Years in Review
RECENT TOURING TALES
Old Favourites, Added Depth, Fresh Discoveries
Image: Venta del Pozo, 1812 action, Spain May 2023
It's great to be back amongst our traditional favourites which all returned in the guise of Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium, as Scheduled and Bespoke trips. Also what a year for Waterloo research, and now with a fresh website to boot!
Touring again after the sad lapse of the last few years, and a few other priorities meant that we focused on our existing tour guests; clients who had patiently and loyally waited for our touring to return, keen to repeat past visits and visit new places. And, delightfully, new guests keen to sample Campaigns & Culture, confidently following personal recommendations from friends.
To return to our favourite spots, to stop, listen, breathe in the air, focus on the far horizon, ponder the passage of history, our hearts restored in the companionship of friends is wonderful indeed. Whilst on tour we continue to indulge in wider history and great landscapes, with superb culture, hotels, food and wine. A little luxuriating goes a long way to draw in enthusiasts’ partners who wouldn’t be quite as keen on what they may fear, or might have experienced elsewhere in a ‘battlefield tour’. Then we gently push their boundaries so that they get to experience and enjoy far more than they would ever have imagined.
Amongst the highlights, the sunshine well and truly came out for our “Wellington Advances into Spain 1809-1812” tour, including some splendid little actions in beautiful countryside that I added for the first time, along with extra cultural stops to soak in the context of history and geography, serving as a timeline and sense of grounding. We even came across a 'Game of Thrones' film crew! 24 battlefields in 14 days, interspersed with cathedrals, castles, wine tastings, gentle walks, more strenuous walks, amazing food (and I really do mean amazing), wonderful company, genuinely superb service, what an experience! Many of these battlefields are beautifully remote, and whilst parts of others are well-trodden, we went well off-piste at Salamanca and countless others to share the parts that others can't reach.
We also dug deeper than ever into Quatre Bras and Ligny, too often visited in a flurry compared to Waterloo itself, yet crying out to be experienced whilst their topography has so much to offer. Pre-touring I was joined by our Contributing Expert Pierre de Wit seeking fresh viewpoints, walking routes and inspiring places. A highlight was D'Erlon's much misunderstood march and counter march between the two battlefields, for me an area of fascination ever since I was taken on an organised tour many years ago, taken to all the wrong places, yet all presented with great confidence! Such are the perils of reading a few books without really thinking things through. Establishing what could actually be seen by those both involved in and impacted by this march is eye-opening, and this is just how our understanding of history should be developed.
For our Waterloo Anniversary Tour we were joined by our Contributing Expert Andrew Field, to share his latest and multiple perspectives. True to my word we spent even more time at Quatre Bras, Ligny, along the Sambre and Namur, all essential to a true appreciation of this campaign. Each year we add more and more to these Anniversary tours, and 2024 will add yet another! Particularly enjoyable was the warmth of the welcome from our favourite restauranteurs, delighted at our return, a privilege to share such joyous hospitality with our tour guests. Waterloo touring continued into November, weather-watch style, proving that we can still enjoy ourselves out-of-season.
For a highlight of the year (besides my lifetime favourite of Barba del Puerco) I'm going to choose an isolated little battlefield, set in the glorious plains of Spain, a rearguard action during Wellington's retreat from Burgos in 1812; Venta del Pozo, seen in our featured image above. Its scale was small, but the disastrous mix of circumstances and the ultimate fortitude displayed in such a beautiful location is everything that we stand for and love to share. Wonderful.
Our tour guests are always coming up with stimulating ideas. We have a few more in the ‘dreaming of’ phase, and we’re always open to more. So please do get in touch to discuss any tour ideas, or elements of tours that you may be particularly interested in. Looking forward to 2024!
Robert Pocock, Founder – Director – Guide
The Show Must Go On
Image: Agrippa's Roman Theatre, Merida, Spain, July 2018
We want to travel, you want to travel. Just when we sought to return, we and our guests found ourselves in the lap of the technocrats in whose power our ability travel seems to reside. Often seemingly random, inexplicable and ever-evolving border restrictions imposed at short notice by European-wide, country-wide and regional authorities made it impossible to confidently plan ahead. So it became a good year for forward planning, reading and research!
I've been spending much time talking with and assisting authors, from minor to major roles, helping with language, locations, and mini-editing. It feels good to be appreciated for one's knowledge of the remarkable places we visit, and to help those who wish to draw on almost half a century of Napoleonic study, whilst being a superb way of learning on the job!
Planning for next year looks much better, so we will get back to sharing my passion for history, landscape, culture, food and wine, continuing to share what I love, focusing on repeat travel with past tour guests who have generously and patiently waited over the past couple of years.
It’ll be fun continuing to spread the joys of Napoleonic travel. Both I and our guests come alive at these historic sites, and I very much look forward to sharing these delights on tour in fresh and exciting ways.
The show will go on!
Image: Barba del Puerco Gorge on the Agueda, famed 1810 95th Rifles action, Spain, May 2018
With so many twists and turns, highs and lows, the skills learned in childhood playing ‘snakes and ladders’ have proved invaluable this year. Maintaining a calm sense of perspective is all. Just as when tackling history, keeping an open mind, investing time and energy in curious enquiry can lead us down many interesting avenues to challenge accepted narratives!
As an unfailing guide, I often wonder what Wellington would have done if faced with modern-day events. No doubt he’d have sent numerous ‘scientific advisors’ scurrying back to Lisbon, or preferably all the way back to Horseguards, with his boot firmly up their whatever. If only we had such great and respected leaders today. In their absence, one has to focus on other ways to win the fight, however many barriers are put in our way.
With no touring, I’ve spent much of the year helping others with their own historic works. From a Dutch historian’s multi-volume master work to a Brit telling the outrageously wonderful tale of the filming of the film Waterloo. Even jumping well outside my comfort zone to record for Sony as part of their Blu-Ray limited-edition re-release of the movie epic. All great fun, and an honour to be of help. There have also been many fine new Napoleonic books, and some which sadly and shockingly are an abuse.
Some will know that, on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, I instigated and led the project to restore the grave of Cavalié Mercer, Waterloo’s famed artilleryman, in my home city of Exeter. This year the project was topped off with a magnificent information board, and once more I thank those who contributed so generously.
Another highlight was an invitation to Stratfield Saye for a one-to-one guided tour by a tour guest of ours. Wild horses could not keep me from Wellington’s country home, what a wonderful opportunity, for which I am most grateful. It has opened fresh lines of enquiry for me, and I thoroughly recommend a visit once the team are able to re-open fully.
More time to enjoy home life has allowed me to pursue other interests with pre-history, cartography and economics all jostling for attention. Having always drawn strong links between economics, geography and history, is amuses me that this is a terribly unappreciated area of study. Back in 2013 I humbly published a tongue-in-cheek article “The Economics of Daily Bread” which went on to win an unsought global award ahead of the FT and Washington Post. It examined the economic causes of the French Revolution. I now find myself informing clients from other continents that we are busily laying the foundations for another revolution. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.
A different time and continent, but these words seem to echo through time:
“Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is in their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
(Thomas Jefferson, American Declaration of Independence, 1776)
We know from deep experience just how travel can enrich the mind, body and soul. So I truly look forward to breathing the air in these marvellous places again, caring for our tour guests, the people we meet and the regions we journey through. Our small-group tours are exceptionally well suited to all the latest challenges, and we have eager guests ready to travel from around the world.
As a tour operator we remain deliberately small, nimble and secure. This gives us the freedom to take the right decisions for the long-term with confidence in everything that we do. Whilst full of hope and positivity, if events conspire against us then we’ll simply roll our plans into 2023, or whenever we can travel in confidence and safety, happy and free of concern. We’ll find a way.
That’s about it. I’ve worn one of my legendary bright shirts to keep an upbeat perspective whilst writing this – I hope for your sake that it worked.
With best wishes to you all,
Wellington Advances, Napoleon Retreats!
Image: Battlefield of Talavera, 1809, Spain, October'19
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
(A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
For me, a year that dawned with my creation and announcement of a cracking new word, “Napoleonicist”, quickly descended into an avoidance of bio-hazards, a flurry of home baking and crazed home-exercise biking. How the chips have fallen this Covid year!
In these times the lessons of history are so important, but all too often are set aside in the rush to be seen to ‘do something’. King Canute knowingly demonstrated the vain limits of power back in the eleventh century as he staged an attempt to hold back the tide; something that politicians and their ever-willing functionaries who now seek to control every move of nature and humanity would do well to remember.
Too many lessons from economic history have also fallen by the wayside. Sustaining Wellington’s armies and the coalitions against Napoleon greatly depended upon gold and silver, often the only trusted currencies at a time when little else could be relied upon. History may soon start to rhyme given the debasement of everything around us. The follies of economic history and the importance of sound money are, alongside Napoleonic matters, ones that I am always happy to engage in.
Here in the UK, aside from Covid inspired chaos, we’ve also experienced a year in which history, culture, enquiry and common sense have been under constant attack. Those who seek to impose their narrow vision on others show little understanding of the historic persons and events whose reputations they seek to desecrate, with no thought for the inevitable but unintended consequences of their actions. In response it becomes ever more important that history, with all its rights and wrongs, is openly revealed and sustained in all its complexity rather than deliberately obscured from future generations. How else will they learn?
On a personal level I was delighted with how we handled the onset of Covid. Our thirst for knowledge meant that we returned clients' deposits in full, even before the mainstream press had appreciated the enormity of the contagion. Some things are obvious, some take a little more digging, but once again we were well ahead of the herd, and our clients benefited from our prompt action in doing the right thing.
I’ve taken the opportunity this year to further the breadth of my interests into many other aspects of history and geography, seeking what might influence or at least rhyme with the future. From the archaeology of ancient sites to the founding of the Smithsonian, the integrity of history is of vital importance wherever we look. We are the products of the past, a past that is well worth appreciating, questioning, understanding, treasuring and preserving.
Whatever the state of the nation and the world, it continues to be a pleasure to chat with past and future tour guests to hear of your hopes and sharing your news. I always welcome such contact, so do get in touch.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and we'll work through this together.
Copenhagen, Waterloo & Peninsular Tales
Image: Portugal's Douro Valley (one of our vineyard hotel stops), October'19
During 2019 we welcomed greater numbers than ever on our Small Group tours with both repeat and new tour guests. It is always a delight to enjoy the good company of ladies and gentlemen from across the globe, from Australia to the UK, the US and, once again, Europeans wanting to learn more about ‘their local battle'. The range of our tour guests adds real pleasure to the touring experience, and I thank them all for their excellent companionship.
Our tour guests tell us that our 2019 tours were a wonderful experience. We aim for, and mostly achieve, the accolade of “Outstanding”, and it is hugely rewarding when both new and experienced tourers recognise our unique quality, style and approach.
Picking out a few events, Waterloo saw both our Anniversary and a few Bespoke tours in June. New to our schedule was Copenhagen in July (featuring both Nelson & Wellington). A number of private research tours bulked out the diary, and we’ve added more great locations to our 2020 tours as a result. From Copenhagen I flew into Bilbao, for enjoyment, exploration, rest and relaxation. Joined by an influx of Guild of Battlefield Guide members, we were promptly whisked away for a journey around our Contributing Expert Graeme Cooper’s favourite Peninsular sites. Great fun, and always good to compare and contrast my own favourite locations with those of others.
In September I set off on a solo 6,000 mile road trip from across Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Portugal and back, returning home at the end of October. What a journey it proved to be. At Waterloo I was joined by friend and outstanding Dutch historian Pierre de Wit as we criss-crossed the territory and battlefields sharing knowledge, sites forgotten by time and the history books, whilst introducing new local contacts and research material to each other. Pierre’s huge strength is his multi-lingual skillset, delving into original archives, never taking anything in the history books for granted, and his decades of on-location research. All this will benefit our future, further differentiating our tours from the rest.
Onward across Champagne and Burgundy to the French Pyrenees, enthralled by the beauty of Tarbes and Orthez before climbing Roncesvalles Pass into Spain and across to Portugal. Blessed with glorious weather at grape harvest time, the scents wafting through the air along the Portuguese Douro, Spanish Ribera del Duero and eventually Bordeaux were a treasure. I always reckon that as a guide one needs to visit battlefields and fortifications at least three times before they even begin to come to life. Even after so many previous visits it was delightful to still be uncovering fresh perspectives at Talavera, Badajoz, Albuera, Olivenza, Elvas, Torres Vedras, Buçaco, Porto, Barba del Puerco, Ciudad Rodrigo, ‘Light Division’ border country, Salamanca, Vitoria and the Maya Pass. Of course on tour we visit many more places that we know well and love to share.
My theory is often proved as I bump into DIY travellers struggling to find, let alone make sense of a battlefield, and I do my best to point them in the right direction. It's a useful reminder of how inadequate my own first visit to Waterloo was all those years ago, and how tricky it is to even start to see what needs to be seen on one's own. I've heard so many tales of people either unsure whether they've found a battlefield, or finding a monument and thinking that must be all there is to see! Repeated visits to far-flung places allow us to check out the latest theories, analyse different maps, seek fresh approaches from the perspective of all combatants, search out new vistas, constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge to share on tour, so we can make the most of the precious time that our tour guests have - taking you right to where the action was!
Some of you will know that in January ’19 I was hospitalised for over a month, truly life threatening stuff. Life is surely enriched by experience, so once restored by the magnificent skills and care I encountered along the way, I literally had a mountain to climb in preparation for Waterloo’s Lion Mound in June, all of its 226 steps. My determination to focus on sharing my passion for history, landscape, culture, food and wine means that I have now dropped the vast majority of my other business interests. For me touring in 2019 was very much a personal triumph, and one that, happier, healthier and fitter than ever before, I look forward to doing much, much more of in the future.
To those who helped me through, and to those who encourage and support my touring, thank-you, it means the world.