Monday, 12 December 2016

Heat on the Dyke

After sampling the local beer the night before I felt I should visit the home of the brewery, Jever. It was a hot morning and the route wound though flat, green farmland crisscrossed by wide drainage ditches.
East Frisian landscape
It was very like any flat, fenny landscape on the east coast of Britain, except for the German farmhouses. I guess their similarity to each other has something to do with them all being built on reclaimed land - it was the same in Denmark. I only needed to photograph one, because they all looked like this one, more or less.




Jever had plenty of shops and cafes -a pleasant small rural town. By the time I left it was very hot, and when I reached the coast again at Harleseil I realised it was too hot to cycle further. I didn't even have the energy to visit the dyke museum, but instead cycled a few kilometres along the coast to Neuharlingenseil where I put my tent up on another vast campsite and sat under my umbrella trying to stay cool.

I gave up on that quite fast and went into the village to buy ice cream. There was a statue of a fisherman leaning on the rails by the harbour and a steady stream of women stood beside him and put a hand on his bum. I went back to the campsite and found herring gulls in action raiding a neighbours tent. I recovered the debris of their plastic rubbish bag and chucked it away. Later, I went over to tell them about it and they invited me for beer. I told Gunther I'd enjoyed the Jever and he pulled a face, saying it was far too bitter, but he went out and bought me some! We had a entertaining chat with the help of my newly purchased German dictionary.


There was thunder and lightning during the night, but no rain, and no relief from the heat. The highlight of the following day's ride was stopping at a roadside orchard and buying a large punnet of cherries. They were cold and juicy and far more delicious than any ice cream but I only found them because I'd abandoned the dyke to cycle through the small town of Dornum. I camped at Norddeich (back to the dyke again) which has huge white hotels and sanatoria. It's the largest 'North Sea Spa' on the East Frisian coast and also a ferry port for the Frisian islands. It is BUSY! And the campsite is huge.  The small shop was almost full with beer. There is a fine promenade from which you can look at the deckchairs and the mud.

Beer supplies

Norddeich

I was getting close now to the Dutch border. The next day took me to the town of Greetseil, which was a mediaeval port with a massive quantity of tourists, and then on to a much smaller campsite at Knock from where I could see the chimneys of the factories at Delfzijl across the Ems estuary in the Netherlands. There was also a swimming spot with proper deep water to swim in, so I did. In the morning I carried on along the dyke into Emden, where I was a little too late for Sunday morning breakfast at a cafe, and had to make do with cake.  I bypassed Leer, using my umbrella to keep dry in a sudden thunderstorm, and by late afternoon I was cycling first beside the Ems, and then beside a railway track towards Bad Nieuwschans and the border.

Near Weener

The Border

This was the first time on the trip that I'd crossed a border by land. I was past the small footbridge over a stream before I realised what it was. The signs for the North Sea Cycle Route were three metres above me on a white post, and impossible to read without a telescope.



There was a 'Keltische Midzomer Festival' going on in the town and the campsite was full of people attending it. It was also full of slugs. The slugs were way more friendly than the heavy metal Kelts. They swarmed all over my tent and into the cooking things. They were brown and slimy.


Maps are here:  Neuharlingseil; Norddeich; Knock; Bad Nieuweschens

Tips:

  • The dyke is very long and it doesn't change much.  There are a lot of interesting small towns just a few km inland from the coast. Unless you are wedded to the idea of following the route exactly it's much more interesting to divert inland.
  • Beware of herring gulls. They are thieves and vandals.       

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Groningen

Somewhere in Frisland someone told me I'd find the farming very different in Holland. They were right. I left Bad Nieuwschens and at once I was in a landscape of vast fields of wheat, barley and sugar beet. There were dykes and polders and sluices, and long rows of trees silhouetted black against the sky. And in the distance were the towers and chimneys of Delfzijl.


Approaching Delfzijl

I didn't much enjoy cycling past the chemical factories. The industrial part of the town seemed to go on for a long time and I think I must have lost the cycle route at some point. North of the town was more farmland and I stopped for lunch in a field where a friendly farmer found me as he hoed the sugar beet. I was hoping to get to Vierhuisen where I was going to meet Kate and spend a week exploring Groningen, but the wind was strong and against me, so I spent the night in a campsite at Pieterburen which is famous for its seal sanctuary and for Wad-loping, which means frolicking in the mud of the Waddenzee.


The farmhouses in this part of the Netherlands are a sight to see. Apparently many are owned by rich absentee farmers who use them as weekend retreats. They are certainly done up in a very fanciful way. Front gardens around here are also extremely formal with manicured trees and topiary. There are also larger gardens to see at Uisthuizen and Leenz which are on, or close to, the North Sea Cycle route.


After a week on the campsite in Veirhuizen which included, among many other outings,  a trip around the nearby island of Schiermonnikoog by bicycle, I set off again towards the Hook of Holland.

Schiermonnikoog

While we were on Schiermonnikoog (an island whose name is almost unpronounceable, by me at least) I failed to meet fellow North Sea cyclist @joneklings. We'd been following each other on Instagram and were travelling around the North Sea in opposite directions. He stopped at the campsite and posted a picture while we were out.


I followed the route through the Lauwersmeer nature reserve but then cut across country towards Dokkum, a small town ringed by canals. From there I headed straight towards Leeuwarden and I'd recommend this detour if only because it gives you the chance to visit the house of Ruurd Wiersma in Burdaard. He was a village milkman who spent years painting almost everything inside his house (walls, doors, shoes, coal scuttle) after he was disappointed in love.

Leeuwarden is a nice place too, and although I got a bit lost trying to find my way past all the new roads on the way to Harlingen, the wind was strong and behind me. It was so strong, in fact, that I decided it would be best to use it to help me across the 30km of the Afsluitsdijk even though I'd already cycled quite a long way that day. This incredible earthwork was opened in 1933, closing the sea inlet of the Zuiderzee and turning it into the IJselmeer.


It took me just over an hour to get across. I hate to think how long it might have taken going in the opposite direction. Even so, I began to regret my decision when it proved hard to find a campsite. Or rather, there were several campsites in the area, but all of the offices were shut and none of the campers seemed to know anything.

Finally I found a place that seemed to be open, but the woman there told me to go to the next one, behind the dyke. Well, it was a large campsite and it did have a sign saying something like, 'NO OVERNIGHT CAMPERS', but I'd had enough by then and I found an empty patch of grass and put up my tent.

It was a lovely evening, and a little later I wandered up to the reception and found the campsite owner there. It turned out the sign meant what it said, but she was very friendly and chatty and said I was fine where I was. The facilities were excellent, as was the sunset. I had left the Waddenzee behind me now, but not the dyke. I sat on the concrete and watched the sun go down.


Maps are here: Pieterburen; Vierhuizen; Dam

Tips:
  • Don't miss Ruurd Wiersma's house.  
  • The alternative route through Dokkum and Leeuwarden to Harlingen is very pleasant and I bet it's more interesting than the dyke.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

Noord-Holland

I woke at 6.00AM to a sky covered with small cumulus clouds and a fresh North-East wind. By the time I set off the sky had cleared and the wind was already veering to the South. The first part of the day was like cycling through the Lincolnshire fens: dykes, polders, rivers, fields of bare earth, flooded fields, fields of lilies and alliums. Then I hit the dunes and turned due South into the wind. It was hard work and made me feel very glad that I'd crossed the Afsluitdijk the previous evening.

I cycled past a seemingly never-ending campsite in the dunes at a place called Sint Maartenszee and then onto a very exposed section of dyke, which was just about the last I encountered. From here on it was dunes. The dunes at least gave some shelter from the wind, but there was now a new menace - other cyclists. Suddenly there seemed to be hundreds of them - old, young, sporty types and grandparents on ebikes. Eventually I reached the port of IJmuiden, crossed the river on a free ferry and found a campsite in a park. It was a very strange campsite, with hundreds of campers crammed into tiny spaces among the trees and bushes. It wasn't very clean and was very busy. It was only later that I realised I was more or less in a suburb of Amsterdam, so close that people popped out there for the weekend.


The following day was the busiest of the whole trip. Most of it was on a cycle path through the dunes. It was Sunday morning and it seemed as if the whole of Holland was out on bikes. There were pelotons of lycra-clad fitness fanatics, families carrying windbreaks and spades and picnic hampers, the usual suspects whizzing by on ebikes, cycle tourists with the full complement of Ortlieb panniers, mountain bikers - it was complete bicycle madness. It was almost a relief to arrive at the ferry port at Hoek van Holland.




It was lucky I arrived as early as I did. The terminal seemed deserted at first, then I saw a single ticket window open. I asked the dour girl on the desk if I could get a ticket for the evening sailing and she said: 'I'll see.' Then: 'You know you have to have a cabin?' as though she was hoping this would put me off. She then inspected my passport. 'Your eyes look brown here,' she accused me, staring from my passport photo to my own blue eyes. There must have been something about me that aroused her suspicion. Finally she handed me my ticket.

I went and ate a meal at the restaurant, then waited with the car drivers to get on the ferry, but there was still one more interrogation to endure. The passport control officer wanted to know where I'd got my bike from. 'Did you buy it in Holland?' I explained that I had cycled from Norway. 'So did you buy it in Norway?' I explained that I'd taken it there on the plane. He looked at me as if I was crazy.

Then he let me through.

Maps:  Dreihuis (IJmuiden); Hoek van Holland

Friday, 9 December 2016

Around Suffolk and Norfolk

I slept well on the ferry. The North Sea was as calm as could be and there was a holiday atmosphere on deck as the sun went down.

Leaving Hoek van Holland

In the morning as we slid into the docks at Harwich it was a grey, drizzly Sunday morning. The whole of the Harwich old town was closed, but then, it was very early, so I had some breakfast in a seaside shelter and admired the run-down, crumbling seaside architecture while I waited for the Harwich harbour ferry to take me across to Felixstowe.

Harwich

Breakfast spot

Luckily the pier had a nice little cafe beside it where a small group of travellers was waiting to cross, among them a Dutch couple who came regularly to Suffolk on their bikes to escape the overcrowded Dutch bike paths.  They loved the fact that in Suffolk you can cycle all day on the dense network of small country lanes and hardly see a car - or another cyclist.  After my own experience I had a lot of sympathy with them.


Harwich harbour
Landing on the beach

The ferry arrived late, with lots of apologies.  It was a very small boat, but fitted us all in and ten minutes later deposited us on the beach at Felixstowe, on the far side of Harwich harbour. By now the sun had come out and I cycled along the sea front to pay a visit to my cousin, and then on to the small ferry at Bawdsey across the mouth of the River Deben. There was once a grand Victorian house here  and if you walk along the beach you can see the ruins of the gardens. It was a radar research station during WW2 and a military base for a long while afterwards.

Suffolk farm buildings

Farm near Halesworth


As soon as I left Bawdsey I was very struck by the hilliness of the landscape. People always talk of Suffolk and Norfolk as flat places, but they are not flat compared to the parts of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands that border the North Sea. Thinking about it, I realised that was the first solid, unreclaimed land that I had cycled on since leaving Sweden. The rock beneath me was only boulder clay, but it was a huge contrast to mud and sand. I also couldn't help noticing the churches. I've lived most of my life in East Anglia and I'd forgotten how amazing it is to find these wonderful mediaeval buildings everywhere you go, just sitting there in the landscape.

I didn't really follow the official North Sea Cycle Route through East Anglia.  There are dozens of possible route choices here and I'd already cycled around the coast more than once.  I made my way through Snape, Saxmundham, Halesworth and Beccles to the small village of Aldeby, where I stayed the night with friends.

River Yare at Reedham

The next day I crossed the River Yare at Reedham Ferry and went to visit my parents in Horning. After that I cycled through Aylsham and Melton Constable to camp at Stiffkey on the north coast.

Towards Holkham from Stiffkey

Stiffkey is a great place. When the tide goes out there are miles of salt marshes, sand and mudflats stretching to the horizon. It's always an adventure following the tide out to find the sea. In the morning I was up early and saw several barn owls quartering the marshes. I set off quickly and managed to cycle the coast road to Hunstanton before there was very much traffic about. In Hunstanton I had coffee in an old-fashioned sea front cafe with a view across the Wash to Lincolnshire, where I could see the famous tower of Boston's church quite clearly more than 30km away. More like 100km by road though.

Across the Wash towards Boston
Summer fields with the Wash in the distance

From Hunstanton I rejoined the NSCR and visited Sandringham and Castle Rising on the way to King's Lynn, an ancient Hanseatic port which seemed like a perfect place to take a break in my journey. I tracked down the Hanseatic warehouse which has been restored and now hosts art galleries and cafes. It couldn't be more different from the wonderful Hanseatic museum in Bergen and you'd need a lot of imagination to picture how it must once have been, but it's easy to imagine King's Lynn's quayside bustling with ships. It's just a pity that the centre of the town (where I once went to school for two years) was gutted in the late 1960s to make way for one of the country's most hideous shopping centres.

The Hanseatic warehouse in King's Lynn


I found a pizza place and had a meal to celebrate the end of the first part of the trip.

Maps:  To Aldeby;  to Horning;  to Stiffkey;  to King's Lynn

Tips:
  • You have to book a cabin on the crossing from Hoek van Holland to Harwich. It's probably best to do it early!
  • National Cycle Route 1 keeps inland along the north coast of Norfolk. I like this route, but if it's a quiet time of year, or a quiet time of day, then the coast road is very nice. Unfortunately, when it gets busy it gets very busy. Completely avoid it on Bank Holiday weekends.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Lincolnshire

I had reached King's Lynn at the end of July, where I had caught a train back to London, leaving the North Sea coast free for holidaymakers during the school holidays. It was the end of the first week in September when I started off again, catching the train back to King's Lynn and cycling off along the course of the old A17.  This is a trip I've made many times and I didn't feel the need to take the detours that the NSCR takes to avoid traffic.  I almost regretted this decision as the heavy lorries hurtled past me on the A17 between Saracen's Head and Fosdyke, but it was soon over and I was back among fields full of cabbages again.  I should say here that although I raced through this part of the journey it's well worth making a few stops to see some of the astonishing fenland churches, especially the one at Walpole St Peter.

River Welland at Fosdyke Bridge

Cabbages

On the way to Boston I found another dyke, but this one was made getting on for 2000 years ago by the Romans. It looks just like the ones in Germany though, only smaller. Behind the dyke there were plenty of cabbage fields, with the occasional mobile packing station moving slowly along the rows.  Then I was in Boston, a town which has changed enormously in the 20 years since I first went there. Immigration from Eastern Europe is a big deal around here, but these fruit and vegetable picking areas have always depended on migrant labour. it used to be gypsies and travellers and students who did the seasonal work. I even picked a few strawberries myself back in the 1960s. Now it's people from Eastern Europe who do the work, and Boston is their new centre, with specialist shops everywhere.

Baltic Shop, Boston


In the 1960s my mum worked in a school on the fens. It was a tiny, two teacher primary school and at fruit picking time half the kids went off to work in the fields.  The head teacher had a canning machine in the school and he spent the summer days canning fruit.

I was heading for Skegness, mainly because I'd never been there.  At Boston I deviated from the NSCR again.  It goes North-west here through Lincoln, and it's a lovely way to go, but I decided to stick to the coast on this bit and take in Grimsby, another place I'd never been.


Out-of-season cafe in Skegness

Car park and caravan site, Skegness
I camped near Skegness, which appeared to be one vast caravan site, and carried on next day along the coast through Mabelthorpe where the streets were thronging with people on mobility scooters but I got a very good cup of coffee in an Italian coffee bar.

Mabelthorpe

North of Mabelthorpe the coast starts to curve round towards the mouth of the Humber river, and eventually I reached Cleethorpes and Grimsby which are kind of joined together. I cycled past the semi-derelict fish docks in Grimsby and wondered why the small coastal towns of Norway and Denmark all seemed to have thriving fishing, while Grimsby and Lowestoft now have very little. I also remembered passing another Grimsby on the South-west tip of Norway.

Old fish docks, Grimsby
I was hoping to camp in Barton-upon-Humber, at the southern end of the Humber Bridge, but the campsite had been washed away by floods and after a lot of fruitless cycling around (20 years ago Barton had three campsites - now there are none) I had to resort to a hotel.  It was very comfortable.

Full English Breakfast (minus the sausage)

The next morning I crossed over the bridge into Yorkshire.

The Humber

Tips:
  • Churches in England are almost always worth visiting.  They are not always open, but someone close by usually has the key. In the fens near King's Lynn the churches can be spectacular.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Wolds, moors and mines

North of the Humber there are proper hills, but before I reached them I had to navigate my way out of the Humber Bridge car park and past the M62. The cycle paths are good around here, and well signposted, but they cross busy motorway slip roads and junctions so it's not much fun.

In the Yorkshire Wolds
My version of the route took me over the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds through Market Weighton and Pocklington, as I was going to visit friends in the village of Hovingham at the foot of the North York Moors. The route I took wasn't as long as the official one, but it went through proper hills and I was still regretting not seeing more of inland Norway when I was there. This was a fairly hilly day, and the next day was hillier still, as I headed straight through the moors towards Stokesley. It was also very rainy.  I got soaked early as I rode into Helmsley and I stopped to dry out in a cafe which was the most expensive of my entire trip. Helmsley is a jumping off point for visitors to the Moors and never lacks tourists. It had stopped raining when I emerged from the cafe, £7 poorer (coffee and a pastry). I climbed up onto the open moorland with great views down into the valley of Rievaulx Abbey shrouded in storm clouds.

Rievaulx

Rain

The next flurry of rain was not long in arriving, and I made several stops on the way to Stokesley to stand by the roadside beneath my umbrella.  However, as I swept down off the moors again the sun came out and, after some searching, I picked up National Cycle Route 1 again in Stockton-on-Tees.

From just north of Stockton the route follows the old mine railway that winds between former pit villages before ending up on the coast at Sunderland. I knew the names of these places - Trimdon and Shotton and Sedgfield carried echoes of the miners' strike in the early eighties, but the beauty of the countryside around here came as a surprise.


Wheatley Hill miners' memorial

The lovely Durham countryside was all rolling hills and fields with, eventually, occasional glimpses of the sea in the distance. With the mines gone, the streets of tiny industrial style houses now look oddly out of place, and there are occasional memorials to the mining past.

On the way to Sunderland

Apart from very occasional muddy sections the old railway track was a joy to ride on, especially the long, straight descent into Sunderland where the route meandered around before depositing me very close to the centre of town. It was Match Day. Sunderland were playing at home and the wide, sunny streets were full of fans. There was an open, seaside feel to the place as I pushed my bike through the crowds and over the bridge and then followed a beautiful, rocky coastline to South Sheilds, where I found my onward passage blocked by tens of thousands of runners arriving at the finish of the Great North Run. It was completely impossible to cross the road to get where I was going, which was lucky because I cycled along the coastal footpath instead and saw the best part of South Shields, with the Red Arrows thrown in.

Coastal path at South Shields

Red Arrows

I visited a small lifeboat museum, beckoned inside by an enthusiast standing in the doorway, and then caught the ferry across the Tyne to North Shields along with hundreds of runners who had completed the course.

The coast was still very fine through Tynmouth and Whitley Bay, with long rows of Victorian villas overlooking the sea. North of Blyth the River Blyth forks inland creating a slightly torturous route northwards. Finally I saw a signpost for Newbiggin-by-the-Sea and decided it might be a likely stopping place. It was slightly difficult to persuade the landlady to let me have a single room in her Bed and Breakfast, and when I was installed it was in a tiny room barely big enough for the bed, but with a great view of the sea.  In the local pub the talk was all about immigration. At every table people were having the same conversation about Syrian refugees.  'We wouldn't want them here though, they'd change the place, wouldn't they?'  Did you see?  They were all young men. They're not real refugees, are they?'


I'd hardly seen a black or a brown face since I'd arrived in Sunderland.

It was the unknown they were frightened of.

Maps:  to Hovingham;  to Fishburn;  to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea