top of page
  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Border Tales and Assorted Wars Part 1

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas JANUARY. 27, 2021

France Belgium France Germany France Germany Luxembourg Germany France or something like that. That was a trip we made back in 2011 down the historically ever changing borders of mainland Europe that have caused and settled so many disputes over the centuries. So if you travel down this way and get confused as to which country you are in today don't worry because you probably changed countries three times in the last hour's drive. It's not as confusing as living there.

Not having reviewed the photos since then and having made so many trips to Europe over the last forty years I had to do a bit of detective work to name some of the places in these photos.

There was a vague plan that we wanted to overnight in as many countries as we could on the trip, in the end I think it was only four but it felt like more. Our ultimate destination was the Black Forest city of Freiburg, an area where cuckoo clocks are common.

The first stop off after going through the tunnel into France was Cassel which has the distinction of standing above the miles of surrounding snooker table like landscape on a small promontory.

It was a good spot to stretch our legs after being cooped up in the car for several hours. The Channel Tunnel has the advantage of speed but the disadvantage of not having anywhere to walk. Many people viewed the Channel Crossing by ferry as a natural break point where you were able to stroll around and have a meal, and some people prefer it to this day for that reason. If you are not a seafarer and the weather is bad then a life below the ocean wave, sitting in your car on a high speed train is preferable to a life on the ocean wave, where the doors onto the deck are sealed shut by the force of the gale. I still have many terrible crossings etched in my memory, one of which I was convinced would be my last.

One of the most memorable was our return trip by Hovercraft one year. It was our first return crossing by this method and we crossed over to France at the beginning of our holiday on a millpond English Channel singing the praises of flying across the channel on a cushion of air. "Why don't we always go by Hovercraft we asked", well that question was answered on the way back some days later. I had never wondered what laundry goes through in a fast spin followed by a tumble dry, up to that date. A boat swings you from side to side, which is bad enough for your balance system, a Hovercraft is more like a personal miniature San Andreas Fault on the day the "Big One" hits. Next time you shake a bottle of vinaigrette dressing to get it emulsified and smooth, picture a tiny metal capsule inside the bottle, with a hundred cars and three hundred people in it. You get the idea.

This man below is Ferdinand Foch in pride of place on the hill overlooking the town. Ferdinand Foch was a French general and military theorist who served as the Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War. Cassel is near the German border, enough said. Foch became the Allied Commander-in-Chief in late March 1918 in the face of the all-out German spring offensive, which pushed the Allies back using fresh soldiers and new tactics that trenches could not contain. He successfully coordinated the French, British and American efforts into a coherent whole, deftly handling his strategic reserves. He stopped the German offensive and launched a war-winning counterattack. In November 1918, Marshal Foch accepted the German cessation of hostilities and was present at the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

Cassel is a commune in the Nord départment in northern France. Built on a prominent hill overlooking French Flanders, the town has existed since Roman times. It was the headquarters of Marshal Ferdinand Foch during part of the First World War. In 1940, during the German invasion of France, Cassel was the scene of a fierce three-day battle between British forces and German forces which resulted in much of the town being destroyed. Today the town, which was rebuilt following the war, is a popular destination for visitors to French Flanders. It is renowned for its extensive views from the summit of Mont Cassel . Wikipedia

If you occupy the only hill for miles and miles you have a monopoly on the available power supply.

The mill on the terrace of the castle already stood at the top of Mount Cassel in the 16th century, unfortunately, in 1911 it disappeared in a fire. In 1937, the last Cassel mill also burned down, it was an oil wringer. There was therefore no mill left in a town which originally had more than twenty.

In 1949 the city bought a mill which was falling into ruins in Arnèke, restored it and once again the wings were turning at the top of Mount Cassel in 1983, it was the start of a new adventure for this wooden giant. In 1992 the first flour came out of the stone grindstones, and 1999, the construction of a mini oil wringer allowed a demonstration of the pressing of flaxseed into oil. (

We then headed to Tournai in Belgium for our first overnight stop. Tournai, Tornai, Tornè, Tornacum, Doornik, Dornick, is a Walloon municipality of Belgium, 85 kilometres southwest of Brussels on the river Scheldt. Driving around these border regions is even more confusing as places still have different names on the road signs depending on which country you are in, sometimes radically different. In the province of Hainaut, Tournai is part of Eurometropolis Lille–Kortrijk–Tournai, which had 2,155,161 residents in 2008.

Eurometropolis is what I thought the big wigs at the EU were aiming for everywhere, I didn't realise it was an actual thing, as they say now, that it had in fact already arrived. Notice how this new entity wipes out the border and eliminates two unique and individual countries with their own culture, history and language in just one sweep of the pen.

Increasingly the top brass at EU headquarters are trying to convince the people of Europe that they no longer live in different countries but just one big Eurometropolis which will take care of all their needs and thoughts. All they will have to worry about is buying stuff and paying tax, it will be one long May Day holiday, without a parade of tanks and missiles (for now. They're working on that).

And yet, at the same time, Tournai is one of the oldest cities in Belgium and has played an important role in the country's cultural history. It was the first capital of the Frankish Empire, with Clovis I being born here.

Rocks from the Tournai area date from the Carboniferous Period and have been used to define the Tournaisian Age, a subdivision of the Carboniferous lasting from 359 to 345 million years ago.

Presumably that period of Geology will soon be erased and be renamed the Eurometropolisian Period.

The mixed Romanesque- and Gothic-style cathedral of Notre Dame de Tournai and the belfry, considered the oldest in Belgium, have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Construction of the belfry began around 1188 when King Philip Augustus of France granted Tournai its town charter, conferring among other privileges the right to mount a communal bell to ring out signals to the townsfolk. The tower in its original form was evocative of the feudal keep, with a square cross section and crenelated parapet. It served in part as a watchtower for spotting fires and enemies. The growing city saw fit to expand the belfry in 1294, raising it by an additional stage, and buttressing its corners with four polygonal towerlets. A soldier statue was placed atop each towerlet, and a dragon icon surmounted the entire structure.

This blue thing below was the first thing we saw in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg ????? It is an interesting fact that as you descend the list of countries in order of size the name of the country gets longer. Is this something like the smallest dog in the park syndrome? The smallest dog always having the loudest bark? Possibly.


FEDERATION OF ST CHRISTOPHER AND NEVIS - 33 letters PRINCIPALITY OF MONACO - 20 letters REPUBLIC OF THE MARSHALL ISLANDS - 28 letters TUVALU, just trying to be awkward. - 6 letters and of course, THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND - 48 letters and I add this example because the British are famous the world over for being able to laugh at ourselves. Just to ram home my point, I give you examples of the largest countries in the world. Russia - 6 letters Canada - 6 letters Brazil - 6 letters

Wow, they are all 6 letters? And be honest you didn't believe me when I started this, did you? Of course there is always an outlier in every list, and Al Jumahiriyah al Arabiyah al Libiyah ash Shabiyah al Ishtirakiyah al Uzma wins todays prize for longest country name while Chad wins the title for shortest.

Does anyone remember the LSD fuelled extravaganza that was the Beatles film Yellow Submarine? Do you remember the Blue Meanies? Well as much as you are showing your age you may also agree with me that this statue looks like one of the extras from the movie. This is what passes for public art in most places these days even in Grand Duchies.

Luxembourg is small, so small that this is the countryside, all of it. Some lettuces and Broad Beans is what we are having for lunch. For this, there is an EU agricultural subsidy, probably the same value as the one France gets. Who knows. The EU famously pays it's farmers not to grow things so there is something wrong with this scene.

Is it just me or does this photo below look like one of those realistic model train sets, which always feature different levels so you can include a many arched viaduct and a couple of tunnels with some clever track layout in that Papier Mache hill at the back that brings the same train that crossed the viaduct out a minute later on the lower level? It is just me?

This is the Royal Palace where I presume the Grand Duke lives when he isn't away on his yacht. This fully armed soldier was trying to keep a straight face as this group of school children following the lead of the boy in the blue hat decided to go on marching practice, following his every move and then at the end turning around just like him and marching back the other way.

We left the Grand Duchy headed for Freiburg in the Black Forest but we made a stop on the way at Furtwangen to see the clock museum, because we were short of time. Get it?

The German Clock Museum The collection of the German Clock Museum has existed for over 160 years, and today it includes more than 8,000 objects from all over the world. Around a thousand clocks are visible to visitors and are presented in almost as many tours every year.

This extreme example below is the Great Clock of War. The small dials are the different times in all the neighbouring countries (you need to know when they break for lunch) and the big clock in the middle is indicating the start of the invasion. After all the border hasn't changed for a couple of days it must be time to move it a few hundred meters again.

As Edmund Blackadder said in "Blackadder Goes Forth" set during WWI when they were about to go over the top into battle, “Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”

But I digress and invent. This is actually just a very large mantle piece clock for someone with a very large mantle piece, probably some Grand Duke. You need a very large mantle piece if you have a very large open fire onto which you throw peasants when it is cold. Thinking about it, I feel it's a bit worrying if you have to announce that you are grand. It's like calling yourself Handsome Mr. Jones or Beautiful and Fragrant Mrs. Smith. At what point after having been announced as the Duke of Wherever do you suddenly decide that you need to be announced as the Grand Duke of Wherever, maybe when there are just hoards of other Dukes trying to steal the limelight?

Famously in the film Zulu, one of the tiny defending troop of soldiers looks out of the window to witness the approaching Zulu army and announces "Zulus faaaaasens of em!" That's thousands to you non-Londoners. Did one of the Dukes servants look out of the palace window one day and say to the Duke, "Dukes faaaaasens of em!" so the Duke thought from now on I better be the Grand Duke.

This is the sort of clock below, the red one, that my Grandmother would have had in her bright red Formica, state of the art, 1962 kitchen. She had a free standing unit. It had sliding doors and reeded glass and a drop down front and loads of tiny drawers for spices and flour and sugar, all of it easy wipe and water proof and stain proof.

Everything was a unit back then, hi-fi unit, shelf unit, 4 minute warning nuclear attack unit. Now I know you rarely believe anything I tell you but I am really not telling a lie, this time. My Grandmother had a beautiful little glossy grey metal speaker box on the telephone table in her dining room. It had one control which was a red knurled plastic wheel which when you rotated it down clicked loudly and then acted as a volume button. As the volume was turned up there was an eerie high pitched warbling test alarm signal that lay there undisturbed 24/7 as we say now. Back then in the dark ages we said twenty four hours a day.

As kids we always switched it on when we were visiting just to make sure the Cold War had not turned Warm on the way there. Just before sitting down to our British Wartime Salad of lettuce leaves, tomatoes and sliced ham, with no dressing and copious loaves of sliced buttered bread we always tested the grey box.

Copious- abundant in supply or quantity. mid-14c., from Latin copiosus "plentiful," from copia "an abundance, ample supply, profusion, plenty; riches, prosperity; ability, power, might," also the name of the Roman goddess of abundance,"

It's funny, I had never thought of my Grandmother as a Goddess of abundance.

At the bottom of the shiny grey box below the red wheel was a small red handle and if you pulled it out there was a tray like drawer with a printed guide to different warning signals and what they indicated. The only one I remember was for a Red Air Attack, which I think was a high pitched scream. This never happened though, which meant we always ended up with British Wartime Salad with no dressing.

The meal was always followed with tinned fruit salad which usually contained three tiny green grapes, and two half cherries in every tin, amongst other fruits, and this was consumed with Wartime Evaporated Milk and more loaves of buttered bread. This tin of fruit was shared between seven of us. There was no obesity back in the 70's, there's always a silver lining to hunger. Yes, this was as recently as the 1970's.

In times of danger this grey box would be permanently left on as it was a direct hardwired link to the National Early Warning system. My Grandmother reckoned that at the appropriate time, a large air raid siren would be delivered, which would sit in the farmyard ready to alert the whole valley that they had four minutes to hide. Two points here, nobody had anywhere to hide, and who was going to operate the siren? My Grandmother was four feet tall and of bantam weight so I can only hope that they were going to send her a heavy weight soldier or two.

Two years ago, we visited a now decommissioned Nuclear War Communications Centre in Cheshire and on the tour around all the displays of original Cold War machinery there was a little glossy grey metal speaker box sitting right there. I uttered the now famous "My Grandmother used to have one of those in her dining room" claim. Whereupon the museum curator kindly explained that I must be mistaken giving me a very condescending little smile.

He proceeded to explain the device to me whereupon I interrupted him and said if you pull out the little red tray it says in the event of a Red Air Attack the signal will be a high pitched scream, go on open it. He opened it for the first time and there it was. It was one of the proudest moments in my life.

I dredged all that back up because of the red clock below. Isn't the human mind an intriguing device?

Somewhere Black Foresty on the way to Freiburg.

If my detective work is correct these shots are in Freiburg. If I have made a mistake then they are somewhere in either France, Belgium, Luxembourg or Germany.

I think back then we were using paper and ink to find our hotel, rather than a grid of satellites hovering above somewhere in the ether.

In any case I followed the directions to the hotel to find we were driving through a beer festival of some description. I am prone to exaggeration as you know but even now I fondly remember the astounded faces of the local crowd of boozy festival goers as we edged the car through their midst, wondering how we were ever going to find our hotel let alone get our bags in and find somewhere to park.

After the crowd got thicker and impassable we decided it was probably best to stop the car and venture forth on foot. We had at least reached the bar and joined the queue for a couple of overly large local brews, albeit we were still in the car.

I beat my way through the merry throng with a large Michelin map to where I thought the hotel should be only to find a small shopping arcade populated by boutiques of luscious eye wateringly expensive chocolates and handbags. The sort of chocolates you buy as a single purchase not as a group. "I'll have that one, wrapped in a gilded origami like box sealed with satin ribbon and by the way, do you do mortgages?"

I stepped back out of the arcade scanning 360 degrees looking for the non-existent hotel. Then with no other direction to look, I looked up, and noticed a small sign about the size of a Bavarian postage stamp made of beautiful curly ancient wrought iron about twenty feet up the front of the building. But no hotel in sight. I went into the chocolate shop and said " Vere ist de otel" in my best Bavarian accent. She pointed to the ceiling which although was helpful in so far as it went, in advising that it was upstairs, there was still the problem that it didn't have a door or entrance of any description.

She then dragged me out of the shop, obviously bereft, as I hadn't bought the small chocolate and walked me down the arcade until we came to a glass door which she pointed to. There was no indication at all that this was a hotel. I went in through the door to discover some stairs hidden on the left, so I went up the stairs as at least they were going up which was the right direction. Eventually I found myself in the huge bright beautifully designed hotel reception which anywhere else in the world would have been on the street, below the curly ancient wrought iron sign.

Having established I was in the right place, I discovered that underneath the chocolate shop was a multi layered car park and that our car now abandoned and covered in empty beer steins was about five feet away from the entrance, cleverly not sign posted either, and obscured by metal roller shutters, painted to look like an Alpine chalet complete with geraniums in window boxes.

We quickly buried the car below the streets of Freiburg, roughly just two levels below a tray of Coffee and Kahlua Ganache investment opportunities and having fought our way back through the now louder and merrier drinkers with our bags, laden down with cuckoo clocks as we now were, we went back out and joined them. How many hotels have you checked into that have their own beer festival right outside the front door? Well technically speaking, just outside the front door then left then down the corridor past the chocolate shop.

Once again, if my deductive powers are correct, this is Titisee. Being British it is just the most hilarious thing to do going to places called things like Titisee. On a previous trip to Bavaria, further south we had delighted every day in having to drive through a little unremarkable village called Wank. We are easily amused.

Titisee was a bit of a tourist hotspot where we went on a boat trip. The boat was electric and that's pretty much all I remember, apart from the enormous gift shop obviously built with about thirty holiday coaches arriving at the same time, in mind. That's where the opening shot of this blog, with all the cuckoo clocks, was taken. Obviously everything is really beautiful and the scenery is fantastic but frankly this is the Black Forest, that's what you expect, you don't get extra marks for doing what people expect. That would be like going to New York and giving it extra points for having some tall buildings. Tall buildings in New York are a given.

These are definitely shots of Freiburg, of that I can be sure, this time. I'm surprised that Germany still has open sewers, we covered ours up back when Victoria was Queen. A brilliantly named Mr. Bazalgette designed the London sewage system. So the Germans aren't as clever as they thought. Electric boats huh!

They obviously have almost as big a drink problem as us Brits do. This is the main square which seems to be more wine orientated than beer. If you are trying to get into the cathedral you will have to fight off all the drinkers that aren't hanging around in the square outside our hotel quaffing beer.

We left Freiburg to it's hangover and to cross the border into France and a stop at Colmar, which is where I will pick up in part 2.

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page