Over eight days in August we cycled from Burgess Hill in Sussex to Leuven in Belgium, a distance of 350 miles. We’d recently completed the London to Brighton Bike Sponsored Bike Ride in aid of the British Heart Foundation, and so, being especially fit for cycling we wanted to attempt something more challenging. We would ride through Picardy to Antwerp (one of my favourite European cities), then onto Herentals for a meet up with family, ending in the university city of Leuven. We’d return home by Eurostar with the bikes in the luggage car.
Disembarking the ferry in Dieppe we cycled over two days along the coast to the river Somme estuary and inland to Abbeville and Arras. This region of France is of course infamous for the bloody battles of the two world wars where millions of young men died in the stalemate of the trenches.
But death was not on our minds on a beautiful summer’s morning as we cycled along the canal towpath just beyond Arras. The bullrushes swaying in the gentle breeze and bright blue kingfishers flashing along the bank. At a bridge near a disused lock (the entire canal, whilst seemingly navigable, was dotted with these obsolete locks) I was hailed by an elderly Frenchman with a cheerful wave. “Ah Belgique” he shouted, “Le Tour”. Why he thought I was Belgian, I have no idea. I responded with my pitifully limited French, “Ah Bonjour. No. Anglais!”.
Just beyond another bridge I spotted a couple of police cars on the towpath, blue lights flashing. A gendarme raised his arm and seemed to shout “Le Tour”. Friendly chap, I thought as I grinned inanely. “Armand, STOP” shouted Jo from behind me. It was then that I saw the bag at the water’s edge. A large white plastic bag. A bodybag. Not the customary black or green zip up bodybag, but a large heavy duty white bag, fastened with a plastic tie grip. More like the sort of bag in which you’d truss up a turkey. “RETOUR” shouted the gendarme more vehemently, taking a step towards me.
There were two gendarme, one sitting on the bonnet of his car, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, the other still trying to get rid of me. Ithen fully comprehended the scene. “Sorry, Anglais” I called out as we turned our bikes to retreat.
We stopped at the bridge and figured out an alternative route which bizarrely took us along Rue La Herse and in the direction of the Crump Military Cemetery at Fampoux. “Crump” is the word used to describe the noise that an explosive artillery shell makes when it hits the ground. Why would you name a cemetery after the thing that probably killed the young lads buried there? We made a short detour to visit. It was, like all Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites, a peaceful and touching place. There were even a couple of German graves. It had been the strangest of days – a macabre morning’s bicycle ride.