A few years ago I received an e-mail from a lady in Scotland who saw the photos from my trip along the Rhine and Mosel rivers. She said she did a cycle trip in 1951, traveled much the same route, and stayed in the same Youth Hostel as I. She said she documented the trip in letters home to her parents and offered to type them and send them to me. The result is below, a fascinating account of post-war Germany that is extremely well written and very touching. Enjoy!
Y.H.A CYCLE TOUR THROUGH THE SAARLAND, GERMANY AND LUXEMBOURG
28TH JULY TO 12TH AUGUST 1951
by Mrs. Betty Verrill
14th August 1951
Dear Mum and Dad
I have so much to tell you about, I think it's best to give you a day-today account of my trip, so here goes, (with apologies for any repetitions.)
I arrived half-an-hour early at the Y.H.A. office, and stood around with 6 or 7 others, all without speaking. At 12.30 a man took us into the office and gave us our final instructions and tickets. Our party comprised: the leader, Ruth Walker, a small German girl of 28 or so, married to an Englishman; Iris and Peter, a girl and boy from Kingston, not particularly attached to one another, but old family friends; Audrey and Pat, two very nice tall fair girls of 20 from Wimbledon; Stan Gibbs, a man of 35 from Derby, quite a decent type; Iris “Muscles” Edmundson, a country school-teacher from Somerset -very masculine but awfully kindly, and Johnnie Williams, a friend of Alan Ashment who is in our office. Johnnie spoke to me in the Y.H.A. office and from then on we stuck together most of the time, so I had no worries about being on my own.
We had to wait at Victoria Station till 4.30 pm, owing to a train crash somewhere. The journey across to Ostend was as smooth as glass -just like going on a trolleybus. We arrived at Ostend about 11.15 pm and piled into a funny wee Belgian train with high-backed wooden seats.
Arrived in Metz half asleep at 8 am, and, after 2 rolls and coffee (not real coffee, but an evil-tasting brew made from corn, which we got used to after a few days) set off over cobbles on the right-hand side of the road -it felt queer at first! The country was gently sloping and very uninspiring. Everywhere the roads were terrible, 75% -80% cobbles during the whole tour and what irregular broken cobbles. We had to carry our bikes three times for 20 or 30 yards. We arrived, all in, at Ludweiler Youth Hostel in the Saar, tired, shaken, hot and hungry, and were delighted to find cold showers in the washroom.
On the village green, 6 boys and girls were doing a folk dance to the accompaniment of a guitar, singing and hand-clapping. There were 30 or 40 little girls and boys at the hostel, war orphans on a week's holiday. They were only 7 to 10 years old, but prepared all the food and cleaned the hostel. They sang beautifully all the time.
Cycled through the Saar to Sandorff Hostel. For our midday meal we always bought a very long loaf, salad etc. and took it to wayside café where we sat under trees for lunch. They do not mind you bringing your own food to cafes there. We were made very welcome everywhere because there is no tourist traffic at all and the people are very poor. Sanddorf was a beautifully kept hostel, and the food was the best of the whole tour. We had beef soup, sausage (real meat) roast potatoes, salad and wild raspberries. Most other hostels just gave the middle course.
We were awakened this morning by the “Hostel Mother” and her sister singing a two-part morning song. It was a really beautiful awakening, and they had lovely clear voices. We stopped for lunch in the last village in the Saar, and spent our last francs before crossing the frontier. The usual crowd gathered, and we were delayed for half-an -hour. We made friends easily with people -the children by letting them ring our bells, post cards for us or help pack our bags, and the grown-ups by explaining that our water-bottles contained "kalt wasser fur trinkenn and so on.
The boys from 2 to 30 years or so in the Saar and Germany wear leather shorts with shoulder straps and a cross strap bearing badges. These shorts are hard-wearing and are passed from generation to generation. The older women wear long clothes, and many of the younger ones dress entirely in black. We didn't see many girls cycling, but those we did see, all wore skirts, so our shorts were another reason for curiosity.
We had one or two "encounters" with the police -mainly for riding two abreast, (but also because we had no bicycle papers) as single file is the law over there, but we were hanged if we were going to cycle on our own. Each time the police stopped us, we smiled sweetly and said “We are English -we do not understand”. This always baffled them, except on one occasion, when the officer concerned spoke English. So I was pushed forward (in my kilt) and addressed the officer in broad Scots! He scratched his head for a full minute, then shrugging his shoulders, got into his car and drove off. That was the last we saw of him, though I was scared he would return with a Scots-speaking colleague!
We crossed the frontier into Germany, and stopped next at Landstuhl, where we had an hour's bathe in a beautiful open-air "Schwimmbadn in the hills, surrounded by flower gardens and pine woods -(and where I caused some consternation “Fraulein- Fraulein-Fraulein!”-by nearly walking into the men's changing-room.)
We next arrived at the town of Kaiserslautern -about the size of Peebles, shall I say, and parked our bikes beside the big church in the market-place. Immediately a crowd of 40 or 50 people collected, windows flew open, folk appeared on balconies four or five floors up, peeped out of windows and actually came running from all directions.
We went in to see the church (mainly to avoid the crowd, I must admit, for we were more interested in the market stalls than in architecture) and were conducted round by the minister himself, one Herr Croe! It is a beautiful red sandstone building with lovely stained-glass windows which have miraculously escaped the bombing. The church was founded by the Protestants Luther and Calvin, and its organ is one of the finest in West Germany. It had four big keyboards and literally hundreds of stops. Herr Croe switched it on and let Stanley play an anthem. Even in the church we were followed by 20 or 30 people, and it became embarrassing, to say the least. One old man offered to mind the bikes while we did 2 hours’ window-shopping and had tea. When we came back, he was proudly exhibiting them and explaining them to a large crowd!
We spent the night in Kaiserslautern Hostel, which, like almost all the hostels was, for some obscure reason, perched on top of a 1in 6 hill above the town. There is not much to say about German hostels; they are similar to our own, though better kept, cleaner and stricter. No luggage can be taken into the dormitories except toilet and night requisites. The wash-rooms are a bit small, but more or less adequate, and most have showers and foot-baths. The lavatories leave much to be desired, and more than once we visited the fields rather than face them, The lavatories and wash-places of all the cafes we visited were scrupulously clean, though some were primitive.
Today we entered prettier country -and hillier. It was terribly hot, and we all got bad headaches from the sun. There was one hill where I thought I would pass out. It's the first time I've had sweat streaming down my brow! We were resting at the top of this hill, when a motor-cyclist stopped and spoke to us. He was the "Road Master" of 250,000 kilos of road (?). He told us to meet him in a village five miles on, and took us into an inn there, buying drinks all round, a 1/41b block of chocolate for each girl and cigarettes for those who smoked. It turned out that he had been a Prisoner-of-War in England, eight years ago, in Oldham, and he had been treated well. At Christmas time, Oldham Catholic Youth Club gave the P.0.W,s a lovely party, and he wished to repay this kindness. (On parting, I gave him one of my two packets of tea from Dad's shop and he was delighted.)
That day we passed through two or three pretty, quaint little villages with overhanging houses and incredibly narrow streets. At one place two young women were doing their washing in the river and incidentally bathing a very young baby, who squealed with joy each time they dipped him in. (This was the place where the road was completely closed for repair and we had to carry our laden bikes on a plank bridge over quite a deep river.)
Once, on a road miles from anywhere, we found a starving kitten. We fed it on tinned milk, and tried to get it adopted at one or two houses, but no-one would take it. At the next village, the people suggested we try the minister or whatever he was. Stan and Ruth took it there, and we and the villagers stood at the foot of the steps. The Priest came to the door. He was typical of Chaucer's “Prieste” -bald with round plump cheeks, rotund and generally pleased with himself. He stood on the threshold, and in stentorian voice proclaimed “I have enough to do saving the souls of these wretched beings at my feet let alone bothering with a miserable animal. Good day to you.” He shut the door in Stan's face and an angry mutter arose from the crowd. I was scared they might get rough, but just then a child of seven or eight came up and said her mother would look after the kitten and give it a good home. Talk about a storm in a teacup!
Just before we reached Bad Kreuznach Hostel, we visited Bad Munster, a very trim and select Spa town. There were four or five rather odd erections there for inhaling salt “breezes.” They consist of about 200 yards of wooden framework 30 or 40 feet high, packed tightly with bundles of twigs like lots of garden besoms packed together. Down these twigs trickles a continuous flow of saline water, supposed to be beneficial. The water ends in a huge “moat”, is recharged, and by devious means completes the circuit to trickle down once more. The mechanism consists of a gigantic wooden water-wheel, of 15or 20 feet radius, which works two wooden pistons, great lengths of timber, which in their turn revolve other wheels which pump the water up to the required level. The whole process is as slow and relentless as time, and extremely fascinating.
On the public notice boards in Bad Munster was a photograph of a 19year-old English boy. Evidently he had been shot down and presumed dead near there in 1944, but some evidence had arisen that he might possibly be still alive, and living there, suffering from loss of memory. (Or was this a forlorn hope of his parents?) It was a rather tragic notice and we left the town feeling saddened.
Bad Kreuznach was the hostel from which I wrote my first letter. As I told you, the girls' dormitory was overcrowded and airless, so we slept on palliasses on the common-room floor -and were quite comfortable too -while the boys slept in the kitchen. (Oh dear, my pen is running dry. I shall have to borrow Mrs Pearl's scroll pen!)
Today we joined the Rhine, and were thankful to find we were no longer objects of curiosity, although we still got a few stares. The Rhine is certainly very beautiful, in structure rather like the average Highland loch. The sides, which are very steep in places, are entirely covered with vines, all planted in orderly rows. ( I have just been in borrowing Mrs Pearl's pen, and she says to tell you to take a week's holiday to read this. I might as well as well tell you it all at once, though,)
Mainz Hostel is a temporary one, consisting of two wooden huts in a foreign workers' camp. The huts were scrupulously clean but that was about all. As I told you, there had been a booking error, and in addition to sleeping two in a bed, we had trouble with two Czechs climbing in the window in the wee sma' hoors. The camp was on a hill two miles above the town, and as we were ravenous, and the supper offered to us was a plate of pea soup and a glass of lemonade, we were obliged to hire a bus into town for 1/- a head. We had a jolly good dinner in town, though. Ruth paid a mark for each of us (the amount she is allowed for a hostel meal) and we paid the balance of 6d or 8d ourselves, plus a 11- for a drink.
The Y.H.A. food allowance was underestimated, and several times we had to fork out extra money, which was a drain on our slender pockets, Also, I think they should have told us that the money we paid does not cover any drinks at all. The weather was terribly hot and drinking water not always obtainable, When we did get it, it soon became warm and stale, so we spent a great deal on apple juice and other local soft drinks. Even lemonade cost 10d a glass, although it is of better quality than the British stuff.
Everywhere we found things expensive, generally 50% or more than in our country. A few things, such as musical instruments, watches, tools and umbrellas, were cheaper, but these were isolated instances. One of the most striking examples was in Luxembourg, where we saw Mackintoshes “Quality Street” toffees at 1/4d for 3oz. Bananas were 2/6d pr 3/-for l lb 2oz. Tomatoes 1/-for l lb, grapes 2/6dto 3/-for l lb and damsons 2d per lb. Butter was 8/-to 10/- and luncheon meat up to 6/- for 4 oz.
In one village dairy I had a glass of creamy ice-cold milk for 10 pfennigs (2d). So when on the Rhine steamer and thinking to economise, I asked for a glass of milk, I was charged a shilling, and given a milky watery concoction with an irony taste! I don't know yet what it was, but I never had any more milk in Germany.
I notice in the circular it says "At Mainz the party will visit the famous Cathedral", but we were not allowed in. as we girls wore shorts. Ruth argued with the man, but he refused to let us enter, I could quite see his point of view, but two of the girls had only shorts, and the rest of us could hardly change into skirts in the middle of a busy street!
This night was spent in Burg Stahleck hostel, the mediaeval castle poised on a cliff above the Rhine, where we had the wonderful international singsong I described to you. I enclose a postcard of the castle. It's the only one I kept, as I hadn't enough money to buy more.
We continued up the Rhine gorge. We never ceased to wonder at the Rhine, and what a great international highway it is. At any point on it there are hundreds of boats, launches, steamers and amazing little tugs, towing huge barges -as many as five of them -laden deep into the water with wood and other fuel. There is a main road on either side, with a continuous stream of tourist traffic -American, Belgian, French, Dutch and Swiss cars, motor cycles and bikes from many nations. Also on either side runs a railway, with engines often pulling 50, 60 or even 70 trucks. Overhead, frequent planes passed. They evidently fly up and down the Rhine gorge to avoid the mountains and low cloud.
I found the transport over there very interesting. The trams are very rickety. They run on narrow-gauge lines all over the place; up the steepest of hills, through long grass and flowers. Periodically, for no obvious reason, they dive into a wood, or disappear into a cornfield, running on miniature sleepers, reappearing minutes later quite unconcernedly ringing their idiotic little bells. The trams are all single-decker, but, in the bigger towns, often have a trailer hooked on.
The trains are equally amusing, and the country stations rival those of the Emett Railway. The majority of level crossings have no gates. The posher ones boast a flashing light to warn the road users, but mostly you just hear a few squeaks, a little bell tinkling -I cannot say clanging -and a very laboured puffing and blowing. The engines are very old fashioned, black iron monsters, high up off the ground, with huge black funnels or what you may call them. Whenever the trains have cause to enter tunnels, which they do frequently, they do so by no ordinary entrance. Instead, above the tunnel are miniature ramparts, with tiny turrets and towers flanking the entrance -a nice idea, in keeping with the numerous old castles of the Rhine.
That day we climbed the famous cliff to the rock of the Lorelei whence the mermaid used to lure unwary sailors to their death in olden days. We had a rather sobering encounter a few miles before we reached Kamp hostel. A very heavy shower came on, driving us to shelter under a nearby railway bridge. Also sheltering were an aged couple of refugees from East Germany. Ruth spoke to them, and found the woman suffered from TB and her husband from diabetes, and neither could work.
In the Russian Zone, if you cannot work, you either starve to death or get out. The poor souls had been wandering for years, doing a few days' work here and there in Western Germany, and sleeping mainly under hedges, or where they could. We felt ashamed for being on holiday, secure and well fed, but could do nothing about it, as we had only a few marks between us. The awful thing is that there are thousands of these homeless people wandering about Europe with nobody to care for them. It seems a sin to see others splashing money on pleasure, especially some Americans in large flashy cars.
At Kamp hostel, we sat down for supper at the same table as two nice looking boys of about 25 or 26. We talked to them and got on fine, although we were rather disappointed to hear they were travelling by motor-bike. But when they got up, one of them, from the waist down, was just a skeleton, his legs all bent, and as thin as a baby's. He walked painfully with the aid of two sticks. The other walked very slowly also, and was almost as wasted away. We took them out in the evening to a café, and they told us they had been in a Russian concentration camp as boys, and had lost parents, friends and everything. They lived mainly at hostels,being the cheapest means of accommodation, and got what work they could, helping each other out. What amazing courage they have!
We were joined for the next four days by two very nice German boys of 20 and 21. They were keen on singing, and taught us several folk songs. Wherever we went there was singing, and we spent some very happy evenings in the Common rooms.
We left the Rhine at Koblenz, and turned West up the river Mosel, which winds through some of the prettiest country we saw. I think I told you that we visited one or two wine cellars. These are cool caverns under the ground, of vaulted stone, lit by antique brass lamps, with tables set in alcoves. There are stained glass pictures, and famous poems in old German writing carved on the walls, also ancient murals and tapestries.
We continued up the Mosel to Traben-Trarbrach hostel, where we bathed in the river and also washed some clothes in a woodland stream. Nearly all the villages we passed through were celebrating some festival or another. At one, Merle, there was a Wine Festival. Gay paper flowers were strung across the street, bits of fir tree, flags and flowers galore fluttered from doors, windows and roof tops, and in the village square the people were dancing while the local brass band puffed away.
The piece de resistance was a fountain flowing with wine. It took the form of a huge tank, on a high platform, surmounted by a little barrel with arms, legs and a grinning head, with wine spouting from an appropriate point! There were various other festivities, including shooting galleries, a marquee showing how wine is made from the vine to the bottle, and also special things for the kids, such as a woman with a sausage on the end of a fishing rod, which the children were trying to bite without using their hands. We all had to sample a glass of wine, and could hardly cycle afterwards, as we hadn't eaten for over four hours!
Tuesday and Wednesday
These two days were spent at Trier hostel, after we had done 100miles over the worst roads I have ever experienced. It is a very good hostel, and we were well looked after. The other hostellers were given only soup, but we had beef-steaks and roast potatoes, a high honour indeed. Wednesday was our last night in Germany, so we celebrated in a Wine Cellar in town.
There we met 15 Belgians from the hostel, and had a sing song with them. We came out about 10pm, and they all started doing the Conga through the streets. Also several French and American soldiers joined on. Actually, Johnnie and I did not join this, as we felt it was not the right thing to do. The crowd ended up at the Porta Nigra, a very famous Roman gateway, dating from the second century AD, and roared out the Hokey Kokey. The rest of our party were by no means noisy types, but the Belgians were a bit rowdy, and encouraged our crowd. After, when Ruth our leader asked Johnnie and me why we did not join in, and we told her, she said the Trier people would not mind, because there is often dancing in the streets.
Today we crossed the frontier into Luxembourg. We had no difficulty at all. Stan only produced his passport and they let all nine of us through without question. We spent the night at Gravenmacher hostel, a most peculiar place. The beds were clean and comfortable, but that was all. For supper we were sent to the town's only café where we were given rissoles made from tainted meat which was still red and half raw inside. None of us could touch it, and the woman actually charged 4/-per head for potatoes and vegetables! Ruth argued and argued, but only beat her down to 3/6d each. We were helpless, as the café was the only one for miles around. What didn't help matters was the sight of two girls lying ill with food-poisoning in the dormitory, sustained in the same café!
Today we cycled through beautiful forests, up and down long hills. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and found it very like Scottish country, but the others found the hills very. Some of the hills were four miles long, but the runs down were great, over smooth surfaces, between stately pine trees and overhanging rocks.
That night was spent in the best hostel of the lot, Hollenfels Castle. It is a beautifully preserved castle, and is open to the public by day. We felt we were living in a Palace rather than a hostel. Lovely tiled floors, long tables with real tablecloths, and excellent food. There were several common-rooms, one supplied with books and quiet games, for reading and letter writing, one for singing and dancing and one for table-tennis. They are all big rooms in the main tower, connected by a narrow spiral staircase just like the Scott Monument, only even higher.
Johnnie and I went up on the battlements last thing at night, and watched the moon come up over the pine woods down below -a fitting ending to a very happy holiday.
In the morning we cycled 15miles into Luxemburg city, arriving there at 9.30 am. We spent the morning window-gazing then caught the noon train to Brussels, where we said farewell to our bikes and took a funny old tram for 3 miles to the hostel at Sippelberg. The trams have two doors, one entry and one exit, and of course we had to go in the exit door. It was all in Flemish, so how were we to know? The conductor made us go out then in by the proper door, and half of us nearly got left behind, as the doors shut automatically like in the Tube trains.
This morning we toured round the market, a weird and wonderful place. As we were rather hungry owing to a shortage of money, we hang around the biscuit and cake stalls hopefully, and were periodically rewarded with free samples! There were dozens of tobacco stalls, where the old men can have a free pipeful as a sample. Some of them appeared to go from stall to stall, filling then emptying the contents of their pipe into their pouches behind the stall. There were simply masses of sweets of all kinds and prices, and some very cute working toys which I would love to have bought.
We left Brussels at 1pm and departed from Ostend at 3 pm, arriving in Dover about 7 pm after a very rough voyage. We spent over an hour at Victoria station finding our bikes, then I cycled the last 12 miles to my lodgings, arriving just before midnight.
Above photo is from a recent newspaper advertisement. The town of Bacharach is behind the tour boat and above it is the Youth Hostel where Betty stayed in 1951 and I stayed in 2003. Burg Stahleck (Stahleck castle) was built in the 12th century and was converted into a youth hostel in the 1920s. Like Betty, but with a 27-speed touring bike, I had to push my bike up the steep road to the hostel. You can see my photos on Rhine - Mosel Cycling Trip Photos (Page 1).