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

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS - Words: Steve Ben­nett Pho­tog­ra­phy: Paul Harmer

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 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

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