“In one sense it’s a travelogue about a trip which might not be repeated in the same way,” says alumnus Reverend Dr Peter Howson (Theology and Religious Studies 1972).
Peter chronicled a railway journey with his twin brother, John, which will now be vastly different, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit, in a book called Twin Tracks.
In the pair’s first holiday together in 50 years, in September 2019, they went inter-railing with the aim of exploring a Europe not often seen by UK holidaymakers, and to encourage fellow ‘silver surfers’. Such is the expected transformation of the concept due to coronavirus and Brexit, Peter says comparisons can be drawn with travel around the continent prior to the First World War.
“Halfway through writing the book, we discovered we were writing a book similar to one someone might have written in 1914, as suddenly the whole landscape changed, and we don’t know whether the places we’ve been to will be the same again,” Peter adds.
“Certainly some of the restaurants we patronised won’t be there. And we don’t know how much people would want to do a similar journey in future.”
First-class inter-rail tickets were purchased, which included first-class travel to the port of departure – Peter received a complimentary first-class ticket from Andover to London St Pancras, which, had he paid for it would have accounted for a large sum of the overall inter-rail ticket – and the pair set off on the Eurostar to Paris.
Thereafter, the brothers travelled to Toulon, along the Mediterranean coast to Genoa, and then to Venice. From there, the pair travelled to Austria, and then on smaller trains through Hungary to Budapest.
A sleeper train to Warsaw followed, as well as a trip to Lublin – “about as far east as we could go on the inter-rail pass,” Peter says – where they saw the border with Ukraine, and the sign stating “you are now entering the European Union”.
The journey continued north west to Gdansk, then west to Berlin, across Germany to Wuppertal, and then back to the UK via Brussels.
Throughout the journey, Peter, who spent 25 years as a chaplain in the British Army, and John came across the long shadow of World War Two. In Toulon, they visited a museum which commemorated Operation Dragoon (the Allied invasion of southern France), and where Napoleon had sited his guns in a 1793 siege.
Peter and John went off the tourist track in Venice, visiting Torcello, and its Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, before heading for Hungary and Lake Balaton, and the Children’s Railway.
The best meal of the whole fortnight was in the old town of Lublin, but the wine was a disappointment for Peter.
He adds: “We had a Michelin quality meal, but Polish red doesn’t travel, even from the vineyard. My brother had a much better deal with the white.”
The World War Two odyssey continued to Gdansk, the site of the opening battle, and an excursion to Malbork Castle, which goes back to the Order of the Teutonic Knights in the 13th Century.
Berlin and Wuppertal Schwebebahn, the suspended monorail which goes through the Wuppertal Valley for about 30km, were the highlights in Germany.
The brothers barely bickered, and had some separation – they did not share rooms. They would recommend the trip, and the pandemic scuppered plans for a similar holiday.
“It was a bit of a risk that we’d be in each other’s company for 14 days, but it worked very well,” Peter says.
“We’d begun planning the next trip, an Amtrak trip in the United States. We had hoped to do it in autumn 2020 in the time of the US Presidential election. If everything works out, we might do it next autumn.”
Peter is also writing an academic book titled Britain and the German Churches, 1945-1950 - The Role of the Religious Affairs Branch in the British Zone, which is to be published next year.