We Are Still Alive!

23-29/8/16. Sorry for the lack of updates in the last week. The “reason” is that there doesn’t seem to have been much to report back on.

We have been making our way down the Dutch coast and are now west of Amsterdam, near Haarlem. It has been thoroughly pleasant but unremarkable – which is not intended to damn with faint praise. We have been enjoying the cycling, the countryside and the people very much.

We found the cycle paths in Germany wonderful but the Dutch ones are on a whole new level! They are more like “cycling roads” – generally having priority where they meet the real roads, wide (often allowing 2 way traffic), well signposted and they are everywhere. It is no wonder that they are so well used. There are bikes of all shapes and sizes – ridden by people of all shapes and sizes! And hardly a helmet in sight, apart from the lycra clad wannabe racers. Even Christine has “gone Dutch” as it were (Stephen stopped wearing his as soon as we left Aus and NZ (where they are required by law).

The first part of the route was in Friesland, the coastal area of which is a national park – part of the Wadden Sea World Heritage site. Generally we were riding at the base of the dyke on the land side but periodically we would climb up the slope to look at the saltmarsh and mudflats. At one point there was a hide which looked over a favourite beach of the seal population. There were more than 50 basking in the sun when we were there.

There was one point when wave after wave of ducks and geese flew over us heading south. It felt as though we were under an avian motorway and we were worried about getting splattered!

The area was relatively sparsely populated (by Dutch standards at least) with the occasional small village or town and of course the landscape was pan flat.  There were, however, a lot of campsites around so it was straightfoward to find somewhere to stay when we had had enough cycling for the day – apart from the third and final day in Friesland, that is. The weather had been glorious all day – in fact TOO gloroius for Christine who started to wilt in the sun and heat as the afternoon wore on. We passed a campsite but she decided that she would prefer to head to the next one marked on the map, about 10 km further on, so that we were closer to the long dam across the IJselmeer which we were going to cross the next day.

However, when we turned up in the small town where the site was shown we could find neither hide nor hair of it. The only possible place was a “bungalow park” but we were told in no uncertain terms that camping was not allowed. We were faced with two alternatives – go 6 km sort of back the way we had come but inland or head on to Harlingen, another 15-20 km. As the temperature had dropped a little, Christine felt she could manage the latter and we were pleased that we did so as we found a very nice campsite, which was clearly very popular.

On Friday, we headed south for about 10 km before turning onto the dam. We had been viewing this with some trepidation as it was 30 km heading right into the prevailing wind with absolutely no shelter.  However, our luck was in as we actually had a gentle tail/cross wind from a north/north easterly direction! The trip on the dam was actually fairly boring as it was a dead straight route beside a motorway with the view on one side blocked by the dyke – but it is an impressive engineering feat.

At the end of the dam we turned northwards towards Den Helder which meant that we were heading pretty much into the teeth of the wind. It made for hard going but was, no doubt, divine retribution for the easy time we had had earlier in the day.

As we had been making good progress we decided to have an “extra” rest day on Saturday (as well as Sunday) there. It was also an opportunity for Christine to catch up on her walking which had been “neglected” in the last couple of weeks by the absence of hills for her to push up! To do this we caught the ferry to the island of Texel – along with two million other cyclists! And it appeared as though any motorists on the ferry immediately hired bikes as soon as they landed!  We have never seen so many cyclists in a day. If we had a pound – or even a penny – for everyone on a bike that we saw that day we would be extremely well off!

Sunday was spent at church or on the statutory bike ride (depending on your inclination) followed by an afternoon of laundry and leisure. In the evening we went to dinner with Patricia, a lady from Cambridge who married a Dutchman and has lived in Den Helder for 30+ years, with whom Christine got chatting at church. We had a lovely meal of homemade soup and bread – and a highlight for Stephen, at least, was the homemade pickled onions!

Monday saw us back on the road – or rather cycle path – again heading south. This involved (gasp!) some climbing (in a very low key sense!) through the dunes which are, apparently, the highest in Holland. There was one point where we were looking down on the absolutely pan flat fields, many of which were covered in water (we are unsure why) – it looked just like paddy fields in Japan apart from the style of the buildings.

Christine had woken with a sore throat and the cold developed “nicely” throughout the day so that by mid afternoon she was feeling distinctly under the weather but determined to make it a decent day’s trip – especially as we were enjoying the tailwind. Amazingly, this was the first illness that either of us of had in about a year of cycling (other than the broken arm, of course!). No doubt that will put the mockers on our health from here on.

Dreech on the Dyke

19-22/8/16. We found a map covering the last stretch of the coast to The Netherlands in Wilhelmshaven which comforted Christine enormously. She does not feel happy not being able to see where she is or where she is heading. Stephen has the Garmin which, while not good for planning a long route, is great for the immediate locality and short distances.

The last few days have been fairly unremarkable with more extremely flat landscape but the wind often making cycling more difficult than it needs to be. One of the campsites was absolutely enormous – it felt as though there were thousands of caravans, both permanent and visitors, and hundreds of mobile homes – and yet we could not see what attracted so many people. The facilities were OK but not great. It was not expensive, but not cheap either. The location was nice enough but not spectacular. There were no major tourist attractions nearby (at least as far as we could ascertain). There were other sites within easy driving distance.

On Saturday afternoon we enjoyed cycling with a very pleasant young lady from Oxfordshire, Maike, who has been riding around Europe on her own for the last 4½ months and seems to have covered huge distances (from UK to Serbia, then up to the north of Finland). She is doing this on a budget of €5 per day and has spent only one night in a proper campsite. She majes us looks like glamping softies!

The weather has taken a turn for the worse with Christine getting absolutely soaked walking back from church yesterday and then it has rained pretty much all day today. We had been intending to take the ferry from Emden to The Netherlands in the afternoon, only to discover it only runs on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and, with no campsite nearby that we can see on maps or apps, we have “bailed” to a hotel to dry out!

“Where Have All The Ferries Gone?”

17-18/8/16. The improvement in the weather and the wide open countryside made for a spectacular sunset over the sea to the west and the next morning dawn was lovely too, although drying the dew on the tent again took a while. With nothing around us apart from the now closed restaurant we had to get under way to find a bakery for the rolls for breakfast.

Once fed, we followed the coast southwards to the Weser, the river that flows through Bremen. The city itself is a fair way inland but its modern day port, Bremerhaven, is on the estuary and is a busy container port. The route took us through this and we were mighty impressed with the scale of the operation.

We pottered about in Bremerhaven, having lunch (always important) and trying to buy the map of the last section of the German coast (unsuccessfully) before heading to the ferry across the river. Or so we thought!

Arriving at the dock there were big signs saying that, because of damage to the dock on the other side of the river, ferry operations were cancelled for the next few months. We did read that there was a “ferry replacement” bus service which caused our hearts to sink, given that the UK equivalents for trains do not take bikes, but then we noticed that there was capacity for a limited number of bikes. As we were the only cyclists around at the time we guessed we were “first in the queue” so were hopeful that we would get a ride.

So it was to prove, and, in fact, 5 other bikes turned up after us and all were allowed onboard. The journey took more than half an hour since we had to go quite a long way inland to the first crossing point – not surprising really since if it was close the ferry would soon go out of business.

A leisurely afternoon’s ride took us to Burhave where there was a busy campsite which offered a free bottle of beer or packet of Haribo sweets on check-in. I am sure you can guess which of us went for the beer and which for the sweets!

The next morning (Thursday) saw us riding to the next ferry, to cross the bay to Wilhelmshaven rather than cycle all the way round, only to find there were only two crossings a day and we had missed the first one by an hour and faced a 7 hour wait for the next one!

That will teach us to try cheating on cycling the whole coast! We set off by bike and it was all rather lovely – not least because we had a gentle tailwind from the north pushing us along. The big excitement was finding somewhere to buy lunch. We had anticipated getting it in Wilhelmshaven but there was nothing in the way of shops on the ride around the bay.

Stopping to inspect a map at a road junction near the bottom of the bay, Stephen noticed a trolley sign in a village a little way inland so we headed for it only to find the small supermarket was closed from 12 until 2. Grrr! Christine then noticed a small bakery just around the corner which was open. At least someone wanted our custom.

And it was a real find because in addition to the usual bread rolls and coffee they had a rhubarb and meringue cake which came in enormous portions for €3. We shared one between us and it was superb.

As we changed direction to head towards Wilhelmshaven the wind, of course, became more of a hindrance. We stopped in the little town of Varel to look for a map – becoming more urgent as the one we had only went as far as Wilhelmshaven – unsuccessfully, before riding the 10 km to Dangast where we had decided to spend the night.

To The Elbe

15-16/8/16. It’s more than a month since we left Japan! Unbelievable!!

It was inevitable. St Peter-Ording is on a promontory jutting out into the North Sea so when we left we had a 15-20 km ride to the east/south east. And what happens to the westerly winds we have been facing for the last few days? They drop to nothing of course!

Well, at least we should be grateful they didn’t turn through 180°! Providing there is no headwind cycling in these parts is blissfully easy so we made excellent time, crossing a dam at Eidesperrwerk which was clearly a flood defence construction protecting the floodplain of the river which the dam spanned.

It was also the gateway to “Wind Farm City”. All the way from Ribe in Denmark we had been passing turbines, but this was obviously where they breed! The numbers were just staggering! It is no wonder that Germany has days when it only uses renewable energy when you see this amount of generating capacity. Are we unusual in finding them attractive and failing to understand the objections of the NIMBYs and climate-change naysayers back home?

The wind picked up a little in the afternoon but was never strong and generally from the side so we continued to make excellent progress, covering more than 80 km in a day when laden for only the second time since New Zealand (the other occasion being when we misjudged distances and finished at about 8 o’clock) and it was not a strain to do.

We found a lovely little campsite in Brunsbüttel (at the mouth of the River Elbe which flows through Hamburg) that was a very reasonable €13 including kitchen/common room where we caught some of the Olympics for the first time (albeit with a German slant to the coverage, naturally).

On Tuesday morning it was a ride of less than a km to the port to catch the ferry to Cuxhaven, but first Stephen had the job of fitting a new rear tyre to replace one that was starting to show the effects of 10,000 km without a puncture. He wept a silent tear as he consigned an old friend to the bin!

The fare for the ferry was €6 for an adult and €4 for a bike – very reasonable for an 80 minute journey (about the same as the cross-Channel trip). Cuxhaven was a happening place with a long sandy beach which provided a pleasant outlook for us while we munched our rolls and hard boiled eggs.

Catching the 9 o’clock ferry was always going to be a big ask given the task of drying the dew from the tent (this has increased significantly in the last week or so) and the tyre fitting, so we had decided that the next one, at 10.45, was the one for us. Therefore, with the absolute necessity of feeding the inner man/woman, it was well into the afternoon before we started cycling “proper”. And with an improvement in the weather, Christine took the opportunity to enjoy the extensive views of the sun, sea and sand (no surf, in the calm conditions now prevailing) at a leisurely pace (which did not frustrate Stephen in the slightest. No. Absolutely not. Honest.)

As a result we had done less than 30 km when it was time to find a place to stop for the night. We found a campsite set a km on the sea side if the dyke in the middle of a wide expanse of salt marsh and grassland. The only signs of humanity visible are a small harbour with one or two sheds, a restaurant made from 2 containers to serve bathers at the nearby beach and a dozen wind turbines.

It is an idyllic setting but very exposed to westerly winds so it must have been “draughty”, to say the least, a few days ago. We mentioned the beach above. This is rather overplaying it! There is a small patch of sand but it is dwarfed by the mud flats which are on a similar scale to those at Weston-Super-Mare (of Weston-Super-Mud as Christine calls it, based on her childhood memories of living close by). The sea is a very distant line when the tide is out leaving acres and acres of thick, brown goo! The seabirds love it.

Christine Visits an Old Haunt 2 – And Doesn’t Remember it at All!

13-14/8/16. Christine spent a second summer working in a German restaurant.-  on the North Sea coast, in St Peter-Ording, this time – so it would have been remiss of us to bypass it. But when we got there it had all changed so she recognised nothing other than a faint memory of the ceiling of the church in which she worshipped while there. Almost every building looked less the thirty years old so it was perhaps not surprising. The path to the beach through the dunes also rang bells but she did only go to the sand once the whole summer (because her memory is that the weather, all the time she was there, was similar to that which we have been experiencing for the last few days – a strong, cool/cold wind off the sea with intermittent heavy showers).

It was also a strange place – five “villages” (St Peter-Böhl, -Dorf, -Bad, -Ording & -????) strung together and all given over completely to tourism. Every building seemed to be a hotel or a guest house or a shop or a restaurant or a cafe. We can only think that it must be Tumble Weed Stadt in winter! But in summer, even with the weather in Northern European mode, it was a busy and thriving place! Perhaps people were attracted by the kite festival taking place on the beach itself, which we declined to visit because access was down a road which required the possession of a visitor’s pass costing €3 each. (Do I hear you shout “Cheapskates”? Guilty as charged, m’lud!!)

The route from Husum to this strange place was similar to the previous days – a flat, flat, flat landscape which is a mixture of rich farmland and wild marshes and dunes, all under big skies. The wind had turned again and was from either the west or the south west, depending on how it felt from one minute to the next. Neither option (not that we had any choice in the matter!) was ideal as the route seemed to switch between the same two directions even more frequently than the wind. It made for slow going. Wind can be even tougher for cycling than hills because it can go on for EVER!

We spent two nights in St Peter-Ording because (a) it gave Christine a chance to reminisce (or not), (b) it was Sunday, so church/pill/solo bike ride day, depending on one’s inclination and (c) it was a reasonably priced campsite (€19 including showers).

Dallying in Denmark and Frollicking in Friesland

10-12//8/16. Over the last three days we have been heading south from Ribe in Denmark reaching Husum in the Friesland area of Germany.

The weather has not been very summerlike, or rather, it has been like the archetypical north European summer weather with added wind. The old poster advertising Skegness would be a very apt way of describing it – “bracing”!

The direction of the wind has been varying somewhat. On Wednesday it continued its helpful phase moving to a north westerly direction as we turned south but on Thursday it went back to the south west which was most definitely not what the doctor ordered! Today, Friday, it started out hardly blowing at all, which was OK, but strengthened as the day progressed and was from the south west which was our general direction of travel.

In addition, there have been quite a few showers, some heavy, which have not helped with our enjoyment. On the plus side though has been the profile of the countryside – in a word “flat”. At the end of each day the Garmin has showed less than a metre of ascent for every km travelled.

The campsites have been good – good facilities, reasonable prices (at least compared to some on the Baltic coast), sheltered from the wind. The only problem with them has been the spacing – they seem to be located in groups of 2 or 3 about 40 km apart. This has meant that we have been stopping in the early afternoon when we would have preferred to have done another 20 km but were unsure about doing another 40 km comfortably because of the strength of the wind which seems to increase in the afternoon. First world problems eh?

Friday saw the first puncture since May last year! We had spent a couple of hours riding on a path next to the sea that went through fields of sheep so the bikes got splattered with ovine ordure. We reached a road and, after Christine had removed the worst of the mess from between her tyres and mudguards (this was the cause of the crash that resulted in her broken arm last year), we set off. Or so Stephen thought! 4 km later he reached a junction and stopped to wait for her. When she didn’t appear he started cycling back slowly, wondering if he had missed a turn. Christine was sat with a flat tyre 100 yards on from where she had been cleaning the bike.

Because she had not gone very far on the “clean” road the tyres were still filthy so The Mechanic’s hands were immediately covered in sheep shit! And the rain started just to make things really pleasant!

This was only the second puncture in almost 20,000 km of cycling and it was in the tyre which we fitted to replace the one that burst in Japan so it wasn’t one of those with weapons-grade puncture resistance. That’s pretty good going, we think.

The Windy Wadden Sea

9/8/16. After another lovely evening with Heike and Volker, they joined us for most of our ride to the station the next morning. We were headed for the island of Sylt, in the North Sea by the border with Denmark.

At the station we were surprised to find that a motor rail train had just arrived from Zürich since you never hear or see of this back home and we were even more impressed by the variety of car nationalities disembarking – we saw 8 including Spanish and Italian! We were early for the train but the platform soon filled up with hoards of schoolchildren. Apprehensive about getting on with the bikes because of the numbers we moved down the platform just before the train arrived (the station was a terminus so there was nobody aboard) and managed to secure both bike space and seats before the kids moved in. There were so many of them, and most with enormous suitcases, that every bit of floorspace was occupied and the air was full of excited chatter.

The trip took three hours and I don’t think we saw a hill the whole way. The landscape opened up as we approached the coast and we could see the grass and crops bending in the gusty wind (Heike had warned us that the forecast was for strong westerly winds).

Sylt is joined to the mainland by a causeway which carries only the railway and a footpath so cars either have to piggyback on a train (we saw one full going the other way and two empty ones in a shunting yard) or 1½ hour ferry trip from the southern tip or a 40 minute ferry north to a Danish island which also has causeway but which takes motor traffic.

When we arrived in Westerland, the main town on the island, it was heaving. And now it had several hundred more schoolchildren as well! It is clearly a very popular resort with the Germans. After trying, and failing, to buy some gas so that we could cook dinner, we headed off north out of town towards two campsites. We received grumpy “welcomes” at both, were told that they were full and that there was absolutely no way they could fit even a small tent in.

We were not exactly impressed by our reception so, as it was still only mid afternoon, we decided to head for the ferry to Denmark to try our luck in a different country. The ride was lovely, along an old railway track with an excellent surface through the dunes. The wind was blowing strongly but as it was from the south west it was generally very helpful, although as the path occasionally veered to the north west it was then a crosswind and gusts sometimes caught the panniers making us wobble. The temperature was also markedly cooler than before our trip to the UK so we both added another layer of clothing durung the ride, Christine going from 3 to 4 and Steohen from 2 to 3. It’s August for goodness’ sake.

The ferry was interesting in that it offered duty free sales of alcohol while in German waters. We are a little dubious that they were really “duty free” as our understanding was that this was not possible on travel between two EU countries.

Arriving in Havneby on the island of Rømø, it was only a short ride to the campsite where there was both a friendly welcome and space for us. Denmark 1, Germany 0!!

When we woke on Tuesday morning the sky threatened rain but we managed to get everything packed in the dry. A shower fell while we were sat in reception of the adjacent hotel catching a brief dose of free Wifi but luckily it was as short as it was heavy so we were soon under way.

During the night the wind had moved to pretty much due west so we were buffeted by a sidewind for the first few km as we headed north on Rømø but then we reached the turning to the mainland and suddenly cycling was dead easy!  The causeway was an impressive and unusual sight being the best part of 10 km long and dead flat – by the time we had covered 18 km the Garmin showed we had ascended the grand total of 2 metres and descended 4 metres! There were many seabirds feeding on the mudflats, all in a line just at the water’s edge as the tide went out.

When we reached the mainland we had to go up from the shoreline to the dizzy heights of 10 metres but were blown up this Alp-like climb by the tailwind. Eat you heart out Chris Froome!

At the summit we turned north towards our destination, the ancient town of Ribe, and again were buffeted by the wind. Indeed, when the road turned slightly to the left we felt the force of it in our faces and were incredibly grateful not to be back on the Baltic Coast where we were a week and a half ago or further down the North Sea Coast where we are headed in a week or so’s time. That would be a really hard slog in this wind.

As it was we covered the 40 km to Ribe in little more than 3 hours and ate lunch after setting up camp just outside the town. The campsite is expensive at about £27 but the facilities are excellent with three kitchens with gas hobs, ovens and microwaves as well as two sitting areas/lounges with TV and several power points (useful  for recharging phones and iPads) and very clean and well-fitted toilets and showers.

In the afternoon we followed a walk round Ribe using a leaflet from the tourist information and were mighty impressed by the loveliness of Denmark’s oldest town. It is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. We came with the children when we cycled part of the Danish coast about 15 years ago.

A Sojourn in the UK

2-7/8/16. As mentioned in the post about our plans, we have spent the last few days with our sons, Alaric and Conal, and their partners, Annabelle and Tamsin, in Didcot. And a lovely time we had too! We also took the opportunity to visit our parents on Saturday, Christine taking the train to Taunton and Stephen driving (for the first time since April) to Hampshire and managed to see three of our four siblings on the same trips.

(Very) early on Sunday, we returned to Hamburg where we looked around the city before going to Heike and Volker’s house where we had left the bikes and most of our bags.

Lübeck to Hamburg

1/8/16. We woke to unsettled weather on Monday morning. Because we had a Warmshowers bed for the night and were returning to the UK on Tuesday we wanted to pack the tent away in a dry state which proved somewhat problematic as, a couple of times, a short shower returned just before the wind had completely dried the tent after previous one.

It was well past 10 when we were ready to go and we were faced with a longish day into the wind. And, of course, after we had done about 10 km the rain returned, heavier than before. We carried on for a while with Christine increasingly cheesed off until we reached Bad Oldesloe where she “bailed’ at the station to take the drier option.

Of course, this was the signal for the rain to stop and what turned out to be a pleasant afternoon’s ride for Stephen. He arrived at the house about quarter of an hour after Christine who had a very leisurely walk/ride from the main station in Hamburg alongside the Alstersee.

Heike and Volker were wonderful Warmshowers hosts (are there any bad ones? We have yet to find one – thankfully!) making us most welcome and giving us a lovely dinner and another opportunity to talk bikes.