Author Topic: Cycling to the Netherlands for supper  (Read 1141 times)

Cycling to the Netherlands for supper
« on: July 20, 2018, 12:50:13 pm »
The rationale
Nearly two decades ago, I lived the Netherlands. My dad was the chaplain at the (English-language) Anglican church in Utrecht, and this summer he'd been asked to go back to provide some locum cover for a month, so my kid brother and I hatched a plan to cycle across and visit my parents.
Because my OH was going to be flying solo at home, and because my brother was shortly to be flying out to the Middle East for a work posting, we could only manage a flying visit: we'd meet up in London and cycle out to Harwich for the overnight ferry on Sunday, cycle to Utrecht on the Monday morning, have a meal together that evening, then do the reverse journey the following day. My brother had picked the restaurant - an Indonesian place that was winning all kinds of plaudits - and, when asked why he was cycling to the Netherlands, had started telling people we were cycling there and back for a meal...

Day 1 - London-Harwich
The disadvantage of leaving on a Sunday meant that the first train to London left from Birmingham an hour or so before the first Walsall-Brum train, which meant cycling in; so early that morning I forced down a coffee and a bowl of Birchermuesli, said goodbye to my family, pedaled down the street, turned around to retrieve my bidons from the freezer, then set off again for town. I'd looked at routes into Brum, and there were two main options: take the canal towpaths, or a main road blast down the A34. As the roads seemed fairly quiet, I decided to brave this; it would be quicker, less likely to get me lost, and the scary bits would be mostly downhill in bus lanes anyway. I only had one hairy moment, as I realised too late that what I'd thought was a turn-off to another destination was in fact the route that *didn't* take me through the terrifying dual carriageway underpass; thankfully there was no other traffic as I pedalled like billy-o, emerging unscathed. As I got to Moor Street, I could see the train prepping to leave; 'Get on! Just stick your bike on here now and sort it out properly at the next stop' said the guard, so I did. Two hours later I was in London and heading across town to Old Spitalfields Market and the Rapha Cafe, where my brother was waiting for me with a coffee.
Suitably caffeinated and with bidons filled, we got underway, stopping only to grab some bananas and a pastry for the jersey pockets. Our route was going to take us past Mile End, then onto the South London Greenway and out past Barking, then up to Upminster, before hitting the lanes and heading to Chelmsford, Colchester, and onward to Harwich. Simple, right? Unfortunately it was pretty much the hottest day of the year so far, and there was a reasonable headwind; while I was drinking enough, I didn't really feel like eating. Three hours and thirty miles in, I'd had a banana and my pastry, but nothing much else, and all of a sudden on a climb I realised the tank was empty. Thankfully by this time we'd cleared the urban sprawl, and checking the map we found a pub to order some lunch and refill our bottles. Setting off again, we were going slower than I'd have liked; the ferry check-in closed at 22:15, and though we'd set off at 11:30 or so, giving us (I thought) loads of time, our average speed was still only about 10mph, and with my poor fuelling I wasn't going to be able to push it much harder - my burger was an indigestible lump in my stomach.
By the time we hit Chelmsford and its maze of twisty roundabouts all alike, the heat was beginning to drop, but it was also clear that we weren't going to be stopping for afternoon tea. Finally escaping town, we headed back into the lanes, and near Nounsley we encountered a ford. With barely an inch of water flowing we foolishly decided to ride across, at which point we realised that an inch was all the slippery algae on the bottom needed... Slightly damper, but with nothing dented other than our pride, we set off again on the climb up from the ford, when there was a 'crack!', and my brother's chain snapped. Visions of trip abandonment loomed - how much would a cab to Harwich be; would the trains back to London still be running? - but thankfully we were both running 9-speed transmissions, so a brief fettle with my multitool and my spare quicklink and, with me feeling both incredibly competent and smug, we were back on our way.
Stopping for water and a snack at the corner shop in Wickham Bishops, the assistant asked my brother whether we’d come far, and got the usual incredulity of the non-cyclist: ‘LONDON?! Going to Harwich?! Well, good luck!’ 
By the time we got to Colchester, I was getting a little worried we might be needing some, as time was ticking along, but barring further mechanicals we were still on track to make Harwich before 10PM. I was flagging again, though, and with nowhere obvious en route to grab a bite I settled for a can of coke and a snickers from a newsagents. By the time we got out of Wivenhoe (on a typical NCN route of bastard hills with gravel surfaces!), I was running constant mental calculations as to whether we were likely to make the ferry. Thankfully, the forecast stiff headwind hadn’t turned up, and as the sun dropped I was feeling a bit better. My brother was able to up the pace a little; he was still pulling away me on the rises, but by sucking his wheel on the flats we were making better time. We rolled into the port with all of half an hour to spare before check-in closed and joined the back of the queue. Despite the apparent crowd of Stena staff milling around, there was only one person manning the booths, and there appeared to be an inordinate number of difficult vehicles ahead. As the time ticked towards 22:15 we started to get a little anxious. Thankfully things soon picked up, and, having waved our passports and booking reference at the check-in person, shortly thereafter we'd stowed our bikes, showered, had a quick beer in the bar, and were fast asleep in our cabin.

Day 2 - Hook-Utrecht
Slightly bleary-eyed, we were woken at 5:30 UK time by the cheery announcements over the ship's PA system, and staggered down to the restaurant for breakfast. I loaded up on many different kinds of food and grabbed some boiled eggs for the jersey pockets - I wasn't getting caught out again! Having cleared passport control, we rolled out of the harbour and onto the cycle paths; delight at the quality of the infrastructure only briefly marred as a bloke on a scooter came towards us and pointed grumpily at the path on the other side of the road - ‘over there’. Oops. Having recalibrated which side we should be riding on, we consulted my map (a Valk Fietsenatlas that covered the whole of the country at a large scale), and rolled out towards Delft. It was lovely; the sun was shining, it wasn’t too hot, and we were heading along leafy woodland paths. Emerging onto the polder, however, we encountered the Dutch Alps; heading nearly straight into the wind, the cycle computer said we were going a good 5-6 km/h slower than the effort made it feel like. We were also encountering the flaws in the otherwise delightful cycle infrastructure: the inconsistent signage. By NCN standards, of course, this was nothing unusual, but the long-distance route signage had a tendency to disappear, and the local signage would switch between the destination we were headed for and a list of local hamlets. My map had a listing of knooppunten (the numbered nodal points), which helped, but these signs were often easy to miss.
By the time we got to Delft it was becoming clear that we weren’t going to be at our destination until mid-afternoon. Stopping briefly at a bike shop to pick up a spare chain for my brother in case of further mishap, we headed to the pretty town of Zoetermeer for an elevenses stop of coffee and apple tart. At Alphen aan de Rijn, roughly halfway along our route, we turned to follow the banks of the Old Rhine (once the northern border of the Roman Empire), and headed towards Utrecht. Though very pretty, and with a reasonable amount of shade, we were feeling the heat, and there didn’t seem to be any hostelries open along the way (lots seemed not to open until the evening on a Monday). The flat miles were also taking their toll on my sit bones, as there was little opportunity to get out of the saddle and take the weight off. Bottles empty, we rolled into the medieval town of Woerden, and headed towards the town square in search of a drink. Appropriately, the cafe ‘de Pompier’ was open to quench our thirst, and it was here that the Dutch ‘vaasje’ (‘little vase’; a 20 or 25 cl beer measure) really came into its own. It’s small enough to stay ice cold, and it’s also a sensible size to be able to neck the first one without serious consequences; by the time the second one arrives the edge has been taken off the dehydration, and one can sip and enjoy it.
Suitably refreshed, we set off on the final 20K with an spring in our legs, hitting the centre of Utrecht as the evening rush began. The evening cycling rush, that is - the area around the railway station was being dug up, near-unrecognisable from when we lived there, and it was utter (if benign) chaos, with bikes heading in all directions, taking an optional approach to the rules of the road. At this point, the UK cycle-commuter survival reflexes kicked in, and as some long-dormant homing instinct awakened, we powered round the station and on the route to our old house. My parents hadn’t arrived yet, so we swung round the corner to a pub, and ordered some bar snacks and more beers. Once mum and dad turned up, we were able to have a shower, wash our kit, get changed into civvies, and head out to Blauw, the Indonesian restaurant we’d booked in the centre of town. The meal was utterly delicious, and despite the miles we’d racked up, we were defeated by the amounts, having to leave some. Back home, we crashed into bed, and were out like a light.

Day 3 - Utrecht-Hook
We woke late, and had a leisurely breakfast, then started to get our gear together. My brother was keen to get off, as he wanted to find somewhere to watch the England-Colombia game in Hook of Holland, but first we decided we’d book train tickets back to Liverpool Street from Harwich. Both of us were feeling the miles in our legs and behinds, and after enjoying the Dutch cycling experience so much, the route back might be a bit anticlimactic; besides, ideally I’d make a lunchtime train back to Walsall to be able to pick up my kids from school. Of course, this meant ringing the Greater Anglia customer service line to sort out cycle reservations; a mere 20 minutes later I’d booked them, and we were able to head out. Stopping in the centre of Utrecht to take some photos of the cathedral and to grab some souvenirs for my kids, we made our way back along the way we’d come the previous day. Thankfully we were making much better time, partly because of easier navigation, and partly because the wind was behind us now; cracking along at just under evens with an eerie lack of wind noise made me feel better about the time it had taken us to come the other way. We skipped a morning cake stop, but had a proper lunch by the river in Alphen aan den Rijn; Schnitzel, chips, and copious amounts of mayonnaise, all washed down with a beer. The kilometres ticked down to the Hook easily, though my sit bones were still letting me know they were there; arriving at the port we nipped into the supermarket just outside to get a picnic.
We’d made good time, so decided to check in and watch the match on the ferry. Again there was only a single lane open at the check-in, so we waited and chatted with a Dutch cyclist who was heading to the UK for a short tour. A second booth was then opened, and the Stena staff called cyclists forward to go through first. Settled on board and showered, we made our way to the bar for the football. As it went to extra time and then penalties, the group of American college students on their trip of Europe looked baffled as all the Brits on board put their heads in their hands; we had to give them a potted history of what the past 30 years had been like as England supporters. As the shootout reached its climax, all the crew were surreptitiously moving from their stations so they could see a screen, and as the final penalty went home the deck erupted. Football might be coming home, but we definitely were.

Day 4 - Heading home
Again the cheery voice called us to breakfast at unreasonable o’clock; sadly (supporting national stereotypes?) it was rather diminished from the spread that had greeted us in the Dutch side; the cooked breakfast was still available, but all the other options were much reduced. Still, we weren’t going to be cycling all the way. I’d booked us onto a later train to Liverpool Street to guard against mishaps debarking, but we were in good time; we decided to let the first train out of the port go with its load of cyclists, and got the next one. Of course this meant squeezing a bike upright into the small lift for this platform, but that obstacle negotiated we got off at Manningtree and sat down to wait for the hour and a bit for our train. Thankfully the station setting was as pleasant as the weather; with a coffee from the station buffet (we decided it was a little early for a pint, tempting though the real ales on offer would ordinarily have been) and a book, we sat there reading and listening to the baa-ing of the sheep somewhere nearby. When our train was called we made our way to the end of the platform and waited for the guard to open the van. There were a couple of Sheffield stands bolted to the floor, but only a couple of straps to tie bikes up, so I quickly used my cafe lock while the guard flapped at me. An hour or so later we were back in the Smoke, and, after a coffee and a sandwich we headed our separate ways - my brother for a shower and a nap, and me back to Marylebone for a train home. Not a bad trip for an excellent Indonesian meal.

Further thoughts
I had a great time, and am already idly planning another Dutch trip for the future. I’m not sure I’d bother cycling to Harwich again; I think I’d prefer to get trains and spend the extra day in the Netherlands. If I did, I’d certainly pay more attention to fuelling - I paid the price for getting this wrong on the first day, and was still feeling some of the effects on the second day, though the heat didn’t help. Despite some of the warnings about block paving &c, the Dutch cycle routes were all very well surfaced - I was on 35mm tyres, which helped, but my brother was on 23 or 25mm, and he didn’t have any problems. Apart from anything else, there was a wonderfully relaxing sense of being treated as a totally legitimate road user; being given way to at cycle crossings and so on was the kind of thing that you don’t realise you’ve got until it happens. For mapping I used map and route sheet printouts from cycle.travel on the UK side, and the cycle atlas on the Dutch side. We used our phones once or twice to help us escape Chelmsford and Colchester, and to confirm we were headed the right way in the lanes, but in NL the atlas was sufficient (and I couldn’t get my phone to get a data connection anyway), though of course (as ever) any tricky bits were at a page boundary. The Valk maps are pretty clear, but a smaller-scale map would have sufficed for navigation by cycle path destination signs, and if camping you’d want something with campsites marked; slightly annoyingly something I read suggested this would have them marked (and it’s large-scale enough to), but they’re not. Tourist information offices are, mind, so you could just check there if you were trying to find somewhere to pitch up for the night. Pack wise I’d try and travel a bit lighter next time - I had a pretty full Camper Longflap, but there was some stuff I didn’t need (I’d ditch the D-lock - I only used it once, when the bikes were out of sight over lunch). OTOH, I could have carried on credit card touring almost indefinitely with what I did have - and I’ll always make sure I bring a quick link...

Re: Cycling to the Netherlands for supper
« Reply #1 on: July 20, 2018, 12:58:51 pm »
Great ride report! Wish I had visited Blauw restaarant when I was living in NL

Re: Cycling to the Netherlands for supper
« Reply #2 on: July 21, 2018, 08:52:29 am »
Oddly enough, one of the best currys I've ever had was from an Indonesian restaurant, when I was working in Den Haag.