Mercer’s Tour of Ghent

Mercer dedicated an entire chapter of his famous Journal of the Waterloo Campaign to Ghent. Yet most of us omit Ghent from a trip to Belgium. Waterloo (of course), Brussels the busy architectural capital, and the compact stunning medieval beauty that is Bruges are the main stopping points. Yet Ghent is easy to find, standing half-way between Brussels and Bruges, a vibrant City in its own right, and at the heart of the British build-up to the Waterloo campaign. Ghent deserves a visit, and once again Mercer’s Journal of the Waterloo Campaign is the ideal tour companion.

A few words of wisdom to get you there: In the old days there were no road signs and few maps, so troops improvised their journeys from town to town with the help of a local guide. Often the guide had never travelled beyond their immediate boundaries, and confusion often arose with villages having numerous different names. Relying on road signs or maps or train destinations to find Ghent is equally tricky these days with the Flemish name for Ghent being Gent, and the Walloons calling it Gand. Just be prepared for a variety of confusing signs, and head onwards with confidence!

Having spent just one night in Bruges (see here) Mercer travelled via Eccloo, where he faced his first awkward encounter with the Duke of Wellington, the next day arriving in Ghent. Reaching the City at the Barriere de Bruges (also known as Brugge Poort or Brugsche Poort), a boundary gate and meeting point of canals and rivers, his G Troop Royal Horse Artillery of 6 guns, over 200 horses, almost 200 men, with their limbers, wagons and baggage made their way right across the City “into the very heart of bustle, business, fine shops, and crowds of people” to the cavalry barracks adjoining the Barriere de Bruxelles.

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The cavalry barracks was full, so having “parked up our guns and put up our horses” the men headed back to the other side of town. Those searching for the cavalry barracks today will search in vain, but there is an interesting story to tell. Now the site of a 1990s social housing project, Hollainhof, in 1815 the cavalry barracks already had a long history. Created as a hospital in 1582, the Pesthuis (Pesthouse) could accommodate 200 patients, and in epidemic free periods soldiers were cared for. The dead were buried on site. Rebuilt just in time for the capture of Ghent by the French in 1678, it became an army billet. During the Spanish War of Succession (1701-1714) the hospital treated British, French, German, Prussian, Spanish and Swedish soldiers. As the site evolved by 1735 it boasted 34 chimneys and became a full-time regimental cavalry barracks, a ‘cazerne’. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars diminished the maintenance and furnishing of the barracks, degrading to such an extend that in 1814 the Prussians would house only their horses, but not their men, on site. Over the last century the barracks became known as the Hollainkazerne, in memory of a Belgian officer who died in WW1.

Mercer records that he was billeted in ‘Bruge Straet’. The most likely candidate is Brugsche Poort Street, leading to the Brugsche Poort, both of which have mostly been subsumed into modern streets and road junctions. But there is much else to see. Just around the corner Mercer writes that he established his breakfast mess with one of his officers in a palace on Pepper Street, with rooms of ‘magnificent dimensions’ but ‘very bare of furniture’. This 1724 palace built by Baron Reylof is now the premier hotel of Ghent, the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof, the ideal base for your stay, grandly and brightly furnished and boasting the finest restaurant in the City. Parts of the old interior and high garden wall described by Mercer remain intact.

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Mercer’s men had the honour of furnishing a guard for King Louis XVIII of France, who had fled from Paris, via Bruges, to Ghent. The 1767 rococo Hotel d’Hane-Steenhuyse in Veldstraat is now on one of the major shopping street of the City. During 1814 the Hotel and neighbouring buildings saw much of the activity leading to the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war between Britain and America, but not before the British burned the White House and the Americans imposed numerous ignominious defeats on the British. It is interesting to note that the French King used retired grey horses from our very own ‘Scots Greys’ for his stud, kept at the same cavalry barracks as Mercer’s horses.

A few hundred metres from the Reylof, towards the City Centre, along Poel, is the Hotel de Flandre, one of two places where Mercer and his fellow officers kept their council over supper in the company of Frenchmen who Mercer ‘shrewdly suspected … were spies’. At the time Hotel de Flandre was also the base of the French minister, writer and historian François-Rene de Chateaubriand who fell in and out of favour with both Royalists and Bonapartists. The hotel’s balcony above the main entrance, and the entrance hall remain original.

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Daytime wanders around the City lead you to the magnificent Place d’Armes, now known as Kouter, the flower square, where Mercer first laid eyes on the Duc de Berri, a French royal who was later to cause so much amusement to G Troop and the entire British cavalry force. Close by is where Mercer, along with many other Waterloo diarists, were hugely surprised to see French Marshal Auguste de Marmont, with two good arms, whereas it had been common knowledge in England that he had lost one in his defeat at Salamanca in 1812. Mercer spotted Marmont exercising his horse near the Place d’Armes beside the river; then as now there is only one candidate for such an open space, Koop Handelsplein, now the car park in front of the Law Courts.

Mercer visited and admired the countryside views from the Citadel. Search a modern map and you will head for the wrong Citadel, a park to the South of the City. In 1815 the Citadel was a huge but ancient defensive structure on the East side of the City, actually known as the Kasteel, now mostly subsumed within industrialised Ghent and over-run with rail tracks. A visit to the romantic ruined remains of St Bavo’s Abbey, which used to sit within the Kasteel, will have to satisfy the modern traveller.

If you do wander towards the modern Citadel Park, en-route you’ll find the hill where Mercer stumbled on an old abandoned square monastery with a central court – which became part of a more modern barrack complex, the Kattenberg, now part of Ghent’s huge University. The Citadel park was laid out in the 1870s, on the site of a Citadel erected by none other than the Duke of Wellington from 1819 to 1831 whilst Belgium remained part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Walking back to his billet from the Kasteel, Mercer passed through the Marche aux Grains, another huge square, before reaching an enormous cannon, the Basilisc, 18 feet long and 3 feet in diameter. This clearly intrigued him and he quotes various sources for his research. The cannon still stands proud in Groot Kanonplein, a wonder of solid construction weighing 12,500 kg dating back to 1431. It was probably more of a threat than a weapon having never been fired in anger.

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A keen observer of architecture, Mercer was intrigued by the old castle, Castle Ganda, or Gravensteen, which now forms such a major feature at the heart of the old City. In Mercer’s day the castle was crumbled, industrialised as a textile mill and housed working families. Much of the destruction of medieval Ghent, and its subsequent restoration, is due to Ghent’s pre-eminent role in the continental industrial revolution. A brave Ghentois smuggled an English spinning machine piece by piece from England; had he been caught his treason would have carried the death penalty, but he survived to kick-start the continental industrial revolution. Ghent’s pre-eminent industrialisation led to the 1913 World Fair when the city received a major facelift and rebuilding programme.

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Mercer admired the cleanliness of the meat market, writing “If ever I could relish a sausage it would be a Ghent one.” The architecture of the Town Hall and the Cathedral St Bavon inspired him, just as much as the behaviour of Catholics intrigued him. The Cathedral’s marble tombs and wooden pulpit that he so admired are there to be seen, and the Cathedral also houses the medieval Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, an altarpiece by van Eyck. This, the most stolen piece of art in history, was at the time of Mercer’s visit was sitting in the Paris Louvre, one of many art treasures looted by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The Cathedral’s interior is simply staggering.

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A must-visit is the Ghent City Museum, STAM. But beware, all museums and public places have different opening days and sometimes very limited opening times, so forward planning is absolutely essential.

In Belgium you also need to know the best Chocolate shops in town. Fear not, your author has done all the hard testing and sampling for you. The very best is Yuzu, in Walpoortstraat. Here, Nicolas Vanaise, a former middle-east archaeologist whose grandparents ran a top traditional Ghent cake-house, hand-makes chocolates of stunning simplicity and beauty, yet with taste of enormous complexity and richness. Pricey, yes, but the flavour just lasts and lasts, and lasts, so you only need consume one at a time. As a historian Nicolas will also engage in active debate on the what-ifs of the Waterloo campaign!

And finally, do enjoy a stroll after dark. The City’s most beautiful old guild houses, along Korenlei and Graslei, are shown off at their best.

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