Time to reflect in Flanders

Tyne Cot Cemetery near Passchendaele.

I was very pleased to join a three-day press trip to the Belgian region of Flanders earlier this month, organised by Visit Flanders in co-operation with P&O Ferries, as part of the commemorative activity surrounding the centenary of the Great War. Travelling on a very comfortable Anderson Travel coach, provided through the Coach Tourism Council, we travelled over to the Continent from Dover on P&O’s new multi-million pound Spirit of Britain, enjoying a lovely lunch in The Brasserie restaurant. After checking into the newly renovated Albion Hotel in Ypres, which was very well situated, we visited the In Flanders Fields Museum, which re-opened after refurbishment in 2012. The museum has integrated touch screen technology very effectively into its visitor experience, particularly using aerial photography from the First World War and matching it with pictures of the landscape today, which helps bring to life the damage inflicted by the conflict. We were then afforded a brilliant view of the poignant Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, before enjoying dinner at the upmarket De Fonderie restaurant in the town.

The next morning it was onto the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, which re-opened last year with a new wing entirely dedicated to the Battle of Passchendaele – when half a million casualties fell in 100 days – an outdoor trench experience and a remembrance gallery. A visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery followed before a great lunch at De Oude Kaasmakerij, set in an old cheese-making factory.

The Cloth Hall, which houses the In Flanders Fields Museum, and its scale model.

Then it was on to Poperinge to visit the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, site of the biggest evacuation hospital in the Ypres Salient. A visitor centre now stands on the site of the hospital, adjacent to the cemetery, helping to explain its important history. Talbot House was next up, a wonderful attraction set in the house where two army chaplains opened a club providing a haven for Allied soldiers, regardless of their rank. We then checked in at the sumptuous Recour Hotel and enjoyed a musical dinner with ‘Songs that Won the Great War’ at the nearby Hotel Palace.

On our final day, we travelled to the border town of Messines, visiting the Peace Village, an ideal place for groups to stay and where we had a wonderful lunch, and touring the town before a final stop in France at the new Museum of the Battle of Fromelles. This tells the story of the recent discovery of the bodies of 250 British and Australian soldiers in mass graves and the painstaking work that has been undertaken to identify and re-bury them in a new cemetery next door.

The trip gave much time for reflection and highlighted the many excellent attractions and events linked to the Great War. There will be lots going on in the next four years and groups should definitely consider planning a visit to discover this fascinating history for themselves. You can out find more about the centenary events at www.flandersfields1418.com