Pause for thought
A different kind of road trip this month, as we take the revised MX-5 RF to Ypres and pay our debt of gratitude to those who fought in the Great War
The WW1 battlefields of northern France are an easy trip across the Channel in a mk4 RF, but what you find there may weigh heavy on your mind
Freedom comes in many shapes and forms, but one of the most powerful symbols of both freedom and freedom to travel is, of course, the motor car. Add an MX-5 in to the equation and you’ve got freedom, travel and fun. It’s a heady combination of factors that encapsulates our modern world.
Without wishing to get too deep and meaningful, freedom to travel is one of the great tenets of Western society and one that we take completely for granted.you could even say that it’s the basis of any road trip. Many parts of the planet don’t enjoy such privilege and those parts that do, invariably had to fight for it at some point in their history and at great cost. And with freedom to travel, usually comes the other basic freedoms and rights that we barely give a second thought to. Consider also that travel was once the preserve of the rich, whereas now it’s available to nearly all of us.
Again, we can thank a hard won, developed, modern and (relatively) equitable society.
Of course it hasn’t always been so, and our comfortable, peaceful Westernised lifestyles have been built in the last 70 years on the back of two world wars, the first of which concluded 100 years ago, nearly to the day as I scribble this in November 2018. It’s hard not to look back on either event and wonder about the outcome, had one or
other side not prevailed. Life would have gone on, but it would, undoubtedly, have been very different.
As a child of the ’60s, I’ve ever only known the good times and I’ll happily admit that being a motoring journalist isn’t really like being a grown-up at all, work-wise. Again, I have the above to thank for that.with freedom comes a freedom of choice in all areas of life. Which is why, with all this in mind and a lot to be thankful for, this Total MX-5 road trip story comes from northern France, the fields of Flanders and the beaches of Dunkirk. It’s a very different kind of journey, but one you won’t forget or regret in a hurry.
We’re heading for the frontline in the new, revised MX-5 mk4, which in battle terms has increased firepower from a new 181bhp motor.we tried it out for a day in the last issue, on the challenging roads of northern Ireland, but an extended road trip and a few days fore and aft, will be far more informative. Fellow road tripper and supersnapper, A Fraser Esq isn’t available for this journey, but no matter, because blast from my past, Paul ‘Charmer’ Harmer has agreed to dust off his Kodak Box Brownie to document the trip.
It was tempting to take a ferry to cross the Channel and it would have been more fitting, too, in replicating the journey taken by troops, I guess, but we opt for the Channel Tunnel. It seems to be more symbolic of a united Europe post WW2, although that does seem a little ironic right now, but the least said on that divisive topic the better, I suspect. Not that it stops us hotly debating the whole matter for much of the journey to the tunnel entrance.
We don’t normally welcome dank grey skies for a road trip/photo shoot, or even a dank grey car, but the combo of the leaden vista and the Machine Grey
MX-5 seems perfect on this November day. As a nod to the poppies that sprang from the WW1 battlefields, I did wonder about requesting Soul Red to lift the mood, but no, it would have been incongruous. But goodness, it really is one of those dark and dull days that mainland northern Europe does so well, not helped by the fact that we’re travelling on a Sunday, which serves only to heighten the gloom.
You won’t need your field glasses to spot that we’re advancing in an Rf.with its roof up it seems to be quieter than I remembered, but then I never really agreed on the perceived wind noise around the buttresses that seemed to bother some colleagues. Or perhaps they were referring to something else, in which case I would have advised a trip to the doctor’s! Other noise-related observations? Tyre noise is well suppressed, even on concrete sections of the motorway, which makes for quieter cruising. And mechanically the RF is admirably refined, too, particularly in sixth, which can be usefully deployed between 50mph and 70mph while the engine is spinning at below 3000rpm. It all makes for a stress-free environment, if a little tight fitting for a couple of sixfooters, but that’s the only downside of the mk4 MX-5’S radical weight and shrinkage diet.
From Calais, we’re heading for the ancient historic city of Ypres – or Leper – just across the border into Belgium. The battles of WW1 raged across northern France and Belgium, but Ypres and its surrounds are perhaps most synonymous with the Allied war effort and crucial to blocking the German’s route to the channel ports.‘ypres must not fall’ was the cry, and despite being nearly razed to the ground it was defended to the hilt in four separate and significant battles. It represented the stalemate that came to define The Great War as the Germans swept across northern France and Belgium in the early part, only to grind to a halt for three years as both sides dug in and the age of trench warfare began.
A casual look at Ypres’ history and you would not be surprised at its post-ww1 rise from near oblivion. It’s a city that’s clearly indestructible, despite the efforts of numerous assailants over many 1000s of years, from the Romans in the first century BC, to the Bishop of Norwich in the 100 Years’war. I feel slightly attached to this fact, since the Bishop of Norwich is from my neck of the woods and my local village pub was the good bishop’s – how can I put this – place of relaxation, with very friendly ladies of his acquaintance. Add to that plague in the 15th century and a decline in the cloth trade – to which Ypres owed its prosperity – in the 16th century, a double whammy that saw the town’s population fall to just 6000 from a high of 40,000. There followed invasion by the Spanish in the 17th century, French occupation, Austrian Netherlands rule in the early 18th century, and then the French again. Napoleon visited and inspected Ypres in 1804 and we Brits made another visit en
route to Waterloo in 1815.
Driving into Ypres on a drizzly November Sunday and the city rises above the greyness. It looks every bit as ancient as it is, except that just about every building was rebuilt from the end of WW1 through to the mid 1930s, including the huge and magnificent gothic Cloth Hall, which occupies the centre of Ypres. It’s difficult to comprehend the destruction as we navigate the cobbled streets and then make our way to the famous Menin Gate,
It looks every bit as ancient as it is, except that just about every building was rebuilt from the end of WW1 through to the mid 1930s, including the huge and magnificent gothic Cloth Hall, which occupies the centre of Ypres
the spot where British and Commonwealth soldiers passed through on their way to the front line from the eastern side of the city via the small town of Menin.
The original entrance to the city was destroyed and the Menin Gate Memorial was completed in 1927. Driving through, its scale dwarfs the tiny MX-5, but it needs to be big because each interior wall is inscribed with the name of a soldier who died in battle and was never found. It’s sobering to note that there are over 54,000 British and Commonwealth men listed. Craning my neck I spot a fair number of Bennetts, but I’m ashamed to say that my family tree knowledge is somewhat lacking. A trip like this is a bit of a wake up call.
Every night of the year at 8.00pm and every night since the Menin Gate was completed (except for during WW2), the Menin Gate Ceremony takes place, as buglers from the city’s volunteer fire service gather to play the ‘Last Post.’ It’s rare that there isn’t a crowd and even on this November evening, there are at least 150 people present to hear the soulful rendition played out in memory of the fallen. Even a few days later, writing this, it’s a poignant moment and the beer that follows in a quiet bar nearby is reflective. Oh, and let’s fess up here, quite restorative. A word to the wise, when it comes to Belgian beer – even the weak stuff is strong, so choose your poison wisely. So, it’s a half for me since I’m driving...
Driving to the hotel, that is.we’ve chosen to stay just a couple of miles outside Ypres at the Hotel Kasteelhof ’t Hooghe, which is well placed for some of the main Ypres attractions (if that’s the right word), occupying what was pretty much the front line. It has a cosy and very warm bar courtesy of a wood burner, and a few pints of Jupiter beer are quaffed amongst wartime memorabilia and artefacts, including a number of British wartime posters on the walls. Not surprisingly, I guess, there is a noticeable British presence and influence to the general area.
The following day is even more gloomy, with a misty fine drizzle hanging in the grey.we contemplate cleaning the RF for further photography, but decide that worrying about a bit of road grime is all a bit First World, given what happened here a century ago. Instead we head for the Sanctuary Wood Trench Museum. This is one of the most popular destinations for battlefield tourists, containing not only an important private collection/museum of WW1 artefacts, but also intact and original British front line trenches.
At 10.00am on a Monday morning, we have the whole place to ourselves. The dankness in the air adds to the atmosphere and the criss-cross of trenches and dugouts are filling with water and the dreaded cloying, clay mud. Mature trees surround the trenches now, but the clearly visible bomb craters are a reminder as to the huge dangers. It’s hard to imagine that the expanse of green fields opposite was the enemy line separated in parts by no more than a few metres of mud, barbed wire and worse, as illustrated in the adjoining museum, which does an admirable job of not sanitising the whole grisly affair. Of particularly gruesome fascination is the large collection of 3D ‘stereoview’ pictures, which can be viewed via box-like stereoscope viewers. Imagine an early form of Viewmaster, but with images of the war that pull no punches.
Leaving the museum we drive up the Hill 62 memorial, which overlooks the wood and commemorates Canadian soldiers’ efforts to drive back
Germans intent on securing the high ground. It’s a massive structure, while back down the hill and past the museum is the Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, with its semi-circlular layouts of graves, many of them unmarked. Cemeteries like these are scattered around the whole area and beyond, often now sharing space with residential areas.
Back in the cosseting confines of the RF and we set to with modern day technology to navigate our way forward by 22 years to Dunkirk 1940, and the evacuation of 300,000 troops. It’s hard to believe that the start of WW2 was just 21 years after WW1, when the former was still so fresh in the minds of those who had fought it. Hard to imagine any of it for those of my generation, now travelling without heed or hindrance across the very same terrain.
The RF takes the strain and the first few miles out of Ypres and towards the French border are narrow and flat, but gently twisting. It’s fun territory and an opportunity to explore the revised 2.0 Skyactiv-g engine and its enhanced output. I like the fact that Mazda chose to
stick with the normally aspirated route and in order to liberate more power effectively lightened and balanced the internals, shaving weight from the pistons and con rods, to take advantage of spikier cams, bigger valves and a larger diameter throttle body.with 181bhp, and little more than 1070kg to punt around, an MX-5 can now justifiably be described as not just quick, but actually properly fast. And in GT Sport Nav+ spec there are Bilstein dampers, too, which keep the handling composed though not at the expense of comfort. Indeed for some, the MX-5 mk4 will still feel a bit too loose and animated, but personally I like a car that moves around a bit. It gives more away in terms of grip levels from the old school skinny 17in wheel and tyre combo.
As well as being more powerful, the new generation mk4 is a tad more flexible, too, which contributes to a highly impressive and very real world 43mpg+.wonder what it would do with a bit of dedicated hyper-economy driving? That’s maybe one for a future feature. Likewise, we ponder the just launched Mazda 3 and its revolutionary new Skyactiv-x compression-ignition 2.0-litre petrol engine, which promises more power, torque and eco gains of up to 30 per cent. There’s life in the old petrol engine yet...
We keep on going through the gloom. France is currently in the grip of some fairly major civil unrest over the cost of diesel fuel and living in general. Paris has been hit hard with rioting and the symbol of the protesters is the yellow tabard, that all motorists must carry by law in their vehicles. By wearing the ‘gilet jaune’ or placing it on the dashboard, they show their solidarity and there’s certainly no shortage of said solidarity driving around. Or sitting around in a stationary manner at various roundabouts, with placards and braziers. For us travelling Brits, it’s hard to muster much sympathy when a litre of the black stuff is currently £1.37 at home, compared with a Euro-optimised £1.31.
Dunkirk is no picture postcard location, although like corresponding English seaside towns on our south coast, there is much work to drag it up going on, with the obligatory trendy apartments and bars emerging along the front.we head for a different kind of front and by following our noses we arrive at Dunkirk’s East Quay, the very spot where those thousands of Allied troops were evacuated. There is a small placard to mark the spot, but that’s all. And again, it’s hard not to be moved, hard not to feel immensely grateful and hard not to feel slightly in awe.
We’re done. The tunnel beckons. It’s been a different kind of road trip, inspired by powerful events and heroic deeds from all sides. Our Machine Grey RF has been a symbol of rather better times, when jumping into a sports car is a freedom taken purely for granted, when perhaps it’s a hard-won privilege. We should be thankful for that.
Left: RF on the streets of Ypres.Right: The imposing Cloth Hall was, like most of Ypres, razed to the ground during World War One
Above: reading the names of the fallen; Menin Gate Ceremony takes place every night at 8pm, accompanied by the ‘Last Post’; tangible artefacts of the Great War are visible across the flat Flanders landscapeMain image: Menin Gate dominates the eastern entrance to Ypres. The walls are dedicated to 54,000 lost soldiers
Below left (box):RF on the cobbles in Arenberg Forest, plus the velodrome at RoubaixBelow: Dunkirk’s East Quay, where 300,000 Allied troops were evacuated in WW2
Above: Sanctuary Wood trenches and bomb craters are exactly as they were left after WW1