Many thanks to 'Toyota' for making what must rank as one of the best long distance tourers in the World. Parked up by Bude canal after a 2000 mile round trip to Poland.
1-3; Thursday 25th
to Sat 27th. October.
Left Scilly and spent 2 nights in Penzance. I would have gone further but thanks to the crane driver on the Gry Maritha, I had to book into the Toyota dealer on Friday to have the rear bumper fixed. I didn’t mind losing a day really as it gave me chance to visit ‘Halfords’ and ‘WH Smiths’ to get last minute necessities for my trip to Poland. Maps, GB stickers, headlight deflectors, fire extinguisher, spare bulbs, reflective jacket, warning triangle, all of which are compulsory in Europe. I found the assistant in Halfords to be very helpful, I needed advice as to which GB stickers were actually legal on the Continent. “All of them!” he said. I thanked him then took out my glasses and read the back of the sticker he had been holding. “Not legal for use in Europe!” it said. I continued shopping, being very careful to read the labels, then reported to the cashier. As the cash register began to smoke, I wondered why I was going across the channel at all. I was dreading driving on the wrong side of the road in a right hand drive car. I’d driven in the U.S.A. but that was in a ‘Left hooker’ and the signs were in English. Well, sort of English. If it hadn’t had been for the wonders of SatNAv, I wouldn’t have even dreamed of going. But then, if all our intrepid explorers through the ages had panicked at the site of a Halfords till, or the thought of getting lost in a foreign land where no-one, or very few people spoke English, where would the British Empire be today. I thought of Scott, Raleigh, Drake, Livingstone & Cook and decided that the least I could do is risk a 35 minute trip through the Channel tunnel and a 3 day drive on the longest road in Europe.
Thursday night was a restless one, I don’t sleep very well in hotel beds at the best of times, but this was particularly sleepless, as earlier, while I was drinking a cup of coffee, looking out over Mount’s Bay, I suddenly realised that I’d forgotten my driving licence and passport. I spent most of the night trying to figure out how best to return to Scilly and retrieve the documents. If I left it until Saturday, at least I could get the bumper done, but knowing my luck, it would be foggy anyway, so I decided that I would have to defer my trip to Parklands until another day and fly back on Friday. As luck would have it, when I phoned BIH they had an extra flight on and it was possible to get over to St Mary’s and back again in the morning, thus allowing me to keep my date at Toyota. Friday afternoon, with my licence and passport safely tucked away, I left the car at Parkland’s, then headed for Truro in their courtesy car, A Toyota Yaris, a tiny little girlie thing with a spluttering engine, no doubt caused by a faulty electronic ignition box. I got as far as the car park in Truro and spent around 30 minutes trying to find an empty space, then just as I managed to find one, my phone went. It was the receptionist at Parkland’s telling me that they had the wrong bumper and the job couldn’t be completed and would I come back and collect the car. I tried to hide my disappointment from the passers by and waited until I was out of the car park before letting fly with a few choice adjectives. Incidentally, it cost me £2 to get out of the car park, which didn’t help my mood much. By the time I got to Carland Cross, I had cooled down and had re-thought my strategy for the next few days. I booked the car in for another day and set off back to Penzance.
Saturday, I set out for the South Coast, I wasn’t sure where but was planning on somewhere around Portsmouth/Brighton way. I got as far as Bodmin and the traffic ground to a halt. No particular reason other than the shear number of people trying to get out of Cornwall after the half term holidays. I settled down for a long wait, not really minding because I was at peace with the World. Then I noticed that my fuel gauge was reading below eighth full. I purposely didn’t fill up in Penzance because I was trying to see how far I could get on a full tank. Now the thought of running out while queuing to get out of the County dawned on me and I began to panic inwardly. I wondered how best to cope with the inevitable when it happened. I thought about taking the next slip road and trying to find a garage, but then thought better of it. I’d been there, done that and in Cornwall of all places, it’s best not to wander off the main road in search of something that might not exist. Then, I remembered my faithful SatNAv. In my ‘Points of Interest’ there is a list of garages throughout the Country, so all I had to do was carry out a ‘search’ for the nearest one. As luck would have it, there was a garage listed about half a mile ahead on the same road as me. 30 minutes later I pulled into the forecourt and selected the nearest black handled ‘Diesel’ pump. I unscrewed the filler cap and the tank sucked in so much air, I became dizzy through lack of oxygen. I now know that even being bogged down in traffic for nearly an hour, I have a range of about 420 miles on a full tank, providing I don’t try to mix it with boy racers. I usually plod along between 60/70 mph which I find plenty fast enough. My days of racing and driving like a lunatic are safely in the past. I decided to spend the night in Portsmouth, so pulled off the motorway and headed for the Town Centre. I thought my best bet for finding a bed would be to go down to the sea front as there a several small hotels there and usually looking for custom. I spent an hour and a half driving around and tried 8 different places with no luck. The receptionist in the 9th one told me that tomorrow was the day of the ‘Great South Run’ and everywhere was fully booked. I asked what the hell the ‘Great South Run’ was and she told me it was the biggest running race of the year and runners had come from all over just to take part. She said that tomorrow all the roads would be closed off and traffic wouldn’t be able to move. I thanked her and got out of Portsmouth as quickly as I could. I wanted to go to Brighton anyway.
4: Sunday 28th October
Arrived Dover amid high winds, rough sea and rain. Checked into Premiere Travel Lodge around 2pm and watched Eastenders. I thought I’d gather my wits and check all my documentation before driving up to the Tunnel entrance to check it out. I imagined the terminal to be a large area with shops etc. where one could browse and shop up until the last minute before driving through the ‘check in’ gate and onto the train. How wrong could I have been. I followed the signs off the M20 to the Eurotunnel slip road and suddenly found myself in a one way, 8 lane toll area. Before I could get over to one side to gather my thoughts, two cars were behind me wanting to use the same booth as me. I had no choice other than to put on my hazard warning blinkers and hope they had the sense to go around me. Luckily they did. Only one lane had a toll booth which was manned, so I had to enter it in the hope that the attendant took pity on me. My luck was in once more and the lady at the window explained exactly what I should do to get out of the area, then went to the trouble to explain exactly what I had to do and where I had to go in order to check in next day. If only everyone was as helpful as she had been.
Day 4: Mon 29th October (My 60th birthday)
I wanted to do something different on my 60th birthday, so timed it so that I arrived on the Continent on that day. I left Dover and made for the Channel tunnel.
It was easy to check in, thanks to the girl who helped me yesterday. I was soon in possession of my boarding ticket and parked in the main car park for a last cuppa before leaving British soil. The Eurotunnel is a very well organised affair with modern shops selling everything the driver could need on a trip to far off places. I only just had time to get the drink before my ticket number was called for embarkation. I took the coffee with me and had en-route. The signs are plentiful and easy to follow to the train, which you enter through a door in the side of it. The coach I followed had plenty of room, which gives some idea of the size of it
35 minutes later and I was on French soil for the first time in my life. Strange, I don’t know what I expected really, but it looked exactly the same as Southern England. America looks and feels different to the UK, as Scotland feels and looks different from England, but the area around Calais looks exactly the same, initially. You have to go further inland to see the real France. It only took 30 minutes before I was in Belgium. It was a pleasant drive and I found driving on the right in a right hand drive car, surprisingly easy to acclimatize to. Mind you, it was on a dual carriageway. I couldn’t resist the overwhelming urge to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. I smiled to myself and remembered last year, when I had around 300 people sing it to me at the St Just Feast.
As soon as I entered Germany, the heavens opened and I had to drive through horrendous spray and the perpetual glare of oncoming headlights as the late afternoon gloom befell me. The thing I noticed above all else at this time was that there were no 'cat's eyes' dividing the carriageways and it was very difficult to pick out the lanes. I didn’t know what the situation was regarding accommodation on the main route, whether it would be the same as in the U.K. where Travel lodges were in abundance, or if I would have to leave the E40 in order to seek it out in a nearby town. It’s surprising what I take for granted at home, simple things like the word for 'Accommodation', 'Cafe', 'dirty postcard'. I found it quite humbling being dependent on someone else being able to speak English. (Me feeling humble…….the trip was taking on a whole new meaning) I managed to find a Service area with a motel around 6pm and was pleased to be off the main road and into relative tranquillity. I looked around for words that had some meaning for me. I felt vulnerable as there were none. I summoned up the nerve to greet someone in German……..”Guten Abben, Sprachenze English?” The two girls behind the cash desk politely tried to hide their amusement, then one pushed the other forward to serve me. I managed to get her to understand that I was in need of accommodation. She must have felt sorry for me as I ended up with a €39 room for €31.
Left hotel 6am in order to get as far as possible. Drove through until lunch time, had lunch, then around 2pm I hit the Polish border. I hadn’t had any experience of border crossings so didn’t know what they expected of me or what documents I would have to show. I fumbled through the pouch and got out my passport & driving licence. There must have been 300 lorries in the queue and around 150 cars, yet they only had one checking booth open. Three border guards carried out brief checks and some vehicles were ushered off to one side in a sort of ‘holding area’. I eventually made it to the front of the line and before anyone could say anything to me, I said, “Passport!” The guard, who was female, nodded, looked briefly at it and ushered me through. “Have a pleasant stay in Poland!” she told me. The dual carriageway, which I had experienced for the last 900 miles, was now replaced by a single carriageway road which had large grooves worn into it by the weight of lorries passing along it. Before Poland joined the European Community, they had very few laws governing weight limits. I drove for approximately 5 miles, then came to halt. Not being able to see around the truck in front, I got out to try and see what was going on. The queue stretched out in front as far as the eye could see and a brief glance behind told me it was building up in that direction too. I passed the time by sending text messages and much to my surprise, not only did the messages get sent, but within 5 minutes I had two replies, all the way from Britain. I love modern technology. The traffic slowly but surely made it’s way past the obstacle. I expected to see a horse drawn cart in the middle of the road with a wheel broken. It turned out to be road laying. A fine job they were doing of t too. Now instead of being guided along the road by the deep ruts, I was gliding along on a new tarmac surface. The Isles of Scilly Council should come here and get a few pointers. After about 1 and a half hours the single track rejoined the main E40 and once more I was on dual carriageway. I intended to stop before dark and get some accommodation, but as typical, I decided to go just one more sign. I went one sign too many as the ones depicting a bed, ran out. To cut a long story short, I got off the main route to find a bed. I came across a pub, went in and as luck would have t, a Dutch lorry driver, who could speak English gave me directions to a hotel about 5 kilometres away. I asked the girl on reception if she had a room available, to which she replied in English but with a heavy Polish accent, “Yes Sir, but I only have apartment!” I asked how much, she told me 250 'Zloty' and when calculated into my own currency, I had paid £75 for a double apartment with everything I could need. I decided to stay 3 nights.... Lovely!
October : Auschwitz
I’ve tried to analyse my reasons for wanting to go there but now I have been there, I don’t feel I have to justify them. I mingled with people of all Nationalities today, of all ages, beliefs and colour, even Japanese in full National dress. They came like me, from all around the World, maybe to try and understand why anyone would wantonly inflict the brutality, the unimaginable suffering and ultimate murder of so many people. Maybe not to try and understand, maybe to see if it wasn’t just fiction. Whatever the reasoning for our visit, the fact remains that we did visit and I believe now, more than ever, that places like Auschwitz should be preserved in order to show us man’s inhumanity to man. I’d seen pictures, many , many pictures over the years and although I was shocked and sometimes curious, nothing prepared me for actually standing on the spot, the same spot that many hundreds of thousands of others had stood, not like me, able to walk out of the gate at the end of the day and return to my hotel, but being herded to almost certain death, some through starvation, some through exhaustion, deprivation, disease, medical experimentation and most famously by gassing. Death nonetheless. Their bodies to be cremated and their ashes buried unceremoniously in massive pits along with everyone else’s, no trace of them and no notification, leaving family and loved ones only guessing as to their fate.
Auschwitz 1, which is now a museum, was the original death camp. Taken over from the Polish Army by the SS and where from 1939 many thousands of people were taken and brutalised into strict obedience. Those who tried to escape or helped someone to escape, were tortured then killed and their bodies left on display as a lesson to others. Many hundreds of people were shot here but this proved too slow, so in this particular camp the SS carried out the first experimental gassing in the basement of their own barrack building. The tests proved so successful, that a special gas chamber was built to carry on the work. This building still exists, along with the furnaces. The victims were ushered in through one end of the building, forced to strip naked, then ushered into the gas chamber under the pretence that they were about to take a shower. They were told to neatly fold their clothes so that they could find them again afterwards. An SS Officer and helper, (who was a fellow prisoner) would stay in the room with them until the very last moment, trying to instill calm but at the last minute they would leave, bolting the door behind them. Other SS men would drop the Zyklon-B crystals through special vents in the roof. The people standing nearest the openings died the quickest in a few seconds, but others further away could take 20 minutes to die. The whole procedure would be watched through a reinforced window and when it was certain that all had perished, the doors would be opened, the room vented and the bodies placed into the furnaces. In less than 45 minutes their ashes were taken out through the other end of the building. Four furnaces worked non-stop to clear away the bodies. When this proved too slow, Auschwitz 2 (Berkenau) was built. This was a specially designed killing camp with four gas chambers and approximately 20 furnaces. Even this was sometimes too slow and the bodies were burned in the open in large pits. Medical experiments were also carried out in both camps. From 1939 until both Auschwitz camps were liberated by the Russians in 1945, over 1.5 million people were murdered there.
stood among the trees at the far end of the Birkenau camp, thinking what a
wonderfully peaceful place it is today. I watched the yellow leaves falling all
around me. The only sound was that of a gentle breeze rustling the trees. In the
distance other tourists walked about, reading the signs and ambling
respectfully. I levelled my camera to try and catch the mood and as I did so
something caught my eye. A sign written on what looked like black marble stood
only a few feet away. I read it carefully.
1943 & 1945 many thousands of
men, women and children mingled beneath these trees, sometimes for up to 12
hours in all weathers, unwittingly awaiting their turn to enter the gas
I tried, in a futile sort of way, to imagine how they must have felt when they looked up and saw the yellow leaves falling.
I’ve tried to think of suitable adjectives to describe Auschwitz, but what terms can one use to describe a place, purpose built to exterminate as many people as possible in the shortest possible time, in the most callously brutal, degrading, despicable and dehumanizing way imaginable. I cannot think of any words that can adequately express my feelings regarding Auschwitz. In one room there was a specially constructed wall and on it were several hundred photographs that had been found and salvaged from the victim’s luggage. Their names had been added along with other personal information. These were the faces of those who had been so unashamedly murdered. It was at that time, looking at those faces, that I felt sick to my stomach. I thank God that I’ve never had to experience the horror and hopelessness that they suffered and I pray that no-one else ever has to suffer it again.
To sum up, I just want to say that by the time I get back to the UK, I will have driven nearly 2800 miles. Was it worth it? Yes it was. I’ve never been so ‘touched’ by anything in my life. It’s different when you see it in photographs and on film, one can almost dismiss it as irrelevant, something that happened a long time ago to someone else, in a far off place, but when you actually stand on the spot where it all happened, only 62 years ago, it does something to you.
The first (& last) view of the main gate into Auschwitz Berkenau. Through this gate passed more than a million people, never to come out again, some taken straight off the train and put into the gas chambers.
Many tributes placed around the camp by individuals, some may have lost relatives there, but some just placed as a sign of respect.
To add to the indignity and suffering, these were the toilets. Because of the conditions here, disease was rampant, many dying before the gas chambers had them.
These pictures were found amongst the luggage of the last few thousand victims. Many relatives & friends have put names to the faces.
The victims personal belongings were sorted in large 'warehouses' then sent back to Germany for public use.
Instead of taking these
recently found articles home as souvenirs, the finders left them there
as a mark of respect.
At the end of the yard is the shooting wall. The barracks on either side were for prisoners who were awaiting their turn to die. The windows blacked out so only the sounds of the suffering could be used to torment them further.
Friday 2nd November
Left 'Osweicim ' and made for 'Krakow'. I hadn't made up my mind as to whether or not I wanted to stay there. when I got there, I made up my mind very quickly. It is a surprisingly beautiful City but the difficulty of trying to find a hotel in very narrow streets, which have tram tracks laid into them and trams coming at you from every direction, having none of the local currency and hardly anyone speaking English, I really didn't fancy it much. If I were to go there again, I would make arrangements in advance. As I drove through the outer limits of the City, it struck me as typical Eastern block. Very poor and foreboding. The buildings had been blackened by years of Pollution, as London had been before they carried out major restoration work in the 80's. I imagined spies and KGB agents watching me from the windows high above the narrow street. The inner part of the City is very different and this is what most visitors would see. It's attractive, with buildings that look as though they belong there and the streets are wider. I decided that it was time to head West again so I picked my way out of the City and got onto the E40 once more. One more night on the road, then I decided to go to Amsterdam. I'd never been there and I knew that 'English' was widely spoken there. If anyone tells you that in Germany, France, Belgium, Poland, most of the people speak English, they don't know what they're talking about. I found it very difficult to converse and very few people spoke it well enough to have more than the most basic of conversations. Bit like the Mermaid on a Saturday night. I must admit though that the more I tried to speak German, the more people opened up. In hotels and normal tourist orientated places, yes people will be multi-lingual, but if you get away from the Airport, Station and hotel, you'll find it a lot more difficult. My problem was that instead of just going to one foreign Country for a fortnight, whereas I could learn a few of the basics before I went, I was going to be traveling through 6 different Countries, each with their own language, set of laws and traffic regulations. In Poland, unless you are in a hotel, international style garage, or large tourist attraction they do not accept any foreign currency, not even Euros. I was told before I went that they do, but this is definitely not the case. If you have no 'Zloty' you do not eat.
Saturday & Sunday 3rd/4th November.
Arrived Amsterdam mid-day. Was very lucky as in following signs to the
'Centrum' I accidentally came across a parking garage right next to the Ibis
hotel on 'Valkenburgerstraat'. The parking cost me £40 for 2 days but at least
it gave me the chance to forget about the car and concentrate on exploring this
wonderful City. Amsterdam is beautiful. The Canals are vibrant, as is the street
life. It's a pleasure to sit in a pavement cafe and watch the World go by.
I got out straight away and went off in search of the famous 'Red light district' to see if what people said about it was true. I found it was, including the bicycle that Maggie and Izzy wanted to buy back in the 80's. It's exactly as they described it except for the rubber appendage being smaller than I was led to believe. Everything one could possibly need to be self sufficient in love was there for all to see. No frills and no pretence. The girls in the windows were surprisingly beautiful but were very careful not to look you in the eye. In fact the only thing that spoiled it for me was when I heard the dulcet tones of a pissed up British idiot, walking through the streets with his mates, 'F'ing & blinding for no good reason, making a real prat of himself. The only voice to be singled out in the whole of Amsterdam and it had to be a Brit. That's exactly why I don't go to the Costas or anywhere else where the typical British Lager lout mentality reigns supreme. I found my way back to the hotel around 7pm and went into the Restaurant. I was amazed at the quality of food. Expertly cooked and prepared and well worth the money. That's what I noticed wherever I went, The quality of food and the way it was cooked. Poland was fantastic. I also reckoned it was down to the choice cut of beef they used in the steak dish. I never once had a sign of fat or gristle on a steak and that was purely down to the cut of beef, or the way it had been prepared. Either way, it was far better than the steaks I have at home. Everywhere I went people spoke very good English. The tour guide on the Canal boat I went on was multi linguistic and apart from giving the commentary in Dutch and English, she was answering questions from a family in French. There are around 740 thousand people living in the City, there are over 300,000 bicycles and each year 50,000 are stolen. Around 10,000 of them end up in the canals as the thieves cannot get rid of them. Around 100 cars per year are accidentally driven into the Canals. The thing I noticed most of all, was how elegant the people who ride bikes look. They glide along seemingly effortlessly, with their backs straight. Even men look elegant on them. As I walked beside one of the canals I saw many bikes chained to the railings. On closer inspection, I realised why people look so natural on them. In Amsterdam, the cycles have their handle bars upright and curved backwards making them easy to grip. In fact, it's so natural for them to ride a bike, they just wear their ordinary clothes and don't bother struggling into those stupid bloody lycra shorts. The saddles are adjusted to a low point and are wide and comfortable. In England the saddles are narrow and designed to prevent procreation. They are usually adjusted higher than the handle bars so that one has to lean forward, leaving one's posterior vulnerable to weather and adverse comment. It also forces the rider to hold back the head at ridiculous angles in order to see where they are going. Riding a bicycle in the UK is nothing more than masochism.
5th & 6th November
Left Amsterdam and made such good time to Calais, I decided to catch an earlier shuttle and get back to dear old Blighty. Spent a couple of nights in London, one at the 'Victory Services Club' just off Marble Arch and one at the 'Ibis' at Heathrow, so that I could spend some time catching up with a couple of my old mates from my chauffeur drive days. I still keep in touch even though it's been 18 years since I worked with them. I was lucky enough to get a room overlooking the North runway and practices my photography skills trying to get the aircraft as they came into land.
Looking out over the Airport from the Ibis
Looking out over the Airport from the Ibis
Night Sky over Heathrow