Ypres Salient 2021 Day One: The Way Back

This evening I write from Talbot House. I sit at a table from which I have written many a blog post, surrounded by the familiar comfort which looks extra special dressed for Christmas. But even this morning being here didn't seem anything like a given, with a stressful night spent waiting for a covid test result to come back before I could enter France and Belgium.

When it finally dropped into my inbox less than an hour before I was to check in for the ferry I was so relieved I almost forgot to check that it was negative. With this in hand, the rest of the journey was straightforward - I was one of just four cars on the Dunkirk ferry - and after an easy drive I arrived in Ypres at lunchtime, tired but very relieved. 

As I made my way across the square to the Menin Gate it all felt so surreal. This is by far the least organised I have ever been for a battlefields trip. In all the uncertainty, I didn't dare make too much of a plan of what to do. Yet almost straight away it all felt entirely normal and natural, as if it hasn't been 2.5 years since I've been here.

2.5 years is, of course, just a small fraction of the time the gate has stood for, bearing the names of the near 55,000 fallen. Their story is more enduring. With no real plan, I took time to soak in the atmosphere and reimmerse myself in the war. I know that sounds odd, particularly from someone who's working on a PhD on the First World War, but recently my research has been far more detached from the lived experience and is a lot more contextual, so there was definitely a mind-shift to being back on the battlefields.

I walked along the ramparts as I reorientated myself. It was peaceful - a windy Tuesday afternoon in early December - and so cold. I took in the names at the Ramparts Cemetery, immensely calming on the waterside and their epitaphs; some familiar ("greater love...") and others incredibly personal ("baby Peggy").

At the Lille Gate I also couldn't help but look for signs of the YMCA that once stood there, run by the characterful Dr CJ Magrath. The town has since been entirely rebuilt, there's no reason for there to be lasting traces, but equally there's an atmosphere that does make one wonder and watch out. 

Cold and tired (my personal worst combination) I decided against a longer walk and instead sought shelter in the In Flanders Fields Museum. I think I last visited in 2014 and I was pleasantly surprised by it. There was a good mix of artefacts and video pieces that were really interesting, supported by an interactive bracelet where you can follow different soldiers' stories. These were quite simplistic, but the new feature where you can hone in on one person from your home region was neat.

It was also cool to see a hint of the YMCA in the exhibit! There was a little writing pouch issued by the Australian YMCA in one of the displays, albeit sadly without any description.

After a little wander around the Ieper Christmas stalls it started to rain and I took that as my cue to drive over to Talbot House and settle in. The house is always beautiful, but dressed for Christmas is even more so! I feel so content to be back here, albeit with several tweaks to satisfy the current covid rules. I hadn't been here long before I collapsed into a nap, finally able to fully relax. I look forward to exploring more tomorrow!


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