Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party said, in the aftermath of his party’s victory in the Clacton bi-election (remind me not to go there), that we should prevent people with HIV (as a proxy for all people with an illness) from coming to the country. Clearly they will make a huge call on the NHS and we should exclude them.
I find these opinions reprehensible. However, I found it ironic that on the very same day (10 October 2014), the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan for standing up for her right to an education. After her condition stabilised she came to the UK for specialist treatment in Birmingham (and where eventually she continued her education). Now I do not know if she had private health insurance…
Pall Mall’s Autumn campaign is not really anything to write home about. The packs (left) basically say, “look at me”. But what does it really mean to be a limited edition cigarette; and more bizarrely, to have unlimited taste? Surely they mean lots of carcinogenic burnt tobacco taste that burns one’s tongue and lingers longer than rivals’ brands? Or some such.
Marlboro’s Endurance Man campaign is a little clearer after the arrival of the new poster (right). Endurance Man here has a motorbike, though he remains inexplicably riding across the desert in search of a tobacconist.
It does not take long for an awful reality to reassert itself after the summer tandem riding holiday, even if it was un-summerly and not everyone’s idea of a holiday. For example, what on earth happened in Scotland? Why did the Scots vote to stay dependent on the English elite establishment, fronted by David Cameron. One wonders whether the result would have been different had the Tory Party conference occurred before the vote rather than after it.
It was, of course, at that conference that Chris Grayling, the UK (in)Justice Secretary, announced that should the Tories win outright the next UK election, they will knowingly take us out of the European Convention on Human Rights so as to free the country from those pesky European judges who so often tell us to do things that we do not want to do, such as give votes to prisoners, allow foreign criminals into the country, prevent the extradition of undesirables (especially those with hooks as substitutes for hands) and a ban whole-life sentences for grave crimes. It does, of course, none of these things; the Strasbourg Court merely highlights incompatibilities between UK law and the Convention. See: http://www.tinyurl.com/pszhdky
But instead, we will have a UK Bill of Rights, subject to the whim of the Tory elite to decide whether any citizen’s claims of a breach of human rights is valid or not. Not independent judges, but the likes of Grayling himself. Moreover, this elite used their conference to inform us that we have to allow ourselves to be subjugated, monitored and pacified to maintain security against the threat of terrorists that the elite has created for us through innumerable foreign wars, murder, incarceration and expropriation. The Home Secretary, Theresa May (right), told the conference that the ‘snoopers’ charter’ will be reintroduced to Parliament and passed when there is a Tory majority; but of course one has nothing to fear if one has nothing to hide.
The European Convention is not an EU institution, however. The Convention was scripted by European human rights lawyers, many of them British, in the early 1950s in the aftermath of WWII. To withdraw is to align ourselves with some of the least liberal states in the world; for example, Belarus.
Such a move will precipitate a response from the Council of Europe – which is an EU institution. Ultimately, adherence to the Convention is a reasonable condition for membership of the European Union, if not the United Nations. Of course, getting out of the EU is precisely what Tories want and these arguments play well with their illiberal supporters. It is always gratifying to hear that the Prime Minister is generously giving our European partners one more chance to see sense and allow the UK to contravene the founding treaties that enshrine the concept of the free movement of people across European borders. A right that millions of UK citizens have exploited over the years.
European Court Strasbourg: CherryX, Wikipedia
This is a ride for people who like flirting with national borders; in this case between Belgium and the Netherlands. It is rural and navigated by long avenues and canals. The route takes riders across the border, I presume, in order to visit the historic town of Thorn (below right). It is called “the White Town”; seemingly, there are 105 protected white houses in the town. The church is also impressive. It is a good place for lunch, too.
After Thorn, it is back into Belgium and due south towards Maastrict. En route riders pass through Maaseik. Maaseik boasts a large central square (below, left) a museum and a couple of churches. It is the birthplace of Flemish painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck whose statues are in the central square.
It was late afternoon when we left Maaseik. We refuelled with ice-cream and burned it off along the Zuid Wilemsvaart (canal) and crossed the border again at Smeermaas. In search of hotels on the approach, we ended up in the main square, Vrijthof, that was hosting the annual raucous food festival. The raucousness came from the huge volumes of alcohol being consumed after the eating. Despite that, we found a quiet room in the adjacent Hotel Du Casque.
Maastricht is busy. The shopping streets on the western side of the river are largely car free. There is not much that is unique from any other significant town across Europe with the possible exception of the Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen (bookshop) in an ancient (1294) Dominican church (right).
The east side, however, is modern but conversely more eclectic. It is home to the fantastic ceramic centre (left; when staying in Maastricht, visitors pay tax on hotel rooms for all of the museums and some public buildings like this one). There is some exquisite pottery inside to view. There is also some peculiar items like the tank teapot (right).
It is also home to the ‘drogerie’ with the most wonderful window display and a vegetarian restaurant as good as any (left). And not forgetting the railway station with its ceramic sphinx (below right).
I have often heard the mantra that providing that one wears the right clothes, the weather should not matter. Those who say this either have a budget beyond mine and are supplied by NASA or they never really experience a full day of heavy rain on a bicycle. We exposed ourselves to a full seven hours of riding in increasingly heavy rain in order to reach the small town of Boom, 110 kms east of Ghent.
This is river and canal riding at its best. The river is the Schelde and it becomes increasingly imposing and navigable. The Schelde does not actually flow through the centre of the city, but the cycle route joins it at St Amandsberg. There is a fantastic moment riding along where one has one of those, “do you see what I see?” moments (right). It is an old Sabena airliner that has come to rest in a factory yard.
There are two occasions on this stretch when the path takes riders over the river by ferry. Our experience in Germany is that ferries just, as-and-when, cross the river between set hours in the day. This is not so in Belgium, at least on the Schelde. Seemingly, they run a half-hour service. But more importantly, they can be requested. On two occasions, the ferryman, saw us waving (it was raining after all) and immediately collected us. The ferries are passenger ferries only. And they seem to run between places that are not exactly centres of population. They are also free (though the ferrymen were delighted to receive a good tip). What’s more, one finds the ferries bunched in pairs – situated perhaps a couple of kilometres apart. Essentially, they are operated by one man.
So we crossed the river at Mariekerke (left) having been unable to work out how to get the ferry across to nearby Sint Amands. Mariekerke is nothing more than a village, but it did have a welcome Gasthaus where we could get some hot food and warm up a shade. In fact, it was fantastic. It was a Monday afternoon and the place was hosting an afternoon lunch for a group of elder burgers. They were having a ball. And cared not a jot for us.
The second crossing was a little more complicated. The Schelde is joined by the Rupel, adjacent to both is a busy canal (Zeekanal) with a series of locks. Finding a closed gate that was crossable took us a little while. And then came the ferry. We flagged it down, it came, we went across. At the other side the path to the left goes to Schelle (and Antwerp) and right to Boom. Boom was our preferred end point for the day. And we found the only hotel in town.
Another full day of rain was forecast, so we decided to stay on for a second day and take the train to Antwerp. Wise, in many respects. Architecturally it is magnificent, and the magnificence starts with the railway station that is more like a church than a railway terminal (right). There is a hierarchy of lines – the intercity trains depart from the ground level; regional trains for floor -1; and the trains to Boom from -2!
Antwerp is the home town of Peter Paul Rubens, the celebrated 16 Century artist. His paintings are everywhere, not least in the churches dotted around the city. His house, where he retreated after his prolific and highly lucrative years with his bride who was considerably younger than him, can easily be found. I’m not sure why we did not visit, especially being so wet. Instead we wandered around and visited the old town and waterfront (left).
It was back on the bicycle to Lommel the next day. The sun was shining and the rest day had been welcome. Bearing in mind our final destination was Aachen, the logic of going to Lommel was not strong other than it being the recommended route. The route continued with the river and canal theme (right).
We were taken to the vibrant little town called Lier. I have never seen such a cluster of bars in such a small place before. I trust Saturday night is lively. In the sunshine of the day, however, it is relaxing and the coffee is supplied to order. The town has a few curious pieces of architecture. A very striking clock (the Zimmer Tower, left) watches out over the bars, and an enormous central square seems to be looking for an event.
From Lier – where we arrived in late morning – it is canal towpath. Long, straight and quiet. The next port-of-call was Turnhout. The route does not actually pass through the town, but we took refuge in a popular waterside café to refresh, determined to ride late to reach Lommel.
The Kanaal Dessel-Schoten heads for the NE corner of Belgium and over Lommel which hosts a Centerparc and offers two other camping options.
We crossed the canal onto the N746 route hoping to find either a campsite or a modest hotel. On that route we found neither. Once into the centre it all got very confusing as the town was hosting a funfair, so it was very difficult to orientate ourselves. In the end we had to ask and got directed to a hotel heading out west. Details can be found here.
Refreshed after a shower, we opted for a close-by restaurant. A Tapas. And what a Tapas it was. The menu seemed expensive, but the system goes like this. One chooses a main course and the restaurant supplies a series of tapas that complement the main course. It was magnificent. A father and son operation with authenticity (father is Spannish). The chef brought one of the courses to us. We finally had a picture outside the restaurant as we left. Well recommended.
The route between these two cities for the cyclist is magical. In the first instance it follows the N50 (Baron Ruzettelaan) due south (the Youth Hostel and bicycle shop are on this street). At Steen Brugge it turns south east and hugs the Ostende-Ghent Canal. There are tracks on both sides and plenty of café/bakery opportunities for refreshment. There is also a mixture of meadow and woodland landscapes with their microclimates.
One of advantages of riding a bicycle the likelihood of encountering objects that come from an earlier, albeit modern, era. So, whilst stocking up on food in Bellem, I spotted an old oil company sign that framed a picture for me (right).
The approach Ghent is also along a canal. The key decision is when to leave the canal and head into town (for us, we were keen to find the tourist information centre). A bit of local knowledge was sought from a restaurant masquerading as a hotel (another feature of Flanders) and in we went along Hoogstraat. The Tourist Information Centre is located adjacent to the castle (Gent Gravensteen).
We opted for the campsite (Blarmeersen) which is part of a very large sports complex in the South West of the City. It is relatively easy to find if the canals are used as a guide. It took us about 30 minutes or so to cycle. On the way we had 50c extracted from us by a group of girls who essentially acted as gatekeepers to the path. 50c for a glass of apple juice or water, or no passing. A small price to pay for apple juice and, again, that invaluable local knowledge. The campsite is the terminus for one of the bus routes into the city. One thing I am not keen on is getting back on the bicycle to cycle in to town. Once the tent is up, for me, that is it, mobility is provided by some mechanical traction until the next day.
We took a day out in Ghent to visit the fine art gallery in the Stadtpark (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, right). The contents of the gallery will be the subject of another post. Suffice to say, it hosts influential and historically important paintings from some of the region’s most famous artists.
Our ferry was scheduled for 12 noon from the East Dock. Bicycles are treated as vehicles and riders have to queue rather illogically with cars, trucks and motorcycles (below right). It is hazardous getting to the queue.
The crossing is 90 mins. The ferries are essentially floating motorway service areas. Functional. Dunkerque is an extremely cycle-unfriendly port. The disembarking trucks are driven with some abandon. There is no separation for cycles and no signs on how to avoid joining a motorway!
Essentially, we had to guess how to get to Dunkerque (such contrast with Rotterdam with its dedicated tracks and countless direction signs). Our advice, turn left off the first roundabout and go the wrong way up a one way road for about 50 metres. Follow the now two-way road (Route des Dunes) along the canal (on the left) and turn right on to Route de Mardyck along which a cycle track crosses at the junction of the D601). Dunkerque is signposted and eventually comes (right).
We then rode north towards the coast. The beaches are sandy and vast. The promenades all along the coastline are busy and not particularly easy to navigate in the summer season. There are plenty of potential campsites. We again picked the wrong one (at Zuydcoote – I have written a separate post about the places we stayed here). We left wiser than on arrival. We had breakfast in a bar in the nearby small town of Brays Dunes before crossing the border at De Panne and rapidly made it to Oostende. It is a port masquerading as a seaside town. The railway station is architecturally notable (left).
The Belgians share with the Dutch the ‘Knotten Punkten’ navigation method. Cycling by numbers, in a nutshell. Follow the arrow to the Punkt, and then follow the arrow to the next Punkt that forms the route that is to be taken. Fool proof. Largely. So, we ignored the direct route to Brugges and followed the route given in our guide, the Bikeline Flandern-Route. That took us back to the coastline through Blankenberge. We finally stopped at an extremely picturesque small town called Lissewege (with an enormous church) where we found a hotel and an eatery (right).
Next morning, I discovered that we had a broken spoke on the rear. In Brugges, then, it was necessary to find a bicycle repair shop. From Lissewege we passed through Dudzele and Damme (where a bakery and bar provided breakfast and coffee) before entering Brugges from the north east. We kept a keen eye out for cycle shops. in the rain.
Cycle shop owners know each other. “I cannot do it, but I know who will do it for you”. OK, but then being unable to find said workshop and stumbling across another shop, albeit without a workshop, and finding out that the original recommendation was not recommended…we finally found Bike World (on the N50 heading south out of the city). They are brilliant. Whilst they could not do it immediately, it was ready by 11 the following morning. They fixed the out-of-synch gears as well. All for 20 Euros. Down the road was a youth hostel. That is where we stayed. And spent the afternoon/evening in Brugge.
I’m not going to write too much about Brugge. It is picturesque, historic and full of tourists. And fast-moving horses and carriages. The main square boasts fine examples of classic Flemmish architecture and civic grandeur. But we had decided to crack on and immerse ourselves in the nearby historically competitor city, Ghent.
In previous years we have used the ferry between Hull and Rotterdam. This time, having moved to Hastings on the south coast of England, we decided to cycle to Dover and make the short crossing to Dunkerque en route to Belgium. At £10 each, with DFDS, it is a bargain.
Getting to Dover, however, illustrates just how far the English are from providing safe and enjoyable cycle routes. For example, the Royal Military Canal (right), flowing from Rye to Hythe (see map, above left) is an obvious potential route for the National Cycle Route 2. But alas, no. Private land ownership means that the cycle route has to weave around – albeit quiet roads – only being granted access in the approaches to Hythe (below left).
We had to cheat on our first day. We were unable get away before 1400. We took the train from Hastings to Ham Street towards Ashford (the Class 171 trains used on that route can accommodate a tandem with ease).
Once into Hythe, the cycle route takes riders on to the promenade which is wide enough to share comfortably with pedestrians. And then through Folkestone where, unfortunately, it is necessary to join a busy road that climbs out of the town in the East. The route then provides a dedicated track up to a quiet road (B2011) that runs parallel to the busy A259. It provides a rewarding view over Folkestone by way of compensation.
Past the Battle of Britain memorial, through Capel le Ferne downhill in to Dover. If wanted. However, we followed the coast path which is a shade rough but worth the effort. We’d booked a B&B just outside Dover on the B2011, so we had to make our way back. There is a route under the A20 and a non-public road down. The gradient is significant. Unfortunately, it ends with a locked barrier. For single cyclists it is unproblematic. A fully loaded tandem, unfortunately, has to be unloaded in order to thread it under the barrier. The B&B (Farthingloe) was, however, adjacent.
A mixed 35 km for our first half day.
The August summer of 2014 was, to say the least, wet. It was also cold. I have to admit that these factors made us think carefully about camping. So, here, chronologically, is where we stayed: (I’m constructing this as I publish the pages describing the tour more generally).