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Published: February 6th 2012
That's not a camera trick, it really is that wonky.
Sorry for the huge delay in getting this written, the real world of finding a job has taken precedence over everything else for a while now but as I am still unable to convince any potential employer of my genius I've taken time out to complete the trip.
So the plan is a quick dash in a south-westerly direction to Hoek van Holland with a short detour to Turnhout for a weekend with the rellies, boat to Harwich and two days to Bletchley.
After a short, restless and rather bumpy night we docked at 06:30 and were disembarked by 07:00, finding our way across the port along with all the vehicles which were disembarked alongside us. There is no segregation of bicycles in any of the continental ports we have used, we are vehicles just like everything else and therefore use the same access and exit routes as the motor vehicles. At Travemunde this equated to spotting the exit and aiming for it across an expanse of tarmac with painted lines randomly spread about whilst dodging the traffic for the lorry park and associated burger van which was doing a
roaring trade. Once out of the port we pulled into a lay-by and let all the remaining motor traffic go past before ambling towards Lubeck, stopping at a backerei on the way to pick up a healthy option breakfast of pastries with "WAKE UP" coffee, the kind that needs at least two sugars to make it palatable and even then you would probably rather use it to weather-proof woodwork.
Our plan was to pick up maps in Lubeck then move on, stopping at Hamburg overnight. It will come as no surprise that we failed to get past Lubeck. On arrival we visited the Tourist Office to find a map but they only had town maps so we were directed to a bookshop in town, to get out of the T.O. we walked through their attached cafe, smelt the kaffee und kuchen and decided it was vitally important to our journey that we sat on the terrace for a while admiring the supremely wonky Holstentor.
Lubeck was undergoing major roadworks while we were there; negotiating the cones, barriers and piles of cobbles with the loaded tourers quickly became tedious for both us and our fellow road users to whom we were
a rolling road block. Contrary to our expectations there were no horn blasts or revving engines to remind us of our place in the road user food chain - I could really get used cycling on the continent.
We found our map and wasted more time wandering around the centre before deciding, over lunch, that we really were too tired to ride to Hamburg and anyway there was a load of stuff to see and do in Lubeck so it really would be stupid to rush through and what were we rushing home for anyway? The Jugendherberg had only got beds in dorms and was heaving with schoolkids so we returned to the T.O. where a place in a B&B was found for us. The bikes got a space in the back yard surrounded by the last of this year's roses and we got a very comfortable room with complementary chocolates and space for all the luggage.
We wandered back out to window shop and find some dinner before ending up in a bar with a terrible soundtrack, Tina Charles was the best of it. There was a group of German tourists using a website to identify the various tunes,
worryingly I was faster than their website for all of them - prime seventies/eighties tat, my forte! We stayed far too long, failed to win drinks in a dice game and found out just how horrible Jagermeister is (alcoholic cough mixture).
Our hostess was delighted to have us stay another night so the next day we got to have a proper look around Lubeck, once capital of the Hanseatic League it is now a major port and a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the gothic, brick architecture of the town centre.
First stop was the Holstentor, originally a gatehouse it now houses a museum featuring the history of the tower, some amazing model ships, a two storey auditorium which may have been used as a fighting pit and, bizarrely, a collection of torture equipment although there is no record of such items ever having been used there. The building itself has walls 3.5 metres thick with slots for cannon on the field side whereas on the city side the walls are 1 metre thick and full of windows, this gives the building two completely different looks depending on which side it is seen from and caused some confusion as
I peered around for the tower saying "Where is it?" much to Vernon's amusement.
Next on our tour was the Marienkirche, a striking Gothic structure first built between 1250 and 1350, it was built as a statement of wealth and power, has the highest brick vaulted ceiling in the world and two towers standing at nearly 125 metres high. Inside it is an enormous space with stunning frescoes, an awful lot of death symbols (marble skulls abound), a danse macabre, enormous organ and in one side chapel, lying on the floor, three smashed bells. On the night of Palm Sunday 1942 the church was destroyed, along with a large part of the Merchants' borough, by Allied bombing raids on the city, the ensuing fire created very strong winds causing the bells to toll madly before three of them smashed to the ground as the kirche burned. In the 1950s the entire building was rebuilt exactly as it had been before, except for the roof which is now copper covered concrete rather than the original wood. Walking around you really do feel that you are in a mediaeval building not one 60 years old, it even smells like an old church.
A new seven bell peal was hung in the north tower and the smashed bells of the old peal plus the remaining two bells were left as they were.
We spent the rest of the day walking around looking at the architecture, the Town Hall with it's elevated walls with circular cut-outs built into them (we never found out why), the Hospital of the Holy Spirit and many beautifully gabled town houses down narrow, meandering, cobbled streets with gaps wide enough to eat a Marathon XR as the unwary cyclist is likely to discover. We ended our tour in the Niederegger cafe sampling the marzipan for which Lubeck is justifiably famous along with some more of that coffee/creosote crossover drink.
On the 22nd September we set off towards Hamburg, starting slowly on a canal towpath which had hints of Sustrans about it, we were regularly directed away from the path onto quiet, country lanes then lost all signage and found our way back to the canal randomly. Eventually we got onto the road and picked up speed on the road side cycle lane quickly getting to the outskirts of Hamburg and slowly reaching
the centre as we dodged traffic and pedestrians on the various on-road and pavement based cycle lanes.
Hamburg was rather full and we were turned away from the Clipper Haus and the Jugendherberge who, very kindly, found us a room in a hostel in Altona, no problem then, just a quick pedal down the Reeperbahn, and dive into the back-streets at the far end of it. We were told by the staff at the JHB that we would be fine as it was still daylight, I wasn't even remotely worried about the route until the suggestion was made that I shouldn't be but the reality was that cycling down the Reeperbahn was like cycling down Oxford Street without the homicidal bus drivers and idiots on Boris Bikes. The main problem came from the time honoured tradition of non-observant pedestrians. We were soon checked in, cleaned up and in a curry house.
Our next target was Bremen and we set off slowly, finding our way to the ferryport for the boat across the Elbe to Finkenwerder, then on Route 11 leading us neatly into a huge mass of roadworks which had completely obliterated the route we were on. We struggled through
the sand and mud for a while before finding a couple of blokes with a JCB and asking by the medium of pointing at an iPod where we were and where the hell the route we were following had gone. So we ploughed back through the sand and mud and retraced our route to the main road which we followed to Neuwiedenthal and the welcome sight of a cafe for lunch, three hours and less than 25km from our starting point.
Having checked the map we decided to stop at Hollandstedt overnight, a rather bad 40km day ride but we had more off road to do which would slow us down and Bremen was around 80km from Hollendstedt so a full day's ride from there.
Sure enough we ploughed through a succession of sandtraps on the off-road section followed by the traditional brick and cobbled forest roads before regaining tarmac and a headwind into Hollendstedt. Things looked up considerably when I got a discount in the Hollendstedter Hof Hotel because we were on bikes and, instead of the usual chocolates, we found little bags of Gummi Bears in the room. The bikes were locked up in the corridor next to
Off road route
with proof that we rode it (or pushed mostly).
the conference room and we took a walk around the town where the preparations for Oktoberfest were underway, stalls and fairground rides were being built around the town centre and huge rolls of cabling were being laid to supply the electrons for the sound and lighting. Before leaving the next morning we walked around again as the celebrations had begun, most females were in national dress, the men and boys tended to prefer jeans and shirts but we did see one bloke in lederhosen, I decided not to ask for a photograph of him on taste grounds; sorry German people but they do look daft and uncomfortable.
Our route to Bremen was partly on Route 7 and partly on short cuts avoiding off-road sections and random diversions taking in three sides of a square where straight on along the one side will do just fine. It was still 93 km total distance but we had our free Gummi Bears to sustain us and we rolled into the city just as the daylight began to fade. As we hit the city centre things began to get interesting, a gobby German started yelling and throwing bottle tops at us while we waited
at a set of lights, thankfully his aim was pretty rubbish and our German wasn't up to translating what sounded like insults. Next we couldn't find accommodation at any of the hostels we had details for so we ended up in an Ibis where they had no space but got us into the last room in their sister hotel on the other side of the centre so we set off back past our new friend whose aim hadn't improved in the time we had been away.
In the morning we did a short tour around the old town before listening to the glockenspiel striking noon and playing tunes, eventually we got bored of that and fought our way through the crowd and back to the route, following the most direct route we could to Wildeshaven. It had been a warm day with no wind for once but we just couldn't be bothered to ride very far and rather than push on to the next town we stopped early and enjoyed the afternoon sun whilst walking around Wildeshaven, the posters around the town told us we would miss their Oktoberfest as it was the following week.
Our next target was Berge
Hotel pillow confection of choice for touring cyclists.
bei Quakenbruck and once again we were joined by a headwind, the landscape was flattening out as we approached the Dutch border and riding through farmland we had nowhere to hide from the wind, it was a slow day and we definitely earned the sorbet/ice cream we rewarded ourselves with when we reached Berge. It took a while and the collected brains of the entire ice cream parlour collective to find us a room for the night but we ended up at a Gasthaus with the bikes in the garage next to a rather huge Harley and a Honda CX500 and us in a small room with an enormous bathroom. Once again we missed all Oktoberfest celebrations, this time by a couple of days as it had all kicked off the weekend before and had already been tidied away so nothing to see; we're getting good at avoiding parties. One day we'll get to join in the celebrations and get the souvenir sore head to take home.
Back in the flatlands
On the 27th we crossed back into the Netherlands and picked up our old friends the Knoppunts. Shortly after grabbing a coffee at a retirement
complex we managed to lose the Knoppunts again - ho hum. Having found our way back to the route again we had to wait for a group of milk production units to cross the road on their way to the farm and then a couple of minutes later another stop for an ambulance to come racing past, good job it didn't meet the cows! Jumped on a ferry across the Ijmeer and a short ride to Brummel where we grabbed a beer while the bar manager found us some accommodation for the night. Another day riding along the dykes bought us to Oss for the next sleep stop, a fairly dull ride as we had fields on one side and a high dyke obscuring the view on the other for most of the day and were once again sharing the "road" with sheep, cattle grids and gates plus a headwind for good measure.
The 30th saw us riding to 'denBosch for coffee, Tilburg for lunch then reversing our route of 6th July to Baarle (cold drink) and Turnhout for a nice cup of tea. This time we got sun and, of course, a headwind rather than the rain of the
We didn't stand too close just in case.
outward leg and we didn't get lost in Turnhout which was a first.
There followed a weekend of lazing about chez Andrew and Jan; wandering around Turnhout, eating a very good Thai meal on Saturday night whilst gazing out on the bombsite that is the Turnhout town square improvement scheme (we are assured it will look better when it is finished!) and an early start on Sunday for a trip to Tongeren antique fair. What an amazing place, it is like the largest car boot sale ever and is only open for the morning so we had to do the antique market equivalent of a supermarket dash to see it all. There were large amounts of religious iconography and WWII militaria both of which we avoided but the really fascinating stalls were those where somebody had emptied their attic or shed or a relatives house, cue lots of pointing at random items and saying 'Ooh look, a ____ , mum/dad/grandma/grandad used to have one of those." I got ruinously distracted by a marcasite jewellery stall before the find of the year, a stall selling the contents of an old haberdashery shop. Thankfully there was no way we could bungee any
Cycle track to the Netherlands.
Our first Knoppunt was just a bit further down the track.
of the display cabinets full of threads onto either of the bikes and, when Andrew offered to carry anything back to the UK in the car next time they were visiting, sanity finally took over and I declined.
On our return to Turnhout Jan fetched a bag full of the contents of her mother's dressmaking workbox for me to sort through and very kindly let me pick out any threads I could use, the truthful answer was "All of them" but I tried to behave and selected those that I could see design ideas for.
The dash for home
The next morning we packed up and pointed the wheels towards the west and the ferryport at Hoek van Holland, Andrew had an early start but we left with Jan shortly after 09:00 and set off through Turnhout; as is traditional we were lost within 5 minutes! We finally got out of town, via the Leonidas chocolate shop and reached Baarle for first coffee of the day before retracing our route to Dordrecht. We'd ridden this route a few times before and the roads were familiar, as was the headwind, the sun was a surprise and most
Lake outside Osnabruck.
We sat and watched a greater spotted woodpecker for a while here but of course failed to get a decent photo of it.
From Dordrecht we followed the Lf12 to Rotterdam with a short detour after the Oude Maas ferry to cut a corner at Hoogvliet and a hoon through the Benelux Tunnel without getting lost on the way in or the need for the escalators which were under repair. We were directed straight down the service road and sped through to Vlaardingen where we turned onto the cyclepath along the side of the Niewe Waterweg and into a vicious headwind straight off the North Sea. We grovelled through to Hoek and bought a berth on the overnight ferry, found dinner, boarded, locked the bikes up, grabbed our overnight bags and found our cabin and the bar in that order.
We disembarked into the cold grey light of Harwich at 06:30 and set off in search of breakfast, with no sign of cafes or even burger vans around the port we rode into Harwich town centre where everything was shut, before finding a hotel which looked like it would feed us. By now it was 07:30 and the bar was full of Scottish riggers drinking pints of lager, the young lad behind the bar was happy to serve us breakfast and pointed
us to the very modern looking and newly decorated dining room, away from the lager-boys who, it turned out, were working on the off-shore wind farm and didn't usually drink that early in the day but they were not working that day due to the strong wind. Can you guess what direction the wind was blowing from?
Refuelled we set off towards Colchester stopping once to shelter from the rain under a handy tree, once for further refuelling (coffee and cake) and once to sort a puncture on the rather crappy cycle path out of Wivenhoe. We arrived in Colchester in time for lunch at the marvellous Feast (at the bottom of North Hill) where Steve sorted us out with well stuffed baguettes and coffee and a slice of Kirsty's delicious home made bread pudding before pointing us out of town towards Little Baddow and The Mighty North Hill (not the one in Colchester). Much off-road hilarity ensued as we attempted to follow the Sustrans route recommended by Steve, at one point we pulled over to allow a car past on an un-metalled lane only to have the driver call out to us "That's my driveway you've pulled over
Too many pillows.
Does Europe have a pillow shortage? Hotels certainly seem to stockpile them.
into." We found our way up the hill to Little Baddow and found the Chestnuts B&B where the bikes went into the garage, we went into the shower and then our host gave us a lift to the Rodney Inn halfway down The Mighty North Hill where we had arranged to meet friends. TMNH is the intervals hill of choice for the mid Essex cycling bunch as our host told us as he drove us down it "Oh look" he said "there's one of the fit nutters coming up now." He then proceeded to offer Oaky plenty of trackstanding practice as he slowed down to find the pub car park entrance opposite a row of parked cars. A pleasant evening with decent beer and good company ensued with Oaky and Peter acting out a Christmas song (Chess nuts boasting by an open fire) as the rest of us slowly fell asleep. Sadly we forgot to call the B&B to tell them we wouldn't need a lift back, for which I am very sorry to our hosts. Dez and Peter dropped us off on their way home and we crept quietly into bed for a well deserved sleep after a very
One of the pieces of artwork at the hotel in Oss.
The next morning we apologised for forgetting to call about the lift home over a superb breakfast and chatted about our trip for a while before heading for The Mighty North Hill. The ride down the hill wasn't too strenuous and we rewarded ourselves with first cake of the day at the Paper Mill about a mile from our starting point. It was at about this point that Vernon phoned his mum and told her we'd be in Bletchley that night, 125 km fully loaded with a 35-40 kmph head wind, I didn't want to disillusion him but it really wasn't going to happen. We reached Harlow by 16:30, 40 km at an average of 14 kmph, it felt a lot further and the other 85km could wait for tomorrow, which as we all know never comes.
The ride out from Harlow took us along the A1184 for a short distance which was rather busy but we got a lot of consideration and space from the various drivers and soon turned off onto the back roads to Stevenage then Hitchin for lunch, the signs for Hitchin cause an awful lot of giggling as these two
eighties students started singing "How far to Hitchin? It's Hitchin I'm missing…" in the style of Gilbert the snotty alien. Out of Hitchin we were back on roads we know and making good time with NO head wind when Vernon's phone rang, Surrey Satellite wondering whether he was back in the country yet; did they put a tracker on him before he left? Rather unprofessionally I yelled "Tell them you're in Azerbaijan" but he chose to ignore my eminently sensible advice and admitted that we were on the last leg of the journey.
The sun was beginning to set as we reached Woburn and clattered over the enormous cattle grids which mark the Abbey estate. Managed to avoid getting eaten by lions again and took the back roads through Little Brickhill and through the woods north of Great Brickhill where we were having a very important and loud conversation about owls, holes and badgers as we rode out of the woods in the deepening gloom to find two horse-and-rider combos waiting patiently for the noise to materialise into something solid, still at least the horses were expecting something and didn't kick off on sight of us. A couple of miles
Student pranks are the same the world over.
more and we were sat in Julie's kitchen with steaming mugs of tea and dinner being served, we'd done it! Ridden to Sweden and back without using public transport except where we had to cross water...
The very last leg
…except we hadn't quite done it which is why a few days later after resting up at Julie's being fed, watered, having our rather stinky luggage pile put through the washing machine and watching Strictly (sorry) we loaded up again for the real final leg back to my mum's place near Northampton. The bikes pretty much know the route but we confused them by taking a couple of detours just to get Vernon's odo to read 5000km (bit academic really as it hadn't always been connected and we had ridden more than 5000km but actually seeing the numbers there was great). We got in and exploded luggage everywhere, taking advantage of the fact that mum was at her lace class to make a massive mess which we then had to dash around tidying up when she got back, some things never change!
So finally we really had completed the ride, not what we had aimed
to do last November and not even on the same transport but in April I was seriously wondering if I could ever ride another long tour as I struggled to even walk up stairs so getting to Sweden and back in the face of some pretty rubbish weather without resorting to motorised assistance was a massive achievement. My knee has behaved pretty impeccably over the ride, only having twinges a couple of times and each time it was sorted with a bit of rest and stretching.
We won't be doing any more long tours for a while as the real world of jobs, mortgages and provision for old age need to be considered but this was a good one to end on.
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