Glory of Green
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Stories from the Great Outdoors

 

I’m always looking for new places to discover. Finding interesting and varied outdoors activities close to home was always easy when we lived in Norway – it felt like the options were endless all year round, and I especially like coming upon hidden gems or doing trips in a new way. Living in Waterloo, Belgium, we have been digging a little deeper and travelled a little further to get our weekly outdoor shots. And it’s been unexpectedly great. The famous Lion’s Mound (1826) on the other hand, is a nice hike conveniently close to home (or from Braine-l’Alleud train station if you’re visiting Brussels) – and sometimes walking directly out of the house and over the fields is a good way to spend a sunny Saturday. How could I have known that I would bring a brand-new war to the peaceful fields of Braine-l'Alleud? 

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The simplicity of it all

As the battle of Waterloo (1815) is such a well-known piece of European history and the 43 metres high Lion’s Mound an undeniable landmark in all the flatness around Brussels, stopping by on a bike trip was the first outdoorsy thing we did when we moved to Belgium. I was happy to find a wonderful and open agrarian landscape with black crows and paths in many directions. An easy trip directly from our front door is very climate friendly, easy and effective when time is not on our side.

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A glimps from our first trip out in the fields

Back in late August, the weather was warm and the clouds captivating. This Saturday in January we had a giant blue sky and the rare phenomenon of frost in Belgium. Maybe it was the rarity of the frozen ground, but I think the fight between the girls stemmed from a more general issue of my youngest daughter’s love and respect for natural beauty at odds with my eldest daughter’s crave for disturbing what’s pretty and teasing her sister at the same time. My two daughters went to war over the following: Are frozen puddles better left for marvelling at, finding images in the patterns, or are they made to jump on and delightfully demolish? Me acting as a very unsuccessful peacemaker in between the two fronts – realizing why the world is at its state… 

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What didn’t happen in Waterloo, stays in Waterloo

17th century warfare is a much greater interest of my historian husband than of mine, but as always there are funny facts to tell about historical and ongoing happenings – after all, we are talking about the ways of human beings.

The first thing I learned when I came to visit the monument marking the front line of the battle between French and English troops, is that the battle didn’t take place in Waterloo at all and that the same goes for the memorial: it’s all happening in the neighbouring Braine-l’Alleud. What a snub! General Wellington, however, had set up headquarters in Waterloo – and he thought that the “battle of Waterloo” had a much cooler ring to it. 

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Over time the place has been changed and sacralised – amongst other things by building the Lion’s Mound itself – which enriched its meaning compared to other not so visible, but still important, battlefields in Belgium. Developments in printing technology also made it easier to spread the word of the great “battle of Waterloo”. Image building was no less important back then obviously – and so all the tourists go to Waterloo while Braine-l’Alleud gets to host the local hospital.

In fact, tourism was an element of this story even from before the battle went down. As the culmination of a three-day offensive, there were tourist travelling to the battle scene in 1814, ready to witness it ringside – until it was all over, and the plunderers came to go through the unfortunate ones who didn’t make it. Especially the young dead soldier’s teeth were a much-wanted commodity in a time when dental health was poor and a fine set of Waterloo-dentures very useful if you wanted to throw something other than porridge down your throat. 

Following the plunderers came the journalist, poets, bureaucrats and relatives – and then the general travellers. The first souvenirs were made in the 1830ies and the historically important travel operator Thomas Cook organized his first journeys to the scene around 1850. 

Long live the House of Orange! Long live the king!

The second puzzle revealed itself when I entered the museum-shop at the Lion’s Mound for the first time. While the British general Wellington who commanded the forces against Napoleon has his own (not so known) museum in Waterloo, the Prince of Orange is not a very visible character at all. 

Being built as a memorial to where the heir of the Dutch throne was supposed to have been wounded in the battle, it’s remarkable that what sells today at the Lion’s Mound is a multitude of artefacts connected to the defeated Napoleon himself. Not knowing what went down, I would have guessed Napoleon as the hero of this story. Anyone up for a Napoleon bathing duck?

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The rivalry between the Dutch and the English was ancient at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, and the British efforts are said to be overplayed in the historical references – contrasting what is said about the Dutch, Belgian and German forces contributions to the battle that put an end to 20 years of war in Europe. Relying overly on English sources, The Prince of Orange and the other nations forces has been much criticised and even ridiculed.

The romanticism of war, uniforms, weapons and heroes is loudly present at the memorial, and the story constructed of the battle was used creatively in the propaganda of the first world war, justifying and giving meaning to a range of different aspects. I also interpret the Napoleon glorification as a way of telling everybody about the magnitude of what you’ve accomplished – the greater the enemy, the greater the victory.

Beauty versus demolition

Moving from contemplating the interpretation of historical events to the much more challenging business of parenting, I’ll start by telling you that I was the single party able to waive neutrality in this specific clash of the titans of January 2019, when Alma (9) “the protector” met Erla (13) “the demolitioner” at the battlefield of Braine l’Alleud. My husband was in Germany for the better part of the day and I was left behind to fend for myself. No ringside seats available. Luckily, I didn’t have to pluck any teeth afterword’s.

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I have absolutely no good parenting advice for the situation at hand, but we ended up with the following compromise: Alma was to be left alone when she found a pretty frozen puddle, she was supposed to be allowed time to show it to me, take a photo and delight in it for a while – after which Erla was free to come in and happily crush it. 

The timing wasn’t always to everybody’s satisfaction, but we eventually managed to stop scaring horses and Belgians with our screaming, violent attacks and sulking and start acting as an almost normal trio out on a nice stroll. They even managed to change positions for a while – Alma joining in on the ice breaking and Erla finding some nice patterns before jumping on them.

Even if they try to kill each other regularly, they spend more time as friends than as enemies, and I’m so glad I decided to have more than one kid. First of all, I can’t imagine how exhausting it would be to have one of them spending all that energy solely on me, and secondly – they have the best hiking buddy in the world right by their side. What a luxury! Seeing them walking or playing around together in front of me is the best view in the world.

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Alma on her constant mission of saving the planet

Practicalities

1. On company: 

Bring more than one kid and get the full experience of wartime. 

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2.  On route:

There are many possible hikes in the area around the 1815 memorial. The train station at Braine-l’Alleud is the closest if you travel from Brussels. You can spend your time criss-crossing the fields (wear appropriate footwear – it’s very often muddy), or hike via Waterloo centre and take the train back from there. Both villages are busy with cars everywhere, but you can also find nice cafes for refuelling after a stroll around the memorial (many whom are regrettably closed on Sundays).

3.  On interest:

It can definitely not be categorised as wilderness, but it’s a perfect day out for the history-buff and a nice walk in the sun for the not so demanding hiker. There’s beauty in the landscape and in the vegetation along the paths. In January you might find a frozen pond shaped like feathers, or as a birds wing. 

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