AMSTERDAM TO MANCHESTER
Being such a short journey I imagined that I wouldn’t need a map and I was proved, well, partially correct. With a compass as a means of confirming my direction and by following road signs and asking various people I happened to come across, I didn’t go far wrong and was quite surprised at how easy it was to find my way.
Setting off from Amsterdam brought with it mixed emotions; I was leaving a place that I had called home for the last three years, where I had met some amazing people and where I had enjoyed some super happy times. I was thus quite sad to leave but I was also equally excited to be heading back to England.
Arriving over the border with Belgium, I stopped for a break and some lunch before heading back south where I followed an extremely long, pot-holed road towards Antwerpen. It’s a strange little curiosity that as soon as you cross the border into Belgium, the quality of the road deteriorates just as swiftly as the dialects change. I suppose that’s the great thing about this continent; there’s always something new around the corner.
Arriving in Antwerp, I chose to camp on the edge of the city behind a power station before continuing on through the city the next morning towards Ghent.
I cycled through the tunnel under the river Scheldt and followed the main highway for the rest of the morning.
Ghent is a beautiful city with a great vibe. Full of canals and beautifully restored architecture, and of course the famous Belgian pot holed roads and cobbles. These were so bad that I decided to walk my bike a lot of the time just to nurse it over the worst of it. I took a Belgian beer at a cafe and relaxed with a bit of people watching and reading.
It was my intention to rent a room in a hotel for the night but as with most things, I changed my mind and opted for a bed in a hostel. In fact, in the end I changed my mind once again and decided to find somewhere to camp. I guess I just couldn’t bring myself to pay in order to sleep, so to speak.
The following morning, I travelled back into the city to have another look around before finding a road that led west towards Bruges. This road followed the course of a canal the entire way, and this being Belgium, the scenery wasn't exactly exhilarating.
I developed a system of resting my kindle on my handlebar bag thus allowing myself the curious habit of reading whilst cycling which kept me entertained for large stretches of the ride. The only thing I had to look out for were scantily clad, lycra wearing cyclists zooming past at 40km’s per hour in the opposite direction. Thankfully, the road was sufficiently wide enough not to warrant any accidents along the way.
Eventually, I came to Bruges itself, and having cycled into the old medieval centre, decided this was as good a time as any to sample a Belgium beer.
The city was stunning to say the least, but it has been renovated so much over the last century in order to make it look exactly how it once would have looked, that, it took a little bit of the authenticity away. Okay, I know most things need a little renovation from time to time due to general wear and tear, but Bruges it seems has visited a plastic surgeon on one occasion too many. It was so obvious that it took a little bit of the shine off for me and reminded me of the toy towns I had cycled through earlier.
As I neared the French border and Dunkirk, I noticed some dark and suspicious clouds overhead and so elected to throw my rain gear on just in case. No sooner had I done this than it rained so heavily I could hardly see. My gear worked a treat but for one small mistake; I forgot to pull my super expensive waterproof/bullet proof gloves up into my jacket arms, and so they failed, quite miserably. Other than that, I was as dry as an un-buttered slice of toast.
After a bit of wandering and generally getting lost in and around the small villages that dot the countryside, I finally reached the French border. Whilst I was very happy to have reached this milestone, I did feel a pang of sadness that Europe was almost behind me. I couldn’t reminisce for too long however as I still had a way to go until I reached the outskirts of Dunkirk and I still needed to find somewhere to camp.
I thought that, this being the countryside, I would find ample opportunities to camp but this proved simply not to be the case. The road that I now found myself cycling on bordered a canal for its entirety with a fence on the left separating it from the farmland beyond.
By this point, being completely dark and with no one around, I would usually opt to just pitch my tent anywhere and be away at the crack of dawn, but there didn’t seem to be space even for that. I kept on searching and searching until finally, after I thought I was never going to find somewhere, I saw a small dirt road leading through some tree’s on the left hand side.
It looked like a large park bordered on all sides by trees. It didn’t seem to belong in the area but I did feel thoroughly blessed to have spotted it. I scanned the area a little more, but as I couldn’t see further than my head torch allowed, I opted to take my bike back out and a little further down a dirt road and into a small opening. I was saved!
Arriving in Dunkirk the next morning, I found myself wanting to try some French food. I knew however from previous experience that it was best just to get to the port first as you never know what might happen.
I had imagined the port would be in the city and after a lot of questions realised that, well, it wasn’t.
I found my way to the ‘entrance’ which wasn’t so much an entrance as just a very large motorway infested with trucks. I then examined a map on a board detailing the various harbours and realised that the passenger terminal was pretty much at the end. Why is this always the case? Each terminal was numbered something like 2200 – 3400 and 3500 – 4200 with about a 2km ride in between.
Mine, I was happy to note was something like 7200 – 8200. Oh what a joy. In all it took me another hour and a half and about another 20km’s to get there, arriving about 20 minutes before the ferry was due to depart. I was mightily glad I didn’t succumb to gastronomic temptation.
As I saw the white cliffs from afar, I felt a huge pang of relief to be back home in England. Of course, it had only been six days since I had left Amsterdam, but it had been close to a year since I had been home and after the two hour ferry crossing I was extremely eager to get cycling again.
I immediately received my first swift honk on the horn from a disgruntled driver because I had begun to cycle on the wrong side of the road. I must get used to cycling on the ‘correct’ side I thought. Oops.
Cycling in England it turned out, would be a very different prospect altogether than cycling on the continent. There were simply no shoulder's anywhere to cycle on whatsoever. Add in some extremely steep hills, plentiful thrusts of wind and an endless convoy of trucks and you have a recipe for a flattened fish.
I immediately, and with some excitement, began to pitch my tent, hauling my bags inside before laying down to relax and read my book.
I had a blissful feeling of a job well done and sweet, albeit lethargic contentedness. It was only after two or three minutes however that I was startled by one of the most wretched, overpowering and thunderous noises that I have ever heard. It sounded like Concorde was flying overhead and was so painful that I couldn’t even read, let alone sleep.
There would be intervals of two minutes or so, but then the alarm would last for five minutes. It was utterly excruciating. I even tried to stuff tissue in my ears but to no avail and so, with some hesitation, decided to pack up and search for a quieter spot.
I later found out that I had set up camp across the road from Dungeness Nuclear power station.
I continued on my way and arrived in Brighton the next day having accomplished stage one of my little journey home.
One night, cycling along the south coast to Brighton, I found myself once again frantically looking for a place to lay my head. Having cycled down some smaller roads towards the sea, I found a strange patch of land that wasn’t fenced and so decided this was the place I would use.
Resupplied and thoroughly refreshed, I left Brighton four days later heading west, again along the coast, turning inland towards the South Downs. It was here that, finding somewhere to camp became somewhat easier but conversely, more difficult to find water as there wasn't as many houses or businesses around.
I was very excited to arrive in Winchester the next day as I had read a fair bit about its history and role in various events of the past and was thoroughly awed by its cathedral and other little points of interest.
Keeping in line with my historical tour through England, I visited pound land and acquainted myself with two £1 bars of Toblerone, some filter tips and a pack of lighters.
From Winchester I cycled west towards Salisbury, another ancient medieval town full of history, but stopped short of it as I found just the perfect place to camp; ample room, safe, quiet and free from nettles. Simply put, perfect. It’s not often that you find these places and so, when I did, I always took advantage.
From Salisbury, I cycled north fearing that I would end up on busy A roads. As it happened, I found myself cycling through pleasantly rolling countryside.
The next day, I cycled through two towns as diverse in their appearance as they are in their history. Where Cirencester is beautifully rendered, architecturally speaking, Swindon is downright ugly.
I have realised that, whichever town you seemed to visit in England at least, the center of each town is almost always identical; identical shops, identical people, almost identical pubs. It’s as if all towns come off a kind of town conveyor belt.
I continued through the beautiful Cotswolds region before heading north west taking me around Birmingham and through Worcester and the Shropshire hills. It was here where I found a nice forest park in which to camp for the evening.
The next day was spent passing through the small towns south of Manchester. This evenings campsite was to be found behind a village tennis court in Audlem. I asked several people if it was okay, and they all told me it was no problem. I must say it did feel nice to have permission for a change.
With each passing town; Middlewich, Holmes Chapel, Northwich, I could feel I was getting closer to home. From the accents, the character of the places through to the familiar road signs and buses, it all reminded me of where I had come from. I was indeed very happy and after another couple of hours and a phone call with my friend, I was in Altringham where a warm embrace and a pint of ale awaited.