Sunday 30 November: Canterbury-Dover- France
The group were booked into Dover Castle for a tour of the Secret Wartime tunnels, a very interesting site. Another cold and wet day and at the top of the hill that Dover Castle dominates, the wind was cruel. A lot of the castle sites were closed due to a refurbishment and maintenance programme. We walked up to the Saxon church and Roman Pharos, a 2,000 year old lighthouse that overlooked the White Cliffs. Unfortunately there was service running and we could not go into the church, a pity as there is a fascinating story about graffiti scratched onto the altar by knights leaving England to fight in the Crusades. Our 10.30 tour of the tunnels was excellent as we were immersed in the secret underground world of the Napoleonic Wars, WW2 and the Cold war. Three miles of tunnels criss- crossed three different levels and for years very few people knew of their existence. Like Churchill’s War Cabinet Rooms in London, these secret tunnels created a labyrinth containing barracks, a surgical hospital, radio transmitting rooms and the entire infrastructure to run a modern war. Extraordinary! At any one time over 800 military personnel could be housed, fed and attended to. The planning for the evacuation at Dunkirk was put into place here and the tunnels saw many injured airmen being cared for in this underground city. Our visit was brief as the ferry booking was for 1.00 p.m. Leaving the UK felt a bit odd this time as we normally do the tour in reverse and London is the final location. In the previous tour in 2006 the kids didn’t enjoy London much as it was the end of a long tour so this time we decided to make it our first stage. I had wanted them to love the city I adore and with this group they relished all of the experiences in this most famous city in the world. Excellent! Passage through customs at Dover was a bit of a joke as Richard the bus driver said they probably wouldn’t even check the passports: we were waved through as he said we would passports not even looked at. Grrrrrrr….missed out on a stamp! Time was a bit of an enemy as the first cemetery we had to get to was about 45 minutes south of Calais and the darkness was setting in quickly. Wimereux cemetery was the burial place of Gustav Gerhardy commemorated by Meningie lad, Jarred Thorpe. Jarred is not a confident public speaker at all and was quite nervous about doing this. In fact this was a big thing for Jarred and the fact he is commemorating four soldiers is a real credit to him. His commemoration of Gustav was well done. Light was fading fast and we needed to get to Etaples cemetery before we lost all light. Etaples Cemetery is a massive place with over 10,000 graves. It is huge. The entrance to the cemetery is impressive with massive columns at either side of the front. Light was limited so the grave shot was dependent on flash photography. When we were here in 2006 this was the final cemetery and the feeling amongst the group then was quite strange. A number of kids said they felt sad about leaving the men behind so this time it was a contrasting experience. Edward Scott and James Michael were the two soldiers being commemorated by Hamish and Lorraine. A sombre feeling dominated as the sun set so The Ode was said together. Our core business had begun. The distance from Etaples to Amiens was over 70 kilometres so the I-pod became my friend. Our hotel was well placed in the centre of Amiens however getting the bus next to the hotel entrance was a bit of a challenge. An even greater challenge was check in as the front office lady understood very little English and of course my French is non-existent. The rooms were mixed up and the lady was unclear about why I didn’t want to have the boys in double beds! The boys of course weren’t at keen either. In the midst of all of the negotiations my Froggy mate Yves Fohlen arrived. Hugs, kisses (one on each side of the cheek of course) were the order of the day in amongst our chaos! Yves translated my concerns and soon we were able to sort out the mix up with the doubles and singles. All very stressful. Settled the group in quickly and then it was off for dinner outside of the hotel to a local restaurant.
Arriving at the restaurant and open bottles of wine and alcoholic aperitifs were there ready and waiting. Oh dear! Had to explain to our smiling head waiter that the kids would not be drinking alcohol so all of the open bottles had to be removed much to the groans of some of our older boys! Dinner was a three course yummy feast of leek and cheese pie, a beef stew thing and a divine dessert. The night was late and the day had been long so bed was beckoning. Our Western Front journey had begun.