I scan the horizon trying to picture the scenes of tragedy which played out here between 1914 and 1918, and stand very still to see if I can feel anything – does that much death and loss change the atmosphere of a place?
All is silent and subdued, save for the occasional cries of a migrating ‘V’ of geese streaking across the grey sky.
At least they know where they are going. My navigational skills are atrocious, so I happily look down to consult the Garmin Oregon 450 – a nifty palm-size GPS device – dangling from my handlebars. A purple arrow politely instructs me to continue north and off I peddle.
I had picked up both the bike and the GPS unit from the tourist office in the petite town of Péronne. Situated 66km east of Amiens, it was occupied by the Germans throughout World War I and sat right on the Front Line. Most of the surrounding villages have a story to tell and the GPS allows you to select from several pre-programmed routes depending on how far you want to cycle.
The best-known route is the ‘Circuit de Souvenir’, or Circuit of Remembrance, which leads you past all the main war-memorial sites. It’s a lengthy 80km, so I spread the journey over two days and spent the night in a local chambre d’hôte.
The clouds lift and a glance at the screen tells me Rancourt, a French cemetery, will shortly be coming up on my left. I dismount and gently lean the bike against the surrounding wall of the graveyard, which stands solitarily among an expanse of corn-stubbled pasture. The oaks have dropped their browning leaves among the graves.
I peddle onwards past mounds of potatoes piled high at the side of the mud-spattered track towards Thiepval – home of the largest British war memorial in the world. Its almighty 45 metre-high arches are inscribed with the names of 72,205 missing soldiers. Except for a groundsman quietly tending the grass, I’m the only one there. I amble between the aisles of tombstones, quietly reading their names aloud. Paper poppies and wilting flowers planted at the base of the graves shiver in the breeze.
And suddenly the benefits of using GPS become clear. If I had a joined a guided tour, I may have learned more but I’d have had to listen to the commentary and chatter of other visitors. Travelling on two wheels allowed me to tread the same dirt tracks and wander through the same woods as the soldiers; to visit their memorials in peace.
Today’s cold is forgotten against the silence, history and feeling of this place.