As some of you might know, I’ve been a little busy over the last week or so.
Last Sunday my wife, Anita and I were joined at home by four friends, Neil, Sarah, Toni and Lauren. We ate – a lot. And then we slept. The following morning we left the house with everything we’d need for the next 5 days. A bike, spares, kit, clothes and ‘stuff’.
Here we all are at the start line. Don’t we look fresh faced and enthusiastic?
So… the first day was Chatham to Dover. We headed via the familiar route out of Medway, up Bluebell Hill (the highest point on the whole journey) and onto the North Downs Way. We dropped into Ashford (sneaky McDonalds) and then headed to Aldington, Hythe and Folkestone before starting the long, slow, steep climb up to Capel le Ferne (the second highest point on the whole journey) past the Battle of Britain Memorial and finishing up for the evening within sight of Dover Castle. It had been a long day and a real struggle for one of the group, but we knew it would get easier from that point on.
The second day started really early. We had to be at Dover ferry terminal at 06:30, so the alarms went off at 05:00 and we were all outside and ready to set off by 05:30. The ride into Dover was a long stretch of quiet, downhill road and then it all got a bit weird. Checking in on a roll on roll off ferry in a car is easy enough. And the one time I have done it on a bike (Cairnryan to Larne) I was put on a bus and driven onboard. This time though, we were directed to Lane 153, on our bikes, in the middle of articulated lorries, cars, vans and even a few motorbikes for good measure and simply waited to be told to board.
Once we were on and the bikes were locked up on the car deck we headed up for breakfast and then just enjoyed the ride. The clocks went forward an hour, we checked our phones were working (mine was a bit of a problem, but a quick call to EE later it was all ok), reunited with our bikes and waited – for every single other vehicle to get off the ferry… It took a while, but it was worth it because we were then riding on much quieter roads around Calais and getting used to being on the wrong side of the road.
Northern France was every bit as flat as we’d hoped it would be. There wasn’t much of a headwind but it was incredibly hot. Sunburn ensued. We cycled past old Second World War bunkers, little villages and cornfields, stopped at Gravelines and looked at the construction of the Jean Bart (linked to the Medway Queen Preservation Society) and then carried on towards Dunkirk where we somehow managed to find another tall ship (we didn’t do it deliberately I promise). After Dunkirk it was a straight shot to Middelkerke in Belgium. Or it would have been, except one of our group was struggling a bit so we split into two groups of three people, the lead group heading off in front about 25km out from the hotel. Anita, Lauren and I peddled at a slightly slower pace and made it to the beach front hotel only about 10-15 minutes behind Neil, Toni and Sarah.
Unfortunately due to the time we arrived, most of the local shops and restaurants were closed, but we managed to find a Chinese that was still open and chowed down before bed. Breakfast the following morning was a much easier proposition – and the view wasn’t bad either.
But then it was back to business and we got the bikes ready and made for Breskens where we’d catch the ferry to Vlissingen, birthplace of Michiel de Ruyter.
There was much more of a headwind, so we decided to track inland a bit rather than go up the coast. That worked for a while, but at Ostend Lauren found it a bit too tough so we popped her on a train to Bruges where she’d transfer and carry on to Knokke (about half way for the day). She could either wait there for us, or start making her way to Breskens and meet us there when we arrived. We kept in touch throughout the day but carried on cycling through Belgium and into The Netherlands. We passed through Zeebrugge where we had to wait for a rather large ship to pass by before the road could be lowered back down and allow us to continue our journey but we made it in reasonably good time.
When we got to Breskens (and Lauren, who had succesfully got there before us) Google Maps had it’s one slight muck up of the five days and directed us to the wrong place – fortunately it was only out by about 500 metres and the Vlissingen ferry was well signposted.
The ferry ride was cheap and quick (it’s not a car ferry, just foot passengers and bikes) and we walked to the hotel less than two kilometres away. It was slightly strange… An old patrol station, the staircases were incredibly steep, the rooms were a little… Odd. But it was good enough to sleep in for one night. Anita wasn’t feeling very well, so she stayed at the hotel while the rest of us went out to find food. The food we found was cooked by a former Lieutenant Colonel in Iraq and Afghansitan with 2 Para (and yes, there were photos to prove it). Then it was back to the (odd) hotel for a bit of sleep.
Breakfast was easy, served in the hotel and we scavenged ourselves a lunch for the second time. Anita and Lauren headed to the train station to catch a ride to Rotterdam and the rest of us headed up the North Sea Coast for the longest ride of the week. We were set to break the 100km mark before reaching Rotterdam.
It was a strange day. We had really built ourselves up for a tough one. It was 106km – that’s quite a long way to do on mountain bikes loaded down with kit into a northerly headwind in strong sunlight. We were all starting to suffer from varying degrees of sun and/or wind burn. Regular applications of sunblock were being applied but Toni in particular was developing an interesting pattern of straps on her upper back and Neil had a very red right calf (the sun spent most of its time behind us on our right). It turned out that it was actually a day made up of quiet towpaths, inland cycle paths, flat bridges across the coastal lowlands, another disappearing road due to a boat and an average speed of well above 10 mph. It was a real shame we hadn’t all managed to be together on that day, but it was for the best as we were then all fit enough to do the last day.
The last day was less than 50 miles, the shortest of the week. It was the only day to have a tailwind – not a high tailwind to be honest, but a tailwind nonetheless. And we were all together. Lauren really pulled her finger out and kept up the speed. Anita was feeling better after her rest day day and it was another nice route – even if we did start off in the rain in the city centre. The last 5 miles or so were through parkland and were amazing fun.
Before we knew it we were at the Rijksmuseum posing for finish line selfies.
It was all over.
Between us, even with the odd train ride, we’d racked up over 1500 miles in 5 days, cycled in 4 countries and not had a single accident. Not so much as a punctured tire.
We found our accommodation, met my mum and loaded the bikes into the car and then went out for dinner and a celebratory drink.
Saturday was our one day to sightsee and we went to the Rijksmuseum to catch the exhibits concerned with the Dutch Raid on Chatham in 1667. Paintings, objects and the large stern carving from the captured flagship The Royal Charles.
We had a €5 lunch in a nice little restaurant and then went back to the hotel. I felt really bad in the afternoon – I think it was heatstroke. I slept most of the afternoon and through the night without a problem. The night was short though…
We were all up at 04:45 and in a minibus on our way to the airport at 05:30. The flight was supposed to be 40 minutes long but ended up landing at Stansted at the same time it took off (the clocks went back an hour on the flight). Train travel from Stansted to Greenwich took a couple of hours, leaving us enough time to have lunch together before being picked up at the Royal Observatory.
The last job for me to do was to reassemble and clean all of the bikes, and I’ve just finished that.
I’d like to thank everyone who donated – you’ve helped us raise nearly a thousand pounds for our chosen charities. I’d like to thank my mum, Julie and sister in law, Carrie for driving to Amsterdam to pick up the bikes and drive them back to Kent. I’d like to thank my dad, David and Neil’s wife, Jo for picking everyone up from Greenwich.
More than anything though I’d like to thank the riders. Trips like this are special and so are the people that you choose to do them with. Thank you for the experience.