I’ll never go abroad –
which was a stupid comment that I made at thirteen, comes back to bite me.
My first adventure abroad was just after I’d just turned sixteen in 1960. A family friend (a school teacher) asked me to accompany him in August to help shepherd a group of fourteen to sixteen year olds during a YHA (Youth Hostel Association) trip around Germany – the YHA was called DJH in Germany (Deutschland Jugend Herberge). Because I was tall for my age, looked older than my years, and I didn’t attend the same school as the other students, the schoolteacher considered that I was ideal as his ‘offsider’. Of course I didn’t have a passport, but at that time one could obtain a twelve-month passport for a large discount on the ten-year passport.
The above passport was for the years 1961 / 62.
It is identical to the passport I had for 1960 / 61
The British were just starting to take European holidays after the financial hardships of the post war 40’s and early 50’s, and YHA was cheap, and cheerful.
We travelled by coach from Birkenhead to Dover, which is on the south coast of England, where we boarded a ferry to Ostend, Belgium. The trip from Birkenhead took us hours and hours, even though the new M1 motorway between Birmingham and London had opened the previous year. The one thing I always hated was bus travel – it made me ill, and I was very glad of my Kwells travel tablets. Even the smell of the inside of a bus today brings back bad memories.
Due to the very long journey from Birkenhead to Ostend, the group leader had booked us in to the Zeebrugge youth hostel, which was a short distance along the coast from Ostend. The one thing I do remember about Ostend was a particular coffee bar, which had a jukebox. Jukeboxes were not new to us, but we’d never seen a jukebox linked to a TV screen. For one Belgium franc (well before the EEC and the Euro) we were able to play popular songs and watch the singer on the screen. This is the only memory I have about my first visit to a foreign city.
Zeebrugge was more interesting because it has a strong link to Birkenhead and Merseyside. During WW1 in 1918, the Daffodil and the Iris (both Mersey ferries) took part in the commando raid to sink obsolete ships in the main channel at Zeebrugge, to prevent German vessels leaving port. Although badly damaged, and with many killed and wounded, the two ferryboats managed to return to England, and eventually the Mersey.
The top picture shows both ferries after reaching the Mersey. They had a large number of shell holes and the superstructure had been riddled with machine gun fire. The funnel of the Iris was kept as a ‘memorial’ for some time, not sure where it is now.
Mersey ferries check this link for more details via the BBC.
In honour of their contribution to the raid King George V conferred the pre-fix ‘Royal’ on both ships, and they became the ‘Royal Iris’ & the ‘Royal Daffodil’. The second descendant of the ‘Royal Iris’ came in to service in 1951, and it was in the 1965, on this ‘Royal Iris’, that I danced with a young girl who would later become my wife, forty seven years ago..
Our transport around Germany was by rail, which was electric, whereas the British system was a mixture of steam and diesel engines. The high-speed trains of Belgium and Germany were exciting to us, but we did miss hanging out of the window and breathing in the unique smell of steam and smoke from the engine. Even so, the German trains had a character of their own, modern, fast and efficient.
Our first stop after leaving Belgium was Cologne, which I found to be an interesting place. In 1960 the war had been over only fifteen years so growing up in the UK most of the Germany city names were very familiar. The one place that we didn’t hear much about, but knew of from school, was Bonn, which at that time was the de facto capital from 1949 to 1990. The old capital, Berlin, was under the control of the four powers, America, Britain, France and Russia.
I found Bonn to be a dull city, and was not sorry to leave, via train along the banks of the Rhine to the spa town of Bad Honnef. ‘Taking the waters’ was all the rage, and of course we had to try the water, and from memory I was not all that impressed, because I didn’t know what to expect and the mineral taste was completely different than the tasteless water that came out of the tap at home.
On the other hand it was new to me, it was different and it was foreign, so I drank another glass of the famous Bad Honnef water.
Colour film was too expensive for a sixteen-year-old, but I could still hang out of the window for pictures of our train journey across Germany.
A further short rail trip from Bad Honnef, took us to Koblentz (or Coblenz). The YHA facilities were located in the castle and overlooked the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine. I was fascinated that I could actually see the two different waters, because they were naturally coloured – the Moselle was green and the Rhine blue, and after they had met they became the normal brownie river colour that we all recognise. I can still remember the view nearly sixty years later.
The Moselle flowing in to the Rhine.
The photograph has been taken from the area of the YHA, around fifty years later. I’m sorry to note the absence of colour in the water.
We enjoyed our stay in Koblentz, the town being ‘old German’ buildings (I don’t remember any modern buildings), cobbled streets, heavy rounded glass shop windows, a real pleasure of a place to just stroll around and absorb the atmosphere. Of course I was too young to drink alcohol, but we made do with ginger beer (it was the same colour as real beer) so we would sit in the sun and watch the young German girls as they promenaded around the main square. I wasn’t too young to admire girls.
Koblentz YHA was inside this castle
Bacharach, further up the Rhine again, was our next stop, and it was quite a change from the other towns and villages that we had visited. The YHA was located within Bacharach Castle, which from memory was very different from the Koblentz Castle.
I do remember one evening when many of the students were in the Great Hall, which was being heated by a very large fire in a huge pillared grate that felt like sandstone, when a young man dressed in leather shorts with shoulder straps (braces if you are English, and suspenders if you are American), thick leather climbing boots, and socks folded down around his ankles entered the room dragging a long heavy rope behind him, and shouting for help due to the rope’s weight. I assumed that this person was the YHA manager or was employed by the YHA. A number of us ran over and helped drag the rope in to the hall, where we were instructed to lay it out in a single long length. We were about to take part in an international tug of war!
The tug of war was to be a knock out contest, and was to be in front of the large grate as the flames danced up the chimney. The overhead lighting was dimmed so that the fire illuminated the two teams trying to pull each other over a marker chalked on the wooden floor.
The rope didn’t have the feel of ‘real’ rope; it was very smooth and softer than the rope I would handle later when I was at sea. The British team asked me to be the anchorman due to my size. Using my limited knowledge of knots, taught to me by my father, I tied a Bowline knot to secure myself to the rope. This knot created a loop in the rope, which I put around my chest. Regardless of the weight put on this knot it would not tighten further than the original pressure when it was created, so protecting me from being injured.
It was great fun, and because the German members were the greatest number, they had more bodies from which to choose and so won each heat against all other countries. It wasn’t long before the larger boys from different countries agreed to join an international team to compete against the German team. The international team won three out of five ‘pulls’ or should it be ‘tugs’. Perhaps the German team was tired after defeating all the other nations independently, but they couldn’t hold out against a combined international team. Every time I see the film ‘Where Eagles Dare’, with Richard Burton & Clint Eastwood, and the scene where all the main characters are seated around a long table across from a large fire in a medieval fireplace, I think of Bacharach and the tug of war.
From Bacharach we sailed back down the Rhine towards the coast. The name of the paddle steamer vessel was the ‘Bismarck’, and I can remember thinking that I hoped we didn’t suffer the same fate as the 1941 ‘Bismarck’.
What more could a teenager want, but to be aboard a wooden decked river boat with the sound of the steady throb of the engine, the paddle wheels slapping the water as we glided down river, with pale smoke from the vessel’s funnel drifting towards a clear blue sky. All was well with the world as I leaned on the rails and viewed the vineyards, castles, scenic Germanic buildings, which I am sure are still in use today.
River traffic and castles as we sailed down river.
Bacharach was our last ‘new’ place before making our way home, via Bonn, Ostend, the ferry and the long bus ride to Merseyside.