Ride to the Sea
- Categorized in: October 2011
Leaving Brussels was a soggy, soggy ride.
My shoes, which by now had served me every day for just over a year, had already developed gaping holes. So in the rain and the grimy puddles, my feet was sodden before I’d even got to the end of the first street.
Still, I hadn’t far to go – only 65km north to the North Sea port of Antwerp – through completely flat, and rather forgettable landscape. The undulating contours to the east and south of Brussels had become a billiard table, sliced up by canals and little waterways, with raised bridges to let the sluggish-looking barges through, and little humpback bridges for lowlander cyclists to wheeze over on antiquated bikes.
Swing bridge just short of Antwerp
The rain continued probably half the distance, and I had the hood of my waterproof jacket pulled low over my eyes, which meant there was even less to notice.
The villages and towns were low standing: simple houses of red brick, well made but very dull to look at. When I thought of the bursts of colour of Austrian and Bavarian window-boxes some few hundred kilometers back, I couldn’t help feeling the blandness of this part of Europe. Safe, functional. Yet devoid of character. At least on this wet Tuesday afternoon in October.
In fairness, the drab architecture is no doubt the product of the scarring of two World Wars, which completely defaced this region. You may lay the blame for these wars at many doors, but I don’t think any of them could be Belgian.
At a certain point, the rain did stop, and I soon came to a long straight road, which led into the heart of Antwerp – Belgium’s second city. The single tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady rises 123m above the flat lands of the city, so tall that one is deceived into thinking you’ve made it. 10km later, the centre was still someway off.
As I rode the last few minutes into the city centre, I was genuinely interested to see what kind of a place Antwerp was, since I knew almost nothing about it. A North Sea port with a red light district to rival Amsterdam was almost the only impression I had about it. Whether that is true or not, of course, I wasn’t there to find out (at least not by design) but I supposed that this wasn’t how the Antwerpen Tourist Board would have liked the place to be known. Perhaps the city had some other side to it that I could take away with me.
Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
The hostel I had found comprised a few floors of an old town house on a curved street with clean pale facades. A suspicious but quite young Chinese woman with long black hair answered the door. She didn’t want to say much except that I mustn’t leave my bike in the hall. She led me into the reception cum living room, and then wrote my details in her register on a heavy dark wooden table, next to an ash tray that was overflowing with cigarette butts. The place stank of joss sticks – I guess to cover up the cigarette smoke - though I could smell there was enough of that still smoldering out of her lungs to make the hardiest smoker run for the chemist and cry, “Lord help me, I quit!”
The room was filled with Bohemian junk, and the odd indolent looking traveler slouched on a sofa, tap-tap-tapping on a laptop. (Don’t we all?) Feeling a bit uninspired by the scene, I resolved to get clean and out as soon as possible. It was still fairly early in the day.
Once I had grabbed some food on the hoof, I figured out that I seemed to have crossed some kind of linguistic frontier, from Wallonia into Flanders – where English was understood a lot better than French. I smiled at the thought: the evolution of tongues – I’m coming home.
I then wandered about the streets of Antwerp, which were an interesting mix of the new and the old.
Typical Antwerp street
One thing in particular caught my attention though. As I wandered around aimlessly, parts of the town strongly reminded me of the town nearest my family home in Norfolk – King’s Lynn. It was striking to recognise traces of my homeland, as the transformation from Hong Kong skyscrapers into simple little Norfolk market towns and villages was nearly complete. It was just another murmur that my journey was nearly done.
Inside Antwerp train station
In fact, there is a good reason these two towns would in some way resemble one another. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the wool trade had flourished between England and the continental mainland. Anyone who owned any land at that time in England raised sheep for their wool, which would then be weaved into cloth. Although some of the wool would be weaved in England for domestic use, at the time the Flemish weavers (from Flanders) were the most skilled in Europe, so huge quantities of wool would be shipped to Antwerp from the ports that lay along the east coast of England. One of these is in fact King’s Lynn. Stirring something in the murky depths of my earliest education, this dredged up the glimmer of some recollection about the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. Protection of this lucrative wool trading relationship was one of the underlying causes of the Hundred Years War between England and France. (The French lost that one too.)
The rural communities of many parts of England, but especially East Anglia, grew rich from the wool trade. And this prosperity left its traces in the landscape. Across the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk stand huge flint-made churches, built on “wool money”, that rise up over humble fields and hedgerows like great grey citadels, quite out of proportion to the little villages and hamlets that are scattered about their feet.
While the wool-weaving heyday of Flanders may have past long ago, Antwerp still has strong links with “the rag trade”. In the 21st century, I discovered it styles itself a leading centre for educating the European fashion designers of the future. Far be it from me to express anything intelligent about the fashion industry, but I am told by those that know that Antwerp is indeed an important centre of creativity in design, and that it well deserves its good reputation. I’ve even seen it described somewhere as “Belgium’s Capital of Cool”.
I suppose somewhere has to be.
I meandered through the streets, dropping into the clothes stores along the main shopping streets. Even my untrained eye was able to see there was a lot of good stuff available, which was much cheaper than anywhere else I’d been in Europe. I suppose if you are prepared to go to extravagant lengths in search of a good deal, you could do a lot worse than take a trip to Antwerp.
Not tempted? Hmmm, didn’t think you would be.
Nevertheless, I poked my nose in cavernous cathedrals, and ornate little churches, found myself spinning round and round taking in cobbled squares and gothic municipal buildings, and waving my nose in the air at a bunch of clock-towers.
Promenade by the River Scheldt
Eventually I found my way out to the riverside. The Scheldt river runs up from its headwaters in Northern France, and by the time it reaches Antwerp it is a broad bleak waterway.
As I walked along it, though it was a grey day, suddenly off to the west, the cloud broke up a little and heavy beams of sunlight pierced through the cover.
It was unexpected to find myself stopping, and leaning against the white railing and gazing off to the west.
I thought back to Hong Kong. So far away.
So long ago.
A year and 5 days before I had set out from my brother’s house. Wished him well and stepped onto the ferry with a few dozen Chinese. Into what, I had little idea.
And here I was, gazing over the flat grey docks of this Northern port, dirty barges toiling their way upstream, as the frozen spray burst under their bows.
Break in the clouds
The winding-down of the last days, the sadness that it was all coming to a cold autumnal end seemed to give way for a moment, like the clouds. And a series of piercing rays of gratitude filled my heart. Just for a few seconds.
How had I got here? All that way.
I know people do far great journeys than this one. Longer, harder, more dangerous.
But I never had. Who knows if I will again?
And I was suddenly just so grateful for everything that had gone before. It probably turns the stomach of some to hear this – that’s too bad. Because I was grateful to God. Aware of his hand on me. On this journey.
They say that the first time you discover there is “One” to whom you can be grateful, finally to express thanks to that One for your life and all that is good in it, comes as a wonderful relief. Like telling someone whom you have adored from afar for the first time, “Yes, I love you”. It may lead to pain or it may lead to happiness, you don’t know. But for the moment there is an inexpressible joy just from communicating this secret in your heart to the one you adore, whoever they may be.
The gift of this journey found its completion in being grateful to the One who gave it.
Or so it seemed to me…
So I walked away from this grim-looking port surprisingly happy.
The evening was spent in the charming company of a Dutch girl whom I had met (once again) through the Couch Surfing network. I dare say it’s very shallow of me to look up friendly looking females as I passed through the various cities of Europe, but it gave me an opportunity to enjoy my fleeting time in each place and have something to do other than wander around on my own.
And at the age of 35 and single, I’m not sure more male friends is what I need right now.
Still, enjoyable though all this company had been, it was looking increasingly likely that this particular odyssey was going to draw to an end bereft of any life-changing romance. Perhaps that was just as well, since I don’t suppose pedaling a bike every day offers a girl much in the way of the manner to which she may be accustomed to live.
But by the time I was pedaling away from Antwerp – while I wouldn’t exactly advise you to put it top of your holiday hit list - I felt that if you do happen to pass through there one day, you may be pleasantly surprised.
As I was.
The next day was a longer ride, but happily the rain seemed to hold off for most of the day.
The road led due north across more flatlands and into and under beech woods, where walkers were out with their dogs for a morning walk. The land had been turned now, some weeks after the harvest. The dark brown soil looked rich and fertile, ready to receive the seed for next year’s crop. Everything was precise and angular – hedgerows, fencing – right angles everywhere.
Each village and town was low-standing, with most buildings made from heavy pinkish red brick. Again uniform and clean. Grown up after the ravages of war had swept through, built to reflect the optimism and healing of the 1950s. But with the character of centuries now lost to these little Flemish communities.
I crossed into the Netherlands. Holland. My 19th country.
The wind picked up as I approached closer and closer to the North Sea coast. The road led along dykes overlooking fields, and into the convoluted estuary of the Scheldt River, where the land breaks up into a tangle of silty slabs of land, cut across by huge concrete span bridges.
The Dutch seem as keen on bicycle lanes as the Austrians, and woe betide any cyclist who even dares think he might share the ordinary road with the other traffic. There will always be an obliging motorist passing by, with a rapid toot and a hearty shake of the fist to see you right on your way.
Wayward cycling is obviously a give-away for bad character in Holland. For a nation that prides itself on its liberal and laissez-faire attitude to many areas of life, they are surprisingly dogmatic when it comes to traffic by-laws. Perhaps therein is the lie.
The centre of Rotterdam
Eventually, as the afternoon drew on, I was following the little cycle-way signs into the centre of the port of Rotterdam. A city built on a lot of water – one is forever crossing canals and ditches and wet docks and locks. At last, after a weary ride of over 110km I arrived in this town as the sun had fallen below the cloud base and created a bright array of colour as it reflected off the riverside buildings and dramatic road bridges.
River traffic - Rotterdam
My last stopover on the continent.
The hostel I managed to locate proved at lot more welcoming and amenable than the one I’d found in Antwerp. The high season was well over by now, and even in a dorm room for 8, I was the only occupant.
I had about an hour before dark which I spent wandering along the riverside snapping the changing effects of the dying sun on the billowing clouds.
It was cold though and I carried on my walk quite briskly, heading off for a rendez-vous with a girl call Priscilla and some of her friends in probably the best Italian restaurant I’d eaten in across the whole of Europe. In Rotterdam? Somehow, yes.
Anyway, Priscilla was great company, as were her friends. She is from Kenya and her friends from Nigeria. It seemed a bit unlikely teaming up with people from so far away in a city I took to be as Dutch as a tulip, and unlikely to entice people from around the globe. But once again, I was wrong.
Apparently there is a wide draw from all over Europe and further afield to Rotterdam, which has a few well-respected universities. (It’s hard for me to admit that there may be more than one of these in Europe, I confess.)
It’s also one of the big business centres in Holland, not least for the shipping and energy company Maersk – the biggest Danish company around who once upon a time had the honour of refusing me a job (sensible fellows). They have some 7,000 people in Rotterdam. And I did actually start to hear more than a few conversations going on in Danish around us just in the restaurant.
I also noticed a vast office tower with enormous letters spelling out “KPN” crowning its roof – one of the major Dutch telecoms companies which is based in Rotterdam too. This shot my memory back to my days of manning a telephone in my first job post-university, trying to sell software to this company back in 2001. I would get very excited if they would take a meeting, let alone hand over any good money for whatever incomprehensible piece of software I was selling. This much I did understand: they didn’t need it, it didn’t work anyway, and it was fiendishly expensive (our competitors gave theirs away for free). None of these were very helpful USPs.
A frothy Dutch brew
I digress. But, if ever you find yourself being dispatched by an unsympathetic employer to this blustery North Sea port, do not reach for the cyanide pills immediately. You may just enjoy it (at least this is what I was warmly assured by my new friends).
I awoke to the day I would arrive back in England.
It was with some excitement that I packed up my bags and slung them on my bike. Since my ferry didn’t leave until the early afternoon, I met up once more for breakfast with Priscilla and got to learn more about her, and told her most of my best stories from this journey – which take a good while to tell by now.
But it felt like I was off to catch my boat in good time.
Bye bye Europe. Bye bye Eurasia.
Bye bye windmills, and bicycle lanes, and flat lands with flawless drainage systems. Bye bye, double “aa’s” and double “oo’s” where you least expect it (actually we have some of those).
Bye bye “Foreign”.
Dear Old Blighty, here I come.
It was only 30km to the ferry port of the Hook of Holland (Hook van Holland if you wish to “speak proper”). More than far enough to get a good soaking from a few rain showers, and a little bit lost when the cycle lane signage decided to throw me off the scent for a while.
But they couldn’t thwart me that easily. Not when, as a proper traveler of the 21st century, I could see on my iPhone the little blue dot that was me zooming closer and closer to this little nose of land, that juts out into the North Sea like an anteater’s proboscis.
Well, sort of.
Whatever sadness I might have felt over the last couple of weeks, that my journey was coming to its close, seemed to have left me now. Indeed it turned out that it had left me for good.
Instead, I felt filled with excitement and anticipation at each of the last few steps it remained to take. Reaching the ferry, crossing the North Sea, getting to Cambridge. And then the final ride to Norfolk.
The emotions inside revealed (to myself as much as to anyone else) the thorough-going Englishman that I am. An Englishman may be many things, and there are many different types, but the truest ones do at least love their country, especially if that country is their home.
This little land that lies so close by its continental counterparts, that dares to name itself “Great”. It was a special place to be coming home to.
First glimpse of the open sea
There was no one around to hear me whooping and hollering as I reached the great open canal that leads to the open sea. No one to see the beaming grin as I stood up on the pedals, passing the spinning wind turbines, and saluting the drab looking car ferry that was going to carry me homeward.
I beamed at the customs officer in the passport control cabin, declaring with pride that I had ridden to her all the way from Hong Kong. She didn’t care and just waved me on.
But I knew.
I don’t think there was ever a passenger on a Thursday ferry crossing to Harwich who was happier to be there than I.
Success!! I had done it.
Once on board, I treated myself to an eye-wateringly expensive feast at which I toasted myself, and told myself what a jolly fine fellow I was. It was a little embarrassing but I modestly accepted the praise with good grace.
Bye Bye Holland
Meanwhile the other passengers just read their newspapers and looked blankly out the window at the wind blowing waves across the water.
I stepped outside on deck into the chilly autumnal wind. I stood looking out to sea, looking ahead, just long enough to watch the sun go down in the west one last time.
I’d been chasing that sunset for nearly 17,000km. It had been with me all the way. Falling and falling, always falling. Over the damp and overgrown ridges of southern China, the scorching wilderness of Uzbekistan, the cascading cliff-faces of the Crimea, the dewy mountain meadows of the Carpathians, and the crystal lakes of the Saltzkammegut.
And as if the sun knew it, he gave me one final gorgeous display of firey glory, blazing beams of light dazzling off the broken waters of the grey North Sea, that for a few moments seemed to light up like a dragon’s flaming trail.
And then, he was gone.
- Notes from the Road
- Join Me for the Ride!
- Press Articles & Clips
- Causes for your Support
- Voices in the East
- Distance Done
- Kit Inventory
- Maps of the Route
- Video Clips
- Norfolk Superheroes