For a bit of variety, today’s post is a sort of guest blog from my grandfather.
Grandpa Braime was a colourful and adventurous character: an industrialist, aviator and lifelong motorist; a botanist and collector of air mail stamps, and a serial president of everything from the Leeds Chamber of Commerce to the local Gilbert and Sullivan society.
In truth, I didn’t know him particularly well, and my stories of him are mostly gleaned from others. He died when I was in junior school, and my own memories are of a friendly but frail old man, watching the snooker from his throne-like green armchair or conducting my scratchy violin performances from his bed with his crabbed, arthritic hands.
Fortunately, however, I can give him his own voice. He wrote a couple of volumes of travel memoirs, including one called Continental Kindnesses, which our friend Gerd later typed up and had bound into smart pocket volumes. This is the first story in the book, and I love it as a little peephole into the life of the industrial nouveau-riche in the 1920s. I particularly enjoy the alarmingly basic level of his driving instruction.
As you read, bear in mind that at the beginning of the 1920s only one person in every 168 of the UK population had a car,* which puts in context quite how ludicrous it was for a 16-year-old boy to be tearing round in one.
My mother was often teased by her friends that as an only child I was ‘spoilt’. Mother always rose to this bait and responded ‘No, not spoilt – indulged’.
Be that as it may, my father, a most generous man, bought a car for my sixteenth birthday in 1920. These were a very rare commodity after the First World War. It was a 10hp Hampton, made at Stroud in Gloucestershire, with a Darman long over-head valve engine operated by push-rods, open two-seater with hood, plus a ‘dickey seat’ for two passengers or luggage.
I was destined for a family sheet metal pressing business which in those days was chiefly concerned with the motor industry, so he thought the sooner I became acquainted with a car’s mechanics, the better.
I was at Cheltenham College at the time, so when the local garage advised me the vehicle awaited my collection, I sought permission to do so, as the premises were in the town and, therefore, out of bounds for college students. Mr Williams, my housemaster, was horrified at the thought, and I was met with blank refusal.
My father was very upset and tactfully sought Mr Williams’ permission to seek a different ruling from Mr H H Hardy, the headmaster. Father explained the importance of the acquisition to my future and Mr Hardy was so astonished that he agreed before he could think of a valid objection. There was, however, one condition – I must have one of the assistant masters with me on every occasion.
So I visited the garage (Wycliffe, I think) and had a trial spin with the manager. There was no licence to drive in those early days. He just sat me at the wheel, showed me how to de-clutch and engage the various gears. I was shown how to back into someone’s drive, to turn the car round and returned to the garage. That was all the instruction I ever received.
On Tuesday and Saturday afternoons I motored over to Tewkesbury where the college rowing club was located on the river Severn, taking a Mr Best, my under-housemaster, who was rowing coach, and two pals in the dickey. On Sunday afternoons I went into Gloucestershire countryside accompanied by a Mr Hedley, president of the natural history society, looking for wild flowers in which I was very interested. Once I took the headmaster himself to Marlow Regatta, when the college entered a ‘four’ each year.
When I went up to Oxford, I took the car with me, and only one other undergraduate, Colin Lampson, had a vehicle. All the college boys either rode bicycles or walked.
When the first long summer vacation arrived I invited a college friend to accompany me on a continental tour – quite an adventure in those days for lads of nineteen. This was in 1923. We shipped the car to Calais and first visited the battlefields of northern France. The roads were appalling, just after the First World War, pot holes and shell holes. It is surprising we didn’t break a spring.
We went via Verdun and Nancy to Strasbourg, visiting two girl cousins, May and Margaret Braime, who were doing a summer course at the university. We visited the Hohenzollern Castle in the Vosges mountains, the famous cathedral and the Orangerie gardens and the famous orchestra. We then proceeded to Basel, Switzerland; Lucerne; Interlaken; Montreux and Geneva, by which time my ready money had run out and my friend had arranged for his bank to send him a draft to the Poste Restante. Imagine our consternation when nothing awaited us!
So I thought the best thing was to explain our unhappy position to the hotel manager and that, if we had to delay at Geneva, it would ruin the extensive itinerary we had planned for our tour. The manager was most sympathetic and asked if I had a cheque book and how much I estimated we required to reach our next port of call for money. I calculated £50 for petrol and four nights journey along the Route des Alpes, through Savoy to Nice.
To our utter astonishment he said he would be pleased to cash a cheque for that amount, subtracting only £2.50 for our dinner, bed and breakfast, and handed over the equivalent balance of £47.50 in Swiss francs. We expressed our surprise that he should be so trusting to two complete strangers. His reply was something I shall always remember with great pride. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I have done this several times before and I have never been let down by an Englishman.’
We were thus able to proceed on our way, and after many adventures, completed a 3,000-mile tour. First to Nice then Menton on the Italian border, returning to Toulouse and Marseilles, Perpignan, Carcasonne, Bagneres-de-Luchon, Pau, Biarritz, San Sebastian (Spain), returning via Bordeaux, the chateux of the Loire, Rouen and Calais. I have a lot of wonderful memories of our extensive tour, but the most memorable was the extraordinary kindness of the Swiss hotel manager.
*This figure is taken from The Long Weekend: a Social History of Great Britain 1918–1939 (Graves & Hodge, 1940)