May 31 – June 3

May 31st

Woken early (6:45) in Leytonstone by Nichola as she took little Adam to nursery. I walked with her & she bought me a hearty breakfast for the road. A couple of train jumps later I was at Dover, spendin’ my measly tour funds on some supermarket food. The voyage to Belgium was furnished by a beautiful, clear day & I could actually chill out on deck without fear of being blown into the sea. The journey took us past Dunkerque, where 60 years ago the sea was a phalanx of boats & the sky full of planes. Further down the coast, Ostend reared its tower-block facade & I was soon enough jumpin’ a train down to Brussels. Obviously I didn’t linger long in Europe’s dullest city, & jumped a train down to Chaleroi, passing by the Waterloo battlefield en route, when a couple of miles to my east the Butt de Lion stood tall in timeless defiance. Around me the flat Belgic plains began to undulate & become peppered by scarecrows.

Charleoi was peaceful, but I wondered what it would be like when the English turn up for the Euro 2000 match against Germany… it seems poor Belgium is always the battleground between these two nations. From here I jumped train to the small town of Ligny, where a friendly local showed me somewhere to camp beside his scout hut. After pitchin’ my tent he took me on a tour of the town, showin’ me where the shops & museums were. Then we hit a friendly bar for a much needed beer… there were two old queens, however, who were perhaps a little too friendly. The guy bought me a few beers & my school-boy French began to flow. On the wall was a picture of Napoleon & I knew right there & then that I had truly arrived. I hope to finish off the poem I begun in France earlier this month over the next few days. When we were drunk the guy showed me his pad & cooked me supper, then gave me a gas heated lamp so I could write back at my tent. Only managed a few lines before I fell asleep.


June 1st

Awoke in Ligny… quite a cool sensation to be just about to embark on a march thro’ the battlefields of the campaign. The local museum was closed, but I did obtain a map which I used to discern the battlefield (difficult with houses in the way). At the magasin I was buying some wine & tobacco when an English=speaking lady saw my map & whisked me off to her house. It turned out her husband was a Napoleonic expert & gave me more maps (plus troop movements). They were really nice & sent me off in buoyant mood. Thus armed I packed up my tent & set off to the site of the now destroyed Mill de Bussy for the best panorama of the battlefield. I chilled in the sun, close to the site of Wellington’s & Blucher’s meeting, composing a little, then set off for Quatra Bras.

I idled along for a very pleasant 6 or seven kilometres, pausing for dinner en route, & reached the barren looking junction at about 6pm. Quatra Bras means ‘four roads’ & apart from a restaurant & a farm that’s all there is really… plus a lot of traffic toing & froing. I made camp by a monument & took a stroll around the battlefield, the best feature being the farm Gemioncourt. I chilled there awhile, dining on cold tinned chicken curry & tinned peaches, then settled down for the night with my poem. Unfortunately, I had camped in a field full of bulls & soon became the focus of their attention. After several inquisitive snorts & a few horns bulging thro’ the canvas, I literally picked up the tent & chucked into the next field, where I could at last settle down into a sleep.

June 2nd

Awoke, breakfasted, packed up within half an hour, then hit the road on the march north to the battlefield. After a short while, with the sun beatin’ a very perfect heat, I arrived in Genappe. In 1815, this was the sign of Wellington’s reargaurd, holdin’ off Napoleon’s forces in the pourin’ rain while his main body headed back to the slopes of Waterloo. I found a cafe & downed a couple of stellas, then spent a wad of mi francs on wine & food & renewed my march. In Genappe town centre, loudspeakers were blarin’ out tunes, & when James’ Sit Down came on a great sense of well-being came over me… duly sittin’ down in the mid-day sun.

Further down the road I came upon a museum where Napoleon made his HQ on the eve of the battle. It was tres cool, especially a little ossiary full of battlefield bones. Then, with the Butt de Lion in sight, I reached the place I have been studyin’ relentlessly for. The sun shone bright as I stashed mi bags & took a little stroll around the field… a beer at La Belle Alliance, a chill amid La Haye Saint & then sneakin’ up the lofty Butt. On the top I had to correct a loud mouthed Yank who’d got the battle positions back to front. We got on well & he drove us to the house at Hougoumont. The place was better than I expected, the wall still full of musket holes from the battle.

After he went I reclaimed my bags, returned to the chateaux, pitchin’ my tent in some nearby woods. From here I took a walk into Braine L’Alleaud, picked up some beers & chilled awhile in the local park, composing. On returning to the battlefield the sun had already set. I ascended the ridge where the Garde Imperial met their doom before mounting the Butt once more. On the night before the battle the scene would have been dappled with fires, but tonight the field was black & an eerie sensation overcame me as I stumbled back to my tent in the dark thro’ the dense woodland…

June 3rd

A pleasant day of wandering around the battlefield writing my poem. I tried to write each stanza in the appropriate place where the action occurred. However, the sun & wine began to make me weary & before too long I found myself getting drowsy with the writing. Then I had a shit & to my surprise found it was green… I suspected the cold tinned chicken. I still had some of the poem to write, but realised I could finish it at a more lazy speed during my last sunny month in Brighton… so packed up my tent & set off home. I jump’d train from Braine L’alleaud to Brussels & then to Ostend.  Flicking through my poetry on the voyage home I felt satisfied with my performance. It had been an interesting experience & the study prior to the visit had paid off. To most other people passing over that terrain, they would see just a few fields & houses. But I could recreate the individual portions of a great battle… a sort of living cinema.

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