ESCAPE TO COLDITZ
I’ve always loved reading adventure stories and tales of derring-do. And being of a certain age, books about the exploits of our soldiers, sailors and airmen in the war have always drawn me. As a teenager in the early seventies, desperate to find any excuse not to do my homework, I was of course transfixed by the Colditz tv series.
When, last year, a customer told us that the castle was now a museum and that, furthermore, you could stay in the castle, we started to hatch a plan. That plan became a ride down to the infamous schloss with about 20 clients. It all came to fruition this June.
As the Sunday evening of our departure approached, I found myself in a state of some dread. We had just come back from a ride to the South of France for our summer photographic shoot, after which we had all been flat out on our big summer catalogue. The ride had tired me out, putting the catalogue together had deprived me of the sleep I needed. Business in the shop had been relentless, and to top it all my back was killing me. Knowing that heavy rain was forecast did little to raise my spirits!
But once on the bike, with us all headed for the ferry in Harwich, all those fears and concerns seemed to melt into the background. Even my back felt better!
Over a roast dinner at the The Alma Inn in Harwich, we all started to get to know one another. We were, it has to be acknowledged, a somewhat disparate group, but bound together by an interest in military history and a love of bikes, barriers were quickly broken down.
Dinner had revived me but, once on the boat, I was keen to get to my cabin. It seemed rude, though, not to join the boys for a quick drink and a packet of crisps at the bar. Some of the riders Sara and I knew well, some we recognised from the shop, and some were old mates. And, of course, shop manager Sean and our designer Graham were with us to ensure things ran smoothly. Or at least that’s why they told me they needed to come. And then there was Dave, our man in a van; there to help out if anybody needed rescuing.
I’m told that, eventually, the only way the ship’s crew could get our group to retire was to turn out all the lights in the bar. It was reassuring to hear that both Graham and Sean did not desert the bridge, staying on to the bitter end to make sure everybody was happy!
The following morning we grabbed an impromptu breakfast in a small, boutique hotel just outside the terminal gates. That morning was to be a short blast down the motorway, intended to get us to more interesting roads and scenery as quickly as possible. It was a dull ride, but a sacrifice worth making.
Lunch, in some kind of farm shop complex, saw the start of a bit of a trend. Rather than labour to understand the menu and complicate proceedings, it seemed easier if we all went for Wiener Schnitzel. Personally, I never want to see another one again!
The morning’s ride had been 190 miles, and it had taken us a little over three hours. The distance to be covered in the afternoon was pretty similar, but the satnav suggested that we’d be on the road for a good five and a half hours.
As always happens on these trips, and without any formal planning, we broke into groups; some wanting to cover ground as quickly as possible; others preferring a more relaxed approach. The weather forecast had been wrong. That afternoon the sun came out, whilst warnings about the built-up nature of northern Germany, and its lack of interesting roads, turned out to be unfounded.
The riding was brilliant but, interestingly, despite the provision of detailed GPX files to all those with a satnav, the devices seemed to want to devise their own routes. It wasn’t an issue. We pretty much all found our way to the first night’s stop with time to spare for dinner.
As he had done with the planning of the route, Sean excelled himself when it came to this evening’s accommodation. Our hotel was the splendid Schloss Spangenberg; an imposing Gothic monstrosity that had variously been a castle, fortress, hunting lodge, school and prison.
These days it’s a very nice, one might even say luxurious, hotel. Ironically, we discovered later it had also served as a Prisoner-Of-War camp during the war, and Airey Neave, the MP who had been the first Brit to escape from Colditz, had spent some time there.
The next day’s riding was set to be a repeat of the previous afternoon’s. Those who chose to follow Sean’s recommended route were in for a 250 mile day that would see them in the saddle for a good five or six hours.
The roads kept dry. There were hilly sections with enough bends to keep even the most ardent knee-downer entertained. And there were faster roads with longer, sweeping bends that lent themselves to the making of good progress.
Everybody that day had a tale to tell; wrong turns, closed roads, empty fuel tanks, and even a few close calls. Sara and I found ourselves riding on our own. We stopped only for fuel, and at one point for Kaffee und Kuchen. It was a pretty full-on day. Sara was intent exploring the talents of her new MV, and on my rNineT I was finding it difficult to keep up.
Surprisingly, we entered the town of Colditz first. Shortly after we passed the town’s welcome sign, the castle hove into view. Painted white, it looked beautiful, but would not have done so, I’m sure, to those POWs who found themselves being escorted to the castle under heavy guard some seventy years ago.
These days, Colditz is a youth hostel. For many of us, this was a level of accommodation we had hoped never to revisit. But bragging rights meant that it simply had to be done. A local hotel might have been more comfortable, but then none of them would have been Colditz.
Having failed to find a local eatery that could accommodate us all that evening, we had taken the decision to have our own barbecue. Dave had brought all the cooking equipment down in the van. Sean and Graham disappeared to the local Aldi, which apparently affords the town’s best view of the castle, to stock up on burgers and bangers.
The Youth Hostel found us a private area where we could conduct our proceedings. During the war, prisoners survived on the most meagre of rations, supplemented by the less than regular arrival of Red Cross parcels. Predictably, our boys had bought enough meat to have kept the entire camp fed for a week.
To spice the evening up, however, Ian from the Silent Pool Distillery had agreed to conduct a gin tasting and sampling after dinner. I don’t know how the success of such an exercise is normally gauged, but certainly many different gins and related cocktails were sampled that evening.
Sue, our only lady rider, seemed particularly taken with their damson gin. It proved to be a late night but, in proper Youth Hostel tradition, we cleared up and tidied everything away, sufficiently shipshape and Bristol-fashion to pass any inspection. That night the heavens opened with a spectacular lightning display. I went to bed with the curtains open so as not to miss out.
The following day, Wednesday, was to be our full-day tour. The rain had disappeared. It was a blisteringly hot day, such that one imagined that being a prisoner in Colditz couldn’t have been all bad! In the morning, we were taken outside the grounds of the castle to see the places where many of the escapes either originated or ended. We saw the tiny window through which Pat Reid climbed out, into the street; and the wall over which a former Olympic gymnast vaulted. He made it home in record time, pretending to be a racing cyclist in training for a major event!
In the afternoon, back inside the castle, we explored many of the tunnels, including the famous French tunnel that started in the ever-popular German wine cellar, and we got a glimpse of the kind of spaces these guys worked in under the floorboards in the chapel. Highlight of the day, of course, was the recreated glider in the roof. Would it have worked? Who knows? But it would certainly have created a lot of embarrassment for the captors.
After the tour, our guide Steffi tells us that, with our constant barrage of questions, and at least some knowledge of the castle’s history, we are the best group she has ever led. As we come to the end, she bows, clicks her heels and, with a grin, announces that our war is over. Perhaps what she said was that our tour was over; I couldn’t be sure.
Some of our contingent had decided to use the Colditz ride as a springboard for further travels. Most of us, though, had decided to do the return leg in one day. But to break the back of the journey, we all agreed to get in a hundred miles or so under our belts on the Wednesday evening.
At 4.30pm on the dot, under bright blue skies, we ride out of the front gates. By 4.45pm, we are in a thunderstorm of epic proportions. We hurriedly pull over and put on our waterproofs. But the next few hours are anything but fun.
I’ve been riding for nearly 40 years, but never have I seen rain like this. We don’t know the roads and they’re running like rivers. At one stage I spot a guy in a field leading a couple of cows by hand. I look to see if there’s a big boat anywhere, but it’s the road that requires my attention.
Eventually, the rain and the lightning quieten down, and we make our way to our hotel, which is situated in the most chocolate-box-looking town I’ve ever come across. We spend dinner talking about the amazing escapes we heard about earlier in the day, as well as the one we all feel we’ve just endured.
On Thursday morning we calculate that we can afford to do some nice roads in the morning before we hit the motorway back to the port. We all meet up at the lunchtime rendezvous for a quick pizza. We leave knowing that we have enough time to get to the ferry provided that nothing goes wrong.
Filtering, we have been told, is illegal in Germany, but we frequently find ourselves in traffic jams, and we realise that it’s the ferry or a fine. Most of us just want to get home, so we risk it. Sara and I arrive at the terminal in good time.
Some of the guys who decided to take the motorway straight from the hotel are there already. As is Sean, who passed us an hour earlier, riding like someone running late, and trying to get into work in order to clock in on time. In other words, riding like he normally does!
We have time to grab a burger, but as we head for the ferry, the ‘fast group’ isn’t there. We leave it as long as we can before boarding. As we ride on to the boat, we hear they are still 80 kms away, having gone to another terminal. The boat is actually delayed, but to no avail. The Customs people have gone home. By the time the guys arrive at the terminal, everything is locked down. All we can do is wave at the from the stern.
But nobody wants an extra day in Holland, so they decide to head on to Calais, and the tunnel. There’s a 3.00am train they can catch. They make it, and Graham, our designer, eventually arrives home at five o’clock, just in time to take his wife to the railway station.
I feel for them. I really do. I can barely make it to my cabin. I’m bushed. I’m broken. I’m not sure I would have made it to Calais that night; let alone back to Guildford. All in all, it’s been a fun few days. Interesting hotels (and a Youth hostel), good food, a terrifically interesting, historical destination, brilliant roads and great camaraderie. What more could you ask for?
Whenever we do these trips, I live in dread of somebody having an accident. If we all get home safe and sound, it’s a successful tour in my book. Even if the final leg was, for some, more painful that it should have been.
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