One of my most popular posts last year was a ‘guest blog’ from my grandfather’s short collection of travel memoirs. The book was called Continental Kindnesses, and contained anecdotes of unprompted generosity during his travels round Europe between 1925 and 1975.
This story is one of my favourites, set less than ten years after the First World War. Apart from the rather poignant central story, I love the incidental detail. The remarkable revelations about Europe-wide trade at the time (who’d have thought that even way back in 1927, British firms were routinely getting cheap steel from Eastern Europe, who in turn were sourcing their ore from Scandinavia?); the casual observations about Czech beer, and the presence of a large American army kettling up Grandpa’s holiday.
Immediately on leaving university in 1925, I joined the family business, makers of sheet metal pressings, in Hunslet, Leeds, and spent the whole of my working life of 48 years there.
We had just commenced purchasing our supplies of sheet metal from a huge sheet steel mill, Isonwerke Vitkovice, in Czechoslovakia, and although the ductility was splendid for our purpose, we were frequently in difficulty because the permissible variation in gauge of plus/minus .004 was often excluded with dire results to our drawing dies, which burst and brought production to a standstill.*
So my father suggested I should visit our suppliers and see whether an improvement could be effected, as the price was well below anything we could purchase in England. By this time I had parted with my 10hp Hampton and purchased a 30/98hp Vauxhall, a quite remarkable vehicle – the first to achieve 100 miles in the hour for 24 consecutive hours. So in this I set off for my distant destination, accompanied by an old Oxford friend, one E V C Plumtre, who was former master of the classical sixth at Harrow School.
We traversed Western Europe, to Nuremberg, Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, where the lace is as fine as the beer is potent, and eventually arrived at Prague. There we had three days being treated by the sales director to bountiful hospitality and being shown the sights of that wonderful city where, according to our guide, ‘every stone is a monument’.
I then suggested it was time we visited the mill to discuss our business and we were advised that seats would be reserved for us on the ‘night sleeper’. This came as a complete shock to us, as we had imagined the mill was in a Prague suburb. In fact it was 200 miles north, on the border of Poland. However, we decided that having come so far under our own steam, as it were, we would prefer to finish the course that way. So after a further two days’ journey, by much cross-country, we won through to our destination.
Here again we were very well looked after and shown round a very extensive engineering establishment which made many things beside steel sheet. There were about 10,000 coal miners also in the area. The iron ore was imported from Sweden along the Elbe through Germany. We had a long and useful discussion about our mission with the mill manager, and hoped that this would lead to a great improvement in the thickness tolerances of the sheet they were supplying to us.
I had arranged to take my summer vacation concurrently with this visit and we had decided to visit the famous Dolomite mountains in the Italian Tyrol, which we had been told was one of the most picturesque regions in Europe.
So we drove south, crossed the Danube in Bratislava, had a day in Vienna, and then west to the popular resort of Zell am See which was beautifully situated. There we were disturbed to find every hotel booked solid with the American Army of Occupation. We were advised that the nearest hotel was at a small village, ten miles up the valley to the north, called Saalfelden.
There another unpleasant surprise awaited us, for the one hotel was full of tourists. We had some food and drink at the bar counter and feared we might have to spend the night in our car.
However, we were approached by one of the local inhabitants who had overheard our dilemma, and he offered us a roof for the night. We were astonished because we were complete strangers to him, and aliens as well.
Anyhow, we were very pleased to accept and were conducted to a humble dwelling and shown into a single-bedded room. The bed was equipped with a very thick continental-type eiderdown, and Plumtre suggested that as driver, I must have the bed and he would be quite comfortable lying on the eiderdown on the floor.
In the middle of the night I felt an urge to wander down the garden where the somewhat primitive sanitary arrangements were located. On the way back I happened to glance into the little sitting room where our host was asleep in an easy chair! He had given up his only bed to accommodate us!
I was of course astounded, and over breakfast, which he provided in the morning, with difficulty I got to the bottom of the matter.
Apparently during the 1914-1918 war he had fought for his country against the Italians, whom the Austrians had dislodged from the mountains and driven into the Po Plain. At that stage, fearing a collapse of our allies the Italians, the British Government had dispatched an expeditionary force to help bolster up the retreating Italians.
During the course of one of the battles our host had been shot in the leg and lay on the battlefields in mortal danger. Seeing his predicament, an English officer had, at great risk to his own life, gone out and carried the wounded soldier into the British lines.
After a period in a British field hospital he had been sent to England where he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war and where of course he had acquired his excellent English.
He had determined that if ever an opportunity presented itself to help an Englishman he would take it, as he felt he owed his life to the bravery of the English officer. We were the happy recipients of his gratitude.
We then proceeded on our way to Innsbruck and over three passes to Cortina, now a famous skiing resort. The scenery was magnificent and it has since become one of my favourite touring areas.
We returned via Meran, over the famous Pass Galibier into Switzerland, then via the Furka and Grimsel passes to Interlaken, across France to Calais and home. A memorable round but the hospitality given us by the Austrian gentleman at Zell am See will always remain the outstanding feature.
*For the uninitiated, a ‘drawing die’ is a sort of metal mould that sits in the bed of a steel press. You position your piece of sheet steel over the die, then the press slams down on it with a huge amount of weight, banging the sheet metal into the shape of the die. If the sheet steel is thicker than expected, it can burst the die, so you can see Grandpa’s problem with the unreliable gauge of his cheap Czech stuff. Working in that same factory nearly 80 years later (and on some of the same presses), I once achieved much the same result by accidentally putting two leaves of sheet steel in a press instead of just one, smashing the die.