Lunch in the French Alps. An enormous roquefort and walnut salad. Sadly no wine as I’m en route to Monte Carlo.
It’s been a difficult couple of days, widow wise. When I’m not on the road I have time to think and time to miss. So I check in with friends, feel the love and pick myself up by my bra straps…
I went sailing past the Furnicular railway at Saint Helene-du-Touvet, on my way to Monaco. I was half an hour off my route. I seriously contemplated giving Mont Blanc a miss, feeling tired and a bit deflated. Then I remembered that I probably wont get another chance in the next few years to come back. I shouted at myself, turned up Clapton’s Layla, reset the sat nav (obviously, I was looking for a little village, not a bloody town). And I’m so glad that I did…
Moral of this holiday…. keep going. Even when you think you’ve had enough, just push on. The results are usually worth it 🙂
I rode the furnicular railway withsome trepidation. I’ve not got a particularly good head for heights, and this railway is practically vertical. It’s a half an hour ride on a rickety (although I told, safe) truck with windows…. thats the only way that I can describe it.
The little single gauge carriage rattled and clanked its way slowly up the side of the mountain. Mont Blanc hover into view, in all her majesty. We passed waterfalls and streams gushing down the mountain sides. No Eidelweiss but maybe it’s the wrong time of the year
This region of France probably has more in common with it’s Swiss, German and Italian cousins, than its distant relatives in Paris. The people look different – definitely the darker Italian types around here.
I chose the day well. Hot and sunny with a little mist and cloud grazing the top of the mountains. I was glad I had taken the detour. Another part of France which is so completely different to other regions.
Well, first and foremost, I wasn’t planning on doing this road trip at all. I inadvertently ended up with a return ferry ticket for myself and my Mini, and had shelled out too much to cancel/change the details. So, Newhaven – Dieppe was my destination, whether I liked it or not.
I decided to take the opportunity to do another of many firsts since Mr T left me…take a ferry from my fair isle, cross the channel and drive around a country. Since I had some spare time, and a spare ticket for France, it seemed logical.
Except… in theory, yes, why not? Just mosey on down to the south coast of England, starting at 3.30am in order to catch a boat (do we catch boats?) in some torrential rainstorms following a heatwave. (Ok, we’re talking the UK here, so in reality we had some heavy rain after two quite warm and sunny days). Drive through France from Amiens in the north to the French Riviera in the south, via the French Alps (no snow at this time of year but some dodgy hill starts might still be the order of the day at some point),in a car whose steering wheel is on the wrong side, on the wrong side of the road. Without anyone being there to back seat drive for me (sometimes this can be useful), or see around lorries/tractors/blind bends when attempting to turn right. For 3 weeks. By myself. Using another language. Extremely badly. What could possibly go wrong?
Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse, l’on y danse Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse tous en rond
So, after a great time in Marseille, I was flagging. I had driven 1500 miles, spent most of 15 days by myself, and lugged my rucksack, cold box and backpack up more stairs than I care to remember… and I was remembering many things…
It was coming up to Mr T’s birthday. I was having a great time, but I knew that it was coming to an end. And the sorrow was beginning to increase. More and more, I was feeling the black cloud coming over, reminding me that, in a few days time, I should have been enjoying my husband’s retirement day and we should have been finalising our plans to move to Spain to begin a new life. Except that wasn’t going to happen. Instead I was alone, grieving again.
Avignon is the place where the Pope used to have his Palace, and what a palace. It’s also the place of the 15th century bridge or “pont”, on which traditional dances were held. But I was tired, listless and losing enthusiasm at a rate of knots. Where previously I would have eagerly bought my ticket, a guide book and enjoyed a selfish afternoon, immersed in culture, language and history, all I could do was stare at the beauty of the place…and feel nothing. I felt ashamed that I felt nothing. As though I was incapable of appreciating the fine architecture. I apologised to Avignon. It wasn’t its fault, it was mine.
My final meal in France was in a delightful restaurant where I ate all manner of fishy things and met a wonderful waitress called Adele (with an accent over the first e). She sensed my loneliness and pepped me up with funny stories, her own dreams of travelling to England and how she had had a row with her boyfriend the night before. My impending misery dissipated for a while… along with a few glasses of rose and a beer.
I sat and watched the world go by. I watched families, couples, children, all strolling in front of me, lost in their own worlds. I wondered what problems they were facing, what issues were going on in their lives. I spotted a little girl, engrossed in a cartoon artist’s work, innocent of the knowledge of future sadnesses that she was to face. I wanted to reach out to each and every one of them. To tell them that I was alone, and ask them if they would just hug me. And I’m sure if I had, I would have received what I was aching for… but we don’t do things like that, do we? I had skin hunger. An overwhelming need to communicate intimately with someone who knew me, loved me, cared about me…
I was beginning to use alcohol as an anti depressant – never a good sign, since I get high on life. And drinking is totally useless on a driving holiday. I awoke the next morning, with a headache and heartache. My next journey was to be onwards to Arles, where Van Gogh lived and stayed in the psychiatric hospital for a while. This was becoming a little too close for comfort.
I had 4 days of my journey left, and approximately 1000km. I sat in my hotel room and despaired at my inability to carry on. My weakness for letting the clouds build up and my overwhelming feelings of isolation. I rang my friend. He said “Come home”. It was all I needed to hear… Van who?
I had reservations about coming to Marseille to be honest. It seems to be a real mixed bag down here. There are some dodgy areas to be sure. I guess every large city has them whether they’re in the south of France or not. But I’d seen the French Connection, and heard about its ancient history and was curious.
By now I was on day 14 of my 21 day road tour around France, and fatigue was setting in. Because I’m only staying in a place for 2-3 nights maximum it can be difficult to make connections, and it’s also tiring. The same conversation about myself. People are very curious about this solo, female traveller with appalling French. But they are curious in a nice way and I have had the most wonderful reception from the people here. Do try to speak some French, it gets you a long way and then most people speak a little English so you can have a decent conversation.
Anyway, onwards 2.5 hours from Nice towards Marseille. I stayed at the Belle Vue Hotel which overlooks the old port and is a wonderful place to people watch. Don’t expect luxury but the rooms all have a wonderful view, which is what you pay for. Having said that, they are clean, the staff are very friendly and there is a wonderful bar where, if you’re lucky (and I have been, twice so far) you can get a balcony table and watch the world go by. Breakfast is E10 and a good, traditional, continental fayre. Definitely worth a look.
I love Marseille. It’s a place where you can see people from every corner of the globe. There were jazz musicians playing next to African musicians; the smell of all of the different types of food was mouth watering.
When I’m on the coast, I eat fish. What better food to eat than one which has made it from ocean to table within a few hours? Solo dining in France is easy peasy. It’s tourists that seem to have a problem with it. I enjoyed countless numbers of lunches and dinners with only my fellow waiters/waitresses for company. It’s a great opportunity to try out your French, (I speak French, they speak English, that way we both get to practice), and waiting staff are the perfect people from whom to extract local knowledge about where to go, where not to go, and where to get the best deals. Try it. They won’t bite. And you might even get an extra sneaky glass of wine if you smile sweetly enough… 🙂
On the subject of dining for one… some rules:
1. The view. Get a table with a view. Preferably in a piazza, plaza or somewhere where people and the world wander by. You’ll have no need to open that book that you’ve brought along with you.
2. Friendly waiting staff. They will entertain you, treat you and if you’re lucky, take a great photo of you with yet another glass of wine and cigarette…
3. Eat early. By early, I mean around 7 ish. The restaurant will be quite empty and you will have the pick of the tables. Also, you are unlikely to annoy the maitre d’ with your insistence on having the premier table in the restaurant…by yourself…for the whole evening.
4. Dress nicely. The maitre d’ is likely to enjoy having you sit in prime position in his restaurant as you make it look good. They don’t underestimate the value of having good looking customers sitting at their tables, so take advantage.
Marseille is a cosmopolitan melting pot. Economic conditions and political unrest in Europe and the rest of the world brought several waves of immigrants during the 20th century: Greeks and Italians started arriving at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin;Russians in 1917; Armenians in 1915 and 1923; Vietnamese in the 1920s, 1954 and after 1975; Corsicans during the 1920s and 1930s; Spanish after 1936; North Africans in the inter-war period ; Sub-saharan Africans after 1945; the pieds-noirs from the former French Algeria in 1962; and then from Comoros In 2006, it was reported that 70,000 city residents were considered to be of Maghrebian origin, mostly from Algeria. The second largest group in Marseille in terms of single nationalities were from the Comoros, amounting to some 45,000 people. Souks jostle for position next to huge Cathedrals topped with golden statues of the Virgin.
A wonderful place to sit and watch life go by. As in any place, just hang onto your wallet…
Today I took a boat to the Island where Chateau D’If is located. It was Marseille’s equivalent of Alcatraz and where the political prisoners were taken during the Napoleonic times. It’s also where they threw 3,500 Protestants (Huguenots) in gaol.
Chateau D’If is also the setting for the fictional novel by political writer Alexandre Dumas, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Edmund Dantes is put in gaol for crimes he didn’t commit and spends many years at Chateau D’If. In the same way that people think that Sherlock Holmes existed, they generally believe that Dantes did actually become a prisoner here. It is also supposedly the place where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. Both fictional characters however there were many political and religious people who were sentenced to stay here, and died before their release. It’s well worth the boat trip to visit and see the graffiti left by prisoners as well as the cells:
By the way…Did you know…. the French national anthem stems from a song that a group of Marseille revolutionaries, who walked to Paris, sang during the road. The song became know as the Marseillaise and became the anthem. There you go…. 🙂
I had to begin my post about Nice and the French Riviera with this delightful song, which always makes me think of the south of France…
Travelling solo can be tricky, especially when you only stay one or two nights in each place. It’s more difficult to form connections with people as it takes a while to get your bearings and confidence. That’s when organised outings can be useful.
So, I met JJ in Monaco, when I went for my little ride in the little red car. He actually lives in Nice which was my next port of call and so we arranged to meet up this morning, for coffee (cigarettes obligatory), at Wayne’s Bar (www.waynes.fr), his local and the place to go if you want to converse in English…
The great thing about meeting local people is that they can give you local knowledge. I expressed an interest in spending the day at the beach but wasn’t overly enamoured with Nice. It’s nice … if you like tourists, gift shops and souvenir shops. However the shops are open all day long , which can be a relief after my failing to remember on each occasion that France closes at 12pm for lunch…until 3 or 4pm…
So I was recommended a place called Juan Les Pines… a 20 or so minutes train ride between Nice and Cannes. I could have driven but was told the parking would be horrendous…which was absolutely right. So, in my bestest (which is diabolical) French, I found the tram to the train station and then the train to Juan Les Pines.
And I did it. I have to admit feeling a sense of pride when I actually found myself at the beach (sand, Nice is pebble), with a baguette and a coke, sunbathing with all of my clothes on. Because you see, my skin hates the sun. Thanks to my Irish heritage, I break out in hives and a curious lobster like complexion if I don’t apply Factor 500 and wear the equivalent of a bed sheet on the beach. Which generated more than a few curious stares from onlookers – all French – all gorgeous (not many chip butties are eaten in these parts) and all bronzed. Not to mention the fact that I was a female, alone
If you want to be a female solo traveller…get used to being looked at. Not out of any animosity, just total curiosity. But there’s no hiding the curiosity with French people. They will stand and gawp at you quite openly. I ‘m surprised I haven’t been carried off to the local zoo at an exhibit…
My last night in Nice was great fun. JJ introduced me to his wonderful daughter Leia and in turn, I was introduced to some great (if a little crazy!) guys at Wayne’s bar. Do go here for a drink. It’s good fun (can be loud after 10pm) and it’s an English speaking bar so you can seek out people to talk to when you have tired of conjugating the past tense in French. The beer gives you courage to have a joke but please be prepared to explain yourself – British humour is different and we tease an awful lot (well, I do anyway). People can take us literally. I tell people that if I am smiling when I say something then I am joking. Then they will do the same thing with you! Just don’t get too drunk otherwise you put yourself in a vulnerable situation, which is very easy to do…
I do like a bit of art. No, honest, I do. I don’t know why. My daughter is an Art/Art History student so I guess having all that arty farty stuff around has been rubbing off on me for the past couple of years.
Art was the raison d’etre of my first visit to Florence (not, I have to admit though, the subsequent ones…which were more about using my own imagination with a certain local chef…)
I thoroughly recommend using guided tours if: 1. You are a solo traveller ( a great way to meet like minded people in a safe and public environment) and 2. You have, like me, no idea what you are looking at.
Guided tours, such as those arranged by http://www.viator.com are the perfect way to really get to know about a specific type of art. The guides are experts in their own fields and have a passion for passing on this knowledge to others. I always try to use one when attending a gallery. However, none were available for the artists that I have seen in Nice (Matisse and Chagall) and Antibes (Picasso), so I had to rely on what I had learnt on previous tours, and the amazing information that I have gleaned from daughter no. 2 over the past couple of years.
It is said that artists come to the South of France for the light, and then stay. Well, I’m totally with them on that one. Today I understood why it’s called the Cote D’Azur. The brilliance of the colours is astonishing. It has to be seen to be believed, no photograph can do it justice. I’ve visited quite a few places over the years, on the Mediterranean but none have provided the startling clarity of light. It’s as though God’s passed a j cloth and some Windolene over the whole place so that it sparkles. The blues of the sea and the sky are enchanting. Do go. You’ll love it.
Anyhow, back to being arty farty. For an unquiet mind such as my own, art provides tranquility. Don’t ask me how it does this. It just works. When the mind is restless, as mine is quite often, spending time in a calm, quiet environment, staring at stuff, trying to understand what the stuff is trying to say (if anything), seems to provide a perfect distraction. Yes, I know psychiatric units provide calm, quiet environments too but I’m trying to keep out of those…
So I found the Museum of Matisse in a little town just outside of Nice called Cimiez. And I got him. I just totally understood why he was such a genius (no, stay with me on this one, I’m not about to dig out my wimple and turn all Sister Wendy). I loved the way that I could see a bunch of squiggly lines on a white canvas and interpret it as someone dancing or someone happy. I loved the paintings with the colours that depict emotion. I didn’t need a book to tell me this. I just saw it. Maybe it’s a benefit of lithium?
When you’re alone, your train of thought is just your own. No one is around to make suggestions to you about what you are looking at, it’s just your own interpretation. And the great thing about art is that there’s no right or wrong answer so your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. And I always like to be right.
And before anyone says it, yes, Matisse could paint properly!!!!
For me, the picture above has more expression than the one below, yet is much simpler. I like this idea. Cut the crap and get to the point. Works for me.
So I really liked Matisse, and I went to find him in the Cimiez cemetery to tell him so…
Feeling inspired and full of arty fartiness, I made a move down the hill back into Nice, to the Marc Chagall museum. When I later asked my new French chums if they’d visited either museum, they just looked at me and said “Non. We live here”, which I guess is true. When you live somewhere, you tend to leave the touristy stuff to, well, tourists.
Marc Chagall was a Russian Jew who moved to France when young. He painted a lot of weird stuff, like people with their heads off, walking on their hands, that kind of thing. And whilst I liked his paintings, I couldn’t help but think of the children’s classic cartoon, Mr Benn:
Perhaps I’m not such a good art critic, after all…
This road trip around France began as an act of defiance I guess. Have ferry ticket, car and 3 weeks to spare, will travel. It was also something of a challenge. Could little old me, all by myself, drive around France, going for weeks without any meaningful conversation, relying just on my own intuition and judgement…?
This morning I have a hangover from last night’s shenanigans with a great group of locals. So, naturally, I’m feeling a little delicate this morning. And the first thing to be affected is my Achilles heel – my mood.
Listless. Pinpricks behind the eyes. Desire to crawl back under the duvet. Being on the French Riviera, under the gaze of a beautiful sun has done little to shift this so far this morning.
It’s easy to carry on when life feels good, the emotions are in balance and positivity rules. The flip side is trying to wade through the treacle of life when the inclination is to let go and just drown into peaceful oblivion. Writing it down and acknowledging the feelings is a start. I always feel so guilty. I remember what the guys of the First World War battlefields went through, and my visit to the Somme and I’m ashamed to have so little to worry about and yet feel so angry. And resentful. And full of self pity. Because, you see, some great friends of mine are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary today.
I’m here, in beautiful Nice, about to visit Antibes, a Picasso exhibition and then drive down to Marseille. In the glorious sunshine. I’m young(ish), intelligent(ish), independent with beautiful children and all that life has to offer before me. I’m not a girl, born into poverty in some appalling country torn apart with by famine or war. I should be happy. But I’m not. Because I see what Mr T. cannot see. I do things that he would love to do. And I want to do them with him. I would just do anything for him to be here. I miss him.
Yesterday I can safely say I became well acquainted with the ups and downs, the highs and lows of the French Alps.
To begin with, I was embarking on a simple little cruise on down from Grenoble to Monaco’s Monte Carlo. Around 450km. Pas de problem pour moi. I even stopped off en route to take in a jolly jaunt up the side of a mountain at Le Funiculaire de Saint Helene-du-Touvet. More of that later.
The weather was hot and sunny and my little black cloud of grief was doing its best to dissipate. The butterfly which fleetingly greeted me on my journey back down the mountain in the carriage had tried her best to reassure me that everything was going to be ok. That I would be ok. That the sick, empty, useless feeling would soon be over.
So I set the Sat Nav to my hotel destination in Monte Carlo, whacked up Led Zeppelin to full volume, ensured I had enough cigarettes and full fat Coke for the 5 hour trip (the time needed for 450km should have been clue enough about the future drive) and remembered to drive off in the right hand lane.
Bugger I forgot the petrol. Must learn to get my priorities in order…
What I hadn’t taken into account was the Alps. Well, I knew they were there. I just expected to…well…I don’t know really. I suppose I thought they would part miraculously, or there would be a magic button that I could press, to make them sink into the ground, Tracey Island fashion. What I hadn’t anticipated were two things: 1. That one can either drive over mountains. Or through them. Either way is a right royal pain, and 2. They dramatically alter the local meteorological climate. In fact, one is perpetually driving in cloud. For 200km. And if God really does sit on a cloud, then He needs some bloody good wellies. And a mac…
I also hadn’t realised that, in order to tootle down to Monaco, I was going to have to go through Italy. Not that I have anything against the Italians. In fact if you read my previous posts on Florence, you’ll see that I have quite a fondness for them. But having to suddenly switch from speaking appalling French to speaking appalling Italian without as much as a sniff of barbed wire, passport control or scary looking Italian guards in rather too tight trousers was more than my wobbly head could cope with. I just stared in disbelief when a rather gorgeous looking ragazza (how do they manage to look so bloody stylish even when cooped up in a toll booth?) in a starched collared, nicely bust-darted blouse garbled something to me. Presumably it was “Good God woman, didn’t you bother to look at a topological map before you decided to embark on this crazy idea? Have you taken your meds today?” Yes I had, but it all seemed a very long time ago…
Anyhow, off I set. If you ever want to know how it feels to be a sewer rat, and I’m sure you do, on a regular basis, then go to Monaco via the French/Italian Alps. In, out, in, out, speed up, speed down (well, in the case of the Italian drivers, speed up, stay up…). Stop for the road toll on at least 10 occasions. Remember that you’re on the wrong bloody side of the car, so seat belt off, lean over, turn down Lenny Kravitz (Are you gonna go my way? Not if it involves mountains. Not even for you, Mr Sex God). Peer up at scary looking Italian man (I’m in a Mini, he’s seated at the right hand of the Lord on his throne in his toll booth. Well I guess they have to be able to gesticulate wildly to lorry drivers too). And it’s pissing it down. Correction. It is torrential.
After 6 hours, 279 miles, countless tunnels, umpteen hairpin bend roads, aqua planing twice (not on a hairpin bend though, thankfully), watching 2 poor buggers being carted off in an ambulance (yes I did feel sorry for them in their road accident, even though it delayed me), 50 Hail Mary’s, God knows how many Our Fathers and a promise that if I ever did make it to Monte Carlo, I would never do this crazy trip again, I arrived at a lovely little hotel. Then I had to carry my backpack up 3 flights of stairs, after which I was nearly sick when I actually got into the room, so knackered, tired and hungry was I. Then, finally, city hotels rarely have their own car parks, so I had to go off and find one for Mini. And then walk back. at 11pm. In the dark. In a strange city.
After the hair raising trip from Grenoble the previous day, I was somewhat reluctant to bother with the Ferrari trip that I had arranged. I’d had enough of cars and being on roads for a while. I wanted to lie down in a dark room and sleep. For a few days.
It was to be at 12 noon. I could have done with a good lie in but, I’d booked and paid and by golly I was going to do it! I could sleep for the rest of the day afterwards.
Since I was travelling with one rucksack only, I had packed minimal clothing. Whilst in the glorious southern French heat, I determined to do as much washing as possible. The morning was thus taken up with my showering/clothes washing combo, where I stamp on the clothes rather like someone treading grapes, whilst attending to my ablutions. I had deliberately packed easy to wash and wear, cotton, no need to iron, vests, long hippy skirts and dresses. All could be hung up on door knobs, coat hangers and -well- anything really, to dry in the heat and be ready to wear….
So at 12 I went downstairs to be met by a gorgeous red Ferrari Spider and a rather cute looking French guy, dressed in a rather silly Formula One-esque outfit. Even he looked somewhat embarrassed to be in it! But still, it was cute…
JJ was a lovely guy. He instantly made me feel relaxed. The idea of a solo, female traveller, booting it around the notorious hairpin bends above Monaco with some flash guy who does this job because he has Ferrari envy, had crossed my mind. Was I being just a little bit sad?
Hell, no!! JJ took me around the Formula One racetrack (which can only be driven by Monaco and French residents), past the Opera House, the Monte Carlo Casino and seemed genuinely impressed with having a half decent looking bird alongside him. He told me that most of his customers are enormous, middle aged men, living out childhood fantasies. He spends most of his time ensuring that they drive safely and have control of the vehicle, than pointing out the highlights of the Principality.
His delight was to be able to show off his driving skills (excellent), the car (goes like shit off a shovel when out of town and on the narrow, bendy roads) and his knowledge of Monaco and the local area. Turns out he’s actually a Bio-Chemist and this is a job for the summer, for fun. Not a bad way to spend the summer…
We tootled off around the Formula 1 track on Monaco’s streets, being photographed by tourists, much to my amusement. It was a fancy way of doing a city tour and certainly a novelty. The trip up and around the mountains was more fun however, as we accelerated and the wind whipped my hair. Every so often the foot hit the gas and I screamed with delight at the funny feeling in my tummy and just the thrill of it all. It was so much fun!!!!! At no point did I feel unsafe but at the same time there was just enough thrill to feel what a Ferrari can do (even when never getting out of 2nd gear!)
JJ had the rest of the day off and so we decided to have some lunch and mooch around. Monaco is a strange place. Established in the 13th Century, it feels…well… fake. The old buildings are kept assiduously bright and clean and so look new. The Palace, for example, has been renovated and extended to the extent that the original medieval building is no longer visible. It’s a little like a toy town.
The Changing of the Guard occurs outside the Palace, protecting the Monarchy. The soldiers however, wear soft leather shoes, not army boots. And the trousers are just a little too snug around the bottom. Even the march has its own quirky little movements as the Guard turns around to march back the other way – a little flick of the foot as he makes the turn… more of a dance move than a military stride. In fact, Monaco’s military defence is the responsibility of France, so the whole thing is for show anyway. Everything looks fake. Too clean. Too shiny. As though it was bought in the 1990’s from “Principalities R Us”; everything you need to build your own country.
The Police officers look as though they were chosen from Models One Agency rather than the local populace. I’m not sure if they actually need to do any policing here, or if they are just glorified traffic wardens, making sure that you not only park in the correct places, but that you park TIDILY to avoid making the place look a mess.
So, all in all, Monaco is a fun place to visit, and it is possible to stay there for a reasonable price. I stayed at a hotel called Hotel de France (www.monte-carlo.mc/france). For a clean, modern, twin bed room with modern shower and sea view, the price was £297 which, for 3 nights in Monaco is quite remarkable. Breakfast is E10 per person, continental. This includes fresh juice, a pot of proper tea/coffee, bread, cheese, patisseries, jams, crackers, yogurt and certainly set me up for the morning. I tried buying breakfast at a local boulangerie or Patisserie but the price was similar and there was only one coffee, so I think this is better value. There is no lift and it can be a pain to lug your backpack up 3 flights of stairs, but hey ho, we could all do with the exercise. Parking is available in a local car park with discount rates for Hotel residents.
Monaco is a fantastic place to visit, but do it as part of a general tour along the French Riviera. Next stop for me… Nice.
For me, the First World War was something that happened to other people. There were no accounts of family members’ involvement in any battles; no Victory medals proudly on display, or ornaments made out of old shell cases, fashioned by a boredTommy. In fact, no one really seemed to speak of the Great War where I lived. My parents didn’t speak of Grandfathers who went off to war. I grew up thinking that you had to be special to have a family member in the war – maybe we were too common? Both of my grandfathers were dead and my grandmothers spoke little of their childhoods.
Paternal Grandma Kate was born in 1908 so was 8-10 years old when her father was apparently gassed at Ypres (all I’ve managed to glean so far – still conducting research). Maternal Grandma Beatrice was born in 1915 whilst her father was in France. Her middle name was Louvain, presumably after theplace in Belgium whose population was the victim of war atrocities and which was razed to the ground. One of the first casualties of the War to end all Wars. Louvain had been ransacked months before Beatrice’s father Arthur Greenhill went to France.
I have O levels and A levels in British and European History. I was taught not one single nugget of information about either the First or Second World Wars. For a post 60’s UK generation, the fight for freedom had been won long ago; we could vote for whoever, had a free health service, free education, a welfare state and an acute knowledge of our rights. We had scant little appreciation of what was sacrificed to live in our world. We made jokes about old people always going on about the war and couldn’t see the relevance of any of it to our lives.
I remember an old man with one leg who used to wheel himself around my local shopping centre in the 70’s in one of those bath chairs with a steering wheel. He was always alone. I guess he was a war veteran. And I remember wandering whether the Haig of the annual poppy day was a distant relative of one of my teachers – known as Mr Hague (the only Hague I was familiar with).
So it was to my surprise when, 20 years later, courtesy of ancestry.co.uk, I discovered that my maternal great grandfather, Arthur Henry Greenhill fought in the Somme. To my great astonishment, and thanks to the British Army WW1 Service records, I was able to discover which regiment he was in. He was in the Twentieth Light Division. At the beginning of the war, in 1915, he was in the Cyclist Division. This was later incorporated into the First Tank Division (I guess war machinery moved on very quickly from being blown up on a bicycle, to being incinerated in a tank). I was even more surprised to discover that he actually survived the war and came home, to live until he was 82. I never met him, he was never really spoken of and I guess there’s some family stuff going on there…
The internet is a wonderful thing. Through the vast numbers of websites available, containing information regarding soldiers of the First World War, I was able to obtain a map (Mr and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme). This, together with the publication of “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division by Captain VE Inglefield (an intriguing compilation of official records and field notes) meant that I was able to follow the course of my Great Grandfather’s battle, as he and his companions dug in the mud, up to their waists in blood, sweat and tears as they fought to free French villages such as Guillemont from the German army. Moreover, I was able to visit those villages. So today, 100 years later I found myself in Guillemont, north east of Amiens; a scene of heavy fighting and loss of life, in the middle of the Somme…
As far as I am aware, I am the first member of my family since Great Granddad Arthur, to visit the French fighting fields. I am surprised at how strongly I feel for these innocent young men of all nations, caught up in something of which they must have had such little understanding. Such sorrow. And such enormous pride. Thank you Great Granddad, for what you and your comrades did for me and my fellow citizens. I salute you xx