Heusden, a perfectly preserved medieval star fort

It’s not that Heusden is an uninviting place, it’s just that the massive fortifications of its star-shaped defences are so well preserved that you feel like you’re entering a military zone. One false step and you might be repelled by the town’s defenders. The defences of this charming little town are hugely impressive, and have seen so much history that it’s hard to stop your imagination running wild with thoughts of conquering armies and valiant townsfolk fighting to protect their homes and lives. Seen for the first time it is an incredible sight.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

It’s a truly beautiful place, and it’s popularity probably justifies the huge reconstruction and restoration work that was carried out in the 1960s to return it to its former 17th century glory. The full fortifications and around 400 buildings were restored, in what really was a monumental undertaking that lasted over a decade. If anything, Heusden is a little too well-preserved. Its one hundred and thirty-four national monuments, pristine streets and manicured earth defences ringed by two moats and backed by the River Meuse, make it feel a like you’re walking in an open-air museum.

Located on the strategically important Meuse, at the boundary of three historic Dutch counties, there has been a fortification of some sort here from before the 9th century, which was when some Vikings made the journey up the river to burn the town down. The town played an important role in the War of Dutch Independence, not as a Dutch stronghold but as a supporter of the Spanish Empire that ruled over the Netherlands. The town’s leaders eventually saw which way the wind was blowing and switched sides to support the Prince of Orange.

In 1680, tragedy struck Heusden. Lightening hit the castle and ignited sixty thousand pounds of gunpowder, destroying it and many other buildings. The castle was never rebuilt, but some foundations are still visible. There was additional tragedy during the German occupation in the Second World War. The bridge over the River Meuse made Heusden strategically important after the Allied invasion of Europe. Following the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, Canadian and British armies launched Operation Pheasant in October. Heusden lay directly in their path.

In November, Scottish troops approached the town and the German troops prepared to retreat. Fatefully, 170 of Heusden’s citizens sought shelter from artillery fire in the cellars of the town hall, where the German army had a command centre and hospital. As the German’s prepared to pull out, they mined the town hall’s 40 metre high tower, placing the charges deliberately so that it would fall on the town hall. Some 134 people were killed, of whom 74 were children. Many people consider this event to be a war crime.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

I’d arrived in Heusden on a sunny Sunday and the town, which attracts several hundred thousand tourists every year, was buzzing with life. The main square was filled with people eating outside several restaurants, and the town’s harbour was busy with boats coming and going. I parked my bike in the town centre and went for a leisurely wander. There’s a pleasant walk along the old defences that takes you past several windmills that still sit on the walls of the town, and give you fabulous views over the town and the surrounding countryside.

It doesn’t take long to explore the walls, streets and small alleyways of Heusden, and after an hour or so I plonked myself in the main square – the former Fish Market – and had lunch. This is quite an extraordinary town, made all the more so by the banning of advertising, which gives you a different impression of a place. Lunch over, it was back on the bike and a big loop that would take me to the site of another Second World War tragedy, the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Gelderland’s glorious Kasteel Ammersoyen

Thanks to the film, A Knight’s Tale, I actually thought the Dutch Province of Gelderland was fictitious. It turns out that not only is it a real place, but it has a variety of medieval castles worthy of the film itself. I’d ventured into this eastern Dutch province for a day of cycling – Gelderland is the largest, least populated of all Dutch provinces, and makes for good cycling. First on my list of stops was the magnificent Kasteel Ammersoyen, a classic medieval moated Dutch castle that, after extensive renovations in the late 20th century, is now considered one of the best preserved castles in the Netherlands.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

This itself is somewhat miraculous. The castle was built in the 1350s and has managed to survive over 700 years of turbulent European history. At different time the castle was fought over by Burgundian forces in the Hundred Years’ War, Spanish armies during the Dutch struggle for independence, and Napoleon’s troops laid siege to it as well. The castle was severely damaged by fire in the 16th century, but Allied bombing raids during the Second World War – a war in which it was ill-equipped to participate – did far more damage.

Today, it sits peacefully on the edge of the small village of Ammerzoden, close to the River Meuse. The river has been a major trade route for centuries, and explains the castle’s existence.  Surrounded by water, the castle has four round defensive towers, and a central courtyard. From the outside it seems pretty compact, this is deceptive as the interior is remarkably spacious, despite all the small narrow staircases you have to navigate to access parts of the building.

I’d arrived early, too early for the castle to be open, but luckily for me there was other entertainment on offer. The somewhat odd sight of a couple of dozen people dressed in medieval clothing and playing period instruments. This, it turned out, was a troupe of performers who do medieval recreations around the country, and who’d be practicing various crafts, musical recitals and combat techniques during the day. First though the troupe was warming up with a group photo in front of the castle. They stay in character during the visit, so I think I can forgive them the pre-opening use of a camera.

It was an entertaining visit, especially when I was co-opted into trying out replicas of a medieval mace and sword. I spent some time listening to some traditional music in the kitchens, before exploring the rest of the castle. A tour which I assume took me into a room in one of the towers that is reputedly haunted by a Lady in Blue. Several people have made claims that they have seen or ‘felt’ her presence, including a couple of the castle’s staff. One person has described feeling ‘uncomfortable’ in the room where the ghost is supposed to live.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Who am I to doubt the claims of someone who felt  uncomfortable in a room, but this paranormal activity seems based on little historical evidence. No one I asked knew who the Lady in Blue was, I put the sightings down to wild imaginings of fanciful minds. Still, after this close encounter with the spirit world, I hopped back on my bike and set off for my next destination, the lovely medieval town of Heusden. There was a ferry across the River Meuse, which turned out to be free, as I crossed the midway point in the river I left Gelderland and entered North Brabant. Soon I’d arrived at the fortified outskirts of Heusden…

Cycling on water, crossing the Houtribdijk

It’s not every day that you get to cycle across one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World – even if it’s only one of the Seven Wonders according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That though is what I found myself doing as I cycled along the Houtribdijk, a 30km-long dike that connects the new Dutch town of Lelystad to the ancient Dutch town of Enkhuizen just to the north of Amsterdam.

The Houtribdijk forms part of the immense Zuiderzee Works, a series of dams, dikes, locks and sluices begun in 1932 with the construction of the Afsluitdijk. Intended to protect the Netherlands from floods that periodically devastated the country, the Afsluitdijk transformed the Zuiderzee from a large saltwater inlet of the North Sea into a freshwater lake, the IJsselmeer. It also began a large-scale land reclamation programme that added an extra 1,650km2 of dry land to the Netherlands.

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The city of Lelystad, my start point, was built in the 1960s on land reclaimed from the water. Today it’s home to 75,000 people, and sits about 3 metres below sea level. It would be fair to say that Lelystad’s very existence depends on the Afsluitdijk keeping out the waters of the North Sea. The Houtribdijk was built at the same time as the city. When it opened in 1975 it sliced the IJsselmeer in two, creating a new lake to the south, the Markermeer.

The original plan had been to drain the Markermeer and reclaim another 700km2 of new land. That was derailed by growing financial and environmental concerns in the 1980s, so the Markermeer remained a lake and has become a vital recreational area and wetland habitat. As you cycle along this enormous hydraulic engineering project, the vast expanse of grey-blue water seems to stretch forever, merging seamlessly with the horizon.

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah's Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah’s Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

I cycled from Lelystad’s train station to the shore of the Markermeer where fishing boats and pleasure boats mingle along the shoreline. Improbably, in the harbour was a 70m long ‘replica’ of Noah’s Ark – I’m not sure how you can have a replica of something no one has ever seen. The Ark is billed as the first floating biblical theme park. It’s spent the last five years touring Europe, but is now back in the Netherlands.

Leaving that absurdity behind, I passed an actual replica of a 17th-century Dutch East India Company ship, the De 7 Provincien. In the background was the magnificent Anthony Gormley sculpture, Exposure, of a crouching man looking out over the water next to the Houtribdijk. I was soon on top of the lock system that allows boats to transfer between the two halves of the lake, and I could see the dike snaking into the distance.

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

The cycle lane starts alongside the N302 main road, but soon drops down below the road so that you’re cycling alongside the water, and the 8,500 vehicles that pass along the dike each day are several metres above you. It’s quite strange, but very peaceful as you can’t see or really hear the traffic. Boats pass by as you cycle along, and after a couple of bends in the road the route becomes arrow straight.

I reached Trintelhaven, an ‘island’ in the middle of the dike with a small harbour, car park and restaurant. It also has a small beach. Carrying straight on I finally popped back up onto the top of the dike and I could see my destination, the beautiful medieval town of Enkhuizen. I didn’t have long in Enkhuisen before jumping on a train towards the equally attractive town of Hoorn.

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Will it hurt? Yes … The Fred Whitton Challenge

It was still dark when my alarm went off. I looked pensively out of the window. It was windy, but it wasn’t raining. It was going to be a good day for cycling. After a quick shower, the kettle went on and I ate my first (but by no means last) banana of the day. I filled water bottles, checked clothing, tyre pressure, helmet, energy bars, spare inner tubes, brakes, tyre pressure (for luck). Finally, it was almost 6am, time to head to the start.

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Some 8 hours and 27 minutes later, exhausted but ecstatic, I crossed the finish line of the Fred Whitton Challenge. Along with two thousand other people of questionable sanity, I’d cycled 180 km (112 miles) on a loop around the English Lake District. A route that takes in nearly 4,000 metres of ascent and crosses all the major Lakeland passes. It’s a roll call of pain: Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott, Wrynose.

The day started with an ascent of Kirkstone Pass. We were cycling into a strong wind, but this is one of the easier climbs on ‘The Fred’. Like most of the highest points on the route, there were people cheering, ringing cow bells and banging drums. The support was amazing, and cow bells are remarkably motivating. We wound our way along the shores of Ullswater, all thoughts of daffodils dancing in the breeze banished.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Through Keswick and Buttermere we went, stopping briefly at the 58 mile point to refill water bottles and eat more bananas. By now the weather was getting hot, and the landscapes were luminous under a bright sun. It would have been greatly enjoyable but for the fact that I was cycling 112 miles. We passed by Ennerdale and Calder Bridge (where there was a second feed station), each village filled with people cheering us on.

Then it was the moment each person doing ‘The Fred’ anticipates and (if you’re me) dreads: Eskdale. Here the road narrows as you come down the valley, ahead rises the fearsome sight of Hardknott Pass. I could see the colourful jerseys of cyclists snaking up the vertical-looking mountainside. The last time I was here, on a biology field trip, I witnessed a car getting stuck on one of the hairpin bends. I was not looking forward to what lay ahead.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The final 20 miles are perhaps the hardest of the route, and not just because you’ve already cycled 95 miles. It starts with Hardknott Pass, a relentless climb that reaches a gradient of 33%. I made it over the first brutally steep part of the climb, and tried to regain my breath and mental composure on the less severe mid-section. Looking ahead, I could see hairpin bends rising like a wall in front of me and felt despair.

I tried, but I reached a point where I couldn’t peddle anymore. The incline, too steep; my legs, burning. I got off and pushed the bike the last 200 metres. If that had been where the torment ended I’d have been delighted. The descent of Hardknott is the most terrifying thing I’ve done since climbing 6000m peaks in the Andes. My brakes were screaming as if in pain, the road so bumpy I was certain I would fly off the mountainside.

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Reaching the bottom, I have rarely felt such relief. Relief that I was alive. I then made the mistake of looking ahead. As if to mock me, rising up a few miles further down the route was Wrynose Pass. My heart sank, but I was encouraged by the bonhomie of other cyclists, all with a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude. I peddled on telling myself that only one more big effort was needed and then I was nearly home.

The ascent and descent of Wrynose was a ‘cathedral of pain’, but I made it. The last 10 miles flew past in a revery of optimism and exhaustion. Finally, the end was in sight, I applied the brakes one final time and my first ever cyclosportive was over. I’ve never been happier to stop moving in my entire life.

_______________________________________________________

For a bit of fun, check out the time lapse video (by a good friend) close to the finish. I appear at 4:00, blink and you’ll miss it.

Dutch springtime, a festival of flowers

Just south of Leiden lies one of the prime flower and bulb growing regions in the Netherlands. It’s an area filled with daffodils, hyacinths, irises and the most famous of all, tulips. If you’re lucky enough to fly over this region when your plane comes in to land at Schiphol Airport, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt of brilliant reds, purples, pinks, yellows, oranges and whites. It’s a magnificent sight, and one so famous that it draws people from around the world to see it.

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

It’s equally impressive seen from the seat of a bicycle as you travel from village to village through the region. Over the last few weeks I’ve been regularly cycling through this area as part of my training for a cycling sportive. It’s been lovely to cycle through the flower fields, passing vibrant blocks of colour as different types of flowers arrive and then disappear only to be replaced by another variety.

There’s something appropriate about the arrival of the flowers, a multicoloured marker of the end of winter and the onset of summer – a welcome explosion of vibrant colour after a long winter of grey skies and brown fields. The splash of colour lasts only a few weeks, during which millions of flowers are cut and exported around the world. Surprisingly, many flowers are not sold, but simply discarded in favour of harvesting the bulbs.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

These days, flowers and bulbs account for a significant portion of Dutch agricultural exports. To put that into context, Dutch flower, bulb and other plant exports make up around two-thirds of total global exports. Not bad for a country with a tiny amount of agricultural land, most of which is below sea level. It’s a trade that has transformed the Dutch landscape, and although you get flowers year-round, April is ‘Peak Flower’.

It makes for quite an unusual tourist experience. Thousands of people flood into countryside which, for the rest of the year, is completely devoid of tourism. It’s an entirely new form of ‘tulip mania’, although these days tulips don’t cost the same as a house in Amsterdam. As you cycle around you can spot people crouching amongst the flower fields having photos taken, while nearby farmers are spraying, harvesting or checking their flowers.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Many tourists visit the (admittedly extraordinary) Keukenhof gardens, which are home to over 7 million flowers. Keukenhof tends to get extremely busy, and a more relaxed, interesting and free way of getting to see the flowers and the communities that grow them, is to hop on a bike and meander between this region’s villages. If you’re lucky, you may come across flower-related festivals taking place, or flower mosaics that are entered into local competitions.

On a good day, and the weather at this time of year can be very hit-and-miss, the fields are almost luminous, lending an other-worldly feel to the Dutch landscape. It’s an experience to which photographs don’t really do justice so, if you have the chance, it’s well worth making the effort to see the flowers up close and personal.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

The Dutch middle, cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute

The Midden-Nederland cycle route stretches across the Dutch middle, bisecting the Netherlands as it weaves its way from the North Sea near The Hague, to the town of Enschede close to the border with Germany. Cycle a few more kilometres east and you could easily find yourself inadvertently crossing into another country. It’s a very attractive route that takes you to small villages and towns, and through a variety of traditional Dutch landscapes.

The route is a quick and easy way to get a sense of what people mean when they talk about the ‘real Netherlands’, away from Amsterdam’s tourist hordes and packed summertime North Sea beaches. I didn’t have time to cycle the whole thing, but a day trip to Woerden before doubling back to Gouda to catch the train home was a good introduction.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

I’ve cycled parts of the Midden-Nederlandroute on various other cycle rides, but have never done it as a route. Leaving the outskirts of The Hague behind you’re quickly into a rural landscape criss-crossed with dykes and waterways. Skirting around the modern town of Zoetermeer, I stopped on a canal bridge to admire the landscape and noticed a heron at the edge of the water.

I wasn’t the only one to notice the heron. Some young bullocks had spotted it and came lumbering over to investigate. Bullocks are not the most sensitive of creatures and, as their leader stumbled down the bank towards it, the heron decided enough was enough and took flight. The cows seemed genuinely surprised.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

No journey in the Netherlands would be complete without a sighting of a windmill. In Benthuizen, a small village that dates from the 12th century, I came across my first of the day. The flour mill De Haas was built in 1772 and is still operated by local volunteers, and still producing flour that can be bought in the mill shop. Sadly, it was closed on the day I passed through.

Leaving Benthuizen you enter the Green Heart of Holland, an area of garden nurseries. The 13th century town of Boskoop began life cultivating fruit plants: the rustic Belle de Boskoop apple is named after the town, as is the Boskoop Glory grape variety and the Boskoop Giant blackcurrent. The town’s vertical-lift bridge over the River Gouwe is its most striking feature, but it’s famed for having hundreds of kilometres of small canals, used to drain water and create agricultural land.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Benthuizen, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Benthuizen, Netherlands

Vertical-lift bridge at Boskoop, Netherlands

Vertical-lift bridge at Boskoop, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

The route took me through Bodegraven, a town founded during the Roman Empire as a defensive outpost on what was then Rome’s border with Germany. It’s a picturesque place that is also home to the Brouwerij de Molen, one of the new generation of Dutch craft beer makers.

The brewery began life in the windmill De Arkduif, or the ‘Ark Dove’ of Noah’s Ark fame, but has relocated to a modern building down the road. De Arkduif is now home to the Brouwcafé de Molen, a ‘beer-focused restaurant’ with a beer tasting room. My timing was bad, the bar wasn’t open and I had to cycle on without a tasting. They host an exciting-looking beer festival each year, which is now in the diary for 2017.

Brouwerij de Molen in Bodegraven, Netherlands

Brouwerij de Molen in Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Near Woerden, I diverted from the official Midden-Nederlandroute and found myself cycling through the beautiful woodlands, meadows and lakes of the Reeuwijkse Plassen nature reserve. The area was formed by several hundred years of peat ‘mining’, which saw the landscape transformed by the extraction of peat for fuel and land reclamation for agriculture between the 9th and 18th centuries.

In Gouda, famed for its eponymous cheese, I caught a train back to The Hague and made plans for cycling the next section of the Midden-Nederlandroute.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

All at sea on the Vliet Canal

Strange and peculiar things happen more often that you’d imagine in the Netherlands. You go for a cycle through lovely Dutch countryside and, just when you’re on the way home, there’s a bizarre event taking place in some remote location. If I’ve learned anything since living in here, it’s that the country has a surreal events calendar, jam-packed full of quirky and eccentric activities that are barely comprehensible to outsiders.

These events are such a regular occurrence that I’ve given up being surprised by them. In the Waterland, north of Amsterdam, I came across a WW2 parade in a tiny village; I bumped, randomly, into a marching band on a country lane near Oudewater; and, not to forget, the truly odd sight of people floating homemade craft, modelled on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, down a canal in the artists former birthplace of  ‘s-Hertogenbosch .

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

This time, I’d been cycling through the picturesque countryside wedged between The Hague and the satellite town of Zoetermeer. It was a glorious day of cycling under a warm sun and vast Dutch sky that had taken me through small villages, along and over lovely canals, and past a row of three old windmills that are seemingly known as the Gang of Three.

These three 17th century windmills are a striking feature amidst this flat landscape of polders and cattle. Originally they were used to pump water and drain the land for agriculture. That’s all done by an electric pump now and the windmills have been turned into family homes. Windmills are surprisingly spacious inside, and I love the idea of living in one, but the prospect of near-vertical stairs when you’re going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is a bit off-putting.

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Looping back towards the Vliet Canal and Leidschendam, I came across a flotilla of boats crewed by cartoon characters preparing to set sail down the Vliet. This was the Vlietdagen Festival, or Vliet Days festival. The two historic villages of Voorburg and Leidschendam, separated by 2km of the canal, join forces to put on a weekend of festivities. All of which seem to culminate in a bizarre Wacky Races-style boat parade heading down the Vliet.

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

A journey through the Hoge Veluwe National Park

Even if you discount the fact that the Hoge Veluwe National Park has a world class art gallery and sculpture garden in its midst, it would still be one of the most extraordinary places in the Netherlands. Away from the North Sea Coast, there is little wilderness left in the manmade Dutch landscape; and, while the Hoge Veluwe National Park isn’t the wildest place on earth, its mix of landscapes play host to a surprising variety of wildlife.

There are numerous walking and cycling routes around the park, all easily followed, and taking you into just about every corner of this beautiful place. The park comprises heathland (awash in purple heather when I was there), forests, grasslands, surreal inland sand dunes and peat bogs. Cycling around it never lacks for a change of scenery. On a bright sunny day, it was a delight to explore.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

There is a remarkable variety of wildlife roaming around the park, including some sizeable mammals. The park’s ‘big four’ are red deer, wild boars, mouflons, and roe deer, but you can also see foxes, pine martens and badgers, as well as lizards, frogs and numerous birds. Things weren’t always so easy for the wildlife here, this was once a hunting park for the original owners, Anton and Helene Kröller-Müller.

Perhaps I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I only saw one baby red deer, spotted in a thicket. There must have been some adult deer around, but they were clearly too well camouflaged in the woodland, or too smart to give themselves away to a passing cyclist. Perhaps these descendants of the animals imported to be hunted are concerned the bad old days will return, and no one will tell them before it’s too late.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

I didn’t see see any animals, but the cycling alone is worth the €9.15 entrance fee. There are over 40km of cycle routes that take you on big loops around the park, and past the main ‘sights’ and into obscure corners. Even in a country where cycling is more accessible than almost anywhere on the planet, the trip around the cycle route is an uncrowded pleasure. The park may receive 600,000 visitors each year, but I saw hardly any other people.

I’m glad I found myself alone for long stretches, it was very peaceful, but given all the park has to offer it’s something of a mystery that there weren’t more people. When you do see people they are frequently cycling on one of the parks’s iconic white bikes. There are 1,800 of them stationed at the three entrances, and are free to use for visitors.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

If you’re visiting the Netherlands don’t have you’re own transport, the Hoge Veluwe National Park takes a little bit of effort to reach. But this is a gem of a place. Visit the glorious Kröller-Müller Museum, cycle through enchanting landscapes, and bring a picnic to make a day of it.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Down the Vliet with the Pilgrim Fathers

The Netherlands never ceases to amaze. For such a small country it has a lot of history. History that has had enormous influence on the world. The calm and attractive Vliet Canal is one of those pieces of a much larger historical puzzle. The canal connects Leiden to Delft, where it meets another canal that links it to the Nieuwe Maas river at Delfshaven. From there it is just a short journey to the open sea.

The Vliet Canal was dug in 47AD, when this area was part of the Roman Empire. In nearly 2,000 years of existence, many boats have sailed on it, none more important for Western Civilisation than the Dutch barges that sailed from Leiden to Delfshaven in July 1620. On board these boats were the men and women who would travel across the Atlantic on board the Mayflower, and go on to found Plymouth Colony.

The Hofwijck on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Hofwijck on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Voorburg on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Voorburg on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

These English religious dissidents would become known to posterity as the Pilgrim Fathers (were their no women?). They’d been living in Leiden for eleven years after fleeing what they saw as religious persecution. When they left Leiden on their way to establish what would become Massachusetts, they sailed down the Vliet Canal to Delfshaven, before boarding the Speedwell to England and then on to the New World.

I doubt any of the Pilgrims thought it a significant moment in history, and no one seems to make much of a fuss about it today either. Cycling along the Vliet, past grand houses and lovely polder landscapes, there is hardly any mention of this history other than a small statue in Leiden. It’s a lovely cycle though. Starting in Voorburg, a historic suburb of The Hague, I followed the canal all the way to Leiden.

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

I stopped in Voorburg to admire the Hofwijck, former home of Constantijn Huygens, a renowned 17th century Dutch politician, and of his son, Christiaan Huygens, whose study of the Rings of Saturn led him to discover Titan. A few kilometres further along the Vliet is the small village-cum-suburb of Leidschendam, which has a picturesque centre next to some locks on the canal.

Leidschendam has a human history that dates back to the Romans, but it was the canal that made it a prosperous place in the medieval period. Several windmills were built near here, and the 17th century Salamander windmill still sits on the banks of the Vliet. The Salamander was a sawmill, you can tell by the elongated building that forms its base – long enough to get a tree inside.

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Next to the locks in Leidschendam is a very odd sculpture. I don’t know what it’s supposed to represent, but one of the three figures has a dog on his arm, another a sail boat, the third has a misshaped globe on his head. Either that or a potato. Try as I might, I’ve not been able to discover anything about this entertaining trio. If anyone knows anything about it, send me a message.

The rest of the 10 or 12 kilometres to Leiden is along the canal, you don’t pass through any more villages but you do pass lots of boats and through some attractive Dutch countryside. It’s not a long journey, but it is calm and peaceful, and right on my doorstep.

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Giethoorn, the Venice of the Netherlands (apparently)

I went to Giethoorn because a colleague who’d visited told me it was a “lovely little village”. The village website temptingly describes it as “quiet”, “serene” and “remote”, a place where the loudest sound is the “quacking of a duck”. I’m sure Geithoorn is wonderful under normal circumstances, but a sunny weekend in August is far from normal … at least I hope so for the sake of everyone who lives there.

There’s no doubting Giethoorn’s appeal. Beautiful wooden houses, with thatched roofs and perfectly manicured gardens, are built on dozens of narrow canals. There are no roads through the village and the only footpaths are too narrow to walk in anything other than single file. In the past, farmers moved their livestock by rowing them around in boats. As advertised, there are a lot of ducks, some of them even quack.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Much of the surrounding countryside is a national park and is criss-crossed with cycle and walking routes. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the calm and picturesque landscape as I cycled from Meppel to Geithoorn, but my arrival in the village was a rude and unpleasant awakening. Tourists, from all over the world, had overrun the village.

I never thought I’d say this, but Giethoorn was almost as touristy as Amsterdam’s central Canal Belt. There weren’t any British stag parties but, like Amsterdam, there were boatloads of tourists careering around like lunatics. I stood and watched with a mixture of shock and bemusement as dozens of tourist boats, crammed into tiny canals, crashed into bankings, into bridges and into each other.

Church in Meppel, Netherlands

Church in Meppel, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

It was mayhem on the water, and it wasn’t much better on land. Large, noisy groups of domestic and foreign tourists crowded down the narrow paths, and across even narrower bridges, creating pedestrian bottlenecks and traffic jams all around the village. That didn’t stop self righteous and aggressive Dutch cyclists from trying to cycle through the crowds – a display of wilful disregard for their fellow human beings.

On days like this, it must be impossible for residents to do even the simplest of tasks. I saw a lot of “For Sale” signs, perhaps a dozen houses in total. In a village this size that’s an awful lot of people trying to move away. I watched the antics of tourists, and realised that if this was what summer in Giethoorn was like I’d not want to live here either. Not for nothing are there ‘Private’ and ‘No Entry’ signs in a variety of languages.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

I’d planned to visit the museum, ‘T Olde Maat Uus, a well preserved example of a traditional farm and fisherman’s cottage where there were people in period dress reenacting life from 150 years ago. This is normally catnip to me, but the whole place was swamped with tourists and tour groups. I made a mental note to come back in the depths of winter.

Geithoorn itself dates back to the early 13th century. The name means Goat Horn, because goat horns were discovered buried in the peat near here. Peat was a major industry for the village and, in the surrounding area, there are dozens of man made lakes created by the digging of peat for fuel. The village canals were dug so the peat could be transported more easily by boat.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Today, this village of 3,000 people is connected by around 180 bridges, joining the many parcels of land that form Geithoorn. That probably gives Geithoorn more bridges per capita than almost anywhere else on the planet. Sadly, that achievement looks likely to be rivalled by the village’s tourist to resident ratio.