A pioneering post-war traveller, Beryl looks back on the early years of group walking holidays.
Interview by Matthew Jones
After the Second World War, countries slowly began to open up again; enabling people to visit Europe and beyond, just as they had in peacetime – although things were by no means back to normal.
In Britain, an enterprising chap called Ernest Welsman, aided by his assistant, Noel Vincent, realised that, when the war finished, people would once more want to travel. Ernest and Noel initially approached the Youth Hostelling Association (YHA) in London to ask whether they’d like some holidays arranged abroad. However, the YHA’s response was that it wasn’t ready for that, so they went to the Ramblers instead, who said, ‘yes, that’s quite a good idea’, and that’s how it all started.
They became the founding figures of Ramblers Holidays, which started to organise walking tours on the continent, as well as in the UK. Noel’s job title was ‘Overseas Assistant Organiser’. He was the man who would become my husband.
We first met when I went on a tour to Tunisia. Ernest accompanied us as far as Paris, where we stayed overnight. It was also the first time I’d come across a green artichoke, when we had them for dinner. I didn’t quite know what to do with it! The next morning we got on a train to Marseille. Noel met us there, and he took us down to the harbour, where we boarded a big cargo ship. He’d brought along a big hamper of food to take with us – so we ate that and slept on the deck, and the next day we arrived in Tunis. We stayed at a hotel, where again I think we had artichokes, but this time I’d met one before so I knew what to do! We travelled all around Tunisia, walking and hostelling.
I didn’t consider myself to be particularly adventurous. In fact, I hardly thought about it; I just wanted to get away, and this was one way of having a holiday. There weren’t many women on most trips but I didn’t take any notice of that. I first started going on the holidays because it was a way to see other countries and get to know the people.
Noel and I married in 1950, and after that I accompanied him on many trips. I went to a climbing school in the Tyrol, learning how to fall down crevasses and get myself out. We did trips to France, Austria and Switzerland – where I climbed the Finsteraarhorn – and even visited Kenya, to climb Mount Kenya.
Walking gear changed a lot over the years. After seeing the walking breeches that people were wearing in Austria, I came home and bought a length of material in Petticoat Lane and had some made up for me. I used to wear them with long socks I bought in Austria. I also remember buying my first rucksack and pair of boots in France.
I learnt to ski for the winter trips. Cross-country skiing was the only way to get out into the mountains in winter. In the mountain huts, you slept on one long bench. No one really took any notice of whether you were a man or a woman – we were all too tired anyway! We often had to walk over glaciers, and know how to use an ice axe, but fortunately we never had any near misses. We were always well prepared. After all, I’m still here, alive and kicking!
We also went to Lapland to walk the Kungsleden trail. We had terrible trouble with the mosquitoes! I was the only woman in a party of six men. We carried all our food and stayed in the huts along the route. We’d reach a hut in the evening and all the men would take off their boots and flop down, so Noel and I had to cook their meals and sort everything else out.
The walking breaks were an affordable, healthy way to travel with like-minded companions. In the early days we used to meet outside Boots in Victoria Station to get a train and then a boat to Calais, before an overnight journey in another train. Although it’s the norm now, it was very exciting when we started flying on the Douglas DC-3 aeroplanes with Freddie Laker’s airline in the 1960s.
I haven’t been on a Ramblers holiday for a long time, but I’d love to be able to climb a mountain again. I miss that now. I loved discovering new landscapes, and also appreciated seeing different cultures and ways of life. I learnt a lot more about different people, countries and languages. Travel is very important. It broadens your outlook and helps you understand how other people think and act – including other religions. I remember travelling in Morocco, during Ramadan, and we had to respect the fact that our Muslim guide couldn’t join and eat with us. Tolerance and understanding is so important.
Ramblers Walking Holidays celebrated its 70th anniversary this year. For its latest tours and offers, visit ramblersholidays.co.uk