Friday, 20 January 2017

A Very British Romance, part 7: Continental Traveller

This week, Margaret brings us the next episode of Connie and Angus' story.
The top of one of Connie's letters to her parents, letters belong to the Leybourne Family
The top of one of Connie's letters to her parents, letters belong to the Leybourne Family
Six months have passed since Angus invited Connie to visit him in Switzerland as a trainee nurse; his mother and sister arrived; she accepts his proposal of marriage; permission from the authorities is granted; and finally her Dad has given his consent. It is now the end of January 1917 and Connie is finally en route, making a stopover at her Auntie and Uncle's house at Hillcroft Crescent in Ealing, West London. 

Connie writes an affectionate letter to her parents to let them know how she has fared after leaving them. Her relatives escorted her to the permit office. Afterwards, while they were on their way to catch a bus, they met Miss Selby who she would be travelling with. She told them that Thomas Cook's was about to close so they took a taxi and Connie got her ticket, first class boat and second class train and if ‘the party’ are in first class on the train then she will pay the difference. She thought it wise to get the same tickets as Miss Selby. The ‘party’ she mentions is the Red Cross party of internees' wives, close relatives, and soon to be wives. The rest of that day is spent having a cup of tea, doing a little necessary shopping, and collecting her light luggage from the Great Northern.

The next day is Sunday, I imagine Connie is writing at the table in the front parlour, the fire is settling in the grate. The clock on the mantelpiece, having an unexpectedly large audience this Sunday, ticks and tocks as loudly as if Big Ben were its Grandad; and chimes with its best bong, the passing hours of the long afternoon.

'Uncle is preaching in London today'. Connie and the children went to chapel that morning. 'Now Sweetie has gone to Sunday School, Harold is writing a letter, and Ken and his little girl cousin who is spending the afternoon here, are apparently building a chapel, their discussions are most amusing.' She asks her parents to write soon to Switzerland so she won't have to wait long when she gets there. 'I thought of you all about 10.00 and wondered if the band was escorting you home! ... Ask Phil to send Harold his cigarette cards. Also will you send Uncle and Aunt one of my photos (any one please), they have given me theirs to take out with me.'

Connie writes home again the next day, 'in the train between Waterloo and Southampton, 7.00pm January 22 1917.’ She recounts how it was ‘quite a business to get off to Waterloo’, the roads were a sheet of ice and no cabs or horses were to be had. The boys pushed her light luggage to the station on the mail cart. Connie is travelling with Miss Selby and thinks they will have a rush to get their luggage with them, they have light luggage and heavy luggage, but, 'their main point is to keep with the party.' Unable to get her money changed to Swiss francs at Charing Cross as they hadn't any, Connie was told 'English notes hold good anywhere on the Continent.' Connie and Miss Selby are in a first class compartment alone. 'Mr Wilkins [of the Central Prisoner of War Committee in London] was at the station … he presented me to the Lady in Charge, I can't think of her name, she is next door.'

She tells her parents how before she left, 'I put Sweetie and Ken each a box of toffee etc. into their beds for tonight, and Harold 1/- to buy a diary which I heard him say he wanted, it will be a surprise for them tonight. They have all been so kind to me, and the children are the sweetest mannered (even to each other) that I have ever come across … 
Don't be anxious if you don't get a wire for some days, because I am very doubtful about Le Havre, and other wires when not Red Cross seem to take ages.'

The following day, 23 January, Connie writes home again from the Hotel Continental in Le Havre. The hotel is said to be the best in town, 'but it would be considered very, very poor in Newcastle. However we must remember this is France'. She had given her previous letter to the Red Cross officials to post for her at Southampton, and stuck close to the Red Cross party going through customs and on to the boat. They stayed on deck watching the cranes at either end of the boat loading all the heavy luggage and mails, 'it was a wonderful sight to see how expediently it was done'.

Retiring to their berths about midnight, Connie and Miss Selby began their discussion as to how much they were to undress, 'we ended in combs, knicks, socks, and night attire over that, I slept in my life belt, no risks of not getting it on in time for me.'
Example of the sort of life jacket Connie might have been wearing to sleep in © IWM (Art.IWM ART 928)
Example of the sort of life jacket Connie might have been wearing to sleep in © IWM (Art.IWM ART 928)
The next morning Connie was up on deck by 5.30am. She couldn't face breakfast as she felt green and just managed a sip of tea. Landing shortly afterwards Connie and Miss Selby got separated from the party and were left behind at customs, while the party rushed across the town and caught the 7.35am train to Paris without them. 'We followed in a cab. What a cab! it reminded me of nothing but the Scarlet Pimpernel days, and at the station found no train until 5.05pm tonight.' If that train is punctual they ought to catch the same Lausanne train as the party at Paris, if not they will have to go to one of Cook's hotels and will be able to have a look at Paris. 'Miss Selby has her head screwed on the right way I find, and between us we have had quite a nice day…I am beginning to feel quite an experienced Continental Traveller.’

In her next letter, writing from Paris on 24 January, Connie paints a lively picture of the business at the Le Havre train station: finding luggage; having it weighed; paying 4fr.70c for the excess; chasing up and down trying to find their porter with the light luggage; then having to trust him to get it on the train with the heavy luggage. She did not dare venture out of the train to check in case the train started, 'and one has to climb up two steps to get into continental trains, no easy matter.'

'The train was called, "Paris, Rapide", but oh my, what a slow affair… it left on the tick and arrived two hours late, of course after our train to Lausanne had gone.' A Red Cross man met them and said that the ‘wives’ had left word what train Connie and Miss Selby were coming by, and they were taken to the headquarters of the Red Cross, a hotel which 'was most luxurious.' Next morning, the breakfast was of course French, but no rolls, as they were not allowed. Most of the people in the room were 'khaki clad, men and women, and a few visitors, I suppose like ourselves.' The Red Cross officer in charge enquired into their case, took care of their tickets and the little slip of excess luggage, promising to send to the station to get their boxes and take them to the Gare de Lyon. 
Grands Magasins du Louvre, c.1890, originally from fr.wikipedia, public domain
Grands Magasins du Louvre, c.1890, originally from fr.wikipedia, public domain
The ladies headed out on to the streets of Paris, and straight to the shops via L'Arc de Triomphe and the underground to the Palais-Royale. They found a huge shop after the style of Whiteley's in London [this would have been the Grands Magasins du Louvre]. Having wandered from top to bottom, they found a delightful ladies’ luncheon and tea room which even had an English speaking waitress. She directed them to the Louvre, where on arrival, they understood enough French to find out that the main part was closed to the public, but they saw what was open.

'Afterwards another parlez with a Gendarme, with necessary actions, really I shall be able to act French if I cannot talk it after this. He showed us the way to the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and across the Seine to the church, Notre Dame...’ Later in the evening while Connie and Miss Selby were chatting in their room, a chambermaid came in and drew the curtains, word had arrived that ‘Zepps’ were coming, 'but everything seems going on the same, we have lights on, vehicles are going about, and this lounge although lighted by electric candles has light coloured blinds is it not strange, (perhaps it has outside shutters), (no it hasn't).’ Connie hoped that they wouldn't prevent them from leaving for Switzerland that night. 'Greatly as I have enjoyed the day, I want to get to Angus very badly, and I'm afraid he will be wondering where I am.'

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