Five go mad in Amsterdam

I’m in a hotel room on the outskirts of Amsterdam with one of the UKs most prolific cycle campaigners, a social media guru that is setting the Internet alight with videos of cycling infrastructure and a woman that has prevented the rest of us from spending the entire weekend lost and cycling around the port at Ijmuiden. For my part, I have taught the Italian barman downstairs to make a decent cup of tea. 

We started out in Newcastle as we meant to go on – with cake – at the very lovely Cycle Hub before setting off to the ferry at Tynemouth where we became friends with a group of elderly Dutch male cyclists. 

We survived a night of being blasted by Euro- pop on the Newcastle to Ijmuiden ferry and then cycled out into Ijmuiden in great excitement, if mainly in the wrong direction.


  

Lizzie took the navigation in hand so we were soon back on track and making new friends in Haarlem

We pedalled into Amsterdam high on roundabouts and their associated infrastructure

We’ve all been here before but the thrill of being able to cycle safely is so overwhelming you can’t tire of it. In fact, all your holiday photos end us looking like this


Here is Sally and Lizzie discussing all the ways back to our hotel that won’t involve being run over by a truck

We love Haarlem and will be returning there today to assess the possibilities of setting up a tea shop as we’ve been pretty horrified by the state of the liquid refreshments and feel it’s an area where we can make a genuine contribution towards Dutch culture. Here is  Claire being appalled by this particular cup of ‘tea’. It just goes to show that the Netherlands isn’t perfect.

On the campaign trail

“You shouldn’t really get on with that”

This wasn’t an auspicious start to our microadventure, but not entirely surprising given the recent media attention on ScotRail’s lack of bike love. Grumbling loudly, the conductor allowed us onto the almost empty 10.50 from Dunbar and closed the doors halfway through my speech on the benefits of cycling touring to the Scottish economy.

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Fully loaded!

Our microadventure wasn’t supposed to start like this; we were going to cycle from home to Glasgow over the Easter holidays, joyfully handing #walkcyclevote leaflets and Pedal on Parliament flyers out to passing cyclists in the spring sunshine. The plan was to test our camping and cycling mettle in the safety of the back gardens of friends, where we could creep into the house if our ageing tent collapsed and then eat any Easter Eggs left lying around. Heavy rain and an ear infection reduced our aspirations down to getting from Musselburgh to Edinburgh in one piece by nightfall..

Deposited safely in Musselburgh we got our flags in order and set off to find our way onto National Cycle Network Route 1 – the long distance route running from Dover to the Shetland Isles that forms part of the North Sea Cycle Route.

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Ready to roll in Musselburgh

We found NCN1 with alarming ease and cycled side by side on the wide cycle path running by the University. It unfortunately reduces in size and quality quite quickly but it still provided us with the opportunity to talk about the snails decorating the damp path. It took some time to persuade the mini-campaigner not to cheat evolution by moving every snail from the path, so we were able to fully enjoy this rural part of the network.

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Snail spotting (and squashing..)

At the end of the path we were back on the road, so the mini-campaigner settled down in the trailer and I summoned my thigh muscles to get us safely onto the next section of path. We negotiated our way through the horror of Newcraighall Road, having decided that I didn’t want to find out if the ‘ramped steps over bridge’ at Brunstane on NCN1 was (im)passable with a heavy trailer.

Who would cycle here?

Who would cycle here?

We then lost some time as my 25 year old Duke of Edinburgh map reading skills failed me (yet again) and we had to backtrack to find the cycle path behind the Fort Kinnaird shopping centre.

Signage spotted!

Signage spotted!

Back on track, we followed the path as it wriggled through parks, housing estates and into Holyrood Park. Even in the rain this is a truly lovely ride and it’s easy to forget that you are coming into a capital city.

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Rolling into the city

In the city we got back on mission and started to flag down passing cyclists and hand out Pedal on Parliament flyers. I’ve found that having a small child does increase the number of people prepared to talk to you in the street, possibly because they are assessing if they should call the statutory services. Thankfully lovely Jez here didn’t seem to think mini-campaigner was at risk and even agreed to take a batch of flyers to work and distribute them for us.

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Work those leaflets!

After admiring some of the new cycling infrastructure, eating excessive quantities of ‘naughty snacks’ (that’s chocolate coins at the moment) and some lunch we headed along the canal, pressing slowly on towards Corstorphine and our first night of camping with CTC Scotland committee member Claire.

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Not perfect, but enabled safe cycling for us

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Zoom! You can’t keep a speed demon down forever..

The rain continued throughout the night, but the combination of excitement and exhaustion ensured that we both got a good night’s sleep. Determined to start the day the campaigning way, the mini-campaigner handed over one of our batch of #walkcyclevote flags to a delighted Claire..

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Heartened by our successful first day we decided to continue onto Fife, where another CTC Scotland committee member, Gary, had offered their garden as our next staging post.

Neither Googlemaps or CycleStreets suggested a route that impressed Claire so she lead us back to the NCN1. As we followed Claire out of the residential maze of west Edinburgh, then through the Cammo Estate, I wondered how long it would have taken us to do this if we’d not been guided by a local expert route planner.

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Claire looking cycle chic, me not so much..

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Boy meets the Bridge!

Once on NCN1 our route difficulties were not over, as I was easily confused into crossing this terrifying road by the cycle path sign. Some passing cyclists helped us realise my mistake and took a couple of Pedal on Parliament leaflets away with them as a reward.

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Crossing deemed suitable for people on bikes and foot

Once free of the roadworks, we made our way to Inverkeithing were I dispatched mini-campaigner into Sandy Wallace Cycles with an armful of leaflets and a poster.

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From there on the signage was excellent; the maps were put away and we enjoyed NCN 76 all the way to Aberdour. The path was rutted and muddy and steep in places but access gates and the sunshine kept me in high spirits and helped mini-campaigner catch up with some serious napping.

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The NCN 76 through Aberdour Golf Course

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Behold! A gate you can get through with a trailer and panniers!

After a restorative lemonade in the Aberdour Hotel, Gary rode out to lead us the last couple of miles to Burntisland to ensure we were all pitched as the rain started again.

Next morning the wind had got up, the trailer was punctured and more rain was forecast. Call me a southern softy, but my thighs told me it was time to go home. The question was, would ScotRail let us on – trailer and all – at Burntisland?

Our short story ends happily as the lovely Laura on the 10.10 from Burntisland helped us onto her train with no grumbling, just kindness. Already loaded with a bike and a wheelchair, and another wheelchair to come, she swept us all into the carriage with no fuss, difficulty or grumbling. If only everything in life was more like Laura..

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Preparing to plead..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ziggy and the victim blaming books

Our son has brought some revolting things home from nursery over the last couple of years; hand, foot and mouth disease, a passion for ‘Frozen’ and head lice all being highlights. Yet pre-school managed to top this by sending home two books that only a hard-wired instinct has prevented me from burning. I bring you the adventures of ‘Ziggy’, an alien that has managed to land in a suburban hell where four year old are expected to prevent themselves from being run over, using the power of handholding and reflective coats. 

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Running on the PAVEMENT is forbidden here, because cars need to drive on it to access their driveways. And if you get in the way you deserve to get squashed apparently. 

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Whoever designed this place has some sort of people-hating condition. There is nowhere to cross the road, never mind ride a bike in safety.

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I don’t endanger my child by encouraging him to ignore the conditions of the streets where we live, I just don’t think he should feel responsible for the behaviour of people in large metal machines that won’t even notice if they run him down. 

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I’m looking forward to school sending home the adventures of Ziggy and the car driver, where Ziggy finds out that many collisions can be prevented by adults taking responsibility and looking out for children. Ideally I’d like to combine this approach with building infrastructure that protects pedestrians and cyclists. It can’t be harder than learning Danish..

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‘Take care of the little ones in traffic’ annual road safety campaign in Denmark

Playgrounds, paintings and pedalling – our first family cycle tour

The washing has been done, the photos downloaded and the bikes have been put away (although admittedly not cleaned..) – we’re home from our first family cycle tour and reflecting on what worked and what we’d do differently next time..

Equipment

I was very pleased with how our ‘child carrying’ set up worked out over the holiday. Our cheap and cheerful Halfords single trailer held up remarkably well, as did the Pound Shop bungee cord securing our son’s bike to the back of it. This arrangement allowed him to ride where it was possible but ensured that he was safe on the busy city sections.

Although our son dropped his daytime nap many months ago, the later than usual nights plus general activity and excitement meant he needed a nap during the day – the trailer provided a cosy bolt hole for that as well as being ‘snack central’.

He loved being on his bike so I’m not sure how long he’ll tolerate the trailer, perhaps just another year or so, so we’ll need to think again about mileage and busy city cycling on our next tour. I’m hoping that a Follow Me Tandem might provide an answer.

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Distance

Our total distance was around 150 miles, including the day trips and miles to and from the Newcastle ferry, over eight days. We could have cycled more, but the route we chose (Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Leiden – The Hague – Rotterdam – train to Bruges and train back to Amsterdam – Ijmuiden) worked well for us. Each day was leisurely and we had time to incorporate breaks, our son cycling and frequent stops to have a ‘discussion’ about where exactly where we thought we were (and how to get somewhere else). Our son is also mastering toilet useage at the moment so there were many additional stops to discuss this too..

We spent a couple of days each in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Bruges so we weren’t packing up and cycling every day. This allowed us to get washing done, explore a little more and inspect a few paintings, which was my husband’s top priority. Oh, and take photos of bikes.

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Accommodation

There was no way I would have been able to convince my husband to camp and cycle on the same holiday, so we booked Airbnb apartments in Amsterdam and Bruges, found an apartment in Rotterdam and stayed in hotels for the rest of the journey. Comfortable but expensive, this isn’t a solution for more than a week or two. Warm Showers has been recommended as an affordable but comfortable option so we may try that next time if camping doesn’t meet the required accomodation standards of everyone in our family.

Maps and/or GPS

I freely admit that I’m regularly lost. I can get lost a few miles from where I live with no difficulty. If route planning and navigation are left up to me I plan to get lost and organise appropriately (snacks, warm clothes, back up power for phone). My husband doesn’t get lost so I bought a map and handed it over. Unfortunately it seems that I should have bought different maps – not just the ANWB A to Z but also the local, detailed maps. Although the junction system is notoriously simple, it does require some time to get used to. We also found that some signs were missing and there were a few issues with the same number being used twice quite close together. I did download the route planning app but without a data connection it only worked until you got lost or confused. Despite all this we got to our destinations with few problems and on lovely paths, although we may have covered more or less miles than we’d originally planned.

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I think that my next touring purchase will be a GPS that can be pre-loaded with routes and maps. It would also tell us where we’d been, which would be super as we’ve got no account of how may miles we did or where we actually went.

Touring Tips!

Family holidays can be challenging at the best of times. Add uncertain weather, physical exertion and map malfunctions into the mix and you could be looking at a disaster zone. Based on our couple of weeks away, the following are my recommendations for happy families on bikes:

Stop to smell the flowers – Cycle touring is rarely about blasting through onto the next destination but family touring is an altogether slower pace. Our longest day was 30 or 40 miles (we’re not sure – see ‘maps’ below) and we averaged about 5mph.

If you’re a parent you’ll know that everything is new and exciting to a three year old; stopping to talk about butterflies and point out the herons was lovely as it helped us see what was important and interesting to our son – he particularly loved stopping to pick flowers for us along the pathside, which made me look at weeds in a new way..

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Visit playgrounds – Playgrounds are great for a picnic lunch (we didn’t do this, but saw others and realised we’d missed something) and a run around if your child has been in the trailer for a while. Strong enticement to move on is needed, so be prepared..

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Watch out for other road or path users (all of them) – In India I had problems with cows and goats in the road but in the Netherlands the good quality infrastructure attracts people on all sorts of vehicles. We had some challenges keeping our little one of the ‘right’ side of bi-directional paths. Scooters and tiny little cars (not really sure what they were) are also allowed on Dutch paths, which took us by surprise too.

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Pack snacks, and then some more – as I’ve said before, you can’t underestimate the fundamental importance of snacks. I put both good and naughty snacks in every bag, having learnt from painful experience. Next time I’ll also be packing some pre-mixed gin and tonics.

Just Do It – I wish we’d done this when our son was younger!

There are some great blogs out there about cycling touring, Travelling Two being the most comprehensive. Their son was born in 2012 so their most recent blogs and films have included an additional passenger – it’s a great source of information and inspiration!

Happy Cycling!

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Day trips and detours

With rain threatening we decided to spend the weekend in Rotterdam, rather than risk damp days of cycling towards our eventual destination of Bruges. From Rotterdam my husband visited ‘Vermeer Central’ (Delft), whilst my son and I spent a rainy afternoon in the brilliant Klieder cafe playing pirates and catching up on caffeine. The following day we pedalled out to Kinderdijk, a Unesco World Heritage Site, to explore the beautiful windmills and unique landscape. image Also lovely was seeing this little girl, peddling her cargo bike in her pink party dress. image The Waterbus back to Rotterdam was a revelation in cycle transportation – no hassle, no peculiar storage compartments, no weird booking systems or emotionally draining conversations – we just rolled on and parked up. Glorious. image Our journey to Bruges provided us with an opportunity to practice our trailer folding and multiple bicycle handling skills. Trailers are not allowed on trains, but our folded trailer didn’t cause a stir and both legs of the journey (Rotterdam to Antwerp, then Antwerp to Bruges) went smoothly with the application of ‘naughty treats’ (crips and chocolate, the top of the treat tree). image Our one day trip from Bruges was an evening to Damme – a lovely ride out on the canal; if you want to eat there you’ll have better luck during the day as the whole of Damme seemed to be keen to head home at 6pm. image image The return journey from Bruges to Amsterdam started to become epic when we circumnavigated the entire city before reaching the train station (a 10 minute ride through town for normal families). A full train, a cancelled train, some Belgian bureaucracy, poor bike storage and a huge pile of naughty treats later we got back to Amsterdam. image The following morning it transpired, about 30 mins after we left our hotel, that Mr Elephant had decided to seek asylum in the Netherlands and had hid under the bed. This caused some chaos and a less than leisurely ride to the ferry terminal after he was recaptured.image Despite again following the red (direct) route paths we could ride together as a family, entertaining the herons along the way.. image image

Round and about in Rotterdam

We’ve reached Rotterdam, deciding to bypass Delft by bike and return on the train tomorrow instead.

We headed out of The Hague via a laundette where we’d dropped some washing the night before; I’ve recently been to the inaugural Cycle Touring Festival and been inspired by travelling tales that included not washing for 18 consecutive days, but it seems that not all of this household came prepared to wear the same clothes even for just a week..

Once we’d retrieved the laundry and purchased emergency fruit we launched into the morning traffic. Despite the proximity of trams and riding in the dooring zone we made it out safely into canal-land again quickly.

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Our little one one has taken to shouting ‘It’s a path! It’s a path!’ as soon as we get out of a city centre so he can get out of his trailer and onto his bike. He seems delighted to be cycling along with us, despite a few crashes and a fairly constant stream of instructions to ‘stay by the grass/follow Mummy’ as his lane management is still on the shaky side.

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Coming into Rotterdam we experienced another wonderful, wide and flowering cycle way adjacent to the motorway – perfect for a snack or a nap.

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Roundabouts here are glorious things. I’ve seen quite a few variations in the last few days but there is a significant similarity across them all – you know you’ll come out the other side alive. With a whole path and crossing system for bikes you just don’t mix with the traffic on a large roundabout. On a smaller roundabout your crossing points are set back from the motorised traffic and it seems like you have priority in some places – David Hembrow has written extensively about Dutch roundabout design here if you want the full picture.

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Rotterdam is a large, busy and vibrant city with plenty of motorised traffic but with infrastructure like this we felt safe cycling our sleeping child into the city centre. I can’t give a higher commendation than that.

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Easy in The Hague

I didn’t think I’d admit this but we find ourselves in the ‘EasyHotel’ in The Hague tonight, because it was, as the name suggests, just the easiest thing to do. Gone are the days when I’d happily try every hostel in town to get the best bargain, Lonely Planet in hand, and ready to do some polite British-style haggling. A small child repeatedly shouting ‘I want a treat/wee/sandwich’ drills through the brain like no other noise and is something I’m prepared to avoid at any cost. After last night’s near torture of finding a hotel late in the day I saw a familiar orange banner and dispensed with the attempt to find the rather more rustic accommodation we were heading for..

The anticipated 15 miles from Leiden to The Hague was extended due to another couple of missing junction numbers and my husband’s desire to see ‘something historic’ on the way (I’m not sure what this was as I wasn’t really listening – I was trying to take a photo of a roundabout at the time). Nonetheless, it’s been another glorious day of beautiful canalside views, easy cycling and my first experience of ‘kroketten’ – a breadcrumbed, deep fried cheese/cream sauce filled snack: it’s not a health food.

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The infrastructure shots of the day are 1) a stretch of parking protected path, which is simple and effective and 2) a cycle path adjacent to the pedestrian pavement, which was a challenge for our son to understand.

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In ‘other infrastructure’ news – we’ve seen quite a few playgrounds on our travels in recent years but we loved this one in The Hague today for it’s imaginative use of shapes, rather than just formal ‘play equipment’ you tend to see in the UK. We were rather impressed by the queueing technique on display too..

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Leiden to The Hague: something in the region of 20 miles in around 4 hours (including a brief stop for lunch).