I’ve worked on a previous production with the team who made this new film. They are talented people who put a lot of effort into getting things right. If you are into mountain biking, cycle history or just enjoy cycling, you are sure to like this film. Watch the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/mtbuntold Tony
Mountain biking is now in it’s 4th decade and it’s come a long way from it’s beginnings in the hills of the West Coast USA. But that’s only part of the story. The UK MTB scene grew in parallel to the well told US tale and this documentary, shot and co-produced between Blue Hippo Media , singletrack magazine and BAFTA award winning film-maker Michael Clifford, lays out the unique history of how the MTB developed in British mud.
Featuring interviews with legendary names such as Tracy Moseley, Steve Peat, Dan, Gee and Rachel Atherton, Martyn Ashton, Rob Warner and Gary Fisher, this is the story of how the Brits have carved their names into MTB history and helped shape the global phenomenon that is mountain biking. It is a story that has never been told, until now.
“From quiet dreamers to absolute screamers, the U.K. puts it stamp on the Mountain bike story…5 stars ” Gary Fisher: US MTB pioneer
Back in the 1970s, despite the rocky British economy, the UK’s banks were generally in expansionist mood. Rather than closing branches, they were more likely to be extending them or building new ones. The biggest banks, such as Barclays and NatWest, had networks of well over 2,000 branches each, at a time when retailers such as Marks & Spencer had only 350 or so.
In the Oxfordshire market town of Faringdon, more or less halfway between Oxford and Swindon, Barclays desperately wanted to expand their branch or move to larger premises. In particular, they wanted more counter space for more cashiers. I was working in the south regional office of Barclays property services department and this project became one of mine. I could never have guessed how complicated it would become.
The existing Barclays branch was on the corner of Market Place and Southampton Street. This was a nostalgic location for me. I was brought up in Tilehurst, on the western outskirts of Reading, but my maternal grandparents lived in Cheltenham. In the 1950s, twice a year, in the run-up to Christmas and Easter, my father would drive us to visit my mother’s family. Faringdon was about halfway between Tilehurst and Cheltenham; so it became a convenient stop for a snack and loo break.
Back then, next to the Faringdon Barclays, was a barber’s shop. 1955 saw the release of the Disney film Davy Crockett and, as a 6-year-old, I was Davy Crockett mad. (I had a plastic Davy Crockett flintlock pistol and a Davy Crockett hat, made by my Mum from a pair of old rabbit-skin gloves.) And there, in the window of the barber’s shop, was a beautiful soap model of Davy Crockett. It was not just plain moulded soap but fully coloured, too. You cannot imagine how exciting that was; but the fact that I vividly remember it more than 60 years later will give you some idea. Also, at Christmas time, Dad would drive us around the towns of the Vale of White Horse to see the Christmas trees in market squares of Abingdon, Wantage and Faringdon. So, I was familiar with the town from a young age.
The Barclays building on the corner of Market Place and Southampton Street was very awkward to extend. In the middle of its widest part was a huge chimneystack that, for structural reasons, could not be removed. Further back, the building (and the site) tapered, making the middle section very narrow, with no scope for building out. The ground floor walls were substantial but the walls of the two upper storeys were just half a brick thick, which is exceptionally thin. It was only the fact that these thin walls were braced to the large chimney stack that kept the building standing.
There was a likely reason for the wall thickness anomaly. Faringdon was besieged and bombarded during the Civil War of the 17th century. It suffered more damage than almost any other town in England. So it’s probable that the upper storeys of what became Barclays were destroyed by cannon fire and subsequently rebuilt on the cheap.
Interesting though the history was, it left us with a building structure and plan-form that could not be easily adapted. There was, however, more space on the site further back from the Market Place, along Southampton Street. The premises already had a relatively modern extension for a bank employee’s residence. But this space was a long way from the main entrance and far from ideal for use in a refurbishment. So the Bank started thinking about acquiring alternative premises.
Over several years, Barclays considered purchasing three other properties around the Market Place; I surveyed them all. One was the premises of estate agents and surveyors Hobbs & Chambers, which adjoined Barclays. (Today it is Perry Bishop and Chambers estate agents.) I remember dealing with their redoubtable manager, Mr Lee, who had an impressive framed display of cereal crops on the office wall.
Another of these properties was Liddiard’s grocery store (now the Hare in the Woods). That was particularly interesting because, while Mr Ralph Liddiard was trying to sell his shop to Barclays, he was starring in a magazine advert for Lloyds Bank as one of their happy customers. As part of my brief, I was given a full-page colour advert for Lloyds, cut out of a magazine, showing him standing outside his shop. It was an interesting building to survey, as the plot extended back a very long way, with many outbuildings.
The third property was the most interesting of the trio, the one that Barclays bought. It was the former offices of Haines the solicitors, on the corner of Market Place and London Street. (It later became a building society and is now a charity shop.) Bernard Haines had been the oldest practising solicitor in Britain but had recently died at the age of 92. I was told that he lived outside the town and that he took the bus home in a snowstorm, got off at the wrong stop and was later found dead in a ditch. Whether those details are true or not, he had certainly died recently and his practice had closed.
When I first gained access to it, Bernard Haines’ place was like the Marie Celeste of early 20th century offices. It was clear that none of the equipment, fixtures or fittings had changed for many decades. There were still speaking tubes rather than telephones linking the various rooms. One of the drawers was lined with a newspaper from 1916, with a headline declaring that Irish rebels had seized the General Post Office in Dublin. And in an upstairs room, lying on the floor, was an advert for Ann’s Garage, Faringdon, giving a single digit telephone number and mentioning that they were agents for Lanchester and Duesenberg cars. The place was such a perfect time capsule that we contacted Oxfordshire County Council and gave them free reign for several weeks for the county record office or local studies centre to take or record anything that might be of historical interest.
Back in the 1970s, apart from working in the daytime for Barclays, I had a parallel existence as a DJ on Britain’s first surround-sound mobile disco. I also did jingles and voiceovers for BBC Radio London; and I freelanced for Belgian national radio. As a spin-off from this, in 1973 I co-hosted a special all-British edition of the Flemish equivalent of Top of the Pops. So I had the strange experience of one evening presenting a live TV show in Brussels featuring Queen and many other top UK acts, flying back late that night sat next to the singer Barry Blue, and the following morning surveying the dark and dank basement of this deserted solicitor’s office in Faringdon. This dual existence required a certain mental self-discipline!
(Lest you think it odd that I should have had these two existences, a surprising number people involved in the media, theatre and show business also have ‘ordinary’ jobs: sometimes ongoing and sometimes on a temporary basis. For example, one of the stars on the TV show I co-hosted was the charming ex-Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone, who told me he had been working in an office for some years; I think it was in accountancy. Famously, the comedian Kenneth Horne had a day job with the Pilkington glass company. And one of the stars of the TV series Secret Army temped in the typing pool at a Barclays office in London.)
Having bought the ex-Haines building, we considered various ways of best using it. Should we make it the new bank or merely use it as temporary premises, whilst we remodelled and extended the existing bank? One problem was that the planning authority turned down our first proposal. They did not want any material changes to the former solicitor’s office. We ended up employing a specialist planning consultant, who advised us to carefully survey the premises in much greater detail than is normal. By this means, we could demonstrate the care we were investing in maintaining the important architectural features.
This meant that I had to create large-scale drawings of the decorative external features, such as mouldings around doors and windows. I still have the profile gauge that I bought for this purpose. To get safely to these features and measure them, I had the assistance of Russell Spinage, the well-known local builder and undertaker (there’s even a road named after him), whose offices were in Faringdon’s old railway station. He provided ladders and hands to steady them, while I worked at the top with the profile gauge, notebook and pencil. Years later, Barclays gave me the drawings and I donated them to the Oxfordshire Local Studies centre.
The trickiest negotiation with the planning authority concerned our desire to install large curved bay windows either side of the doorway facing onto the Market Place. At the time, the curved bays were mostly solid stone, with just one ordinary sliding sash window in each. The planners did not want us to change this bleak façade; but we felt sure that originally the bays would have been fully glazed, in the style we proposed. So I contacted the Oxfordshire Local Studies centre and they were able to produce an early photograph, proving this point. I’m rather proud that we obtained planning permission to reinstate these bay windows, which have improved the appearance of the building considerably for quite a few decades now.
However, after some years, Barclays decided not to use the ex-Haines building and re-sold it, presumably with the planning permission we had fought so hard to get. Instead, we opted to rebuild and expand the southern end of the existing bank along Southampton Street. So, I designed an extension that was sympathetic in scale with the streetscape.
It must have been about 1983 when, one Sunday afternoon, prefabricated temporary premises were brought from Peterborough and craned onto a pre-prepared base in the bank’s garden (later its private car park). This enabled the bank to decant its operations from the existing building and left the way clear for contractors to get on with the job.
By this time, I’d been involved with this project for a decade. Now, I was moving from a Barclays office in the Reading area to a new role at the head office of the property services department in London. So my good friend John Evans supervised the construction of the project that I had drawn up. I’m pretty sure that Russell Spinage won the competitive tendering and carried out the extension and refurbishment.
Twenty years later, I ended up living just outside Faringdon. It was quite pleasant to use a bank branch that I had been so closely involved with for so long. It was ironic, though, that most of the extra cashier’s positions, which had been the main reason for the extension, had been abandoned and some of the office space had been rented out.
Sadly, in the last few years, the branch has closed. The good news is that ‘my’ extension now houses the Quad tea and coffee rooms, which get five stars on Trip Advisor!
Stuart Dennison, Proprietor of Bikefix, London, writes:
“The bicycle reached its final form sometime in the middle of the last century.” Take that as true and you can make bikes that are economical and can be serviced by anyone, anywhere. But this same standardisation also rules out any development or improvement.
To break free from the norm requires some imagination, a critical mind and some stubbornness. It helps if you like to question accepted conventions and are not afraid of a few failures. These are characteristics that Mike Burrows has in bucket-loads. My favourite quote: “That’s a really stupid idea, I know because I tried it.”
Mike’s track record: thirty years ago he was designing aerodynamic wheels, handlebars, cranks and even brakes; mostly made entirely by himself and many of which have not yet been improved on. His Lotus Pursuit bike helped Chris Boardman win an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992. The compact road frame he designed for Giant had an influence on almost every road bike made since. He has designed folding bikes, city bikes and freight bikes. He practically invented the recumbent tricycle, has spread his ideas through his journalism, and has, of course, written books; like this one.
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Marking 50 years since my first cycle tour in Europe
On the afternoon of Saturday 30th July 1966, the England football team beat West Germany at Wembley in the final of the World Cup. Tom McLoughlin, a 17-year-old schoolboy from Reading, attended the match. Early next morning, Tom and two of his classmates – Martin Taylor and myself – set off on our bicycles for the continent of Europe.
It’s hard to imagine today how exotic the Continent seemed in the mid 1960s. Although by that time some ordinary British people were able to afford foreign holidays, there were still plenty, including myself, who had never left the UK. For many families, including much of the British middle class, Europe was just too expensive to visit. But Tom, Martin and I had a solution which overcame the fact that our parents could not afford foreign holidays; we got on our bikes and pedalled east, leaving our homes in the Reading suburbs of Tilehurst, Southcote and Calcot far behind. Not for nothing is the bicycle sometimes called ‘the freedom machine’.
A lot of planning went into this trip, a process which I took on and greatly enjoyed. I made numerous visits to the travel section of our splendid new public library. I wrote to national tourist offices for free leaflets, brochures and maps. I bought a fine Swiss-made Kümmerly & Frey map of Belgium and the surrounding parts of Germany, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. I also bought some of the new Collins pocket travel guides, which were splendidly concise, compact and affordable. And I closely studied ferry timetables and youth hostel year books.
The original idea had been a cycling holiday in France. In the 1960s popular mind, a cycling holiday on the Continent was synonymous with a cycling holiday in France. It was something Brits had heard of but which few actually experienced or wanted to. It was something a friend of a colleague’s cousin might have done a few years ago. It was generally viewed in much the same way as bungee jumping is today – an activity for intrepid people who are a bit odd.
We didn’t care about the social attitudes but we did want an enjoyable and interesting holiday, not an endurance test of how many miles we could cover on our bikes. We noticed that France is very big and major towns are generally a long way from each other. So should we opt for the default French cycling tour or something else? And if we chose something else, wouldn’t that be even more expensive than France and therefore out of our price range?
Whilst studying a school atlas, I noticed a neat and compact little country called Belgium. Like most Brits, we didn’t know much about Belgium but the more I read up about it, the more I liked it. It had a fascinating history, closely linked to our own. In the north-west it had splendid world-class medieval art cities, conveniently only a few hours of cycling apart from each other and in flat countryside. In the south-east it had rolling countryside with river valleys and forests. And it bordered West Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. Better yet, the ferry to Belgium was no more expensive than the short French crossings. So we decided that Belgium would be where we would do most of cycling, but with a few days in West Germany and maybe the Netherlands, too. Our aim was a fortnight on the road, which was about as much as we could afford.
Day 1 – Sunday 31st July 1966
When we set off early on Sunday 31st July 1966, our target was Dover, where we were to catch an overnight ferry to Ostend in Belgium. Reading to Dover was about 125 miles, which was more than any of us had cycled in a day. In fact, it was about twice as far as we had ever done in a day.
Today, finding an easily navigable, straightforward and reasonably safe route to cycle from Reading to Dover would be quite tricky. (Yes, there are the Sustrans routes and smartphone apps but they can be frustrating to navigate.) But 50 years ago, when traffic levels were about a tenth of what they are today, we just went straight up the A4 Bath Road from Reading to London, straight through the middle of the city, and out down the A2 to Dover. It took a while to get used to the effect of being passed by trucks, which first buffeted you, then briefly dragged you along in the low air pressure area behind them. But apart from that, it wasn’t too bad. In fact, it’s amazing to recall how little traffic there was on these major routes on a Sunday in ’66.
The morning went very easily. As we all came from church-going families, in which such matters were taken very seriously, we stopped off in Maidenhead to attend a mid-morning service. Haloes polished, we carried on to London. Tom, having witnessed the England victory at Wembley only some 19 hours earlier, was delighted when we spotted England captain Bobby Moore driving his car. What an amazing coincidence!
On we pedalled through the London suburbs and into Kent. The weather was good all day: not too hot but pleasantly warm, neither windy nor wet. Eventually, after cycling in built-up areas almost all the way from Maidenhead in Berkshire to Bexleyheath in Kent, we started getting into a more rural landscape. There were actually green gaps between some towns!
This was the era of offshore pirate radio, which in 1966 was at its peak in the UK. I shall always remember looking north, from the A2 near Whitstable, at Redsand Fort, a WW2 anti-aircraft installation about 7 miles away in the shimmering water of the Thames Estuary. Redsand Fort was the home of Radio 390, a very professional station with a powerful signal, aimed more at our parents’ generation. But, in the early evening, we often listened to 390, because it had the best RnB, blues and soul show on British radio, hosted by the late great Mike Raven.
Somewhere along the A2, Tom fell off his bike. But no significant damage was done to rider or machine.
On we rode and, by early evening, the strain was beginning to tell a little. Martin, who was younger and smaller than Tom and myself, struggled a bit to keep up. But by about 9.00pm, as light was starting to fail, we finally arrived at Dover ferry terminal. In fact, we had done very well. We had covered about 125 miles in approximately 14 hours, including about an hour in a church service and a few short breaks for food and drink. So our average speed while in the saddle must have been about 10mph. There were no punctures or mechanical failures, no navigational errors and the weather had been kind. As we embarked on the passenger ferry, we were tired but elated and very excited about the next stage of our journey.
Digression No.1 – the Bikes
The bikes we three lads rode differed considerably. They were all, in one way or another, a cut above the so-called ‘sports bike’ that was the standard schoolboy machine of the day.
Far from being a racer, the ‘sports bike’, sometimes described equally erroneously as a ‘light tourer’, was what the cycle trade would later call a ‘sports light roadster’ or SLR for short. (The ever-evolving language of marketeers is a wonderful thing!) This default aspirational schoolboy machine, the promise of which was often used by richer pushy parents as an inducement to pass the 11-plus (a selective secondary education exam), typically had 26 x 1⅜-inch wheels with full mudguards, a 3-speed hub gear, so-called all-rounder handlebars (fairly flat and but not as straight as mountain bike bars), pedals incorporating rubber blocks for grip, a ‘hockey stick’ chain guard and a sprung mattress saddle. All the ‘brightwork’ metal components were made of chromium-plated steel and the frame would be finished in a bright colour, sometimes with a two-tone finish, with white flashes offsetting the main colour. It was a modern-looking compromise between your granddad’s heavy, big, black, sit-up-and-beg roadster and a proper tourer or racing bike. But it owed much more of its DNA to the roadster than to a racer.
So what did we three boys ride? Certainly not one of the above ‘sports bikes’. Martin rode a dark green Halfords own brand ‘racer’, which he borrowed from his older brother. It had 27 x 1¼-inch wheels, drop handlebars, a leather racing saddle, metal ‘rat-trap’ pedals and 10-speed derailleur gears. Nobody would have seriously raced on it, as all the components were down-market heavy steel but it looked quite flash. It was also a bit big for Martin but he coped with it very well.
At first glance, Tom’s machine looked similar to Martin’s, apart from the colour, which was silvery grey. It had the same size wheels, similar handlebars, pedals, saddle and gears but all lighter and better quality. Tom’s bike was ‘the real deal’; a proper clubman’s bike, with quality alloy components. Very few schoolboys owned such a machine, which would have represented about a month’s pay for many fathers. In fact, I can’t remember any other classmates or friends owning such a high quality bike. I think Tom’s was a Falcon, made in the days when that brand was a genuine builder of quality lightweights.
As for me, ever the non-conformist, I rode a colorado red Moulton Speed with chromium-plated mudguards, which I had bought on hire purchase in November 1964. This was a completely radical machine, with 16 x 1⅜-inch wheels, full suspension and a 4-speed hub gear. It had big low carriers fore and aft that could safely carry 70 pounds of luggage. It was not the Speedsix racing version or the Safari full-on tourer. It was, nonetheless, quite sporty, with a leather racing saddle, steel rat-trap pedals and down-turned all-rounder handlebars on a long forward extension which, to my adolescent mind seemed rather sexy. (An indication, perhaps, of how sad teenagers can be!)
For those who don’t know, the Moulton bicycle became a British icon of the 1960s. It first caught my attention late in 1962, when John Woodburn (whom years later I had the honour of getting to know) broke the Cardiff-London record on one. In the mid-1960s, Moulton production peaked at a thousand bikes a week. The new machine turned the British bicycle industry on its head, arresting a steep post-war decline in UK cycle production by reigniting interest in cycling, hitherto increasingly deemed an occupation of the poor and under-privileged. More than a decade after the Moulton was launched, the mighty Raleigh’s biggest seller was a small-wheeler produced in response to demand created by the Moulton.
The great thing about the Moulton from my point of view was its multifunction capability. It was my daily personal transport, getting me to and from school and everywhere else I needed to go – about 50 miles a week. It was pretty fast and I never lost any informal race on the way to or from school. It accelerated markedly faster than a conventional bike, which meant when the light turned green, I got away first. Importantly, its superb luggage carrying capability enabled me to carry two newspaper rounds on it, which is how I earned most of my money.
(Cue soulful violin …) My Dad gave me only a shilling (5 pence) a week pocket money and my paternal grandmother gave me two shillings (10 pence), but, with the paper rounds done on the Moulton, I literally cranked my income up to more than a pound a week. That was how I was able to pay for the Moulton and the Continental cycle tour. So the bike was at the hub of a virtuous circle: it helped me earn the money to escape the pleasant dullness of English suburbia and then provided the means of transport for that very escape. Not quite Steve McQueen jumping the barbed wire on his motorcycle but as near as I was going to get in 1966.
As this tale of the tour progresses, I’ll tell you more about how each of these bikes performed.
Day 2 – Monday 1st August 1966
I have no recollection whatsoever of eating anything between leaving home the previous morning and arriving in Belgium. I’m sure we would have taken home-made sandwiches with us and we probably bought chips in Dover. I’m not sure we could afford fish to go with the chips.
The ferry from Dover to Ostend, operated by the state-owned Belgian Marine, departed about half an hour after midnight. It was small by modern standards, one of the last cross-channel packet boats. That designation meant it was a passenger and light cargo vessel rather than a ‘roll-on-roll-off’ car ferry. Consequently, our bikes were heaped up on a pallet and we looked on with some trepidation as they were craned into the hold.
I wasn’t a great sailor and, for anyone having trouble with the rolling and pitching of the boat, the smoky interior was enough to make you want to throw up. So we went on deck, where the air was fresh, and joined a whole gang of European teenagers. This was great, as we had met very few ‘foreign’ youngsters previously. There were boys and girls from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Everybody was having a great time, chatting and listening to British pirate radio (Caroline or ‘Big L’) on ‘trannies’. (I should explain that, in those days, a ’tranny’ was a small portable wireless and not what it means today.)
We were very impressed at how well most of these friendly kids spoke English. I asked one Dutch guy how it was that he spoke English so fluently. He told me it was easy for him, because his parents only had a small TV. The Dutch broadcasters didn’t dub English-language films into Dutch; they merely added subtitles. But because the TV was small, he couldn’t read the sub-titles; he just absorbed English through watching TV.
After all our cycling, we really should have tried to get some sleep. But we were so excited that we just chatted all night. The crossing to Belgium took about four hours. The boat initially headed straight for the French coast and then sailed parallel with it, a few miles out to sea, until we came to Ostend. Or, as the locals would spell it in their native Flemish, Oostende – meaning East End.
It was not yet dawn as the packet boat approached Ostend harbour. It was a pretty place, with all the navigation beacons, the floodlit cathedral and the three-masted sailing ship Mercator also lit up. Mercator was named after the famous Flemish cartographer (he of Mercator’s projection and one of a surprisingly large number of famous Belgians). She was a training ship and scientific research vessel, designed in Belgium, built in Scotland and launched in 1932. Fifty years later, she’s still in Ostend harbour but is now a museum ship.
We didn’t have to adjust our watches for Belgian time, as in those days Belgium and other western European countries didn’t switch to Energy Saving Time from spring until autumn. The UK was on British Summer Time (an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time) which coincided with Central European Time, as used in Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany and many other countries.
Many of the ferry passengers went straight to the nearby railway station, from which you could travel direct to Vienna. Until the 1960s, you could even take a direct sleeper train from Ostend to Istanbul, as in the Graham Green novel ‘Stamboul Train’.
We, meanwhile, waited while our bikes were craned out of the hold. Fortunately, they had survived the crossing without damage and we were soon on the road. Straightaway, I was aware of those little differences that give countries their individual character. For example, the massive electricity pylons around the port were quite different in design to the British ones. Also, most of the roads were surfaced with the infamous Belgian pavé – rectangular stone blocks. But – wonder of wonders – there were proper cycle-paths almost everywhere. This was quite a boon, as we instantly had to come to terms with the fact that Belgium (in common with the rest of western Europe) drives on the right-hand side of the road. Whereas in the UK and Ireland, right is wrong when it comes to driving.
Ostend was linked to Brussels by one of Europe’s first motorways but, needless to say, bicycles weren’t allowed on it. So we followed the old main road to Brussels, using those very welcome cycle-paths. The dual suspension on my Moulton bicycle helped ensure a pretty smooth ride on the pavé. As we cycled away from Ostend, down the Torhout Steenweg (‘steenweg’ literally meaning ‘stone way’), the sun came up. It marked the start of what was to be a very long day. We soon noticed that every village had its name sign sponsored by the Belgian tyre maker Englebert, which was quite a neat idea.
The landscape of West Flanders was famously flat. Some people find flat landscape boring. But as I lived on a steep hill, in a hilly part of southern England, flatlands were a novelty for me and I found them interestingly different.
The first major town we came to was Bruges (Brugge in Flemish, meaning ‘bridges’). Back in the Middle Ages, this beautiful city was one of the four biggest in Europe. It was a major international trading centre, with close links to England and many other places. But gradually the inlet to the sea silted up and the town became commercially fossilised. (Much later a new port was built – Zeebrugge, meaning ‘Sea Bruges’.)
The medieval buildings were well built by the city’s once prosperous burghers and stood the test of time. So today Bruges is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. However, we didn’t have time to explore the place; we intended doing that on the way home. Today’s objective was to reach Brussels, which was still about 70 miles away. Also, our pace was continually dropping compared with the previous day. Our main priority in Bruges was to get something for breakfast as quickly and cheaply as possible, then get back on the road.
It was almost 7.00 in the morning when we arrived on the outskirts of the city. Some shopkeepers were already setting up for the day and by the time we reached the city centre, the wonderful bakeries and cake shops were open for business. What amazing cakes – so superior to what we were used to in England. Guess what we had for ‘brekkers’!
Soon, we were on our way out of Bruges, following the signs for Brussels. A few miles south of the city, we cycled up a ramp onto a smooth dual carriageway – a nice change from the pavé we had been riding on before. Almost immediately, we were pulled over by the ‘Politie’. Why? Because we’d inadvertently got ourselves onto the Ostend-Brussels motorway! The Flemish policeman was polite but firm and we had to push our bikes back to the slip road, cycle back into Bruges, then find the old road for Ghent and Brussels. We must have lost half an hour or more due to that mistake.
Once we were on the right road, we cruised steadily eastwards, heading next for Ghent (Gent in Flemish, Gand in French), about 30 miles away. As we moved from the province of West Flanders into East Flanders, the landscape remained flat. (A Belgian province is equivalent to an English county.) The sun shone brightly, there was not a hint of rain and I’m sure we were aided by the prevailing south-westerly winds. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and my arms turned brown that morning and stayed that way for years, the tan topped up by further cycling.
In the countryside and villages, apart from charming old farmhouses that could have come from an old Flemish landscape painting, we noticed many fine post-war houses. The standard of housebuilding seemed high and most new houses looked as if they were architect-designed. The brickwork differed from the British style, many of the bricks being less tall and sometimes longer. Apart from the normal pinks and reds, they were often in a shade of buff or yellow. It was the Flemings who re-introduced bricks to England in the Middle Ages. The Romans used brick in Britain but the Anglo-Saxons didn’t. Any decent English bricklayer will build you a wall in Flemish bond.
Another feature of Flemish houses was the big TV aerial rigs. It may seem odd today but, back in the 1960s, European countries typically had between one and three TV channels each. But people in Belgium, a small state surrounded by other countries, could usually pick up at least some of the neighbouring states’ programmes. So a typical Flemish house had a mast about 10 feet high mounted on the ridge of the roof and guyed back to the four corners of the roof. Atop this mast (usually a vertical lattice beam) was a stepper motor with a big array of antennas, capable of receiving all TV bands. Inside the house, next to the TV, would be a box with the points of the compass on it and a knob. If you wanted to watch Dutch TV, you turned the knob to ‘North’ and the antenna rotated to face the Netherlands. If you wanted French TV, you turned the knob to ‘South’. And, if you lived near the coast, you could try ‘West’ and you might get British TV. Naturally, you could also get Belgian TV. These big aerial rigs were almost standard in Flanders in the pre-cable era and would probably have cost more than the TV. But there were not many other places in Europe where viewers had a choice of up to a dozen channels – provided they could understand French, Dutch and English. Many Flemings could.
Another common feature of Belgian houses was an aspidistra in the front window. In Britain, aspidistras were completely out of fashion by the 1960s, a symbol of a bygone, dusty and old-fashioned age. They were mentioned in comic songs sung by Noël Coward and Gracie Fields. But in Flanders aspidistras were prospering in the 1960s.
About halfway between Bruges and Ghent, we were getting very thirsty. In those days, it was quite normal for a stranger to knock on someone’s door and ask for a glass a water. So that’s what we did. A very friendly Flemish lady, about 40 years old, came to the door. We made our request in English, as we had no Flemish/Dutch and I knew that Flemings could be offended if you addressed them in French. (I’ll explain why in a later digression.) The kind lady quenched our thirst and wished us a good journey. It occurred to me that she would have been our age – a teenager – when British soldiers of our parents’ generation liberated her country from the Nazi occupation. When you are young, 22 years seems a very long time. But as you get older, it’s like only yesterday. I think that memories of 1944 accounted to quite a large extent for the kindness and friendliness we received from older Belgian people in 1966.
It must have been about midday or later when we reached Ghent, another beautiful and well-preserved medieval Flemish city, with long cultural and trading links to England. (For example, John of Gaunt means John of Ghent and he got married in our hometown of Reading!) We stopped at a cafe for refreshments and were aware that, although we were under age to buy alcohol in England, in Belgium we were not. I’m not sure whether we actually drank anything alcoholic on that occasion. Maybe a cheeky little pilsner lager? But I suspect we stuck mostly to soft drinks, as we still had 30 miles or more to ride and it was a hot day.
Through the afternoon we cycled on towards Brussels. Fatigue was really showing now and our speed was dropping more and more. We passed from East Flanders into the province of Brabant. The landscape became more rolling and the farming emphasis shifted from smallish fields with cows, horse and pigs to market gardening.
In the early evening, we finally reached the western outskirts of Brussels. It was quite a thrill to experience this large city with its wide boulevards. I particularly remember a big poster that we saw several times on the gable ends of buildings. It showed a huge steam engine puffing out black clouds of smoke. The poster proudly proclaimed that ‘this source of pollution has now been eliminated’. Belgium, the first country in mainland Europe to have a steam railway, had just scrapped mainline steam engines, two years before the UK. Steam clearly held no romanticism in the eyes of the Belgian government.
That poster appeared in both Flemish and French versions, highlighting the fact that the Belgian capital – historically Flemish and surrounded by Flemish speaking Brabant – was officially bi-lingual. There was a big struggle going on between the more extreme supporters of the two languages. Road signs in Brussels showed place names in both languages. So the road to Liège (French) was signed also as Luik (Flemish). But often, one or other of the campaigning groups would paint out the other version. In the worst tit-for-tat cases, both versions of the place name were sprayed out! Brussels itself, needless to say, has two names: Brussel in Flemish and Bruxelles in French.
I was the navigator for this tour, so I now had recourse to a street map of Brussels, procured in advance, to find our ultimate destination, in the south-east of the city. We were getting quite close to journey’s end when, as we passed the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the Common Market, Martin’s chain came off. It was not the sort of problem we needed after all that travelling, but it was quickly and easily rectified. Also during our time in Brussels (I’m not sure precisely where and when), Tom dented one of his alloy wheel rims on a tram track, but the damage was not bad enough to hold us back.
For overnight accommodation on the tour, we were generally relying on youth hostels. However, our parish priest (a friend of my parents) had suggested making use of ‘monastic hospitality’. I was amazed when he first suggested this. I knew that, in the Middle Ages, travellers could knock on the door of an abbey and ask for basic accommodation at little or no cost. But I had no idea you could still do it. The priest assured me you could, so I wrote to the Belgian Tourist Office in London and asked for a list of monasteries that might provide such a service. I don’t think they were convinced that it would work but they nonetheless provided a list of about half a dozen places. One was a seminary (a training college for priests) at 205 Chaussée du Wavre in Brussels. (That’s 205 Wavre Straat in Flemish. All places in Brussels have French and Flemish names but from hereon I’ll stick to the French for simplicité.)
So, almost exactly 36 hours and 211 miles of cycling after leaving Reading, and with no sleep on the way, we arrived on the doorstep of a Catholic seminary. A rather puzzled concierge came to the door. He had no English, so we explained in schoolboy French what we wanted. He went off, still looking puzzled, and fetched a priest, a very nice chap called Father Wolf. Yes, of course, he said, come on in!
The students were all on vacation, which meant that the dormitories were empty. We were given free range to sleep there. Better yet, we were invited to join the priests for supper after we had freshened up.
At supper, there were about a dozen clergy sat at a big refectory table. They were all very well-educated people; professors of theology and that sort of thing. Some had travelled extensively. I was particularly impressed that Father Wolf, whom I think had worked in the USA, knew how to pronounce Reading properly! Most non-native English-speakers pronounce it like ‘reading’.
These venerable Belgian clergymen treated us three scruffy and exhausted English teenagers very well. There was no condescension at all and they shared their valuable local knowledge on how best to get about the city.
Having eaten a fine supper, we three exhausted lads headed for bed. We were exhausted but also elated at how well we had done. And tomorrow we were going to explore Brussels.
Digression No.2 – language
Although there has been a region called Belgium for a very long time, the present-day Kingdom of Belgium dates back only to 1838-9, when Belgium broke away from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. (It’s rather like how the Republic of Ireland broke away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1922.)
Belgium has two main parts: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. There is also a small German-speaking area in the east, appropriated from Germany after World War 1. Dutch, French and German are all official languages of Belgium.
The capital, Brussels, was historically a Flemish city. However, over the centuries, French became the language of the ruling classes. Today, Brussels, though surrounded by Flemish-speaking Flanders, is officially bi-lingual. In practice, more of its inhabitants speak French as their first language than Flemish.
One of the factors that united the Flemings and the Walloons against the Netherlands was Catholicism. Belgium had a reputation until quite recently for being one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in Europe, on a par with how the Irish Republic was until the last few decades. Today, however, Belgium is one of the most secular nations in Europe.
Flemish is a form of Dutch and all Flemings can understand mainstream Dutch, which is taught in the Flemish schools and used in most formal publishing and broadcasting in Flanders. The difference between formal Dutch as spoken in the Netherlands and that spoken in Belgium is rather like the difference between standard British English and American English. There are differences of accent, idiom and vocabulary but the two forms of Dutch are mutually intelligible. However, what is spoken at home in a local dialect is something else altogether!
There is a cross-border organisation that ‘manages’ the evolution of Dutch; rather as the Académie française does for French but in a more sensible and pragmatic way. For example, soon after Word War 2, the Dutch and Belgians agreed to reform and simplify the spelling of Dutch. So, for example, the Flemish place name Passchendaele, familiar to students of World War 1 military history, is now spelled Passendal, representing better how it is now pronounced and saving quite a bit of ink.
In the newly formed Belgium of the 19th century, Flanders was an economically backward rural area. French-speaking Wallonia had coal and iron and became dominant during the industrial revolution. This economic supremacy, coupled with the ruling class’s use of French, made Flemish speakers second class citizens. Flemish was rejected not only by the government but by the army, the universities and the church. It took a long struggle, lasting into the 20th century, by Flemish artists, intellectuals and politicians to achieve equal status for their language. That was why Flemings might take offence if a foreigner sailed up to them and started talking to them in French. It was the assumption by foreigners that Flemings should understand French, coupled with the implication that French was Belgium’s first language, that was galling. In practice, most Flemings would have at least some knowledge of French and many were (and are) fully bi-lingual.
When we were in Belgium in the 1960s, the balance between the Flemings and the Walloons seemed fairly equal. However, over the next few decades, Wallonia rapidly lost its economic supremacy, as the old heavy industries became increasingly unprofitable. Meanwhile, Flanders modernised effectively, providing a welcoming home for new industries. Soon Flanders, which also outbred Wallonia, was the economically dominant part of Belgium.
Back in 1966, I realised that a lot of Flemish/Dutch words were very similar to their English equivalents, at least when written down. (It helped that we’d been studying Chaucer at school, because Middle English is even closer to Dutch.) For example, bread and butter in Dutch is brood en boter. The Dutch and Flemish live in a huis and enter through a deur. A Dutch or Flemish family might comprise a moeder, vader, zoon en dochter. We have summer and winter, whereas they have zomer en winter. We have water and mist and so do they. We might have a cat and a hound; they could have a kat and a hond. The kat could drink melk that comes from a kou.
However, the Dutch/Flemish pronunciation can sometimes mask these written similarities. Moreover, the pronunciation varies noticeably about every 6 miles as you travel east; so much so, that conversational West Flemish is often subtitled on TV so that Flemings further east can understand it. That’s comparable with Holby City (a soap opera set in the Bristol area) being subtitled so that people in Oxford could understand it!
It has been said that, if the Normans had not invaded England and injected so much French into Anglo-Saxon, English and Dutch would today be mutually comprehensible, in the same way that Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are.
Day 3 – Tuesday 2nd August 1966
On Tuesday morning, we awoke in the seminary dormitory, having slept very well indeed. We’d been invited (but not compelled) to attend a morning service in the chapel just down the corridor and it would have been churlish to have refused. I can’t remember much about it but I think it was a short and simple Mass.
One thing I can recall is that the chapel had ‘prayer-seats’. Unlike English churches, which tend to have traditional pews or chairs that clip together, these had a small, low seat and a tall back. You could sit on them in the normal way but when it came to a part of the service where the congregation kneeled, you picked up the chair (quite light) and spun it round through 180 degrees. You then knelt on the low seat and leaned forward on the backrest. These chairs were quite common in Belgium and France. I’ve heard them described as prie-dieu (pray-God) but a true prie-dieu is a prayer desk with a low kneeler and cannot be rotated to double as a seat.
Having been spiritually uplifted, it was breakfast time. Two things stick in my mind. Firstly, the coffee was excellent (proper ground coffee, not the indifferent instant variety common then in England) and it was drunk out of a bowl. Secondly, the milk bottle on the table bore the phrases ‘rincez moi’ (French) and ‘spoel mij uit’ (Flemish), meaning ‘rinse me out’. It’s funny how such odd little details stick in the mind.
One thing we travellers lived in fear of was ‘tummy bugs’. In those days, many Brits were very suspicious even of foreign tap water. (It was an article of faith, not entirely founded on fact, that only the British could do plumbing and drainage properly.) However, this was the 1960s and science had an answer for everything – or so we were told. Science’s answer to stomach upsets was not a traditional ‘after the event’ medication, such as kaolin and morphine (aka ‘concrete mixture’). Instead, the modern savvy traveller used a preventive medicine, taken daily while away on holiday. It was called Entero Vioform and everyone thought it was wonderful. I therefore religiously took my daily dose, despite the stuff being quite pricey.
However, some years later the active ingredient was linked to a massive outbreak in Japan of a serious disease of the nervous system. In most western countries, Entero Vioform was taken off the market. Today, we would tend to use Immodium, an ‘after the event’ medication developed, by happy coincidence, in Belgium.
So, having prayed, breakfasted, over-dosed on caffeine and protected ourselves from ‘the trots’, we three lads set off to explore Brussels. Although the Common Market then comprised only six countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, West Germany and Italy), Brussels was already being described as ‘the capital of Europe’ and we were keen to have a look at it. Thanks to the directions given to us by the priests, we easily got to the city centre. We left the bikes behind, preferring to use a mix of public transport and walking.
By then, we were coming to terms with Belgian money. There were 140 Belgian Francs to the British pound, which in those days comprised 20 shillings, each divided into 12 pence, each divided into 2 halfpennies. So a Belgian Franc was worth about 1.7 old pennies or 0.7 of today’s pence. ATMs, credit and debit cards as we now know them did not exist in Europe at this time (Barclaycard was launched in the UK that same year but only for the seriously rich), so we took a mixture of Travellers Cheques and cash.
We walked down the Mont des Arts and past the Royal Palace opposite the Parc de Bruxelles. Then we visited the famous Grand-Place. As Google succinctly puts it, the Grand-Place is a ‘huge city square completely encircled by elegant historic buildings dating back to the 14th century.’ It is, in fact, one of the most impressive medieval squares in the world, a real feast for the eyes. You can look up at any of the buildings and see innumerable subtle and elegant decorative features, such as carvings and weather vanes, many of them brightly gilded. It’s worth visiting just to stand there and look around. And it’s even better if you’ve first read up about the square’s amazing history. So many nations have occupied or controlled Belgium – Dutch, Spanish, Burgundians, French, Austrians, British and Germans – and anyone controlling the country needed to control this square.
Just off the Grand-Place is the famous Manneken Pis, a tiny 400-year-old bronze statue of a little lad peeing. (Manneken is Dutch for ‘little man’ and ‘pis’ needs no translation.) He’s the mascot of Brussels and has a whole exotic wardrobe of different uniforms and outfits which he wears for special events.
We spent quite a time wandering around the city centre, looking at the different kinds of shops and eateries – all very exotic if you lived in post-war suburban Reading. I made one significant purchase – my first ever 45rpm vinyl record. It was an ex-jukebox copy of ‘Wooly Bully’ by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, recorded in Memphis the previous year. Maybe buying my first record in Brussels was a portent, because from 1972 to 1974 I appeared every week on Belgian national radio introducing a new British single that I predicted would be a hit. But, of course, as a 17-year-old I had no idea that would happen!
Having had a brief introduction to the heart of Brussels, we set off by tram to the north of the city, to visit the Atomium. This is Brussels’ answer to the Eiffel Tower and was completed in 1958 for the World Fair, Expo 1958, as the main pavilion. The Atomium was therefore only 8 years old when we visited it. It’s an impressive and unique structure, about 340 feet high, comprising nine interconnected spheres, and representing an iron crystal enlarged 165 billion times. I’ve always found it ironic that the Atomium, modelled on an iron atom, is clad in aluminium. Anyway, it was well worth a visit, as the views from the top are amazing. On a clear day you can see all over the city and as far away as Antwerp.
Today, when youngsters go travelling, they can easily keep in touch with home via mobile phones, email and any number of apps on the internet. But back in 1966, there were no mobile phones and many families did not even have a phone at home. Moreover, the cost and difficulty of making international calls meant that they were only used in extreme emergencies. Nonetheless, despite the amazing trust placed by my parents in their 17-year-old son, I felt obliged to set their minds at rest as best I could regarding our progress. So I used the technology of the day – the postcard – sending four during the course of a fortnight.
Postcards also provided a practical and affordable way of getting images of the places we visited. Today, it’s easy and almost cost-free to bring back hundreds or even thousands of digital images from a holiday. But back then, film was expensive and I could only afford one Agfa-Gevaert 12-shot slide film for the whole holiday. I borrowed my brother’s Ilford Sport 4 camera, which was designed for use by kids and had just one adjustment – ‘sunny’ or ’cloudy’. It took large square colour transparencies on 127 format film.
From hereon, I’ll be including the postcards I bought and the photos I took on this tour.
Day 4 – Wednesday 3rd August 1966
On Wednesday morning, after another fine breakfast, we bid farewell to our hosts at the seminary. We offered to pay for our stay but Father Wolf very kindly said that this was not necessary. What a welcoming and encouraging start to our tour! I mentioned in my next postcard home that we had been given two days of ‘hotel-standard accommodation’ free of charge. Our parish priest had been right: monastic hospitality for passing travellers did still exist!
Tom, Martin and I now headed south, our aim being to spend the night at a youth hostel in Namur. The plan from hereon was to cycle about 30 to 45 miles a day, usually staying just one night in each place. Thus we could set out each day after breakfast, cycle to our destination by lunchtime, and then spend the rest of the day and evening exploring.
The weather, good ever since we left home, continued to be fine as we headed south through suburban Brussels. We briefly passed through a rural Flemish-speaking area just south of the bi-lingual city. Then we crossed the great linguistic divide: not just between Belgium’s Flemings and Walloons but between the whole Germanic language group (Dutch, German, English, etc) and the Latin-derived Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc). The strange thing about this border (which in those days was relatively unmarked) is that it simply runs through rolling open countryside. There is no range of mountains or mighty river separating the two tongues. It just seems that the lasting linguistic influence of the Roman Empire, as it expanded northwards, petered out in these Belgian fields, in a more or less straight line running (originally) from somewhere south of Calais to Aachen in Germany.
The most surprising thing to me is how static over hundred of years that linguistic boundary has been. Only in France, where Parisian French has been (and continues to be) firmly imposed on people who would otherwise speak local languages (such as Provençal, Picard, Flemish or Breton), has the boundary shifted significantly, and that has happened only in the last century or so. The area in question is around Dunkerque and Calais, from which Flemish has been all but eliminated. You have only to look at the placenames on a map to see where Flemish was once spoken: for example, Dunkerque is just a Frenchified version of Duinkerke, which is Flemish for Dune Church.
The linguistic divide also formed the border between the Flemish-speaking province of Brabant and the French speaking province of Namur. Today, Belgium is federalised, and that border is much more distinct. Flanders and Wallonia are significantly more independent of each other than when we visited in 1966, which was only three years after the language boundary was given legal status.
After about 10 miles of cycling, we passed through the village of Waterloo and, a mile or two later, we arrived at the monument commemorating the famous eponymous battle. This was where our very own Duke of Wellington and his Prussian ally Blücher defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, 151 years earlier, in 1815. (Cue Beethoven…)
We had some knowledge of the battle from school history lessons but Martin became a real Waterloo enthusiast as a result of this trip. Over the years to come, he visited the battlefield and its environs many times.
The battle is commemorated by an artificial mound, more than 140 feet high, surmounted by a 31 ton statue of a lion, cast in sections in Liège and assembled in Brussels. In those days, the visitor centre below the mound had the tacky look of a downmarket seaside resort and we did not hang around too long. We were soon on the road, continuing our journey across the gently undulating countryside. Passing through the famous Quatre Bras crossroads, we cycled on to Namur. We reached the town by early afternoon, having cycled a total of 40 or so miles.
Now we were in very different and more dramatic countryside, on the edge of the Ardennes hills. Namur (Namen in Flemish) is at the confluence of the major rivers Sambre and Meuse (the latter known as the Maas in Flanders and the Netherlands). The town was a strategically important location for Belgium and had been besieged within living memory (by the germans in 1914).
In fact, the confluence of the rivers has been defended by a citadel for more than a thousand years. In its present form, the fortress owes much to a 17th-century rebuild by the Dutch. It remained in service until the late 19th century, when it was superseded by a ring of new forts around the town. It’s open to the public and offers great views over the town. It also looks imposing when viewed from the opposite bank of the river Meuse, in the town.
The youth hostel was beside the Meuse, within easy walking distance of the citadel. We booked in and found the atmosphere and regime very similar to the friendly English hostels. (I’d done a hostel-based cycle tour of Berkshire, Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey two years earlier, when I was 15 years old, with another school friend, Paul Maclean.) The main difference was that Belgian hostels would accommodate petrol-powered travellers, whereas English hostels only took hikers and cyclists.
My most vivid memory of Namur is seeing the citadel floodlit at night with the river reflecting the lights of the town below. At an age when I had not yet even had a girlfriend, I thought that it would be a very romantic location to bring a young lady. Decades later, my wife and I spent a night in the town, having driven over from England. It may have taken a long time but I did finally get round to it.
Another less romantic memory is of trying to get to sleep in the hostel dormitory. I guess there were something like eight lads, including ourselves, in the room. We spoke various languages but one thing everybody understood was animal impersonations. Somehow, after lights out, an impromptu animal noise contest broke it. It lasted quite a time and was very puerile. But it was also an absolute hoot, in every sense. Well, you’re only 17 once.
Day 5 – Thursday 4th August 1966
Our next destination was Liège, the capital of Wallonia. In some ways, it was the Belgian equivalent of Manchester crossed with Sheffield: a thoroughly industrialised steel-making city that was also a major cultural hub. Foundries belched smoke just a mile or two from the museums, university and opera house. A city that was home to the religious and those who hated religion; where the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi was first celebrated yet where the original cathedral was destroyed by revolutionaries.
The whole 40-mile journey from Namur was along the south bank of the Meuse. It was a visually attractive and quite rural route. But it was busy, being the main highway between Liège and rest of the Sambre-Meuse industrial region to the west of Namur.
I had never visited an ‘old school’ coal and steel city before: there were no such places in my part of England. Liège was certainly big, very industrial and quite badly polluted: from a distance you could see a orangey-grey sulphurous haze over the city, and the buildings were blackened by a century or more of pollution. Nonetheless, the old parts of the city had a certain gallic dignity. There were some fine buildings, reminiscent of Paris as seen in TV adaptations of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. And that’s quite apt, as Georges Simenon – one of the most prolific and biggest selling authors of the 20th century – was a native of Liège (and, of course, another famous Belgian).
Liège has a very long history and was by no means created by the industrial revolution that it espoused so effectively. The first written reference to the city is in the 6th century. It became the capital of a prince-bishopric, which lasted for 800 years until late 1700s. In rapid succession it became an independent republic, then Austrian, French, Dutch and finally Belgian.
Here’s a little piece of trivia about the name Liège. British people, myself included, often pronounce the name as if it had an acute accent over the ‘e’ – giving a long ‘e’ sound. Until the 19th century, it was indeed spelled Liége, to reflect that pronunciation. But the locals gradually adopted a shorter ‘e’ and so the spelling was officially altered to Liège in official French.
There is also a distinctive (but rapidly dying) French-related Walloon language, in which the city is call Lidje. In Dutch the name is Luik and in German Lüttich: the Netherlands and Germany are but a short drive away. Confused? You certainly can be when travelling in the area. Whenever you cross the now almost unnoticeable open borders, the spelling of the direction signs changes.
In Liège, we couldn’t find a youth hostel affiliated to the International Youth Hostels Association but there was a conveniently central student hostel, the Maison des Jeunes (Young People’s House), which filled the gap very well. I remember ordering a cup of coffee soon after we arrived there. The guy on the bar could only offer Nescafé instant coffee and was very apologetic about this shortcoming. I had to smile, because in our household, Nescafé was regarded as something of a luxury, especially if it was the ‘Blend 37 Continental’ variety (Saturday mornings only).
Before setting out from England, I had asked my Mum if there was anything she would like me to get her as a little gift. She had mentioned a perfume called Molyneux Numéro Cinq. I knew nothing of it and tried in vain to find it in the sophisticated perfume shops of Liège. In fact, I never ever found any anywhere. I learned many years later that it was created in the 1920s and was known as ‘the other No.5’; the famous one being, of course, by Coco Chanel.
My recollection is that, after walking round the city centre, we went to bed fairly early. Tomorrow another country beckoned: we were heading for West Germany. We mustn’t talk about the war, even though our parents never stopped talking about it. And especially, Tom, we mustn’t talk about that football match you attended at Wembley, less than a week ago.
But, joking apart, what could possibly go wrong for us in Germany?
Day 6 – Friday 5th August 1966
The weather on Friday morning was again pleasant. In fact, we hadn’t had a bad day since leaving home the previous Sunday. We cycled off from the student hostel in Liège, through the city centre, towards Aachen. We were excited by the thought of visiting another country, West Germany.
Our target was Aachen, the famous German spa and border town, known historically to the British by its French name, Aix-la-Chapelle. Indeed, I was aware of Robert Browning’s poem ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, which was popular with my parents’ generation. We too were travelling from Ghent (which we passed through on Day 2) to Aix but by a rather less direct route.
Aachen was only 27 miles from Liège. We intended staying just one night but, with such a short journey, we planned to spend the afternoon exploring the historic city. It was once the residence of Charlemagne (Charles the Great), king of the Franks. Later, kings of Germany were crowned there. We were particularly keen to visit the famous cathedral.
As Liège stands at the confluence of the rivers Meuse, Ourthe and Vesdre, in the north-east corner of the Ardennes hills, the road to Aachen involves a very long and quite steep climb, away from the rivers, almost as soon as you start the journey. The climb sticks in my mind as the toughest of the entire tour and it felt as if it went on for about five miles at an almost constant steep gradient. In reality, it may have been more like two miles, but it was one hell of a drag and not good for morale first thing after breakfast. However, the view from the top, back towards Liège, did give an impressive view of the city and the smoggy orange-grey industrial haze hanging over it.
Once we had climbed out of the valley, we were in high rolling countryside. Near Battice, I stopped and took this photograph, which shows the view looking towards the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which lies about 40 miles to the south. The area is known as Hautes Fagnes in French, Hohes Venn in German or the High Fens in English.
This is another area of competing languages, jostling elbow to elbow. We were still just in French-speaking Wallonia but a few miles south was Belgium’s German-speaking area and just a few miles to the north lay the Netherlands. There is said to be a small village in this region where the language spoken depends on the quarter the person lives in. It’s probably a myth but very close to reality.
About 40 years after I took that photo, I was contacted by a Liège-based engineering student for technical advice about Sturmey-Archer gears. By happy coincidence, the bike I rode on that tour had a Sturmey-Archer FW 4-speed gear. I sent him a copy of the photo and, amazingly, he tracked down the location and re-took it. There were some signs of modernisation but it was pleasantly surprising how little had changed.
In that same area, we stopped at a little shop and bought some boiled sweets (or, as Americans would say, ‘hard candy’). We noticed that the colours were much less bright than equivalent British sweets. We guessed this was because the Belgians used less artificial colouring. The sweets looked a lot less interesting than British ones but they tasted fine.
Whilst on the subject of confectionery, as the tour progressed we discovered that Mars bars varied from country to country. I’m talking here not of the American Mars bar (unique to the USA) but the international version, invented in the 1920s by a member of the Mars family in Slough, England (not far from my hometown, Reading) and sold around the world. We found that the balance of chocolate to caramel to nougat varied slightly, depending on whether you bought the Mars bar in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands or Britain. Sadly, whilst there is a living to be made as a wine expert, there is no financial future for a Mars bar connoisseur.
We also noticed that, like the UK at that time, customers paid a deposit on glass bottles, which was reimbursed when the ‘empty’ was returned to the shop. However, in Belgium there was also a deposit on other glass containers, such as jam jars.
For an hour or more, it was a pleasant ride through the gently undulating Ardennes countryside. Just before the West German border, we were amused to pass through a village called La Calamine. In those days, calamine lotion was found in many a British bathroom cabinet or medical chest. It’s based on a zinc compound and was the universal panacea for sunburn and skin rashes. The village, also known as Kelmis in German, got its name from the mining of the zinc ore used in calamine lotion.
It must have been about noon as we approached the West German border. I recall a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I had read a lot about Germany, a country I found fascinating and admirable in so many ways – the culture, history, landscape, architecture, work ethic and technological ingenuity. But also, there was the shadow of World War 2, which anyone of my generation could not entirely escape. I was born four years after the war ended, but my early years were dominated by the after-effects of the war – rationing, austerity and the older generation’s comments about Germany.
Those comments were by no means all anti-German. There was a recognition that we Brits were a lot like the Germans, with many genetic and cultural links. There was also great admiration of German technology and of West Germany’s post-war economic recovery. It was often said (and sometimes still is) that Britain won the war but lost the peace: the conflict ruined Britain financially and it took us 60 years to pay back the USA for the money we borrowed to fight the war. So we Brits had this mental baggage regarding the Germans: a mixture of admiration and respect coupled with incomprehension as to how Hitler had been allowed to go so far. As a naive 17-year-old, I found it all rather puzzling but very interesting.
It was important, to bear in mind that, following post-war partition, there were two Germanys: the Federal Republic of Germany (which we called West Germany) and, behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, the communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany). And, entirely surrounded by East Germany, was Berlin, the former German capital, itself divided into Western and Eastern zones by the infamous Berlin Wall, erected five years earlier.
Entering the Federal Republic of Germany, we would also have to come to terms with another currency. Farewell (temporarily) to the Belgian franc, at 140 to the British pound, with each of its centimes worth a mere 0.017 of an old penny. Now we needed the Deutschmark, the West German mark. There were just over 11 marks to the pound and each mark comprised 100 pfennigs. So a mark was worth approximately 1 shilling and 10 old pence (£0.09) and a pfennig was worth about 0.22 of an old penny. (Trivia gem: In Tudor times, England had its own mark, which was worth two-thirds of a pound. Not a lot of people know that!)
As we approached the border between Belgium and West Germany, it was very clear that we were entering another country. I have a recollection of tall, dark trees (cue Grimms’ Fairy Tales) and telecommunications or reconnaissance masts on the German side of the border. Just a hint of Mordor. Anyway, we were allowed in without any problems and were soon cycling downhill on a very smart and modern concrete cycle path, bordered by grass. We were now in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Federal Republic of Germany’s most populous state. All seemed to be going well, very well, perhaps too well…
With typically teutonic attention to detail, the top of the cut grass was level with the concrete surface. This looked very neat but spelled disaster. In a moment of inattention, Tom let his front wheel go off the concrete and onto the grass. Instinctively, he steered back onto the concrete. This would have been a good idea but for the fact that, for the top of the grass to be level with the concrete, the earth had to be several inches lower. So the lightweight alloy wheel rim crashed into the sharp edge of the concrete and bent Tom’s wheel. Tom was unhurt but the wheel now would not turn, so the bike was unrideable.
There was only one course of action open to us: walk a couple of miles into Aachen, dragging the damaged bike, and find a cycle mechanic to fix the wheel. This we did and the bike shop we found did a good job, quickly and at a reasonable price. The owner and his assistant were also very interested in my Moulton; they came out of the shop and spent some time examining it and discussing it. Meanwhile, I was amazed to see in their shop window that some new German roadsters still had plunger brakes, with a brake block pushing down onto the front tyre. Such crude brakes had not been used on British bikes for maybe 60 years.
With Tom’s bike fixed, we went in search of something to eat. We found a wonderful-looking cake shop and I bought a piece of chocolate cake. It looked really tasty and had been steeped in rum or brandy. To my surprise, I found it quite disgusting and completely inedible. In fact, for some time after, the very thought of my first bite of German cake made me feel queasy.
Now, to add to our woes, the weather broke. After a lovely sunny morning, we endured a thunderstorm – the proverbial donner und blitzung – and for the rest of the day showers came and went. We had lost a lot of time, so we decided it would be best to get our accommodation sorted out before doing anything else. The plan was to stay a night in the Aachen youth hostel.
It was my father who got me interested in youth hostelling. He had done it as a young man in the inter-war years. He told me about how youth hostelling was a great German idea. He even had a booklet about the German origins of youth hostelling. We therefore had a belief and expectation that German youth hostels would be like the English ones but so much better. Now we would find out.
It was about 2.30 in the afternoon when we arrived at the Aachen hostel. It was massive, very modern and rather impersonal; more reminiscent architecturally of a 1960s British secondary school than the small, cosy and domestic-scale English hostels with which I was familiar. A big surprise was seeing a huge modern motor coach in the car park, which had arrived full of well-dressed German schoolchildren and their well-dressed teachers.
We made our way to the reception area and approached the enquiries position. There was a member of staff working in the office. We indicated to him that we wanted to book in. He scowled and indicated that the office did not open until 4.00. So we had to wait for an hour and a half.
This we did, in the company of a small number of people in the same position as ourselves: people from around the world who looked like ‘real’ hostellers. Meanwhile, well-dressed teachers and schoolchildren swanned in and out. This was plainly an environment tuned to their needs, not to traditional hostellers.
With typical German efficiency, on the dot of 4.00pm, the official open the enquiry window. Hurray, we thought, now we could book our stay. But, what’s this? He tells everyone that the hostel is fully booked up. Plainly, he knew this when we arrived 90 minutes earlier. Welcome to German bureaucracy, inflexibility and schadenfreude – defined as ‘pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune’.
So, the afternoon was almost over. The combination of the crash and being messed about by the hostel management meant we were not going to see the sites of Aachen. But we still needed somewhere to sleep.
The suburbs of Aachen spread right up to the Dutch border and we knew there was another hostel, just over the border in Vaals. We decided to give it a try and cycled off in that direction. After two or three miles, we crossed the Dutch border, notching up our third country of the day, and soon reached the hostel. There we were greeted by a very friendly and accessible warden, but sadly, his hostel was also full. ‘I wish I had a hundred beds,’ he said. This was turning out to be quite a bad day. Was this somehow Germany’s revenge for the decisions of the referee in last Saturday’s soccer World Cup Final?
What to do? As a long-stop, we had brought a three-man tent with us, but we had no sleeping bags other than the thin sheet ones required by youth hostels to save them from laundering sheets. We decided we would have to find a barn to sleep in or somewhere to pitch a tent. It was now about 5.00pm, it was raining much of the time, and the sky was heavily overcast.
Martin had a small methylated spirits stove but no fuel. It seemed a good idea to get some and eventually we managed to buy some brennspiritus, which we discovered was the German name for meths.
We crossed back into West Germany and headed in the general direction of Cologne (Köln), our next planned stop. It was so wet at times that we had to wear our waterproof capes and sou’westers, which made cycling that much drier but also more awkward. As we rode across the flat but wind-swept Cologne Lowland (as this area is known), we were surrounded by huge fields of cereal crops in the foreground and mining machinery on the horizon. We kept an eye open for farmhouses but didn’t get any response from the first one we tried. Maybe the occupants were cowering behind their curtains in fear of this strange trio of tired, hungry, thirst and anxious foreign teenagers.
Eventually, about 7.30 in the evening, near the village of Gürzenich, a few miles from the town of Düren, we struck lucky. We found a farm inhabited by some of the friendliest people you could hope to meet. I think the house was divided into two parts, as the people seemed to comprise two families, possibly related. These friendly folk took us in and allowed us to take over a corner of their barn. They sold us some fresh eggs which we must have boiled for supper, using Martin’s meths stove.
The idea of spending a night in a barn may sound very attractive, if you have in mind a warm, enclosed building with lots of soft, clean hay to nestle into. Something straight out of an Enid Blyton novel. However, this barn, on the windy lowland, was open-sided and contained only machine-compressed straw, which was about as soft as chipboard. There was no way you could nestle into that. With no sleeping bags, and only a small tent to lay over the three of us as a makeshift blanket, this was going to be a challenging night.
Day 7 – Saturday 6th August 1966
In the early hours of Saturday, I found myself awake and almost delirious. I was desperately thirsty. But in the draughty barn, on the dark Cologne Lowland, we had nothing to drink.
The previous day had been very arduous. Instead of an easy 27 mile ride followed by an interesting afternoon sightseeing and a night in a world-class youth hostel, we had faced one challenge after another. The longest, hardest climb of the tour; Tom’s crash, the walk into Aachen and getting the bike fixed; the thunder and rain; being messed about by the Aachen youth hostel management; the excursion into the Netherlands in the unsuccessful quest for accommodation; and the stressful, gloomy and wet ride east, in search of somewhere to stay for the night. Amongst all that hassle, we had not eaten well, and I had drunk far too little. I was now badly dehydrated.
I was also probably feeling the effects of Gilbert’s Syndrome, a genetic condition I did not know I had until 32 years later. A lot of people (mostly males) have Gilbert’s Syndrome. It tends to manifest itself in the teenage years. There’s no money to be made out of studying it or creating pharmaceuticals to treat it, so the medical and scientific world largely ignores it. Many doctors and nurses have little or no knowledge of it and the medical profession tends to play it down as having no harmful effects. The only upside is that having Gilbert’s Syndrome is believed to reduce slightly the risk of heart attack.
However, for some people Gilbert’s Syndrome can be quite a problem. Quite apart from the fact that it can lead to a false hepatitis diagnosis, it can easily result in a case of ‘instant jaundice’ if you over exert yourself and/or miss a meal and don’t drink enough non-alcoholic fluids. (Alcohol just makes the effects of Gilbert’s Syndrome worse.) There is also a nasty servo effect: miss a meal and you lose your appetite, just at the time you most need to eat. It’s very easy then to start spinning into a spiral of gloom.
However, once you know you’ve got it, and that you can modify your lifestyle to cope with it, life becomes easier. But I was in my 50s before I knew I had it and even then, finding out reliable information about its effects was not easy. Up to that point, I just thought I was a bit of a wimp. Now I can manage it and I understand my limits much better. I know not to defer or miss meals and I know how quickly I can recover from a mild attack, especially given a nice cheese and ham roll!
I knew none of this as a 17-year-old in 1966. So, at maybe 1.30 in the morning, I was so desperate for water, that I got up and stood outside the farmhouse. I cried out what I thought was the German word for water. Nothing happened, so I chucked a little pebble or two at the bedroom windows. Eventually just about everybody came out of the house. I then discovered that, in my delirium, I’d been saying the Dutch word for water (spelled water but pronounced vahter) which to our German hosts sounded as if I was calling for my father (vater is German for father, whereas water is wasser). Considering that I’d disturbed the sleep of about eight people, they were very kind and understanding. Most importantly, they provided me with plenty of water. After that, I managed to sleep a bit.
In the morning, Tom, Martin and I got up and, after breakfast, thanked our very kind and tolerant hosts before getting back on the road. The previous day, we’d travelled 24 miles more than planned but the upside was that we were only 27 miles from Cologne. (Which in those days we Brits always spelled the French way, whereas today we increasingly use the German spelling, Köln.)
But despite the relatively short distance ahead of us, we were still suffering the after effects of ‘Black Friday’ and I continued to feel quite poorly. Mercifully, the weather was good that Saturday morning and the terrain continued as before, mostly flat, as we headed east over the Cologne Lowland. Then, dropping down towards the Rhine valley, we reached the western outskirts of Cologne about midday. This is where a minor miracle took place.
I was still feeling the effects of dehydration. Sometimes, your body seems to know what you need to eat or drink when you are feeling ill. It’s like the way cats know that they’ll feel better if they eat a bit of grass. Plainly, at an intellectual level the cat hasn’t a clue, but something tells it what to do. It was like that with me and a sudden craving for Coca Cola. And, lo and behold, a nearby shop in this German suburb had litre bottles of the stuff. Yes, litre bottles!
A litre bottle of anything was almost miraculous to a Brit in those days. (Think the ape-men in the film 2001, transfixed by the big, black obelisk.) Nothing in the UK came in such a large bottle: we were used to half-pints, pints, splits, half-bottles and wine bottles, but nothing bigger than about two-thirds of a litre. Bearing in mind the gigantic bottles of soft drinks that you can buy everywhere today, it’s had to understand how amazing a litre bottle seemed. But believe me, for us it was truly awesome!
So, I bought a litre bottle of Coke, sat on the pavement (sidewalk) and drank it. It must have looked a bit odd to the Germans but I was oblivious to that. Almost immediately, I felt very much better. Years later, I discovered that cola (particular when flat) is widely believed to aid rehydration, in the absence of proper oral rehydration drinks. The diuretic effect of the caffeine must have been counterproductive but the caffeine kick certainly perked me up. Anyway, whatever the scientists say, it did the trick for me: a little curb-side miracle in suburban Cologne.
After that, we proceeded into the centre of Cologne and booked into the youth hostel. This time there were no problems registering. The hostel was, like the Aachen one, big, modern and impersonal, but it served its purpose. There were a lot of rules and woe betide anyone who transgressed them. There was a curfew at 8.00pm and silence was imposed from 10.00pm. It was evident that obeying orders was a very important part of German life.
My impressions of Cologne itself were of a thriving and very large city, combining efficient modernity with a long and rich cultural heritage. The Gothic cathedral, which houses what are supposedly the relics of the three wise men, was particularly impressive. I had seen an aerial photograph of Cologne after it had been bombed during WW2. The Royal Air Force dropped nearly 35,000 tons of bombs on the city. The devastation of the city centre was almost total and truly looked similar to Hiroshima after the atom bomb. It’s amazing that the cathedral survived, especially as it was hit by 14 British bombs. It was most impressive to see the rebuilt city, the biggest in North Rhine-Westphalia, just 21 years after the end of the war.
In my home town, they’ve been arguing for a century about building a new bridge over the Thames and still nothing’s happened. But, whilst the Luftwaffe did shoot up Reading town centre on one occasion, it was but a fleabite compared to what the RAF did to Cologne. Germany paid a high price to have its urban landscape remodelled.
Cologne was a name very well known to Brits in the 1960s. For a start, the perfume eau de Cologne was very popular, both with men and women. If you didn’t know what to give someone for a birthday or Christmas present, eau de Cologne was high on the list of possibles, along with the inevitable book token. Best known and widely advertised in Britain was the brand 4711, named after the address in the city’s Glockenstrasse where production started in the late 18th century. But Cologne was also known because of the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR), the army of occupation in the Rhineland and the northern part of West Germany from 1945 until 1994. Many British families had members who, at some time or another, were stationed with BAOR. In those days, no Dover-Ostend ferry crossing was complete without a bar full of British squaddies, en route to or from BAOR, imbibing substantial quantities of beer.
Because of the BAOR, there was a very popular radio programme called Two-Way Family Favourites. This show came on the air at noon on Sundays. It was on the BBC Light Programme, which in those days was on 1500 metres long wave (200 kHz) and could be received over the whole of the UK and most of north-west Europe. In West Germany, the programme was also on the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS), which had studios in Cologne. There were two presenters, one at the BBC in London and one at BFBS in Cologne, and they played requests and dedications to and from British forces and their families and friends.
The programme was so popular that, on a hot summer’s day in suburbia, you could walk down a street and hear the show booming out of almost every open window. There must be many older Brits like me who still have a Pavlovian reaction to the show’s theme tune, With a song in my heart: we instantly start drooling at the thought of Mum’s roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the standard British Sunday lunch of that era. Back then, if you were listening to Family Favourites, chances are you were either eating Sunday lunch or smelling it being cooked. Ah! Bisto, to coin a phrase.
We three lads were pleased to have reached Cologne. This was as far away from home as we were venturing, as we only had a fortnight and limited funds. A lot had happened in just one week since Tom witnessed the England football team beat West Germany at Wembley. We had now reached the mighty Rhine, so much bigger than the Thames. Tomorrow we would cross it and start the second half of our tour.
Day 8 – Sunday 7th August 1966
After a much-needed good night’s sleep at the Cologne youth hostel, we breakfasted and performed the housekeeping tasks allocated to us by the hostel management. We were then free to leave and we headed off for our next destination. This was Düsseldorf, about 24 miles of flat and easy cycling away. The weather was mild, though the sky was overcast. We crossed the Rhine to its eastern side via the Mülheim suspension bridge and then followed the road north-north-west through the town of Leverkusen.
The Agfa-Gevaert transparency film in my borrowed camera had the cost of processing and mounting included in the purchase price, as was often the case in those days. It was ironic that the address to which the film had to be sent for processing was in Leverkusen, the very place we were cycling through. The film was presumably made in Leverkusen then exported to England, before being briefly brought back to Leverkusen by me before being taken back to England, then posted back to Leverkusen, and finally returned to me in England. Those pictures had clocked up a lot of miles by the time I finally saw them.
Travelling in West Germany, we noticed several things that were new to us. For example, there were lorries with tail-lifts, something we had never seen in the UK. Also, some of the trucks had lift axles, so that the number of wheels on the road could be varied: we’d never seen that, either. It was a long time before tail-lifts and lift axles became common in Britain. To use, it was just another sign of how advanced and modern West Germany was.
In all our travelling, we constantly encountered types of automobile that were rare or unknown at home. In those days, foreign cars were rare in Britain, and boys like me were very interested in the German, French and Italian vehicles we encountered. Even the colours were different, with many more light-coloured cars on the European mainland. A white car was a rarity in Britain: a cynic might say (with some justification) that this was to mask the inevitable body rust.
As we entered each town or village, we noticed a standard format sign indicating the dominant religion of that community and the days and times of church services. Like Belgium, the Rhineland was strongly Catholic, so most places advertised Heilige Messe (Holy Mass). But there were also signs for the Lutheran Evangelischer Gottesdienst (Evangelical service). I think these signs are still used, with a yellow church symbol for Catholics and a purple one for Evangelicals.
We made good progress to Düsseldorf, the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, which by happy coincidence was twinned with our home town, Reading. The main part of the city is on the east bank of the Rhine but the hostel was just across the river on the west bank. We crossed via the Rheinkniebrücke, which means literally the Rhine knee bridge, the knee being a sharp bend in the river.
After lunch at the hostel, we joined a happy horde of hostellers on washing up duty in the large kitchen. Holding court was an amusing German chap, doing impersonations of various English language radio stations and their station identifications. His repertoire included the BBC Light Programme and the American Forces Network, both of which had large audiences in West Germany. I’m pretty sure that what set him off was a kitchen radio playing the BBC’s aforementioned Two-Way Family Favourites.
Like the Aachen and Cologne hostels, Düsseldorf’s was a large, modern and typically 1960s building, with lots of glass. Sadly, there was a bit two much glass, and poor Martin walked straight into an almost invisible glass door, nose first. It was a hell of a whack, giving him a bad nose bleed and he suffered the after effects for some considerable time afterwards. Having witnessed Martin’s accident, I can understand why some countries, such as England, now require conspicuity markings on glass where its presence might not be obvious.
In the 1960s, Düsseldorf had an international reputation for being an upmarket bright and thoroughly modern place: a centre of finance, business and fashion. We wandered around the city and soaked up the atmosphere, which to us provincial suburban teenagers seemed very sophisticated and beguiling. Reading may have been twinned with Düsseldorf but in those days it wasn’t quite in the same league!
We were by now getting to know the local cheap foods and beverages. Apart from the ubiquitous American cola brands, there was something new to us: Fanta orange drink, something you never saw in England. (Only years later did I discover that it was a World War 2 German creation, devised when American cola ingredients were embargoed.) And, of course, it didn’t take long to work out that hot German sausages, such bockwurst or bratwurst, were widely available, tasty and filling.
Düsseldorf and its hinterland seem to have made a significant impact on Martin, quite apart from his whacked nose. He learned German and, in later life, lived with his German partner Ingrid in Essen, a mere 20 miles or so away.
Day 9 – Monday 8th August 1966
Having had a taste of the German ‘economic miracle’, as the British press called it, we now headed due west to the Netherlands. Our target was a youth hostel near the small Dutch city of Roermond, which by road was about 40 miles away.
The weather was good and the terrain ahead unchallenging as we left Düsseldorf behind. We passed through the northern outskirts of Neuss, Germany’s oldest city (a title it shares with Trier). Soon we were out in the countryside, heading for a city whose name we had heard many times on the BBC’s Two-Way Family Favourites (because of the British military personnel there) and on the sports news (because of its football team): Mönchengladbach. The famous football team, Borussia Mönchengladbach, gets its first name from a Latinised form of the name Prussia, the Rhineland having formerly been part of the kingdom of Prussia.
We passed through Mönchengladbach and, a few miles further on, passed another name familiar from Family Favourites, RAF Brüggen, near the village of Elmpt. Brüggen was a major Royal Air Force base during the Cold War and, in those days, was home to Canberra bombers. It closed as an air base in 2001 and then became an army garrison, as virtually all abandoned RAF bases seem to.
I guess it was about midday when we crossed the Dutch border into the province of Limburg. Because of the way boundaries have changed over the centuries, as various nations and rulers competed for territory, there are two adjacent provinces called Limburg. One is in the Netherlands and, bordering it on the west, another is in Belgium. Once they were part of a greater entity, but in 1839, the Treaty of London divided what was left of Limburg into the Belgian and Dutch parts we see today.
Today, Dutch Limburg forms the extreme south-east corner of the Netherlands, which is also the kingdom’s hilliest area. The most important city in the province is Maastricht, of treaty fame. You may recall that, when we couldn’t book into the Aachen youth hostel, we crossed the Dutch border in search of accommodation. That was in Vaals, the most south-easterly town of the most south-easterly province of the Netherlands but almost a suburb of the German city of Aachen. (Trivia gem with which to impress your friends: The name Limburg means ‘lime tree fortification’.)
At its narrowest point, Dutch Limburg is only about 3 miles wide, whereas we were staying in a part that was at least four times wider! We rode through the small city of Roermond, across the River Maas (which we had met in Belgium as the Meuse) to the village of Horn on the opposite bank. Horn is a pretty little place, with a small but picturesque castle and the mandatory Dutch windmill. On the southern outskirts of Horn is Beegden, where we booked into a charmingly homely rural youth hostel called ’t Sangershoes.
[Wiel Van den Broek kindly sent in this explanation of what the hostel name means:
Living in the area you are describing, I can shed some light on the Sangershoes. Sangers means Singers, but is a common local name in Limburg. A ‘hoes’ would be a stone building, important in the local village and surrounding farms. The owner would be richer and own more land, but would not work on the fields himself. Instead he would be alderman or ‘schepen’. In Middle Limburg soils were rather poor (sand), and the ‘hoes’ would be a larger farm. In the richer South (clays and loess), the ‘hoes’ would be more a mansion or small castle, like ‘house’ in England.]
What a contrast ’t Sangershoes was from the glass and concrete, highly institutionalised, mega-hostels of Germany! This was proper hostelling, similar in character to what I knew from home and from our limited experience in Belgium. Friendly, relaxed and cosy: for real hostellers, and not geared primarily to the requirements of coach-loads of well-dressed schoolchildren and their besuited teachers.
I particularly recall chilling out on that the sunny afternoon in the garden of ‘t Sangershoes. There were quite a few of us from various countries: sitting, chatting, having a drink or an ice cream. Someone had a big transistor radio, tuned to British pirate radio (Radio Caroline or Radio London, most likely flicking between the two). I was impressed that the signals carried so far: from the Essex coast to the German border in broad daylight, when long distance AM (medium wave) reception was typically at its poorest. Certainly, the signal was a bit hissy but it was quite acceptable. The fact that Dutch kids listened to it so avidly showed how influential the British pop scene was at that time. But let’s not forget that the Dutch had their own much-loved pirate station, Radio Veronica. This had been on the air since 1960, pre-dating the first British offshore stations by four years.
Of course, crossing into the Netherlands meant dealing with yet another currency. This time it was the Dutch guilder, also known as the florin. Over many centuries, various countries have had coins called a florin, named after a gold coin first minted in Florence, Italy. A much less valuable modern British florin was introduced in 1849, as an early move towards decimal coinage. It was a two-shilling coin (24 old pence), forming one tenth of a pound. It continued in use after decimalisation, with a value of 10 new pence, and you could still use a ‘two bob bit’ or ‘two shilling piece’, as it was formerly known, until 1993.
By a happy coincidence, at the time of our visit to the Netherlands, the Dutch and British florins had, for all practical purposes, the same value. Better yet, they were of similar appearance. Even better yet, while the British florin comprised four little sixpenny pieces, the Dutch florin comprised four very similar looking ‘kwartjes’ (little quarters), of identical value. And if that wasn’t enough, the Netherlands was the one country we visited where prices were lower than in the UK. (Belgium and West Germany were noticeably more expensive.) The low prices resulted from a government-imposed price freeze. Aptly enough, I saluted the Dutch price freeze by consuming an ice cream, bought with one shiny kwartje.
We enjoyed the pretty countryside of Limburg but were surprised at how backward the farming seemed to be, compared with Britain. This photo that I took of a Dutch farmer, with his horse-drawn wagon, illustrates the point.
My recollections of the meals we ate on this cycle tour are generally vague but I particularly recall supper at ‘t Sangershoes. I’d read about Dutch food being a bit dull but homely and filling: ‘peasant food’ as a condescending critic might put it. But ‘homely and filling’ suited me just fine. After all, it was the best most of us Brits could expect at home, even on a good day. I tucked in with gusto.
I’ll always associate that meal with learning the Dutch equivalent of the phrase ‘bon appétit’ or ‘enjoy your meal’. It’s ‘eet smakelijk!’, which even suggests to the English ear a combination of eating, the happy smacking of lips and liking it. (It literally means ‘eat tasty’.)
Our stay in the Netherlands was all too brief but it was a nice introduction. I have been back to that country many times since. Fifty years later, I am a proud member of our local Dutch club, De Oranje Duiven (The Orange Doves), based in Faringdon, Oxfordshire.
Day 10 – Tuesday 9th August 1966
There’s an old movie called If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium. Our cycle tour pre-dated that film by three years but the statement was nonetheless true. On Tuesday morning, we bid farewell to ’t Sangershoes and headed south-west for the Belgian border. We only had to travel about 7 miles to get to the border crossing, which was a few miles north of the town of Maaseik, the probable birthplace of the great Flemish painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck. However, we were not heading to Maaseik but to another small but charming Flemish town, Diest.
We were now in Belgian Limburg and today’s ride was across a plateau of heathland and pine forest known in Dutch/Flemish as the Kempen. The name derives from Latin: campus = field, so campina = region of fields; consequently, the French version is Campine. As the sandy soil is poor, there were few major towns in the area and, back in the 1960s, it was a pleasant rural backwater. The weather was fine and we covered the 48 miles to Diest quite easily.
The only town we passed through that sticks in my mind was Leopoldsburg, a major base for the Belgian Army. It seemed to be a Belgian equivalent of Britain’s Aldershot or Ireland’s Curragh Camp.
We arrived at Diest in the middle of the afternoon and I recall it being a very pleasant sunny day. Diest is a Flemish town, just over the border from Belgian Limburg in the province of Brabant. Back in the 1960s, Belgian Brabant was a single province with the language boundary running straight through it, east to west. But, way back in time, Brabant had been a big duchy, comprising what are now the Belgian provinces of Flemish Brabant, Walloon Brabant and Antwerp, the Brussels region, and the Dutch province of Noord Brabant.
Although Diest is what most people would call a small town, it is officially a city. Most of the world is not hampered by the historical nonsense we Brits have to endure regarding the status of our towns. It doesn’t matter how large a British town is, legally it can only be described as a city if it has been granted a charter by the Crown. Such charters are infrequently awarded and are treated as special honours. Thus my home town of Reading, with an urban population in excess of 300,000, can only call itself a town!
In the past, Diest was a more important place than it is today. The family that were later to form the royal house of the Netherlands, the Princes of Orange-Nassau, lived at Diest for almost 300 years. Consequently, Diest was known as the Orange City. In the Middle Ages and until the Reformation era, Diest benefited from the linen trade; not least, because it was on a navigable river and halfway between the economic powerhouses of Bruges and Cologne. But the decline of the textile trade and revolts against the Spanish occupation marked the end of this prosperity. The local economy later improved under Austrian rule.
Diest is a charming place in which to spend a day or two. The centre of action is the main square, known as the Grote Markt (literally Great Market). Around the square, there’s an 18th century town hall, a mash-up of a medieval church that allegedly took 18 architects to complete, and a cloth hall built in the 1300s, testament to the riches earned from the textile trade.
Apart from the peaceful pleasantness of our afternoon and evening in Diest, the thing I remember most about the town is its carillon. We knew the word carillon because it was the name of a coffee house in the centre of Reading. It was a hang-out for Mods and was run by a Belgian lady called Mrs St Niklaas, aided by the impecunious Austrian Baroness Erisso, the mother of singer Marianne Faithfull. (Marianne attended the same Reading convent school as my female cousins, St Joseph’s. My eldest cousin was a prefect and remembers regularly apprehending Marianne arriving late for school.) Needless to say, Diest’s carillon is not a coffee house but a proper carillon. But what’s one of those?
A carillon is a musical instrument, typically housed in the belfry of a town hall or church. The tune is played on large bells via a keyboard and (sometimes) pedals. It’s a Flemish invention, first heard in the city of Oudenaarde in the early 16th century. The name derives from the French word quadrillon, meaning four bells, although any carillon worth its salt has more than that. There are about 270 carillons in Belgium and the Netherlands and their use bridges the traditional religious divide between the Catholic south and Calvinist north.
In Diest, we stayed in a youth hostel called the Demergouw. (The river which runs around the north and east of Diest is the Demer and gouw means district.) Like at ’t Sangershoes, the Demergouw hostel’s warden not only rubber-stamped my youth hostel card but also applied a colourful little sticker with an illustration of the building. It all adds to the happy memories.
Day 11 – Wednesday 10th August 1966
On this tour, we were very lucky with the weather, apart from that ’Black Friday’ in Germany. Perhaps there was the occasional light shower that time has erased from my memory. But most of the time, we had pleasantly dry and often sunny weather. This Wednesday was no exception and we only had 30 miles of fairly flat terrain to cover. Our destination was a village near the south-eastern outskirts of Antwerp.
We set off from Diest heading west for Aarschot (which sounds like a painful injection), 10 miles away. Then we turned in a north-westerly direction; passing, after a further five miles, from Brabant into the province of Antwerp. Having cycled another dozen miles, passing many orchards, we reached the prettiest town of the day, Lier.
As Bradt’s guide to Flanders puts it, ‘It’s a hard heart that isn’t charmed by Lier’. It’s got all the usual pleasant ingredients of a small Flemish town, with a market place, a famous mechanical clock and lots of medieval buildings. In living memory, as many as 3,000 of Lier’s women made lace in their own homes but apparently that had stopped by the time we passed through. Lier is also famous for its tarts. (The edible kind – I can’t comment on the other sort. No, really.)
Here’s another gem for collectors of trivia: Lier is only four miles from Duffel, the town where, in the Middle Ages, the cloth used in Duffle coats originated. Just in case you are wondering, the town is spelled Duffel in Flemish, but the usual English spelling, as applied to coats and bags, is Duffle.
Another six miles brought us to our destination for the next two nights. We had decided to try monastic hospitality again, so we pitched up at ‘de klooster van de witte paters’ – the cloister (or abbey) of the White Fathers. This was at 45 Borsbeeksesteenweg in the village of Boechout, a couple of miles from the south-eastern outskirts of Antwerp. (These days it’s a nursing home.)
The White Fathers are officially known as the Missionaries of Africa. Their order was founded in Algeria in 1868, in response to a cholera outbreak that left many orphans. They wear white robes inspired by those of the Algerian arabs, which is why they became known as the White Fathers. I’m still amazed and impressed that these good folk, when confronted by three scruffy 17-year-olds, complete strangers from another country, welcomed us in and provided accommodation for two nights.
We had less involvement with the White Fathers than with the priests at the seminary in Brussels. As before, we offered to pay and they did charge us for the accommodation. But it was only about the same as we would have paid in a youth hostel. They left us to do our own thing most of the time and gave us the use of their rather fine common room.
I particularly remember that we played the Flemish edition of Monopoly there. (Just like the British version but with properties in Brussels and Antwerp.) We also had the use of their excellent radio. It was a very upmarket receiver in a hardwood veneered cabinet, with an illuminated dial and an impressive array of knobs and buttons. I think it was German (maybe a Grundig) and I’m pretty sure it had press button tuning, which was a real rarity in those days. Even car radios often did not have preselectors in those days. In fact, most British cars didn’t have radios at all.
That evening, as we relaxed in the White Fathers’ common room, we thought about what the next day would bring. Tomorrow we would cycle into Antwerp, one of the most interesting cities in Belgium and one of Europe’s greatest ports. There was so much to see there and we needed to prioritise our targets.
Day 12 – Thursday 11th August 1966
Antwerp: Flanders’ biggest city and Belgium’s second-biggest conurbation. After breakfast on this Thursday morning, we cycled the seven miles into the heart of this bustling metropolis.
Antwerp lies on the River Scheldt (De Schelde in Dutch/Flemish or l’Escaut in French), which flows into the North Sea and is navigable as far inland as the French city of Cambrai. Via the Albert Canal, ships can also sale from Antwerp inland to Liège. These connections, and the fact that Antwerp is further inland than its North Sea rivals, helped make it Europe’s second biggest port: only Rotterdam is bigger.
The city is the centre of the world diamond trade. But, as we were more concerned with how to pay for the next bag of chips, our attention was drawn to the city’s less expensive luxuries. These included the wondrous Rombouts ‘one cup’ coffee filter, which that very year was awarded a royal warrant by the king of Belgium.
Rombouts is an Antwerp company, founded in 1896. It devised the ‘one cup’ filter in 1958, for Expo 58, the international exhibition in Brussels that featured the Atomium (as mentioned in Day 3 above). The filter is essentially a truncated plastic cone with ground coffee, encased in filter paper, in its perforated base. The cone is placed in the top of a coffee cup and hot water is poured into it. A lid is supplied to cover the water.
Over the next few minutes, the water percolates through the ground coffee, delivering a stream of delicious fresh filter coffee into the cup. Once the process is complete, the lid can be removed, inverted and placed on the table to form a neat receptacle for the used filter cone and to catch any drips. It’s a masterpiece of industrial design and beverage marketing.
When we were in Belgium, the product had only been on sale for two years. The king of Belgium must have liked it, because in 1966, he granted Rombouts a royal warrant. But we weren’t in Antwerp just to drink coffee. From the huge range of cultural sites on offer, we had three main targets. Fortunately, they were all quite close together in the city centre, hardly more than half a mile apart.
Antwerp was famously the city of Rubens, so we paid a visit to the Rubenshuis (Rubens House), his palatial town house. Many famous painters were not particularly successful in their own lifetimes and often they died in poverty: think of Rembrandt and van Gogh. Rubens, however, did very nicely. As the Bradt guide to Flanders neatly puts it, ‘Rubens did for Antwerp what Elvis did for Memphis.’ The courtyard of the Rubenshuis impressed me enough to merit one of my last photos, as you can see here.
Another of Antwerp’s major attractions is the Catholic cathedral of Our Blessed Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwkathedraal). It took the best part of two centuries to build, starting in the mid 14th century. Even so, they never completed the second spire, merely capping off the tower that should have supported it. The biggest Gothic cathedral in the Low Countries, it has survived a major fire, plunder by Protestants and looting by French republicans.
We were shocked to be asked to pay to enter the cathedral. These days it’s normal for major cathedrals in England and elsewhere to charge admission when a service is not on; or at least, to strongly urge a donation. But back in 1966, we had never heard of such an idea. As Catholic schoolboys ourselves, we felt particularly affronted: we were ‘insiders’ and surely we should get in free?
But no, we had to pay. Having grudgingly done so, we entered the splendid building. It’s major attractions include masterpieces by Rubens, including the famous and very impressive triptych The Descent from the Cross. The cathedral is, indeed, worth the admission fee.
We also visited the Museum Plantin-Moretus, a fascinating place, about 150 yards from the river. If you have ever been involved with typography or fonts, you’ll probably have heard of the Plantin typeface. Christophe Plantin was a French bookbinder who set up in Antwerp in the Reformation era. His firm became the biggest printer-publisher in the Low Countries. Plantin’s son-in-law, Jan Moretus, succeeded him and the firm kept going until the 19th century.
During the Reformation, Plantin worked for both sides. He printed Catholic liturgical texts for the King of Spain but was also official printer of the Dutch Protestant States-General, who overthrew Spain’s rule in the northern provinces. Thus Plantin’s business became very successful.
When, after more than 300 years, the firm closed, the city bought its headquarters; the printing works and offices remained as they had been when in use. The city opened the place as a museum 140 years ago. Visiting it is like entering a time machine and much more interesting than you might imagine.
It’s sobering to reflect on the turmoil Antwerp has undergone over the centuries under successive foreign regimes. Only 22 years before our visit, German V1 and V2 missiles were raining down on the city, destroying much of the centre. For nine months, roughly every 20 minutes, day after day, the city was hit by a rocket, according to Leslie Warne, an officer in a Port Construction and Repair unit of the Royal Engineers. One of my great-aunts was killed by a V2 in London. We youngsters were lucky to be born where and when we were.
All in all, we had a great day in Antwerp before we cycled back to the abbey in Boechout for a good night’s sleep.
Day 13 – Friday 12th August 1966
By Friday, we were nearing the end of our tour. There were, however, still three days to go, and we were determined to get the most out of them. Our next destination was Ghent, which we had passed through on Day 2. Now we wanted a better look at this interesting centre of Flemish culture.
Having thanked the White Fathers of Boechout for their hospitality and settled up with them, we headed first for Antwerp. (Years later, in the 1990s, when we lived near Coventry, we discovered that Tony Maguire, our parish priest, was a former White Father who knew Boechout well. By another happy coincidence, Father Tony ended his days as resident priest at the Warwickshire church where my parents and maternal grandparents were married.)
To get to Ghent, we had to cross the mighty River Scheldt. Unusually for a city of its size, Antwerp had no bridges at this time. This was primarily as a result of wartime damage but also to avoid impeding shipping. So we cycled in a tunnel under the river, then followed the road south-west towards Ghent.
After about 18 miles, we were near the town of Sint-Niklaas, halfway between Antwerp and Ghent. The area is known as the Waasland, formerly a swampy region. To improve the soil, the technique of crop rotation involving turnips (later taken up in England by Charles ’Turnip’ Townsend) was pioneered here.
We didn’t venture into Sint-Niklaas itself (which I later learned is twinned with Abingdon, not far from where I now live) but I do recall stopping at a nearby roadside café for a refreshing glass of lager. It was a hot sunny day and the glass of pils went down a treat. We learned that pils is the generic term in Flanders for a standard lager; it’s short for Pilsener, Pilsen in Bohemia being where the style originated.
These days, Belgium is famed for its phenomenal range of beers but back in the 1960s the variety was less apparent to the casual traveller. Major lager brands like Stella Artois and Jupiler tended to dominate the market.
Although I am now a member of the Campaign for Real Ale rather than a lager boy, that glass of Flemish lager certainly hit the spot as we sat outside the café near Sint-Niklaas. Back then, nobody in Britain sat outside a café to have a coffee, beer or a snack. How things have changed!
[Trivia gem: At this stage we were about six miles from the small town of Dendermonde. Six years later, I interviewed the musician Brian Eno for Belgian radio and he told me that his mother came from that place.]
Martin, Tom and I made good progress to Ghent, the total distance from Boechout being about 39 miles. The route was fairly flat, the weather good and, as usual, we suffered no major problems with the bikes. We booked into the youth hostel, which was called De Draecke (The Drake). It was in the old Sint-Pietersabdij (St Peter’s Abbey), less than a mile south of the city centre. That left the afternoon free to explore.
We weren’t really aware of it at the time but in those days, Ghent was a mecca for aspiring British racing cyclists. This was still the case 14 years later, when a certain Bradley Wiggins was born there: his racing cyclist father was based in the city.
There are so many sights to see in Ghent that, as usual, we had to prioritise. Just wandering around the medieval town centre was great, as everywhere you looked there were examples of fine old Flemish architecture.The city lies on the River Scheldt, at its confluence with the Leie (Lys in French), and there are numerous other waterways. The quality of the buildings along the old canals, such as the Grasleie, testifies to the prosperity of the city in medieval times.
We were impressed by the Geeraard de Duivelsteen (Castle of Gerard the Devil), both by its appearance and by its rather cool name. British castles tend to have dull names, such as Castle Howard, which doesn’t really compare.
But the star of our afternoon in Ghent was, for me, Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral). It’s the oldest of Ghent’s five dozen churches and the most impressive. And inside is the city’s greatest treasure: the amazing altarpiece known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
On Day 10, I briefly mentioned that we passed near the supposed birthplace of Jan and Hubert van Eyck. These brothers were the creators of this work of art, which took eight years to paint and was completed on 6 May 1432. It’s sometimes said that the van Eycks invented oil painting. That’s an exaggeration; but it was a new medium and they have a good claim to having perfected it. It’s 15 feet wide, 11 feet tall and painted on 12 oak panels, eight of which are hinged and painted on both sides.
The amazing thing about this painting is the level of detail, right down to individual leaves of grass and the petals of tiny flowers. It is so realistic, almost photographic: a true object of wonder. We could gaze for ages at the numerous scenes depicted, incorporating landscapes, architecture, portraiture and nature, quite apart from the religious themes. Remarkably, this vibrant work of art looks as if it were completed yesterday; whereas in reality it is nearly 600 years old.
We were able to stand, just inches away from the painting, and appreciate the fine detail of the work. Today, sadly, you have to stand back and view it through bullet-proof glass. Nonetheless, it is still worth making a journey to Ghent, if only to see The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb; it’s widely considered to be the most remarkable of all Flemish Primitive paintings.
Martin, Tom and I strolled back to the youth hostel in Sint-Pietersplein for the evening. (Plein in Dutch means a town square; plain is occasionally used in the same way in England, as in Bank Plain, Norwich.) It was pure coincidence that we had spent the previous two nights in a working abbey, whereas tonight we were in a former abbey from which the monks had been expelled by the French, 170 years earlier. For many years after it ceased to be a monastery, St Peter’s Abbey was an army barracks. Having later been a youth hostel, it’s now a natural history museum.
The abbey is said to have been founded by St Amand, 1300 years ago. The name of St Amand is well known in Flanders but not in England. However, the medieval wool trade forged strong links between Flanders and the Vale of White Horse. Consequently, the private medieval chapel of the Eyston family of East Hendred, Oxfordshire, is one of the few places of worship in England dedicated to St Amand.
As with the other Belgian and Dutch hostels that we visited, the atmosphere was pleasant. There was a great mix of interesting travellers. We were particularly impressed by the steed of a German couple. They were touring on the most luxurious motor scooter we had ever seen. It was an enormous, streamlined, Heinkel Tourist: the Rolls Royce of scooters, the like of which we had never seen before.
In the evening, we sat at a big refectory table enjoying the company of other travellers. A Canadian guy, in his twenties, assumed the role of master of ceremonies and regaled us with many amusing and insightful tales. He’d been travelling solo around Europe for months on a motorcycle. His comparative study of the styles of WC pan favoured by various nationalities, and the reasons why, was particularly amusing (though we were glad we had already eaten). He also showed us how to understand Dutch/Flemish a little better, using a stone plaque on the abbey wall as an example.
We slept well in the big dormitory, knowing that this was our last night in Belgium. Tomorrow we were heading for Bruges, then Ostend and home. But there was still much to see in the little time left.
Day 14 – Saturday 13th August 1966
Leaving De Draecke youth hostel after breakfast, we cycled the easy 28 miles to Bruges. This time, I think, we used the old main road through Eeklo (which sounds like a home for Eskimo mice), rather than the quieter road through Zomergem that we’d used when heading from Bruges to Ghent. Once again, the weather was fine and the bikes behaved themselves.
We arrived in Bruges about midday. As we were booked on the overnight ferry from Ostend to Dover, we had all afternoon to spend in the city. We planned to cycle the 15 miles to Ostend in the early evening, then spend an hour or two hanging out around the harbour, before boarding the Belgian Marine’s packet boat.
You may recall that, on Day 2, we broke our journey briefly in Bruges: long enough to have a breakfast of delicious Flemish cakes and send a postcard home to my parents. What we’d seen and read of the city had already enthused us and Bruges did not disappoint us now we had more time to explore it.
If you only visit one Flemish city before you die, make it Bruges, the capital of West Flanders. It is arguably the most perfectly preserved medieval city in Europe. At every corner you turn, and every time you look up at the rooftops, there’s another delightful view. People have lived there for 1300 years and Bruges got its city charter early in the 12th century. Some say it became the fourth biggest city in Europe. It was certainly bigger than London; and its Bourse, which opened in 1309, may have been the world’s first stock exchange. Bruges traded with England, whence came premium grade wool for the Flemish weavers, and it traded with the Hanseatic League, which had a monopoly on trade in many valuable commodities through the Baltic countries. The city also became the capital of the Burgundian empire.
All of this was possible because Bruges was then a major port, with direct access via the Zwin canal to the North Sea. But nothing lasts for ever: the Zwin silted up; the emperor, who’d been imprisoned and humiliated in Bruges, directed trade to Antwerp; and the English stopped exporting wool. By the Reformation period, Bruges was beginning to drift into economic decline. But because there wasn’t the money or incentive to rebuild, many of the well-constructed medieval buildings survived.
Three centuries passed and the industrial revolution made little impact on the city. Then, about the end of the 19th century, the French started to appreciate this almost perfectly preserved medieval city. The city emerged unscathed from both world wars and Bruges became ever more popular as a tourist destination. Today two million tourists visit it each year.
Culture is one thing, but beer, chips and cakes are another. Fortunately, Bruges caters for all of these things, and very well indeed. I mentioned the superb cakes in Day 2 but thus far have not sung the praises of Flemish chips. Back in the 1960s, we Brits were taught: 1) Britain invented everything worth inventing; 2) Britain did everything better than anyone else. (We now know that neither of these statements is entirely true; but it was a way for a bankrupt nation, enduring rationing and deeply in debt to the USA, to keep up its morale.) So naturally, we assumed that Britain invented chips (by which, dear American cousins, I mean French fries and not what we Brits call potato crisps). Naturally, we also assumed that British chips were best.
What a surprise then to encounter Flemish chips, Vlaamse frieten. I don’t really care who invented the chip; the Belgians and French have been arguing about this for years; it’s the gastronomic experience that matters. Well, what a taste and what texture these frieten had: double fried for a soft interior and crispy shell; served in a paper cone, from a mobile kiosk below the mighty belfry in the market place; and topped with creamy mayonnaise, quite unlike anything that went by that name in Britain back then.
Everywhere we walked in Bruges, there were delightful things to eat and drink. We could not afford to dine in restaurants but we were surrounded by the temptations of patisseries, bakeries, chip kiosks, chocolatiers and cafés. And I must confess, we succumbed a few times. Well, when I say a few…
You can walk all day around Bruges and never get bored. I found the Minnewater area particularly beautiful. Today the Minnewater is a lake but, before the Zwin silted up, it was a dock that could accommodate the largest ships from England, Italy or the Baltic. Next to it is the Begijnhof, a charming little walled village that started life as a sort of lay religious community in the 13th century. Winston Churchill so liked this area that he set up his easel by the Minnewater and painted the scene.
There are many ancient churches in the city but one that is particularly unusual is the Basiliek van het Heilig-Bloed. (That’s right, Basilica of the Holy Blood – your Dutch is really good now!) The unusual thing about it is that it’s a double-decker church. At street level, there’s a very plain Romanesque chapel; but upstairs is a more flamboyant place, housing a relic purported to be a piece of cloth stained with Christ’s blood. Whatever your attitude to medieval religious relics, the architecture is fascinating.
I really enjoyed wandering around Bruges for the first time on that sunny Saturday afternoon. So much so, that it became my favourite city. I must have been back about 15 times over the last 50 years.
In the early evening, we started cycling the 15 miles to Ostend. I still had two photos left out of the dozen on my roll of film, so we stopped on the way and took the two photos below. One shows me; the other features Tom on the right and Martin on the left, with the back of my Moulton bicycle. Note the GB plate: in those days, it was an advantage to let people know you were British when travelling on the Continent. (How things change. Brexit anyone?) Note also the white panel on the rear mudguard: this was a legal requirement in the Netherlands, the Cyclists’ Touring Club told us, and I used white insulating tape on my nice chrome mudguard, so that the tape could be removed on returning to Blighty.
Looking at those three stylish examples of how teenagers really dressed in the 1960s, (no, Austin Powers was NOT a documentary), now may be a good time to mention our clothing. Today, people agonise about what special clothing to wear for various types of cycling. Needless to say, the clothing industry responds accordingly. You can spend a fortune on cycling gear. Even I have about four different types of trousers/shorts for cycling these days.
So what did we do back then? Precisely nothing: we wore our ordinary leisure clothes. Why? (Cue mournful violins again) Because we didn’t have that many clothes anyway. They were expensive and we made do with whatever our parents supplied, which was as little as they could get away with. Secondly, even if you knew special cycling clothes existed and could afford them, you would struggle to find them in any local shop. Did we suffer greatly as a result? Not in the least!
While we’re at it, let’s mention the bikes. Despite being quite different from each other, they all worked well. Tom’s ‘proper lightweight’ did reveal the lack of robustness of such machines, when he bent his wheel near Aachen on ‘Black Friday’, having earlier dented a rim on a tram track in Brussels, but the problem was easily resolved. Martin’s ‘boy racer’ bike chucked its chain off once or twice but that was not a showstopper. My Moulton never gave any trouble, carried heaps of luggage better than the other bikes and, with its rubber suspension, gave a much smoother ride over the Belgian pavé. Its 4-speed hub gear proved quite sufficient and I never felt at a disadvantage compared to the other lads with their 10-speed derailleurs. (It’s not the number of gears but having the right gears that matters.) I don’t recall any of us having a puncture, so if we did have any, they must have been easily fixed.
And how about all the other British cycle tourists we met? Dear reader, in the whole tour I cannot recall meeting one British cycle tourist. Cycle touring was deeply unfashionable among our contemporaries in the 1960s. In fact, people thought you a little weird if you told them you had been cycle touring. They’d give you a pitying look while mentally filing you under ‘Harmless eccentric’. But you should never let fashion stop you doing something worthwhile and enjoyable.
Photos taken, we got back on the bikes and within an hour we were in Ostend. I guess it was about 8.00pm when we got there, so it was still light. We wandered round the harbour and found another of those lovely Flemish cake shops. However, we didn’t have that much money left and we had already eaten quite well. We just hung about outside, occasionally looking at the window display and giving it our ‘I’m so hungry’ look. It worked: the shop was due to shut about 9.00pm but before it did, the staff cheerfully gave us a big bag of cakes, which would otherwise go to waste.
In fact, we had so many cakes, we didn’t know what to do with them. This was deeply disturbing; I’d never experienced having too many cakes! I think it was Tom who decorated a car radio aerial with an extra-long chocolate-coated marshmallow. Fear not, we managed to get him home to England without incurring a Belgian Anti Social Behaviour Order.
Somewhere, either in Bruges or Ostend, I bought a box of chocolate zeefruchten (literally ‘sea fruits’ in Dutch or fruits de mer in French) to take home to my family. These days, you can buy the pre-packaged Guylian version of these tasty chocolate shellfish in any British supermarket. But back then, they were almost unknown in the UK, and you bought them in Belgium from a chocolaterie or patisserie. They would be neatly displayed loose on trays. The shop assistant would gift wrap them beautifully, at no extra charge, in a gold-coloured cardboard box, tied up with ribbon.
Ostend harbour was a pretty place as the sun set over the North Sea. The harbour lights came on, the cathedral was floodlit and the Mercator training vessel was illuminated. Soon it was time to board the ferry and head for Dover. Once again, the bikes were craned into the hold. We then found ourselves a corner for the night, with the hope of getting an hour or two of intermittent sleep.
Early tomorrow we would arrive at Dover and start wending our way back to Reading. But would we cycle all the way?
Day 15 – Sunday 14th August 1966
We slept better on the crossing back to Dover than we did on the way out. I guess that was down to there being fewer gregarious Continental teenagers around, less adrenalin left in our bodies and more tiredness. Dosing on deck or propped up in a corner hardly constituted a good night’s sleep, but it was better than nothing.
It was still dark when we arrived at Dover. Should we now tackle 125 miles of cycling to get back home? We still had some cash left, so we decided to get the train back to London. That would leave only 40 miles or so of cycling, which seemed a much more attractive proposition at the time.
I guess it took a couple of hours for the train to reach Victoria station in London. It was still only breakfast time for most people when we got there and the roads were very quiet. We cycled down the A4, the Great West Road, retracing our route of a fortnight earlier but in the opposite direction. Somewhere on the western outskirts of London, we stopped at a phone box to let our parents know that we were on our way and to expect us for Sunday lunch.
We made good, steady progress. Lo and behold, about midday, we reached our homes in the western suburbs of Reading. Two-way Family Favourites was booming out from thousands of radios tuned to the BBC Light Programme, producing that mass Pavlovian drooling response in anticipation of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
And so ended our 15 day tour, my first escape from English suburbia to something more exotic sur le Continent. It was quite a modest journey by some standards. Nonetheless, it was one of the most formative events of my youth and the memories are etched into my mind.
The whole holiday cost me £24, the equivalent in today’s money of about £313. More than a fifth of the cost was accounted for by ferry and train fares. This meant that the average spend per day – for food, accommodation and everything else – was about one pound and six shillings (£1.30). This approximates to £21 per day in current terms.
Our total mileage was in the order of 630 miles, making our daily average about 42 miles.
We spent six nights in youth hostels, four nights in monastic accommodation, two nights on ferries, one night in a student hostel and one in a barn.
Tom McLoughlin left our school; I believe he went to study at Reading College of Technology. Martin Taylor and I continued in the same sixth form: we attended the same church, youth club and scout troop, and so met almost every day. Tom, however, attended another church, didn’t go to the youth club and was not in our scouts. So we rarely saw him thereafter. We never fell out but just drifted apart.
Martin and I were sufficiently enthused by our tour to plan a further more ambitious one. For that, we were joined by another classmate, Gerard McGlynn. In the summer of 1967, we spent three and a half weeks cycling on the Continent, which was my longest ever cycle tour.
When Martin went to university, I lost touch with him but Gerard and I continued to travel abroad together nearly every year until I got married. We hitchhiked and later travelled by minibus and car.
In the late 1970s, Martin got in touch with me. My wife and I visited him and his wife at their house in Goring-on-Thames. But they didn’t live there long and again we lost contact.
Decades passed: then, in the 2000s, Martin once more made contact. He was deeply involved in oil exploration and spent much of his time working in countries with names ending in ‘stan’. When not doing that, he lived in Essen with his German partner and enjoyed Scottish dancing. He came to our house and we had a very convivial lunch at a nearby pub. He had a bike in the back of his car and was still a keen cyclist.
I thought it was time to have a reunion with both Martin and Tom. But where was Tom? I guessed he might still be in the Reading area, so I asked an old schoolfriend, Maurice O’Brien, news editor of the Reading Chronicle, if he would run a story appealing for Tom to come forward. Maurice helpfully obliged and my photo of Tom and Martin with my bike duly appeared in the Chronicle.
After some weeks, Tom contacted me by email. I think one of his children had spotted the article. It turned out that Tom was a chartered building surveyor (so am I) with his own practice in Reading. He too was still a cyclist. I suggested that the three of us should meet up but was a little disappointed not to get a reply to that email.
There was a sad reason for this. Some months later, Tom’s daughter emailed to tell me that Tom had died. To add to the sadness, Martin also died unexpectedly about the same time. Both friends were in their early 60s. So our reunion never took place.
Nonetheless, I am so pleased that I was able to contact both of them before they died. I like to imagine they are both having fun on a celestial velodrome, with no bent wheels or slipping chains. Chapeau, Martin and Tom!
Thank you for sharing my happy memories of this journey. I hope you have enjoyed the story.
Le Tour de France starts in a few hours. Which reminds me that, last autumn, Prof. Lessing and I were called in by Dorling Kindersley to help them finish off this book: DK’s ‘The Bicycle Book – the definitive visual history’
It’s worth every penny for the super pictures of a huge range of bicycles old and new from around the world. Fabulous value at £20 RRP.
If you go to the section of this website that provides detailed information on how to repair old Sturmey-Archer hubs, you’ll find new content on the K-series 3-speeds of the 1920s and 1930s. Not all the material is explicitly about repairing the hubs but it may prove useful and interesting to some readers.
There is now an 18-page PDF file (zoomable and easily printed) that includes all the following content:
The late great Jim Gill’s description of the type K hub and the changes made to it during its production run (2 pages).
A cutaway drawing of the 1922-1933 model.
Jim’s simplified instructions for dismantling and re-assembling the type K.
Jim’s analysis of the type K’s “no intermediate gear” feature, which went AWOL in 1935.
Jim’s tabulated analysis of 20 type K hubs manufactured between c.1925 and 1937 (2 pages).
S-A’s 1925 parts list and exploded diagram of the type K .
S-A’s 1935 exploded diagrams and parts lists for the type K, type KS and type KSW hubs (5 pages).
S-A’s 1937 exploded diagrams and parts lists for the type K, type KS and type KSW hubs (5 pages).
Interested in the history of Raleigh, Sturmey-Archer, Brooks, Pashley or Moulton? Or maybe in the wider development and changes the British cycle industry has undergone in the last 50 years? Then this interview, which I recorded on 23rd March 2016, is for you.
John Macnaughtan spent 48 years at Raleigh and Sturmey-Archer. Early in his career, he was sent to Raleigh South Africa and he soon became Director of Raleigh Industries East Africa. Later, with David Duffield, he set up Raleigh Australia. John joined Sturmey-Archer in 1977 and became Sales and Marketing Director in 1981. After the sale of Sturmey-Archer to Sun Race, he became Managing Director of Raleigh International. He was instrumental in saving the Brooks saddle company and became a co-owner of Pashley. Today, he spends much of his time at Bradford-on-Avon, dealing with the export of Moulton bicycles.