LAM Euro-Virgins do Ypres

One of our members, Kat Bell, recounts her recent LAM trip to Ypres in Belgium.

View of a war cemetery in France with people in the foreground

Saturday 12 March, 0500 and I can’t see the road from my window due to dense fog…. slept quite well last night considering I was excited and nervous in equal measure. Why? Today I lose my European Virginity!

Yep, courtesy of Iain Muir-Nelson and Andy Torrie 15 of us are riding to Ypres in Belgium. Some might ask why on earth we’re riding to Belgium for the day… in fact my friends did ask that very question. Well for many of us, the reason is because we’ve never ridden on the other side of the road before on motorbikes. For us this was a gentle practice session ahead of a bigger trip later in the year to the Nurburgring in Germany.

Group of motorbike and owners outside a service station

As I get dressed and gather my last bits and pieces together before leaving I’m reasonably confident that the fog will clear by the time we ride of the tunnel at Calais, but I am slightly apprehensive about getting to the meeting point (Clacket Lane services on the M25). Ultimately though I know that I’m in safe hands with the LAM ‘grown ups’, and I’m eager to get the trip underway and see my buddies.

I can honestly say that before today I have never been on my bike before 0600, and have never ridden in fog so thick! I set off, heading for Clacket Lane, via ‘Chez Martindale’ to pick up Nicky. I know I’m early, but I also know that not everyone’s a morning person, so I think the extra time is a sensible precautionary buffer!

I’d like to be able to say that we all make it to the meet point in time for departure…. However one of our party ends up Westbound instead of Eastbound on the M25. Is her Australian heritage cause for this ‘wrong-way-round’ mistake?, we wondered. Due to our tight schedule to get to the EuroShuttle, the age-old principle of ‘Never leave a man behind’ goes out the window and we arrange to join up with ‘said wanderer’ at Folkestone.

Visibility on the M25 and M20 down to ‘Le Shuttle’ is bad, but we manage to keep together, and we are soon in the queue to board the train. Having been reunited with our lost member, and with the weather starting to brighten up, we are all in good spirits and keen to be on our way.

Group of motorcycles and motorcyclists in a carpark at the Eurotunnel

Sur le continent

In hardly any time at all we are pulling helmets and gloves back on ready to disembark ‘sur le continent’. We’d all listened attentively to Iain’s safety briefing, and what we’d do once we got off – head to services, have coffee and a snack, get fuel etc…. – and so it catches us all slightly by surprise when we were filtered out of the EuroShuttle terminal via a different route. This promptly meant an immediate reversion to ‘Plan B’, …which was ‘let’s follow Iain and hope for the best’.

Once we get a little way away from the terminal, we stop for a quick regroup, and decided that as Ypres is less than two hours away we’ll just head straight there at a steady pace, and then spend more time there having lunch and stocking up on chocolate.

So off we go, riding in our staggered formation with Andy bringing up the rear. I think this was the bit I’d been most worried about as I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep up with the pace, but it is a lovely ride, and isn’t too fast. It’s a mix of freeway and rural roads so it gives us a great opportunity to practice different types of riding. We even have a bit of a chance to look at the scenery – vast flat plains of agricultural fields, smattered with windmills. We ride through one village whose streets were all cobbled – yes, just cobbles for miles…. If we weren’t all starting to need the toilet before that village, we were after!

View from inside the Menin Gate, Ypres

And soon we are riding into the eastern side of Ypres through the beautiful Menin Gate, a very moving memorial dedicated to the unknown British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed at Ypres during the First World War.

We park the bikes up in the shadow of the gothic-style St Martins’ Cathedral, and now came the hardest part of the whole trip….deciding which of the many amazing restaurants to have lunch in!

As the spring sun shone down on the market square, we tuck into omelettes, croque monsieurs, and chocolate and cream waffles. I think we ran the poor waiter ragged with our frequent requests for coffee, hot chocolate, changes to the ingredients in our selected food and different toppings for our desserts!

Feeling full and contented we all agree that we couldn’t come all this way and not visit Tyne Cot Cemetery, one of the huge burial grounds for the many thousands of Commonwealth soldiers that died on the Western Front.

Group of people in front of St Martin's Cathedral in Ypres, Belgium

Headstone

Despite the fact that I’m a career communications professional – working with words is what I do – I cannot find the words to describe how Tyne Cot made me feel: row upon row upon row of unnamed graves that simply said ‘A solider of the Great War: known unto God’. Even now, writing this, those words carved into endless headstones move me to silence, and fill me with such a solemnity that I have to pause and think for a moment of the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many for each and every one of us. Those of us that had never been to a battlefield graveyard find it a very moving experience, and luckily one of our group is able to find the words to articulate how we all felt: “It’s a bit sombre!” Thanks for that profound sentiment Nicky.

Before setting off back to Calais we have a short amount of time left in Ypres to buy as much chocolate as our panniers and backboxes can carry, which we valiantly set about the task of doing. And after a quick group photo, we move out and hit the road home.

Group photo of people wearing motorcycle gear in front of a cathedral

We take a quicker route back to Le Shuttle, and – despite it taking us a little longer to get through the passport checks on the French side (we have to stop and take our helmets off to prove we were who our passports said) – we are just in time to be funnelled straight through onto an earlier train. Bonus! This means we’ll get home a bit earlier – important as some of us (Jacqui) have parties to go to!!

A line of motorcyles and their riders leading off into the distance on a train car

I have amusing memories of seeing Yolande warming her feet on the still-hot engine of her bike as we chat and joke during the journey back to Blighty. This is a good trick that I have banked in my memory for future occasions!

I think we all feel a little sad to be splitting up to go our separate ways as we ride of the train. We’ve all had such a good day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a little bit chuffed with themselves at having successfully done their first European trip!

I’m sure I speak on behalf of all of us when I say very many thanks to Iain for all his hard work in organising the trip and bravely leading us, despite his awful man-flu. And thanks to Andy for his supporting role, for being a great tail-end Charlie (he didn’t lose anyone!), and also for bringing his lovely wife Amanda into our lives – she’s fab!

So roll on May and the Nurburgring – Germany here we come!!!

Kat Bell

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