Rayleigh to Cologne

It was always going to be difficult to top London – Paris. You just can’t beat cycling between two of the world’s most vibrant capitals,  riding past icons such as the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.

So instead we opted for something different – cycling to Germany and in particular the cathedral city of Cologne. We would begin our journey in Rayleigh Essex, cycle up to Harwich, catch the overnight ferry to the Hook and then follow the course of The Rhine from Rotterdam all the way to the Gothic enormity of Cologne Cathedral. The Rhine would be our constant companion, hills would be a distant memory.  A total cycling distance of  331 miles over five days.

Day One: Rayleigh to Harwich: 62 miles

Day Two: Hoek van Holland to Woudrichem: 66 miles

Day Three: Woudrichem to Arnhem:  74 miles

Day Four: Arnhem to Duisberg: 74 miles

Day Five: Duisberg to Cologne: 55 miles.

Day One: Rayleigh to Harwich: 62 miles

Meet up at Rayleigh Station – eight of us making the trip.  Weather good, quite cool, perfect for cycling.

Only at Maldon - and already in the pub!

Only at Maldon – and already in the pub!

First stop, the excellent Blue Boar in Maldon – good beer, chat and swifts wheeling overhead. Cycling only spoilt buy a couple of idiots in an MG (of all things!) who squirted something at us as they went past. Then north to Colchester (with very busy and aggressive traffic) to enjoy a stop at the Goat and Boat –  it’s already turning into a pub crawl!

Next up was chips on the front at Manningtree closely followed by another pint at the Crown overlooking the estuary. Dark skies appearing overhead, but thankfully kept dry – on through Dovercourt and then to Harwich. Some great historic buildings in the town and various references to Samuel Pepys the diarist who was MP for the town from 1685 – 88.

With several hours to kill before we could board the ferry it was all looking rather closed until we stumbled upon The Alma pub in one of the historic side streets. Looking barely changed since Napoleonic Times we managed to squeeze all our bikes into the small courtyard (which was slowly emptying of drinkers due to the cold evening) and made our way inside where a 26 hour Sea Shanty Marathon was taking place.

At Harwich before our Sea Shanty debut.

At Harwich before our Sea Shanty debut.

Quite an extraordinary atmosphere with some very good (and very poor) renditions! We ordered a spread of hams, seafood and nachos and then, fully refreshed by several pints and warmed by the unusual atmosphere, were invited to take part in the event.

So before we headed off to the ferry up popped eight cyclists in shorts and helmets for a performance of ‘Nelson’s Blood’. We didn’t put on a bad show considering  the brief rehearsal with one of the organisers just moments beforehand!

The general lyrics flow around the line ‘Oh, a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm’. Pity we weren’t heading to France where it might have come in useful! Great fun and a bizarre start to our cycling adventure.

Day Two: Hoek van Holland to Woudrichem: 66 miles

Slept really well on the ferry – North Sea as still as a mill pond overnight. Awoke at 6.30am to the ferry’s tannoy broadcasting the song ‘Be Happy’.

Went up for early morning coffees art then down to the bikes on the car-deck. Misty and murky outside as we rode along the Rhine and into Rotterdam. Thought being a large port it would be a bit of a dump, but an interesting place – the old city a mix of canals, old buildings (and even a windmill) and the new city with a wealth of creative and surprising modern architecture – almost like an experimental theme park in places.

Cycling at Kinderdijk

A land made for cycling: Kinderdijk, Holland

Rotterdam is huge and the suburbs seemed to go on for ever. After crossing the river (I lost count of how many ferries we travelled on during this trip!) to Kinderdijk the landscape transformed into a world of windmills, water-lilies and nesting grebes. Geoff Brindle and I quickly fell behind, taking it all in. Soon we were crossing the Rhine again – this time into the Netherlands oldest city Dordrecht.

Interesting sight as we crossed – a huge full-size replica of Noah’s Ark built by a Dutch businessman following a dream and intended as a tourist attraction as well as having a religious theme. He’s even populated it with model animals – and apparently a menagerie. It is sea-worthy already – although plans to bring it to London for the Olympic Games and reported on NBC don’t appear to have materialised!

As we left the ferry we met up with an ex-pat now working for Fokker and followed him on his bike (with girlfriend on the back) into the town square where we  downed a couple of beers.  Some great rides through the countryside that afternoon – it really is the best country in the world for cycling –  every inch of the Dutch landscape is used for something – be it goats, sheep, farms or allotments,  yet they still find room for a comprehensive network of cycle-routes.

Suffered my usual second-day blues and began to feel rather light-headed, eventually coming off the bike as we rode through a small town. It was all down to lack of concentration – too busy looking around and let myself drift into the gutter. Took quite a tumble and the person whose house it was also came out to check I was OK. A grazed knee but pride damaged more than anything!


The Rhine at Woudrichem

Then onto the outskirts of Woudrichem where we stopped for cokes and ice-creams before entering the historic centre and our hotel overlooking a riverfront lined with old barges which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Blackwater or Crouch.

Ate an excellent meal in the old and characterful hotel and then wandered down to the nearest local bar for a bizarre few drinks mixing with the locals, drinking smoking and telling us how their boozer was the bar used in the Dutch version of the Tv programme Dr Martin. All quite surreal – and somehow one of the dutchman (who was quite a few sheets to the wind) ended up buying us all a drink. Two nights in a row in very unusual bars!

Day Three: Woudrichem to Arnhem:  74 miles

We are very lucky to have a chap called Chris Anderson with us on these trips as he’s happy to drive the back-up van carrying all the gear and also parking up along the route to provide, teas, coffees, snacks and lunch. It makes a huge difference, not only because we don’t have to carry panniers, but it’s fantastic to pull up after a morning’s cycling to find a fantastic spread waiting to be devoured.

Woudrichem ferry

Leaving Woudrichem another crossing of the Rhine

Usually Chris has someone with him (it would be a lonely job otherwise) but for this trip we are doing a stint in the van and this morning was my turn. So time for a brief stroll around the historic centre of Woudrichem before seeing everyone off on the ferry to Gorinchem.  More ferries – in one queue an enterprising young chap was selling cherries, so bought some to add to the lunchtime feast.

Met the rest of the group for a teastop in the beautiful old town of Buren – where Chris and I got a brew going on the outskirts overlooking some immaculately tended allotments. Lunchstop was just to the south of Leersum – plenty to see while setting up for lunch – a crane (or possibly a stork) flying nearby and a large airship which then drifted out of sight.

Back on the bike in the afternoon for the ride to Arnhem – still joyous cycling through Holland and quite a bit of woodland during this section. Had hoped to have time to visit the war cemetery and museum at Oosterbeek, just to the west of Arnhem but was already gone five by the time we reached this point. That’s the downside of cycling with a group I guess with more time I’d have spent more time here to find out more about Operation Market Garden in 1944.

Carried on into Arnhem and down to the riverfront for a couple of beers before cycling to the StayOkay hostel (at the top of a hill of course!) Busy youth hostel – and noisy with a school party staying over – so after a beer we walked down into Arnhem for the evening. Being a Monday evening it was mostly closed, but we managed to find one restaurant – Spice – which agreed to stay open for our hungry team.

Day Four: Arnhem to Duisberg: 74 miles

The Bridge Too Far

Crossing the ‘Bridge too Far’ at Arnhem

Breakfast at the hostel surrounded by lots of excited children, then through the outskirts of the city before heading across the ‘Bridge too Far’ – the John Frost Bridge named after the British Lt Col , who along with 740 men, held it for four days following operation Market Garden.

Following the Rhine once more and crossed the border into Germany after around 15 miles – but with no official sign we barely noticed it. Incredibly hot today – in the 80s – and a flat landscape made up of power stations, intensive farm sheds and wind-turbines. All drinking as much water as possible and a lunchtime stop by the river very welcome, although all struggling to find some shade.

A Woolly Mammoth (presumably to mark an archaeological find?) provided an unusual photo-stop on route on what proved to be a frustrating section with two punctures for the team – and me falling off again – lack of concentration once more and grabbed the front  brake on gravel and went over the bars – never a good idea.

Other interesting sites on route including the steelworks which has made the Ruhr such a powerhouse, plus a nuclear power station at Kalkar, which had been transformed into a amusement park –  ‘Wunderland’. It was apparently going to be Germany’s first fast breeder nuclear reaction but following the wake of accidents such as Chernobyl had been cancelled and now is home to various attractions including a carousel and log flume as well as a swing ride fitting inside the old cooling tower.

Very busy as we neared the outskirts of Duisberg, heavy lorries and not pleasant riding – and Chris struggling to find to the best route in – certainly not easy navigating on the bike having to constantly keep looking now at the Sat Nav. Duisberg not the most beautiful of cities with very few old buildings, but not surprising since it was a major target during WW2 because of its chemical steel and iron production. On one raid on 12/13 May 1943,  during the Battle of the Ruhr,  577 British Bombers destroyed the old city with 1599 tonnes of bombs leaving 96,000 homeless. By the time the war ended the city was in ruins.

Made straight for the youth hostel on arrival – our least luxurious of the trip, but perfectly fine – two large shared rooms and communal showers before heading into town by taxi to a student hang-out selling such delights as Banana Weiss (beer and banana!) and Elvis Burgers – did he ever perform in Duisberg?

Day Five: Duisberg to Cologne: 55 miles.

Dusseldorf Architecture

Amazing architecture in Dusseldorf

Can really tell we are cycling through the heart of the Ruhr with its steel plants and factories. Stopped for coffee in Dusseldorf. Some great modern buildings, an interesting city. Lots of twists and turns trying to get clear of the city, then back along our old friend for this journey – the Rhine – which has never been far away.

Sarnies and tea besides the river before the final push into the city, although distance-wise today was an easy one. Drinks in Erichberg en route before cycling into Cologne itself – passing the massive Bayer chemical plant as dark clouds brewed, then, as we crossed the river yet again, a distant sight of the massive gothic cathedral on the horizon. Not quite as dramatic as our first view of the Eiffel Tower cycling into Paris last year, but encouraging never the less.

Finish at Cologne Cathedral

The Finish at Cologne Cathedral

Headed straight for the Cathedral steps for photos then off to the Youth Hostel which was only a short walk away. (Pathpoint Cologne – Backpacker Hostel Allerheiligenstraße 15D-50668 Köln)

Then off into Cologne for traditional German food – pigs trotters, sauerkraut and potatoes – downed with beer before heading off to a bar and then discovering the Cologne wine festival was  in full swing. Lots of stalls selling German wine (the Reisling wasn’t too bad) and wandering jazz bands – great atmosphere. A final drink at a bar then back to the hostel.

It’s fair to say the arrival into Cologne wasn’t as euphoric as that into Paris a year beforehand. But it’s probably not fair to compare the two rides. Certainly cycling to Germany was no-where near as challenging as the ride to the French capital. The ride to Harwich was by far the hilliest – for the rest of the route the steepest climbs of the day are up the banks of the Rhine to board the ferries!

But physical challenge aside, this is a fascinating way to explore Holland and get an unusual look at the heartland of industrial Germany. As usual, as we loaded the bikes back on the van, I wished we were going further. Next stop – Berlin?!