Thursday, January 15, 2009

Freezing Wipers

We got off the Channel Tunnel and headed north east, toward Belgium. Having spent 4 days in the UK (yes I will get to those beers soon), seeing the whole family together for Christmas for the first time since the days of Liverpool winning all and sundry, it was nice to get back to the continent.

We were heading towards Belgium for a very specific reason, to reach the Menin Gate in time for the sounding of the Last Post at 8 o'clock. The Menin Gate is in the little town of Ieper, a town which during the Great War was right on the front line and was practically destroyed. The town is probably better known by its French name, Ypres, and by people who loved history at school as Wipers. This part of Belgium has for my family quite some resonance because we are a military family, and it was in this area that my great-grandfather, an Old Contemptible, fought between 1914 and 1916 until he had his heel blown off and was invalided out of the army.

The gate is inscribed with the names of 34,984 soldiers from the various countries of the then British Empire who died in one of the battles for Ieper but have no known grave, and marks the starting point of the journey to the front line. It is a very sobering place. The Last Post has sounded here almost every night since 1927, and with our two minutes silence done we headed south to Lille for the night, despite the fact that we were returning to Ieper the following morning, to see more Great War sites and visit the excellent In Flanders Fields exhibition in the Cloth Hall.

There is nothing more likely to give you a craving for a drink than seeing how carelessly lives were thrown away trying to re-create the battle tactics of the medieval era without taking into account machine guns, grenades and mustard gas. So we went to find a bar that was open, needing not only a drink but also to get warm - it was freezing in Flanders.

The cafe we went to had an almost dizzying array of beer, all on tap, and just wanting to get something down I ordered a Primus Pils, from the Brouwerij Haacht. I wasn't expecting anything special, but it was certainly a very nice and easily drinkable lager, and a rather natty glass. Golden with a fluffy head, a medium body and just a touch of bitterness made this a drink which barely touched the back of my throat but did the job.

As I tend to drink quicker than most people I know, I had time for a second while Mrs Velkyal and my parents finished off their drinks. Not recognising a single name on the menu, I plumped for another Haacht product, Tongerlo Christmas, an abbey ale which is very similar to Leffe but slightly more drinkable. Only one thing suprised me with the Tongerlo and that was that it was served with a small piece of Tongerlo cheese, as you can see in the picture.

I didn't take extensive notes of the beers I had in Ieper, just a few jotted words on my mobile. One thing that I did notice in the town was the range of beers available, most prominently was SAS Pils, which I found an ironic name given the town's history. It may have been the most fleeting of trips to Belgium and certainly not one which exposed me to the great names of the beer scene there - but it whetted my appetite to visit again and find out what else is available. And if it is not considered crass, to raise a glass to those fallen "lions led by donkeys".

9 comments:

  1. Ypres is indeed a sobering place. I do agree with Sassoon, however, that the Menin Gate itself is almost as disgusting as the event it commemorates and glorifies.

    "Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
    Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime."

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  2. I certainly saw no glorification of war when I was there, not at the Gate or at the museum.

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  3. "They shall receive a crown of glory" says the inscription. What they won't receive, however, is any sort of apology from the people who sent them to their deaths.

    Hey kids: want a crown of glory? Go fight a war for some rich people. We'll build you a gate if enough of you die in sufficiently horrible circumstances. Wouldn't that be swell?

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  4. "Hey kids: want a crown of glory? Go fight a war for some rich people. We'll build you a gate if enough of you die in sufficiently horrible circumstances. Wouldn't that be swell?"

    Sounds rather like the idea of blowing yourself up to get a free harem.

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  5. ... except for being spoken by your supposedly-responsible government instead of some spittle-flecked loony.

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  6. Pretty much. Will mankind ever learn?

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  7. I think the Great War killed rich and poor with equal abandon. Not sure where fighting a war for some rich people comes in either. It was a pointless war really, but of its age.

    I found the Menin Gate humbling personally, but having come straight from Tynecot, I would, wouldn't I?

    We did find a decent pub too afterwards.

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  8. I'm fairly sure the people who started, organised and managed the war, while staying out of the actual fighting, were from the more well-to-do backgrounds.

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  9. In the old days of course they had to lead from the front. Not a bad deterrent that.

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