We’re a few minutes drive from shops selling waffles, fruit beer, souvenir poppies frozen in time and Over the Top excursions.
There is a sense of silence and solitude. The last of the coach trips have departed for the Menin Gate.
There are close on 12,000 soldiers buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery,
The figure beggars belief. The sacrifice is literally monumental. It is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. Belgium is a small country to contain grief on such an epic scale.
It is a land where bones still emerge after farmers till the fields. Some of those bones, yet to be detected, belong to me and mine. Others rest at Tyne Cot.
And at the going down of the sun...
I remember them. For over a decade there’s been another reason to go back. The friend of a friend is there.
I helped Jack to find him.
They stood shoulder to shoulder in the First World War, signed up, trained, served together.
But one rose when the other fell. Jack came back, rebuilt a life in a land far from fit for heroes.
He put the war behind him, medals in a drawer, and only spoke of it in later years – in bullet point English to journalists keen for fleshed out detail.
I never really heard Jack’s story. But we found his friend.
Overfaced by the scale and spectacle of death in that vast place, we mapped out site plans and found our polar star with barely time to get Jack and three other WW1 veterans centre stage at the Menin Gate.
This week when I turned off the lights and lit a candle, I thought of Jack, back ramrod straight at his pal’s grave, tears in free fall, snapping off a smart salute before an about-turn brought him back to me, and we elbowed aside film crews trying to turn a farewell into a photo opportunity.
I half expected him, blind with tears, to stumble, but the years had melted away, the burden he had carried for so long had fallen from his shoulders and been left in that terribly sad, yet immensely beautiful place, amidst the birdsong, flowers, and stones placed like cairns upon headstones of Jewish soldiers.
It wasn’t so much closure, that overplayed word, but a shift in the dynamics of memory. An accord had been reached, an inner peace.
My veterans, as I see them, deflected discussion of the war. They didn’t want the war to define the rest of their lives. But they had to fight memories. They had to live with what they had seen.
And when they chose to speak they wept and we wept with them. I saw letters they had cherished, from wives long outlived. Twelve million letters went out a week from Britain, hundreds of thousands censored daily, many still getting so close to enemy lines you could almost smell the cordite on the envelopes.
These letters felt as fragile as poppies in my hands and the reading of them unravelled me.
There’s no real closure for war, any war. It’s an open wound which scabs over and reopens each time a lad is brought home in a box to Blighty or we turn on another box to see what’s happening in Gaza or the Ukraine.
This week I took a picture of Lytham in Bloom’s lovely Lest We Forget display. I read the marvellous WW1 supplement in this paper. Online, I found the Lytham Times of December 1916 reporting how Mrs Cropper had learned on Christmas morning of her husband Private J Cropper’s death. He served in the King’s Liverpool Regiment.
The army chaplain wrote it was “practically certain” he was dead; he had “done splendidly” in a daring raid on German trenches but had been badly injured, and left where he was, in German hands.
He wrote: “Without doubt, his body will have been decently and reverently buried behind the German lines, and they will put up a little cross to mark his grave.
“Will you try to remember two things; the first, that he died the finest death man can die, fighting for his country and the Right; and secondly, that it is only his poor body that lies here in France, while his soul, the real self that you know and love, has gone back to his God, who loves him, too.”
Wars need words, too. I found these wonderfully compassionate.
Caring Kyle: lad to be proud of
This is chatterbox Kyle, seven, whose smile lit up a room and lifted my spirits.
I met him on Monday at the new Church Street drop-in of Blackpool Carers Centre.
He was there for three days of fun as a sibling carer, a break from helping his nanna look after his little brother who “bites and kicks a lot.”
A real break for Kyle in the company of other kids who got to know him – and he them.
Fun, food, friendship away from a little boy who loves him dearly but won’t, as their grandma points out, “give Kyle a minute’s peace.”
She’s a carer, four times over, and could do with a break herself.
She’s proud of Kyle, who admits: “I get fed up but know he can’t help it.”
And what brought it home to me were the messages scrawled by children on the Make Good Memories board of the centre.
“Listen.” “Have fun.” “Don’t talk across other children.” And of course ... “don’t bite. Or kick.”