May 1st  2009 – MAY DAY

 

 

It's May Day here in Diksmuide, as celebrated in about everywhere else in the Western World.  Many more bikes are on the roads by the river than cars.  Teams of cyclists in brightly coloured outfits off to their own versions of the Tour de France race past us and other groups enjoying more a leisurely amble on their bikes.  They come in all ages and sizes and do not wear the helmets or aerodynamic cloths of the racers.  The other remarkable sight on the roads is the farm tractors towing all kinds of farming equipment which travel the roads at speeds as fast as the cars.

 

No rest for the farmers – even on May Day

“On the road again”

 

We are also on the road, off to visit the Trench of Death.  It’s one of two unforgettable local memorials to the Belgian, and particularly Flemish involvement in the First World War. As green and gentle as these fields might look today, ninety five years or so ago they were battlefields and hell on earth; a vast sea of shell pocked mud where men lived and fought in networks of trenches or tunnels below.  The Trench of Death must have been as shocking and as tragic as any.

 

Looking down on the Trench of Death

Reconstructed tunnels

Its almost impossible to imagine just how appalling this place must have once been

The IjzerTower.  22 floors of tragic stories

Cyclists in search of a race?

 

Diksmuide was razed to the ground and then rebuilt after the war to resemble its former self.  But, as close as the town square and the buildings might be to its three or four hundred year-old former self, they lack the moss and the aging that gives old buildings so much of their charm.  Even after 70 years there is something not quite true about many of them – a bit like Disneyland. 

 

Towering above the town is the twenty-two story Ijzer Tower which tells its story of the war vertically.  We saw more soldiers had died from disease than from gunfire.  With the dead rotting in the mud and the rats swarming we could well understand why. 

 

Yet Diksmuide today is a charming place; friendly, people only too happy to help.  The beer is great, the croissants wonderful, and the weather warm and sunny. 

 

May 2nd 2009 - Diksmuide to Ieper

 

 

Going to Ieper, also known as Ypres (in French) or Wipers (in German), had been a goal for almost as long as we had been planning this whole odyssey, as my (Stewart’s) grandfather Austin Shepherd used to talk of “Eeps” as he pronounced it, on the rare occasions he spoke of his World War One memories. 

 

We saw one boat go through and thought any moment now …….!

Contented sheep by the Ieper Canal

 

The “mud” and the shell-ruined church in Ieper seemed to have left indelible imprints.  Initially he had been in an artillery unit.  Then, at the end he was transferred to a veterinary Evacuation Station, probably because he had studied vet science at Hawkesbury Ag. College and topped the class.   It does not do to dwell too long on what the main duties of a horse evac. station might have been, as most of the horses which accompanied the AIF to Europe did not return with the men like Austin lucky enough to have physically survived the horror.

 

On the map, the journey to Ieper looked pretty straight forward.  Down the Ijzer River for several more ks then a sharp left onto the Ieper Canal and we should be there in a couple more hours.  However this projection didn’t factor in the lock keeper at the swing bridge at Knockebrug who told Lesley he would be going ahead to work the two locks coming up, but was never seen again. 

 

After an hour and a half of waiting patiently, then calling the “real” lock keeper to be told at least twice “just half an hour longer”, he finally arrived from escorting another boat to and through the other lock in his care. There had been nowhere to moor up while we waited and as everything in the lock was manual and the lock keeper had damaged his shoulder, it had taken a harrowing two hours and more to pass through just the one lock. 

 

Luckily the lock keeper arrived soon after us at the second one and half an hour later we were finally in Ieper, looking without success for a suitable place to moor up where I could get on shore. 

 

 

 

 

 

Ieper’s Wall of Cats

Ieper roof

 

 

Ieper is another rebuilt city.  Lesley went to investigate the town and reported it looked clean and thriving, not unfortunately like the boat harbour which was a pretty grimy and unloved place.  And totally inaccessible. We spent the night tied up by a 5 metre embankment, planning our next moves.

 

 

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