The piece we ran recently by reader John Day about staying with Mrs Deene in Belgium aroused a lot of interest on social media but it was spread over a number of different pages and apps.
We thought it would be a shame to let some fascinating and funny comments go to waste so we pulled a selection together for you.
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“Thank you for the article.
“Mrs Deene was an institution and a huge part of many people’s development.
“My understanding is that she met George in Tenby – she was “on the buses” for the war effort, and George was working on something a bit hush hush in communications for the allies.
“They originally lived in Gent, close to “Grandma”.
“When the World Expo came to Brussels the authorities encouraged people to offer accommodation, and the Deenes responded.
“After one cyclist who spoke English tracked her down looking for digs more swiftly followed.
“They bought the house in Zomergem some time later – with Barry Hoban serving as caretaker until the Deenes moved across.
“That house was demolished a few years ago – supposedly unsafe, but word is the locals still had bad memories of it as a Gestapo HQ during the war.”
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Former multiple British Cyclo-cross Champion.
“I remember we asked Mrs Deene where to put our ‘cross bikes.
“She said ‘in the conservatory’.
“Upon opening the door we discovered no glass and true Belgium weather; pissing down with rain!
“Great times – it would make a great film, everybody that has ever stayed there telling their stories …”
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“I stayed at Mrs Deene’s one summer and rode some local kermises.
“The plan was to win as much prize money as possible and stay out there for the season.
“Luckily I took a load of cash with me or I could of been on the ferry back home the following week!
“I had great fun at Mrs Deene’s and met some really decent road riders who were trying to get noticed.”
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The man behind Kingsnorth the club which gave so man ‘Anglos’ their introduction to racing in the Flatlands.
“I loved them like a mum and dad.
“I stayed from 1979 to 1990.
“I have so many memories.
“Great riders stayed and never complained about anything.
“It was the lesser performers who mentioned that the bedrooms could be a little ‘fresh’ in winter but Tony Doyle would stay in his early Six Day career.
“ANC were there with Joey McLoughlin, Phil Thomas and many other great riders.
“The Deenes were a great loss to cycling.”
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“I remember staying there in 1978 with my dad and Bob Swailes.
“I think the late Paul Sherwen or Graham Jones organised it for us.
“We went out for a few rides with Paul and Graham and got battered in every race we rode.
“I got lapped by Eddy Planckaert a few times and then realised I was never going to be a ‘hitter’!”
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“A great piece of reminiscence which brought back many of my own memories of lodging at 5 St Michielstraat in the first half of the 1970’s with the Polhill Racing Club.
“The first time I went with the club we arrived from the Ostend ferry late in the evening, just beating “Granny’s” ten o’clock curfew.
“And if you went out to ride an “avondcrit” [‘nocturne’ or evening race, ed.] and expected to be back late, it was as well to let someone else know, so they could open the latch for you if Granny had retired for the night.
“We had one of the front bedrooms, and early the next morning I was woken and nearly shaken out of bed by a thunderous noise in the street.
“I thought the Nazis had re-invaded, but it was just the first tram of the morning trundling its way out to Mariakerke.
“The trams stopped running a year or two later, but the tramlines still lurked in the cobbles of the street to trap the unwary cyclist (like myself) and throw them over the handlebars. It happened to me on the way out to Gentbrugge at the start of a training ride, and I ended up in the Akademische Ziekenhuis having stitches in my chin.
“Nowadays the Sint Michielsbrug over the Leie is pedestrianised, and the main Post Office on the far side where we went to send postcards to assure those at home we were still in one piece or in celebration of an occasional placing in the top twenty, is now a postal-themed “Boutique Hotel”
“You didn’t mess with Granny – even the hard “Aussies” knew that!
“After all she was a heroine of the Belgian Resistance during the War, and had a framed document from The King of the Belgians to prove it, so dealing with a handful of bolshie bikies wasn’t going to put her out!
“I do recall the rather quaint habit she had of using the water the breakfast eggs had been boiled in to make the tea with afterwards, but I guess she’d seen hard times, and nothing went to waste!
“In fact after Granny passed away, in 1975, my last year of Flemish Kermiskoersing, Mrs Deene took out a lease on a smaller place, an old baker’s shop premises around the corner in Oude Houtleie, and an English cycling couple looked after it when she went home in the evening, but I don’t think that lasted for long,
“We stayed out at the Deene’s house in Guido Gezellestraat in Zomergem -“Marlinspike Manor” as it was dubbed by a Tintin-minded co-equipier of mine – when we went early in the year to “Het Volk”, or at the end of the season to go and watch the pro “Sluitingsprijs” at Putte-Kapellen.
“Barry no longer lived there, having married Helen Simpson, but the flat was occupied by a number of British pro’s after that.
“We had the attic. It was freezing! We waited downstairs in the warmth of Mrs Deene’s kitchen until the last minute, then hurried up the three flights of stairs as quickly as possible, to don all the warm training gear we had before slipping between the icy sheets!
“In contrast, at “Saint David’s” in mid-summer, it was so hot and humid, that I often slept with just a sheet over me, laying me open to being feasted on nightly by the deadly mosquitoes that inhabited the stagnant water of the canalised Leie outside. They were so tough they just laughed at the insect spray we bought at the Grand Bazaar and sprayed around our room, and carried on sucking our blood!
“I remember some of the professionals who stayed there, or at the self-contained flat around the corner coming in for some of their meals; the Stonham Brothers, Ron Pannell and Mick Coward were there in the first year I went over with the Polhill, while I also remember Peter Hill, riding for Peugeot, and Brian Jolly and Derek Harrison during their Raleigh days.
“There were also some French riders on occasion; a group of four who hadn’t been selected for their teams’ Tour de France squads, and had come to Belgium for what would have been a tough few weeks racing in the Belgian Pro Kermisrits.
“The Belgians hated seeing anyone else take “their” money!
“There was a young Peugeot pro, Ferdinand Julien, who in later years finished top twenty a number of times in the Tour, but in 1971 was considered still not mature enough. He insisted on having French baton bread with his meals, meaning that Mrs. Deene had to make an extra call at the boulangerie as well as at the bakkerij where she bought the perfectly good Belgian wholemeal bread she served to us.
“The French habit is to peel the crisply baked crust off the tranche of bread and leave the doughy centre behind. Clearing up after breakfast one morning Mrs. Deene gave vent to her feelings: “Look! That Julien he demands I get him French bread, and then he only eats the crusts!” She complained.
“The dining room was the “Trophy Room” with some of Barry’s mementos in pride of place on the mantelpiece: The Bier Stein and “Garland” (which seemed to have been made out of an old car inner tube, covered with gold paper laurel leaves) that he’d been presented with at his “Henninger Turm” victory at Dortmund in 1966, and the Credil Lyonnaise cuddly lion from one of his Tour de France stage victories. Photos, sashes and even club jerseys adorned the rest of the wall space.
“In 1972 Bob Cary had come direct from the Milk Race, and the room was full of his mementos.
“On a filthy, wet weekend, when we rode a race at Destelbergen, won by Grant Thomas, Bob went out training on the cobbles on the Saturday and crashed, grazing himself down one side then rode a crit in the Zeehaven at Gent where all the participants from Mrs Deene’s crashed, and Norman Gower ended up in hospital. Bob fell on his other side, and bent the frame Condor’s had given him for the Milk Race. He called his mentor Frank Westell that evening, and next day went home.
“In 1974, as well as the French pro’s, a squad of West London amateurs, including Alan Williams (Willy), Spider Westwood, and Bill Horne, and managed by Johnny Morris, were staying in the flat “round the corner” and coming in for their meals.
“We all went to the “Omloop van Pajottenland” at Lembeke, where the special barley for Geuze beer is grown.
“The Polhill took one look at the changing accommodation in a barn behind the signing-on café which was used by the local pigeon racers to store their wicker baskets, all covered in poo and feathers, and “Captain” Coe led us to find other accommodation.
“We ended up being entertained to tea and biscuits after the race by an elegant middle-aged lady in the conservatory of her house, where we’d eventually asked to change, but that’s another story! Suffice it to say that “Willy” won the race.
“The area is also known as the “Breughelland” after the early Flemish painter who took studies for his depictions of Flemish peasant life from the area. They’re a fairly lumpen, potato-faced lot, and at the presentation after the race, the “Miss” giving out the awards could have posed as the bridesmaid for Breughel’s “Peasant’s Wedding”.
“When Alan came into the dining room at St Michielstraat to put his winner’s bouquet proudly on the mantelpiece, one of his team-mates said unkindly, “You know all the Belgians were sprinting with their brakes on, Willy, ‘cos none of them wanted to have to kiss the “Ugly Queen” at the presentation!”
“It wasn’t true, no hardship would stop a Belgian in a sprint for a race win – Willy was too good for them!
“People do criticise or poke fun at the facilities at 5 St Michielstraat but let’s face it how many of us would have had the chance to experience racing in Belgium if it hadn’t been for the accommodation the Deenes provided at an affordable cost. And I don’t suppose they made much in recompense for the work and occasional hassle they had to do put up with to provide us with a ‘home from home’.”
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Former Olympic Road Race Champion.
“I lived there in 1980, it was one of the greatest experiences I have had.
“Get up and go race four times each week.
“I loved all my cycling – hated it too – love/hate and that is fate.
“Mrs Deene was a very kind person – she gave me two boiled eggs in the morning instead of one.
“Regret I never saw her after that summer – she kept a good stable of riders and told us stories of the war.”
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“I remember being in awe when browsing the ‘guest book’ and I came across the autograph ‘Alexi Grewal’ (when I was staying in Zomergem with the Deene’s).
“Like Alexi, it one of the best times in cycling for me; sharing a room with the ANC boys, Phil (and Vicki) Thomas, Joey McLoughlin and Micky Morrison (who used to gently tease George as he teased everyone else), racing two or three days in a row and having a couple of days off to go with the pros to their races and hand bottles up.
“Riding home in the dark after races, good wheels strapped onto wheel carriers with – hopefully – enough prize money in the back pocket to be able to pay the digs for the week!
“And I remember sharing Talking Heads tracks on tape with Pete Murphy in his car; I had the just-released ‘Little Creatures’ and Pete played the older ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’… but I can’t remember what we were up to or where we were going! A bar, most likely.”