The Somme (part two) and Agincourt
I woke up at half past six and gathered up most of my belongings ready for the off, then went downstairs for an Ibis continental breakfast. It was much as expected; nothing out of the ordinary but it certainly set me up well for the day ahead. I took my time using the opportunity to write up my diary for the previous day’s ride. I had been too drained to write it the previous evening. I was fully packed and ready to go by quarter past eight after a chat with the coach tourists from Merthyr Tydfil. I was in a much more open frame of mind and enjoyed discussing our relative methods of touring the battlefields. They were heading for home this morning and though they had enjoyed their trip they looked like they were ready to leave the coach travel behind them.
From the hotel I started heading in towards Albert town centre although I never did ride into the town proper. Just across the first roundabout was a Lidl supermarket. It wasn’t quite yet open but there was a small queue forming so I gathered that it wouldn’t be long before it was. Although not ideal for small scale provisions I needed some supplies. I was in and out quickly once the doors opened at eight thirty. Loaded up with saucisson, crisps (I had to buy a six pack), cheese, bread and chocolate I was now fully prepared for the day ahead. The day was cloudy but at present the weather seemed to be set fair enough. I was braced for a shower or two but this should be a good day.
I skirted down some side streets and then around towards the River Ancre and the ‘Velodrome’ park (there was no sign of a race track or I might have taken a quick spin).
I followed the valley upstream, winding around either side of the river, slowly and gradually climbing away from Albert. I passed the sign for the evocatively named ‘Blightly Valley’ cemetery at the end of a footpath. I didn’t stop to visit but nodded as I passed. It looked like a lovely peaceful last resting place. A short way further and the road started to climb out of the valley and ahead of me I could see my first destination of the day calling to me from the top of the hill. Although still some distance away the monument to the missing of The Somme on the hill at Thiepval makes a big first impression.
I pulled into Thiepval car park just before nine thirty. After locking my bike up I loitered by the (locked) Museum doors. The nice lady inside took the subtle hint, opened up slightly early, and obligingly offered to look after my panniers whilst I looked around. Visiting the monument is free however there is small charge to enter the Museum. It is definitely worth paying as the Museum is an incredibly well designed space with displays on trench life and artefacts discovered in the area, all surrounded by an amazing drawing representing the fighting on 1st July 1916. The day was to become the deadliest day in the history of the British Army; within 12 hours over 19,000 men were killed and many more wounded. One wall in the Museum was very simply composed of photographs of a small proportion of the faces of the missing men from the Battle of the Somme.
After spending about half an hour or so in the Museum I left to head outside and get some air and to head to the monument itself. Bearing the names of 72,337 allied soldiers who died with no known grave the Thiepval Memorial is quite some sight to behold and difficult to take in. Every wall is crammed full of names the whole way up. Just behind the memorial a small joint French and British cemetery contains the same number of graves of men of each nation to show how they died side by side. Its an incredibly beautiful location and an inspiring monument (designed by Edward Lutyens). One of the small showers I was expecting started as I was at the site but it didn’t look like much and it wasn’t enough to put me off hanging around a little while longer.
Eventually I headed back to the museum desk and collected my bags. It was still raining a bit outside so I put on my wet weather gear just in case before heading back to the bike and getting on my way.
Close by the memorial I passed the smaller Connaught and Mill Road cemeteries, and also the Ulster Tower which commemorates the men of that province who fell here throughout the Battle of the Somme.
The rain was still falling; although it was stop start the road was now wet enough that I took care as I descended back down from the ridge into the Ancre Valley and the small hamlet of Hamel before climbing back up onto the next ridge. I was just coming up to the entrance to the Beaumont-Hamel memorial and preserved battle field when suddenly a huge bolt of lightning flashed in front of me. The roar of the thunder was impressive and immediate. The downpour started at the same moment. I was suddenly directly underneath a storm cloud.
The heavens properly opened. I sped my way towards the site entrance. A nice Canadian lady (this was the site where the men of Newfoundland fought and died) cheerily told me that I couldn’t bring my bike into the site. I understood that but asked if, due to the sudden downpour, I might be able to put my bike in her hut? No that would most certainly not be allowed. I must use the bike rack in the exposed and open car park opposite. Might I then ask if she would look after my panniers to prevent them getting soaked? No. Sadly this was out of her control. French rules about terrorism, you see. Awfully sorry. No one had apparently told any of the French hosts at the various other sites I stopped at about this rule but she was quite insistent. Reluctantly I locked my bike up on the railings and trusted that a) nobody would be stupid enough to be out in this rain to steal my bags, and b) the flimsy water proof outer cover and the various carrier bags inside the panniers would provide enough protection for my clothes and equipment.
The rain and the officiousness did sadly taint my visit. I believe that the site in its entirety is quite large with lots to see. I explored only a small section but it did give me the best understanding so far of the layout of the trenches. Although left to slowly return to nature the trench lines now appear like the banks and ditches of prehistoric archaeological sites, albeit in a much more haphazard seeming layout (the front line trenches were dug in zig zagged formations to prevent a direct hit from a heavy gun damaging too big a section of trench).
I headed to the Caribou memorial which forms the centrepiece of the site and took a quick look around the remains of the trenches close by. The rain, if anything, got heavier and there was no shelter. I took in the site as best as I could and as quickly as I could. The photos here are not the best pictures I have ever taken. I was trying to prevent my camera phone getting wet although the lens was inevitably damp. This causes some of the blurred effect on the photos; however mostly that is just the rain obscuring the views.
I gave up on plans to explore any further and headed back to the bike. At least if I was going to get soaked I might as well get on the move. Passing the entrance hut the Canadian guard lady had vanished inside and showed no signs of coming out to say goodbye to me. At least with the bags still on the bike (I was correct and nobody had stolen anything) it only took a second or two to get unlocked and moving; heading in a rough North Westerly bearing.
The rain continued although it was good to be moving now. I think the rain might have slightly eased off. However before long there was more thunder and lightning and the rain was back in full flow. Ahead of me I saw the church at Auchonvillers. I could not avoid the rain for long (I still had a whole day’s ride in front of me and a B&B to get to) but there was no point in staying out in this; and surely I wouldn’t need to shelter for too long. I climbed out of the saddle and spun as quickly as possible in order to sprint the last distance to the church. I jumped off the bike, picked it up, and almost ran headlong into the locked church door. There was to be no sanctuary for me here. I found the only vaguely sheltered corner of the outside of the church and pressed my back tightly against the fabric of the building to keep as much of me away from the worst of the rain as possible.
I’m not sure how long I stayed there; probably no more than ten minutes; but eventually the weather cleared a little. By which I mean it was now only raining heavily. I might as well carry on. I sploshed my sodden shoes (the overshoes had kept my actual shoes dry for maybe two minutes before they were themselves soaked through) back to the bike and climbed back on. The rain water was pouring in rivers along the road and I gingerly headed off.
The rain was persistent but now more varied in its intensity. At some short occasions it was almost light, but for most of the next few miles it was fair to heavy. I rode through Colincamps. It was probably pretty but I didn’t really look. The next village was Sailly-au-Bois. I think this is also quite pretty. It did at least have the distinction of having an open porch to its (locked) church so I pulled in to check the state of my bags (wet but not awful; the waterproofing was trying its hardest to do its job although my paper work was starting to feel the effects) and to slightly reduce the weight of my load by starting on my Lidl picnic.
Bayencourt was little more than 3 or 4 houses and farm buildings at a cross roads. On the approach into Souastre the heavens opened again. Spotting an open fronted farm outbuilding I pulled over and leant my bike against a tractor whilst waiting for the latest burst to pass over. A boy and a cat came out from a neighbouring barn to see who or what I was. I nodded a bonjour but I don’t have conversational French for 7 year olds. I think the cat might have understood a little of my English, but he wasn’t letting on in front of the boy. We stood together awkwardly. They got bored before the rain stopped and headed back to their other barn. Here are a couple of pictures from the shed. They are terrible but I think the blur and haze gives something of an impression of the conditions. One of them also shows the cat.
Saint Amand was the next village. Like the previous settlements I’m sure its pretty but I rode on through it without really taking it in. However before I actually reached it I did come across the mausoleum of the Family Masclef which suddenly appeared around a corner just before the village, slowly being swallowed by the hedge behind it. In the rain and the gloom it was quite a sight, and not a cheery one.
Guadiempré and Couturelle came next. I know this as I’m looking back now at the record of my route on Strava. I’ve ‘revisited’ them using Google Street View but I do not recall them at all. All along this area the landscape was open and slightly rolling and undulating. Just the type of countryside I love and that France does so well. I recall being happy out in the open, even in the rain which was still varying in volume but had largely settled on ‘persistent’. I just don’t recall any specifics of the villages that I passed through. I don’t have any photos so nothing apparently jumped out at me enough to stop and photograph it (and I normally don’t need much excuse to stop to snap a picture).
The next photo that I do have is this one. It’s me just entering the village of Warluzel. I was by now at the stage of tour where I’ve probably been in my own company for too long. I amused myself that this must be the French equivalent of Somerset and that I might soon come across a bunch of old yokels singing “J’ai une nouvelle moissonneuse batteuse”.
Sadly that didn’t happen. I just found that I was starting to get hungry, that it was about lunchtime, and that there was a bus shelter that I could keep dry in and rectify the first situation.
I felt refreshed for a decent rest and some food. The rain was still falling but it had settled into a steady rhythm and was much less intense than during the morning. The miles (kilometres) continued to tick over and the villages continued to pass by with little to differentiate them. I was still enjoying the open countryside and the small hamlets that appeared on a regular basis but they didn’t have much excitement to offer. I stopped in Beaudricourt to snap this colourful French war memorial. There are better photos of similar such memorials on the pages for days 2 and 4 of this trip but I included it here as I don’t have many other photos to share with you during this part of the day.
Just through Beaudricourt I did get to take the following photo. After the previous 20 miles or thereabouts or being on the largely open and relatively flat plain, I finally had a proper descent into a valley ahead of me and with it an even better view of the immediate miles ahead.
I crossed the river La Canche close to Estrée-Wamin and began a nice gentle climb back up onto the next section of open plain and continued on through Houvin-Houvigneul, Moncheaux-les-Frévent and into Buneville where I had the brief excitement of taking a wrong turn at which I had to double back a short way before finding the correct road out of the village.
The slight undulations continued. Sains, Hautecloque, and Croisette. Excitement before entering Beauvois – a tractor shop! In Beauvois itself, a caged Mary!!
The excitement of the Mary of Beauvois was surpassed a few miles further on along the Rue de la Grotte on the edge of Humieres. For some unknown reason the locals at some time in the past took it upon themselves to build a mini replica of the shrine of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes. Benches laid out around the grotto indicate that it is still in regular use. It is a true piece of French eccentricity and I loved it. Indeed having also been to Lourdes which I found to be a horrible town primarily designed to part the poor and infirm from their weighty currency, I would much rather recommended a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Humieres.
At Eclimeux I stopped in another bus shelter in order to swap onto the next page of my maps. I could now see that the main aim of my day’s riding was only a few miles further on so tucked in to another bag of crisps to celebrate and avoid another sharper burst of rain.
Another drop down followed into the valley at Blangy-sur-Tenoise. I crossed over the river Ternoise and the railway. The state of the railway tracks suggested a disused line but some signs looked more up to date so I checked and indeed this is apparently a live and operational station. By the river I stopped to talk to some friendly looking cows and then started the climb (the biggest of the day; but by no means big) back onto the plain.
I missed the road I should have taken to head me into Maisoncelle but it was easy enough, despite heading the wrong day a one way road, to take the next turning instead. Here in Maisoncelle I saw the first signs to indicate that I was near to the old battlefield but I ignored them for now and pushed on to the next village, Azincourt itself.
The rain started heavier again as I rolled in so I rolled up the road and headed to the village museum. Again they were happy to look after my bags (even here in Azincourt they were apparently not overly concerned by the threat of this English terrorist). The museum is a superb curiosity and I spent a great half hour exploring its many nooks and crannies. It conveys some great information about the battle and the ‘age of chivalry’ with a fantastic mix of routine information panels, miniature figures, and soldiers with (broken) TVs in place of their heads. Go visit. You won’t be disappointed.
The museum did also help me to properly get my bearings of the actual site of the battle which occurred here between the English and the French some 603 years previously. The village itself is towards the northern extent of the site and was where the French army were based prior to the battle. To find the English lines I had to head back the way I came to Maisoncelle at the southern extent of the site. In the South East corner a small monument and map give further clues to the layout of the battlefield (although no details are known for certain).
From here I continued along the road that marks the approximate eastern side of the battlefield towards Tramecourt and almost back into Azincourt again. On the road between those two villages a new memorial has been erected to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle. From here you get a better idea of the centre of the battle ground; the heaviest and most defining fighting was understood to have taken place here. I took some blurry wet photos (and yes I did take that selfie!) and then began the final few miles riding towards my overnight accomodation.
My B&B for the evening was still another 7 or 8 miles further on. The going was, much like the rest of the day, easy enough but I naturally now had the fatigue creeping in; I had made it to Agincourt and explored the battle field. Now I was ready to start thinking about getting out of my sopping wet gear. At least Heuchin, where I was heading, was down in a valley so the final few miles were a nice easy drop into the village. I found the lovely Maison de Plumes at the far end of the settlement. I was rather disappointed to note that the village did not, however, appear to have the restaurant that my maps had hinted at. I knew that there was no food available at the B&B itself so had been hoping to find somewhere to eat in the village. Not to worry – I’d survive.
I rolled up and met Richard, the English owner of the establishment (along with his wife Vanessa, although I never got to meet her). Richard had been in the British Army but had now ‘retired’ (he s not much of any older than myself) to run the Maison du Plumes. Richard showed me where to lock my bike up and then took me inside the amazing old house. After the beige of the Ibis this was something quite different. The house is amazing and immaculately decorated. I almost felt a bit guilty bringing all of my wet gear and my stinking self into the lovely ‘Peacock’ room that was to be my chamber for the night; but Richard did not seem to worry. He didn’t have any drying facilities unfortunately but instead he provided me with a pile of newspaper to stuff into my soaking shoes and a tray on which to place them outside my room.
I ran a welcome hot and deep bath and whilst doing so unloaded and inspected the contents of my panniers. Everything was just slightly damp but not awful. All of my paperwork (hotel reservation info, ferry ticket, maps and euros) had got paper wet and I ended up covering every available surface with them in order to allow them to dry. I hung up as much of my clothing as I could, had a supper of the remains of my Lidl picnic (all praise the six pack of crisps) and then soaked in the tub and prepared for bed.
- Distance: 61.29 Miles
- Ride Time: 5 Hours 28 minutes and 31 seconds
- Average Speed: 11.1 mph
- Ascent: 2,772 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1760915485