15 Apr Trip Diary – UK to Brussels
So five days in and so far so good. While I have wifi and a roof over my head, I thought it was about time to update you on the trip so far.
On Monday, I made it in record time down to Dover for my ferry to France. I say ‘record time’ though I’ve no doubt people have done it faster, but it was the quickest I had done on a 50kg bike. I made it to the port in a little over two hours. I was so ahead of schedule that I managed to board the earlier ferry just before 2 pm. It was pretty strange, to be honest, queuing up in the lanes, surrounded by huge lorries and cars packed with families going on holiday and me with my bike. A couple of families wandered over to talk to me and I got quite a mixed reaction. Ever since I started telling people what I was planning to do around Christmas last year, I got one of two reactions: either a complete conversation killer as people just nodded in a mix of disbelief and doubt or people were genuinely quite interested. Most at the port fell into the second group although one elderly couple simply walked away with a wave and a sigh.
On to the ferry
Anyone who’s ever boarded a ferry will know that the ramp going on to the ship looks slightly inclined. Well, I can tell you that it’s not; it’s bloody steep and it moves around. Being on a bike, I was called first to board. Determined not to fall off in front of hundreds of people, I sweated and pumped my way up until I rolled over the top and on to the smooth surface of the ship’s cargo deck where I had the whole deck to myself. I took the opportunity to skid around until some mean deckhand told me off. I’ve never taken a bike on to a ferry but was under the impression it would be stored away somewhere, but alas, no. It was actually secured by what looked like an old washing line to an unsecured ladder lying alongside one of the walls. Still, when I returned to the bike two hours later, it hadn’t moved so I guess their system worked.
Scared in France
Rolling off the ramp at the other end was much easier than boarding, but I was immediately amongst the lorries and cars tumbling across the port. I cruised through customs; in fact, no one was in any of the booths so I just cycled through, expecting to see blue lights chase me, but before I knew it I was heading out of Calais towards Dunkirk. I’ll admit I was pretty scared. Alone in my first country, trying to remember to ride on the opposite side of the road. There was a small thought in the back of my mind saying, Turn around, what the f@*k are you doing, you can’t do this. But I hid it away and the farther I got from the port the more it receded to the back of my mind. It still keeps popping up though. Maybe it will never quite go away.
The rest of the day was uneventful, following an easy route out of Calais to my planned stop in an area of farmland around 15km outside Dunkirk. I found a corner of a field and waited until dusk before setting up my tent and cooking dinner. I didn’t sleep well, a combination of strong coffee too late and being, well, pretty scared. But, come morning, I was up at 6 am to avoid detection and after a quick breakfast of some of the worst porridge I have ever had (I had to force it down), I was back on the road and heading to Dunkirk.
After getting a little lost in the maze of streets in Dunkirk, I made my way out of the city to the border and cruised into Belgium, heading for Ypres about two hours away. Europe has no real borders but the remains of previous border gates are still there, only now they are fixed upright and the only guard is a stone statue. Now, I was in the land of the bicycle and Belgium’s love affair with the bicycle became immediately obvious. Not only did I start seeing more and more bikes but there are good, wide bike paths on nearly every road. My joy is difficult to describe unless you have ridden a bicycle on main roads with maybe six inches of tarmac that’s normally all broken up and always only a few inches away from cars and lorries speeding by. But now, those same lorries and cars were three feet or more to my left and my lane was at least four foot wide, the roads were flat and the paths well maintained and I cruised along just enjoying the scenery.
Belgium’s love affair with bikes extends beyond what I thought possible, cycle lanes are literally everywhere and cyclists have the right of way over cars. It’s like the bike is king and not once did anyone cut across me; in fact, they often waved me on first, blocked the road and allowed me to cross safely with a nod and a smile. If you want to ride a bike, come to Belgium. The only shock I got was when a moped whizzed by. Apparently, mopeds are permitted in the cycle lanes too. Most of the day was spent cruising fast roads in complete safety. I stopped around midday at an Aldi store to pick up a few things and get shouted at. Well, I say shouted at, but it was a stern talking to. I was queuing when the cashier started talking very fast in French (it could have been Flemish or something else, to be honest) and looking in my direction. I had no idea what she was saying, so I did what any unsure Englishman would do: I ignored her. Turns out the lane was closing but I was oblivious to this. After more stern words, I simply looked around pretending not to notice. This did the job as she walked in my direction holding a small sign. I gave her my best ‘hello/sorry for being stupid’ smile and my best, Pardon madam, je suis Englaise.
I spent the rest of day touring Ypres town, which is incredibly beautiful. If you know your history, you’ll know that Ypres was the centre of fierce fighting during World War I and there are reminders everywhere. From huge monuments in the town to small graveyards hidden in the countryside, all a potent reminder of what happened here 100 years ago. I cycled out of the town, passing cemetery after cemetery of beautifully kept white headstones. I stopped at a few and read them. The ages of these soldiers and the sheer number of gravestones brought home just how horrendous it must have been to be standing where I was a century ago. Teenager after teenager, row after row. What hit me the most was just how many graves remain unknown. Most are just in remembrance of someone; their body was never found or was unidentified. I sat in the afternoon sun at a place called Hill 62, a graveyard for Canadian soldiers and the spot of fierce fighting to defend Ypres. I was the only one there. It really was quite moving to look over the surrounding countryside, trying to imagine what they went through.
Camping amongst history
That night, I camped in the woods about 20km east of Ypres. It was the only place I could find and despite the ‘no camping’ signs, I took my chances and again waited for nightfall before setting up camp. Early the next day, I hit the road and headed out, again on some great cycle paths, toward Brussels. I knew I wouldn’t make it to the city in one day so I enjoyed the ride. In fact, it was so good that I missed my turning and ended up cycling 8km more before I realised. But to be honest, I didn’t mind. I turned around and got to see the whole lot again. I came through a number of big towns that afternoon and by 7 pm, I still hadn’t cleared them and hadn’t found anywhere to camp. With little choice, I kept on going until I spied a small forest about 2km off the road around 8 pm. To say this place was spooky is an understatement. The entrance to the forest was guarded by a huge burnt-out house with small graves in the garden. It made the hairs stand up on my neck but with little choice and fading light, I pitched my tent in a small clearing, trying my best to stay hidden from the roads and footpaths. It was dark by the time I had supper and I slept quite well despite the feel of the place. I was awoken around 2 am by something rustling through the dead leafs but it soon stopped. I told myself it must have been a deer and hid in my sleeping bag and drifted back off to sleep.
Into the city
I made Brussels by midday on day four, 252km from my home and where I write this now. The road in started fine, with the usual wide cycle paths but they disappeared 20km from the city and I was back amongst the fast-moving traffic. I saw no other cyclists and thought maybe I shouldn’t be on this road but the police passed me a couple of times and kept going so I figured all was okay. The city itself is beautiful, if not confusing for a simple Englishman like me. The street names are long and complicated and the whole place is a maze. I ditched riding the bike for pushing it and soon found myself weaving through people on the main shopping street. Everyone looked well and smelled great. I was quite the opposite. It took an age to find the tourist information but when I eventually did I was told the only campsite in the area was closed until July but that there was one 65km east (back where I’d come from). It was 5 pm and I had little chance of making it before nightfall so I scanned the city looking for a quite doorway or alley to sleep in, to no avail. This city is alive and kicking 24/7 so I headed for the nearest hostel and got myself a room.
It’s now the start of day five and I’m just about to leave Brussels and head northeast into Germany. Hopefully, I can make the border by Sunday/Monday. Hostels aren’t really my thing but at least I got a free breakfast this morning and I’ve already taken two showers and stacked my pockets with little parcels of bread, sugar, salt, and anything else I could hide away.
Wish me luck, I’m gonna need it to get out of this place. Brussels is beautiful but I’m not a city boy. Take me back to the countryside!
This diary entry covers dates from 10th – 14th April, 2017
For more pictures of my ride through Belgium, visit the gallery page or click here
Edited by – Emer Garry