ROTTERDAM TO CALAIS BY BIKE
(AND A RETURN TICKET TO MOSCOW)
With Easter fast approaching and the realisation that nothing had been booked or planned for the extended weekend meant a furious evening of research was needed. Four hours of looking for reasonably priced flights lead me form Europe though to the Arabian Gulf, Northern Africa and even Asia before Moscow shone through as somewhere both interesting and new to me.
With flights booked and paid for, it was then that things started to go wrong. One simple word; visa. As many will know, visas for Russia can’t be applied for online and aren’t available at the airport upon arrival. The fasest one could be processed was to apply one day and receive your visa back the next after visiting the embassy. Due to the time scale and flight times this was not an option so, a £35 cancellation fee and one refund later, it was back to square one.
And so that is how, 24 hours later, on Easter Friday I found myself cycling through London towards Liverpool Street and a train towards Harwich. From there a ferry would whisk me to The Netherlands on a 7 hour night crossing to the start of three days pedalling south towards Calais.
Arriving at Harwich International train station, cyclists are directed away form the nice, warm, convenient pedestrian entrance for the ferry towards the main vehicle entrance to the port. With fog descending, a distinct drop in temperature and wearing nearly every item of clothing I’d hastily packed, I peddled towards the check in barrier and then on to the main vehicle waiting lanes. Accompanied by cars, motorbikes, vans and lorries we all made our way up the ramps and on to the deck of the ferry where cycles were directed to their storage area. Panniers removed and bike secured it was on to a game of hunt the cabin within the vast rat run of corridors which makes up the ships interiors. With the ferry leaving at 23:00 and due in to Hook at 08:00 that left plenty of time to get sleep and I wasted no time in making the most of it.
As any cyclist or outdoor adventure lover will tell you, weather can be the difference between a brilliant and horrendous day. Before leaving England everything was pointing in the direction of 3 days worth of sunshine, mid teen temperatures and the possibility of light cloud with some chilly night. As 08:00 came and we glimpsed our first view of Hook it become all to apparent that the met office had lied as the dark grey cloud cover dispensed an torrent of spring rain. Leaving the ferry and gathering my bearings I quickly dived in to the first bus shelter available to dig out my long fingered gloves to stave off the creeping numbness. With my back to the sea and following the first of the many canals I would encounter it was a short ride to a small car ferry which would whisk me across the water. The 5 minute crossing and the shelter it provided was just enough time to dig out more clothes; long winter leggings and a thick down jacket i’d packed “just in case it got cold at night.” That jacket would become an almost ever present over the coming days and, without it i’m sure I would have shrivelled in to a cold, hyperthermic mess.
I’m lucky enough to live in one of the most buzzing and alive cities in the world; London. Love it or hate it (and I go through times of doing both) It is a remarkable place and, as a cyclist is in places, a great place to get about on two wheels. With the increase in Super Cycle Highways and work constantly going on to improve junctions I had always felt a little proud to be a cyclist in our Capital City but, one days riding through Holland has changed my opinion of this forever. Nothing could have prepared me for just what lay in store as the peddles turned and the miles flew by. Sometimes stereotypes are culturally insensitive, sometimes they are just plainly not true and then occasionally they are bang on the money. The dutch (and Belgian for that matter) obsession with cycling is one such case in point of my expectations not only being met but being exceeded in every way. Cycling in The Netherlands is like cycling in a different world. They have cycle lanes, yes; but they have cycle lanes everywhere, and not just a bit of tarmac painted a different colour but actual, segregated and dedicated cycle lanes. No, not cycle lanes but cycle roads. A whole transport infrastructure and network dedicated to bikes. Come to a junction where you interact with motor vehicles and cyclists get the right of way; it’s up to vehicle drivers to check there way is clear and stop, a small difference in lines painted on the ground but a huge difference on how cycling is perceived.
As the drizzle continued to fall and I started to hug the coastal roads and paths, I don’t think more than 5% of the first days riding was spent sharing my journey with other traffic. Every junction and turn I came to to led me on to another perfectly smooth, dedicated cycle lane, often lined with trees or bushes and always in pristine condition. It’s no wonder hardly any locals seem to wear helmets if this is what their daily cycling experience is. Rozenburg, Havenhoofd and Ouddorp passed beneath my wheels, driven on by my increasingly cold and numb feet. I am not an overly experienced cycle adventurist and this was becoming all to evident in my choice of footwear and the subsequent state of my feet. All previous excursions had been during the warm summer months where keeping a steady flow of fresh air to your feet is a great way to keep them feeling alive and stop any blisters appearing. It’s for this reason i’ve always cycled in a pair of lightweight, mesh trainers which, being anything but waterproof or sealed were now acting as a giant sponge with which to freeze my feet. A fresh pair of socks with a carrier bag over each inside the shoe did nothing to add warmth or comfort so it was with great relief that I approached Brouwersdam and the sanctuary of a beach side cafe.
Despite the weather, the Dutch motorhome brigade were out in force and lined up neatly along the never ending beach road, looking out over the vast expense of sand and a multitude of coloured kites, each propelling a dune buggy along at alarming rate of knots. Bike secured and panniers unhooked I bundled my way into the inviting warmth of the cafe which, it turns out was a lot smarter and stylish than it appeared from the outside. More of a cool, trendy surfer shack, a pannier laden, lycra clad, high viz jacket wearing cyclist were obviously not their usual caliber of customer. The raising of eyebrows when one enters a room is something all cyclists must experience and get used to. We know we don’t look trendy or even vaguely appropriately dressed to be in your establishment but we’re often cold, sometimes wet and always ravenous so please, we’ll sit hidden in the corner away from your existing clientele and just bring us hot drinks and mountains of food.
The temptation to remove both socks and shoes to place by the fire was huge but I could tell that would be a sure fire way to be ejected and there was no way that was going to happen. Despite all Dutch seemingly being equally fluent in English, the only menus were in Dutch and German so I ordered blindly, added a hot chocolate and hoped for the best. What was arrived was perfect and, even better were the rays of sun starting to creep in through the window which would signal then end to any part rain would play over my three days.
Back on the road and the blue sky had transformed the landscape. With nothing even approaching a hill within sight (or probably even a hundred miles) the sky becomes the biggest part of your scenery and what a fantastic sight it is. Living in London means constantly being surrounded by buildings which block out the vast sky which hides above. That probably made the scale of this vista even more stunning with blue sky speckled with white clouds extending away form me in every direction and, with it the warming sun meaning my down jacket was removed for the first time that day and a small amount of feeling return to my toes.
The afternoon passed in a blur of more costal views, tree lined canal paths and an endless wind turbines, each silent and gracefully turning in the ever present breeze. Soon I was passing though Middelburg and on to the final 5 mile stretch down a bullet straight canal to my home for the evening in a small hostel located on the main square in the town of Vlissingen. Having found that accommodation in the area seemed to be busy and expensive over the Easter weekend I had booked both nights accommodation before leaving the UK (Easter being just a little too early in the year for me to dust off the tent and sleep under the stars.) As I dismounted, unhooked the panniers and secured the bike I caught flashes of tinsel and sparkles from within the small cafe/bar which formed the entrance to my accommodation. Upon entering, it quickly became apparent that of all the beds available it would be just mine which wasn’t to be occupied my a member of the hen party from Belgium who had taken up residence for the weekend. Enthusiastic offers to join their night out were politley re-buffed and even politer smiles returned when I pointed to my padded shorts and hi-viz jacket explaining I really wasn’t dressed for such an event, nor did either of my panniers contain clothing suitable for a night on the town.
We parted our ways, me to a warm shower and to smother every radiator I could find with sodden clothing and the hen party to no doubt terrorise any and everyone they met.
Easter 2015 saw me cycle from Hook of Holland to Calais.
Covering 170 miles over three days I took in 5 ferries, 3 countries, endless miles of canal paths and one hen party.
The story of how it happened follows, but it all started when I bought a return flight to Moscow...