Three Laindon Lads Go Abroad
Sixty three year ago: The First time Overseas
I have been very fortunate in regard to travel. In my life I have been to over twenty five different countries, some of them several times, both on business and pleasure. Countries as diverse as Canada and Brazil or as Ruanda and Ceylon. However, nothing quite equals the first time abroad. This month is the sixty third anniversary of that first trip. A trip that is as fresh in my mind today as it was then.
The uncle of my friend George Hill, who lived at 2, King Edward Road, was stationed in Hamburg, Germany with the BAOR after the war. He had taken three families under his wing and helped them with food, clothing, and other necessities of life in a post apocalyptic Hamburg. This continued for an extended period of time. Perhaps three or more years. He was attached to a British intelligence unit and one morning was found dead floating in a canal. The crime was never solved but it was assumed that, as part of his intelligence duties, he was tracking some black marketers when it all went terribly wrong. (Rather like one of my favourite films which was set in post war Vienna and and starred Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Joseph Cotten. The Third Man.) The Hamburg families never forgot his kindness and in 1950 invited George and a couple of friends to visit them on holiday. They hoped to repay the kindness of George’s uncle in some way.
Thus George, Jim Grindle who lived in Douglas Road and I, all aged seventeen, made plans to visit Hamburg together the following summer. This was an age before the birth of the tourist industry. The popular idea of a holiday was a day at Southend, puttering around in the garden, or a coach trip to Epson racecourse. For the really adventurous it might be a week at Butlin’s holiday camp at bracing Skegness. Money! We needed money. George and I worked in the city earning three pounds ten a week. Every spare penny went into the Hamburg pot. Jim had just started a university education at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and was almost destitute. During the holidays Jim worked on the building sites in the Laindon area. Initially he was the butt of many jokes as the bricklayers, plasterers,and other labourers made fun of the Oxford boy who was obviously too good for this sort of work. It did not take long for Jim to earn their respect as he carried a hod of bricks up a ladder as fast and as often as anyone else without excuse or complaint. Nonetheless as time drew closer Jim still needed more money. Reluctantly he gave me his stamp collection which he had been collecting most of his life and asked me to sell it for him in the city. I forget how much it fetched but I sold it to a small stamp and foreign coin shop just outside Fenchurch Street station. Next to Joe Lyons on the corner.
Departure day arrived. We had no credit cards (I do not think they existed), no cheque book or bank account, simply English pound notes and some German marks which we had purchased from a tiny currency exchange shop in Leadenhall market. It was not a matter of catching a plane from City airport or some other London departure point for a forty minute flight. Far from it. We caught the train from Laindon to Fenchurch Street. Then the underground from Tower Hill to Victoria. Then the train to Dover.Show passport and ticket before boarding the cross channel ferry to Ostend. No hydrofoil. Just a very slow ferry and was it rough! Or at least it seemed that way to three callow Laindon youths. Struggle ashore. Show passport. Board the train to Hamburg. Show passport and train ticket again. This time we got an official stamp in our passport showing we were in Belgium. They carefully inspected the visa stamped on a fresh page in the passport which allowed entry into Germany. A special visa was required for Germany at that time. Settle down in an empty compartment with only the four of us. (George had managed to strike up a conversation with a Danish girl on her way to Copenhagen and from then on she became part of our small group.) The train had a long, narrow corridor running the length of each carriage from which entry was gained to the individual compartments. Jim and I dozed off.
After what seemed like a couple of hours the same two officials entered and again wanted to see passports. Another stamp. It seemed we were about to leave Belgium. Two minutes later two different officials in different uniforms entered and demanded to see our passports. Another stamp. We had got the hang of it by now and realised that these latest two officials were Dutch and that we had entered the Netherlands.
Jim and I tried to doze off again. Rather self consciously this time as it was apparent that, during our initial sleep, George had succeeded in getting up close and personal with the Danish girl. Clearly they were anxious to return to their pastime. Jim and I did our best to feign sleep or at least indifference.
Some hours later, or so it seemed, passports were again demanded as we left the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter another two different officials entered. These seemed more professional and uptight. Germans I thought. Understandably, they were much more interested in the visa which allowed entry into Germany. These were examined minutely. Again time passed. Rather boringly now as the journey seemed interminable. At least Jim and I did not have to pretend unconsciousness any longer. George and the Danish girl had come up for air and the four of us watched out of the windows as the rural contryside swept by. Finally we pulled into the Hauptbahnhof, the main railway station in Hamburg. The entire journey had taken nearly thirty hours. There waiting for us were representatives of the three families who were to host us. One of us with each family. For the next week and a half we were welcomed as their house guests. They could not have been kinder and would not accept the first penny for our board and lodging.
The initial impression we each had was one of absolute shock at the state of Hamburg and how many of the population had to live. We were used to the pock marked city of London where virtually every other street revealed a gaping hole as the result of German bombing. Little had yet been rebuilt in London (building materials and financing were all dedicated to new housing estates to help alleviate the housing crisis) but all of the rubble had been cleared away, streets repaired and passable, buses and the underground system functioning normally. This was not the case in Hamburg. Every other street in Hamburg was blocked with rubble from bombed buildings. There were large expanses which were totally demolished. Many families were homeless and lived in the underground tunnels of the still inoperative underground train system. Some buses ran but with many diversions caused by rubble strewn streets. This was six years after the war ended! We realised that whatever damage had been visited upon British cities, the Germans had indeed “sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.”
The memory of the Ausenalster and the Binnenalster (literally outer and inner lake), two man made lakes in the centre of the city, remain with me. As does fond memories of a beautiful warm afternoon in a biergarten and a hike through part of the Luenburger Heide, a nature preserve outside the city itself. It was during this hike that one of our hosts explained to us how the populace could democratically elect Hitler to power and subsequently follow him to Armageddon. I forget the rationale but it all seemed quite reasonable at the time!
We spent some time wandering around on our own. Our hosts warned us several times to stay away from a street named Reiperbahn. Naturally that was enough to send three Laindon lads in search of Reiperbahn street. Three callow young lads from a rural Essex village had never seen anything like it before. As we stepped around the piles of bomb rubble in the street we were called after from virtually every doorway. It was probably just as well that we had about six words of German between us. Women in various states of undress, their beauty fading (or totally faded in many cases) competed for our attention with skinny girls barely out of puberty. Naive as we were we had never imagined that such existed. Later in life I discovered that this was a not uncommon sight in many cities but to three seventeen year old Laindon lads this was quite a revelation. Now we understood our hosts warning—“stay away from Reiperbahn.”
Fine bone china was extraordinarily inexpensive and we all three determined to take a set back for our mothers. When I last visited Jim, a few years ago in Formby, we had a cup of tea using the remains of the set he brought back for his mother all those many years ago. My own mother died last year, aged one hundred, and she still had a few pieces of the cornflower blue set I gave her.
Jim had to leave several days early as he had received a call up notice to report for his two years National Service on a certain date. Of course in that era we were all obligated to serve king and country. After basic training Jim was attached to an intelligence unit in Graz, Austria. A few days after Jim’s departure George and I also bade farewell to our hosts and began our long journey home. No Danish girl on the return trip. In fact no girls of any nationality— which left both of us a little disapointed.
I have had the good fortune to travel extensively but the first time, when one is young and impressionable, makes an indelible impression. To make the trip with two such good friends made it doubly enjoyable. To think that it was so many years ago. Is it possible?