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Recounting Blessings

Chapter 27


1950 – 1957

 Cambusbarron / Stirling

 

Youth Hostelling in Holland (ii)

Amsterdam – Hook of Holland

 

Thereafter it was on to the bustling city of Amsterdam and its handily placed rural attractions a bit further north. Thereabouts we enjoyed more eye-catching sights and novel experiences, amongst which one was our youth hostel for the next five or six days.

 

[Note: There were no Motorways to bother us in 1952!]

 

 

The architecture of the predominantly traditional terraced housing overlooking canals was, as it still is today, characterised by narrow frontages, multi-storey-ness and ornate roofings. Our hostel was no different. But perhaps we had slightly more cycle-parking-grids than normal on our outside pavement! You might have thought that the insides, due to their narrow-ness, would be a bit of a ‘squash’ and also claustrophobic? But no, their high ceilings offset this well, and in particular, this last aspect was fully exploited for hostellers, as, within my dormitory for twelve travellers on the fourth floor, our nose-to-tail bunks, stretched upwards six-high. I was initially allocated a top-bunk, but became so unpopular with the ‘beneaths’ when ‘needing to go’ in the middle of the night, that I was quickly transferred to floor-level bedding!

 

We found that the city was a bit too expensive for our pockets with respect to most touristy things like organised boat-trips along the miles of intersecting canals. Also, most of us were too young to want to trek around museums and the like. But one day we did get taken on a visit to a diamond cutting/cleaning enterprise. However, as you can guess, this, although fascinating, was not a venture from which any souvenirs were purchased! 

 

So we tended to get on our bikes and head out of town most days to see the Markermeer on the Zuider Zee and tour around its western dyke-protected hinterland. Three main targets had been chosen to interest us, villages en route to Alkmaar in order to purchase souvenirs, Alkmaar itself for its cheese-market, and Volendam for its ‘ye olde-worldiness’ and fishing harbour.

 

I bought two reasonably priced pairs of yellow-painted and suitably annotated clogs in one village near Haarlem – one pair with pointed toes, the other pair rounded – but then had to hump them with me on the back of my bike during between hostel cycling for the rest of the holiday. Never a good listener, I had ignored the advice to leave this kind of present-buying until nearer journey’s end!

 

 

The market and cheese-sampling at Alkmaar was certainly a worthwhile experience. But unfortunately I have to admit to slight disappointment at the invasion of commercialism, even in 1952, that tarnished my impressions of Volendam. The population’s efforts to attract people to view their exquisite traditional working costumery, their brightly painted wooden housing and their busy fishing port were overshadowed to a large extent by their trying to sell trips on ferry-boats, over-priced ice-creams, lemonades and snacks. However, by getting away from the front ‘esplanade’ as Roy and I did, we were able to savour the artistry and skills that were displayed in the living-quarters and workshops alongside more distant back-street canals.

 

 

 

The next legs of our journey entailed heading east via some modest hill roads to Hilversum, Amersfoort and Arnhem. As in 1952 it had been only seven years since the cessation of hostilities with Germany, we were all determined to pay our respects to the Commonwealths’ fallen by visiting the Arnhem War Graves’ Cemetery and ‘the bridge too far’ at Njimegen.

 

 

As I recall it, the hostel in a tranquil setting on the western outskirts of Arnhem was one of the most comfortable that we experienced and that resting-up there for a few days was just what our tiring, and by then fairly bedraggled, party needed. Among other things, it allowed time for  bike maintenance and cleaning, the darning of socks as well as all the mending of holes in the trousers of those unfortunate enough, like me, to have been ‘saddled’ with a couple of pairs of flannel rather than buckskin breeks! However, my surrogate ‘mum’, Helen, who tried to mollycoddle me, the ‘baby of the party’, during the whole trip, saved me pricked fingers by doing the necessary temporary repairs  … and I gleefully let her!

 

We were thus all spick and span, if not fully mentally prepared, for what became for me one of the most dramatic and sad afternoons of my young life. At some distance from the gates of the War Graves’ Cemetery we could already see what seemed to be acres of white flowers on a background of green. On closer approach the stark reality became evident! Rows and rows and rows and rows of white gravestones and crosses standing on beautifully manicured lawns as if ‘at attention’. The tears flowed as we carefully parked our bikes outside and, as quietly as possible, in the utter silence of that tree-sheltered meadow, filtered our ways through the gates and wandered forlornly up one pathway and down another and yet another and another …...

 

 

For one thing I distinctly recollect thinking, “Where was I when this massacre occurred – probably when I was too young to learn of it, far less to understand the truth about its death toll?” The extent of my sacrifice back home in Scotland had been to help the war effort by enduring bleeding fingers from picking hundredweights of rose-hips for the manufacture of Vitamin ‘C’ laden syrup. These service personnel had made the ultimate sacrifice with their blood! A verse that I composed recently when recalling war-time summer days in Scotland seems all the more poignant now while that afternoon’s visions return to haunt me as I write.

 

See a’ thoan prickly sticky bushes up ont’ hillside
Wi’ healthy rose-hips there sae ripe tae pick

Fill up big bucket loads o’ them is whit ye’re askit

Tak mak guid seerup sae-nae wee-folks will get sick

Just fill yir bucket fu’ o’ them tae earn a bawbee

Then stert ye’re pickin’ a’ ower again

Fur ye’ll be daen yir auld country-as guid a service

As dae acroass the seas oor bravely fichtin’ men

 

In many senses the last three days heading west and homeward seemed anticlimactic after that day in Arnhem and the next day in Njimegen. Even the seas on the return voyage seemed to share our anger and sadness about the wastages of war as they raged and made everyone on board physically sick.

 

But, to end this episode on a lighter note: My two pairs of breeks were so badly worn through to my underpants on arrival in London that Helen forced me to put on a pair of her rather outsize shorts for the ride back to Wycombe. Not to make my English ‘mum’ unhappy, I withstood what I considered to be the greater embarrassment of wearing her  breeks rather than unabashedly showing occasional glimpses of my white cotton ‘Y fronts’ from the saddle! 


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