Following In The Footsteps Of The Fallen
Practical Caravan|January 2018

100 years have passed since the Battle of Passchendaele. Niall Hampton heads to Ypres to find out more and pay his respects.

While taking a break from pootling around the countryside east of Ypres in our Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport, a Google Maps alert popped up on my phone. If I left now, it said, I would be back in Twickenham in four hours. It clearly hadn’t taken the cross-Channel ferry into account, but it was still a reminder that even though we were abroad, we were very close to home.

This was presumably a feeling shared by the British soldiers fighting here alongside those from the Empire 100 years ago, trying to halt Germany’s invasion of Belgium. A conflict that was supposed to have been over within four months had instead become a stalemate, before grinding down into a war of attrition with loss of life on a scale we find hard to comprehend 100 years on.

I’ve always found the history of the First World War fascinating. Although I don’t have any family connections to the fighting in Belgium, I was determined to pay a visit to the West Flanders area (referred to locally as Westhoek) in the centenary year of the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as the Battle of Passchendaele. This battle is infamous for shifting the front line by five miles, for half a million casualties over 100 days of fierce fighting.

Our van for this tour was a Caravelair Antarès 496, exclusively available at Marquis Leisure’s 12 dealerships in the UK. Performing towing duties was our latest long-term test car, a Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport SRi in fetching Lava Red.

With its unchallenging terrain plus the fact it’s a quick and easy drive from the Channel ports, West Flanders is ideal for touring by caravan. One can sail on a lunchtime ferry and be supping a local beer in one of Ypres’ many bars before tea-time.

I’d been joined on the trip by our Claudia, but as the 496 has only one large fixed bed (a front double), she made alternative overnight-accommodation arrangements. So having arranged a return crossing from Dover to Dunkirk via DFDS, and opting for using the VIP lounge, we made our way in glorious sunshine from Camberley Secure Storage to coastal Kent – a traffic-free journey that took a little under two hours.

Just so close to home

Following a smooth crossing and prompt disembarkation, we made our way to the Belgian border – and were stopped for a routine check. Belgian motorways are much like those in France, so there wasn’t much of a transition. With the van loaded close to a 75% match with the car, the Vauxhall made light work of the Caravelair, and on quieter roads, it barely felt like there was a caravan on tow. My base for the week was Camping Jeugdstadion, situated close to the centre of Ypres – signposted Ieper – and easily accessed via a ring road. This municipal site is mainly patronised by motorhomes and is fairly basic, but the location is excellent. A 15-minute walk takes you to the Menin Gate, and that’s where we found ourselves not long after unhitching the Vauxhall and pitching up the Caravelair.

A short walk from one of Ypres’ bestknown landmarks takes you to another – the Cloth Hall, originally dating from the 14th century. It’s a testament to how prosperous this area once was. Well positioned for the Channel sea ports, Ypres was a major trading hub for textiles – the height of the belfry is a marker of the town’s former wealth. Like the rest of the town, it was virtually destroyed by shelling during the war, but was fully and faithfully rebuilt afterwards.

The square around the Cloth Hall is bustling, with many bars and cafés to choose from; although many are closed on Monday night, when we arrived. After sampling some local beer in the Old Tom bar – one of many establishments to have a name referencing the First World War – we headed for the nearby De Trompet restaurant and bar for our evening meal. Belgium is well known for some tasty dishes, but we eschewed the mainstream staples – such as pricey moules-frites – and instead went for Flanders stew (beef in beer) and salad, which was as delicious as it was fortifying.

Stepping into the past

An ideal jump-off point for exploring Ypres and the surrounding area is a visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum, in the Cloth Hall. So that’s where we found ourselves the following morning. A €2 supplement to the €9 entry fee buys access to the belfry, which I took advantage of. With 231 steps to the top, it’s not for the weak-of knee but the panoramic views are ample reward for the increased heart rate. Looking out towards Passchendaele, just over the horizon, you get a real sense of the topography east of Ypres; the land is mainly flat, gently rising from the town to a ridge over a distance of about seven miles.

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