“It’s gonna be cold.”
The duvet jackets were out on the quay, and Mike was shivering already. It had been Laurence’s idea, a trip to Berlin in time for the May Day parades, and I’d packed light. May is sunny, right? The wind whistled across the Essex flatlands, the three of us told increasingly forced jokes as we waited for the ferry to open its doors and the chill sunk gradually deeper into our bones.
The Dutch coast dawned bright and bracing – or rather, cold and windy. A gust blew into our faces as we rolled down the ramp and turned onto our route; great! The route took us up the coast from Hoek van Holland to the Ijsselmeer, so we’d spend the next two days receiving the full force from the sea. The coastal path had been my idea and I’d lobbied hard for it, in the face of Laurence’s original plan to go inland, so I kept quiet, sheepishly toed the line and hoped no-one noticed.
Fortunately I’d left the fine detail to Laurence, who took us away from the road network, up through the cyclepaths and sand dunes. I was amazed by how pleasant this could be – I normally stick to main roads – though my amazement was mixed with as lunchtime approached and the route encroached tauntingly close to a series towns, before swerving mockingly away just as I began to smell the pretzels.
Two days would pass this way – flitting between industrial seaports, bridges, dykes and blank open fields, across the windswept edge of the country I’d never quite managed to believe had extended an empire as far as the South Pacific. This northward leg culminated in the Afluitsdijk, a 30 kilometre causeway across the sea, which required riding as a tight group across the utter flatness, taking turns to be the windbreak, shielding the others from the spray until it was replaced by coffee and apple pie in the Dutch version of a run-down country pub, where ersatz Vermeers peeled off the walls and our myriad damp cycling clothes hung over the radiators. This was Zurich, that well-known Dutch settlement, distinguished from the de facto Swiss capital only by its lack of an umlaut. Here was where we would turn east, the wind finally at our backs, and ride along the German coast through the province of Friesland.
I had a secret, the reason why I’d wanted to come here. I’d read a book, The Riddle of the Sands, a turn of the 20th century piece of propaganda in which Germany were using this region to hide a secret fleet to invade Britain through Norfolk. The book was a wild success, Britain went into outcry and the Royal Navy relocated a large portion of their fleet to Scapa Flow to protect against the book’s imagined threat. The film, when it came, had a nefarious German sea captain slinking about in his steamer, his eminently available daughter (played by Jenny Agutter) who was always inexplicably cooped up on board, and a couple of plucky young Brits who were forever appearing with a “Tally ho, sorry to spy on you old chap, I’m just shooting duck” whenever the action got hot – before running back to Britain and taking Jenny with them. The main star though was the landscape: gorgeous, sun-drenched expanses of reeds, shimmering in the wind as classic sailboats swooped by. I’d been hooked: I’d wanted to go to Friesland.
At some point, Mike revealed unprompted that he’d read “this book called “The Riddle of the Sands” and had wanted to come here for a long time. At least it wasn’t only my own unvoiced reading habits that had brought us here. I felt sorry for Laurence, overruled by two literary romantics, dragged to a coast with its sun-drenched vistas replaced by a cloud of freeing rain, and a wind which, now it was at our backs, had dropped to a gentle cycling speed that was just sufficient to blow the rain along with us and leave us permanently shivering. We’d all come underdressed to some level, me the most, and day three saw us stop at a bike shop to stock up on warm clothes, only to find that in everyman Holland, dedicated cycling gear is only for a monied elite. We left, still shivering, clad in just a few extra-high end items which proved their inadequacy all too soon when, in the late morning, it started to snow.
It was in the German town of Leer that the fight left us. Plans were truncated: instead of Bremen we’d make for Oldenburg. A fresh wave of snowflakes blew past the window … actually, there was a youth hostel even closer at Bad Zwischenahn. How about going there? The stony faces said it all: we were going to Bad Zwischenahn. Head down, ignore the cold, ride strong, through and off, the cyclists’ chaingang. We were going to make it to the youth hostel if it killed us, and progress through chattering teeth suddenly didn’t seem so impossible anymore. Further progress definitely still seemed impossible when we arrived though, and became more impossible still when we checked in at the counter and received two more blows. The first was that the hostel didn’t have a drying room, the second that I’d left my wallet in Leer.
The next morning, cold as ever, the mood was low. A decision was finally reached: we wouldn’t be catching up yesterday’s shortfall, we’d be catching the train. Today would be a ride into Bremen, our yesterday’s target, followed by an afternoon spent drying out in cafes, sitting in the sun by the River Weser, wondering what all the fuss had been about. The next day would be the train ride: two days in one, travelling to Wittenberge to make up for our laxity, ready for one last bike ride to Berlin.
Our next stop was in the middle of one of Germany’s vast forests, at a single story concrete hut in a cluster of the same – a communist leftover that had been to far out for anyone to destroy. Our hosts were a hippy couple, downshifters from Hamburg, who now ran an animal sanctuary here, looking after rescued livestock – the husband explained when we met – to keep them from the abbatoir.
I looked suspicious. Laurence loved it.
“Here, have some vegan tea” the man said, sitting us down on the sofa for small talk. “I’m sorry, my wife is not home yet.” Grunts and howls emanated from the wall behind him. What were those? “Oh, those are my dogs. I think I will let them out now.”
Err, did he just say that? Apparently he did. He opened the door, the mutt ran angrily out …
… and bit Mike.
That all happened fast! The man was wrestling the dog to the ground, Mike was staring at his arm and all of a sudden, in walked the wife.
“Oh that dog is a pain in the ass, what did I tell you?!”
Judging by the look on Mike’s face he didn’t need to be told. Apparently his skin wasn’t broken so we didn’t need to end the trip with a race to town for a rabies jab – which meant we’d get the dubious benefits of this couple’s home cooking. The wife had already moved on from dog bites to what she would serve for tea: “I’m going to cook my special vegan stuff, everybody loves it!”
Mike already looked dubious.
Laurence and I both now looked dubious too, though not so dubious as Mike.
The final day finally brought good weather, and we sailed the warm tailwind for two hundred kilometres into Berlin in a celebratory mood. Who cared if we hadn’t ridden the whole way? Who cared if the rest of the trip had been grim? That was character forming, and we’d done it! A few photos by the Brandenburger Tor, a split for our respective digs and it was time to watch the parades, look around hipster city and kill time until the flights home.
One of those days I rode to the Polish border. The out and back trip, longer than any of our touring days, was done entirely in short sleeves, the early summer kissing my skin as if the week before had never been. I remembered though. All through miles of Central European plains and Brothers Grimm woods, I remembered. Friesland 2016, The Harrowing: I was there.