There was another promisingly bright and sunny day working its way across Iepers market square and around the edges of my hotel room curtains as I awoke at 6.30. I started the day sitting at the table in the chamber writing my diary for the previous day and then calmly got dressed back into the lycra for the final day and gathered my belongings together. (Although not totally hygienic my routine on these 5 day (or thereabouts) tours is to take two full sets of cycling clothing and alternate them each day. On my first tour along the Avenue Verte I tried rinsing my kit out in the overnight hotels. However despite being made of no natural materials what so ever I found that the clothing didn’t fully dry overnight. It was therefore easier on subsequent tours to merely air my kit overnight! That did mean that today, on day five I was putting on this kit for its third outing of the tour!)
As is often the case with my last days on tour, today would be a strange one. In mileage terms I had around only 55 miles to cover today and the going would be virtually flat all the way. However I was booked onto a 4pm sailing out of Dunkirk and whilst I could probably miss it and get the 6pm sailing I wanted to be done and heading home by then. I had more than enough time to get to the ferry and still have a good day of it but I have usually found the last days on tour to be a little stressful when there is a deadline to be met.
After finish writing my diary and packing my kit I was still a little early for breakfast. Whilst I didn’t want to be leaving late I didn’t want to miss a paid up feed so I took my bags down to the hotel’s loading bay where my bike was secured against some sort of water pipe and loaded the panniers onto the rack so that I would ready for the off as soon as I had eaten. I took a wander out onto the streets of the town to the Spar shop around the corner, gathered some supplies for the day and loaded them into the bags on my return. As I wandered back upstairs I found breakfast was just opening. Perfect timing. After the requisite coffee, pastries and yoghurt I was ready for the off.
I slowly wound my way around the town square one last time before heading off to the North of the town to meet up with the Ieperlee canal where I joined the tow path on its Western bank. Fortunately I had not gone much farther when I realised that I hadn’t started my GPS tracking for the day so I pulled over and rectified that mistake.
Five easy miles followed along what now is just another lovely easy to ride along canal path. Only very occasionally did I pass any sign or indication that this canalised river had served as a front line at times during the war.
Just before Zuidschote I left the canal for a few more miles on quiet country roads. They were all well marked using the excellent Belgian cycle route marking system and I followed that rather than fully studying my maps. Not long after leaving the canal I came across what is now a simple aluminium cross flanked by French and Belgian flags. An original monument here was apparently much more graphic. It was built to mark the attack on 22 April 1915 when 180,000 kilos of Chlorine gas were directed at the French and Belgian troops holding this side of the canal. The monument depicted a French soldier gasping and clutching at his throat as two of his comrades lay on the ground beside him. During the Nazi occupation in 1942 the Germans took offence at this depiction and blew it up. It was therefore replaced in 1954 with the simple aluminium ‘cross of reconciliation’ which stands there now.
From Zuidschote I headed North again using the lovely wide cycle paths to the side of the calm, quiet country roads.
I passed through Reninge and Lo-Reninge before magically riding into Lo. Lo was something of a treat with some gorgeous buildings surrounding a cobbled square boarded to the North by a church lined with a fountain and sculptures (which I managed to take only rubbish photos of).
At the church the route turned me Westwards for just long enough to leave the town through the remains of its old wall and gatehouse before coming to the next canal which would take me back North again almost to the sea.
However before I could join the canal I had the small matter of having to wait for a small pleasure boat to pass by before the bridge that I needed to cross to reach the tow path on the far bank was closed.
Another lovely but uneventful five miles passed along the canal. There were lots of other groups of cyclists and runners out who were all up for cheery waves and I enjoyed seeing some classic low land canal architecture. The miles flew by.
Before I knew it I was rolling towards the centre of Veurne where a short side branch of the canal led me neatly onto a stretch of town centre roads before beginning the section Westbound parallel to the coast on some quiet country roads. I had now turned around into the wind so the rest of the day would be a bit slower; however I was well in front of the clock at present.
On one short magical stretch of track I had to turn to the North. I knew that I was close to the Franco-Belgian border before suddenly realising just how close I was. This track was it. If I veered from the right hand side of the track to the left I would leave Belgium and enter France. As a child I always though borders were all like the ones I had seen Steve McQueen try to jump over at the end of The Great Escape. But this is 21st century Europe and there is no border.
At the main road at the top of the track the beauty of the open European border became even clearer. In the middle of the main road the former border check post has now been transformed into a coffee and chocolate shop. Ah Europe. Why on earth would we ever want to leave you?!?!
Perhaps foolishly I decided to forgo the opportunity of coffee and chocolate and instead turned to face the West and so left Belgium for the last time on this trip. Of course that meant that I was also leaving its superb cycle network and entering the slightly less impressive French system. It is still good of course, just not up to Belgian levels. Although the main A19 road runs parallel slightly inland I was now following a busy tourist road along the French coast. I didn’t have to go far though before I swung a right and headed to the beach at Bray Dunes.
At low tide along the beach here I understand that it is possible to still see remains of some of the boats that were sunk in the beach evacuation. I didn’t have the time to fully explore and wasn’t’ sure of the exact location of any such remains so I sat on the sea wall looking out over the long stretch of beach and dunes. In late May and early June 1940 the beaches were filled with thousands of men (mostly British but also some of the French and Belgian armies were also evacuated back to Britain). They were waiting patiently here (for the most part) for their turn to board one of the famous flotilla of little ships that would carry them to the larger vessels waiting out to sea.
Now the beach at Bray is a popular seafront holiday destination much like many similar towns on the English coast opposite. Without seeing any of the remains of the boats and tanks I was left to admire the blue sky and sea and the crisp clean sand covered with families making the most of a lovely summer day. I stopped and had some food and applied sun cream as the day got warmer.
After a false start out of Bray as I attempted to take a short cut I was back on the road towards Dunkirk.
On the left next to the road in the small village of Zuydcoote I stopped to look at what would be the last war cemetery I would visit on this tour. It also turned out to be one of the most fascinating. For the larger part it houses men who died in the First World War but is split into three parts. The Western end houses a small, traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery containing a little over 300 graves (including one Belgian). The cemetery was linked to the military hospitals that were housed in the area from 1917. As such the cemetery was unique of the ones that I visited in having most, if not all, of the graves containing identified men. Next to the CWGC cemetery a post armistice cemetery contains the bodies of over 1,000 French soldiers of the war. Between the CWGC graves and the main bulk of the French men were two rows of different grave stones, marking the remains of French Muslims. At the east end an annex contains a further 170 graves, also interred after the armistice, of German soldiers. It is certainly interesting to see all of these graves lined up next to each other with just one single wall surrounding them all. Particularly poignant in the German section were the graves of two soldiers. Most of the German graves have quite a distance between them; more so than is the case in the French and Commonwealth sections. However two graves were set closer together; one a standard German cross; the other a Star of David.
A fourth section of the cemetery to the South of the First World War area houses another large group of French graves. These men all died in the Second World War. These were just some of those who gave their lives defending Dunkirk and the beaches around Bray. These were the men who bought the extra time needed to keep the advancing German Army at bay long enough for Operation Dynamo to evacuate as many troops as it did back to Britain. Without their bravery and sacrifice it is certain that a much smaller contingent of the British Expeditionary Force would have been saved. It was also interesting to note that, unlike the French graves from WWI, in this section the (not inconsiderable number of) French Muslims were buried right in and amongst their colleagues.
An old train line runs alongside the road into Dunkirk. It looks as though there might be plans to convert it to a cycle/foot path but for now I had to continue along the roads; although perversely the roads seemed to get less busy the closer I got to the town. Before long I was at the entrance to the docks area; marked by a memorial to the allies made from quayside paving stones.
From here I continued along the harbour side before eventually making it to the ‘East Mole’; the harbour arm extension which saw the bulk of the evacuation. Back in 1940 this narrow arm would have been filled with troops lined up to board the ships. The actual site was used by Christopher Nolan in the 2017 film of Dunkirk. He rebuilt the Mole extension at which most of the ships docked. His reconstruction has been removed again but the main harbour wall is still extant. Today the arm was filled with locals fishing from it but I wound my way past them to the far end. It is odd to think that this now serene and small stretch of concrete proved so vital to the war effort. The small ships are the big story of Operation Dynamo, but in reality around 200,00 of the 338,226 men who made it back across the channel boarded ships from this long but narrow limb of concrete.
After a breather and a chance to reflect sitting on the dock of the bay, I headed back in towards the centre of the town. A few other sites and memorials lined the docks. I didn’t have time to visit the Operation Dynamo museum. I really must allow myself more scope to make such stops on these trips but I never learn. I had to get to the ferry. Dunkirk ferry terminal is a good ten miles or so west of the town so whilst I was OK for time I didn’t have enough spare to be hanging around.
The cycle paths from the East Mole into the central harbour area had been lovely. Wide and well signposted.
Now though I had to find my way to the port and both the signs and the cycle ways soon dried up. There were some suggestions that a new cycle route is being built in this very direction. However, despite one sign proclaiming its completion date some 11 months previous, there was little sign of progress. Indeed the limited works seemed to have only served to close the few sections of cycle way that were originally in existence. I ended up joining busier and more polluted main roads as I headed through the western suburbs of the town. I probably wasn’t following these roads for too long but it was nasty, dangerous, and slow going and was threatening to put a damper on a good day and an excellent tour.
Fortunately at the edge of the town where the road got busier, I finally re-joined one of the old sections of cycle route; at least for a mile or two into the village of Loon-Plage.
There was another bit of confusion at the northern edge of the village when the cycle path signs ran out and the only directions off a roundabout suggested I had to head onto the motorway. I completed a circuit of the roundabout, headed back towards the village, found a safe spot and consulted my phone GPS mapping. It indicated that I could follow the exit marked to the industrial estate. This did indeed prove to be a much nicer road and before long I was joining the traffic queuing to check in to the ferry. The ride from Dunkirk had not been fun but it had worked out OK and here I was with almost perfect timing.
I had time to pull into the ferry terminal, finish off my picnic supplies, and get changed out of the Lycra for the final time on this trip. I wasn’t entirely finished in the saddle but to all intents and purposes my tour was now completed. I cleared customs. This went OK despite my having a conversation with the customs officials in which I joked that my panniers contained various body parts. I really must learn that these situations are not the ideal places for jokes but I got away with it. This time.
I was one of the first onto the ferry (and at the other end was the very first off). And so it was that my tour was complete. I had the welcome chance to get up onto the main deck and claim one of the prime seats at the rear of the ferry next to the restaurant. One ferry canteen chicken curry (surprisingly hot) later and I could properly relax at the end of a fantastic trip. All that remained at the other end was to navigate my way out of Dover harbour (not an easy feat as it turns out) and get the train the short ride back to Ashford where I could place the bike in the back of my waiting car and drive home.
- Distance: 56.36 Miles
- Ride Time: 4 Hours 39 minutes and 34 seconds
- Average Speed: 12.0 mph
- Ascent: 542 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1764699097
- Distance: 328.52 Miles
- Ride Time: 27 Hours 42 minutes and 7 seconds
- Average Speed: 11.8 mph
- Ascent: 8,821 feet
When I came up with the idea of this tour my main focus was always to be the sites of the Somme and Ypres and to be visiting them in the year of the 100th anniversary of the end of the War. The concept of ‘Four War Tour’ was always a little contrived and building Waterloo and Agincourt into the trip potentially felt a little frivolous; whilst they were important historical battles the direct effect on those who fought was so much lesser than the slaughter of the Great War.
As I worked my way from Mons around Cambrai and towards the Somme these concerns were not vanishing. Waterloo had felt like visiting the equivalent of an English Heritage or National Trust site whereas the emotional pain of seeing row after row of graves in cemetery after cemetery was so much more raw.
In the end however I think the tour worked. Taking in Waterloo allowed me to start the tour nicely and build up for the ‘main event’. The trip from Albert to Agincourt gave me a break from the emotion that the stories of the Somme offered and that were to come again as I approached Ypres. I loved visiting the battle field and the Museum at Azincourt – it is off the main tourist route but was well worth the trip (even in the non stop rain).
In fact if any part of the trip felt to be the weak link it is that I should have allowed more time to properly take in the beaches around Bray and Dunkirk and to visit some other World War Two monuments. Were you to take this diary as any incentive to make a similar trip (I would be hugely honoured were that to be the case) then exploring such options would be my suggestion. On the whole though, although being one of my easier tours in terms of physical effort (miles and hills; if not wind, sun and rain), it was so emotionally draining at times that it more than made up for the lack of big hills climbed. This was a great tour and I’d happily recommend it to anyone.