The wind blew trees over…I tried to leave early but had to wait for the storm’s final assault, occasionally ducking outside to redirect the run-off from my tarp set up and trying not to get too wet. The wind threatened to lift us off the ground and I knew I’d be packing up a wet tent once again and spending my final night in a damp tent. Because Holland is great I had wifi in my tent and I had a look on my cycle-touring community app ‘Warm Showers’ to see if there were any people living in Delft who might be able to host a girl and a dog at very late notice. I sent out two requests and got two positive responses throughout the day and was promised a warm dry bed when I reached Delft which put me in a distinctly more positive mood despite the weather’s best efforts to grind me down.
Leaving Dordrecht was a matter of dodging the boughs and branches all over the roads and cranking down into the granny gears to push into the 30mph head and cross winds on the way to Rotterdam. It took me 2.5 hours to travel under 30km. Average speed = 11kmph. It was utterly exhausting and pretty miserable and my bashed knee was beginning to complain but it did at least only rain occasionally and when I eventually battled my way over the several bridges spanning the watery landscape of southern Rotterdam, at risk of blowing off each time, I found myself a bakery to hole up in, with a safe view of my bike and a playful cockapoo to play with Scout where I had the best avocado and beetroot sandwich I’ve ever had, some delicious soya-milk coffee and good old read of my book while Scout sunned herself in the window. Excellent city points to Rotterdam.
Man I love Holland and its cycle lanes everywhere. I have studiously avoided cities throughout this tour as I quickly learnt it was an unpleasant experience on a large bike with a dog. There’s nowhere safe to leave your transport and dogs aren’t generally allowed in museums and other tourist attractions so there’s very little you can see or do. Small towns have been my friends, but Rotterdam was easy to navigate, and I very easily found a park to dry out my tent as it wouldn’t be used that night (yay) and exercise Scout where she discovered Duckweed – that small green plant that grows on very still waters and looks remarkably like grass to those who’ve never seen it – and dogs. A duck sat confidently four meters out in the pond and Scout, bless her, ran down the bank and leapt towards it only for the ground to swallow her up, which, if that had been me, I’d have welcomed given my inevitable mortification, but she popped up, made a few token strokes towards where the duck had been and then swam back to the edge with a muddy, pondweedy grin before shaking all over me. She ‘styled it out’ and learnt the meaning of ‘testing the waters’ after that.
And so to Delft – I followed beautiful, easy signage and arrived in Delft at ‘rush hour’ with people of every age weaving through the cycle lanes at speed – it was astonishing. The Dutch are incredibly proficient cyclists and groups of teenagers peddled along inches from each other, laughing and jostling, people conducted telephone conversations and texted, little children followed their parents or sped on ahead to wait for them, they overtook me with the confidence of Hungarian motorists, diving back into the right hand lane ahead of me just before colliding with oncoming cyclists, neither person batting an eyelid as they passed within a hand’s breadth of each other. I felt ludicrously heavy and clumsy compared to the swiftness of the Nederlanders who looked like they were born on two wheels. These four wheels have been my life for five weeks and it was like I’d trundled into a velocipede utopia. I had a while to enjoy the city before meeting my hosts and I got Scout out to trot beside the bike as we explored the beautiful pedestrianised canal centre of Delft. I highly recommend this city. It has two theatres even though it’s pretty tiny and still has the old architecture that you rarely see in Holland throughout the centre. It also seems pretty multicultural – I heard English being spoken throughout the city, quite often as a second language, based on the accents. I definitely wanted to spend more time here and meet more citizens of Delft, especially after meeting Cathy, John and Rocky; an Australian couple and their little dog who were my hosts for the evening. Keen cycle tourers, avid travellers, dog lovers, and all round delightful people.
Scout and Rocky were firm friends within minutes and we spend a lovely evening getting to know each other and discussing cycle touring – they’d just returned from their trip along the Rhine – their blog is here: www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/rockyridestherhine – and it turns out we’d stayed at some of the same camp sites and shared some similar dog-related problems.
They washed my stuff and John and I walked the dogs in the morning before I set off. They were everything the cycle-touring community had promised it would be; interesting, interested, warm, funny, relaxed and generous. In return I was able to offer some advice about Rocky and his social skills and help him control his excitement around other dogs. He and Scout were a little bit in love.
My final day in Holland was the rainiest day they’d had all year according to everyone I met and I don’t think deluge is too strong a word to use. Luckily when I arrived at the Hague to meet a parkour friend, Saskia Neville – Holland’s champion female tracuer – she directed me to FREE guarded bike parking (Oh, Holland, I love you) and I sat my soggy self down in a cafe to eat amazing food and drink excellent coffee and catch up. While we were there the rain actually upped its intensity and began streaming through the closed doors of the cafe. We stayed put. Saskia used a weather app that gave accurate local predictions for rainy patches and I eventually retrieved my bike and saddled up to meet Liane and (another) Saskia who were going to accompany me to the boat in slightly less rain than there was thirty minutes earlier. Scout had been in the trailer all day because of the hideous weather and I wanted to tire her out for the boat ride so we cycled the coast path and she ran the whole 15km like an absolute champ. We may have slowed near the end but she did brilliantly and it was a pleasure to ride with my Dutch guides even in the wind and the rain. At the port (following ever-so satisfying signs to ENGELAND) they both gave me wonderfully generous, tasty and thoughtful gifts and I said my final goodbyes to the continent and the people who had hosted, guided, and directed me for six long weeks.
I boarded my Stena Line Dutch flyer as though I was a car, and tied Jeeves and trailer up on the car deck, drawing many smiles and stares. I really wish I’d thought about packing a single pannier that had everything I needed for the one night on board but I hadn’t and so I was a little hampered with two panniers and a plastic bag with Scout’s stuff and the dog as we rode the elevator to the main deck to check Scout in to her kennel. I went through Holland because trying to get a dog across from France had proved remarkably difficult, especially in light of how wonderfully easy the Dutch have made it. I was given an entrance code for the kennels and led downstairs to settle Scout in for the night. Each dog has a roomy kennel and there are blankets, bowls and fresh water provided as well as a small outside ‘walking deck’ where you can take them at any time during the crossing and cleaning supplies for any ‘accidents’. I’d bought Scout a special chew in Delft to give her, along with a bowl of her Orijen food to keep her busy and hoped she’d be exhausted enough to sleep. There were, unfortunately, two other dogs in the kennels (five in total) who were rather unhappy at being separated from their owners and it was a fairly barky experience. She did get some sleep though which I could see from my private cabin as there was CCTV in the kennel room beamed to all the room tvs, accompanied by Radio 4. I was practically in England already.
Stena Line made travelling with my dog the easiest thing in the world and they even gave us a charitable discount on our passage. Holland is so easy to get to, guys, and Stena Line make it even easier. Take your bikes and go find out what it’s like to cycle cities without fearing for your life. Spoiler alert: It’s excellent.
As I rolled out of the car deck another friendly Dutchman showed me where there were some large gaps in the floor so as to avoid them and passport control was an absolute doddle. I cycled through customs with nothing to declare but my delight to be home, and my father was there waiting for me. We hugged and caught up and he met a very tired dog who, back in the safety of her trailer was finally eating the chew I’d given her which she’d clearly been a little too stressed to enjoy in the night. A quick breakfast in the morning sunlight and some more cuddles with a sleepy pooch and I set out to follow the route to Chelmsford where I was spending the night with family friends, taking care to stay on the left hand side of the road…boy was that confusing. Not thirty minutes on British soil and I encountered one of those wonderful zig zag barriers that had plagued my training ride. No matter, I’ve done them before, I now have intimate knowledge of my width and length and necessary angles for turning and clearance, but I clearly looked like I needed help because a bloke in his 60s dove straight in to lift the trailer (which Scout was none too happy about) and proceeded to make things far worse. He pulled the handle off the trailer which I couldn’t then reach to replace without the bike falling over and all in all it was an embarrassing fluster of him not listening and me trying to tell him I was fine and no, that doesn’t really help. We made it through in the end and as he came around the side of the bike he said in his broad Essex accent, ‘That’s a man’s bike!’
‘I’m sorry? It’s just a people bike.’
‘That’s a man’s bike, no wonder you can’t ride it, love.’
I refrained from punching him, told him he’d just ruined any benefit of doubt I’d given him and that I’d ridden this bike 2,500km thanks very much. He continued with his ‘banter’.
‘Bulgaria? Ah that’s just down the road, love.’
‘Alright mate, you give it a go tomorrow. Have a good day.’
‘Aw I’m only joking, take care of yourself.’
‘Have done so far.’ I yelled behind me, the exchange’s resulting fury fuelling my next 5 kilometres with ease.
Welcome back to the UK, here is your six weeks’ unclaimed casual everyday sexism.