In the Footsteps of William

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Bayeux Panel from http://www.medievalists.net

Autumn 1066 just a few miles north of Hastings, Harold Godwinson formed his shield wall on a rise between the coast and London. His English army was battle weary and foot sore, but with them rested the future of the island kingdom. What happened next is much studied, and in some aspects controversial.  Did William of Normandy win the day, or did Harold lose it?

My wife and I have made several trips over the years following the footsteps of William and the Hastings story.  These journeys have taken us to Normandy, Yorkshire, and the south coast of England.  It has been a great learning experience and one which has enriched my understanding of Medieval history.

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Château de Falaise

Our journey began at William’s castle, Château de Falaise in Normandy.  This was the centre of his power and authority as Duke of Normandy. This “Cliff Castle” is impressive, though what is now seen is not William’s motte and bailey structure, but a later stone fortification completed by his heirs.

The village of Falaise has a lot of William touristy venues, but there is a really striking scupture of William in the square which is really worth seeing.

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William

Most of what many people know about the 1066 invasion comes from the pictorial account commissioned by William’s half brother, Bishop Odo. Now known as the Bayeux Tapestry this massive “comic strip” of the events of the invasion is housed in The Museum La Tapisserie de Bayeux in Normandy.  It is over 70 metres long, and records the events leading to the conquest up through William’s coronation as King of England. The tapestry is enclosed in glass in subdued light, and a headset is issued which explains each panel as you work your way through the account.  There is also a reproduction of a Norman ship (boat) outside the museum.

While not technically in the footsteps of William, Stanford Bridge in Yorkshire was our next destination.  This battle between the English and Danish claimants to the throne was pivotal in William’s fortunes.  The English army under Harold had been waiting for William’s arrival on the south coast of England when news arrived that the Vikings had invaded in the north.  The English marched the length of the country to attack the Danes in Yorkshire on the 25th of September. This was an English victory, but at the cost of good men, and the exhaustion of the army, which then had to make the return trip to meet William’s army.

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A rainy Stamford Bridge

The Battle of Hasting itself  was fought a few miles north of Hastings on the south coast. Battle Abbey is administered by English Heritage and is the site of the famous battle. The Englsih controlled the high ground and had a formidable shield wall.  The Normans and their allies made several attempts to break this defensive line, and failed in each.  But the untrained English allowed the wall to break in order to chase fleeing Bretons, weakening the position.  William capitalised on this, and made it a battle strategy to runaway, then turn on the pursuers. By the end of the day, Harold was dead, and William was on his way to London.

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Battle Abbey

The present abbey grounds are well kept, and again their are several themed souvenir shops and cafes in the area.  We did find parking a little tricky, but with some effort spaces can be found.

Our journey then went full circle, and we visited the final venue back in Normandy in the town of Caen and the final resting place of William.  He had returned on several occasions to his lands in Normandy, and when he died was buried in the monastery of  Abbaye aux Hommes.  This is a really splendid building, and there are some nice gardens adjoining it. We were able to finish our journey with a pleasant park visit in a gentle breeze.

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A Visit to Omaha Beach

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The events of the 6th of June, 1944 are fading from living memory as many of the veterans of D-Day are passing from us. A very limited taste of the invasion was brought to a new generation in the film, Saving Private Ryan, but it must be a pale perspective compared to that held by the men who fought there. Omaha Beach in one of the two American sectors still is emotive, and the reminders of that day in time are everywhere in this section of the Normandy coast.

We visited Omaha Beach in the summer months, shortly after the time of year of the actual invasion.  The decades have erased much of what was there on the day, and yet there is still a sense of history there, as well as tangible reminders.

The beach at Dog Green sector at Omaha still is overlooked by German “Atlantic Wall” bunkers and fortifications.  There are several memorials as well, and the entire sector is flanked by public and private museums.

Some of the private museums are really a hodgepodge of wreckage that local farmers and land owners have collected from their properties.  German and allied artillery, air craft parts, and even landing craft can be seen.

The range of Nazi fortifications is interesting, from the giant concrete artillery bunkers, to single man steel sentry posts.

Most moving of all is the nearby Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at  Colleville-sur-Mer.  It is the resting place for 9,387 Americans. The rows upon rows of white crosses and Stars of David are always moving to me, but the sheer number of them here is especially so.

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history is not all that is here, however. The beach itself is sandy and seems popular with French visitors to the seaside.  There are several restaurants and cafes in the area as well.  So whether there for the history, to remember and reflect, or for a day at the beach, you will probably find something to interest you.

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Sandy Beach

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Visiting Le Mont Saint-Michel

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Le Mont Saint-Michel 

We had the opportunity to visit the Medieval town and pilgrimage site of Le Mont Saint-Michel when we were travelling to Normandy.  While the island-village is technically outside of Normandy it is still relatively easy to access.

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Approaching the Mont

One of the things that you will notice is that the town and the abbey appear on the horizon when you are still miles from your destination. It is clear that the placement of the abbey on such a prominent point was a wonderful symbol to people of belief, and the building site was by legend appointed by an apparition of the Archangel in 708.

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The island is a tidal island, and is cut off except for the causeway twice each day.  Visitors and pilgrims alike, need to be mindful of attempting to approach the island over the flats at low-tide as they can be cut off.  And those parking in the lower areas, need to keep an eye on the times, so they don’t return to flooded vehicles.

Once inside the gates, you enter a world of Medieval streets.  Be warned that many of these are fairly narrow, and the place is packed with visitors.  There are loads of themed souvenir shops, small cafes, and boutique shops, and a few hotels. The village from the gateway goes upwards, sometimes steeply, and at the top is the abbey. The church can be reached directly by climbing 350 steps, but the entire town has series of stairs.

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This is a wonderful place to visit.  It gives a real taste of the past, with a clear confidence with modern tourism. For those of a more spiritual call to visit, the abbey is a must see. If you are not one for crowds, they the off season and if in high season try the nearby restaurants on the mainland.

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My Staff with Canterbury, La Mont Saint Michel, and Santiago Badge

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In the Palace of the Sun King: A Visit to Versailles

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A few summers ago, we had the opportunity to visit the palace of Versailles. While journey to France was pretty straight forward, our SatNav proved a bit iffy. We had set the device for “The Palace of Versailles,” and it dutifully led us to the suburbs of Paris to the Versailles Palace Nursing Home.  We then resorted to the printed road map to find our way to our true destination.

As we arrived later than expected, we found parking more complicated, and ended up in an overflow car park.  We had a mobility scooter for my wife, so the trip into the palace wasn’t too difficult, though she did have to negotiate cobbled streets and pathways.

The palace itself is what one would expect of the court of the man who was arguably the most powerful monarch in Europe. Louis XIV built for himself a place of ultimate luxury, and the architecture evidences this everywhere.  Even the most mundane purposed buildings are bedecked with sculptures and embellishments.

The gardens too, manifest this opulence.  The journey would be worth it for the calm and beauty of the formal gardens if for nothing else.  But, the grounds also have magnificent statuary and water features.

The interior of the palace is no less grand than the surroundings.  The Hall of Mirrors, and the Chapel Royal are “must sees.”  There are more statues, wonderful murals, and amazing chandeliers to round out the overwhelming experience.

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Versailles is a place to take an entire day.  It is all that you would expect of “The Sun King,” and it will not disappoint.

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Water Lilies and More: A Visit to Monet’s Giverny

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Japanese Bridge

A while back I had the opportunity to make a summer visit to Claude Monet’s Garden at Giverny, France.  My youngest had long had a fascination with the artist, so we decided to take her there for a birthday treat.

The gardens were relatively easy to find, and we were able to park easily for entry into Monet’s estate.  The water gardens, formal gardens, and house all provided a wonderful backdrop to his work, and we spent time just looking at the beauty, but also trying to find the vantage points from which some of his most famous paintings were made from.

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Water Lilies

The water gardens were my favourites, and the Japanese Bridge, and the Water Lilies were easy to find.  The weeping willows, moored boats, and flower gardens also featured, and we much enjoyed seeking them out.

The queues for Monet’s house were the busiest place, but as a whole the gardens while busy were not crowded.

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Monet’s House

The village of Giverny had a nice cafe, and we were able to have a brief snack before making our return trip to the UK.  This was a wonderful place to enjoy natural beauty, and to reflect on art history.

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Biscay Cruise (Part 6): French Ports

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Cruise Terminal La Rochelle

Our voyage next took us to the port of La Rochelle midway up the French coast.  We had accomplished a lot on our Spanish leg, so when we found out that our berth was some 30 minutes outside the city, we decided to make it an additional “sea day” rather than facing a long shuttle journey.  Fair enough we missed out on what several fellow passengers said was a picturesque town, but we had some quality time of our own.

We took to the upper decks initially and look in the nearby Ile de Re.  It is beautiful, and the bridge connecting it to La Rochelle is truly impressive. This is a wonderful piece of engineering, and is nearly 3 kilometres long.  It is also a great backdrop to the water-bourne traffic below it. It is well worth seeing.  We sat and watched the sailboats, and noted the butterflies passing over the ship to and from the island and the mainland.

 

We then had some mocktails in an outer deck bar, and headed down to our little sanctuary of peace in the Andersons Lounge.  Soon enough, everyone was returning to Aurora, and the “Great British Sail-away” was held.  Music on the deck, and the outer portions of the ship bedecked with union jacks.  I thought the theme was a bit cheeky when leaving a French port, but good-natured rivalries have their place I guess.

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Ready for Sail-away

 


We sailed away and headed north.  Our next stop, Cherbourg.  While technically no longer on the Bay of Biscay, it was nevertheless our final stop before returning to Southampton.

A shuttle service was put on for us and it dropped us near the Office de Tourisme Cherbourg. This is a useful little tourist centre. It has the usual assortment of local brochures, some multilingual staff to help with inquiries, and a small but basic souvenir bit with postcards, etc. There are two computer terminals as well, and a limited amount of seating, but this more intended for computer use, or as a wait to see staff. It is located in a good place near the square and makes a good starting point.

 

It was a very short walk to the Place du General-de-Gaulle and we found it a lively place which offered a great local atmosphere. There is a fountain, seating, cafes, and a great view of the old theatre. The square is the starting point for both a road train tour, and several horse drawn carriage tours came through here as well. This was a family friendly place, with a carousel as well as the tours, and local fish and cheese vendors had their stalls open as well. We bought some really wonderful Camembert which was sold as the cheese monger’s (le specialiste fromage) own brand, and a huge wedge of Port Salut, which we later ate with baguettes.
The square is a place to get a cup of coffee, and just soak up the local culture and atmosphere.

 

The theatre is an impressive building with a wonderful facade. But the Cafe du Theatre was rather underwhelming. It did seem popular (or at least busy), and offered some indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor seating gave good views of the fountain, carousel, and life in the Place du General De Gaulle, but the service seemed hit and miss, and the drinks rather dear for the quality. The latte was a bit bitter, and the tea rather average.

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Theatre (cafe to left)

After leaving the square we returned to the ship. But not before seeing the Cite de la mar. This is a museum and aquarium which is housed in the old cruise terminal. This huge space is directly along side the Quai de la France, where cruise ships still dock. It is therefore super convenient for cruise passengers, in fact the entrance to the museum was literally metres from our gangway when we came off the ship. The complex also has a French nuclear submarine which can be explored.

Back on board we made our preparations for our return to Blighty.  It was an super cruise, and one which made me feel warmer to P and O.

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A Day Visit to Dunkirk Beach

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Monument

The Battle of France, and the Anglo-French retreat in the face of Blitzkrieg in May and June 1940 are dark points in the British WW2 legacy.  But from seeming defeat, the bravery and determination of the the Expeditionary Force, the Royal Navy, and the people of both Britain and France led to “the miracle of Dunkirk.”  In the end, a total of 338,226 Allied soldiers were successfully brought back across the English Channel while under attack on all sides. This event often known as Operation Dynamo has recently been brought back into public attention by the release of Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk.

Shortly before the movie’s release, my wife and I had an opportunity to visit Dunkirk.  It was a windy February day, but the starkness of the beach and the peril of the 1940s troops were made real by the experience.

 

There are several memorials and information signs along the waterfront, and there is also museum in the bastion that had served as the Allied Headquarters during the battle and evacuation.

 

While we made the journey primarily for the history, we did spend some time just watching the sea and walking among the dunes. The town of Dunkirk provides some nice bakeries and cafes as well, and we had baguettes and cheese as we took in the atmosphere and the history.

Dunkirk is easy to access form the Calais ferries and the Chunnel.  It is a thought provoking place to reflect on our heritage.

Dunkirk Anchor

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Trailer for Nolan’s Dunkirk

Belleau Wood: Semper Fidelis

 

It was a pilgrimage of sorts. We were travelling in northern France and staying at a holiday rental, in a small villages just short of the Belgian border. While there we noticed a plaque near the church which noted the occupation of the village.  No, not “The Occupation” of the 1940s, but rather of World War One.  This small community had been just inside German lines for much of The Great War.

This gave us a thought.   We could visit a WWI site as part of our stay.  This especially interested my English wife as she had through her tracing of her family tree found that that conflict had cost her the life of  a great grandfather (whose war grave she had already visited in Egypt), and a limb of another great grandfather.

What we found was not her heritage, but mine.  We were relatively near Château-Thierry.  A name I knew from a young age from my Marine father, and drilled into me in my own time serving with the Corps.  Our destination then became Belleau Wood.

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Belleau Woods Sign

 

We knew we were on the right track when we saw the brown information sign “Bois Belleau,” and we continued past the stone gate marked “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.” Shortly afterwards we were there.  The black marble monument of the shirtless Marine, and a cluster of period artillery pieces said we had arrived.

We took some time taking in the tranquility of the wood, and examined the guns, then off we were to the solemn visit to the cemetery.  The rows of white crosses and stars never cease to make me emotional.  What more emotive way could these young men have said, Semper Fidelis?”

The Battle of Belleau Wood took place from the 1st to 26th of June 1918.  The recent capitulation of the Russians had freed the German high command to move almost fifty divisions to the Western Front.  These were immediately employed in a major offensive with the hope of defeating the Allies before the new American presence in the war could have an effect.  The result was that the Germans would engage the US 2nd Division, including its elements of the 5th and 6th Marines.  The result (put concisely) was that the German offensive was halted, and then repulsed.

The legacy of the battle is great.  Tradition says that it was here that the USMC earned one of its nicknames Teufelshunde, “Devil Dogs.” A great epitaph for a fighting man, especially when given to him by an enemy.  Of the Marines at “The Wood,”  Blackjack Pershing said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.”  The French as well weighed in on the Marines’ valour, awarding the 5th and 6th Marines the  right to wear the fourragère, and renaming the wood, “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”

The greatest legacy, however, is found at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Here the crosses and stars mark the graves of the 2,289 fallen, plus 250 for the unknown, and there is also a listing of the 1,060 missing.  While not all of these were “Devil Dog’s,” it should be noted that more Marines died in that battle than the Corps had lost from 1775 until that time.

Belleau Wood is an important part of history.  As a “tourist” destination it is emotive.  As a “pilgrimage” site for the families of the fallen and for those who have worn Marine Corps green, it is a must.

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