Sunday, 5 August 2018

Belgium Man, BELGIUM

So yet another family holiday....

After the sun and fun of Crete and Croatia, this year it was to be....errrr...Belgium

Belgium doesn't really come on the top 10 of holiday destinations. Yes it has Bruge, and the Ardenne, but our plans were to steer away from those places and instead decamp on the Northern French border,  just south of the city of Mons.

So why there you may well ask?

Well we had a cunning plan, but we'll come to that in a bit.

We ended up in a place called les Lacs de l'eau d'heure (translation lakes of the water hour )in the Walloon region, just outside the town of Froidchappelle. These are a giant set of artificial lakes built in the 1970's and now represent a major tourist and watersport area. In fact they are hard to miss being sign posted to them from about 30 miles out in each direction.

I had no idea what I was going to find in this part of Belgium photographically, but I must admit, my initial reaction was one of disappointment. This area, like northern France is pretty flat, more akin to Norfolk, but without the coast. The area is largely agricultural and Belgium, like the UK, was suffering a dry, hot summer so we had arrived in peak harvest season. When we were not watching harvesters take in the corn, more often we were dodging tractors on the roads transporting the aforesaid harvest.

Generally the villages and towns of the region do not improve the situation. As well as agricultural, the area has a rich history of mining and steel, meaning many of the villages reflected this heritage

It was hard not to see why the majority of UK tourists gravitate to the coast or further East.

That is not to say the area was unattractive, just it does not boast the variety of outstanding features that might attract a photographer.

Still we were there, and to be fair to the Wallonia government they try their hardest to present what they have.

Going underground 

One thing this area does have is a plethora of caves due to its limestone rock. We chose to go to the Grote de Neptune, since it was close by. Unlike the caves found in the UK, these are relatively amateur family run affairs, which to be honest is a pleasant change after the gross commercialism of places like the Cheddar gorge.  I don't think a lot of UK tourists come this way, but the guide was quite happy to translate between Flemish and English, only balking a bit when my wife admitted she has a degree in Geology.

The caves themselves are relatively easy to enter and end up with a small underground boat trip. Belgium, like the UK has been suffering from a drought and we were lucky that they had some rain a week before. Other times it has to be cancelled because the water level drops to much.

Photographing in caves is always a challenge. We were not allowed to use flash, and tripods are unwieldy, so I relied on pushing the ISO as high as I could, even so I was only getting speeds of 1/10 seconds. This meant sharpness was out, but I did get some interesting ICM images.


Chemay Church and refreshment

Inside Chimay church

In the afternoon, we headed of to the town of Chimay.

Chimay main claim to fame is the beer that bears its name. Unfortunately the monastery that the beer was produced from is actually a little way out of Chimay, and Chimay itself is a bit of a sleeply backwater with not a huge number of interesting features. However like many of these towns it does possess a large an impressive Catholic cathedral. Virtually all of these churches are open in the daytime and their does not seem to be any photographic restrictions.

The Gardens

The gardens in IR

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The chateau and gardens

The 2nd day we headed west and the Les Jardins d'Annevoie. These are a wonderful set of gardens, combining French, Italian and English styles. The gardens are not huge and mid summer is not when they are at their best (Spring and Autumn are probably better), but there is plenty to photograph there.


Walcourt was one of those accidents that happen when you don't slavishly follow the sat nav.

Its not really on the tourist map and the main routes avoid it, but it boast a fantastic little town with a fantastic church, far bigger than the town really should have. The only downside of such a sleepy backwater was that ordering tea was a greater ordeal than it should of been, and due to translation error we ended up with 6 teas, rather than 2.


Mons was capital of culture and this sculpture is a hangover
Mons cathedral

Mons Occupation museum

Mons town square

The new Mons train station

On the 3rd day we headed to the city of Mons. I only really knew Mons from its 1st world war history, but I was pleasantly surprised by the city, which is generally attractive with a fantastic Cathedral and main square. The only downside was that parking was a bit of a nightmare, with public parking being difficult locate. We headed for the Mons memorial museum, which while photographically uninteresting, was a interesting diversion and well presented. It was also pretty well empty.

The centre of Mons is based around a huge central square and it is a good place to walk around and see the people of Mons at play


Dinant - the birtgplace of Alfonso Sax

Commemoration of the 600 people killed during the German occupation of Dinant in the 1st world war

Dinant is what you would call a typical tourist town, squeezed between a giant rock cliff and the river Meuse.  A combination of the citadel and the river provides plenty to photograph. Boat trips are frequent and you can even hire your won boat if that is your bent. To get to the citadel you can take a cable card, or alternatively climb the 403 steps. The citadel had a small, but informative museum at the top.

Waterloo (how does it feel that you lost the war)

We could not really go to this area of Belgium without visiting the Waterloo battlefield (I'm a sucker for a battlefield). The Waterloo memorial museum is actually quite a way outside the town of Waterloo, and the 3 main museums are spread over a considerable distance, so it is not worth visiting more than one on the day.

The battlefield today is difficult to make out, the terrain being reshaped over the years, not least by building of the Lions mound which dominates the landscape and  commemorates when the prince of Orange stubbed his toe or something. Strangely there is no obvious monument to the thousands who lost their lives apart from a few individual memorials spread around.

The actual museum is very good, and one of the thing we found was that Belgium museums are adept at combining traditional and new technology to create a  compelling narrative.

Photographically, in truth there is not much at  Waterloo apart from the mound. The landscape being relatively flat and featureless. However it it worth visiting the old Hougement farm which formed Wellingtons right flank during the battle. Most the building still exists and looks very similar to Wellingtons day. There are even 3 old chestnuts which still have the battle scars from the intense fighting that took place there

The dam

The  lacs de l'eau d'heure was created by building a giant dam. However even by 1970 standards, this is one ugly structure being made of the kind of concrete that was so popular in that era and given sexy name like brutalist. There is a small visitor center and you can visit the hydro electric plant below, but we decided to give it a miss. However the combination of still water and a decent sunset, did provide a good platform in the evening. (I also managed to drop a camera battery into the dam itself which may confuse future archaeologists)

Canal du Centre

The boat lift

The last day was a bit of a dilemma. The kids wanted to take advantage of the leisure facilities, while I wanted to do some more exploring. In hindsight we should of headed to a small nature reserve near Chimay, where there were Storks nesting., but instead we headed north to historic canal boat lift. The approach to the lift was disappointing in the least being in a industrial estate, but the lift itself was interesting and as you drop down the canal become more attractive. There was a little museum which although only in French gave a interesting story of how immigration has defined that part of Belgium over the years.

One thing we did notice was that Belgium has a far more relaxed attitude to health and safety than the UK, with no barriers to accessing the boat lift despite the precipitous falls and large amount of water.

To those of a industrial archaeology bent, the boat lift was interesting. Built in 1888 by Edwin Clark, the person responsible for the Anderson boat lift, these hydraulic lifts  raise boats up 15m, so removing the need for a large set of locks. Apparently they are still working,but traffic now bypasses this site to a new canal system and boat lock, with this being relegated to a few pleasure cruises

The reasons we are here...

Finally the reason why we chose this part of Belgium was because there was a small part of me left in this part of France

Edward Edgerton was just another ordinary bloke, growing up in the West Midlands who answered the call to go and fight in the 1st world war in France. He joined the Royal Medical Corp and served 2 years, but in 1918 he transferred to one of UK's premier regiments, the Coldstream guards to fight with his brother.

On November the 4th, 1918 around a small northern French town called Frasnoy, with the armistice only 7 days away he was killed.

Edward Edgerton was my fathers uncle (and my great uncle). I had researched my family history for many years and his story had stood out. It has been an ambition to visit his grave for some time now and honour his sacrifice and just to show that he is not forgotten. With the 100 year anniversary coming up of his passing, it felt like the right time to go.

So on the way back  to the channel tunnel, we found ourselves navigating through small rarely traveled French lanes, except by locals.

Frasnoy is a small farming community and probably little bigger than it was in 1918. The 1st problem we found, that unlike most of Belgium, mobile internet was patchy. This meant that finding the actual cemetery was more difficult that expected. Fortunately with a combination of vaguely remembering from the satellite images  that it was north of the church, and with the help of my wife's and daughters superior French, we walked the two km, to the small communal cemetery where he and a number of other UK soldiers are buried. It is gratifying to see, that after 100 years, such places are get in a such pristine condition. We laid a small cross and left a card detailing his life.
This was a personal pilgrimage rather than a holiday and in truth without this personal obligation  we would probably never visited this part of the world.  Although it does not hold much for the photographer, Belgium is a fascinating place with great people. It is a place that recent history has dealt some bad hands too, but has made it a stronger, happier place.

Unfortunately we then had the contrast of returning back to a country which continues to misrepresent its place in history and fails to understand the lessons of the last century. Edward fought and died to win the war to end all wars. The great war, as it was called, failed in that respect and it required another 7 years of misery and suffering until the lesson was learnt that exceptionalism and belief that as a nation you are somehow superior to your neighbors only leads to war.

Belgium people in many ways suffered far more than people in the UK. Parts of Belgium was occupied twice and entire populations were killed or sent to forced labour camps. They know that the key to prosperity and peace is cooperation and emphasizing what makes us the same, not concentrating on what is different.

Pity it a 100 years after the end of the great war it is a lesson that we have forgotten in the UK  

  They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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