Ham and Jam or Harvey and Marmalade by Malcolm Reeves
“Grandad” – “Yes!” “Why is your car a Pirate Car?”…….”Because it’s an Haargh V8”. “So what’s it’s’ name? “er….Haargh-vey”. The plan was simple, to visit my Uncle’s grave on the Somme, to visit the old race circuit at Reims, to see the D-Day beaches and finally link up with a fellow MG owner who was visiting the site where his father’s Halifax bomber crashed and was killed in 1944. We have a 1995 RV8 (chassis no: 2020) which we acquired last year via Ron Gammons, having had MG A’s, B’s, C’s and TC’s in the past the RV8 was a huge step forward from leaking roof’s and spine shattering suspension. If you’ve never driven one, go and do so you will not be disappointed.
As my wife, Josie, and I live in Knaresborough (North Yorkshire) we planned to travel from Hull to Zeebrugge then route down to the area of the WWI battlefield known as the Hindenburg line near Cambrai where my 19 year old Uncle William was killed during the offensive of September 1918, then follow the A-route down past Laon to Reims for a night-stop. This was accomplished with ease, having stopped outside the ferry port to lower the roof; we used the Autoroute as far as Cambrai then took to the back roads to Vendhuile to follow the road to Ronssoy crossing the old Hindenburg line in the process. After passing under the new E17 road we arrived at Unicorn Cemetery to pay our respects and consider the sacrifice made. The countryside now so green and peaceful gave lie to terrible battles that took place across the rolling landscape as the opposing forces moved back and forth as the fighting progressed.
We then took to the A-roads and headed towards Reims for our first night-stop, the road proved remarkably traffic free presenting plenty of opportunities to view the Champagne region. Reims itself was buzzing with activity it being a very warm summers evening. Having checked into our hotel we had the opportunity to visit the amazing Arch which was the old entrance to the city during the Roman era. The principle reason for visiting Reims was to get a photo or two in the preserved pits and grandstand area on the old start-line straight which is located on the D27 out of Reims towards Gueux. Having secured our photo’s we then made our way through to the forest of Compiegne following the E46 as far as Beauvais before cutting north to join the A29 towards our next stop at Honfluer. Having just joined the Autoroute we wisely chose to take a relief-break and stare carefully at the western skies, judiciously we raised the roof as within a mile or two we experienced a deluge of biblical proportions, this resulted in all traffic sensibly slowing to a walking pace and carefully moving into lanes one and two as the water flooded the road surface and rain/spray reduced visibility to around 50 meters – a lesson in motorway discipline rarely seen in the UK.
Honfluer was a delight of medieval timber-framed buildings and extortionately priced waterside restaurants but worthy of more than a fleeting visit to view its winding streets and incredibly pretty harbour area. Next day we headed west having set the sat-nav on the shortest route to Pegasus Bridge, this ensured that we passed through some of the prettiest villages that Normandy has to offer and follow every tractor capable of no more than 5 mph with impossibly large loads of rolled hay-bails. The story of the attack on the road bridge at Benouville renamed afterwards by the Parachute regiment “Pegasus Bridge” took place only 13 minutes into D-Day. The Gliders all landed exactly as planned within yards of the Bridge, a feat of aviation which has been rightly described as probably the greatest single feat of Piloting skills in the whole of WWII and, as and ex-RAF Pilot of some 30 years experience, I heartily agree! The Code-word to be transmitted upon the capture of the Bridge was “Ham and Jam”, the Radio Operator of the Hants and Bucks Regiment duly transmitted the message for some twenty minutes until finally, in frustration he resorted to “Ham and effin’ Jam”…..at which point a voice replied “Message copied….we thought you were the enemy until just then”.
We then pressed on further west to the village of St Mere Eglise made famous in the film “The Longest Day” where Pvte John Steele famously snagged his parachute on the Church spire in the early hours of June 6th and hung there for some hours whilst the battle for the town raged below him. We quickly visited the Museum which has an impressive display of original artefacts, tanks, Jeeps and aeroplanes recovered from the Normandy Battlefields, then headed North by East through Sainte-Marie-Du-Mont, itself made famous by the assault on Brecourt Manor featured in the TV series “Band of Brothers”. The narrow roads feature striking monuments to the troops that landed on “Utah Beach” where we parked below the sand dunes and climbed onto the old German defensive positions overlooking the beach and now home to a super Museum containing one of the very few remaining examples of the B-26 Marauder bomber.
The next morning, over breakfast we chatted to a Free-French Army veteran who had landed on Utah beach on the 8th June and then driven his Sherman tank onto Paris, Hagenau and finally down to Hitler’s retreat at the Eagles-Nest, an epic drive which made ours pale into insignificance! We arrived at the Pont-Du-Hoc to view the cliffs climbed by the US Rangers before the Museum had opened and more importantly before the Tour-Buses loaded with an incredible variety of visitors of all nations stole all the best parking spaces. It appears that French coach drivers have difficulty in walking any distance greater than the length of their coach and insist on parking as close to venue entrance as possible, he will gesticulate and challenge anyone who might defeat that objective – having previously gained “pole position” we departed, sharpish, towards the Beach known as “Bloody Omaha”. Having stood on the expanse of sand that separates the sea at low –tide from the sand dunes above the beach one can only wonder at the bravery of all the troops of all Nations that made that walk from the waters-edge into the teeth of Nazi machine guns and artillery
The British “Gold Beach” at Arromanches and the remains of the Mulberry harbour made a great backdrop for our lunch as we sat and watched the numerous tourists vying for the few spaces in the sea-front car park, we had gone three streets back and parked easily! The Belgians, it seems, are fearful of French Hotels as nearly every Motor-home and oversized caravan bore a Belgian number plate which implied that they were happier being accommodated in their own impressive mobile establishments despite appearing not to comprehend that attempting to take them down the equally impressively narrow Normandy lanes took a lot more bravery than an Englishman crossing a French threshold and requesting “ oon double chomber avec dooch et petit de jennerr siv oo play” Followed by the simpleton big-grin.
However, having squeezed past Mr and Mrs Tin-Tin as they attempted to park Captain Haddock’s barge, we now decided to take in the Bayuex Tapestry before heading back to Honfluer for another nigh-stop. Last year we drove into Pisa on our way from UK to Malta (another epic drive but, regretfully, not in an MG but a ’79 VW Beetle Cabrio), despite Pisa being famous for the leaning Tower, we discovered that there was not a single sign-post indicating the way to the Tower in the town. Now, not unrealistically I had supposed that being famous for a single object would imply its promotion at every street corner….no! So, it seems that the good folk of Bayuex follow the same principle and wish to hide the Tapestry away from the prying eyes of visitors by not giving any direction to it!! We approached an Officer of the Law and enquired “Pardon Monsoor, parley voo Onglay?” – “Oui” he replied (thank god, we thought) “Direction to Tapestry?” …..”hôpital puis sur la gauche ” mmmm, not exactly English but we got “Hospital” and “Left” so off we went. The Tapestry, or more correctly, the Embroidery, seems to have been a precursor to Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” but as we (the Brits) helped the French out in 1914 and 1940 we felt that Willaim the Bastard (latterly the Conquerer) was allowed that moment of glory. And so…on to Honfluer…again.
From Honfluer we routed down to meet up with fellow MG enthusiast Ken Cothliff with partner Julie at Chantilly along with their 1973 MGB “Marmalade”, which was the largest town close to where Ken’s father had been killed. We had chose to meet and stay at a charming waterside Hotel out of town which proved to be an absolute winner as the evening meal served by the rippling water proved to be a visual and culinary delight….and extremely good value. The next day we set off Northbound to Bruge our intended final night-stop before returning on the Ferry, the drive up the Autoroute proved reasonably painless the toll amounting to some 8 euros, Ken tucked into line-astern and we made excellent time arriving at our Hotel in the centre of Bruges around 12:30. That however was the relatively easy bit, the Bruges one-way system having been planned by the only Belgian with a sense of humour, having to renegotiate the one-way system to get back to the James Bond-esque car-lift to the underground car park was a little trying as it was only 20 feet behind us in the impossibly busy and narrow one-way street which precluded any thought of a quick bit of reversing to save entering the traffic-flow once more.
It was, however, all very worth while as the delights of Bruges needs no explanation here and can be thoroughly recommended for either Culture Vultures or Plain Carnivors alike – and then there’s the Beer. This was really an almost perfect way to finish the tour as the port of Zeebrugge is an easy 20 minute drive to the North where the prospect of a night crossing to Hull, made easier with a fine dinner and a bit of Disco would get us to Yorkshire in plenty of time to get home in time for lunch. This we achieved roof-down to arrive home as we had started but with an extra 1,100 miles on the clock and that lovely V8 burble sounding like it had enjoyed every mile, just as we had!