Friday, 15 June 2007

Day 5 - Cassel to Arras (80 or so km)

The wind backed a bit during the night, but it dried out, unlike most of my clothes. I set off southwards with the wind on the starboard bow, crossed the River Lys just in time to be able to stand around watching the lifting bridge being opened, and in view of my slight shortage of nourishment, stopped in Isbergues (where I once very tenuously assisted the GB team riding in the Grand Prix d'Isbergues; somewhere there is a picture of a very small Patrick wearing my race pass) for a quick pizza, and then ground onwards through the post-industrial slagheapscape of the Nord, which felt much like former mining areas everywhere. Around Bruay-la-Buissière it started getting a bit hard, and by the time I had moved into the more open countryside northwest of Arras the skies were also looking a bit on the dark side.

A familiar Commonwealth War Graves sign sent me up a little side track to Villers Station Cemetery, which had the advantage of a covered gateway as the rain started to fall, so I stayed around to look through the register. The dead there are mostly from the fighting on Vimy Ridge in 1917, and thus mostly from Canadian regiments, although plenty of the addresses in the register showed that it was still the era of mass migration to the Americas - many had links both in the UK and further afield - one entry had parents in Bacup and a wife in Los Angeles.

I happened on Gunner Wilkins by chance; it was 90 years to the day earlier that he had died of his wounds.

The rain stopped and I headed off again, rediscovering that when a white road becomes a single line on a Michelin map, it isn't a printing error - it means that it becomes a rough track. No problem, but I promptly suffered my first puncture of the trip, just in time for the heavens to open again. Annoying, but quickly sorted. I returned to the tarmac at Mont St Eloi, where I paused to photograph the towers of the ruined abbey. In the village graveyerad in the shadow of the towers, another little cluster of characteristic British gravestones, from a different war: five British gunners from the May 1940 campaign, likely an anti-tank gun crew, alongside graves from the 40ème Regiment des Dragons Portés who defended the village that same day.

Enough dead soldiers and rain for one day, and I headed straight into Arras and once again got a dormitory to myself in the youth hostel.

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