Zeebrugge & Bruges

I was sixteen when I made my first visit ‘abroad’ in 1960, I’d been asked to help a teacher  to look after a group of British school children while visiting Germany. We were to stay at Youth Hostels as we made our way up the Rhine by rail and returned via paddle steamer, Bismark
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Paddle steamer Bismark

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.

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As we entered Zeebruge harbour aboard Celebrity Silhouette recently, I found myself thinking of the Mersey ferry boats, Daffodil & the Iris in WW1, on St George’s Day 1918.

DSC02305rSunrise  Zeebruge Harbour earlier this year, pictures taken from our balcony.

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The entrance to the harbour can be seen (beyond the the immediate quay) where the British sank the two derelict vessels.zeebrugge_19180423

The two ferries took part in the commando raid to sink obsolete ships in the main channel at Zeebrugge, to prevent German U-boats leaving port. Although badly damaged, and with many killed and wounded, the two ferryboats managed to return to England, and eventually made their way back to Mersey.508715828Daffodil arriving back in the Mersey after emergency repairs at Chatham300px-HMS_Iris_II_1918_IWM_Q_55564

Above is the Iris on her return – both ships carried the HMS prefix during the raid., and both had a large number of shell holes. In addition the superstructure had been riddled with machine gun fire. The funnel of the Iris was kept as a ‘memorial’ for some time, but I not sure where it is now.
Eight VCs were awarded after the raid, unfortunately two hundred and twenty seven men were killed, and of those I think seventy are buried in the crematory at Dover. The whole operation called for volunteers and of the 1700 who volunteered eleven were Australian. Of the eleven, seven were decorated for bravery and some of their medals can be seen in Canberra.

Dover marked the centenary of the raid earlier this year. The link is a very short video.

In honour of their contribution to the raid King George V conferred the pre-fix ‘Royal’ on both Mersey 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 nine years ago.

My day dreaming suddenly changes as the Sapphire Princess crossed my sight to berth next door to us.DSC02308r

 

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Belgium navy ships berthed across from our berth. I wonder if they think of the raid on St George’s Day (23rd April).

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On to happier thoughts as we crossed the canal bridge leading in to Bruges, after the coach ride from Zeebruge. The drive was just over half an hour and once in Bruges I had the feeling of stepping back in time.

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Maureen & I were part of a ship’s tour and the guide, who was seventy, was full of anecdotes, information and jokes – a perfect guide.

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Very few cars but enough horse a carriages to keep the tourists happy.

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With two cruises ships in port the crowds were not as bad as I expected.

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Couldn’t resist taking a photo of the inside of this shop, it looked so colourful and inviting, selling Belgium lace and various other linen products.

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Belgium chocolate – the love of chocolate for the Belgium people goes back to 1635, well before Belgium as a country came in to existence. Our guide gave us an overview of why real Belgium chocolate is so expensive compared to to other brands of chocolates. Belgium chocolate is made from 100% coco butter, which means it does not contain vegetable oil.  He went in to a lot of detail, but the bits that stuck in my mind was that if I saw chocolate in Belgium at an inexpensive price, it was not traditional Belgium chocolate. Fortunately for me chocolate is a take it or leave it product – I seldom eat chocolate.

DSC02336rWe were in the old part of the town and making our way to the main market square. The central building with the cross on the top was built in 1713 as a place for destitute women – an alms house in English. It is still used today for the elderly of small means.

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The wall of one of the God houses – originally built by wealthy merchants for those who could no longer look after themselves.

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We passed another during our walk – built in 1330, and still in use.

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Narrow streets and follow the guide – our septuagenarian.

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took this because I liked the scene.

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Canal scene with a tourist boat.

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To get to the main market square we had to cross a very small bridge that had people coming towards us as well as those behind all moving forward.

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I stopped on the bridge for a photo and people flowed around me like water.

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I then managed to get to the other side of the bridge . .

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 . . . and then back to my original place – the tourist boats were very popular, but our choice had been for something other than a tourist boat.

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When I saw the crowd outside the hotel I thought what a lovely place to sit and have a drink, only when I got closer did I realise it was a long queue for one of the tourist boats.

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The whole area could have been a Disney set, but it was all real.

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More queues for boats – on such a beautiful day, we couldn’t have asked for better weather.

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The main market square, which is the heart of Bruges, is just around the corner.

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The market square reminded us of Ypres, which is not surprising as Ypres is also in Belgium.

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Our choice over the boat trip – Belgium beer tasting. Must admit they were generous with the pouring – 150 ml in each glass. Of course Maureen couldn’t dink hers because it wasn’t gluten free, so being kind hearted I helped her out . . .

The first glass was 8% alcohol – and the guy in the red shirt (standing) gave us a chat about the beer and how it was made on the premises.

The next one, a different taste,was 6% and the final one, again a different taste, around 4.5% – a very pleasant lunch break. The brewery supplied cheese nibbles between the tasting of each beer to clean the palate.

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Just to show how kind I was. . . . a well balanced meal.

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After the tasting we had free time for a wander around the market square. The market started in 958 and is still going every Wednesday.
From November each year it becomes an ice skating rink and a Christmas market.DSC02398r

Plenty of cafes and restaurants.

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The statue in the square is of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck , the two heroes from 1302 who were involved in the uprising and massacre of the French occupying forces.
In retaliation the French king, Phillip IV, sent an army of 8000 troops, which included 2500 cavalry.
The civic militia was raised in Bruges, and the surrounding towns. When the two armies met the French sent in their heavy cavalry, but they failed to break the armoured and well trained militia.
The battle ended in a French defeat and many of the knights, including the French leader were killed. At the end of the battle the Flemish soldiers collected five hundred pairs of spurs, which is why the battle is called The Battle of the Golden Spurs. The spurs were offered to the church.

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Across the square from the restaurants is the Belfort Tower, which is a belfry.

There are 366 steps to climb to the top, via a narrow staircase (with two-way traffic), so you have to be fit and perhaps younger than me to complete the climb. I’m told that the view on a clear day is fantastic. The lower areas are 13th century.
The carillon of 47 bells weigh from 0.9 kg to 4,989 kilos per bell, making a total weight of all the bells of 27,500 kilos. Chimes of Bruges – is about three minutes and also includes views from the top.

We enjoyed our time in Bruges, and only wished we’d been able to stay longer. It is a town where we’d liked to have stayed locally for a few nights, to see more and to experience the area outside of the town. But we had to get back to the ship . . . .

Next stop Copenhagen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1960 – The winds of change – whether I liked it or not

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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.

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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.

scopitoneZeebrugge 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.

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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.

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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.

 

german-train-001Colour 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.

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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.

4053976-festug_ehrenbreitstein-koblenzKoblentz 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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.