We are celebrating our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2020-21 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Anne Popkema, John Cameron-Webb and Louise Gunning-Schepers. New stories will be added in the months to come.
75 UK-NL Stories - History
Ink leaves marks
We were on a mission.
Me and my mate Herre had good reason to suspect that Cambridge University Library holds an early print (c.1485) that was once the property of the Flemish Averbode Abbey. In December 1942, large parts of this proud and majestic Norbertine monastery, including its library, were lost to a fire that raged on for only two hours but was absolutely devastating nonetheless. Luckily, the monks were able to secure many of their old and rare books. Yet many of the rescued books were lost track of in the aftermath of the fire and, indeed, of WWII. Dozens of Averbode books entered the black market in the 1940’s, some of which seem to have ultimately found their way to the Amsterdam book trade. Including ‘ours’, which was sold to CUL in 1970. By that time any evidence linking the book to Averbode Abbey had been meticulously erased. CUL had no idea they were buying a ‘stained’ book.
We had contacted CUL in 2017 with a request to search the book for links to Averbode Abbey. Their excellent Special Collections staff had pointed out to us that there were indeed the vaguest of remnants of what might have once been a library stamp of sorts. Upon close inspection of the book on site in Cambridge in 2018 by myself and Herre and after CUL’s reproduction division had applied the sharpest of its cutting edge techniques, the remnants turned out to read: Bibliotheca Averbodiensis.
The satisfaction of giving an ‘orphaned book’ a history, of reveiling its background and telling its tale to both former and current possessors, caretakers, lovers of books and stories, is an experience that shaped me and my perspective of what unlimited and unhindered traffic of persons, goods and ideas may achieve – for bad and for good. I am who I am today because of our trip to Cambridge and the people we met. Those four days were among the best of my life. Partially because I learned something very valuable.
Ink leaves marks. Always.
The Dutch and British have far more in common than is often realised and for centuries British people have felt very at home here. For example, Samuel Pepys who was a clerk of the British Admiralty visited Loosduinen in 1660 and remarked on the neat and tidy way the Dutch lived, something which could still be written by a visitor today. I was made more aware of our shared heritage when I worked as a tour guide on the reconstructed East Indiaman The Batavia at her shipyard in Lelystad. Originally built in 1628 in Amsterdam she floundered on some sandbanks on her maiden voyage to Batavia in 1629. I took on this role as a hobby because of my love for maritime adventure stories but also because I knew that taking groups of Dutch visitors around the ship meant I had to improve my Dutch language pretty quickly. The Dutch and English were forever competing with each other for trade and continue to do so today; but it is an accepted, competitive situation adding an element of healthy respect which underlines our relationship today. So to really get even with our Dutch hosts, I say; learn their language and history and tell them about their great past; in a heavy English accent.
Maybe the fact that I was conceived in Britain but born in Amsterdam, now almost 70 years ago paved the way for a lifetime of crossing the channel both for work and friends. My parents started their married life in London not long after the war, when the NHS just started and did not yet cover deliveries. My grandfather, a general practitioner, suggested a visit to Amsterdam to deliver the baby and that is why I have been able to claim my origins in Amsterdam.
My husband and I also lived in Britain in the early years of our marriage. Life with young children in a small village near Oxford came pretty close to what all those novels had led me to expect. But more importantly, it gave us two essential constants in our lives. Both my husband and I met many young academics in Oxford, in the same early career stages we were in. And we made friendships for life, that stayed after we moved, eventually ending up back in the Netherlands.
Both the colleagues and the friends continued to be very present in our work and family life and grew old with us. First we became colleagues as we were appointed as professors, collaborators as we applied for EU funding, co-organizers of conferences and hosts to many doctoral students back and forth. We visited each other for summer holidays and we went to the weddings and the funerals. We are now at the stage that the grandchildren feel free to ask for accommodation as they explore either side of the channel, which they too consider part of their heritage. That is how good neighbours can and should live together.
University of Amsterdam