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We have lived with the Norton family for a very long time; none of them really knew how  we arrived until recently, and the truth came as far more than just a simple surprise. The popular notion, often repeated by Auntie Clare in her ‘Granny told me, so it must be true’ way, was that the two of us were ridden to the house in the village of Blakeney, Norfolk , by Dutch cousins in the 1930’s; the story goes that they were on a touring holiday from Amsterdam and popped in to see Grandfather Daniel and Grandmother Winnie. Whilst this sounded conceivable, no one ever explained why we were left behind or how the ‘cousins’ might have returned home again without us – and why, for that matter, the family don’t appear to have Dutch cousins anymore? Whatever, the story was not true. That is not how we became part of the Norton family home.

Daniel Norton was Auntie Clare’s grandfather and the husband of Winnie who, we suppose, told Clare the story of the Dutch cousins when she was younger. But we both knew that Daniel and Winnie didn’t always tell the truth.

In the late summer of 1939, the two of us – in case you hadn’t realised it yet – bicycles, made by the great Dutch bike builders, Fongers, were taken quite unexpectedly from our home at the Het Loo Palace, to the City of Den Helder at the very northern tip of the Netherlands. Yes, we belonged to and were frequently ridden around the grounds of the Palace by the Queen, Wilhelmina, and her daughter Juliana during their stays at the Royal summer residence. No one told what was happening on that last day of August, but we were taken to the bustling Naval yard and placed on the open deck of a small coastal fishing boat. With us was a small crew of three Royal Dutch Navy personnel, and two of the Queens staff; Henrik Steward, the most obscure and guarded of her secretaries, and a pretty young woman that we didn’t recognise; the two of them went straight down to the small crew quarters below decks. The boat slipped her moorings late that night and we chugged out of the harbour to the open water. It was calm and pleasant, and behind us saw the lights of the city slowly disappear into the flat waters of the southern North Sea as the skipper set a course due west into the darkness.

Finally, when the sun began to make the grey sea blue again, it seemed our journey was coming to an end; the crew started to scan ahead where a low coastline could be seen and, after a bit of discussion, they seemed to agree on a long sandy beach facing north as a place to head for. It transpired that this was the north coast of Norfolk in England – although why we being sent here, we had no idea; the Queen herself didn’t have much time for the English (although she had apparently liked Queen Victoria when they met years previously) because of what they’d done in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State after the Boer Wars; the British upper class politeness is not appreciated by the Dutch; we find it rather insincere and hypocritical. But that is just us.

It was no secret that Hitler’s Germany were looking like they might want to take over the world again and we new that our Queen had been in various discussions about what would happen if the Netherlands was overrun – but was she really thinking of going to England?

Now, it is fair to say that we didn’t know anything about boats or the sea, but where we were headed didn’t look like a place where this sort of boat would be able to land…..the waves were just breaking onto the empty beach. Eventually, it became clear when we rounded a sandy headland and slipped into a previously unseen harbour where the waters were even calmer; a small coastal village came into view across the marshes. When we finally arrived, the two staff with their bags, and the two of us, were simply dropped onto the sunny quayside and our fishing boat turned around and headed straight back out to sea. There were no good-byes and the boat didn’t even tie-up. We were just left there.

Immediately across the road was a smart pebble and brick building with the words ‘The Blakeney Hotel’ written on a squeaky sign swinging in the gentle breeze on the front wall. Hendrik and the young woman, Margrit, went into the building and left us against the front wall under the sign. The place seemed tranquil and the people walking about, well, almost Dutch. After a short while a young, smartly dressed English couple walked along the road towards us.

“Look, Winnie, dearest!” The man started to say, “look, at those bicycles outside the hotel – they’re here. Our guests are here. Come on, quickly, they must be exhausted.” Five minutes later we were being pushed up the hill with the English couple leading the way to a fine English house near the church.

The next thing we knew was that we were to be staying at the house for a few days – I think the plan was we would be ridden to a place called Cromer, some 20kms along the coast, to catch a train that would eventually take us somewhere just north of London where Hendrik and the woman had some business to attend to. But something went wrong. In fact, two dreadful things occurred that meant that we were never to leave Blakeney.

Firstly, the second World War began with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany invading Poland on the 1st of September and then both Britain and France declared war two days later. Daniel Norton was one of the few people in Blakeney to have a telephone in the house and he spent over an hour on the afternoon of the 3rd talking urgently to someone. It turned out that the Netherlands had, as expected, declared ourselves neutral in the conflict, but it still meant that our being in Britain was now an altogether different proposition. Daniel announced that we weren’t to leave the house for any reason. We were effectively under house arrest with people who were supposed to be helping us.

The second dreadful thing to happen occurred at the end of the first week, when Daniel, had been drinking whisky in the garden that afternoon with Hendrik – who’d grown increasingly uneasy at our plight as the days passed. The two of us were, once again, leant against a wall at the back of the house in full view of them both. Suddenly they started to argue over something. I only heard a few words, but I could hear that it was something to do with the English King George. Hendrik had obviously said something that had incensed Daniel and he’d started to get very angry indeed; stood, with his hands in his pockets, and shouting at the still seated Hendrik who appeared pinched but unperturbed, the furious tirade went on for over a minute. Now Dutch people are known for their reserved nature, but there must have been something said by Daniel that eventually riled even the usually unflappable Hendrik. He suddenly stood up and slapped Daniel across the face. Daniel staggered back before gathering himself and launching a fearful attack on his assailant. Hendrik fell to the ground from a punch that knocked him cold and, as he did so, his head struck a row of tilted bricks that marked the edge of the pavement. He didn’t move. The two ladies came quickly from the house.

“What happened Daniel?” There was genuine panic in Winnie’s voice.

“He….he tripped – we were arguing and he just tripped on the stones – I think he banged his head.” Hendrik hadn’t moved since he fell.

“I think he’s dead.” Margrit’s words bore a horrible finality. A tear rolled down her cheek as, kneeling beside him, she held her lover’s hand. Winnie knelt down too and put her arm around Margrit. A strange silence fell on the sunny walled garden.

The truth was buried there in the garden. Winnie and Daniel decided that evening that the young Margrit, who it transpired was simply Henrik’s lover and nothing to do with his mission to request the King of England’s help to rescue his Queen in the event of an imminent invasion by the Germans, had to go too. They couldn’t have her in the house if their country was at war – besides, how would they explain the death of Hendrik? They’d only agreed to help the couple’s secret assignment on the request of a City colleague of Daniels at Rothschilds Bank in London. Daniel and Winnie agreed on a pact and told the relevant authorities that the two Dutch people had unexpectedly left in the middle of the night without a word.  The story of the ‘cousins’ was coined.  Besides, there was a war on so it was not as if anyone would be looking for them.

Seventy-five years later, in the late summer of 2014, when the house was still being used as a summer residence by the Norton family, and we were still in regular use for rides to the shops, Daniel’s son, Robert, was granted planning permission to build an extension to the rear of the house and over part of the walled garden. Some of the family, Auntie Clare especially, objected to digging up of Grandpa’s ‘favourite’ lawn where their children had played every summer, but Robert was insistent. At the beginning of the Autumn term when all the children had gone back to school and family bankers to their jobs, the diggers moved in. On the second day of ground working they found the remains of Hendrik and Margit lying together with their bags just four feet below the surface of the beautiful lawn.

 

Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE

 

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