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10th June 2004
By Classic Bike To WWI Battlefields
Fancy a ride on you old motorcycle? So why not do something different with your classic bike? Mick O'Donnell and the Old Peculiar Classic Club got Somme in...
The Old Peculiar Classic MC was barely eight months old when someone had the barmy idea of taking the bikes across the water for a week on the Somme, visiting the battlefields of WWI. Normally our members were quite content with sitting in the pub drinking Old Peculiar and chatting for hours about our beloved bikes, so God only knows what possessed us to embark on this epic journey. (Yes, OK, it was the OP).
After the usual drop-outs due to ironing, decorating, mowing the lawn, etc, etc, we were down to five bikes and riders. Me on my rather flirty 1967 BSA B40WD, Pete the polisher on his very polished 1959 650 AJS, Andy on his AJS 600, Stefan on his fully rebuilt and fettled (courtesy of Andy) Triumph T90 bitsa, and last, but by no means least, Mr James Purdey on his 1957 G3LCS Matchless, who by the way happens to by the ripe young age of 73!
Ferries were booked, and pass-outs were obtained from the wives. The bikes were given the once over, and the smallest of tool kits were assembled. I was beginning to think we must be bloody mad but - hey - it's been done many times before, with higher mileage on even older machines. Nothing could go wrong. Could it?
The day of reckoning arrived and... guess what? It was raining. Not just ordinary old rain but blooming cats and dogs rain. The Beeza, Matchie and Trumpet were being trailered down to a family member in Gravesend; the other two heroes on the Ajays were riding all the way to Dover from Staffordshire! By the time we got the three bikes to Gravesend the weather had become even more sinister, and we had the delightful task of riding them the 60 miles to the port...
We had arranged an overnight stop in Dover with an early bird ferry in the morning. After parking the bikes up at the guesthouse and drying off a little we embarked on a sampling expedition of the local ale houses. Andy and Pete managed to track us down after a particularly horrendous journey through the bad weather. Never mind, the weather was surely going to get better. Wasn't it?
After what seemed like only five minutes sleep, the alarm clock was blasting my ear hole and I was up and ready for action. Jim and Stef were already on parade and packing stuff across the pillion seats of the bikes. The BSA started up first kick, the Triumph followed shortly after, but Jim seemed to be having problems breathing life into his beloved Matchie. We tried everything to get it going but it was as dead as a dodo, and time was running out, A quick decision was made. I was to set off and meet the other two on the ferry, leaving Jim and Stef behind to hopefully sort the Matchless out and follow on the next available sailing. I couldn't believe that we had trouble already, but we weren't going to let a small setback like this dampen our spirits!
After a rather sodden ride through the French countryside, the three musketeers pulled over at the first large service area and awaited the arrival of Jim and Stef. We knew (via a very handy mobile phone) they'd got going and were only an hour and a half behind us. Sure enough they appeared on the cloudy horizon, and pulled in for a re-group and chat. The problem with the Matchless had been a Wader magneto full of water! After a refuel and a check over of the bikes we got on our way to our Formula One accommodation in the Lille region.
We soon had all our kit stored in the rather basic but functional rooms and were very pleased to find the sun trying to poke its way through the French clouds. This could only get better...
Andy was, for all intents and purposes, our tour guide and mechanic. He had done this trip before and we trusted him to show us a good time. This he did from start to finish. His enthusiasm for the area and the historic events which had taken place here were first class. We could not have had a better bloke for the job.
We mounted the bikes with the sun now beating down on us and rode into Belgium, catching sight of our first cemetery at Hellfire corner, close to Ypres. The first thing which struck me was the way in which the War Graves Commission care for all the military cemeteries. They are really beautifully kept; perfect lawns, shrubs and borders, eerily quiet, tucked away close to some long fought hellish nightmare battle scene. I don't think I was prepared for the sheer number of cemeteries we were to come across this week, and I for one wanted to stop and pay my respects at each and every one we passed.
We headed further into Belgium and on up to sanctuary wood with its trenches and craters still visible, the little museum telling the full horrific story of the battle that took place here. We sat in the hot sun and drank Liptons tea while coachloads of tourists took it in turns to look and photograph our bikes. Somehow I felt a little guilty about taking away some of attention to what happened here many years ago.
For soldiers during the war this area was known as Hill 62 -- this referred to its elevated position, which made it deadly when the attack uphill towards the German lines was launched. In 1914 the wood became a quiet area for a time, offering battle weary soldiers a little respite from the ravages of war, hence it became known as Sanctuary Wood, but by 1915 it once again became part of the front line. Some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place here in 1915-16.
Next stop was a trip to Hooge crater, which is now filled in, but houses a very good museum and shop were we stopped for lunch while watching Jim's Matchless fall off its stand and smash the headlight! It wasn't going to be his day, was it?
After Liptons tea and chocolates we headed off to Tyne Cot cemetery which by all accounts is the largest British war cemetery in Europe. Here lie 134,000 unknown soldiers, 11,871 named graves and four Germans. A very humbling experience indeed.
We rounded a most excellent day off with dinner in the town of Ypres where yet again the bikes caused quite a bit of interest. Lots of people were interested in what we were up to, and most of them thought we were mad!
The following day we were to head off further afield to the Somme. Andy's Grandad is buried down there and he wanted to pay his respects. We had an incident with Jim's Matchless on the way; he thought he felt it seizing up on him so whipped in the clutch and pulled over on rather a dangerous stretch of French carriageway. Andy doubled back to investigate and, after a little rest, the Matchie started up fine with no indication apparent as to what the problem was. For the rest of the week the little Matchie buckled down and ran a treat, much to Jim's relief. The other four bikes gave no problems at all apart from a lost front number plate and some dodgy wiring on Pete's AJS; the wiring was sorted in a jiffy with the aid of Andy's gas soldering iron. (The number plate was shoved in his rucksack for attention later).
Down on the Somme we visited the various war cemeteries and got into a panic trying to find a petrol station which was open. It was the French bank holiday and every where was shut. We were all getting very low on juice until we finally came across one -- with a queue a mile long of people waiting to top up!
Topped up with juice we stormed off to Vimy ridge, where over 13,000 men fell, mostly Canadians. The trenches are still there, silent and eerie. Off again on towards Bapaume where we came across a great little café on the road to Albert, where the owner had recreated some trenches in his back garden, complete with relics dug up from the surrounding area! We had lunch here and had a look around before mounting up and heading up to Thiepval memorial, which is the largest memorial on the Somme looking out towards the Somme battlefield.
On our way to Belmonte we came across a group of classic bikes parked up outside the Connaught cemetery. It was great to stop and chat to some guys doing the same thing as us, and give each others' bikes the once over! We finally made it up to the trenches at Beaumont, and off up to Hawthorn ridge to explore the huge crater blown out of the landscape. Jim made us all crease up with laughter when he dropped his goggles down a rabbit hole and spent half an hour trying to retrieve them! We couldn't give him any help for laughing and as he shouted; 'I don't believe it' we all imagined a French bunny popping up with them on!
We had crammed so much into the day that the sun was setting on the horizon and we had to cut and run. Unfortunately we had no choice but to use the motorway. I can honestly say that it was one of the scariest bike rides I've ever had. Old bikes, old lights, mad French drivers, in the pitch black. Not recommended.
The next day we opted to stay around the Belgium battlefields. We took a run up to Hill 60, and explored various German bunkers, craters and pillboxes. We went into Ypres (or Ieper) and took in the magnificent Flanders field's museum in Cloth Hall. Later we had dinner in the town square before catching the bugling of the last post at the Menin gate, a great end to a brilliant day.
Day Four was spent touring the local area where we came across a recent discovery of German trenches. Stef found several spent cartridges in the ploughed fields which he kindly donated to Jim, who by now was getting very agitated that he hadn't found anything! We found an unexploded shell ploughed up and (probably rather foolishly) all had our picture taken while holding it! After some shopping for presents we had dinner and headed back to pack our belongings, ready for the morning trip up to Calais.
The morning soon came round and we awoke to the sound of heavy rain on the windows. We couldn't really complain as the weather had been fantastic for the duration of our adventure. We rode across to Dunkirk in the howling rain and, after a cup of tea and a very short look around, headed up to the port where we blagged our way onto an earlier sailing. Didn't do us much good though as the weather was so bad it took us over three hours to get to Dover!
After saying our goodbyes to Pete and Andy, Stef Jim and I rode the 60 miles back up to Gravesend to pick up the trailer and vehicle. I've got to say that it was one of the wettest bike rides I've ever done and we were soaked on arrival. The bikes were loaded up and after tea and biscuits we were on our way back to the Old Peculiar -- already planning our next big adventure!
Special thanks go out to Andy who did a sterling job and made each and every day worth getting up for. Also, many thanks to Jim who quite unintentionally made us laugh all week! And let us not forget our trusty machines, which apart from a couple of minor problems, performed superbly throughout the trip.
Anyone know their arch from their elbow?
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