Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/An old Flemish town, and the way to it

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
An old Flemish town, and the way to it. A roadside sketch
by Robert Bell

Illustrated by Henry George Hine


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The post-mark of this “bit o’ writin” will bear the name of an ancient city lying in an out-of-the-way corner of the brave Belgian kingdom. Yet this obscure nook was once a place of European celebrity. Five or six hundred years ago it was as well known to the English as any spot on the globe to which they adventured for trade or pleasure; and at this present time the advent of an Englishman is so rare in the place that, when such an apparition appears, the worthy people collect at their shop-doors to gaze at him, and the little children gather about him with gaping eyes, and examine him from head to foot, with an expression of mixed curiosity and fear.

By the way, what are the marks which betray an Englishman at sight to the juvenile populations of these continental towns? How is it that, with all his attempts to disguise himself in the beard and moustache, and slouched hat of the country, he cannot escape detection? Do what he will to look as if he were to the manner born, the instinct of these astonishing half-naked imps in wooden shoes will find him out the moment he shows his face on the pavement. While you are thinking out this riddle I will go on with my old Flemish town.

In the gorgeous Plantagenet times, when table-cloths were as costly as coats of mail, one of the distinguishing luxuries of the great English families was the grand piece of diaper which was spread out in honour of their guests on high-days and holidays. Well—it was from this remote town that all that beautiful starry diaper came, and took its name; as you may perceive by the simple corruption of d’Ypres into diaper. I feel a special interest in the place on that account. For an Englishman to make a journey to Ypres is like paying a visit to the birth-place or residence of an ancestor, of whose name, deeds, and whereabouts one’s family has preserved dim traditions, which are growing dimmer every day. Who knows in what houses yet standing in these antique streets some of our progenitors, great cloth-merchants of the city of London, may not have been lodged in the reigns of the Henrys and Edwards, when they made solemn commercial pilgrimages hither to effect purchases in woollen stuffs, tapestry, and the like, to be afterwards displayed and sold at stupendous profit, in the marts about Chepe and Aldgate? Who knows but that in the very room in which I am now writing, in the Tête d’Or, looking out into the broad, cheerful Rue de Lille, terminating with the belfry of the old Halle, backed by the towers of the cathedral, some emissary of Wolsey’s may not have been quartered, while he was executing an express mission on Church affairs under the orders of the Cardinal? For, amongst the historical circumstances which connect us, English, directly with this place, is the fact that Wolsey was once Bishop of Ypres, and exercised from the banks of the Thames the same ghostly powers that are now wielded by a venerable gentleman who resides here on the Grand Place, in a large white house, with highly suggestive green verandahs, and a porte-cochère, large enough to admit the Lord Mayor’s coach, with the trumpeters on each side.

How the cloth-merchants managed their journeys from London to this place in the middle ages, considering what the tracks and the vehicles must have been in those days, is past conjecture. I can only say that, with all our improved resources in the way of locomotion, our net-works of rails and bye-roads, and our endless adaptations of science to practical purposes, it cost me many laborious researches in the abysses of Bradshaw, before I was able to solve the problem how to get to Ypres without a waste of time, which nobody can afford in the nineteenth century. However, to cut a long story short, my route was as follows:—

From Calais I took the railroad to Hazebrouck, a distance of twenty-five miles. Of Hazebrouck itself I was utterly ignorant, nor was I fortunate enough to hit upon anybody who could tell me anything about it. The excursion was a leap in the dark. There might, or might not, be roads from Hazebrouck, or Hazebrouck might be only a station without even a village attached to it, as you often see in France a fine white-barred gate inserted in a ragged hedge, with a mud-track inside leading nowhere. The expedition to Hazebrouck was a desperate speculation, founded entirely on the position of the place on the map, from which I inferred that there might be a way direct over the frontier, and across the country to Ypres: trusting to the chapter of accidents, to which travellers owe so many inestimable obligations, for a conveyance of some kind to take us on. We—two in number—were the sole passengers dropped at the solitary station of Hazebrouck; and as the train instantly swept on, I felt that our situation was very much like that of a couple of travellers who had been left behind by a caravan on the route over the Great Desert. The few officials who loitered about the place, appeared, for lack of occupation, to be overcome by aa infectious drowsiness, such as we have seen ilustrated by the “Land of Nod,” or the “Regions of Slumber,” in a London pantomime; and the only signs of work-a-day life exhibited on the somnolent platform were by two rustic porters in blue smock-frocks, who had come down to the station on the look-out for customers, from the two rival hostelries of the hamlet, which we conjectured to lie somewhere amongst a cluster of trees we could discern at a distance. In vain they solicited the honour of being permitted to take charge of our baggage, which we left at the station, and proceeded on foot in the direction of the trees. Guided by a few straggling huts, and the word “octroi,” half-obliterated, on a crazy wooden toll-house, with the door sealed up, and followed by an admiring cortège of urchins, who opened their mouths and eyes at us as if they had never seen a stranger before, and twisted their fingers painfully to suppress their emotions, we made our way at last into the bourg, or village of Hazebrouck. Wonderfully still, and ancient, and petrified, we found it; composed of strange, rickety, stony streets, all leading into a vast central Place, having on one side a state building, transparent with long narrow windows through and through, enclosing under one roof the Town-Hall, the Market, the Palais de Justice, Bureau de la Place, and I know not what else. Hardly the sound of a foot-fall broke the sleepy silence that brooded over the spot, except the lazy clatter of the two porters, as they returned across the great square, trundling home their empty trucks at a dog’s pace, to the St. George and Les Trois Chevaux. Our object was to procure a voiture, and great was our consternation, upon making due inquiries, to discover that there was only one regular travelling-carriage, properly so called, in the town, and that it was gone for the day to Ypres, the very place to which we wanted to go. What was to be done? We looked in blank despair at the gay façades of the two hotels, which stood close to each other in the great Place, opposite to the sprightly state building. The more we contemplated their lively aspect, the lower our spirits sank at the possible prospect of being doomed to put up at one or other of them for the night—and in that case, which? We knew, by lamentable experience, how little external appearances are to be trusted as an index to internal accommodation in the matter of French hotels; and I believe that if we had been driven to extremities, we should have decided for the house that made the least show. But we were fortunately saved the necessity of determining that question by discovering that in a certain back street there was a cariole to be obtained, which would convey us into Belgium as far as a place called Poperinghe, from whence we might proceed by way of rail to Ypres. We hastened to the spot, secured the cariole, and while the owner was harnessing his horse, had the pleasure of hearing the whole of the honest fellow’s family history from his young wife,—a narrative of cupboards, cradles, and domestic character by no means deficient in interest or instruction.

The cariole, you must know, is the popular vehicle of the French frontier and Western Flanders. It is as strong and as ugly as a farmer’s cart, and bears a compound resemblance to an old-fashioned “shay” with a great hood, and a small covered van. It has two seats, both looking to the horse, after the manner of a Dutch omnibus; and they are capable of accommodating four persons, one of whom is, of necessity, the driver, who, if he be intelligent and communicative, considerably increases the entertainment of this model mode of travelling, by pictorial remarks and descriptive anecdotes, a thousand times more racy than anything you will find in the guide-books. The rate is somewhere about four miles an hour, and the jolting by no means so bad as might be expected.

Slow as the pace was, the time passed rapidly. Everything was new and quaint; and the road, which lay for a long way between France and Belgium, afforded an infinite variety of topics for comment and discussion. It was a fresh “sensation” to be conscious of the vis-à-vis of races and languages through which we were passing on a neutral highway; but the “Vins et Biere” which stared upon us from the whitewashed face of an occasional auberge on the one side, and the homelier intimation of “drinkables” on the other, in the familiar Flemish inscription of “Hier verkoopt men drinken,” did not make half so vivid an impression upon me as the reflection that, by simply crossing the road, a man might pass from despotism to freedom—or vice versâ, if he had a mind to it. The close neighbourhood of these antagonisms, and the curious dialogues one can fancy taking place between the opposite tenants, as they sit on their benches of a summer’s evening, “chaffing” each other, gave us something to think of till we found ourselves dashing over the pavement of Poperinghe. If we had not been apprised of the fact by the thunder of the wheels, we must have known that we had entered a town by the detonating cracks of the driver’s whip, accompanied by that shrill cry “Yeu!” which all travellers in France carry away ringing in their ears, but nobody can imitate.

Dependence, as a matter of course, is not to be placed on the expedition of a cariole; and, to confess the truth, we never thought about it, resigning ourselves to the easy pace of our moving panorama, till we reached the station at Poperinghe, when we had the satisfaction of finding that the train for Ypres had started exactly seven minutes before, and that there was no other train that evening.

What was to be done now? Upon grave consideration, it appeared to us that the best thing we could do was to dine at Poperinghe, a project which we were led to resolve upon by having observed, as we passed through the spacious lifeless square, a splendid hotel, covering a much larger extent of ground than the Mansion House. Here was at least the prospect of a satisfactory dinner, with ample time to organise an arrangement for another cariole to convey us to Ypres at night. The moon was to be up early, and the drive promised to be exciting. But we reckoned, literally, without our host; for when we came to inquire at the great hotel, whether we could get dinner, we were informed that everything in the house had been eaten up except the fish, of which, unfortunately, added the maître d’hôtel, there was none left! Here was a new dilemma. Luckily there was a cariole ready at our service, and in this machine we at once embarked for Ypres, which we reached without further mishap, in good time, for what would be considered, in England, merely a late dinner.

The narrative of the journey may be useful to others. The accident of missing the railway is not to be taken into account, for it was purely the penalty of carelessness and inexperience; and the expedition may be fairly looked upon as an exploration in an unknown region, by which a new route is opened up to future travellers. Subsequent information enables me to recommend Bailleul, the second station beyond Hazebrouck, as the best point of departure for Belgium, and especially for Ypres, from which it is distant only eighteen miles, or about four hours and a half by a cariole.

And, now we are in Ypres, let us look about us. The town is wondrous bright and clean. Relics of the old greatness may be traced here and there, especially in the Halle, with its imposing array of niched statues, surmounting the offices of police, and law, and municipal record, once the vast warehouse where the cloth-manufacturers deposited their bales. Conclusive of the decay of the trade of the place is the diversion of that noble pile to other uses than those for which it was originally designed, and to which it was dedicated for centuries.

A fragment of the archiepiscopal palace wears modern whitewash in the face of the sun, and the bishop’s garden, now converted into a public promenade on an excruciatingly small scale, still remains with its old trees and little winding walks, in the midst of which a painted orchestra, where the band plays on fine Sundays, has been perked up on an artificial mound.

The cloth-business is gone. The staple trade of the town is in lace, of which there is a large manufacture. One house, whose productions I had an opportunity of inspecting, in profound ignorance of their value, but not without admiration of their skill and delicacy, gives constant employment to as many as 3000 hands. The chief customers of this establishment are our great west-end firms, such as Lewis and Allenby, Howell and James, Marshall and Snelgrove, and others, whose agents come over here once a year, or oftener, to make purchases.

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Hôtel de Ville, Ypres.

Ypres is essentially a place of business, and nothing else. The people are thrifty, orderly, and industrious, after the most exemplary fashion. Their way of life is much the same as it was with us in Elizabeth’s time, leaving out the show and finery. The whole town is up by five o’clock in the morning, and has done breakfast by half-past six; dinner oscillates between half-past eleven and one; an hour or two later early rising is rewarded with a cup of coffee; and, at seven or eight, the day is wound up by the most moderate of suppers. The entire population, with such dissipated or vagrant exceptions as are to be found in all towns, are a-bed by ten; half an hour afterwards, the dreamy music of the carillons rings out from the lofty belfry over the squares and streets, which are as fast asleep as the inhabitants.

Society and amusements are the only wants of Ypres; but they are wants which are felt only by strangers. Residents are accustomed to do without them, and have become moulded to habits which much bustle or pleasure-going would inconveniently derange. “Society is not for ladies at Ypres,” was the idiomatic expression of a young lady of the town, speaking to me in very piquant English. There is a theatre somewhere hidden away in Ypres, but it is never open. The people take no interest in the drama in any shape, and don’t affect to disguise their indifference to it. There may be a ball on some extraordinary occasion; but it happens so rarely that the ladies declare they have no relish for dancing. Concerts take place; but they are exclusively instrumental, with the military element topping and predominating over all. In short, the ladies have no other engagements upon their hands than to walk, pray, and stitch,—occupations in the culture of which they exhibit indefatigable zeal. The fact is all the more remarkable from Ypres being a garrison-town, as we should say, and crowded with lounging soldiers. While the ladies are thus left to their own devices, the men, on the contrary, are abundantly provided with the only kind of entertainment from which they seem to derive any enjoyment. They have their club in the Grande Place, a handsome room brilliantly lighted up with gas, where, every evening, the principal residents, and a gay sprinkling of cavalry and infantry officers assemble to play at billiards, dominoes, back-gammon, whist, and sundry other games with cards and tables, and to drink beer out of tall, liberal glasses,—Allsopp’s ale, which has been introduced only within the last two or three weeks, being in high request. The scene is extremely lively and amusing; and the tone of the company—without any air of pretence or exclusiveness—is undoubtedly that of a society of gentlemen.

But the most conspicuous feature of this club is its inexpensiveness. The individual subscription is about 1l. per annum, and beyond the perpetual cigars, the evening’s entertainment rarely entails an outlay of more than a few pence. It is a little noisy at first, from the variety of games that are going forward, and the buz of voices in constant chatter; but you soon get used to this, and begin to enjoy in common with everybody about you, the temperate hilarity of a gathering where, stranger though you be, you are at once put at your ease by the unaffected bonhomie of the members.

Ypres is incredibly tranquil, considering that it is one of the great schools of equitation of Belgium. You see people moving about, but can detect nothing in the shape of work going forward. The shops generally look tolerably well furnished; but you never see anybody buying anything in them. One might wonder, under such circumstances, how the people contrive to get the means of living, were it not that they live under conditions which enable them to live for next to nothing. A family, adapting themselves to the local ways of life, might batten flourishingly here on 200l. or 3001. a-year, and keep their carriage on 400l.

But that is only the practical side of the question. If we look a little beyond bread and mutton, it is quite a different affair. Literature is at a discount in Ypres. I will not venture to say that the art of reading is not cultivated here; but, if it be, there can be no hesitation in saying that it is cultivated under difficulties. There is a bookshop in the town, which is as much as can be said about it; for it is evident from its contents that stationery is more in demand than print. To the credit, however, of a population that has something else to do than to read, an excellent free library has been established within the last twenty years. It contains probably 20,000 volumes, is open three or four times a week, and has an average of about a dozen visitors per day. The books are well selected, and the shelves are enriched by the addition of some curious and valuable illuminated MSS.

These primitive people take scarcely any interest in politics. It is astonishing how little they know or care about what is going on in the rest of Europe. If you hear the name of Garibaldi, it is, most likely, in connection with a piece of news at least a month old. Simple, cordial, and friendly, they live in a round of old-fashioned usages and ideas, which is quite marvellous in this age of stratagem and movement. They like the English, and dislike the French. France, indeed, is the only foreign point upon which they are at all strong, either in knowledge or opinion. They are justly proud of their freedom, and jealous of French influences; and some of them even express distrust of M. Rogier, whom they describe as a “Frenchman.” The only party in the country that abuses and hates England and the English are the priests; but in Belgium, as everywhere else, the power of the priests, for good or evil, is fast breaking up.

At the time I write Ypres is occupied in preparations for a grand fête, which may be regarded as a demonstration, not less of popular devotion to the wise constitutional Sovereign of this kingdom, than as a popular protest against any encroachment by the despotism over the border. The King, who has not visited the town since 1833, comes here on the 16th, and for many weeks past nothing has been thought of but garlands and flags and illuminations. The organisation for getting up the requisite means of giving his Majesty a worthy reception is quite perfect in its way. Each street appoints its own committee to go round and collect subscriptions for providing it with devices, lights, flags, and festoons. In this street, where the King is to be lodged, next door but one to my hotel, the sum of 120l. has been collected for the purpose; and the rich proprietor who receives royalty, after having already subscribed no less than 20l. to the street fund, is, I am told, expending upon the illumination and decoration of the front of his own house no less than 4001. The enthusiasm of the people exceeds all bounds. You cannot get any information upon any subject except fête; there is nothing else talked of, or dreamt of; and I find myself very much in the plight of the gentleman at Hamburg who could not get a reply to a question from anybody, people were so absorbed in trente et quarante. Like him, I have lost my thread of contemporary history, and can’t tell what day of the month it is. If I ask, I shall be sure to receive for answer that it is the 16th. There is but one day in this current month of September for the inhabitants of Ypres, and that is the day when the King is to make his appearance amongst them; but that day I know has not come yet, because the King has not come, although it is palpably close at hand, from the hammering I hear on all sides, the ladders that are stretching up against the fronts of the houses, and the multitudes of lamps and lanterns and artificial flowers and great boughs of evergreen that are passing and re-passing in all directions through the streets. The bustle grows more and more enlivening; crowds are collecting at corners; business seems to be abandoned in the universal burst of affectionate loyalty; and so, lest the people at the post-office should lose their heads in the general delirium, I will close my letter, and despatch it at once.

Robert Bell.