In 2017 and for the following 2 years a number of us from the Preston and Chorley area did self planned scooter trips to Europe. The focus was always to visit areas of conflict and pay our respects to those who fought and, in many cases, perished for us. We have been to the Western Front, Normandy, Waterloo and the Battle of the Bulge during our previous excursions. We decided to take a year off in 2020 then Covid wrecked our plans for 2021 but this year we were determined to return to Europe using vehicles more suited to local shopping trips than transcontinental touring.
I’ve always started with a planning page on Facebook to keep the discussion in one place. It had already been determined that we’d return to the areas of our 2017 trip, namely the Somme in France and the Belgian town of Ieper (Ypres), since we’d only scratched the surface of these places on the first occasion. It seemed like a good idea to base ourselves in Ieper for 3 nights, giving us 2 full days, one for each location. We found when we moved on each day, as on our last trip, a large part of the day could be wasted in relocating, leaving little time to see what we’d come to see. The date of the first week in May has always suited so this time we would set off to catch the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam on the Thursday, getting back home the following Tuesday. A number of potential participants expressed an interest but I was glad that the group wasn’t too big in the end. It would have meant that we needed more than one house to accommodate a dozen riders or so and keeping a large group together in traffic is difficult, so eight seemed that right sort of number. Unfortunately one had to drop out just before we booked so that left seven, namely Midge (Lambretta 200), Bob (Lambretta 200), Parky (Lambretta 200), Tony (Lambretta 200), Ming (Royal Alloy 300), Whitty (Royal Alloy 125) and myself, Kirky (Bajaj Chetak Classic).
I ordered a new Italjet Dragster 200 a year ago but it didn’t arrive in the first UK bound batch so I’m still waiting. I had to borrow the Bajaj, which I insured for one month, from Midge. He assured me of it’s reliability over the previous six years and in desperation I chose to believe him. It’s recently been fitted with a reconditioned Vespa Sprint 150 motor but I knew as soon as I rode it that not everything was perfect. Although it had supposedly received a new cruxiform the gearchange was shocking with more false neutrals than gears and a tendency to try to jump to a higher gear, then back again. A fine tool for a long journey, then. I thought that since we’d likely cover only around 800 miles it was unlikely that the Bajaj would let me down and learned to keep a little pressure on the twist grip in a down change direction in the first 3 gears. Problem almost solved, much of the time.
The day arrived and we met on the A59 at 10 am. I followed Bob from Chorley and just before we reached the meeting place I saw something skitter along the road. I thought it was something he’d run over but when we stopped one of the handles from his Lambretta side panels was missing so I went back to find it lying in the road. We had an otherwise uneventful ride to the ferry at Hull, stopping for lunch (or was it dinner?) near Harrogate. We were in good time at the port so stopped for a beer at a nearby pub. We were motioned over by customs but they only asked if we’d packed our own bags and didn’t start rooting through our belongings. Onboard and showered we spent the evening watching the entertainment, accompanied by a few more beers. The quality of the acts seemed better than on previous occasions. In 2017, for instance, I’d felt obliged to help out a girl who was singing “Mustang Sally” rather poorly, by jumping on stage and grabbing the microphone for a couple of verses. Thankfully this time there was no need for intervention. We’ve usually taken advantage of a meal deal consisting of an all you can eat buffet and breakfast but non us us were hungry enough to do it justice so we had pizzas instead.
You lose an hour on the way out to Europe but I think I was the only one to get to bed at a sensible time. In the morning we all had breakfast after the alarm call which comes over the Tannoy and dressed for our 160 mile ride to Ieper. We could save distance by using the coast road rather than the autoroutes and lets face it we weren’t going to be travelling fast enough to save much time on the faster roads. The route took us over fingers of land and across bridges and tidal barrages, which prevent the low lying land from flooding. We stopped in a McDonald’s in Middelburg before the longest crossing of the water which is a 6.6 km (4 mile) tunnel. It’s not the most pleasant experience and I did worry what would happen if anything went wrong with one of the scooters. I was especially concerned since the Bajaj was clearly at the top of the scootering dead pool on this occasion. The lights in the roof made it appear as if we were travelling downhill for almost the entire length of the crossing until a welcome spot of light appeared at the top of a short rise. The toll for this was two Euros fifty.
I’d tried to start my sat. nav. as soon as we’d left the ferry but it didn’t seem to like being abroad and refused to function, yet we still managed to find our way to the Dutch town of Ooostburg. It was a lovely place to enjoy a welcome beer sitting outside a bar where I fiddled with my phone and got the sat. nav going, somehow. Unfortunately we were guided by a presumably short route which had us passing through lots of small villages. As we proceeded the never too great gear change of the Bajaj became dismal. There was a vast amount of play in the clutch lever so I was unable to disengage it properly. Midge thought it best for me to get to Ieper before we tried to sort it so I took to the time honoured technique of clutchless riding. I scooted along with the engine running before snicking it into first gear, accompanied by a loud clunk and usually a small wheelie. We arrived at the accommodation a mere forty five minutes after our original ETA to be greeted by the owner, who I’d already informed of our late arrival in Ieper.
The house was fabulous with four bedrooms, a good kitchen, sitting room, dining room, small bar and courtyard garden. The hot tub was locked but who wants to sit in a bath with six other hairy blokes? Midge and I changed the inner clutch cable which was frayed a couple of inches below the nipple. Problem solved. We had gated parking and after a short lap of the car park I was satisfied that all would be good for the following day. We went into town for the inevitable beers but also for something special which happens every single day of the year at 8pm. After the First World War, since 2nd July 1928, the Last Post has been played each night at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. The only interruption was during the German occupation of World War 2 when the ceremony was transferred to England. On the 6th September 1944, when Polish forces liberated the town, the ceremony was immediately reinstated, even though shell fire could still be heard in the area. The memorial commemorates 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who’s remains were never found. The names were hand carved and represent not just British servicemen but Indians, Africans, Australians and those from many other parts of the world. Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and so many others are all remembered together. On our first night 3 retired Paras laid wreaths and a pipe band played, headed by a young lad. The sound of the last post would soften the hardest of hearts, I promise you. After this we continued drinking and went for a curry. Beware drinking in Ieper. Some of the beers were nearly 9% ABV and had a predictable effect, particularly on me!
The next morning we went into the town centre, a few hundred yards from the house, to find breakfast. In Britain there would surely have been dozens of options but here we couldn’t find a single cafe or bar which could serve us. There was a market in the main square and we bought various things to nibble on but all agreed that it was dismal. We then visited the In Flanders Fields Museum which is dedicated to the study of the First World War. It’s located in the Cloth Hall on the market square. The building was largely destroyed by artillery during the war, but was afterwards reconstructed exactly as it had previously been. It was a well laid out timeline of the war in the town with plenty of original artefacts and videos of the horrors of war. We then got on the scooters to ride a few miles, first to Hill 60 which was a small hill made of spoil from the adjacent railway cutting. As an important vantage point over the area of battle it was fiercely fought over for the entire war. It changed hands several times and often was tunnelled under to place massive mines, leaving craters. What seems to be a mine case could be seen in one crater, whilst nearer the top of the mound were the concrete tops of bunkers. Since the war the hill has been maintained as a memorial park.
We then went on to Hill 62, Sanctuary Wood, which we’d first visited in 2017. The hill was in Allied hands except, it seems, for a brief period during Germany’s Spring Offensive of 1918. Many of the trenches on the hill have been restored so it gives a good idea of how things would have looked in the war, though all the trees would have been destroyed at that time. There’s also a tunnel around four feet high which you can go through if you’re willing to crouch down low enough. The museum is excellent with armaments from both sides and a display of wartime posters and other memorabilia from the time. There are lots of binocular photo viewers which give three dimensional images of all sorts of scenes. Life and death in the trenches are represented in an often graphic manner. You could not fail to be moved.
Lastly we went to the Canadian Memorial to pay our respects before returning to town. It had been a great day which will live long in the memory. We were again able to see the last post, drink beer and had some less than perfect pizzas in the town centre. We eventually got to bed to rest for a much longer day of riding which was to follow.
The day dawned and luckily Ming had been working on a breakfast of sourdough, cheese and ham since the previous evening. We ventured out for the long journey down to the Somme, using the country roads. After some time we came across a road block manned by two police officers since some kind of parade was taking place further down the road. I asked one of the officers the best way to get around the blockage and he explained. He then enquired “Where are you going?” I said, in my best schoolboy French, “La Somme.” Pointing accusingly at the Bajaj he said “On zeese?”, contorting his face into one of those expressions of disbelief which only a Frenchman can manage. Past the blockage we continued towards our objective but stopped at a cemetery. We spent a time paying our respects before continuing. I knew as soon as I put the Bajaj into first gear that its problem had returned. The clutch was dragging and the situation worsened quickly. By the time we’d reached Sheffield Memorial Park I couldn’t disengage the clutch at all and was back to crashing the gears clutchless. The stony road to the park from the tarmac was very bumpy and I just needed to ride it motocross style to get there. We had a fiddle with the cable but nothing could be done so I knew the ride back would be memorable. First, though, we had several objectives to visit.
Sheffield Park marks the place where the Chorley Pals battalion, along with Accrington, Sheffield, Barnsley and many other men had gone into no mans land on 1st July 1916. This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme and around 60,000 were killed or wounded. 35 men of the 85 Chorley Pals were killed including Clarence Widdop. In 2017 we had each had a chosen or allotted serviceman to pay tribute to, visiting each of their graves or memorials. Clarence was my chosen soldier because, like me, he was born in Yorkshire but had moved to Lancashire as a child. He was just 19 when he died and his remains were not recovered for months. The target on that fateful day was the hamlet of Serre, over a rise and down hill. What was not known was that the German troops were in deep bunkers, often away from the front line so when the long artillery barrage ended they returned to their machine gun positions to wreak atrocious havoc on those crossing no mans land. I laid a tribute on Clarence’s grave in the adjacent cemetery with a small wreath which Parky had given to each of us and we paid our respects at the Memorial Park. A small stone is dedicated to Chorley and an Accrington brick structure marks the spot where the Accrington Pals had begun the futile enterprise. I also found a gravestone two rows behind that of Clarence with the name A E M Kirk, West Yorkshire regiment. Being A Kirk from West Yorkshire myself I wondered if he could have been a relative but I later discovered that his parents originated from Hampshire.
Next we rode a few miles to the Ulster Tower, which is a faithful replica of Helen’s Tower in Bangor, Co. Down and commemorates the bravery of the 36th Ulster Division in the war. Parky wanted to replicate a photo he’d had taken of himself in 2017 with his scooter on the access path to the tower, this time with a different Lambretta. He’d Emailed to ask permission but a jobsworth in a hi viz gilet kicked off. After a heated exchange the picture was taken and we went inside the tower where a Rangers scarf was left in memory of our recently departed scootering friend Bob Cookson. Bob was with us in spirit but had he been with us in body he’d have been fuming at the offensive number of bicycles on French roads that Sunday. He always despised them and thought they had no place on the road. We departed for our final objective of the day.
The Thiepval Memorial to the missing remembers 72,337 Commonwealth service personnel who’s remains were never found. Behind is a small graveyard where we paid our respects. The tall arched structure is currently enveloped in scaffolding to repoint the brickwork. It’s good to know that such care is still afforded to these memorials, even after a hundred years. Time was getting on so we now wanted to get back to Ieper but we had run low on fuel. I asked a motorcyclist on the carpark if he knew where our nearest petrol station was and he told us we’d have to go further south to the town of Albert. The wrong direction really but this part of France is very rural so we had no choice. Bob and I used the fuel in our emergency containers before we could fill for the journey back to base.
The Bajaj was still behaving badly with no clutch at all so we chose to use the autoroutes north to avoid unnecessary stops and gear changes. It had been a long day of 160 to 170 miles and when we got back we had another look at the errant clutch. Midge identified the problem. The arm which moves the cam was stiff but was soon freed and lubricated. Unfortunately the constant pressure had worn the brass button which presses on the centre of the clutch so it needed to be replaced. I looked online to see if we could contact any local Vespa clubs or owners but couldn’t find anything. After much thought Midge found a nut of the perfect size in his tin, an 11mm one from a Vespa. The cam pressed into the centre so it couldn’t fall out and putting it back together it worked! More beer was obviously drunk in the evening and we found a good bar with a varied menu including fish and chips and burgers.
In the morning we finally found somewhere to have breakfast and bought gifts for our loved ones in town, mainly Belgian chocolate, of course. We went to the scooters and I started to wonder where my passport was. I looked in my bags, in the Bajaj toolbox, back to the bags, back to the house but nothing. Long story short the ever reliable Parky, who’d managed to look after all the important travel documents for the whole trip, found a secret pocket within my main bag. I’d just been keeping it too securely and, as middle aged people do, forgotten about the existence of the special pocket. We bade farewell to the delightful town of Ieper and I set off with a fully functioning clutch, for about 5 miles. The curse returned in the form of too much play in the clutch lever before we even reached the Passchendaele memorial gardens, where we spent some time walking round. The garden is laid out in the shape of a poppy with each petal representing a different Commonwealth nation.
Back on the road we headed north into the Netherlands and again went through the long tunnel towards our final fuel stop in Middelburg. We stopped at the same petrol station and McDonald’s as we had on the way down for a break and I adjusted the clutch cable tension once more. We set off and I knew straight away that it would be clutchless all the way back to Europoort, the indignity was compounded when my sat. nav. froze. I turned the phone off and back on but now I’d lost GPS for some reason. No problem, we only needed to get a couple of miles north to join the N57 and follow this all the way. I lead and Midge had said that I just needed to keep the afternoon sun on my left arm. I didn’t and got a well deserved shouting at. I suggested that Midge should have a try so he set off full of confidence only to find himself heading back the way we’d arrived. They do say pride comes before a fall. After much discussion and heated debate we chose the correct road, after which it was easy. Midge let me ride his Lammy for the last 30 miles and he struggled just as I had with the belligerent Bajaj. We got back to the port in plenty of time. Midge even managed to get up the steep ramp onto the ferry and we settled into our cabins for the evening.
We had a good last night but I was soon offended by a Facebook comment praising Midge for his heroic effort to return the Bajaj to the ferry. His 30 miles can never compare to my own 300 miles of toil and suffering in the name of scootering. The mood was lightened by yet more beer, superb entertainment with songs from the shows and an especially talented singer/guitarist. A particular highlight was a drunken Whitty demonstrating his dance moves to “Caught in a Bad Romance”. Videos were soon online, naturally. In the cabin I needed the toilet during the night but completely forgot that I was on the top bunk. The five feet fall caused bruising but no other injury. Quite why I elected to fall off the ladder on my next bathroom break, I can’t imagine, though in my defence I rolled a little more elegantly this time. After bed some of us had breakfast whilst others fell asleep after the alarm call and so missed it.
Midge would ride the Bajaj through the rush hour Hull traffic but things didn’t go too well. It was possibly a whiskered plug after too much thrashing but the poor old scooter was not going to make it home. It was unceremoniously chained to an Armco barrier, though who would steal it I can’t imagine. Midge would collect it by van in the evening. We had two more fuel stops on the way home and before the second we had to cut between lines of traffic with me on the back of Ming’s Royal Alloy. As we approached the services Parky had a familiar problem. It was the reed petals of his Lambretta so the engine was dropped and carb. removed. He’d fitted special thick petals since he’d had this problem a few times before so a failure was unexpected. It actually turned out to be a tiny stone, thrown up from the gritty surface, which had got lodged and held one petal open, so it was cleaned and he was back in business. A mesh over the open carb. might be a good idea for the future since this would have prevented the problem.
We returned home via the M62 and M61 with me transferring to the back of Midge’s Lambretta for the last few miles to Chorley. It had been a fantastic trip with a bunch of great lads. Whitty recorded 855 miles in total. Reflecting on the trip I think the only negative for me was the badly behaved Bajaj. Apart from that it was a fantastic experience which I don’t imagine any of us will ever forget. We’re already talking about next year with a trip to Normandy as we did in 2018. If the Italjet still hasn’t arrived then a new clutch will be needed in the Bajaj.