Customs and exercise
That summer: in 1951 Elizabeth Candlish cycled across the borders of post-war paranoia in Europe
Saturday 09 August 1997
My friend Margaret had a German penpal in Heidelberg, so to Heidelberg we would go, cycling. We took a tent (neither of us had camped before) and home-made sleeping bags. From our homes in St Andrews, Fife, we caught a train to London, and from there took a coach to Dover where we retrieved the bikes that we'd sent on ahead of us. As we pedalled our way off the boat at Ostend it was a daunting thought that we'd never cycled further than 20 miles at a stretch.
By the time we reached that frontier post we'd been six days on the road, often in rain. Campsites as we know them now had not yet been invented, and we'd camped on small Belgian farms, twice sleeping snugly in a barn. We'd been invited into spotless farm kitchens and had met whole families, usually three generations, speaking a dialect that our schoolgirl French and German could not decipher, but somehow we communicated.
The French told us about the war and about the liberation, and they wanted to ask about Britain - why were we still rationed? Why had the British voted Churchill out of office - he won the war, didn't he? Everywhere our wet things were taken off to be dried and cans of hot water produced: payment was firmly refused. In the mornings we'd be waved off, with pressing invitations to come again on our return journey.
Our route took us briefly into the Netherlands, to visit friends in Maastricht, then we headed for the German border. Back home, some people had warned us against going into Germany. After all, the war was not so far in the past. Margaret's uncle was a detective at Scotland Yard: if in trouble, he said, we were to go to the military police - and of course he himself could be contacted at Whitehall one-two-one-two.
We reached Vaals, at the Dutch-German frontier, before 4pm, once again wet and rather miserable. As usual, there were two barriers, and two sets of offices to go through, and our passports were stamped in both. We were leaving Holland, so we were not of much interest to the Dutch. But we were entering Germany, and the inspector of immigrants wanted to know our plans. Camping? In this weather? Better to make for the youth hostel in Aachen - he would telephone to book us a place. And that was how we heard that it was being rebuilt - the war, you know...
The inspector made up his mind to befriend us. There was a hostel in Vaals, a Dutch hostel: we could go there. And he had another suggestion: we should send our bicycles ahead by rail to Cologne, and next day he would arrange a lift for us. It was no problem to find lifts at the frontier. Why, only that day three Australian girls got one for a hundred miles.
My letter home takes up the story: "Well, it was an awful day, and this seemed ideal. We cycled into Aachen, found the station, and sent off the bikes. Our friend the inspector turned up and helped us fill in the forms, which were a bit complicated. We sent our saddlebags too, taking out only a few belongings, and tying these in a bundle. We must have looked like displaced persons. Then the inspector took us back to the frontier by tram, and we put on dry socks and shoes in his office, and he took us for coffee, and got the waiter to add something to it: it tasted awful, but it certainly warmed us up. Then we found out that we were too late to get into the youth hostel so the Inspector said that he would find us somewhere to sleep at the frontier station, and meanwhile he would take us out to supper.
"He took us to a restaurant in Vaals, and we each got a huge plate of two fried eggs, bacon, bread, tomatoes, gherkin and goodness knows what else besides. It was marvellous. Later he and another customs officer took us for coffee, and told us their war stories and adventures... Then we went back to the customs post. There was a little room there where night-duty men sometimes slept - only one camp bed, but they spread heavy packages of forms on the floor, and left us their coats. We tossed for the bed, and I lost! I can't say we got much sleep - there was traffic all through the night, and voices and footsteps.
"We got up about half-past six, washed, tied up our bundles, and sat outside in very pale sunshine, having breakfast. About half past eight a customs man rushed out, and said `Quick - here's a bus going to Cologne.' He picked up our bundles and threw them into the bus, and we got in and off we went."
We were, we discovered, the guests of a Dutch Insurance firm from Echt on their annual outing. They would stop at Cologne on their homeward way. Meanwhile they were happy to have us along, and to take us with them up into the mountains. Before we left them in the evening we had promised to include Echt on our route back and see them again. And we did.
So we reached Cologne on the day we'd planned, but not until 8pm - and eventually found a bed (illegally) in the Toc H Club. And we reached Heidelberg, too. In the Rhine valley there was no place to pitch a tent, and we joined the German youth hostel movement. Some of the hostels were centuries- old buildings, and one or two had been purpose-built, for the Hitler Youth Movement, but none provided us with a lodging quite as strange as the one we had that night on the border at Vaals.
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