 24 years later and its now really starting to happen, though there is still a way to go yet.
I then made the ascent of the 225 steps up on to the top of the Lion Mound. Built in the immediate years after the battle as a permanent reminder it is quite a site to behold and gives great views out across the battle field helping you to understand how big the site was. The lines of British and Allied troops occupied a long line across one ridge with the French headquarters quite some way off. You always know when watching re-enactment societies that their displays are vey compressed but it is quite something to see the true scale of these great moments in history, Indeed it is quite interesting to see how large the scale of this battle was when then compared to some of the WWI trench sites I would see later on the tour.
I finished my visit with a quick look at the old 360 panorama exhibition in the old, slightly run down, circular display building and then headed back, gathering my bags and got on my way. I headed back to Wellington’s cross road, looked around at some of the various monuments around there (there are an awful lot of monuments around the battlefield; 135 of them apparently). This also helped me to spot the cycle path running south to the side of the main road so I followed that as I headed across to the French positions.
I passed the Victor Hugo column. I’m not sure why he has such a massive column here. He was about 13 at the time of the battle. He wrote about it afterwards but I’m till at loss as to why he seems to get such a prominent monument here. Further away again, probably 2-3 miles from the crosroads, you come across the farm that served as Napoleon’s last headquaters. Shortly afterwards I turned west and off the main road and onto the ‘Chemin du Crucifix’.
By now I was very hot. My mouth was almost constantly dry and taking small regular sips of warm (almost hot) water from my bottles wasn’t helping for long. I came across my first taste of Pavé – although it was mostly only covering half of the road so most of the time I was able to avoid it. After the pavé things looked briefly worse as my map took me onto a very rough track. I wasn’t overly happy with this – I could really do without being bounced around on loose tracks and I needed to make up some time which was not going to be easy without tarmac under my tyres.
Fortunately it didn’t last long and I was soon back on proper roads and shooting down into the village of Baulers and from there into the outskirts of Nivelle. By this point I was at the stage where I was starting to make mistakes. I was hot, tired, thirsty. I wasn’t looking forward to navigating my way through a town and so followed my instincts. My instincts were hot, tired, thirsty, and wrong. As I veered off to the South (I should have been continuing West) the only thing going for them was that they managed to navigate me past a branch of Lidl. I dived straight in without even stopping to lock my bike (there were a few people collecting for the WWF so I figured the bike was probably OK) and came back out with plenty of water and a can of Coke. I took another bit of bread and cheese washed down with the Coke, refilled my water bottles, and chatted to the charity collectors (they quite wisely had decided that I wasn’t worth attempting to tap up for a regular donation so we didn’t have to have that awkward conversation in broken English and shattered French). I soon felt much better; as much due to the knowledge that I now had all bottles fully laden (with slightly cooler water for the time being) ready to carry me on my way. I checked the maps to ascertain the direction that I should now be heading off in, said goodbye to my new friends, and got back on my way.
I had now to head into the town centre so navigation was easy. I followed the main road in, past the war memorial with the two seals; yes, seals.
Sometimes a wrong turn can work out having positive side effects; and not just finding a supermarket. If I’d followed the planned route I would have skirted around the edge of Nivelles and as such I would have missed seeing the magnificent Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude in the main town square. It is a lovely looking building and I would have liked to have seen inside, however time was against me and I contented myself with the knowledge that if I had more time it would have been due to my not getting lost and then I would not have seen the church at all!
Heading back out of town I found the track I was supposed to have been taking; following a disused railway line. The line was passing above me on a bridge which was in the process of being replaced. However a quick recce showed that I would be able to scramble my way up some half-finished steps and around the works and get on to the old track bed.
The next few miles would be mostly following the train line. As is normally the case in these situations this was lovely riding. It was Largely flat, beautifully tree lined with a well surfaced path and no navigation was required. There was a short but easy to follow diversion through the pretty village of Arquennes. Riding past the remains of the viaduct showed the reason for the diversion but this is a lovely little Belgian village and it was delightful to have ridden through it.
Back out of the village and I was back onto the railway line. I believe that this route carries on for some way however I left it again just before entering the village of Seneffe, which I skirted around before coming up to a path down to the Canal du Centre. The canal is one of the big modern waterways that still carry large volumes of cargo in this part of the world. It is a long way removed from the small, early canals that crisscross the United Kingdom. I would now be following the canal side for most of the rest of the day – a good 20-25 miles of flat, easy riding. The wind was against me but there wasn’t much of it and I was pleased that I would now be able to make some good steady progress. Lots of people were out making the most of the lovely day; swimming and fishing and sunbathing by the wide waterway.
After a few miles I crossed an impressive aquaduct, had to divert around a canal side industrial estate, and then came upon one of the most impressive modern feats of engineering in the world; one that I’d never previously heard of. Between the villages of Strepy-Bracquegnies and Thieu there is a sudden 200 foot drop. To get the modern large industrial barges up and down the hill a massive boat lift has been built to lift boats of up to 1,350 tonnes a vertical distance of 73.15m. After admiring the view from the top I followed the path to the lower end – this was by far the steepest descent of the day and I raced down the hill. The lift looks even more impressive from the bottom and I watched for a few minutes as a barge was made ready for the ascent.
A short way further on, across the other side of the canal, I could see some evidence of an older industrial past. Sadly I didn’t stop to investigate as what I could see was the first of four older boat lifts that used to take the barges up and down the hill before the new lift was built. These old lifts are still operational and are now part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. Maybe one day I’ll get back here and have a day or two to explore by barge.
I continued for another ten miles or so along the Canal on its lower section. A sudden shower brought some welcome relief from the earlier heat but it was short lived and the sun was soon out and steaming the rain that had landed on the towpath. A diversion around an old waterfront warehouse indicated to me that I was nearly at the point on my maps when I would leave the canal and head South towards my base for the night.
The final miles passed uneventfully. I stopped for one last fill of water and fizzy pop at a cash and carry in Terre just before it closed for the evening. That was my first real indication that the day was definitely dragging on and that I should get a wiggle on for the last five miles. Indeed as I entered the penultimate village of the day I recevied a phone call from the landlord of the Auberge I was staying at to check that I was still coming. Fortunately by that point I was within five minutes of arriving so I made a quick final effort and rolled up at the “Auberege le XIX eme” just after half past eight. By nine O-Clock I was showered and dressed in order to be downstairs in time to eat. Dinner was a fantastic mixed grill (it was a set menu with one choice – probably on account of my late arrival) with a couple of the local wheat beers – brewed especially for the hotel. And so finished the end of the first day of my tour and I was soon back in bed and sound asleep.
- Distance: 68.74 Miles
- Ride Time: 5 Hours 50 minutes and 59 seconds
- Average Speed: 11.8 mph
- Ascent: 1,969 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1756655202