Customs and exercise

That summer: in 1951 Elizabeth Candlish cycled across the borders of post-war paranoia in Europe

Spending the night in the customs' post between Holland and Germany wasn't part of the plan. We meant to cross the border, and perhaps find the youth hostel in Aachen. But it turned out that the hostel was being rebuilt. Besides, we were two very wet and bedraggled British teenagers, and the customs men were perhaps just a little bored that day in the summer of 1951...

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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations should be regarded as an offensive act
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
people
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices