The Netherlands (and a tiny little bit of Belgium)

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July 26th 2011
Published: July 31st 2011
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Swan familySwan familySwan family

These guys were on one of the irrigation ditches surrounding the camp site at Leerdam, we spent most of the evening watching them play.

Europe bound (29/06/11-19/07/11)

So we finally decided to set off again, this time into northern Europe with a section of our route (which will be made up as we go along) using the North Sea Cycle Route, we are headed to Denmark from where we can either head north into Norway and up the coast to Bergen, fly to Aberdeen and head south for winter or turn right into Sweden, then Finland and back through the Baltic states and eastern Europe. Of course all plans depend entirely on the whim of the participants so they may change at any time.

Essex and mechanicals

We left Bletchley on the 29th aiming for Harwich and a ferry to Hoek van Holland, route-planning by asking the iPod to give us a route for bicycles to Harwich. Things started well with a roll along the back roads to Woburn for coffee and lunch (we left Bletchley later than expected!) and improved as we got past the Abbey without becoming lion food! Our route continued along quiet back roads and through small villages until we reached Baldock at school kicking out time and were directed past the one of the local schools, much urban
Access point for the Flitch Way cycle pathAccess point for the Flitch Way cycle pathAccess point for the Flitch Way cycle path

Yes, that is a flight of steps. Hmm, if only we knew a Sustrans ranger for mid-Essex...
tractor dodging later we reached the town centre and piled into a cafe for restorative coffee and, being unable to resist the opportunity, an all-day breakfast.
The road went very uphill on the way out of Baldock,Vernon rode all of it while I took the easy option and caught up with him at the top of the hill where he was trying to put his lungs back in. We continued through sleepy villages to Ardeley where the lure of camping in a wood was too great, we shelved the idea to ride the extra 20-odd km to Bishop's Stortford and pitched up at Church Farm for the night. The wood was rather muddy but we found a fairly dry, nettle-free spot to camp in and soon had the tent up and tea brewed.
In the morning we took an age and many cups of tea to strike camp, then headed back to the road past the free range hens and through the pig field with many photo opportunities of cute piglets. We stopped at the farm cafe for a breakfast provided by the hens and (in Vernon's case) previous incumbents of the pig field via the farm's own butchery. Suitably
The Doctor's Pond Great DunmowThe Doctor's Pond Great DunmowThe Doctor's Pond Great Dunmow

Famous for leeches and lifeboats.
fortified we set off towards Harwich; at nearly 130km it was going be a long ride but with a ferry departure time of 23:15 perfectly doable. Or it would have been if my left pedal hadn't fallen off after the first 5km, just as we negotiated one of the more ploughed up parts of the off road Sustrans route we were following, the bearings were seized but with a bit of fiddling everything freed up and we were off again. 1km further my left pedal fell off again, this time half way up a hill. Vernon again worked his magic and we were off for another about 1km before... well you can probably guess. Around this point I decided that careful mechanickery had it's place but we couldn't afford 20 minute stops every couple of km and a bodge was required so I just screwed the pedal back on by hand and gave it a couple of extra twists to free the bearings (and bits of bearing) while Vernon worked his internet magic to find our nearest bike shop – Bishop's Stortford by now about 15km away. We set off carefully with me pedalling one turn backwards for every five
Netherlands public art, part 1Netherlands public art, part 1Netherlands public art, part 1

There are large artworks all over the cycle route system in the Netherlands, this one is a concave mirror reflecting the sky.
forwards to try to keep the pedal done up (a plan that wasn't so good on the uphill sections) and stopping regularly to check and tighten everything. We finally reached BS, found a bike shop and got a new pair of pedals before grabbing a very late lunch and abandoning the idea of reaching Harwich for the night crossing. There followed a rather surreal attempt to find accommodation for the night with all the places we phoned using the list stuck to the Tourist Information Office window (the office was closed) being either closed for refurb, just closed or number unobtainable.
We gave up and set off on our route again, following a Sustrans route past the main entrance to Stansted Airport – that was a fun roundabout! On reaching Great Dunmow we came to The Victoria, a pub with an Indian restaurant attached and a B&B just over the road. With the way our day had gone so far it was no surprise to find the B&B was full but the owner sorted a room for us in the town centre and we ended the day with a meal from the chippy and a cheap bottle of wine, 40km
Dutch stereotypesDutch stereotypesDutch stereotypes

Windmill and road cyclists on a canal dyke. No tulips or cheese yet.
and about 8 hours from our start point.

Another day another attempt to get out of the country, we started with a quick detour to the Doctor's Pond, so called because a local doctor grew his leeches there, not sure if there is still a leech colony in the pond we didn't try to find out. It is also where the models for the first unsinkable lifeboats were tested, nowadays the only danger faced by the resident ducks is assault by bread-based products.

We were following a Sustrans route which started on the Flitch Way, a former rail line, as far as Braintree before moving onto quiet roads to Colchester and beyond through a series of small villages, then up one side of the A12 which we then had to cross (gee, thanks Sustrans), 30 minutes later we were still alive and on the other side of the road. The rest of the ride to Harwich took us through farmland on the usual back roads and we rolled into the port at about 18:00, bought tickets and were told our boarding time would be 19:30 so we joined the queue and waited and waited and waited. At 19:20
Modern windmillsModern windmillsModern windmills

These are dotted all over the landscape, in many cases (as with these) along the edge of a dyke.
our boat docked and unloaded before boarding started at 20:45. The evening had got cold and by the time we got to board the small climb over the railway track was welcome to get the blood moving again and set us up for the seven flights of stairs from the car deck to our cabin.

The Netherlands (with a little bit of Belgium)

While waiting for a gap in the lorries so we could get to passport control Vernon put a call through to his brother in Belgium to see if we could visit at short notice, Vern assured me it was only about 100km out of our way. All arranged we set off towards Turnhout using the knoppunts to find our way.

Knoppunts are numbers at each junction on the cycle route system, both in the Netherlands and Belgium. It is a brilliant system, each time you reach a junction there is a sign showing the way to the next knoppunts. Our route began 23, 28, 36, 37, 40, 42, 75, 76, 77, 9...

Everything went well until we got to Rotterdam and lost the route completely, we eventually worked out that we had
Cycle route between Turnhout and BaarleCycle route between Turnhout and BaarleCycle route between Turnhout and Baarle

16km, totally flat and dead straight.
to take a tunnel under the road, the lifts were not working so we had to wrestle our bikes down an escalator. We worked out a method where we took all the panniers off the bikes, Vernon took his bike down the escalator, I put all the panniers on the escalator with suitable gaps between them then took my bike down the escalator. Meanwhile Vernon got to the bottom of the escalator, propped his bike up then grabbed all the panniers as they reached him. We then reloaded and rode through the tunnel. The up-escalator was easier, Vernon just took his fully loaded bike straight up it whereas I sent my rear panniers up first and followed them with the bike, it was OK as long as I didn't let go of the brakes.

We continued on cycle paths and quiet roads for the rest of the day, getting lost once due to a missing knoppunt sign but we soon sorted out where we were by the more traditional looking at the map method and got ourselves to Zevenburgen where we stopped for the night having ridden 90km. It was a short ride to Turnhout on the 3rd although
Christo'd windmillChristo'd windmillChristo'd windmill

That's going to take some unwrapping!
we got slowed by a short stretch of unpaved cycle path through a forest where we skittered about on the loose sand and gravel and bumped over tree roots before reaching Baarle Hertog/Baarle Nassau. Baarle is a small town in the Netherlands which is half Belgian for historic reasons, mainly medieval land swaps between the lords of Breda and the dukes of Brabant, it has clung on to it's rather unusual status ever since (to annoy the taxman I imagine). From there it was a quick spin in a straight line all the way to Turnhout before getting lost trying to find Andrew and Jan's place. With the help of a policeman we found the right street and were soon sat on the balcony absorbing tea and eating cheese sandwiches while most of our clothes took a turn in the washing machine. In total 143km from Hoek van Holland.

A couple of days lay up in Turnhout, doing very little except entertaining the local kids with our very poor boules playing, Andrew told them we were cycling to Norway and they decided that being bad at boules was the least of our problems. We did, of course, visit the
Engine at Tilburg Textile MuseumEngine at Tilburg Textile MuseumEngine at Tilburg Textile Museum

Originally used to power the looms in the former wool mill.
local Leonidas store for chocolate and the local camping store for any bits of kit we just had to get but one of the joys of cycling is the lack of space for random purchases so nothing non-essential was allowed.

We headed north on the 6th, back up the dead straight cycle path through the woods, stopping at a viewing platform, where two chefs were setting up a very posh looking lunch for a walking group who were due in a few minutes. We quickly nipped up the stairs in search of a view of the flat land around us before riding on to Baarle where we stopped at the frituur for a coffee and to watch the rain come down. It had weakened to drizzle by the time we left and we rode on to Tilburg zig-zagging around corn fields, getting damper and damper as we went. Tilburg has a textile museum which I wanted to visit giving us a good excuse to stop and get out of the rain after a very short day's ride. Unfortunately the only room we could find was in the Mercure and therefore rather expensive, we made as much use of the
The Batavia (replica)The Batavia (replica)The Batavia (replica)

we saw the remains of original in Freemantle WA. This one is in much better shape.
free Wi-Fi as we could, downloading maps and guides for most of Europe and soon had the bathroom looking like a laundry with cycling gear dripping all over the place. The bikes were locked in a secure bike park under the square.
Unusually for the Netherlands, we found a veggie eatery for dinner followed by a beer in a cafe overlooking the square. Vernon ordered a Kwak causing the waiter some problems as he tried to work out how to tell us we had to hand over a shoe as a glass deposit, we didn't make him sweat too long before admitting that we knew all about the shoe/glass thing.
Check out at the hotel was noon, so we left the bags there and spent the morning at the Textile Museum looking around some amazing new designs and works-in-progress plus all the fantastic computerised machinery which will pretty much produce any design using any thread.
In the afternoon we headed towards Utrecht through more corn and maize fields stopping for a late lunch at a popular fietscafe (bike cafe), we reached Leerdam after 40miles and two short ferry rides and found a small camp site for the night.

Netherlands' public art, part 2Netherlands' public art, part 2Netherlands' public art, part 2

It's a massive crouching human. I guess we should be grateful it isn't an el caganer.
attempt at Utrecht on the 8th, we had sunshine and a (mostly) tailwind all the way and rode into the city in time for lunch which we grabbed at a street stall before finding a back street cafe for a coffee and route debate. We decided on Almere as our finish point and set off on a rather tiresome ride with the wind veering to a (mostly) side wind and the route meandering a lot, we stopped for groceries at Naarden and reached Almere where we camped at a site near the main road, so an early wake up call tomorrow. As it was we woke to the sound of rain and wind and decided to stay put rather than cycling into it all day. We did a short trip around the lake and into the town, managing to dodge some very heavy showers by judicious use of cafes and shop awnings. In the evening we tried the camp site bar, but the only beer they had was Grolsch from a keg and it had lumps in it! We ended up in the sailing club where there was a good selection of lump-free beer.

Our next stop was to
Bridge between Ketelmeer and IjsselmeerBridge between Ketelmeer and IjsselmeerBridge between Ketelmeer and Ijsselmeer

Viewed from the cycle path to Urk.
be Urk, selected purely because of the name, it was supposed to be a short ride of 40-50km but obviously neither of us could read the map as it turned out to be 75km by the time we got to the camp site. We had finally reached the coast and joined the North Sea Cycle Route heading towards Lelystad, riding through the reed beds on the sea side of the dyke and occasionally on top of the dyke with a view over the rectangular fields of the polder. We got to Lelystad harbour where there was a fine collection of sailing vessels to distract us from the ride for a while and a replica of the Batavia, we had seen the remains of the original ship in Freemantle WA. The replica was a lot more complete! We also saw a bit of public art - a huge wire sculpture of a crouching man – we never found out why, come to that we never found out how to get near enough to it to read the info panel which may have solved the mystery.
After a frites-and-mayo lunch (healthy!) we rode along the side of the Oostvaardersplasssen nature reserve on
Part of the former harbour at EmmeloordPart of the former harbour at EmmeloordPart of the former harbour at Emmeloord

Now about 4km inland and part of the Noordostpolder.
a variety of surfaces (most of them lumpy). We failed to see any of the iconic birds of the wetlands, the eagles stayed away, the bitterns didn't boom but we did see a metric shed load of starlings, ducks and geese. We rode out of the reserve and crossed the bridge at Ketelmeer, missing our turning at the top of the off slope and hooning down it before realising our mistake and carting the bikes up a load of steps and down the side of a dyke to get back onto the correct route (it would have been easier to just ride back up to the bridge; isn't hindsight a wonderful thing). The ride through to Urk was on a concrete path next to the sea with boxed in tubing across the path at regular intervals with metal ramps over them, it was all a bit novelty cart-track. We found food and a camp site but completely missed the Ommelebommelestein which, according to Urker legend, is where babies come from (look up Urk on Wikipedia for the full story). As we ate dinner in a Chinese restaurant on the harbour I commented to Vernon how many girls seemed to be
Emmeloord lighthouseEmmeloord lighthouseEmmeloord lighthouse

No longer used as it is 4km from the sea.
dressed in First Communion dresses (all white and very frothy) and wondered if this was the next big thing, he looked witheringly at me and explained that Urk is very religious, I then noticed that a lot of the adults were wearing almost Puritan style clothing - unobservant, moi?
Urk used to be an island but was connected to the mainland by a dyke in 1939 before land was reclaimed to form the Nordoostpolder. On the 11th we took a day ride to Schokland to see another reclaimed island cycling across farmland alongside irrigation ditches with huge dragonflies as wingmen, the sun shone and there was no wind (this could be a tour highlight). The museum there told a fascinating story, Schokland was an island in the Zuiderzee which was slowly eroded as sea levels rose. In the 19th century the government ordered the evacuation of the island as it considered the flood risk too great and the place was abandoned. Fast forward to the German occupation during WWII and the creation of the Nordoostpolder, progress was slow due to the lack of labourers until “polder worker” was declared a reserved occupation after which anybody who could get their hands
Swing bridge in action at MakkumSwing bridge in action at MakkumSwing bridge in action at Makkum

Cost 5E per swing. One of the bridge keepers in the picture has a clog on a stick for collecting the fee.
on a shovel claimed to be a polder worker. Schokland had about 1000 workers and became a hiding place for those with dodgy or no paperwork and was used by the resistance to smuggle people out of the country.
Back at the camp site we had new neighbours, a family with two young boys; at some point both the adults disappeared off somewhere leaving the two lads behind, they proceeded to have a massive play fight, culminating in them throwing mud at each other and into both their tents before realising the trouble they would be in and having a frantic clean up. Mum and dad returned to two angelic little boys reading their books.

We awoke to a very strong easterly wind but we were heading north and had a dyke between us and the weather so we'd be fine, right?
Er no, the wind came over the dyke and straight down the other side to batter us, we reached Lemmer for lunch, 25km in 2hours, found a cafe facing west and collapsed on the terrace, discussing whether to struggle on or stop in Lemmer. Eventually we decided to continue towards Stavoren, expecting to stop at a camp
This windmill is little...This windmill is little...This windmill is little...

...those windmills are far away (with apologies to Graham Linehan). The little one is probably for moving water in the irrigation ditches.
site on the way there. After a rather bad tempered ride where we missed more knoppunts than we saw and took a number of unexpected detours off road through woods we finally reached Stavoren in yet another squally rain shower, I stomped into the VVV (tourist information) and asked them to find me an apartment for the night, they came up trumps with an apartment 50 metres away and opposite the Co-op. We ended up staying for two nights as, once again, we woke up to heavy rain and high winds.

The wind dropped by the 14th and we headed north again in light rain, the route taking us through sheep fields next to the dyke, sheep seem to like defecating on the cycle path and, after the previous days rain we rode through an awful lot of liquid shit which got everywhere. Taking our first coffee stop after 9km didn't auger well for a long days ride. Back on the cycle route we rode all around the town to a turning 50 metres from the cafe we had just stopped at. We rode on through sheep fields with a dyke hiding any view of the sea and gates
Franeker PlanetariumFraneker PlanetariumFraneker Planetarium

The oldest working planetarium in the world (it's accompanying coffee house is a more recent addition).
or cattle grids slowing us every few hundred metres and a nasty thin drizzle getting in everywhere. At Zurich (no, not that one) we stopped for coffee and a very late lunch and decided on a detour to Franeker for the night. The wind had got up again and we struggled all the way to the town where we fell into the Hotel Stadsberg (selected because it was near where we stopped to check Trip Advisor), the staff helped us to carry all our dripping wet, poo splattered luggage up to our room and they had a garage for the bikes – yay. They also had a bar full of Belgian beer and did a good breakfast, what more could you ask for?
The next morning we visited the planetarium which was the reason we came to Franeker. It is an amazing place, built by a wool comber called Eise Eisenger in the 1770s to prove to the locals that the planetary alignment in 1774 would not cause the world to end as a local pastor had predicted. Eise built the whole thing himself, the workings were made from wood and hand made nails (thousands of them) and it was
Netherlands' public art, part 3Netherlands' public art, part 3Netherlands' public art, part 3

We thought this was a memorial for something but apparently it is a piece of art.
all set up in ceiling of the family room of the house which also held the wool combing business. He was lucky that Herschel didn't "discover" Uranus until 1781, fitting that into his scheme would have required interesting negotiations with his neighbours. Incredibly it still works today and is the oldest working planetarium in the world, the whole mechanism is on display and is a thing of wonder. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to photograph anything so you'll have to use your imagination instead.

We managed to lose the cycle route again, eventually rejoining it at a large piece of art which from a distance looked a bit like a torii with a grass roof, when we got to it we realised it really did have a grass roof and there is probably a picture of it somewhere. We viewed the Wadden islands from the mainland but decided against visiting them, they are basically very big sand dunes and we were battling the wind again, neither of us wanted to be sand-blasted so we rode into Dokkum instead and found a camp site, a grocery store and a bar in that order.
Another struggle against the wind followed the next
The massive sluice system at LauwersoogThe massive sluice system at LauwersoogThe massive sluice system at Lauwersoog

So big it affects the weather (well the wind direction at least).
day as we reached Groningen, our route took us across farmland, mainly herds of Freisians (we are now in Freisland) and maize fields, maize is used as animal feed here. We crossed a huge sluice system between the Waddenzee and Lauwersmere, so big that it affected the wind direction, we were riding into a vicious head wind as we crossed the locks and, just as we had got used to that, were buffeted by a side wind as soon as we passed it. We turned south-east and pushed on to Groningen, getting there just after the VVV had shut and just as the heavens opened again. We sat under an umbrella at a cafe bar and used Vernon's Google-fu to find a hotel while being ignored by all the waiting staff. A short ride through the fish market got us to the Asgard where we proceeded to spread damp camping gear and drying washing all over our room, the bikes went in a small area near the lift where they could drip dry in safety and we slowly dried out and warmed up.
The next day was spent wandering around the wonderful Groninger Museum viewing Material World, Art, Design and Mode before walking around the city centre, looking in shop windows (no Sunday opening here). In the evening we found a rather good cafe bar and once again watched the rain pour down as we sampled the local brews.

The Asgard had the builders in so we had to tread carefully as we shifted the comedy luggage pile downstairs the next morning, there was a fine heap of scaffolding poles outside our room and a couple of apologetic Dutch workmen adding to it from their van outside. We rode with a side/tail wind to Delfzijl, crossing the wonderfully named Reiderwolderpolder which led to a bizarre discussion as we tried to get more rhymes in there. It ended with the creation of the local quarry man's aged assistant who was a part time ice sculptor - the Reiderwolderpolder older boulder holder and colder water molder, try as we might we just couldn't crowbar solder or folder in anywhere.
Delfzijl is a bit Fratton and even the staff at the VVV advised us to ride on through more rain rather than stopping in the town. We made it as far as Termunterzijl through an industrial landscape before finding a pension for the night and hiding from even more wind and rain.
We finally reached the Dutch/German border on the 19th but not before completely failing to find an open cafe in Bad Nieuweschans and resorting to a can of pop and a banana each for lunch from the local Co-op before riding over the border, the only indication for it being a sign telling us Lf10a (the Dutch part of the North Sea Cycle Route) had ended.


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