‘For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway’

It doesn’t take two days to travel up the Kiel Canal. Most of the ships and yachts we saw on October 3 were motoring along fast enough to get through easily in a day. With his history hat firmly on, notDavies assures me that on the opening day of the canal in 1895, the Kaiser steamed through in less than 14 hours.

The canal is not, therefore, made for pleasure cruising, with pubs, bistros and eateries lining the shore, tempting us to tarry awhile. It’s much more like a motorway, but without any decent service stations. No-one stops for a snack or a stretch of the legs. In fact, on this particular day, there was hardly anybody around at all.

davies in search
NotDavies in search of food

Every town we passed through near the canal was empty, with no shops open and hardly any people on the streets. By the time we got to Rendsburg, nearly halfway along, notDavies was getting decidedly testy about the lack of victuals. Indeed it was getting to the point that, if I had produced the kind of disgusting  tinned meat and strange sausage that Carruthers and Davies stock up on in Kiel, he would probably not have baulked at it.

We were just at that point in a long journey where a toddler in the back seat finally loses it when we happened upon an ice cream parlour, and found what seemed like half the population of the town holed up there. I calmed NotDavies down with two scoops of mango and pistachio, and then used what mobile reception I had – poor all away along the canal btw – to ask the internet why on earth all the Germans were flocking to eat ices on October 3.

the locals gather near the bridge at Rendsburg to eat ices

The answer was simple: it was Germany Unity Day, a day set aside for celebrating the reuniting of East and West Germany in 1990. I am careful, at this point, to say ‘Unity’ and not ‘Unification’ (as notDavies mistakenly did several times quite loudly) because unification still has slightly sinister tones for some, historically speaking.

Before World War One, there was a day for celebrating a greater German Empire – called Sedantag – on September 2, although it was mainly the Prussians who got out the bunting, with the southern German states being slightly more muted about the emperor’s achievements. During the Weimar period, August 11 was known as Constitution Day, but, alas, that didn’t last long.

Hitler chose November 9 as a ‘Memorial Day’ for celebrating the Nazi movement. This also happens to be the date of Kristallnacht. Some time after 1945, June 17 became an official holiday in West Germany, mainly to stress a date when there’d been an (unsuccessful) uprising in East Germany.

So you can see there’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in terms of a national holiday date, and the words ‘Unity’ and ‘Unification’ have a slightly fraught history. Curious, for us, that in the end October 3 has become a special date for Germans, given that in ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ it’s the date when Carruthers talks a lot about growing German power:

… I described her marvellous awakening in the last generation, under the strength and wisdom of her rulers; her intense patriotic ardour; her seething industrial activity, and, most potent of all, the forces that are moulding modern Europe, her dream of a colonial empire, entailing her transformation from a land-power to a sea-power. Impregnably based on vast territorial resources which we cannot molest, the dim instincts of her people, not merely directed but anticipated by the genius of her ruling house, our great trade rivals of the present, our great naval rival of the future, she grows, and strengthens, and waits …

The Germans take national holidays very seriously, in terms of doing no work at all (apart from serving ices). At times, Rendsburg felt like a ghost town, which was disappointing since we both felt this must have been the obvious place for a government tug to stop for the night in 1898 – and therefore an obvious place for there to be hostelries, shops and cultural institutions, all financed by trade from the canal.

What I had assumed would be a bustling historic town turned out to be a bit of a backwater, where one of the top 5 Tripadvisor ‘things to do’ is to go to the local bowling alley.  Another supposed treat is to tarry awhile on the world’s longest bench. We couldn’t find it.

With so little to do and see in Rendsburg, we repaired to our very lovely AirBnB digs in nearby Schacht-Audorf, and then happened upon a fantastic local canal-side restaurant serving smoked eel, caught fresh from the canal. It turns out that this establishment has been catching and cooking eels in this area since the 1850s.

there’s been smoked eel here for over 150 years

So there *was* some local food and drink to be had on these shores on the night of October 3 when Carruthers and Davies puttered past. But did they bother going ashore? Unlikely. For them it would have been schnapps & hard pears with Bartels, and something ghastly warmed up on the Rippingille stove – followed by an improving discussion on the state of the German nation, or the best way to navigate your way to Wangerooge.

NotDavies and I finished our day with a glass of kümmel, standing on a pier staring into the dimly-lit waters of the canal, complaining gently about the lack of decent mobile reception.

The next morning we did bother to take in the number one attraction of Rendsburg – the impressive rail & transporter bridge (not there in 1898). To make up for the distinct lack of victuals on the previous day, we treated ourselves to an excellent buffet breakfast at the Restaurant Nobiskrug. (Notice how the diet of two middle-aged men of the 21st century can so quickly and so drastically diverge from that of the youthful & frugal Carruthers and Davies.)

The most popular tourist attraction in Rendsburg

Here we spent a good hour  watching an incessant flow of boats, both big and small, again showing no signs of stopping. The experience was enhanced by a man announcing each ship via a sound system, as we ate our brunch. Not only did he give us each boat’s name, length, tonnage, flag and destination, he also played the relevant national anthem each time. If you stay for a second helping at the buffet – as we did – you will inevitably find yourself humming the Liberian national anthem for the rest of the day.

Which is exactly what we did, all the way to Brunsbüttel.

One thought on “‘For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway’

  1. I quite like eels myself. There’s a nice Dutch speciality “paling in’t groen”, eels lightly cooked – well worth a try if you find anywhere offering it.

    Just a comment on the timetable. It certainly doesn’t take a modern boat with a good motor all that long to get through the canal. As I mentioned, we did it fairly easily in a day, albeit starting rather early.

    And that is the point. We did it in July when the days are long. Davies and Carruthers were doing it in October when the days are short. Don’t forget, the canal regulations don’t allow yachts to move on the canal in the hours of darkness.

    Also, they didn’t have their own motor, but were being towed in company with Bartels by a steam launch, which was probably also towing some other boats as well, so probably weren’t doing the steady 5 or 6 knots that we did.

    So I don’t think Childers was being fanciful in building an overnight on the canal into the story.


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