217th January 2011
Gavin Shaw rides his MZ 250 from the UK to North Cape in Norway, stopping on the way to view sites from the battlefields of the Great War...
It might be May but it's cold, very cold, and it started raining before I reached Dover. I'd better get used to the idea as you don't ride to Nord Kapp for the sunshine. I arrive early and catch a ferry an hour ahead of schedule. It's hardly overloaded with some coaches, half a dozen cars and four motorcycles. One of the bikes is heading for Dubrovnik and the remaining three are off to a Harley rally in Biarritz. When they find out where I'm off to there's a mixture of sniggering (from the Harley riders) and admiration.MZ ETZ250 ready for the off...
I'm one of the first off the ferry and it's a pleasure to be on European soil again. Unfortunately I'm battling head and side winds all the way to Leper (Ypres). I head to the Flanders Field museum, located in the rebuilt Cloth Hall. It's excellent; a very well spent eight Euros. I thought I was well versed in the events of the Ypres salient and Paschendale and so on, but I discovered many new things. The audio-visual displays are very good and it was encouraging to see the number of schoolchildren from all nations getting very involved in the displays and the history.
Just down the road is the Menin Gate. Words cannot describe the impacts of this place. The names on its walls are overwhelming. I went to Polgeste wood and four other cemeteries. The British cemetery at Messines Ridge affects me and is gut-wrenching.
My chosen campsite is halfway up the Kemmelburg, a hill defended by the French and upon which many lives were lost. After a very hot shower I head back to Leper, encounter a bunch of drunken youths, and then take a walk around the moat and ramparts of the town while waiting for the Last Post ceremony which takes place every day at 8pm. Well over a thousand people are in attendance and many are school kids from around Europe. As usual, the British kids couldn't keep quiet!
After a freezing night I take a short ride up the Kemmelburg to see the memorial and then head to the Paschendale Museum. They've replicated a section of a British trench there, and all the activities that used to be carried out are displayed. It's very well done and worth the five Euro entry fee on its own.
I then head for Tyne Cot. No words can describe the impact of this, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. Row after row of crosses, the vast majority of them un-named, including two Germans left from when the site was a German bunk house. The impact of the rear wall which lists the lost - those without a grave - genuinely brings a lump to my throat. I visit the information centre and then spend some time just sitting opposite the cemetery, contemplating the sheer horror of it.The Spanbroekmolen Crater
After lunch I move on to the Spanbroekmolen Crater and the Lone Tree cemetery. The crater is the aftermath of a subterranean mine, one of ten which were exploded under German lines in 1917. Three of the ten did not explode and were never recovered. One exploded during a thunderstorm in the 1960s but the other two remain lost.
I fuel the bike and return to the campsite. Tomorrow I'll set off to Germany to visit relatives.
Leaving early, I notice that the wind is getting up. Not for the first time I take the wrong turning on the motorway outside Antwerp, but correct the mistake. The sheer number of lorries on the road causes quite a few serious moments when overtaking. Loaded, the MZ cruises at 65 to 70mph but this equates to a speed which is only five or ten mph faster than the trucks. I have to be aware of the very fast moving traffic coming from the rear and plan any overtaking with great care.
The constant strong head wind means that at times the bike can't pull in fifth gear. I have to drop to third when pulling out from the trucks' slipstream and into the full blast of the wind. In spite of the abuse the bike performs very well, which is more than can be said for the rider. I feel like I've been through a continuous spin cycle!
Just as I'm beginning to think about petrol the MZ coughs and a quick switch to reserve is needed. Continuous running on one tank gave me 204 miles. That's not good. It means that thanks to the extra load and the strong winds I'm running some 75 miles short of my projected tank range, so in turn am likely to exceed my petrol budget.
The weather looks very threatening as I cross the German border. It gets worse, and within 50 miles of my destination the rain turns to snow. It's only 50 miles, but such is the violence of the storm that I seriously consider stopping at a very expensive hotel. I keep going and after an age I arrive, wet, cold and aching in places that I didn't know I had. With this weather I intend to hole up for a couple of days, let my tent dry out and check the bike.
On the following day, checking the bike over took all of four minutes! I dried out my tent and boots and that was it.
Next episode: onwards through Germany and into Scandinavia…
Just in case you were wondering, Nord Kapp isn't actually the northernmost point on mainland Europe. There are other places further north. But it is a bloomin' long way north…
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