Keith and Sue Sharkey founded Halsbury Travel in 1986. Still at the helm, they like to keep up with the tours and destinations that we offer. So when they were offered the opportunity to visit the WW1 battlefields for themselves, they jumped at the chance!
Keith and I set off from Nottingham to Ypres on Thursday 19th January at the kind invitation of the Flanders tourist board, as well as P&O Ferries and many of the hotels and visit providers. They had invited a number of tour operators from the UK and elsewhere to see for themselves what their groups experience when they take a WW1 battlefields tour.
On arrival, we were all welcomed to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, to visit the attraction and meet the First Alderman of Ypres at a reception there. We sampled some of the local beer and had a nibble on a few delicious canapés. We also had the opportunity to chat to the museum staff about the educational services offered for visiting school groups.
We then walked over to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony, where a wreath was laid on our behalf. I’m pleased to say that we can arrange for your students to lay a wreath during the ceremony if you wish – please ask us for further details if this is of interest to you.
After the ceremony, we all dispersed to our various hotels in the town, most of which are used by groups from the UK. Keith and I stayed at the Ariane, which is a delightful, family-run 4* hotel in the town centre. It’s not actually one that we would use for school groups, as it’s better suited to adults. But we did find all the WW1 memorabilia on the walls fascinating.
Ypres and the surrounding area are a ‘must’ for groups studying the First World War. The people are welcoming and knowledgeable and I am sure, like me, your students will come back humbled by the experience and with a greater understanding of the sacrifices of previous generations.
As we had not previously been to Passchendaele, Keith and I joined the group visiting the area to the north east of the Ypres Salient. It was a gloriously sunny, but very cold morning. There was a cycling event going on that day, and we had to dodge some very determined cyclists as we walked around the delightful chateau that houses the Museum of Passchendaele.
The museum had been opened especially for us, as it’s normally closed for renovations in January. It really is an excellent museum and houses some wonderful exhibitions, as well as a reconstructed underground bunker and some very good examples of trenches (both German and British) in the grounds.
It’s also possible to book your students in for the Platoon Experience here, where they can step into the shoes of a real Australian platoon. They follow the bloody trail from the museum to Tyne Cot Cemetery, where they discover the fate of each of their soldiers. I would highly recommend this tour – our guide was really good at engaging with us and pointing out the really interesting exhibits in the museum.
After the museum, we travelled to the cemeteries at Polygon Wood. It’s always a moving experience to see how many graves are of unknown young men. It was a beautiful, peaceful place on this cold January day.
Our next stop was the museum at Hooge Crater, where we met the owner and curator of this private museum, which is well worth a stop. There’s a very good introductory video at the entrance to the museum, which is itself excellent, and a café.
We continued into Ypres along the Menin Road and back into the town via the Menin Gate for some lunch, before meeting lots of suppliers and visiting some of the other hotels.
Our first stop on the way to lunch was the Leonidas Chocolate Shop in the square. This really is a ‘must’ for so many of our groups. Hans and Stephanie are delightful and have been welcoming our groups since we started running tours here, over 30 years ago!
While this area of Belgium is known as a destination for history tours, it is so accessible from the UK that music groups and food technology groups would also find that it offers some great options for them.
In the afternoon, we were able to visit other hotels in the area and, as we had both been around the ones we use in Ypres itself, we took the chance to visit The Old School at Poperinge, which neither of us had been to before.
This is a simple hotel which is very child-friendly and, with 45+ in the group, you could get sole occupancy (there are a total of 63 beds).
While the accommodation is fairly basic, with bunk beds in relatively big dormitories sleeping 6-8 students per room, it also has lots of space for both indoor and outdoor activities, as well as a relaxing area for accompanying staff too. We were made to feel very welcome by the hotel staff.
The day ended with a gala dinner for all involved at the Best Western hotel on the edge of town – another popular choice among our groups.