It’s hard to believe we’ve finally arrived in Ypres after the months of planning, fundraising and training. When I say ‘we’ I mean thirteen Trekkers (including The Royal Star & Garter Homes’ Director of Care & Service Development, Pauline Shaw), one charity rep/trekker (me) plus two group leaders.
I met the group in Ypres having travelled out separately from Brussels. My first experience of Ypres slightly differed from the group’s. I approached by train, covering land that would have formed the Ypres Salient 100 years ago. Even with vague geographical knowledge of the area, I wasn’t quite prepared for the white Commonwealth War Graves en route, or the effect they would have on me in light of the forthcoming days. The flat farmlands on the entry to Ypres do little to hide the white cemeteries which dot the landscape, and the peaceful fields now provide an atmosphere for reflection.
The town of Ypres in my mind is a desolated, barren place. Soldiers trudge towards the Menin Gate in black and white and buildings are piles of rubble. In modern reality it’s a beautiful town, seemingly untouched by war. Completely rebuilt after 1918 to the original plans, this is not just a gateway to the battlefields but a charming, lively place. The cobbled streets boast busy shops, bars and restaurants as you would expect in any picturesque European tourist destination. However reminders are never far away, such as the Menin Gate, a memorial to those killed in the Ypres Salient and who have no known graves.
This afternoon was a chance for the group to spend time in the town and visit the In Flanders Fields Museum, followed by St George’s Memorial Church (and a moment to sample some of the local produce). This evening we gathered at the Menin Gate for the last post, a tradition carried out at 8pm each evening of every day. Gathering inside the Gate, the names carved into the walls are endless (and the crowds inside blocking the view of proceedings gives ample chance for reflection). Tomorrow we head out to the countryside as we start our trek in the knowledge that every inch we walk is a cemetery…