Dunkirk. It’s reputation sits alongside Agincourt, Waterloo and The Charge of the Light Brigade as one of the most defining military events in British History. All have been bought to the silver screen with big budget films and Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster ‘Dunkirk’ is the latest.
Whilst Dunkirk is a name firmly entrenched in the British psyche it’s also a popular Channel port and gateway to France. Most of us are guilty of driving off the ferry straight out of town and heading south as quickly as possible. And though Dunkirk would be a difficult place to spend a fortnights holiday, there is much to see. It is easy to justify a weekend or slightly longer break in the city and especially now that more attractions have been launched on the back of the film.
I stayed at the centrally located Hotel Borel. It was here that many of the film’s stars stayed. The receptionist told me in tones of reverence that my room was occupied by Harry Styles of One Direction who made acting debut in “Dunkirk”.
Memorial sites in Dunkirk and around
But of course, Dunkirk’s biggest attraction and indeed memorial – is its beaches. It is not a huge stretch to cast your mind back almost 80 years to when those beaches had nearly 400,000 men lifted off them to be ferried to England just 25 miles away.
It’s not until you stand on the sand you realise haw vast the beaches are and how exposed those soldiers were. The Dynamo Tour, the Dunkirk evacuation was known as Operation Dynamo, is a coach trip that takes you not just to the beaches but also the British cemetery, the Zuydcoote cemetery, the port and shipwrecks that still appear at low tide.
For a very different view, take a trip in a light aircraft as part of ‘The Operation Dynamo Flying Experience’. It will take you over the beaches so you get some idea of the scale of the evacuation.
The newly refurbished Dunkirk War Museum is set in a 19th century fortified building. It’s full of weapons, vehicles, uniforms and artefacts from the evacuation. Thewalls are hung with evocative black and white pictures explained by well written story boards. It makes for a fascinating presentation of the evacuation.
A stark and dramatic reminder of just how awful war is may be found a few miles south in the villages of Esquelbecq and Wormhoudt. Much has been written of the heroes with their little ships, but there were heroes too who held the enemy at bay from reaching the beaches. Those soldiers knew that they themselves had no escape, they would be captured or killed.
On 28 May 1940 , 100 soldiers, mostly from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment had been given orders to delay the advancing German Troops, this they did until they ran out of ammunition when they were forced to surrender. In what has become known as The Wormhoudt Massacre, they were herded into a barn and were killed by grenades being thrown in. Those that survived were shot. Only two survived. 80 trees have been planted as a memorial to their sacrifice and whilst not a tourist attraction, it is something that everyone should visit if only to remind themselves of the horror and senselessness of war.
You can also visit the Fort des Dunes, a 19th century fort that still bears the scars of 1940. It is of information and exhibits of the Battle of Dunkirk.
Don’t miss dinner or lunch aboard the paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth in Dunkirk. She was built in Southampton in 1927 and took part in the evacuation as well as in the in film. Now fully refurbished this battlefield boat has opened as a restaurant and you’ll find her moored alongside the L’Estacade Quay in the centre of the city. The menu celebrating the evacuation has been designed by well-known Michelin star chef Christophe Hagnerelle of the Val d’Auge in nearby Bondues.
Dunkirk has a surprising number of good restaurants. Local specialities like crab gratinee and a bouillabaisse of local fish are to be relished in Le Bistrot de la Plage. Washed down with a glass of pastis overlooking the beaches, it’s a fabulous foodie experience.
Being this close to Belgium, beer is a very popular drink and the Thirez Brewery is good for an informative tour and to enjoy a tasting or two.
Visit the morning market (Wednesday, Tuesdays and Sunday mornings) which is full of colour and smells that you only get in French markets. Pop into charcuteries, cake and chocolate shops for special French treats to take home,
Dunkirk – make sure that if you go there you stay a day or two, don’t just dash through it, it’s well worth it.
DFDS ferries operate daily crossing between Dover and Dunkirk (as well as Dover and Calais which is approximately 20 minutes’ drive).
Peter Jones is a photographer and freelance writer