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Day 1 - Calais to Dunkerque - 52 km

When your wife tells you that she'd like to do a lengthy bicycle ride with you over multiple days then you do it.

Planning for this was relatively easy. Take into account fitness and terrain and plot a ride that will be both interesting but not overly challenging in comparison to say cycling from Spain to Norway. Make the route relatively close so as to minimise travel logistics and design it around an area you've never been to before. The cycle route from Calais to Hook of Holland (hereafter referred to as HoH) ticks all of those boxes. It is not too lengthy and it is flat. Very very flat. Looking at the first edition of the route I planned on STRAVA the highest elevated point was 45 meters. As i discovered later, this climb was actually up an overpass that took us above an eight lane Belgian motorway.

Flat though the route may be, a good friend, Roger.P did point out that there was a reason that historically there were a lot of windmills dotting the Dutch landscape. Wind. So you can imagine what grabbed most of my attention in the days leading up to the ride. The wind forecast. A strong wind, if blowing from the normal direction that it does at this time of the year (from the south west) would actually be in our favour as we were heading north-east and subsequently we would have the wind pushing us from behind. You can imagine then my tension levels rising when, in the 4-5 days leading up to our departure the wind was actually blowing from the north-east and subsequently a headwind for us. I purposely kept this detail quiet from Mrs W.

The plan was a simple one. Catch a train to Dover, take the ferry to Calais and cycle to Dunkerque on the first day. Follow that up with cycle days to Oostende, then Gent, Antwerp where we'd have a rest day. Follow that with a cycle to Breda which is equidistant between Antwerp and Rotterdam and then the next day push onto Rotterdam before finishing with a days ride to The Hague and Hook of Holland where we'd catch the ferry to Harwich. From there take a train to London and then onto home in St Margarets.

Like all plans that look simple from the outside, this required quite a bit of logistical planning. Firstly pick a time of year where it is not going to be super hot or cold, the temperatures mild, and out of holiday season to minimise travel and accommodation costs. With that criteria in mind Spring seemed like the perfect answer. Then onto booking tickets for the trains and ferries. Once those were sorted and booked we had a definite start and end date. Then it was a matter of planning the actual route to be taken between cities followed by booking of accommodation. The cities themselves were chosen because the plan was to keep the intra day distances to around 50 km per day. Something manageable for us both.

Because one of us does a lot of cycling it was decreed he would carry the luggage and for this I chose the Surly Touring bike with panniers that has served me so faithfully since 2017. Kathryn chose her hybrid road/mountain bike with front end suspension forks and road tyres.

So, on May 15 we pushed off.

It was an early rise in order to get to Charing Cross in time for the 6.59 am train to Dover. This entailed rising at 5 am

and cycling 1 km to Twickenham station where we k new there were lifts that would be able to take us down to the platforms. As opposed to St Margarets station which is a mere 300 meters from home, but having no lift would mean both of us lugging our bikes down steps.

Arriving into Waterloo at 6.15 am we then cycled 2.5 km across the Thames to Charing Cross Station. Now riddle me this Batman. Station open, but not the toilets. That was our first observation. Second one was how many people who looked homeless were utilising the numerous power points around the departure concourse to charge their electronic devices. The 6.59 am looked to be on time. Here the first logistical lesson was learnt. Always take a look at where the train that you are catching is stopping. Transpires that the 6.59 from Charing Cross to Dover has its first stop at Waterloo East which is all part of the station from where we had just ridden. As clever wifey was quick to point out, this meant we could have probably left home later, which meant a longer sleep in. She wasn't wrong.

The train itself had toilets and was clean and was empty. Not a lot of people doing the commute out of central London at 7 am. It is actually quite a lengthy trip too. Just under 2 hours to get from Charing Cross to Dover. The combined cost of the tickets for the two of us came in at £98. I make mention of this because the train from Harwich to London which we were to take later in the trip and was of the same duration only cost 28£ for the two of us. As someone wiser than me pointed part of the reason for the higher expense of the outgoing train was that it stopped at Ashford International. A disembarkation point for anyone wanting to jump onto the Eurostar to Europe.

Arriving into Dover it was grey and damp. Not yet raining but you could feel it around the corner. The cycle from the station to the ferry port confirmed to me that Dover is definitely not going to be our new home. Everything looked as though it was long past its ''use by'' date. The dedicated shopping complex where we stopped at SuperDrug to buy some last minute pharmaceuticals, housed the only buildings that looked to have been built this century.

We arrived at the ferry check in at 9.30 am for a midday ferry and were asked by the cheery gent if we wanted to change to the 10 am departure. That was a question we both answered almost simultaneously with a definitive yes. This would mean we would hopefully be arriving into Dunkerque earlier than planned and not find ourselves out on the French roads as dusk approached.

The ferry itself was clean, boarding efficient, and our fellow clientele were strangely mostly non Anglo-Saxon. There was also what seemed to be a large contingent of armed forces personnel who I later discovered were off to do war games in Latvia with other NATO forces. Not a lot to do on a 1.5 hour ferry crossing other than to look out to the Channel as the wind picked up and wonder to yourself how much harder this first days ride might be. Especially as we were heading north and that was where the wind was coming from. Looking northwards as we approached Calais there was also a tasty collection of dark threatening clouds seemingly laden with moisture.

Almost on cue it started raining as we left the shelter of the ship. Things have changed since I was last disembarking from a ferry in Calais on a bicycle. Back in 2017 en route to Italy , I simply disembarked and followed the cars out of the port area. The French have probably had enough of cyclists being crushed by the multitude of heavy transport trucks in the area so these days you get a personal escort out of the area by following a small white van with flashing lights to a non-vehicular exit.

Once clear of the port we rode along a series of quiet country roads that took us through northern Calais suburbs and then onto a smattering of small towns and hamlets. An hour or so after we had started cycling, and with only a bacon bap aboard the ship to sustain us, we decided to stop for lunch in a lovely little town called Gravelines which is a commune that lies at the mouth of the river Aa 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Dunkerque. Avid readers of this blog will recall a photo I took in Northern France on route to Italy back in 2017 when I crossed the Aa and stopped to remember my mother whose initials are AA. Gravelines was formed in the 12th century around the mouth of a canal built to connect Saint Omer with the sea. As it was on the western borders of Spanish territory in Flanders it became heavily fortified, some of which remains.

The Gravelines Belfry is one of 56 belfries of Belgium and France that is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of its architecture and importance in the history of municipal power in the region.

It was 2.31 pm when we strolled into a brassiere on the town square and enquired about the possibility of lunch. In one corner 3 very french looking chaps were just about to start their main courses. We were therefore hopeful. Ultimately though It's the hope that kills you. The curt response we got in heavily French accented English was that the kitchen closed at 1.30pm. Drinks and bar snacks was all she could offer. No suggestion given as to where we might go to find lunch and not a lot of interest in actually wanting to serve us at all. Now, my guess is that if we had turned up at 2.45pm cycling in blue and white horizontal t-shirts with long cloves of garlic dripping from our baskets and asked the same question about lunch in perfect French then I am pretty sure we would've been shown to a table and given the full menu.

Welcome to France.

We took a drink anyway and then cycled around the town to look for food. Unable to find anywhere else open we eventually consoled ourselves with a packet of crisps and a Mars bar from the local supermarket which we ate on the steps of the local Marie (Town Hall) .

Leaving Gravelines it was northwards past a church frequented by Thomas Beckett when he holidayed in the area and onto Dunkerque some 20 km away. Enroute we passed through a lightly wooded area and recognised the distinctive sound of trees being chopped. In the area were several men pushing shopping trolleys laden with this freshly cut wood. It soon became apparent as we passed more men walking roadside that this strip of area between Calais and Dunkerque was home to many of the infamous immigrant camps. We also passed a bus depot where 20-30 immigrants sat road side looking very forlorn as a group of volunteers from an aid agency sought to assist them. All very sobering.

Arriving into Dunkerque 1-2 hours ahead of schedule as a result of the earlier ferry we checked into the hotel (very pleasantly surprised at the quality of accommodation - Best Western Cargo Hotel if you're ever in Dunkerque) and quickly decamped to the nearest bar for a pre dinner drink to celebrate ticking off the first day of our ride.

But for the dirt smeared windows of the train the views of London as we left Charing Cross were quite stunning.

Dover is definitely not going to be our new home. The short 5 km ride from the train station to the ferry terminal took us past many houses and establishments that looked long past their prime.

Boarding a ferry, whether by foot, in a car or on a bicycle always evokes within me a sense of adventure. A real feeling of ''going somewhere''.

Within the cavernous confines of the ships interior where all our vehicular neighbours were either camper vans or semi-trailers our bicycles looked very small.

The weather up until half an hour out of Calais had been grey by dry. That was clearly all about to change as headed into the port of Calais

The journey from Calais to Dunkerque unsurprisingly took us past many relics that served to remind of the conflict that took place here 80 years ago

The town of Gravelines with its picturesque square was an atheistically pleasing break from the monotony of the flat wind swept and periodically damp roads we had been cycling on since leaving the ferry.

The sign says it all. Quite why he chose to frequent this church wasn't really explained very well on the information boards under the belfry.

''Ol Barty'' to his mates seems to have done something worthwhile and important to the town of Dunkerque. I'll let you google his name and history.

Within Dunkerque there abounds many signs of the maritime heritage of the city

The views from the dining table weren't shabby either. Quite how the developer of the building on the left got permission to build that ugly monstrosity in the historic Old Town is quite beyond me. Compare - contrast.


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