Hook of Holland to Amsterdam loop – 2014

Summary

Train journey to Harwich (crossing London, Paddington to Liverpool Street); overnight Stena Line ferry to Hook of Holland; five days cycling from Hook of Holland to Amsterdam and back (one full day spent cycletouring in Amsterdam); visits to Den  Haag, Noordwijk, Apeldoorn, Utrecht, Rotterdam;  return to Hook of Holland for overnight ferry to Harwich; train journey Harwich to Bath, crossing London.

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Bath to Hook of Holland – Tuesday 5th August

Our fragmented UK rail network means taking your bike on a train involves an element of risk and randomness. The racks vary from OK to useless, and you know your bike is likely to end on the floor, even with a (recommended) bungee or rope, as there are no points to tie on to. I much prefer the “guards van” arrangement, as there is more space and no passengers. Bath to London to Maningtree has guards vans – good.

Crossing London loaded up is fun, with a small back pannier and one-person-tent on the back, sleeping bag and air-bed on the front of my favoured Trek 3.4 hybrid. Well balanced but still heavy. Following unfamiliar quieter roads between Paddington and Liverpool Street involved too many map-check-stops. I think the trick is just go-for-it and follow a local cyclist, with an eye on the road signs. It took about 45 minutes to cover the five miles.

Confusingly East of England must have ten separate service operators, including the fabulously named Abellio Greater Anglia, which efficiently took me from Liverpool Street to the grandiose sounding Harwich International, a small two-platform station linking the train line to Harwich port.

Stena Line run a good ferry service, £40 for the crossing and £40 for the cabin. There isn’t much else to do on a ferry crossing so you might as well sleep and use an overnight service. The ferries are modern and the restaurant good. Boarding the ferry I managed to over-pull the back derailleur into the back spokes, wrecking the mechanism and one spoke. A good start, too excited…..

Hook of Holland to Noordwijk – Wednesday 6th August

Disembarked at Hook of Holland at 7:30 a.m., so first stop was a local bike shop, where I left the bike with an enthusiastic and trustworthy young bike mechanic whilst I visited local Lidl for provisions. The boy did a good job, and for 45€ it was a new mechanism and cable, plus labour and regional map for today’s ride heading north up the coast to Noordwijk.

The first impression of Netherlands cycling was surprising. Clear and frequent signs, with cycle lanes parallel to roads. This was promising! Sussing out how the signage worked was straightforward; all I had to do was follow signs labelled 1b, which is the northerly EuroVelo 12 North Sea cycle route. Simples! And it was … the signs consistently appeared at just the right place as I approached each junction.

The ride up the coast was good, the terrain similar to Studland in Dorset but on a grander scale. A gentle beach is backed by a band of sand dunes about 2 km wide. The traffic-free cycle route is cut into the dunes so has pleasant bends and dips with occasional views of the sea. It was popular with local and touring cyclists alike. The national vehicle registrations were mainly Dutch with a few German and Belgian. No GB vehicles.

I passed through Den Haag, where the signed route avoided the busy promenade and picked its way through quiet embassy lanes and small parks, so I missed out on seeing Schevingen, the biggest seaside resort in the Netherlands. The day finished with more traffic free dune trails northwards to Noordwijk.

When you think of European beach resorts the west Netherlands coast isn’t high on many Brit’s list. But if you want to mix a family holiday with beaches, cycling and exploring in a safe environment, and not be burnt to a cinder, then this gets a recommendation. The coastal area between Hook of Holland and Ijmuiden stretches for about 80 km, has consistent soft sand and gentle beaches, and has many access points for cyclists backed with cafes and toilets.

Noordwijk to Amsterdam – Thursday 7th August

The climate in the Netherlands, influenced by the North Sea, pretty much matches UK, so August is changeable but pleasant for cycling. It was a day of contrasts; more beaches and a national park through dune land gave way to industrial landscape around the mouth of the North Sea Canal. To cross, it needed a series of draw bridges across tiny islands, and a view of different flat landscape, akin to Lincolnshire’s Wash.

Time was catching up, so at Beverwijk I took a train into Amsterdam. All straightforward, apart from the train ticket from a machine which only takes coins for fares below 20€. Trains have more spaces for bikes, but I suspect many Dutch simply have a bike at each end of their commute/regular journey. Into central Amsterdam in rush hour and a fortunate conversation with a Dutch couple with cycles led to a brilliant offer of an escort from Central Railway station to the district I was staying in.

Amsterdam – Friday 8th August

A recent favourite book of mine is Talking Heads’ singer David Byrne’s very excellent “Bicycle Diaries”. Byrne describes his journeys, adventures and personal philosophies from the perspective of the seat of a folding bicycle, and the liberation it affords him to explore new places efficiently, independently and bring a panoramic window on urban life over the last thirty years in cities like Manila and Istanbul.

So it was with this way of capturing the essence of a new city in mind that I set off to explore Amsterdam. Tip #1 – Get out early. Amsterdam doesn’t wake up until 10:30 a.m., so traversing the roads at 8 a.m. gives a great opportunity to safely bomb around and begin to understand Amsterdam’s geography and junction conventions. Both of these are helpful to cyclists. Amsterdam centre is based on a series of concentric semi-circles with the Central Railway station at the centre. The semi circles are made of canals, with roads and cycle paths running parallel; radial roads and lanes cross the semi circles. A grid system with a circular twist, so although it is easy to get lost, its just as quick to find where you are.

My favourite Dutch word is “uitgezonderd” which translates to be “with the exception of”, and appears under most no-entry signs, so you can fearlessly wizz down the wrong way of a one-way street. As the day wore on the simple task of finding a replacement charger cable for my tablet became a great way of seeing more and more of central Amsterdam. It became a bit of a “holy grail” episode, ending with a PC World-equivalent store near to the excellent central library, complete with top-floor restaurant offering views across the city. I love tall buildings with views!

Finding somewhere to lock the bike for a while was easy; the challenge was finding it again, after visits to bars or café, of which there are thousands, mostly independent. Tip #2 – Mark your street map with a big dot to show where you have parked your bike. There are some streets that have every fast-food chain going, but these are heavily outnumbered by the independents. Amsterdam has a collection of districts that merge into each other, but the main feeling is of a very compact and easily accessible city centre, that you quickly feel “at home” in.  A tram system runs, but there is really no need to use it. I saw the outside of pretty much every top-ten attraction without visiting any of them. They will still be there next time.

Amsterdam to Doorn – Saturday 9th August

The day was unplanned, and this is where solo cycling solo wins out, as the discussion was in my head, with no compromising or joint planning. It had rained overnight but was clearing, and the local weather website indicated (accurately) a warm and sunny day.

I packed up the bike early and visited tourist information, conveniently next door to central Railway Station. Surprisingly a member of staff was as useful as the various cycling maps, so the hatched plan was to take a train to Apeldoorn, and from there head south west towards Utrecht.

My (limited) experience of Dutch trains are that they are reliable, run on time, have interesting and varied carriage layouts, and are slightly less expensive (per km) than UK. Ticketing is mainly through machines (you need coins) and validation of tickets before you travel. There are dire threats of exorbitant fines if you are caught travelling without a validated ticket. So using the train network with a bike works to give flexibility.

Apeldoorn is a delight of a town, serving a large rural area, but also touristy in the way that Keswick is. The tourism is all cycle based, as Apeldoorn sits on the eastern edge of three national parks, (De Veluwezoom, De Huge Veluwa and Utrechtse Heuvelrug). The local tourist information supplied the map for the day, a 1:50,000 scale district map of the Veluwe region.

A word about Dutch cycling maps. There is a series called Fietskaart (Cycling Maps) produced by publishers Falk in association with the national Dutch Tourist Board VVV (Veel Voorkomende Vragen – Frequently Asked Questions). They are excellent, similar to our OS Landrager maps, but with a legend and emphasis purely for cycling. The Netherlands and Belgium are covered by 36 of these maps, which at around 6€ or 7€ each, you have to be careful over.

Now here is the beauty and the genius of the Dutch. Many major cycle junctions are given a number e.g. 71. These numbers appear in circles on the maps, and at these junctions (also used as meeting points) there is a board-mounted map of the local area, complete with nearby numbered junctions. So all you have to do is remember the number where you are next heading to, and at very lane or road junction in between there are always signs that tell you the direction for your next numbered destination. Simples! You make your own route up by plotting your way through the numbered junctions, and in truth barely need to consult your own maps. It works.

Later, at Utrecht VVV office, I discovered that there is a spiral bound book (Fietsatlas) that contains all the Falk mappings at 1:75,000, along with a route planning CD. At 30€ I was tempted (yes, I admit it, I love maps, I am having counselling, its expensive…) but the contents and usefulness of the CD was unknown.

The afternoon cycling was the most enjoyable of the week, a sunny, flat, traffic-free and windless ride through national parks (akin to the New Forest) into the rich agricultural hinterland of Utrecht, finishing with camping at a sparse farm camp site.

Doorn to Hook of Holland– Sunday 10th August

My last day in Holland. The morning reflection was that cycle tours have an ideal length, and I think this year was two days too short for the preparation required. The route for the day was clear and I needed to be at the ferry port for around 8 p.m. Camping means an early start to the day.

The 15 km ride into Utrecht was typical Sunday morning, empty roads and rising temperatures. The locality is wealthy and dotted with business headquarters or training centres, all with small estates surrounded by high fences. One such was the HQ of Rabobank. I didn’t see BarlowWorld.

The first open café was Bagels and Beans on the edge of Utrecht. Coffee and a bagel then, plus the use of free WiFi, this time with a simple password. The obligatory call home using free Skype; despite selling out to Microsoft, Skype just gets better and better. The quality and speed of connection through the tablet to a landline or mobile number (not video) is better than a mobile call.

Utrecht was my favourite place of the tour. Its historic city centre is ringed with canals and an understated commercial zone. It has a surprisingly large population, 300,000+ so only slightly smaller than Bristol, but its density is high, so it feels more like a large town than a city. And, as always, it is very accessible by bike.

My only tourist attraction of the week involved a 9€ visit and ascent of DomToren, the highest climbable tower in the Netherlands. Over 100m ascent by around 500 steps, done in three bursts, with useful commentary at the staging rooms, including the 50 bells, one weighing over 8 tonnes. The viewing platform at the top offered up panoramic views of all of Holland. And it is very flat, though not monotonous, the arable land carved from huge flood plains and reclaimed flooded lands vary from region to region.

Tower done, quick lunch and a look at cycling options for the day, influenced by a pending storm. I’d planned to cycle along the windmill country that is the green heart of Holland, following cycle tracks that cling to the banks of the Rotte river, on which Rotterdam port is built. The storm and my energy levels changed things. I hung around Utrecht in a summer downpour long enough for a fine greek luncheon of kebab meat, chips and salad to be interrupted by a well-attended march in support of the besieged civilians of Gaza. To see more of Utrecht and get a few kilometres out of my system I cycled to the outskirts and visited FC Utrecht football stadium (nothing special, modern small and functional) before taking a fast efficient train to Rotterdam for 15€.

Rotterdam contrasts sharply with Amsterdam. Its centre is modern with sharp new architecture and wide empty plazas linking the station to the city centre. There are cafes but many are chains (McDs, BKs, KFCs, Pizza Hut, and eat-all-you-can Sumo outlets). I didn’t have enough time for a full tour or see the dockland area.

My train from Rotterdam to Hook of Holland included my first train ticket inspection of the week, and the surprise of learning I needed a day permit (6€ apparently) to take the bike on the train. So that’s why there aren’t many bikes on the trains, and the Dutch have a bike at each end of their regular journeys. I wasn’t fined.

Hook of Holland to Bath – Monday 11th August

Neither of the ports Harwich or Hook of Holland are anything special, and the ferry is geared for 50% trucks and 50% tourists. I suppose these proportions change during the year. Disembarking at 7 a.m. in Harwich gave some spare time as Abellio only allow fold-up bikes into London on the commuter services. I toyed with the idea of cycling part-way to London, and sensibly thought better of it,

This time I crossed London by following known bus routes, essentially the no. 11 to Trafalgar Square. London central cycling requires confidence/arrogance and an ability to accelerate and brake sharply. Through bad timing and route planning, I cycled down The Mall to Buck House at precisely the time of the touristy changing of the guard, so I am on a lot of photos on Japanese cameras.

Reflections

Going solo is liberating,  and following well-worn cycle routes means you are never entirely alone and can always strike up conversations with fellow European cyclists.

The Netherlands and their cycling culture is fascinating. Nigel Sherwen pointed me to an excellent (short) video clip that Mark Wagenbuur, an amateur Dutch sociologist has made to explain the historical reasons “How the Dutch got their Cycling Infrastructure” and why the subsequent cycling culture established itself.

http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/how-the-dutch-got-their-cycling-infrastructure/

In summary, the post-war urban reconstruction of Netherlands was initially car-centred. However due to many child deaths (Kindermoord) and the early 1970s oil crisis, a public protest movement caused a re-think and a sustained commitment to a revised transport policy that made cycling a priority. Since the mid-70s this policy has been maintained, with serious finances committed to a ubiquitous cycling infrastructure.

Traffic-free cycle tracks or paths are everywhere (town/city centres, suburbs, country lanes). A typical roundabout has a cycle lane all the way around it, separated from cars by a grass loop. It makes roundabouts a bit more complex, sometimes with traffic lights to enable cyclists to have priority. Crossings with lights often have a bike symbol to indicate when cyclists should go.

The culture is that, in any areas of uncertainty, cyclists have priority of way. And they do. On many occasions of confusion I experienced motorists stopping and giving me priority. In Amsterdam many cyclists jump lights or cut corners, but motorists accept that this as normality without getting uptight,

Signs for cyclists are very good, with point-to-point indicators, way-marked routes, and areas of interest all covered. The national cycle mapping is very impressive, matched by boards of the locality everywhere.

The six minute video claims the problems facing the Dutch and their subsequent solutions are not unique; I slightly disagree on this. The Netherlands is so flat, it is easy to cycle from any A to any B. Holland’s successful “build it and they will come” may not transfer to Bath, because a cycle lane up Bathwick or Widcombe Hills to the University doesn’t alleviate the monumental physical effort required to cycle this ascent. The bus makes sense for all but the enthusiastic. So the solutions that Bath, the South West, and the UK implement will be different. Hopefully the current UK cycling renaissance can be harnessed to sustain the political will and financial commitment.

Dutch cycles are, for the most part, sit-up-and-beg town bikes, with stands and few gears. They have an incredible range of attachments for carrying children, shopping and even dogs. Almost nobody in the Netherlands wears lycra or helmets to avoid the risk of being mistook as German.

The highly ambitious Eurovelo (www.eurovelo.com) network (co-funded by EU and many sponsors) is an amazingly laudable aim and will provide many recreational hours of accessible exploration for cyclists. The need for ferries to link UK stretches with mainland Europe is unavoidably isolating.  The 70, 000 km that make up the 14 long distance routes, are split into “realised”, “not realised” and “planned” – both of the route (2 and 12) sections that pass through the Netherlands are fully “realised”. Vienna / Bratislava seem set to be the central cycling points of Europe.

To finish, cycling in the Netherlands is highly enjoyable and brings with it a real sense of enlightenment. To be recommended!

 

 

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