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MAIDENHEAD GROUP'S VISIT TO KORTRIJK

19th - 24th October 2015

Twelve members of our group went on an exchange visit to our sister group in Kortrijk from Monday 19th to Friday 24th October. We travelled by Eurostar from St Pancras to Lille, and after lunch in a local brasserie, we travelled to Kortrijk by taxi, a relatively short drive as the taxis sped along giving us quite a "white knuckle ride"!

Soon we met our hostesses who took us back to their homes to relax before attending a welcome supper in the house of Karina Van Treeck, which easily accommodated our members, their hostesses and other Belgian friends. A lovely "bring and share" buffet supper had been organised by the Belgian ladies, toasted with wine and champagne.  Their president, Jacqueline Vandorpe, made an official speech of welcome to which our president Anne Home and Vice-president Mary Stock, replied.

On the Tuesday morning we all met at the Beguinage, a building dating from 12C, where wealthy widows lived in the seclusion of its walls.  Here we presented our Petit Discours on The National Trust, which was read by Mary and Eleanor in perfect French, with an amusing interruption caused by the blinds in the room deciding to lift by themselves! Our Belgian friends were very impressed and appreciative of the presentation, which gave a very interesting overview of the founders of the organisation, and showed examples of its buildings, gardens, countryside and coastlines, now all protected for the nation.

After a light lunch at the Beguinage and special coffees at Viva Sara in the main square, Arlette, one of our hostesses, led us on a guided walk round the town pointing numerous places of historical interest in Kortrijk: "The Belfry - a UNESCO World Heritage building used as a watch tower and treasury for taxes in medieval times; the Cathedral - housing the famous statue of St Catherine of Alexandria who refused to marry a non-christian and was beheaded; the historic centre, the river and its modern bridges.  Tuesday evening we enjoyed supper parties at various Belgian ladies' homes and a popular topic of discussion  was "Brexit" - will we or will we not be leaving the EU?

On Wednesday morning we assembled at Kortrijk train station for a short train ride to Lille. In the morning we visited "Le Palais de Beaux Arts" to see the exhibition "La Joie de Vivre". Our guide was excellent, she spoke perfect English and was very knowledgeable and passionate about the art on display. The exhibition illustrated that family, friendship, play, festivities, nature, love and laughter, have been celebrated by artists through the centuries. Its message was that life must by enjoyed and experienced in the "here and now".

After a lunch of tartiflette at "La Pate Brisee", Arlette once again guided us through "Le Vieux Lille", with its narrow cobbled streets and interesting shops, and shared with us information about the history, architecture and development of Lille. There was much to assimilate: a Hotel where Mozart stayed; Louis Pasteur being the Dean of the Lille University; numerous medieval and Art Noveau buildings. But the most amazing building was nevertheless the Cathedral, started in 1854 and only completed in 1999, with the erection of a modern translucent marble front wall. Although it was raining, we were left to imagine the amazing sight created when the sun shines through it.

Thursday was quite a contrast to the other days but none the less very interesting and moving. We were taken by car by our hostesses to the Passchendale Museum at Zonnebeke. The museum tells the story of the First World War, with special attention to the Battle of Passchendale, one of the most horrible of WW1, with more than half a million casualties. The museum houses an amazing collection of artefacts: uniforms, weapons, gas masks, gas cylinders, and even boxes where one could lift a lid and smell different gases used. A short film brought home to us the appalling conditions experienced by the men and the sheer number of men from all corners of the world involved in WW1. There was also a replica Dug-Out to see the living conditions of the men on the front line. The role of women was also explored and emphasised. Outside there were reconstructions of the different trenches built, with the British using corrugated iron and the Germans, wood and sandbags.

Our last visit that afternoon was at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world. School parties were visiting the same afternoon and there were wreaths of poppies with messages and poems everywhere. Amongst them, we found one from St Albans School remembering past pupils who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Seeing all the tombstones some with names, regiments and ages of 17, 19, 21, and many others with no name and only with the words "Known only to God" written on them, was a poignant reminder of the lives lost and the sacrifices made by so many young people.

Our farewell dinner on the Thursday evening took place at Restaurant Carlton in Kortrijk, a turn of the century villa with beautiful salons. It was a very joyous occasion, with a wonderful atmosphere, much chatting and laughter, in the company of our hostesses, their husbands and other Belgian friends. A delicious meal was served once again, speeches were delivered by our presidents and the hope expressed for future visits.

We were seen off by all our hostesses at Kortrijk train station early on Friday and arrived in Lille with time for a coffee before catching the Eurostar back to London. We arrived back in Maidenhead, bringing with us many personal greetings from members of the Kortrijk group to members here as well as happy memories of our stay. Such a fun time was had by all, old friendships renewed, new ones made!

As this was my first experience of an exchange visit, it started with a little apprehension, but I thoroughly enjoyed it: the warm welcome, kindness, generosity and hospitality shown by our Belgian friends was amazing. I would encourage any of our newest members thinking about going on an exchange visit to one of our sister groups: "Don't hesitate, do it" You won't regret it!

Angela Bradberry, October 2015

 


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