It was a cold spring in Belgium when we travelled from Calais to Ypres by coach. Although the trip only lasted two days, the atmosphere and the memories of the beautiful landscape will stay with me for a lifetime. Looking out of the window in Calais, I could see the scintillating and vibrant fields of lavender bathing in the golden rays of the morning sun. The warm rays subtly blended with the soft blue of the sky to create a perfect graduation of tone, illuminating the dewy fields with gentle hues. Upon arriving, we took time to explore the streets, taking in the historic buildings which surrounded us. Delicate vines were entwined and meandered their way up the Church’s steeple, which stood tall and majestic, dominating the main square. The smell of freshly baked bread clung to the humid air, wafting from the small bakeries in the roads leading out of the square. Many of the shops sold antiques, and after walking into a very pretty vintage shop in the corner of the street and fumbling hopelessly in my purse for some change, I realised that I would need between 15 and 30 euros to buy a good quality souvenir, and so I left, shame-faced, after realising that a long queue had formed behind me. Aside from this, my trip was culturally enriching and enlightening, and the walking, it seems in retrospect, was a good form of exercise, although my former self would have objected to such a notion.
After trekking through seemingly endless muddy fields, and realising that wellington boots would have been money spent well, when the cold, moist mud could be felt seeping through my jeans and onto my skin, we reached the graveyards at Flanders Fields. Abruptly, the wind changed, becoming icy and harsh, and grey clouds materialised, hanging heavily and masking the pale blue of the sky. The atmosphere was solemn, and nothing could be heard except the haunting whistling of the wind as it rustled through trees and gained momentum, shaking thinner branches more violently. The sheer number of tombstones was overwhelming, and looking at the tombs of the soldiers- some as young as 15, who died so far from home, admiration built up inside us, as the courage and bravery of the soldiers became evident. Wearing poppies, we looked at some of the names and descriptions of the soldiers. However, much was unknown about them, and we tried to piece together the details from each in order to construct an overall image of them. Although I had heard that many were young, a part of my mind could not comprehend that information, but seeing their ages first-hand, ‘John…aged 15, William…aged 16’ really was shocking, and it dawned on us that countless youths gave up their lives for the safety of our country. We were able to pay our respects and give thanks to those heroes, who were as young as us and had so much to live for and this visit to Flanders Fields really was inspiring.
After a long day, visiting the other graveyards and memorials, we came across the names of soldiers engraved in a large wall of stone. Reading the title, we realised that these were the soldiers who went missing in action, and whose bodies were never recovered. There were several such walls, and the names were in groups of thousands. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a soldier in the Second World War. I attempted to imagine the muddy landscape-the very fields that we had trekked through earlier that day, but as I remembered details from the graphic poems which were written by some of the soldiers, the image became too horrific to imagine further. Subsequent to paying our respects and holding a two minute silence to remember our national heroes, we departed and took the coach to the Menin Gate. Here, the annual procession to remember the soldiers of the World Wars took place, and standing in the bitter cold, with teeth chattering, we waited anxiously to see what would happen, whilst the gate lit up every few seconds with the bright flashing of cameras. Standing on the tips of my toes, I could just about see a large group of people advancing towards the gate through the mist. As they came closer, I realised that they were part of a band, and dressed in guard uniform, the marched through the gate, trumpeting. Shortly afterwards, various people participated in an official wreath-laying ceremony, and final silence was held to commemorate the soldiers for the last time that day. The atmosphere was quieter and more solemn, despite the sound of vehicles and pedestrians walking past inquisitively- perhaps this was due to the large crowd of people who were all silently remembering their heroes. That evening, we made our way to the hotel, which was a mere 5 minutes away on foot, in order to freshen up. The atmosphere gradually became lighter as we made our way to the restaurant across the street, anxious to eat after a long day. Although the exterior was aesthetically pleasing, the interior was breathtaking. The ceiling was a dome with intricate golden patterns of vines scaling it, and crystal chandeliers hung like dewdrops. The cream sheets which covered the rectangular tables were immaculate, and the glasses seemed to be made of liquid crystal. After I recovered from the shock of seeing what looked like the dining hall of a palace, I made my way over to a table to sit with some friends. As it was a group trip, our food had been pre-arranged, and we were told that the non-vegetarian option was roast chicken and chips, whilst the vegetarian option remained a mystery. We anxiously waited for our food to arrive, pouring ice cold coca cola from the bottles which were set on the table, and when we thought we couldn’t wait a moment longer, the waiters arrived, carrying trays of plates with not pieces of roast chicken, but a whole chicken. Yes- one large roast chicken and a mountain of chips per person. Of course, nobody objected to the generous helpings. The vegetarian option was a little more bizarre. It consisted of a large helping of chips, alongside a fruit salad in fruity syrup, which had been poured over the chips, and whilst this wasn’t quite so appetizing, everybody ate what they had gratefully. When we thought it was time to go, the dessert was brought out, and it was a large slice of strawberry cheesecake, which although it wasn’t typical of Ypres, was nonetheless delectable. Satisfied with this hearty meal, we stumbled back to the hotel drowsily, ready to get a good night’s sleep. The rooms were comfortable and pleasant, and generally such hotels cost 70-90 euros per night for each person. I realised that all I really needed was wellington boots, waterproofs, a jumper, around 150-200 euros, a camera and a sturdy bag to carry it all in- not the endless supply of jewelry and clothes which I thought were essential. The next day was spent visiting museums, trenches and shopping, although the shops are small, and being a small town, Ypres lacks large shopping centres. However, the small antique shops were delightful and the souvenirs gave us a sense of the uniqueness, culture and history of the town. Visiting the trenches allowed us to take a glimpse of the world of the soldiers who lived there, and again, I wished that my boots were longer and waterproof, as the mud seeped through my trousers and froze me through to the bone. As the day wore on, we visited more museums which offered exhibitions on the Second World War. Finally, as we headed towards the coach to return home, I took one last look at the beautiful, historic town which seemed so peaceful yet had such a dark and violent history. I got on the coach, and watching the emerald hills rolling into the distance, my eyelids felt heavier and heavier until they closed. As the memories flashed through my mind like images, I could feel the coach making its way onto the Eurostar train, and my ears popped as we were plunged into the depths of the ocean