By Sue Scott. Aberfoyle Park, SA
The sound of the back door being closed with a bang was the beginning of an exciting new world for our family. Dad announced, “The holiday starts now”. On that day in 1960, I had no idea what lay before us. In preparation for our adventure, we were all required to get a smallpox vaccination. Sound familiar?
After another wet, dismal holiday on the English northeast coast, my parents bravely decided to join the inaugural overseas trip organised by British Rail for its staff. This was the start of many. We were to travel by train, ferry, overnight sleeper, and coach before reaching our destination. It was to take a day and a half.
We caught the last bus in the city to catch the London train. This midnight train was no express service — it stopped at every station big or small to collect or deliver milk and newspapers. This turned a two-hour journey into a five-hour marathon. But we had another train and ferry to catch before we reached France, therefore the very early start. My sister and I dozed during this slow stop start progress through the dark. Most stations were dimly lit and everywhere was busy but quiet. Others were hectic, business as usual as we moved towards dawn. Our tired arrival into St Pancras saw us bleary eyed and sandwiches and tea finished. I was already excited, this was different. I didn’t realise how many more miles we had to our new adventure.
The underground took us to Victoria station to catch the Boat Train. Here, we met our fellow travellers and guide for the next leg of this unfolding experience. Huddled on the platform, nervous, tired, and probably wondering how this ground-breaking trip would work out. Our family’s destination was the Spanish coast, others off to the Italian Rivera. To me it sounded like a trip to the moon. Names were ticked off, luggage labels distributed. All of us boarded the boat train to Dover. My sister was a sufferer of travel sickness. Rail travel was alright, but sea travel was an unknown factor about to be tested.
Dover had been my first sight of ships, ferries, and cargo ships all huge and noisy. Our guide herded us onto the Sealink ferry bound for Calais, just one hour over the English Channel. My parents and I made for the deck to witness England disappear and France appear on the horizon. Unfortunately, my elder sister had made for the toilets even before the ship began to move. She didn’t really conquer sea sickness for many years.
Happily, it was only a short trip to Belle, France. The rest of us enjoyed the view of France getting closer and closer. We had always had our feet firmly planted in Britain, so to arrive and travel through a foreign land would be tinged with apprehension. At Calais, my sister emerged from the toilets looking very pale and glad to be off the water.
Our intrepid group gathered on the quayside where we were introduced to our French guide (or courier, as they called them), who was to lead our band of tourists to the Spanish border. She would accompany us until the following morning as we left France to enter Spain. At my first encounter with customs, my small case was marked with a chalk cross to show the authorities had cleared it. I began to feel like a proper traveller. On our train trip to Paris, my mother was started and disgusted by the train’s facilities — the bathroom and toilets proved to be a challenge. A hole in the bottom of the toilet provided a stiff breeze as well as the knowledge that the tracks would be where the deposits went. That would be the first of many occasions we were to meet that exposed us to the fact the France did things differently.
On our journey from Calais to Paris, our band of hardy travellers kept together: a small knot of Englishness in a strange land. Our arrival at the Gare du Nord saw us thrown into the whirlpool that was Paris. We clung to our French courier. We had till early evening when we would board our overnight sleeper to Spain. Our coach trip around the City of Lights amongst the landmarks of France’s capital have dimmed but its impression has stayed with me for a lifetime.
Early evening saw us at the Gare du Auschwitz, where it seemed the world was on the move to other places. Our trusted courier organised us on onboard for the overnight trip to the Spanish border. This is where we were confronted by the power of God. After much fussing and confusion, our guide eventually allocated our carriage where Dad had reserved seats for the overnight journey, having decided that a sleeper was unnecessary. Many lessons were learnt on our first overseas holiday. Yes, there were four seats all with a reserved sign above each. Except sitting in our seats were four elderly nuns, who shook their wimples and said “non” to our request for them to vacate our reserved places. Dad showed them our bookings, complete with confirmed seat numbers. But the only explanation: just another firm “non”. In the following half hour or so, both our guide and one the train’s stewards attempted to cajole, and then argue with the French nuns. That God had ordained they should remain seemed to be the only explanation offered. So, in the face of God and no one willing to forcibly eject them, our family then were destined to spend the night sitting on our luggage.
Welcome to foreign travel.