Two weeks ago I decided to cycle to Cologne to see some friends. I wanted to escape boris-land for a time, and was curious how fast I could do the 730-ish km route. I had cycled to Cologne on the way to Turkey in 2017 and remember that I was too scared to wild camp anywhere, and struggled with my heavily-laden bike and with the gloomy weather in Belgium. I rushed in the end, eager to meet up with my friend, and only started to enjoy the cycling further south on the Rhone and the Rhine. Anyway, I wondered how it would be different this time, and how my attitude to cycling adventures might have changed. Here is a brief overview of my route and experience to those interested.
Wednesday 22nd July Bristol-Binfield 81 miles/130 km (not including train 20 miles)
Set off from Bristol later than intended at almost 9 and take the Bristol to Bath path then further on Route 4 along the canal all the way to Devizes where the route goes back onto roads. Pass through Bradford-on-Avon and Avoncliffe, the route is very pretty and flat although the gravel path is not suitable for my road bike with 25mm tyres. As a result, the route is incredibly slow and I stop for lunch at Bowerhill, just before Devizes. Uphill on the canal path to Devizes town then it’s a relief on my hands and wrists to get back onto the road through the North Wessex Downs. Many quiet small roads before I join the A4 just before Hungerford, then pass through Newbury late afternoon and onwards towards Reading. I want to meet my friend in Binfield for dinner and catch up so I take a train from just west of Reading to Bracknell and cycle the 15 minutes or so to Binfield.
Thursday 23rd July Binfield-Lympne 109 miles/175 km
Leave at 8am and cycle through Ascot, noted in my diary as ‘posh-land’ with its Royal race course and huge gated community houses. Fairly boring cycling the morning until the Surrey hills with some degree of wildness. Stop in a field for elevenses of oat cakes and peanut butter and lie down in the sun for a time. Continuing on, I skirt Gatwick airport and then stop in East Grinstead to buy gloves, an enormous relief for my hands and wrists. Unfortunately the only gloves that are my size are a patriotic white red and blue, though not a union jack, in which case I would have taken sore wrists. Next pass through Tunbridge Wells, another place that is for some reason royal, and various small towns that are increasingly affluent as I move into Kent. Enjoy this rolling green countryside and the pretty villages and houses with typical Kent Oast houses. Realise I don’t have anything for dinner and I pass through several villages where the one shop is closed so I ask I guy where there is a shop, and he directs me to a town, so I take a slight detour north and stop at a supermarket to buy pasta. Cook and eat on a nearby bridlepath. Continue on, stopping to watch the brilliant red sunset over fields. Attempt a bivvy in a field but there’s no flat area, and cut my leg on barbed wire climbing over the stile. Eventually bivvy in a field nearby, outside the village of Lympne. On the way i pass Port Lympne Safari Park and as I bed down in my nearby field I hear various big animal cries (elephant?).
Friday 24th July Lympne-Lombardsijde-Bad 38 miles/62 km
Wake around 6.30 and leave the field, saying good morning to a few dog walkers on the way. This field had a ‘private land, keep out’ sign on it but there seem to be various people using it as a public footpath. Cycle largely downhill to the coast and along the sea front to Folkestone, appearing in the morning gloom fairly run down and desolate like sea side towns often do. An unexpected hill between Folkestone and Dover catches me off-guard and I’m not enthusiastic about it as I haven’t yet had by breakfast and tea, though I should have remembered that Dover is surrounded by hills. Descend to Dover beach and eat breakfast and make tea. Then sit a while as I have time before my midday ferry. Some serious swimmers emerge from the sea, and I go for a swim for a while. When getting on the ferry I chat with another cycle tourist returning home to Lille. I’m very excited about the free fish and chips on board the ferry, then I lie down for the rest of the journey to Dunkirk. Last time I disembarked at Dunkirk on my 2017 trip it was midnight and I got immediately lost before being stopped by the police on the motorway. This time my fellow cycle tourist has google maps and is heading to Dunkirk so I follow her until we part ways. I follow the coastline through overly busy Belgian seaside towns during the summer holidays and there are walkers all over the cycle paths and I stop a few times and get covered in sand. Cook and eat dinner (rice, green beans and cheese) at the appropriately named Koksijde-Bad. Today I’ve cycled a third of the distance compared to yesterday but it has been harder for some reason. Continue on after dinner along the coast and attempt a bivvy under a boat in the docks at Nieuwpoort before deciding that it’d be uncomfortable and smelly, and then eventually settle down in the sand dunes at the nearby beach at ten or eleven. There is a group of teenagers hanging out and playing football not far from me but I can’t be bothered to walk further in the dunes. Just after midnight someone shines a torch on me and asks me if I’m ok, then what I’m doing, then why I’m sleeping on a beach etc and I tell them until they leave me alone. When they’ve gone I pick up my things and walk further along the beach until I’m more certain I won’t be disturbed, and go to sleep.
Saturday 25th July Lombardsijde-Bad – Ghent 51miles/83 km
Wake at 7.30 to rain on my bivvy and the sand that’s in everything now a gritty brown sludgy consistency. Quickly pack up and leave, cycling along the coast to the next big town of Oostende, where I stop under shelter in a cinema car park and make breakfast and tea. It’s raining heavily by now and the whole coastline and town is subsumed under a grey sheet. I have booked a bed in a hostel in Ghent so I have something to aim for and I know that tonight will be heavy rain all night. As I’m drinking my tea and looking out at the rainy gloom a man stops in front of me on the pavement and says something in Flemish. I say English? He looks right at me and says ‘It’s raining!’ I smile at him and say, ‘Yes, I know!’ I have a history of men warning me about the weather and I wrote about it here. This man looks at me a bit longer than is comfortable without saying anything so I say, ‘Ok, have a nice day!’ And he eventually walks off. I follow a canal to Bruges and stop for a coffee at a cafe. Continue on canal paths towards Ghent and the weather becomes hot and sunny. I’m on track to reach Ghent by late afternoon so I stop for a late lunch somewhere off the cycle path. As I get back on the path I lose the signs for Ghent and ask a pair of cyclists. They’re heading to Ghent too so I cycle with them. They’re a Belgian-American couple and have been in Florida but have come back recently to Belgium. He asks me where I’m going and I say Cologne and he says ‘but that’s 300km, when will you get there?’ I say maybe Monday or Tuesday. ‘But what’s your speed?’ I thought he was asking me about my gears so I say, it’s a double at the front and 9-speed at the back. ‘No, what’s your speed? How fast do you cycle?’ I tell him I don’t know. I’ve never worked out my speed in miles per hour. I do have an interest in seeing how many days it will take to get to x place, so I guess I am concerned with speed in this sense. But this interests me more in terms of how much comfort are you prepared to sacrifice to get from A to B in a given time, rather than how fast can you go given the best equipment knowing that you will have a comfortable sleep at the end of the day. Tonight though I am due a comfortable sleep in a hostel bed. Ghent is lovely and only regret is that I should have eaten more. I am over tired when I arrive in the hostel and eat a samosa and tin of soup for dinner but should have eaten over double that. The hostel is exceptionally clean and each guest has their own sanitiser spray to use on any communal surface they touch. There’s only one guest to each dorm, good for me as i can air my sandy things and wash my gear. Chat with the hostel manager and attempt an early night but don’t have a good night’s sleep because of the heat and mosquitos even though it’s raining all night.
Sunday 26th July Ghent to Lommel 79 miles/127 km
Leave the hostel at 10.30 and the way out of Ghent to the east is industrial and boring for 20 miles or so then i join an off-road cycle path along a train line to Antwerp so quiet and enjoyable cycling. Go through a tunnel under a river to get into Antwerp city and cycle directly through the shopping centre of the city and continue without stopping through the eastern part of the city where there are a lot of Arab shops and I stop to get bread and water. Chat a little to the Moroccan guy in Arabic and he asks me if I’ll go back to Palestine, and I say insh’allah, because who know’s what’ll happen more than a week ahead these days. After Antwerp I join a huge canal that runs all the way to Herentals and enjoy a very nice few hours in the sunshine. Stop for lunch of bread and peanut butter beside the canal and lie down for twenty minutes or so. Continue along the canal, turning north east on a different canal at Herentals. This canal is smaller and there are a lot of people fishing, with tents and gear. Stop at a lake to swim in the evening and eat dinner. Bivvy beside the canal just west of Lommel. Sleep fine but wake at 3.30 for some reason and look at the stars until I go back to sleep.
Monday 27th July Lommel-Cologne 96 miles/156 km
Wake at 7.30 to fine rain and move to under a tree to have breakfast. Find it hard to get going today, probably because of disturbed sleep. Lose the path and end up on the wrong side of the canal and the path turns into deep sand as I pass through Lommel Safari Park. Have to walk for half an hour or so until I can cross the canal and rejoin the cycle path. Cross into the Netherlands and various small towns and villages cycling into a headwind. Stop to buy food in a supermarket in a town called Horn and my card doesn’t work so I ask where I can get cash. A woman directs me: ‘go back and turn right, then pass by two windmills, and you’ll see it.’ Once I’ve got supplies I have half a lunch and resolve to have the rest once I get to Germany. Stop again for a proper lunch (bread and cheese and tomatoes) once I pass through the German border but push on as I’m getting bitten by ants. Immediately get lost on a gravel path in a forest but find the road and push on through quiet towns and villages into a headwind. Stop in a graveyard to fill up my water and as i’m rounding a hill I suddenly see the famous double spire of Cologne cathedral and the telephone tower and i know that I’m within reach. Descend past wind turbines into the city centre and to a hostel.