Nutz 2 - Back to the Ardennes
The First Ever Navigators International Trip
The creation of 1st Upper Dearne Valley Navigators carried achallenge for those of us who had taken the decision to establish the Group. If we were going to do this because we believed that there were better ways of running scouting, then we had to do our utmost to make things happen. That included running International trips.
We discussed the options and decided that the easiest way to break into Internationals with Navigators was to simply revisit one of our past trips. Flanders was a non starter as there are simply next to no adventurous activities in the area. Lots of walking and cycling, and we could have risked sandyachting at DePanne but there was no guarantee that the conditions would be right. Alsace, we felt, was too far for our first Navigators trip. So we decided to look at the Ardennes. We had been before as Scouts, and Fiona and Ewan knew the area well from previous family holidays.
We tracked down a group accommodation on Belvilla at a generous price. 1500 Euro for the week, plus gas and electricity. About the same price as Merkenvelde Scout Centre - except we all had twin en-suite rooms, a proper kitchen, dining room and a lounge area. It turned out to be an hotel that had been converted to group accommodation. It was also about 20 metres from the River Ourthe, which was nice.
On our way down we stopped at St Luke's Scout Hut in Maidstone for a couple of hours sleep. Only a couple of hours because we needed to avoid the queues at Dover - there were no queues at Dover!
In France we stopped at motorway services for breakfast and then turned into Belgium to visit Lissiefjors Military Cemetery, and Nellie Spindler's Grave - Nellie Spindler was a nurse from Wakefield and one of only two British women buried in Flanders during WW1.
We had planned the week with as much as we could possibly pack in. Day one was a little bit of a chill out at the Castle in La Roche, and a visit to the Game Park, and later a trip dow to see La Phantome sound and light show in the evening. The Feudal Castle at la Roche was, like so many castles, never really up to the job asked of it and for many years it was just a ruin. However, luckily it was not so badly scavenged that it could not be stabilised and used as something of a tourist attraction. Access is up a set of cobbled steps, and the castle sits in the rock that gives its name to the town. It was designed as a purposeful fortification, no parade grounds, or niceties, and under seige it must have been a pretty bleak place to be under attack.
Sunday, we trekked across to Dinant and the Kayaks Blue, for our kayaking session on the Lesse. We were given two-seat sit on tops and launched onto the river on a slightly overcast day. There were even spots of rain. However, that was not to dampen spirits and within minutes of getting on the water Joe Hill, Ruaridh Scott and Noah Bentzen were jumping around between boats causing chaos. We must have been the noisiest party on the river that day and others tried to avoid us for fear being caught in the melee. At one point both Noah and Ruaridh ended up in the water and between them they spent a good ten minutes trying to get back into the boat.
Monday we visited the European Space Centre - it was a biggish expense but it was something different being given a tour of this educational centre that had been set up by a space enthusiast who bought a rocket and needed somewhere to keep it. Now a residential educational centre, paying students can come to the Space Centre for a week and live in the futuristic accommodation and training facility, with the aim of going through astronaut training, including weightlessness training, moon walking, and acceleration testing. The candidates also have the opportunity to spend time on the shuttle simulator running real time exercises where they have tasks to carry out and challenges to meet. However, we were given the grand tour and everyone got to do a Moon walk and a Mars walk. One might have imagined that being "lighter" would make walking easier. It doesn't, it does make you look very funny when using the simulator though.
Tuesday, we were back to Dinant on a wet and miserable day for the high ropes course at Dinant Evasion. When we say high ropes, we mean high ropes - one of the rope bridges was so high that it looked down upon the 90m high brdge over the Moselle River! Incredibly, almost everyone managed all of the 10 challenges they were set. Even Fiona pushed herself to the very limit crawling through a tunnel of barrels suspended from the trees. The zip line was a 45 degree 200 metre drop from a clifftop - the trolley was a carabiner on the main line and the brake was a second line drawn off at right angles to the main line and held by a second operator. Some were challenged by the high bridges and the massive runway, but others, like Alice Hill, virtually ran around the course unphased by any of the obstacles.
Wednesday, we visited the caves at Hotton. An illuminating visit deep underground. When we came back to the surface it was once again rather wet. In fact is was pouring and our stop at the CWGC at Hotton was curtailed due to the weather. However, the sight of the seven man crew of a bomber lying side by side, seven men from seven nations, reminded us of how all encompassing the conflict had been.
We then popped down to Bastogne where we had an appointment to visit the Belgian Army Barracks and see General McAullife's War Rooms ( McCauliffe was the General who, when surrounded by the Germans in the winter of 1944, when asked to surrender, responded, "Nutz!.). The war room consisted of several life size dioramas displaying the conditions and the equipment used at the time. This was followed by a visit to the war museum where an endless range of relics from WW2 and the Battle of the Bulge were on display - it is hard to comprehend the methods devised by one man to kill another.
The finale of the visit was a trip to the restored military vehicle collection and the Army workshops. The hall was filled with tanks and trucks large and small from all over the European theatre of war. Small French tanks, Bren gun carriers through to the heavy tanks to some of the largest machines of the war. In another building there were even more. Some of the vehicles now very rare and much sought after.
Finally, to the workshops, where a small team of serving mechanics worked on maintaining modern vehicles alongside the restoration of still more recovered tanks and trucks. Outside the hall lay a line of future projects.
We were lucky in 2016 to gain access and have our personal guide. The Brussels attacks had put the Belgian Army on alert and visits to all the barracks had been restricted up until a few weeks before we visited.
(On departing we asked our guide if we could give min something. He was adamant that he could not receive any gratuity, this was his job. We could not even buy him a beer. So, we then asked about making a donation to the Belgian Veterans. He smiled and said, "Ah, there is no need. In Belgium the government looks after all the needs of our veterans. They do not need to rely on charity".)
Afterwards we had a wander around Bastogne, the adults had a coffee and the navigators went on a wander, some of them seeking out one or two of the more unusual private museums. We finished the trip with a visit to La Mardasson, the Belgian memorial to the Americans who fought in the Ardennes.
Thursday, we spent some time around La Roche, it had been a busy week. we also chose this evening to be the night when we did a full Ardennois meal for everyone in the evening, proper places set at the table and the menu was all local specialities.
Friday we had to depart. On leaving, our host complimented us on the behaviour of the Navigators and the fact that her cleaners had very little to do following our visit. We were welome back any time. Now that was a compliment, because, we discovered a week before our departure, on another boking site, Casamundo, that youth groups were supposed to be excluded from the Gite due to the damage they had caused in the past.
We arrived at the Europa Hostel in Bruges on Friday about lunchtime. to fimd that they had managed to accommodate us in exclusive rooms rather than mixed dorms. We unoaded and then jumped back into the vehicles for a visit to Ypres. We had time for a visit to In Flanders Fields and a quick meal before we went up to the Menin Gate for the Last Post.
Back in Bruges, we parked up at the Hostel and walked into town. The Navs took in the last of a concert that was taking place - though some chose to wander around the town rather than listen to the "music". They knew where we were - Le Petit Venitie - a bar well known to every visitor to Bruges.
We were all agreed, this had been the best trip we had ever done. All those who had done a previous trip agreed, and all those who had been on their first trip vowed to do another. The only problem has been Brexit - it pushed our costs up, and the instability of the currency market, plus inflation, could make a future trip cost prohibitive. We shall see,