Travel / That Summer: Ocean liner to a brave, newly-wed world: Peter Rich recalls the week when he got married and embarked on a great liner for a New York honeymoon and life in Canada

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The Independent Travel
Summer 1953. The plan is activated. Sunday: get married. Monday: sail to the New World on a great ocean liner. The Monday after: honeymoon in New York, followed by a new life in Canada.

Well, it worked out; but the strain of a traditional wedding, the trauma of departure and the excitement of the voyage were a severe test for the new partnership of two 23-year-old optimists.

Europe in the early Fifties was another world. The old, rigid orders and establishments were in place and unashamedly flaunted, although cracks were visible. The 'dos' and 'don'ts' of family life, and the rituals of each sector of society, were in the main intact. In Britain, austerity and tradition were stifling; but for those of us with health, energy and a British passport there was a range of countries that wanted us.

The months of anguish planning the combined wedding and farewell party paid off, and the day went well. Tears flowed, advice was showered upon us. Rich Uncle Joe advised us to travel first class. Uncle Sam, an ex-ship's musician, suggested that by a careful reading of the ship's fire-escape diagrams we should find our way to the first-class bar and lounge.

Conforming to tradition, we spent our wedding night in a luxury West End hotel. Amid the art-deco splendour of the Strand Palace we sat cross-legged on a giant double bed surrounded by torn-open envelopes, notes of congratulation and lots of paper money. Three changes of clothes had resulted in 21 pockets and two handbags continuously and discreetly fed to overflowing with gifts of money, for it was known that we could not take any bulky presents.

Early on Monday we went to the parental homes for the last, terrible, emigrants' goodbyes. The old guilt still nags, the scene slips into focus as it has done repeatedly over the years: Mother almost fainting, believing that she would never see us again; support from Sister, saying 'go, go'; Father in the background, silent, hands saying 'go', eyes saying 'stay'.

The boat train was an event in itself: excitement, smart people with smart luggage, steam, kisses, tears, waves, hats, veils, leather handbags and gloves, fur coats, more steam, porters, whistles. Alfred Hitchcock, boarding the train with his double-bass, would have gone unnoticed. We sat holding hands, trying to stay calm. We had been married for 22 hours.

The Ile de France was the last and greatest of the French transatlantic liners. She started from Cherbourg and collected passengers in Southampton. She was too large to dock, so we were taken out in small boats. The sea was extremely rough, and we battled waves as we headed out to where the beautiful, Thirties-style, picture-book liner lay at anchor.

As our little bobbing boat was manoeuvred closer, we got an idea of the scale and solidity of the ship. Great waves crashed against a gigantic black-painted steel wall, which did not move. The seas broke around the ship as though it were solid land. (I was to remember this image when, in mid-Atlantic, we were hit by violent storms that tossed the liner about as though it were a little boat.)

Looking up, we could see tiny faces against the skyline some 60ft above our heads. A steel door opened, a collapsible stair was lowered and we were helped aboard by polite French sailors. Stewards led us along softly-lit carpeted corridors to our tiny (internal) Tourist Class cabin. Awaiting us were telegrams, flowers - and, taking up most of the floor space, our second-hand cabin trunk. By the time we reached Montreal it had cost more in porters' tips than we had originally paid for it.

The first part of our honeymoon was spent sleeping in one bunk of a two-bunk cabin. The ability to sleep with each other this way became a habit, and for many years visitors to our bedroom were puzzled by the single bed.

Exploring the gigantic ship we soon realised we were not aboard a floating hotel but something more complex - a complete microcosm of the pre-war and post-war European world. All the social hierarchies, together with their physical manifestations, were replicated. Three main classes: Tourist, Second and First, each with sub-divisions to do with size, location and 'en suite facilities'.

Each sector was luxuriously furnished in an appropriate manner: cabins, table and bed linen, cutlery and uniforms - everything obeyed hierarchical rules. Maple in Tourist, oak in Second, and mahogany, ebony, chrome and glass in First.

And the staff] From the imperious presence of the head waiter in the first-class dining-room down through an army of waiters, assistants, chefs, cooks, bakers, stewards, maids, nurses, musicians, valets, cabin boys and kennel maids. All these and many more, just to look after the passengers. Looking after the ship were two main groups of crew. Wherever their duties brought them into contact with passengers, smartly dressed bilingual officers and sailors formed a cast of extras supporting the star, a magnificent silver- haired and silver-bearded captain. Beyond and below, hordes of unseen crew, including dark-skinned sweating boilermen in the inferno of the ship's bowels, kept us moving steadily forward.

On one of our safaris into deepest shipland we wandered beyond the world of luxury into 'The Works'. The line between the two worlds was the thickness of a 2in door. On one side were carpets, oak and brass, and the hum of ventilation systems. Over the threshold we entered what seemed to be a Sheffield steel factory. Metal plates lined the back of our entry door, the floors and walls. The whole place throbbed with the sound of machinery.

Directly opposite us was a large industrial lift, filled to capacity with bundles of laundry. In the distance we could see a huge busy kitchen. Men in various workclothes were attending the ship with a devotion equal to that shown to the passengers on the other side of the door.

In another part we looked down three or four storeys into a pit where men in white overalls wandered among machinery such as I had once seen in Battersea Power Station. I remember feeling a surge of almost mystical realisation: we were part of a species that had the ability and courage to conceive, build and run such an enterprise as an ocean-going liner; our potential must be limitless.

We soon settled to the daily routine. Breakfast with menus and newspapers printed on board, fresh croissants and baguettes from the bakery. By the fourth morning so many passengers and waiters had succumbed to seasickness that those of us remaining were placed on a single table in the corner of the huge dining-room.

We spent the mornings in deckchairs, wrapped in thick blankets by stewards who pampered us and served hominy soup at 11am precisely. Deck games were quoits for us, clay-pigeon-shooting for the other ranks of passengers.

A five-course lunch, and a six-course dinner plus wines and liqueurs: we could rarely do justice to the quantity of excellent cuisine. Ship's officers organised afternoon games and tea dances in the ballroom. Evenings were for musical shows, fancy-dress balls, drinking at one of the bars or gentle gambling; deck horse-racing (wooden 'horses' were moved by stewards when their number came up) and a form of bingo in Tourist, roulette and chemin de fer in First.

We often slipped away from all these activities, and by a circuitous route 'went to the dogs'. The steadiest part of the ship was on the topmost deck between the funnels. Two runs of kennels faced each other across an expanse of empty deck. We would lie side by side looking up at dark clouds or starry sky, trying hard not to look at the horizon, which would slowly rise way above the ship's rail, reach its zenith, give an awful twist (a shudder ran the length of the ship), then sink out of sight before rising again. (We later discovered that seasickness can be avoided by looking only at the horizon.)

It is a tradition at sea to be invited to the Captain's Table. Of the hundreds of passengers, only a few could be selected. I think we were chosen because it was known we were on our honeymoon. One morning an elaborately printed invitation was slipped under our door. 'The captain would be honoured . . . in the First Class Dining Room . . . Dress: Formal.'

Out came the crumpled wedding clothes to be pressed, and by 8.30pm we were sitting at table looking poised. I cannot now remember the other guests, only some of the conversation which ranged up and down the table in French, English and Dutch.

From horses and sporting guns (about which we were ignorant), the conversation turned to war experiences. Our stories of the London Blitz and of being child evacuees were swapped for those about life in enemy-occupied countries.

And then: New York harbour, the Statue of Liberty, skyscrapers - all in place, just like the brochure photographs. But for me, arrival was particularly poignant.

My paternal grandfather, a would-be immigrant from a small Austrian farm, had got this far in the last century. No one came forward to collect him from Ellis Island, so he was shipped back to Liverpool and walked to London, to relatives, penniless and without a word of English.

But here we were, waving our British passports and immigrants' visas, being welcomed to the Brave New World with hoots, whistles, flags and bunting. I hoped grandad was watching.

(Photographs omitted)

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