Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rotterdam-London on new old wheels.

I have a new bike! And he's beautiful. And his name's Kev.

I spent ten days in the Netherlands at the start of this month. Taco came to London at the end of his big round-the-world trip and we had a jolly nice time hanging out again. Presuming that perhaps we might want some more jolly nice hanging out time, I booked myself a train ticket to Rotterdam. Everytime I fly low-cost carriers I vow not to do it the next time I need to go somewhere. Inevitably I forget when the next time comes around, and I am once again wooed by low low prices, forgetting the crap that goes along with them (having to pay if you want to sneeze on the plane, spending as long as you do on the airplane just getting out to the airport, normally having fairly massive delays...). But they didn't trick me into it this time- it was Eurostar all the way, baby! (Well, half-way if you're going to be picky- the trip from Brussels to Rotterdam was on Thalys, the Dutch rail thingy.)

To be honest, the first couple of days of my stay were a mixed bag. Taco will probably be the first to admit that the ups and downs of my emotional and mental state were more taxing than climbing to Machu Picchu. This was the result of a number of things (hormones, impending sickness, new environments, expectations...) However, a few days in I came around to feeling more settled within myself, especially after getting some good countryside runs in, chilling out with some beers, AND... spending some quality time with Claire Stanley and Emma Haywood. To be honest, the fact that we met in Rotterdam was almost insignificant- there was a lot of wandering and seeing and eating and drinking cool things, but the focus was really on blah blah blah blah blah. We hadn't been together, the three of us, we realised, for about 18 months. Which is a long time. So it was good. Those two women are really amazing ones. You done good, Stanley and Haywood parentage- you done real good.

I'd had in my head since booking the train ticket that I might use my own pins to get me back to Ye Olde England. The lovely little hand-me-down bike that Rachel Rai had bequeathed to me on her departure from England had sort of given up the ghost on me. To be fair- it had 2 flat tyres and a bit of a squeak here and there that I hadn't got around to doing anything about, so it probably had more to do with me than the bike itself, but let's not split hairs- we just weren't meant to be together, long term.

Among the lovely Dutch people I met through Taco was Robert. He works at a bicycle workshop that is part of the local Barendrecht OP-SHOP! Here they take bikes that are no longer wanted, fix them up and sell them on. Fantastic. Just what I wanted. So down I toddled one morning to check out the wares on offer. Robert said "There's one that I thought might be good for you..." and 5 minutes later a deal was done. One little ride around on 'the wheel' and I knew we were a match made in Barendrecht.

It felt so great to have my own bike again. That night after dinner, Taco and I went riding for about an hour through the neighbouring villages of Barendrecht. It was nice and warm and still light at 10.30pm, and we rode between big paddocks and stopped for icecream at a snack bar just before it closed, feeling like 15 year olds on a Saturday night date or something. The next day we rode to Den Haag- halfway there the rain came pelting down but we stopped under a bridge and ate a boiled egg, and sheltered in a cute little pub until the sun came out again then continued on our merry way. We met up with Emma and her lovely friend Isabel and saw a dance/music show at 'De Parade'- a festival set-up which felt very much like The Garden of Unearthly Delights in RAdelaide! Holland is unbelievably fantastic to cycle around: there is nowhere where bikes have to compete with cars, normally being given their own cycle path everywhere, or else given respect and space by drivers. Hills are non-existant, signage is great. And even when we did get lost, the Dutch, whilst maintaining their directness, are really helpful and warm in getting little losties back on track.

Having kitted out the bike with a few necessary bits and pieces (repair kit, pump, paniers, lock- and in the process spending more than I had on the bike itself!), I left Rotterdam on Friday morning. I had with me a lovingly printed and translated set of directions that Taco had organised through an online bike route finder. I was totally down with what "schuin links" and "rechstaf" and "knoopunt" were, had sandwiches, and a deadline: The Hook of Holland by 2pm. As expected, I lost myself soon after leaving Taco, but after doubling back on certain sections about three times, and asking about seven different people to point me in the right direction, I was back on track. The ride took me through some canal-side villages, past ponies, and next to big scary highways that I didn't have to deal with because I had a bike path set back in the field. The last section was along the harbour, with sea breeze pushing up against me as the Stenaline Ferry came into sight. It felt a bit weird going through the boomgate for customs and tickets on my treddly, and I arrived with pretty much no time to spare, thanks to my excellent knack for getting myself lost those couple of times on the way. But no matter! I was there. I was onboard. I was... asleep for most of the sail across.

We arrived in Harwich at 8pm. After getting my Welcome Back To England stamp with a bigger smile than I normally get from the Home Office folk (perhaps they breed them happy in the north?), I rode off from the harbour, fairly literally into the sunset, which was donating big smears of pink and orange to the sky. I had done my Googly Mappy research the day before, drawn crappy little pictures in my notebook (iPhones! Pah!) and so had a rough plan and fingers crossed on how to make it to my next destination- the little town of Mistley, about 10 miles from Harwich, to the house of Eileen and Gordan. A few days earlier I'd contacted Eileen through Couch Surfing, and she said they'd be happy to have me for the night, even at late notice. I was quite excited about CS-ing again, as it had been a while. Harwich had a very quaint fishing village vibe, complete with seagull squawks, and the 10 miles to Mistley were excessively pretty- along the Stour River, through lush overgrowth of the nature reserve, past big paddocks of nothing much, all with the pink hue of sunset. Admittedly, there were more hills in those 10 miles than I'd encountered in 10 days in the Netherlands, and old Kev made me walk a few bits of them, but we got there! Eileen and Gordan were so welcoming. We had some chats, some wine, some cheesecake- all the good things in life- and then I hit the (very comfortable) sack to give my bum a rest for a few hours.

... and then she accidentally slept til 11am. But that was OK! A quick croissant and a photo of my hosts, and off I set with lovely hand-drawn maps from Eileen to get me going. Already the English drivers and not-so-friendly nature of UK roads were noticeable, but I managed to follow bike paths to Colchester (England's oldest recorded town!). I bought a map, I bought a helmet. From here a bike path went on to Tiptree. This was mainly unsealed paths and a few times I heard myself chanting "don't get a puncture, don't get a puncture" under my breath. I thought I was out of the woods as I zoomed along a proper road again, but whilst literally this was true, metaphorically, and in terms of my little tubes 'n tyres holding up, this was not the case.

* See Claire, her bike upside down, blood on her hands from tyre-removing cuts, searching for the puncture, patching it with her Dutch puncture-repair kit ("yes I'm sure the ghnoohungoor is what's needed here..."), working away furiously with her little pump, assuring the couple in the horse and cart that "it's under control", and finally flipping little bikey over again, quite pleased with own efforts.*

* See Claire then set off down the road towards Tiptree, her triumphant smile slowly fading at the realisation that THE AIR IS ESCAPING AGAIN! See her eat two packets of biscuits in frustration and defeat set in as she wheels her bike into town as English rain starts to drizzle spitefully.*

It was getting towards later afternoon now, and I felt somewhat worried about getting back to London before it was dark. I was about to find a park and give Puncture Repair Round 2 a go, but just briefly popped my head into the dry cleaning place next to the CLOSED bicycle shop.

Me: "Errm... is he... gone for the rest of the day then?"
Dry cleaning man #1: "Yeah I should say so, if he's closed up now."
Me: "Bummer."
Dry cleaning man #1: "What've you done?"
Me: "Got a puncture and not fixed it properly."
Dry cleaning man #1: "Go on Steve, you'll have a look at it for her, won't you?"

Steve (Dry cleaning man #2) wheeled Kev out the back, then whipped out his tools and fixed my puncture- the thing I'd thought was the hole was actually around the corner from the hole; but it's a lot easier to tell that once you're inside Steve's makeshift workshop and have a bucket of water to check it all out with.

So I was pumped up again! In the literal and figurative sense of the words! I rode on a little further, under the directions of Steve and DCM#1, to Kelvenson, where I got on a train to London. I had hoped to go on a bit further, to Chelmsford, but didn't want to be riding around London in the dark having no way of knowing really how to get home.

Such a good trip! Aside from the ups of English countryside hills and the downs of tyres, there was a great feeling of freedom regained with my own bicycle again, pretty pretty sights and a sense of being buoyed by nice humans in various countries. I'm looking forward to exploring a bit more of the UK with Kev over the summer, and fixing many a puncture in a timely and graceful fashion.