We left a very busy Bruges to the milling tourist hordes and continued on our way, this time heading south. We overnighted in a functional aire in the village of Aartrijke, parked next to a lorry trailer and some recycling bins. From there we drove along quieter roads to reach Ypres ( Ieper ) near to the border with France. We had pre-booked a night in the central Ypres campsite, €15 with electricity and all services, and situated only five minutes from the historic town. We checked in and parked up, finding ourselves directly opposite Benny’s virtual twin, a same aged Benimar Mileo 202, driven by a British couple from Preston whom we later chatted to about our subsequent travels.
It was an easy walk from the site to the town’s tall stone walls, and from there to the Menenpoort, the Menin Gate. Each night at 8pm, rain or shine, a short service is held and the Last Post is played in remembrance of all those lost in both the World Wars. We spent some time reading the names on the Menin Gate memorial, its walls inscribed with over 54000 names of soldiers fallen in nearby battles. We checked the register for mention of my late great-uncle, but his name was not listed, so he must be commemorated elsewhere on the Western front. From there we walked up through the gate to visit the top of the town walls, following the easy paths and enjoying the elevated view of St. Jacob’s Church and the nearby rooftops of Ypres. Rain was threatening, but it kindly held off for now.
We descended a flight of stone steps and followed the cobbled roads around to reach the centre. The Main Square was an immediate ‘wow’ moment, seeing for the first time the enormous clock tower of the gothic Town Hall and the In Flanders Field museum building, with the tall stone towers of Cathédrale Saint-Martin visible behind. We had known little about the town of Ypres, thinking it mainly a centre for cemeteries and commemoration, so we were very surprised and impressed. We walked slowly around the square, squeezing around parked cars and through archways, before visiting the cathedral. We spent a few moments looking inside, watching the coloured light streaming from the stained glass dance across the white stone and the statue-filled alcoves of the tower’s interior.
We walked through the back streets of the town and joined the paths along the top of the walls circling town and the furthest point. From there we walked back slowly, on leafy paths scattered with interesting defensive runs, seeing the foundations of circular towers and pill-box artillery points. On our right we could look out over Groenpark lakes, watching the sun flicker on the calm water overhung with willows. We had the occasional ten seconds of raindrops that threatened to dampen our day, but they never fully materialised, with the bright sun winning through after each failed attempt. The wall-top path would have returned us to the Menin Gate, but instead we cut down a flight of hidden stone steps to follow a timber decked path around to a pedestrian bridge that led us back to our campsite.
After an early dinner, we returned to visit the town in virtual darkness, around 7pm. We planned a gentle town walk before returning to the Menin Gate for the anticipated 8pm recital. We were slightly astonished to see a long row of buses parked up nearby and a milling crowd three or four people deep already standing expectantly at the ropes, an hour early, awaiting the Last Post being played. Sunday night, it turned out, was the most popular time for visits to the Menin Gate, and with it being half-term as well, there were more than a few British school parties in attendance. We first walked through the crowds and into the town centre again, enjoying seeing the Gothic buildings and flowing fountain beautifully lit up at night, alongside the large Halloween decorations that lit up each street and many shops.
We arrived back to the Menin Gate around 7.45pm and joined the expectant crowd, now many hundreds in number. The event began when three members of the local Fire Brigade, the organisation tasked with performing the Last Post each night, stood and played their bugles. A row of young cadets in grey uniforms nervously lined up behind them. A small choir, singing a cappella and all with identical red buffs on, provided a beautiful rendition of Abide with Me as several commemorative wreaths were laid on one wall of the Menin Gate. Laurence Binyon’s famous fourth stanza from “For the Fallen” was solemnly read out to the stilled crowd. This was followed by a minute of thoughtful silence, broken finally by the elongated notes of the final emotive portion of the ever-moving Last Post.
The recital was complete and the crowds began to disperse, with an earnest, contemplative mood now hanging in the air. The streets outside the walls were pitch black, the darkness being revoked only by the glow of the Menin Gate, an apt metaphor for the sacrifices of those serving men and women it stands to represent, and remember. We carefully walked back to the campsite with the aid of head torches, the voices and words ringing in our thoughts. Lest we Forget.