Fish, horses, and menhirs

And then three come along Belgian Ardennes horses Stepping out Waving the flag Ninety minutes later at Noyelles Mont St Eloi Santé Enjoying the music
Click on the thumbnails for a larger picture The local policeman with British Soldiers One bank with happy customers Dressing up Vimy Ridge in the distance Private William Boag Private Walter Greenless Private Walter Maisey

Heritage Weekend

20 September 2008

Every year in September we have a Heritage Weekend in Europe. This gives all the associations a chance to get out and show people what they do or gives us a chance to visit buildings that would normally closed to the public.

Last year I took the opportunity to visit the Citadelle at Arras and this year it was once again the chance to watch the relays of carriages participating in the Route du Poisson.

It hardly seems three years since JJ and I went up to Boulogne in the pouring rain to watch the horses getting harnessed up and trying to lug a one ton boat along the beach. On that occasion although the route passed by the house it came through during the night. This year they decided to run our section during the day.

And it was sunny. A June sky with September temperatures.

The Route du Poisson - Fish Road - celebrates the provisioning of the Paris markets from the port of Boulogne, which remains France's largest and most important fishing port.

In the days before modern transport, relays of horse drawn vehicles would bring the boxes of fish packed in ice down to Paris within 24 hours.

The event is organised as a competition between the various teams and not just on speed. There are dressage as well as endurance tests. I understand very little about things equine apart from knowing when to say: Completely wrong !, in my best Dorian-Smith accent.

I initially tried parking in the village down the road from here where the horses were passing through but it was bunged: you couldn't move without treading on green wellies, so I gave that idea up as a bad joke and simply parked up on the side of the road with a group of other people.

It took about an hour and a half for the 15 teams to pass us by. They had just effected the climb out of the Authie valley and some of them were looking a little winded, but with the village staging post within sight and a gentle down hill slope they all started to step out again.


Mont St Eloi

Having spent some time watching the horses I set off for the battered towers of the abbey at Mont St Eloi on the road to Arras.

As part of the commemorations leading up to the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice they were holding a costumed event and sound and light show.

Mont St Eloi

All that remains of the abbey

Once an important location marking the place of pilgrimage of St Eloi himself, the abbey fell victim to the French revolution when it was taken over and then sold off by the state. All that remains of the abbey are the two towers and these were badly damaged during the First World War.

This was the rear area of the front for four years but from here it is quite easy to see the Canadian Memorial about six kilometres away sitting on the top of Vimy Ridge.

The village was also touched by the retreat towards Dunkerque and two memorials to the French 4th Dragoons stand in the village marking their stand against the German offensive. In the cemetery a row of British soldiers mark their passage as well.

By the time I arrived I had missed some of the afternoon's proceedings but it was a bright evening and the bands were still playing on the village green. Many of those present were wearing costumes from the period and a number of the re-enactment societies were there to bolster the military presence.

I would say that it is odd to approach a group of Tommies and kilted Jocks to hear them all talking in French.

A bank was on-hand to change our Euros into French Francs for those wishing to partake of refreshments. Mont St Eloi had been a real camp during the war and the atmosphere, intending to mark armistice, still made me think of the canteens and estaminets with their mix of locals and soldiers throughout the ordeal.

The show late in the evening was very well done. We gathered on the lawn behind the towers in front of a stage but with two small podiums situated within the crowd but to our rear. On one we had a young French poilu and on the other a British Tommy who took the part of an answering voice - sometimes speaking for the enemy, at others as a conscience.

On the main stage an elderly veteran read from his diary and talked about the war to his grand-daughter.

How he had gone off to war with a light heart, how the reality of the trenches had sullied the mood of everyone. But it wasn't all doom and gloom, there were the parties, the drunken nights with his friends, the songs, the comradeship in the face of adversity and finally; victory.

The sound system was superb and the mix of classical music with fireworks thundering off the towers or just in front of us put us there in the trenches. It wasn't a grand fireworks display, some were almost low key but the echoes of their cracks and bangs off the towers made you think of machine gun bullets rattling away. Our proximity to it all meant we were getting a good whiff of powder to add to the sense of being in the thick of things.

The young actor who played the poilu was excellent. He made me think of a John boy Walton sent off to war and trying to face up to what he had witnessed away from the tranquillity of the farm.


The church at Ecoivres

Written in stone

One of the expositions that was on display in the Mairie was about the traces left behind by the soldiers who had been barracked in the area.

In many area names or regimental badges had been carved into the walls.

One of the churches mentioned happens to be nearby and, the Sunday turning out to be another fine and sunny day, I set off to have a look for myself. Some of the locals probably thought I was crazy as I wandered around the undergrowth at the back of the church.

There though, amongst all the modern inscriptions of undying love for a boy, girl or latest death metal rock group, were indeed carvings dating back to 1917. Trying to identify the soldiers is however difficult, after all a simple name is not a great deal to go on.

Some of the Canadians, however, had been obliging. Young Boag left his name and number, and two of the others their battalion.

The devil's stones and Mont Saint Eloi

The Devil's stones and Mont Saint Eloi on the hill opposite
Yes - I realise that is tautology, blame the translator !

Within the same village you can find these two sandstone menhirs sitting in a field. They are 3 and 4 metres tall.

There are many legends about Queen Brunehaut who lived in the 6th Century. One of which states that she concluded a pact with the Devil which would create a straight road right the way across her realm within the space of a night.

Either through remorse or the fact that she was a cunning bitch (Probably the latter if the historical personality was anything to go by) she got her cock to crow a bit early and thus the Devil lost his bet. In the throws of a queeny fit the Devil picked up two huge rocks and threw them into a field - and here they stand even until today.

The real Brunehaut was not a nice person at all and supposedly came to a nasty end for another legend would say that once captured and tried for her crimes she was dragged behind a horse across the realm. The trails she left behind became roads running directly between one town and the next. Perhaps the Devil had the last laugh ?

Old as those stories might be it they do not do these two standing stones justice. They are reckoned to be at least 5000 years old and raised by the Celtic tribes who lived in the area.

However, on your travels you may well see signs up for a Chausée Brunehaut. There are a number of them running across the north of France and Belgium (Her old realm) and they are all believed to be the old Gallic roads linking their major towns. All of these routes are almost completely straight and would not only aid future Roman invaders but would become part of their own network of roads as time passed by.

The Chausée Brunehaut between Montreuil (Once upon a time on the coast) and Amiens passes just to the south of where I live. It has been interrupted a little but what still exists is very nearly a perfectly straight line.


See also

Deb's Birthday

Simon's Birthday

The Dubliners: July 2008