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Headwind but Heavenly on the LF1 North Sea Route in Holland
By DI NELSON and PHIL McGOVERN
We ponder on the nature of headwinds. Why do they make your nose run? How can you stop the roaring in your ears? Our words are snatched from our mouths and hurled behind us- probably into the mouths of the next people to pass that way. We crouch behind a wall. Black clouds scud across a vast sky. Only 5km from our destination, Den Helder. Would we make it?
The rest of Holland seems to be going the other way. Whole schoolfuls of children on bikes sail smugly past. In the distance wind-turbines spin madly. We retire to a cafe. Surprisingly the roof is still in place. The owner tells us the wind is forecast to increase to 7 Beauforts, whatever that means, but it sounds impressive. We swallow our pride, give up, and turn inland.
We had been following the LF1 long distance cycle route which we had joined at Scheveningen - pronounced by saying "shaving 'em" and simultaneously clearing your throat. The LF1 runs from Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, through Belgium to Den Helder in the north of Holland. The Dutch part, known as the North Sea Route, was the first signposted Dutch national cycle route. Armed with the excellent LF1 Noordzeeroute Guidebook we had set off a few days earlier. The guidebook however describes the route going in the opposite direction, from Den Helder to Boulogne, and we were now beginning to wish we were doing it that way.
Further south the wind hadn't been so noticeable. The path snakes through sand dunes and stunted oak and pine woods, with the occasional cafe or bar for refreshment. It is good to see so many ordinary people on bikes. One can't help wondering what these elderly women, or families with children, would be doing if they lived in Britain, driving to leisure centres probably. It's not just ordinary people who cycle either: Queen Beatrix, who lives only five minutes from the LF1, is often seen on a bike. Dutch bikes are of course very sensible. As well as chain guards there are dress guards on the rear wheel, so you don't get your frock caught in the spokes, and, like cars, they come ready fitted with lights and locks.
At windswept Zandfort, a bleak but somehow likeable resort near Haarlem, we try some Dutch delicacies: raw herring and paling - smoked eel. The herring is tasteless and slimy and probably needs washing down with an oude genever - one of the many types of Dutch gin. The eel, on the other hand, is delicious. The stall sells every type of fish imaginable, shellfish included. There are at least five varieties of herring, and delicious pieces of fried cod called kibbeling, all served with a wide choice of salads and sauces. It's only the lack of chips that reminds us we're not in Britain, as we sit on a bench on the windswept promenade, eating from polystyrene boxes and watching the seagulls flying backwards in a losing battle against the elements. In the window of a nearby cafe a sign says "NO DRUGS". We're not sure whether this is an order or an apology - perhaps they've just run out and will be getting some more in stock in the next day or two. This is Holland after all.
Navigation on a coastal path ought to be fairly easy - just keep the sea on the same side. It's not that simple. The dunes are high and most of the time the Noordzee is out of sight. Moreover there is a dense network of paths and the sign-posting is odd. Truncated pyramids are used, about the height of a garden gnome, which is handy if you have one of those low slung recumbent bicycles, but we miss most of them and become hopelessly lost.
The sight of two threadbare camels in a field of horses makes us wonder if we've gone too far east. However, a sign for Haarlem reassures us we're still in Holland and, since we're so close we decide to visit this famous city. As we enter the 'Centrum', all the bells in the town seem to be ringing, a cracked magical sound that transports us across the centuries, setting the tone for a visit to the historical Frans Hals Museum. Here we learn that the artist, Frans Hals, was not Dutch at all, but yet another famous Belgian.
Getting back to the Noordzee Route proves to be a problem as it is unsigned and nobody seems to have heard of it. We end up bumping along the 'Warehouses and Suburbs Route' instead.
The Netherlands, contrary to popular belief, isn't a complete cyclists' paradise. Cycle tracks are often surfaced with uneven flag-stones, while the road, which one is forbidden to use, is smooth tarmac. However, a positive attitude to cycling means that the poorly designed cycle facilities, sadly typical of the UK, are mostly absent here. Instead one finds ramps beside the steps at stations, tunnels under major roads, and proper lighting on cycle paths. Perhaps the most helpful feature in towns is the instruction 'Uitgezondert Fietsers' on 'No Entry' signs, which allows bikes to contra flow along one-way streets. The push-button cycle crossings are not so helpful. With waiting times approaching a minute or more we rarely see anyone even bothering to press the button, and we too end up giving up and making a dash for it.
We pick up the trail of the LF1 again at the (free) ferry crossing on the Noordzee Kanal - then promptly lose it as it wiggles through the industrial suburbs of Ijmuiden. After exploring the extensive perimeter of the Hoogovens steelworks we strike out through bulb fields, finally ending up in the maze-like grounds of a psychiatric hospital. Ijmuiden is the ferry port for Newcastle.
In spite of numerous detours we reach the Youth Hostel at Egmond-aan-Zee in time for supper. The route of the LF1 is well served by Youth Hostels but we find it advisable to book ahead each day as they seem to fill up with large coach parties of German school-children. Egmond-aan-Zee is no exception. Escaping the hurly-burly we head for the dunes for a post-prandial stroll. We cross fields that are more sand than soil and, in the dying rays of the sun, climb to the top of a dune hoping to catch a glimpse of the North Sea. All we see is more dunes. Later, reading the guidebook, we discover that at this point the dune area is 5km wide.
The dunes are a vital part of Holland's sea-defences and this area is a protected nature reserve with well marked paths for walkers. It is only when we come down to the road again that we spot the self-service ticket machine, and pop in some coins.
Further north the coastal strip of dunes becomes narrower and eventually gives way to a high, grass covered sea dike stretching away on our left as far as the eye can see. On our right a bleak expanse of polder extends to the horizon. We feel dwarfed by the immensity of the sky. Black rain clouds stampede overhead - in too much of a hurry to do more than sprinkle a few drops on us. Just as well, the wind is enough to cope with. On the dike morose looking sheep lie flattened against the ground seeking the only shelter possible in a landscape without trees or hedges. A small bird of prey, possibly a Merlin, is crouched on the grassy slope, unable to get airborne. We take a break from cycling and battle our way to the top of the dike. This time we can see the sea, a seething grey and white expanse, bordered by perfect golden sands. Not surprisingly the beach is totally empty - anyone walking there would be flayed alive in seconds.
Progress is slow. The wind roars and wails in our ears and then begins to sound strangely musical. Blinking back the tears we look up to see, on top of the dyke, three groups of tall bamboo style pipes - the Werelddwindorgel (World Wind Harp) in full song. On closer inspection we discover that these huge metal pipes (around 5 metres high) have holes along their lengths which produce the notes. There are 33 pipes in each group and the sound they make is like the lamenting of lost souls.
We add our laments to those of the pipes as we set off again. Di stops suddenly as a mutinous thought strikes her. "We don't have to do this!". The LF1 guide reveals a nearby campsite, and, as luck would have it they've got trekkerhutten - huts for walkers. Ours is basically furnished with four bunks, a table and chairs, and a cooking ring. The wind howls around outside, shaking the wooden walls. We are glad to be inside.
Next day we change course, and don't see the LF1 again until, heading back south, we pick it up east of Alkmaar. We find ourselves in the middle of a street market. The smell of pancakes draws us irresistibly to a stall where a large red-faced woman is making pannekukken - waffles. She smothers ours in syrup and we wander off munching greedily.
We bowl along in the sunshine. Old hands now, we spot most of the gnomic signposts and manage not to get lost. Basking outside a beach cafe, we sip delicious coffee; we stop to pick the tasty blackberries that grow alongside the cycle path; and when we arrive at the youth hostel we are delighted to find that it is a real castle with a moat. Suddenly these small but exquisite pleasures, combined with the relaxation of cycling in a car-free, bike-friendly environment, puts the LF1 high on our list of brilliant cycle trips. And the dreaded headwinds? We've finally put them behind us!
Netherlands: Groningen, Cycling City.