The following is the story of a bicycle trip made by Elizabeth Robins-Pennell and her, probable, husband Joseph in 1892 from Berlin to Budapest. Being quite lengthy, I shall tweet the story in a number of different instalments, or chapters
When, one July morning, I started from London with my fine new nickel-plated Marriott and Cooper’s ‘Ladies’ Safety’ in the luggage van, I had been on a single bicycle only twice, and then down in an asphalt-paved cellar in Holborn Viaduct, with a leather-strap around my waist and a strong man clinging to it and to me. I had ridden a tandem tricycle often enough; but that is another matter. On it I could sit as securely, if not quite as comfortably, as on the average chair, while someone else did all the steering and braking for me. My only work was to push the pedals round. Now, in addition to this, I had to balance and steer a machine that cannot stand by itself, and that has very decided and unprincipled notions of its own as to the proper direction for its rider to take. My first practical experience was just outside of Calais on a by-road, with an audience of three small frightened French boys in aprons, perched up on a fence out of harm’s way. But I managed that same morning, after taking several ditches, sometimes sitting down by the wayside with the machine in my lap, getting hopelessly wound up in the wheels once or twice, and learning that a safety is as obstinate and self-willed a creature as never drew the breath of life, to reach Gravelines, about twenty-two kilometres from Calais, in time for breakfast. Indeed, the next day I crossed the frontier into Belgium, the land of wide distances, of windmills and canals, breakfasted at Fournes, and rode through Nieuport and other of the charming little Belgian towns; and the day after pushed my bicycle through the sands to Ostend, and then through mud and deep ruts to Bruges; and, the day after that, first tried to drown myself in a canal and then finished up by riding into Cologne. It is true that on the third day we took the train, but, then, as most record-breakers know, this is a mere detail. The difficulty of riding a bicycle is a trifle compared to that of speaking German, when all your knowledge is in a phrase-book stowed away at the bottom of your knapsack. At the Cologne Station it took a good deal of gesticulating to covince the porter and two or three officials in gold braid and butons, who had come up to help, that we were not cycle importers, and that our third receipt was for a trunk. But I must give them the credit of having been very polite about it, far more polite than the men and boys we met on our way to the hotel (it was Sunday afternoon), who laughed and said things which sounded very offensive, though probably, had we understood, they would have proved no worse than the personalities of the Loudon omnibus-driver when you attempt to drive through the streets of the City. The proprietors of the Dom Hotel, however, poured balm upon my wounded spirits. They were cyclists themselves, and before I had time to show how completely I was in the power of my safety, even when merely walking with it, one of them had steered it through the doorway into the hall. We had been there barely ten minutes before we heard what a brave rider he was and what records he had made, for he spoke excellent English. He was discreet enough to ask no questions about my performances. In Cologne there is plenty of what cyclists in the old days used to call the Freemasonry of the wheel. The next morning, in a tobacco-shop (I ought to explain that Joseph went to it for some tobacco, and I, not having more German than he, to translate for him), we found another fellow-cyclist, a member of the Radfahrer Union, who presented us with a map, urged us in English a shade better than our German not to cross the mountains between Cologue and Berlin, but to follow the Rhine, and shook hands with great heartiness. He kept turning up and shaking hands at intervals all the morning, for between the rain and the cathedral there was no getting off early. It was quite half-past eleven when we strapped our bags to the two machines, to the admiration of a German from Manchester, who cheerfully warned us that, as foreigners, we might expect to pay double for every morsel we ate and every drop we drank on our journey. I am the more ready here to record his prophecy because after-experiences proved it so wholly and entirely wrong. It is not until you come down to the proletariat that the native German knows how to cheat. There are few tourists who have not looked from the Rhine, as we did from the bridge, back to Cologne, with the cathedral towering high above its houses. But I fancy there are still fewer who have ever seen or heard of the long suburb of Falk, on the other side of the river. I remember it well, for we walked through it, Joseph, with the memory of my last effort to plunge into a canal still fresh, being unwilling to trust me to the devices of the safety in a street full of trams and wagons and workmen in delightfully funny little blue skirts, who were putting down new paving. It was humiliating, and some vulgar little boys made matters worse by jeering and pointing their fingers at me. But I forgot my troubles ouside of Falk, where the road, though slightly sticky from the rain, was still good enough, and my machine was in capital form. It has just occurred to me that I have forgotten to write anything about the great and glorious city of Cologne. Our Baedeker for North Germany said “ See Baedeker’s Rhine,” but we did not see the advantage of paying six marks for a book we could use only a couple of hours. However, I do not doubt that anyone who wants a description can find it there. Hitherto in my trial trips on French and Belgian roads I had been too preoccupied with the necessity of keeping my balance and not giving way to the machine’s vagaries to think much of anything else. But now I could begin to “take notice.” There was nothing that enchanted me so much on that first morning of real riding as the smells, the delicious country smells. It is worth while to have lived for months in London, with its all-pervading smoke and fog, just to enjoy the first keen sense of the clean fragrance of the outdoor world. There was nothing that disgusted me so entirely as my attempt to climb my first hill leading up to Bensberg. In France and Belgium the road had been abslutely flat. Now at the second revolution of the wheel the machine stood still, and I went over sideways, to the delight of a whole school of flaxen-haired boys, who walked with me condolingly to the top. There was a Gasthaus — Auglice, “pub”—of the proverbial type, “embowered in trees and shrubbery,” as Baedeker romantically puts it. Our first efforts to ask in German for something to eat frightened the girl in waiting out of her life—I do not know why—and she fled precipitately. But presently an old woman and a young man came, and were very kind and patient. I might as well say here that what most struck us everywhere during this, our first, trip in Germany was the amiability of the people in making the best of the foreigner’s atrocious German. The Englishman, under similar circumstances, would be quite positive that he could not understand, and there would be an end of it; the Frenchman would be as certain that it was too much of a bore to try; but the German does his best to help you, and if he catches one word only is as pleased as if he had drawn a prize in a lottery. “ Wie viel Zeit will es nehmen ? ” I asked the young man. There was a pleasing vagueness in my question, and still more in my pronunciation, but he was nowise daunted. “Time is money,’ says the Englishman,”was his answer in English he had learned in his German school. More satisfactory and to the purpose than our talk was the dinner, which was excellent, and we ate it on a pretty vine- grown porch. “It is always the Germans,” Mr. Leland says somewhere, “ who wants to take tea in the arbour, breakfast on the balcony, dine at fresco, and lunch by waterfalls in lonely forests.” And the German innkeeper, understanding his countrymen, provides arbour and balcony, even when he cannot manage forest and waterfall, and profits by this romantic tendency. I am sure that on Sundays the little inn of Bensberg is crowded with excursionists from Cologne, who smoke their long pipes and drink their beer as they look down over the wide plain to the cathedral spires on the horizon, even as the Blessed Damosel looked down from the gold bar of Heaven. On reading this over, I question the propriety of my simile; still, it is not so bad, for, if Sydney Smith’s idea of heaven was eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets, the German’s must be drinking beer to the braying of a brass band. If not, why are there so many beer drinkers, so many brass bands, so many summer gardens in Germany? On Monday we had the place to ourselves, until suddenly the rain again fell in torrents, and into our paradise there intruded a German mother and two daughters with sadly draggled skirts, who settled themselves for a quiet hour’s knitting and tea-drinking. This went to my heart, for I thought I had left the land of tea for many a long day to come.