In the Netherlands – where I come from – you actually never see a pig, which is really strange, because, in a population of 16 million people, we have 12 million pigs. And well, of course, the Dutch can’t eat all these pigs. They eat about one-third, and the rest is exported to all kinds of countries in Europe and the rest of the world.

Christien Meindertsma

On Our Way

Over the Border

Old Haunts

Not a Lot Happened

Deltapark Neeltje Jans

Windmills

Capital Cities

Hellevoetsluis

On Yer Bike

Old Trams

Grevelingenmeer

Atomic

Coming Home

Ghent

Scheveningen

In late July and early August 2014 we took a family holiday in Holland, driving through the Channel Tunnel and staying at Center Parcs in Zeeland. We loved it !

On Our Way

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Time for our much-awaited family holiday in Holland. Technically it might be The Netherlands but then Holland is a bit of that anyway, isn’t it? Also, on an unrelated and rather pedantic technical point, this particular post isn’t about Holland at all, because it only describes our first day travels through England, France and Belgium. So sue me!

We’d booked a “well early” transit through the Channel Tunnel at 5:50 am, so we needed to be up even earlier. “Even earlier” proved to be nearly last night, so that we could get away at 1:45 am, thereby leaving ourselves 3 hours for the drive down. By the time we finished packing the previous night it was nearly 10 pm, which left us a whole 3 hours in bed, and I think the total amount of sleep gained between the four of us was approximately none at all. We stopped for coffee at the local BP garage on the way out to the motorway, remembering to drive to J14 on the M1 instead of our normal J13 because of the horrible roadworks.

It’s 120 miles or so from our house, which you ought to be able to do in a couple of hours except that 60 of those miles are around the M25 and therefore very unpredictable. Or predictably slow, depending on how you look at it. The usual problem this early in the morning is that there aren’t enough toll booths open at the Dartford Crossing, and so it proved this morning. All went fairly well until we reached the northern approaches to the bridge, at which point we ended up in a traffic jam and queued all the way over to the toll booths. Once we passed the toll booth all was plain sailing again, and we ended up down at the tunnel by about 4:15 am. It really only took us just over a couple of hours, but you can never be too sure. A little later in the morning and it would have been the morning rush hour, and therefore a nightmare disaster scenario of biblical proportions ( starring Charlton Heston and Elizabeth Taylor ).

For the first time I can remember, we were not offered an earlier train than the one we booked, and therefore we found ourselves with an hour to kill at the Folkestone Terminal. Not much was open there, to be honest, but everyone’s favourite coffee shop named after the First Mate in Moby Dick was open, so we retired for a coffee/hot chocolate/water/cake stop for a while before going back out onto the car park to watch a fairly impressive sunrise. Here’s a photo of it.

When we piled back into the trusty old car – oh, hold on, not the trusty old car anymore – I changed it…… When we piled back into the spangly new car, which had been suitably cleaned and polished by 500 Albanian blokes the day before and still smelled somewhat of cleaning products, sherbet and rubber (I bought rubber mats the day before too), I took over the driving from Kas. She’d done a sterling job of getting us this far, so I offered to take over for the rest of the trip.

Off we pootled towards the “official” bit of the tunnel, where we nearly got tail-ended outside the police post just as I was having a bit of trouble deciding which side of the building to drive. The guy behind picked a side before I did, and started to pull around my outside where I couldn’t see him. No harm done other than a slightly sarcastic comment from Constable Sitting-in-the-Hut. Surely, if someone runs into the back of me then it’s their fault not mine, even if I was dithering.

After this point the officialdom officially ended. There was, I presume, supposed to be some kind of passport check for entering France here, but we appeared to have arrived too early for them to be bothered, so we passed that bit, and the customs post, and drove straight up to the boarding lane, and then pretty much straight onto the train from there. Fair to say though, that I wasn’t impressed at having to squeeze up onto the top of a double-decker carriage in my nice new car. Too much scope for losing a wing mirror.

I was so relieved at not damaging my car that I fell asleep in the driver’s seat on the way across. Obviously I was a good boy and put the headlight converters on my car before falling asleep, ‘cos you have to. And so France seemed to arrive quite quickly from my point of view. By the time we drove out it was properly sunny and I had to get my sunglasses out, especially as we had to drive due east along the A16 and hence were heading directly into a rising sun.

This part of France was fairly uninteresting. We needed a breakfast stop but there were no services on the motorway in France at all. We crossed the border into Belgium with a general whisper of disinterest and found ourselves at the rather minimalist service station on the E40 between Nieuwpoort and Gistel. By this time it was about 8 am local time, about 7 am UK time, and we needed food. The cafe there was basic but did all the necessary goodies, which in our case involves toilets, coffee, orange juice and pastries. We blagged our way through ordering in half-cocked French / Dutch and then had to return to buy something else so that we had enough loose change to get into the toilets. This became a bit of a running theme for the holiday, with one or other of us seemingly always having to rummage in our pockets to find a selection of coins adding up to four lots of 30 cents. I think the girls might have cheated a few times though.

After three-quarters of an hour or so we were back on our way and heading for our overnight stop at Bruges. We decided to make an overnight stop partly after several trips to the west coast of France, which takes ages and can’t be done comfortably in a day, and partly to extend the holiday out by a couple of nights. The first reason proved to be total dross – we’d obviously payed no attention to the fact that Bruges is only about 75 minutes drive from Calais. With Kas navigating us into the town in fine style we found ourselves in the car park at our hotel at about 9:30 am, which meant it took us under 7 hours from home to get there, even including a coffee stop, an hour and a half at the tunnel terminal and a 45-minute breakfast stop. In the immortal words of Spike Milligan, “what are we gonna do now?” Surely the hotel won’t let us into our room this early.

They did let us in. They obviously weren’t full the previous night and our room was already prepared for us and ready to move in. Magic! We carted all the bags upstairs (it took all of us) and had a quick clean up before heading on out for a bit of Tommy Tourist Time. It’s ages since I’d been to Bruges and I don’t think any of the girls had ever been.

Being a weekday mid-morning you might expect it to be fairly quiet, but it must have been tourist season because the central area was actually quite busy. We didn’t have any particular target in mind for this day, so we gently ambled our way along past some strikingly large churches until we found ourselves in the Grote Markt, with it’s very impressive belfry. Not long after arriving there the girls found themselves in a cafe for early lunch / second breakfast, and I found myself looking for a geocache, as I often do. In this case I found myself considerably before I found the cache, and even then I couldn’t actually sign it.

RV 5.08: Brugge involves a certain piece of transportation equipment and some combination locks. One of the locks opens using a code on the cache page. This, however, just leads you to a box containing a field puzzle which has to be solved to open the second combination lock, and this is where I started to struggle. The puzzle involved identifying which 2 out of 10 photos were NOT taken in the Grote Markt. I found about 7 of them, which should have been enough, but I just couldn’t get my head around the required combination. I went off to find the girls and had lunch before trying again, but eventually we gave up, because the kids weren’t really in the mood to do caching today.

My lunch was entirely of the liquid variety, if you know what I mean. Two bottles of the rather lovely Kwak ale (with the entertaining glasses), to be precise. It’s better to be precise before two bottles of Kwak though. In my experience, precision becomes somewhat less precise after two bottles of Kwak. So after giving up on the cache we mooched about a bit, wondering what to do and generally feeling a bit kippered. Eventually, we decided that the girls were going back to the hotel for a bit of a snooze, which apparently included a swim in a freezing cold outdoor pool as well, and I headed off for a bit of “light” geocaching to kill a couple of hours. I mainly walked the circle of canals surrounding the town centre, including a little series of three at the railway station and then a series of little trads through a park running alongside the canal. These required me to keep crossing bridges and doubling back a bit. I found 10 or so going around this way before deciding I’d had enough and started to make my way back through the old town centre, via a couple more caches, and back to the hotel. One of that couple was in a little park, where there was a small “incident” involving my shoe and some canine waste products, so as I walked back through the centre of Bruges there was a distinct aroma following me. So much so that when I got back to the hotel I really didn’t want to walk on their nice carpets, so I sat outside and used a small screwdriver from my caching bag to winkle all the poo out of the soles of my shoes and into the nearby smoker’s bin. That should have put a few people off the habit. And when I got into the room I immediately took said shoe into the bathroom and washed it in the sink to remove any lasting residue. This meant that one of my shoes needed to be dried out overnight.

By this time it was time to get washed and changed and head out for some dinner. The girls were more or less there already when I came in, so it didn’t take us long.

We ended up in a nice little restaurant (name forgotten) down on Walplein, all of 200 metres away, where we availed ourselves of some jolly fine food and beverages. It wasn’t cheap, but it was nice, and we got to listen to the sound of horse-drawn carriages plodding by outside on what turned out to be a nice warm evening.

After dinner we extended the walk home by walking in the wrong direction (deliberately, I might add) for one street before looping back in. When we got back to the room we all jumped in bed and gradually drifted away whilst listening to the Commonwealth Games coverage on the BBC. England seemed to be winning.

And that was about it for our first day. It had been a long day all-in-all. We’d been out of our of beds for 18 hours by the time we got back to the hotel room, having been through 3 countries and under the sea, and having done a fair amount of eating and drinking. Enough-ski. Tomorrow we’ve got to go to another country.


Over the Border

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Day 2 of the holiday began in no particular hurry. Breakfast was open quite late and after a long day yesterday we decided to just lie in until everyone woke up. This was about 9 am, give or take. We went down for our traditional assault on the hotel breakfast buffet and this one wasn’t found wanting.

We were in no particular hurry to get away either, because by this time we’d guessed it wasn’t going to be a long journey to Center Parcs at Port Zelande and we weren’t allowed into the cottage until 3 pm anyway. So we decided to have another lazyish walk around Bruges for a couple of hours before heading off.

If anything it was a bit warmer than the previous day, even in the middle of the morning, so we dressed for summer and whipped out the suncream before heading off. As we had to evacuate the hotel we also lugged all our bags back underground and loaded the car up before starting our walk.

The girls (especially Ami) have decided that the most appropriate souvenirs to get from anywhere we visit are keyrings and sew-on badges (for the Brownie/Guides camp blanket). This is fine by me because they are universally available and don’t cost a lot, which means I don’t mind treating the kids, but also they are able to buy their own from their own money that we get them to carry when we go on holiday. In Bruges there are plenty of good tourist-tat shops selling the very things, and we stopped in about the second or third one we saw as we walked from the hotel back towards the Grote Markt again. Job done. I treated myself to a small bottle opener, which I managed to convince myself was a valid addition to my caching toolkit.

As we passed through the Bruges Museum Kas spotted some bits of architecture that looked exactly like two of the photos from yesterday’s caching conundrum, so now we knew which two photos weren’t taken in the Grote Markt. However, we sort of guessed that yesterday and tried the likely combinations without success. We must be doing something wrong.

So armed with this new information we couldn’t really not have another go at the cache – there’s only so many different ways you can arrange three digits (six ways, to be precise). As we got to the site of the cache – RV 5.08 Brugge in case you’d forgotten – we had renewed confidence. And it turned into success when just as I was about to start grumping Ami pointed out that I hadn’t tried all of the possible arrangements of the three digits yet. Sure enough, the next one I tried was the right one. Woo-hoo! A smiley. And while we were standing there we were approached by a couple from Knokke-Heist who were looking for the same thing. They were just approaching the bike having found the correct 8 photos, including the one I never spotted. It was as plain as the nose on your face if you looked at the right thing. Anyway, nice to meet you!

Flushed with success, and partly with the heat, we retired to a nearby ice cream parlour so the kids could keep up with the official Holiday Rules. Strange kind of place but the ice cream was good. After which, we made our way back to the hotel via a cache I’d done the previous afternoon (but the girls hadn’t). And after a quick wee break in the hotel lobby and some horrendous amount of money to liberate my car from the car park we were off on our merry way. Kas was driving, I was riding shotgun, with the map book in hand.

We decided to go cross-country and up through that confusing bit of the Netherlands that’s on the south side of the Western Scheldt estuary, where it really should still be Belgium. After three quarters of an hour or so in the car we made a decidedly uninspiring passage from Belgium into the Netherlands (the border sign was all but hidden behind a tree) and made our way over towards the town of Terneuzen. It was a bit slow driving around the town because of roadworks and a random opening bridge over the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. The rest of The Netherlands can’t be reached from here without traversing either some water, or a bit of Belgium. We chose the former, and traversed under the bottom of some water by driving through the Westerscheldetunnel]]. This required a small toll fee, but was otherwise a fairly pleasant experience. Our route from here took us through the province of Zeeland, passing Vlissingen and then up onto the Delta Works, one of the wonders of modern engineering. To reach our destination we had to cross over the singularly impressive (even after 30 years) Oosterscheldekering – a great big tidal barrier that can be used to close off the Eastern Scheldt estuary when the sea is up. But there’ll be more of that in one of the later posts. And from there we passed across one island and then onto the less spectacular but equally important Brouwersdam. Brouwersdam is obviously not regarded as particularly important by the English speaking Wikipedia world though, as that page needs to be written.

We didn’t have to cross the whole of Brouwersdam though, because on an artificial island in the lake behind it lies Center Parcs Port Zelande, our home for the next 10 nights. Just as we arrived we’d conveniently allowed the clock to tick around to 3 pm, so we could go straight in.

None of us had been to a Center Parcs before, so at first we were a bit confused, but eventually we concluded that we were allowed to take our cars inside the perimeter today, because it was a changeover day, but the rest of the time it would have to stay outside in the car park. Probably just as well, given that the roads were narrow and the parking outside the chalet was a bit tight. But we got in without hitting anything, and unloaded all our worldly goods and chattels into the chalet as fast as we could. And then we piled back into the car and drove it back to the rather full car park. We got a bit lucky this night though, and found a space not far away from the route back in.

As we were walking back through the Market Dome place we decided to stop for a swift drink and a bit of a snack, as we hadn’t really had lunch. It was OK. I renewed my acquaintance with Palm beer. After this, we had to go grab some provisions from the on-site supermarket so that we had something to eat for breakfast at least. And some beer.

And then we went back to the chalet for a bit of unpacking whilst watching the rain. We were, much to the girls annoyance, too late really to go swimming, so we got dressed up a bit and legged it over to the Market Dome to have dinner in the pizza place. This proved to be reasonable quality and reasonable value, so we were happy.

And that was the end of another day – a fairly uninspiring one in the grand scheme of things, but the girls were sufficiently excited by the prospect of the next 9 days here that I think we got away with it.


Old Haunts

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Day 3, and after 2 days of mainly travelling it was time for a bit of relaxation.

Kas was up relatively early to engage in her usual form of relaxation, running. And when she’d finished I went and did the same, only not for so long, and with more wrong turns. I suppose they weren’t really wrong turns as I hadn’t really planned a route – I just set off thinking I wanted to run about 5 miles and I managed a nice outbound route for 2.5 of those but then took a different (note, not wrong, just different) turn on the way home and added an extra half mile or so by the time I’d realised and turned back.

While we were doing this the girls were enjoying some of the delights of having a chalet right on the beach. We measured it as a whole 20 of Kas’s steps from chalet door to sand underfoot. The beach in question faced out onto the lake (Grevelingenmeer) and hence had an absence of currents and tides. It did have some rocky jetties to cordon off various bits from the passing boat traffic, and “our” beach was suitably located behind one of these. For this reason we were perfectly happy telling the girls they could wander anywhere along the beach or into the water so long as they were inside those rocky jetties. We were content with this because Izzy could walk out nearly all the way and the water only came up to her bum, so it seemed pretty safe out there.

After our two runs we were feeling a bit hot and sweaty so we all got changed and decided to go and try the Aqua Mundo indoor tropical swimming paradise. I’m basically a non-swimmer because I don’t really like the sensation of the water, so swimming is something I rarely do. In here, though, swimming wasn’t really necessary for me anyway. The deepest part was only 1.4 metres so I could comfortably walk all the way. It was a nice pleasant temperature and there were a couple of features that made me feel it wasn’t so bad after all, namely, the two water slides – one involving big rubber rings and a dark tube, the other involving a big slide down on your bum. I have to say that once I tried these I was hooked. It was a strain getting any of us to leave, but we couldn’t really stay in there all day.

So we retired to our chalet for some lunch and then headed off to my former stomping ground of Brielle, where I lived for about 18 months between the end of 1988 and the start of 1990. Well, I remember it being a nice little town, worthy of a visit, and it’s always nice to show the family bits of my life from before I knew them. In fact, when I was working there Kas was still in secondary school.

Brielle is famous in Holland for its liberation from the Spanish on April 1st 1572 by the Watergeuzen (“Water Beggars” in English). The liberation is still celebrated in Brielle every April 1st, when the town is closed off to traffic, and everyone dresses up in sixteenth century clothes, ties goats and sheep up to metal rings in the middle of the road, and generally engages in drunken debauchery whilst watching a bunch of blokes fire bags of flour out of the guns on a fake sixteenth century warship, which coincidentally spent the rest of the year tied up on the canal outside where I used to live. I experienced this twice, in 1989 and 1990, and have to say that on both occasions the proverbial “beer scooter” was my chosen means of transport when going home.

One thing new since I lived there was a great big car park on the eastern edge, outside the town walls. I think that might have been the only new thing there though. The rest seemed much the same.

First up I walked the girls along to where I used to live, at Turfkade 34. It took me a little while to recognise it, as it was a bit further along the canal than I remembered, but as soon as I saw the building I recognised it immediately. Next up we walked into the small market square, where the girls grabbed an ice cream and Kas and I grabbed a coffee. It was a sunny day and we could feel the sun starting to burn a bit, so we didn’t stay too long.

Next, we decided to have a look at the very impressive Church, the Sint Catharijnekerk. This is a very, very large church given the size of the town, and I have to admit that in 18 months of living there before I never once went inside. When I lived here before there was quite a lot of beer involved, and relatively little time spent locally on tourist activities. Isn’t that always the way though ? As soon as you live somewhere it ceases to be of interest.

This time though, spurred on by lots of renovations and the fact that there’s a geocache at the very top, we went in for a look. The church is very impressive from the inside. It’s a bit brighter than English churches tend to be because the interior walls are all rendered and painted white. We also all decided to go for a climb up to the top. Above the first 40 or so steps it’s a single stone spiral all the way up to the top, passing 3 or 4 doors on the way up that contain various bits of the carillon. This would traditionally be a bit of a flappy, panic moment for Izzy, but she did extremely well with a bit of encouragement and she made it all the way up to the top. I counted 333 steps. From the top there’s a seriously good view of the town and (on a clear day like this) all the way over the Europoort area into central Rotterdam, where the tall buildings were just about visible through the heat haze. There was also a geocache, which was duly located and signed.

After all that climbing, and struggling a bit in the heat, we decided that we were allowed more than one ice cream today, so we retired to a nearby (and much nicer than the first) ice cream parlour. It was on the junction of the road that lead down to the place in Brielle where I spent the second most time while I lived there (after my own flat) – the pub called “‘t Kont van Het Paard”, which translates roughly as “The Horse’s Arse” – I do remember having a number of discussions on the subject with Dirk the Barman while I was there and the best we could come up with was that the Dutch word used in the name (“Kont”) is a bit stronger than “bum” or “butt” but not quite as strong as “arse”. So “The Horse’s Arse” it was ! This is the kind of discussion that it’s very easy to fall into in a speciality beer bar in Holland with a barman who liked to serve, drink, and talk about all things beer related. For our part, we introduced him to the English word “tab” – I lose count of the number of times we got up at the end of a drunken evening and asked him for “het tab”. We also had a convenient arrangement whereby if we went in on a busy night (usually Friday and Saturdays) we could go help ourselves from the fridges if he was busy and he’d mark it down on “het tab” when he had a spare moment. I’m sure there was also a rule that if it was a weekday and you were the only people in there (which was very common) then “het tab” was never allowed to come to more than 4 beers each, regardless of how many you actually drank. Nice that, if rather bad for the waistline and the brain cells. But all that is, as they say, water under the bridge, or beer down the khazi.

After all that it was time for a bit of a walk. We seemed to have a bit of indecision on which way and who was up for how long, but we ended up on the west side of the town walls and slowly made our way round to the east side (where we’d parked). Both the girls and I seemed to be magnets for doo poo though, so it wasn’t as nice a walk as it could have been. I scooted off into the bushes looking for a couple more geocaches but ended up failing to find as many as I actually did find. Eventually I’d had enough and stopped trying – it obviously wasn’t going to be my day and the girls weren’t interested that day.

We passed into the town on the north corner, as you must, and crossed the nice lifting bridge, before walking out along Molenstraat to the windmill. I guess the name of the street is a give away. Notice in the photo that Izzy took of us with my camera that she managed to perfectly capture the girl in the background jumping off the bridge into the canal.

At the windmill we had a short break for the kids to play in a little play park before we continued our walk around, becoming ever more conscious of the time and the fact that we needed to buy some food to make it through the evening. We saw a very conveniently located outlet of Albert Heijn and popped in for a look. It turned out to be a good sized supermarket and had more than enough to keep us happy for a few days, so we stocked up (and paid for a few more plastic bags in the process) before walking bag to the car with ever lengthening arms and driving back home.

We then got even longer arms after having to park a long way from the entrance and hence having to walk miles over to our chalet. “Boooooo!” And “Hiss!”

All of this had put Ami in the mood for another trip to the swimming pool, so I obliged her while Kas and Izzy mooched about at the chalet. We did a bit less swimming than planned, mainly because I forgot the tickets and Euro coin and so had to run all the way back to fetch them. It was at this point that I also banged my forearm on the handle of the patio door and generated a painful bruise that was to stay with me for the rest of the holiday.

When we returned Kas and Izzy started making some tea while Ami and me got showered and dressed again. We had a selection of sausages, mash and some salad. Plus beer. And it all went down very well.

By this time it was getting quite late, so we allowed the kids to play outside for a bit and then got them into bed before retiring for a bit of reading and some more beer.

Blimey, that was a day of being on holiday. No particular agenda, not a lot of rushing around, and several ice creams and beers.


Not a Lot Happened

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Day 4 was a day that could best be described as “chilled”. There was definitely no agenda whatsoever, just a load of mooching about, not getting entangled in anything complicated, and not rushing much.

Kas started her day with a run. I started mine with some breakfast and finishing off the Terry Pratchett book I’d been reading. The girls started theirs out on the beach.

After which we all went for quite a long session in the swimming pool during which I managed to cut my finger. We then went home to grab some lunch, and while eating hers Ami’s tooth dropped out. It had been wobbly for a few days but I think she was deliberately trying to keep it in there to get her first ever overseas visit from the Tooth Fairy. Apparently the Tooth Fairy always buys British teeth with Sterling.

We then went and spent a couple of our free “toppings” on a round of mini-golf, which was a bit of a laugh. On the way back from there it was time for ice creams.

I then went out for a walk along the Brouwersdam to grab a handful of caches while the girls all chilled at home. The ones I found were :

When I returned we all got cleaned up and we went for dinner at the “All You Can Eat” restaurant in the Market Dome. In this instance, all we could eat proved not to be very much. The starters of meats, cheeses and salads were quite good but the cooked options were pretty much all of the “overcooked slop” variety, and I think we decided fairly quickly not to go back again. We also completely failed to communicate Izzy’s drink order correctly and she ended up with an iced tea rather than apple juice, and I have to say our waitress was a little over enthusiastic in insisting I’d ordered iced tea. It may be what you wrote down, but it’s definitely not what I said……. And to cap it all, I somehow broke a chunk off one of my teeth and left myself with a nasty sharp edge which was grating my tongue for the rest of the holiday.

After all this excitement we retired to our chalet and contemplated the following day’s weather forecast, which was not very good at all. Ho hum ! Let’s see what it’s really like and deal with it accordingly in the morning. Good night everyone.


Deltapark Neeltje Jans

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We were greeted this morning with weather that could best be described as “inclement” if you’re being polite. It was coming down like stair rods.

So we had a breakfast of feeling a bit depressed and agreeing what we could do on a wet day. As it happens though, for once, we’d primed ourselves and had a bit of a think about this the previous night, once we’d realised that the weather forecast was wet.

Our choice was to head for the DeltaPark Neeltje Jans, which is in the middle of the next estuary down from where we are. It’s only about 10 miles away and it claims to have a number of exhibitions and an aquarium which are indoors as well as a selection of outdoor activites should the weather happen to dry up.

On the way over to the car we invented a new word to describe the general state of the paths – “floodle” – we use it for a body of water which is too big to walk around but not big enough to drown in. Bigger than a puddle, smaller than a flood. There were a lot of them around on this particular morning. The drive to Neeltje Jans was a bit wet too and when we got to the car park we had to make a decision about whether to dash over to the entrance without our coats (and risk getting a bit wet) or to wear the coats (and so spend all morning carry them around once we got inside). We went for the former, but then seemed to spend much of the rest of the day going backwards and forwards from the car changing our minds. What we had with us was never quite right.

DeltaPark Neeltje Jans is a multi-themed theme-park situated on an artificial island called Neeltje Jans which was constructed as part of  the Oosterscheldekering project. The island was originally used as a huge dry dock in which all the concrete piers for the barrier were constructed before being floated off into position. Some (but not all) of it has been subsequently filled in to make it up to the level of the barrier and so it now forms a part of the barrier itself, right in the middle.

As with most things around here the main part of the park is on the landward side of the barrier and there’s a considerable hill you have to go up and over to get to the sea – up to 15m higher than the land behind, and hence well able to cope with the very wettest and stormiest of North Sea weather.

The first thing we did on site was to visit all the expos about the barrier inside the main building. There was quite a lot of it, including a very old-fashioned seeming public information film – you know the sort – all sweeping vistas and slightly faded colours. This gave the history of the barrier and the reason why it is needed. It also showed the visiting dignitaries who were invited along for the formal opening in the mid-1980’s, including HRH The Duke of York and his wife of the time. All of this is sort of preparing you for, what was for me, the main event. I know there’s probably a few people who go there and don’t make it as far as the actual storm barrier, but that would be such a waste.

By this time we were getting a bit hungry so we retired to the cafe for some slightly over-priced but fairly generous portions of chips and probably some healthy food too, which we ate inside a very large an very empty seating area. Given that it was the summer holidays and it was raining I was expecting the place would be full up, as (in my opinion) there’s not a lot else to do on a rainy day around here, but it just goes to show how wrong you can be.

After lunch we made another change of jumpers/coats and walked outside in some now relatively light rain to walk our way down to the actual barrier. On the way down there were a few things to do and look at, such as lots of over-sized bits of building equipment and some “experiments” demonstrating the effects of levers and pulleys. We also caught the back 10 minutes of the Birds of Prey show, which involved, as you’d expect, a number of birds of prey being coaxed into flying ridiculously close to the population on the promise of getting half a dead mouse at the other end (other bird foods are available). They really were flying quite close to the people. Duck!

Once you get to the flood barrier you get a much better sense of the scale of it, which is to say, it’s big. Very big. The Oosterscheldekering has three sets of barriers, and you get to walk to the “middle” end of one of those. The barrier was designed to be open to the tides under normal conditions, to preserve the tidal wetlands behind it, but when there’s a predicted storm surge which brings the water 3m or more above normal level then the barriers are dropped down to prevent flooding inland. Clever, isn’t it? There’s a total of about 4km of opening parts and about the same of closed barriers and islands. The result of this is that the water flow into and out of the estuary is constrained somewhat, resulting in what can best be described as a very brisk tide in one direction or the other most of the time. Once you get to the end of the barrier you can enter and walk through a little expo in the room under the road deck running between the first two piers, and then once you get outside again you can walk back along the external steel gantries (right over the water, but still slightly out of the rain because of the deck above you). It’s when you’re down here that you can really see the speed of the tide coming in or going out. You finish up by climbing onto one of the piers where there’s a brass plaque marking the occasion of the formal opening ceremony and listing the “big nobs” that Queen Beatrix invited along. It’s also the Ground Zero for the Oosterscheldekering Earthcache based on the barrier and the estuary. It’s possible to do this by standing on the road deck rather than paying to enter the expo, but we were inside anyway…….

Next we walked pretty much back to the main building and swapped over clothes again, as it was now getting quite sunny. And then we went to the seal show. It involved a few pinnipeds rather than the well known London born singer. In Dutch they’re known as Zeehonden, (“Sea Dogs”), which is a bit crazy, but they managed to give a killer performance. OK, enough already with the crap Seal jokes.

After the seals we wandered back to the birds of prey area and watched the first 10 minutes of the performance, which this time had a few introductions in English and a few birds that we didn’t see at the end of the previous performance earlier. Otherwise it was much the same, with lots of swooping and munching of bits of meat.

By now the sun was fully out and it was getting quite warm, which was most welcome after earlier. We walked from the birds of prey around a low footbridge around to the sea lion show. The Dutch use the same name as we do – Zeeleeuw. There were about 3 sea ions, I think, but they only came out to play one at a time. They are quite impressive beasts, but I’m not sure how I felt about them being captive and being trained to behave like this. I’m sure their welfare is good and all, but the show just consisted of them doing a bit of jumping and swimming and quite a lot of pretending to clap and begging for fish off a guy who looked like the hairy one of the food critics off MasterChef.

We had a quick look in the Aquarium too, but compared to the excellent ones we’ve visited at La Rochelle or St. Malo this was a bit of a weak effort, and we didn’t stop long.

Anyway, it was time for the daily ice cream.

And then we drove home and went swimming in the Aqua Mundo tropical pool before having tea and beer and putting the kids to bed.

The rain didn’t last that long really and it proved to be the only daytime rain we had on the whole trip. The DeltaPark had just enough different things to do to keep the kids (including myself) entertained for the day.


Windmills

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Kas decided not to bother going for a run this morning, which meant we were all up, dressed, fed and watered by the surprisingly early time of 10am.

We’d done a bit of discussion the previous night and decided that today we were off to Kinderdijk, one of the most quintessentially Dutch of all Dutch places. It has the full combination of windmills, canals, rivers above your head, flat land and clogs. Probably cheese too, if you buy the right thing at the cafe.

From where we were staying it was a moderately long hack over there around the south side of Rotterdam along the A15. This road runs through the heart of the Rotterdam Port area, passing several oil refineries and other sites that have a lot of metallic twiddly-bits. Since I last lived here they have also added a not inconsiderable number of wind turbines, which means this is probably the Netherlands’ biggest concentration of power generating equipment. It’s good to see all this renewable stuff mixed in with the oil refining.

On the way there we managed to get lost once, at the short section where the A15 and A16 converge and then diverge again. The problem was that there are, quite frankly, a lot of lanes there, and because the map we had conveniently hid that section it wasn’t obvious which signs we needed to follow. In fact, going to Kinderdijk, you don’t follow signs for the A16 at all. So we overshot by one junction, got off, and came back again, right into the middle of the same total confusion of tarmac. This time however we were primed with the knowledge of 3 directions that we most definitely did not want to go, leaving the fourth as the only feasible option. All we had to do then was shuffle across several lanes of traffic on more than one occasion to get into (and stay in) the correct lane. Seriously, it’s not a good motorway junction for local traffic.

Sport aside, though, it took about an hour to get there. When we arrived (after seeming far too long on a little local road from the motorway), we were directed into one of the few remaining spaces in the official car park for the princely sum of 5 Euro for the day. This might have seemed a bit steep, until we got to the ticket office and realised we didn’t need a ticket unless we wanted to go inside either of the “working” windmills – meaning the two where they have some geezers in period costume showing you how the windmills used to work. So 5 Euros covered the parking and entrance fees for all of us, and also included a free coffee at the museum. Not bad for a whole day out at a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I won’t explain why there’s so many windmills in the one place – just follow the Kinderdijk links on this page and read about it on Wikipedia.

We started off by buying some tourist tat for the girls (technically, they bought their own) and taking photos of them standing in monstrously huge clogs. After this we walked out along the main pathway for however far it is, enjoying a sunny and warm stroll through reed beds and passing lots of windmills.  There was supposedly a multi geocache here but I took one look at the requirements (about 12 stages and a walk well beyond the normal tourist trail) and decided not to bother even starting it. I didn’t really want the time at Kinderdijk to involve that much detailed searching for non-windmill things.

So we walked out as far as the part where you can get the “classic” view of Kinderdijk – the point where there’s a junction or angle between two lengths of canal and you can see a long line of windmills disappearing off in two directions.

From here we walked back to the entrance and then around the end of the canals to have a look at the museum and maybe grab that free coffee. The museum seemed a bit dull, not really focusing on the site but generally on bits of old Dutch culture. And the cafe wasn’t really a cafe. It was a kettle, from which we could obtain a cup of instant coffee. Hmm ! We were expecting a little more. So we didn’t bother stopping there, and instead we walked back around to the cafe and shop by the entrance and grabbed some ice cream / coffee and a bit of a sit down. At least there was a giant National Geographic logo for the kids to sit in.

This took us through to mid-afternoon, and too early to go home but too late to do anything else “big”. On the way out though we’d passed a nice looking beach on the landward side of the Haringvlietdam, so we decided to head there to finish off our day.

On the way, heaven forbid, we had to stop for fuel, because the car was complaining it only had about 60 miles left. Given that this was the first fill up since leaving Milton Keynes I was quite happy with that. I was even happier when the car topped out at somewhat less than 50 litres, which indicated that the fuel gauge was being quite conservative. Maybe 60 more miles before the fuel light came on rather than 60 more before the car stopped working. Anyway, that means the car had done all the distance from Milton Keynes via the Channel Tunnel, northern France, Bruges, up to Port Zelande and then running around the place for 3 days on about 50 litres. The trusty old car would need to be filled up at least twice to do that distance.

The beach in question was the wonderfully named Quackstrand near Hellevoetsluis. It is sheltered behind the Haringvlietdam and has a few things to keep the general population entertained, such as bars, bouncy castles and a waterpark. From my perspective it also had a series of challenge caches attached to the bottoms of 6 wind turbines running along the seaward face of the dam. So I asked Kas to drop me off at one end and I’d walk back doing the caches and meet them on the beach later. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. The caches concerned are :

Kas dropped me off on the landward side of the dam, near where it looked like there was a path you could use to duck under the main road where the dam turns into sluice gates, so I headed off that way, and indeed there were steps, and a pedestrian tunnel under the road. On the other side of it, there was a fence. About 9 feet high and with padlocks on the gate. So I presumed I was not supposed to climb over just here or, indeed, walk through. This meant I’d got to now walk about a mile back along the dam on the landward side to reach the “proper” foot tunnel, and then a mile back along the seaward side of the dam to get to the geocache on the very end windmill. “Bum !” was not a word I used, but I’m not allowed to type the ones I did use. It’s a family show, folks.

Apparently Kas could see me walking all the way back along the road from where she was sitting on the beach, but by this time they were all settled into beach type activities so I had no expectation she’d get up and fetch me. Anyway, walking is good for you. Probably. Especially if you get to do some swearing under your breath while you’re doing it.

Eventually I found the correct way under the road and found myself walking along the reinforced seaward face of the dam. About halfway between sea level and the top of the dam there was a flat tarmac road (actually the whole seaward face was covered in tarmac, but the part halfway up was the only part flat enough to drive/walk on) which had the six wind turbines built in. Initially I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but then I assumed that if the CO had managed to place caches then you must be allowed to walk along. The case for the defence was strengthened a couple of hundred yards in when I saw some people with dogs walking back towards me. I also saw something to potentially scupper the mission though. Two of the windmills appeared to have vans parked at the bottom and people working on them. It looked like I was going to need to practice my best Dutch to try to say “do you mind if I furtle around the bottom of here in a highly suspicious manner for a few minutes while you’re attempting to go about your business ? Honestly, I don’t want to nick your power tools. There were 6 turbines and the vans were at numbers 2 and 5 from the direction I was walking. To be honest, something else was threatening to scupper the mission too. It was quite windy and the turbines where whizzing rund at a healthy rate. Now, in your heart of hearts, you know you’re not going to get your head chopped off , but there’s still a little bit in the the back of your head that tells you to duck down whenever you’re right underneath one. And to be honest, the noise of the blades spinning round gives me the willies. It made me really want to walk quickly and get the caches found as soon as I could manage.

Number one was the challenge cache that I’m not eligible for, so I continued my walk up to number 4 before deciding to try to “get my eye in” by searching for one. It was remarkably easy to find, and this proved a useful exercise, especially when backed up with an identical find at number 6, because it meant I now knew what kind of container I was looking for and where it was likely to be. So on my way back to #5 I noticed the workmen were both upstairs actually inside the bottom of the turbine, and I quickly grabbed the cache and then walked off to “stare at the sea” while I signed the log. It was then equally quick to snap the cache back into place and move on without them noticing me.  #3 was the same, and fairly quickly I was on my way back towards #2. It seemed here that the workmen were in and out, up and down a bit more than on the other one so I was beginning to work a strategy for asking them, or for asking the CO if I could have the find without signing it, and just as I was taking evidence photos I noticed the workmen come down the steps and get in their van. So I waited a bit, and took a couple more photos, and sent a text to Kas, and by that time they had gone. Phew ! Potentially uncomfortable moment avoided. It was the same find as the other 4. So was the last one. Although I was technically not eligible for the last one the page says it’s OK to make a speculative signature and then turn it into a “Found It” log when you do qualify. So I thought I might as well. I’m a long way off the requisite 2000 foreign finds but if I didn’t sign it here I’d have to come back again to sign it. Anyway, I was standing right next to it by the time I’d run through all these points in my head.

This was about enough for the hot, sandy, windy walking for one afternoon, so I retired back under the road and onto the beach, where I met up with the girls, who were deeply embroiled in some beach-type activities of sitting in the sand, plodging in the lake, and soaking up the sun. Ami wanted to have a go in the waterpark so I went over to discuss at the ticket office and managed to determine that entrance was on a strict hour or half hour basis (to make it easier to know how long everyone has been in and to control total numbers). I also determined that Ami could have a half hour slot, but because she couldn’t present a Dutch Schools Swimming Certificate then she’d have to be accompanied by an adult and have to wear a life vest. Probably sensible. Anyway, if she came back in 5 minutes she could catch a half hour session.  Izzy wasn’t so bothered about the splashy zone so she settled for a half hour in the bouncy castle instead. Kas went with Ami and I sat in the sand waiting for half an hour and soaking a few rays. It was all quite pleasant.

When the half hour was up the clock had ticked its way around to 6pm, so we retired from the beach into the nearest bar for some ice creams and drinks. Again, all very pleasant.

So Kas drove us home, a journey made more interesting by having to wait for a bridge to come up and go down again, and once home seeing as the girls were all covered in sand and I wasn’t they all went upstairs to get cleaned up while I made a very creditable Spaghetti Bolognese using slightly alien ingredients (where’s the jars of Dolmio then ? I thought they were supposed to be a Dutch company) and a somewhat less creditable garlic bread. Less creditable because they didn’t have garlic butter in the supermarket so I tried to use garlic, and butter. This is dangerous, because when I do this I invariably get the balance wrong and end up producing something that could kill Dracula at 50 yards. The fact that there wasn’t an oven to bake it in probably made this effect worse. Still, the spag bol was OK.

After which the girls put on an impromptu dance show, as they often do, before heading off to bed, which they rarely do willingly.

That was quite a long day.


Capital Cities

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If you’re in a new country you’ve really got to allow time to make at least one visit to the capital city. The Netherlands is blessed with two of these, by some accounts. There’s some debate over whether Amsterdam is the capital because it’s the biggest city, and the major commercial centre, or whether Den Haag is the capital because it’s the seat of government. Wikipedia says that it’s Amsterdam, so that’s where we decided to go.

As it’s about 80-90 miles from our gaff in Zeeland up to Amsterdam we got up fairly early and managed to get ourselves to the car for 9am. From here we had a reasonably quick and uneventful drive around Rotterdam and up to Amsterdam. The only missed opportunity was a new motorway running from the Beneluxtunnel at Schiedam directly to Den Haag. It wasn’t signposted, so we missed it, and had to drive a few miles west to the motorway by the airport, and then back across again. Not a big diversion, but somehow we failed to find it on the way back too.

When we reached Amsterdam I was expecting it to be rather fruity finding a way into the centre, but as it happened we found a direct route that lead up to an area with lots of car parks and fairly close to the Central Station. The station is a major tourist attraction in its own right, being built, as it is, on a series of wooden piles and other doo-dahs that stop it from sinking into the water. It is the most visited national heritage site in the Netherlands. I would hazard that many of those visitors visit it in about the same way we did though, i.e. they walk quickly through the building to/from a platform, possibly via a chain coffee shop and then do a runner (or a trainer) somewhere else. As a piece of architecture, though, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Before visiting the station to buy something from a chain coffee shop we bought ourselves some tickets for a canal boat tour, which started in the little harbour shown on the big photo above. No need to be walking too far, is there? We had an hour before our boat ride and it had been a while since breakfast, so it seemed like a good time for a coffee, a cake and some bicycle rotation.

On the way out we availed ourselves of a simple geocache stuck under an armco on the station forecourt. Not the best cache ever, but a good location and it seemed a shame to walk past and not sign it. Ami got to it first.

Our boat trip lasted an hour, and involved a waterborne highlights tour of the harbour and some of the inner loops of canals. The driver (or pilot, or captain, possibly) was doing his best to keep us entertained and there was an informative if slightly out of time commentary provided in several different languages. It was an hour spent doing what you might describe as “lazy” tourism, but it is one of those cheesy things that you just have to do on a day in Amsterdam. There are very many companies offering very many similar tours.

When we’d finished the boat trip we went for a bit of a mooch around the streets where we’d just been sailing, but without any particular purpose. There was a mighty fine geocache involved at one point, and then Kas had the bright idea that we should stop for lunch. We found a cafe with outdoor seating on the street actually over the top of a canal, and aside from a fairly noisy and arrogant sounding group of young urban professional (and British) males, the location was very nice. The food wasn’t bad either. And nor was the weather.

Which left us with the tricky matter of deciding what to do with the rest of our day. We set off at a gentle stroll in the general direction of Dam Square and while we were doing this the girls first raised the twin requests of finding a tat shop to buy some badges and souvenirs, and finding a hair braider (because they always get hair braids done when we’re on holiday).

The tat shop was quite easy – they’re everywhere. We stopped at one on the corner of Dam Square.  No hair braiders around here though, apparently. So we walked on a bit more in the general direction of the station again, looking for hair braiders but also attempting to steer clear of Amsterdam’s more famous tourist attractions (if you can call it that). You know, the one that involves all the ladies sitting in windows. Not sure I was particularly attracted. I’d been there before and wasn’t particularly attracted that time either. I did get offered some herbal tobacco at one point. But back in the here and now we still couldn’t find a hair braider. So in the depths of our despair and apparent failure, little lights appeared simultaneously over mine and Kas’s heads as a thought made itself known. “Why don’t we go to a beach resort instead?” I said. “It’s not very far to Zandvoort or Scheveningen and it isn’t really far off the route home at all.”  “Let’s go to Scheveningen” said Kas, “it’s not so far out of the way.” – Sounds like a plan then.

So we legged it back to the car and discovered quite why it was so easy to find a car park in the middle of a major city in the middle of the day. 35 Euro for under 5 hours ? Your havin’ a giraffe, Jan, surely. But Jan wasn’t havin’ a laugh. Well, he probably was once we’d paid up and left the place.

The drive out of town was more entertaining than the drive in. Firstly we got lost. We completely lost all road signs, and eventually we decided to head in a straight line until we found the loop motorway and figure it out from there. Secondly, we started to encounter a phenomenon which is normal in Europe and is getting more popular in the UK too. A tram up the chuff. Followed by another tram up the chuff. The problem with trams is that they can’t change lanes. The problem with Amsterdam trams is that they don’t know whether they have the road to themselves or whether they have to share. It can alternate within a few hundred metres along the same stretch. And as a driver, you have to resist the temptation to follow a tram when you get behind one. They have a nasty habit of shooting off up a bit with no tarmac (just rails and hardcore). There is nothing worse than having an Amstertram tram up your chuff at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

When we eventually did reach the loop motorway we were on a road that had no junction with it, so we had to quite a lot of looping around ourselves to try to find the escape route.

Once we did get out though it was a pretty easy drive down to Scheveningen, a drive which skirts the edge of the Netherlands’ other capital – the one that isn’t really one even though the government is there. Scheveningen itself is a remarkably popular seaside resort given its location (both its latitude and its proximity to major population centres). It’s not exactly scenic or pretty. It just happens to be by the sea, and for many people that is sufficient to warrant a day out.

It was easy to find parking, and somewhat cheaper, but it did involve a bit of a hike. It wasn’t too bad though, and we ended up on the seafront promenade at the north end and started looking for hair braiders. It must have taken us all of, oooh, five minutes at a slow amble to find one. Job done. The other job done was that she seemed to be doing herself out of a lot of money by charging a ridiculously low price. The ones in Weymouth last year cost at least twice as much for a shorter braid. As I write this post in mid-October both girls still have their braids in. Let’s see how good value they really were.

The braiding took a while and Kas suggested that I go look for a cache or three while I was waiting, but Scheveningen seems to be one of the few places in Holland that doesn’t have many. The closest was right next to where we parked, nearly a kilometre away. So I didn’t bother until we walked back to the car.

We didn’t walk straight back though. It was late (gone 7) and we hadn’t had dinner and we were going to be late enough that the kids would need bed straight away when we got back, so we fed them up with some wonderful chips from a stall on the prom, which were smothered in far too much ketchup, and we picked our way back up the hill to the car, leaving a trail of red splodges as we went.

The cache on the hill right next to the car was an easy find for me and Ami while Kas and Izzy stood by the car finishing chips and watching the rapidly descending sun.

The drive home was bathed in very bright sunlight directly in through the windscreen for most of the trip, making seeing other cars a bit tricky, and we eventually got home at about 9:30pm. The kids did their usual trick of falling asleep in the car about 10 minutes before we got home.

And when we got back they went to bed, and we sat in the lounge picking at a quiet beer and playing on the interweb.

My thoughts about Amsterdam remain the same, I think. I didn’t like it a huge amount the first couple of times I went and this trip didn’t change that view much. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, I just personally don’t find any of it especially impressive. But now at least all four of us have been and can make up our own minds. It was a good day overall but Amsterdam itself sort of fizzled out once we’d had lunch. Maybe we were just too tired. And having looked at both Zandvoort and Scheveningen on Google street view I’m glad we went to the latter.


Hellevoetsluis

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This morning we decided to have a bit of a lazy morning, as in not getting up early to go out somewhere. Lazy for Kas still involves going for a run. Lazy for me and the girls involved walking to the supermarket to buy some things to make fajitas. Then there was some cleaning up and some eating breakfast involved at some point.

We decided to spend most of our day at Hellevoetsluis, partly because it looked like a nice old town centre, partly because the kids wanted to go back to the wonderfully named Quackstrand to play in the sand and the waterpark, and partly because there’s a nice looking course of geocaches running from Hellevoetsluis to Quackstrand. A bit of something for everyone then.

We started by parking in the old town right next to the lightship, which is home to the cache called Lichtschip 12 “NOORD HINDER”, which proved to be a slightly challenging find eventually discovered by Kas.

From here we crossed over the canal/moat to an open garden where I’d calculated that the endpoint of a multi-cache should be. It wasn’t. Quite frankly, I’m too embarrassed even to admit which one it was. The multi concerned involved quite a lot of walking to do “properly” and I didn’t want to make this bit of the day just about caching. So we applied the 10-minute rule and moved on.

We found ourselves next to a swing bridge over the mouth of the inner harbour, and as was a theme for the holiday, the bridge started to open just as we were toying with walking across it. So we waited. Actually this one was quite good to watch because you could stand right next to it.

From here we walked along the western side of the inner harbour up to an old dry dock containing a fairly substantial vessel, and a geocache called Droogdok Jan Blanken, which proved to be a little hard to find, mainly because the hint was totally unhelpful to an English speaker. The English translation referred to some little known Dutch cultural character and it meant nothing to me at all. Eventually I found it using the “where would I put it” method, and I’m somewhat disappointed I didn’t do that straight away. It would have saved some of the grumpiness that the kids were exhibiting. They didn’t complain about walking around the village or picking up a couple of caches per se, but they were walking slowly, complaining about being too hot, or their feet hurting, or being thirsty, or needing the toilet, near constantly and they were generally showing no interest in anything whatsoever and looking impatient, like they had somewhere else to be.

I suppose in their minds they did have somewhere else to be. They wanted to be at the beach. So we walked back to the town centre with the intention of stopping for ice cream before Kas took the kids to the beach and I started walking there to meet them. When we got there though there wasn’t anywhere we liked the look of, so Kas went straight back to the car so they could go to the (known) beach bar at Quackstrand, and I stopped for some “provisions” in a local store before starting to walk. But not before I’d waited for that swing bridge to open and close again.

I won’t list all the geocaches I passed along the way because if you look at a map you’ll be able to see them. Most of them were a part of the series that eventually leads you to Quackgors bonus, and cunningly I was able to derive coordinates for this despite a couple of the bonus clues being missing from the traditional caches. About halfway along I met another cacher coming the other way. He was doing them back to front, so I hope he had made the guess that the bonus would be west of the series not east, and as a result had parked appropriately to avoid too much backwards-and-forwards-ing.

I eventually made it back to the beach after about 30 minutes or so more than I’d hoped. Kas and the girls were in transition, having just been off the beach for a drink and come back again. So I went for a drink too and then dropped down onto the beach for a fairly long period of sitting, logging, and watching the world go by.  The first available slot in the waterpark was at 6pm (it was about 4:30 when I got there, I think), so there was a lot of waiting, but we had promised Ami and I did want to make a point of living up to our promises so we could take the moral high-ground a bit after the grumping the kids were doing earlier in the day. Anyway, it’s not like we had much else to do. If we’d have gone home we’d have been in the swimming pool inside 10 minutes, so we might as well stay here.

While Kas and Ami were in the waterpark, Izzy and me had a quick plodge in the lake and then I sat and took a few photos and did my caching logs while Izzy continued with more plodging. I offered her a trip to the bouncy castle but she wasn’t bothered. In the photo above you can see the six windmills with the challenges at the bottom that we’d done a couple of days before – see Windmills.

By the time we were finished at the beach it was well past 7 pm, so we jumped into the car and drove the 15 minutes home, this time managing to avoid any opening bridges, whereupon I made some fajitas while the girls all got cleaned up. I think we did some breadcrumb-coated chicken steaks for the kids, but because they weren’t absolutely identical to the ones Tesco do then they didn’t like them. Their loss. They were quite nice.

And that was the end of another day. It was busy in a sort of relaxed way. There was a bit of grumpiness, which I assigned to the twin terrors of a late night and a morning activity that could never match up to being on the beach. Such is life.


On Yer Bike

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We planned an “engineers” afternoon (i.e. most of the morning too) of bike riding today, courtesy of Center Parcs’ standard bike rental shop.

Before we got around to any of that both Kas and I went for a run though. It was another warm morning. I set out first and ran out of the campus and around the road to the small jetty the other side of the harbour from our cottage. It seemed strange to have to run nearly 2 miles to reach somewhere that’s only about 400 yards from the door, but the only shorter way involves swimming. Anyway, why would I run round to that jetty, apart from it being a nice spot? Well, for a geocache, obviously. Ouddorp – Port Zelande to be precise. This morning there was the added incentive of it being the 1st of August, and hence Groundspeak’s now annual scramble for new souvenirs was on. This year around you have to simply do about six different cache types over the course of the month. Simples!  From here I ran further along the dam until I reached Ouddorp – Brouwersdam, a fantastic idea for a cache because it’s on a jetty stuck out in the middle of the lake that doesn’t appear on any maps until you zoom in quite close. It was just about runnable and the cache was an easy find, but the location was spectacularly good. Water on all four sides apart from the thin sliver of jetty running in an arc back to the shore.

So for me that was 2 geocaches and one new souvenir earned before breakfast, which I ate while Kas went for her run.

Once we were all back and ready the next job was to get dressed and head for the bike shop. We had a fairly typical comedy (on reflection) episode whereby I couldn’t find the bike mount for my GPS that I had lovingly carried all the way over from home. I turned the whole place upside down, feeling absolutely convinced I’d brought it into the chalet in one of the gadget bags. Couldn’t find it.

So we walked off to the bike shop with me in a right grump, but when we got there Kas had the bright idea that I should go look in the back of the car for the bike mount. Good plan, because I had obviously stored it safely for travel inside one of the bike helmets and had then left it in the back of the car when we unloaded because we wouldn’t need it in the cottage. Grump gone, happiness restored.

By the time I got back Kas had done a sterling job of acquiring bikes too. Choices were somewhat limited, especially for myself and Izzy. We planned to get a doubler bike for Kas and Izzy (with Izzy powering a single wheel at the back) but we were late enough arriving that the only one of those they had left was in my size rather than Kas’s, so Izzy spent the day looking at my back. I’ll tell you what though, she’s not a bad little turbo booster when you need it.

The bikes themselves were all Dutch-style city bikes, meaning they were of the sit-up-straight variety with saddles designed for comfort. That proved to be a good thing too. It did, however, take me ages to realise that there was a cunning reason why my bike a) only had one brake handle and b) didn’t allow you to pedal backwards. Oh yes indeedy…. to brake the back wheel you had to pedal the wrong way. It took a while to get used to, as did the huge selection of 3 different gears.

We cycled out along the top of the Brouwersdam heading north, armed with a load of caches in the GPS and not a lot else in the bags, especially not a lot of food or drink. We were picking off caches as we passed them but refusing to make detours off the main cycle route to collect outlying ones. Anyway, in our first 4 attempts, we made 3 finds, but all were of different types, which meant 2 more souvenirs for me and 3 for the kids. Rocking. That’s halfway there before we’ve even started really.

By this time we’d also arrived on the wonderfully named island of Goeree-Overflakkee, the correct pronunciation of which had me breaking out into bits of “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” on a regular basis. Dunno why, it just did.

The bike ride was going well, with Izzy giving me a bit of a push whenever there was an up-slope. We were stopping every couple of hundred metres to look for geocaches anyway, so it wasn’t exactly strenuous. Most were fairly easy. We were heading vaguely north-west, towards the coast.

When we got to the coast it was definitely time for a late lunch. There was an excellent beach bar there, and by excellent, I mean well above the sand, with indoors as well as outdoor spaces, clean, and with very nice food. Kas and me both had very nicely prepared sandwiches. The girls had chips, I think. There was some beer involved too, but just the one (Mrs Wembley).

On the way home we came back along the path somewhat closer to the beach. There were a handful of caches as we passed by but then we reached a part where we were, essentially, going back over ground we’d ridden in the morning. So just here we scooted along for a few kilometres without stopping. We ended up by the Tram Museum, where we stopped briefly in the car park to assess our lot (I suppose, we were assessing the Tram Museum’s Lot, technically speaking). We decided that our lot here consisted of one more geocache and that was our lot. Or their lot.

Caches found on that stretch of the route (out and back) were :

So we biked from here back along the road alongside the lake, the road that I’d run along in the morning. It was about 3 km back to Port Zeelande, and with Izzy pedalling like a good ‘un behind me we were there before you could say Goeree-Overflakkee. Ami and Kas took a bit longer. I think Ami was enjoying a gentle pace for the day.  We arrived back well after the bike shop closed, but due to a cunning mechanical arrangement the bikes had a lock onboard so it was just a matter of locking them and dropping the keys through the letterbox. Magic.

All that biking had got us a bit warm, so we went and cooled down with a 40-minute dip in the pool and then retired to our chalet for a well-earned tea of sandwiches and beer.

And then some more beer and caching logs.


Old Trams

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The day began with the now traditional act of Kas going for a run, although in this instance she went for 3 runs, once on her own, then once with Ami and then once with Izzy. Far too much running. While they were doing this I mooched over to the ticket office to check out times for the boat on the lake and also made a couple of phone calls to the nearby Tram Museum. The conclusion was that the boat ride was something for the following day, as they only had one available and it was at a time we’d never make, what with all that running going on. See the Grevelingenmeer post to read about it.

On the subject of phoning the Tram Museum, whilst I have to admit I had some difficulty establishing what the opening times were, because the guy on the phone (rarely for a Dutch person) didn’t speak a lot of English and I speak virtually no Dutch, the level of service was very good. Initially he made a mistake on the tram times for the day, but rather than leave it he actually phoned my number back and apologised for having fed me a bum line. It didn’t really matter because we were going anyway, but it was a nice touch.

The Tram Museum itself was one of those very rare things these days, a haven for dedicated enthusiasts rather than a big commercial operation. The giveaway signs were little things like the fact that the cafe consisted of an urn and some sachets of coffee, and there was a fairly oily looking bloke wandering around the main room playing with the world’s largest train set (or tram set in this case). But it was all the better for this because it was friendly and very personable. You could engage the people in discussion on a subject that they were obviously totally obsessed with and you could see the effort that they’d put into restoring and maintaining the various vehicles they’d managed to acquire. If you were a train or tram freak you could spend every waking hour there.

As it happens though, I found it interesting but not obsession-forming, and nor did the girls, so we had a bit of a wander around for 90 minutes or so before our scheduled tram ride, during which we learned some history behind the Rotterdam Tram Company and the “island lines” and during which the kids had much fun exploring some of the restored carriages, especially the travelling bedroom one.

Our scheduled ride was on a fairly modern (say 1950s/1960s) tram that was all sleek stream lining. The streamlining wasn’t strictly necessary as it was pretty slow, but it was a pleasant ride all the way along the Brouwersdam past Port Zelande and up to the southern end. The map here shows that the tram goes onto the island, does a loop, and comes back again. In reality it makes an abrupt stop at a dead end station, whereupon we all had to get off for 5 minutes while some shuffling around of locomotive devices took place, and then we all got back on again in a slightly different formation.

I had a bit of caching planned for the afternoon so I suggested that we gain a half hour by the girls getting off the tram at the Port Zelande stop rather than riding over to the museum and me driving them back again. So they left me in mid-tram and I continued on my own back to the car park. So far so good, quite a pleasant morning.

My target caches for the afternoon were the remaining ones from the “Ouddorp en omgeving series” – a set of 13 puzzles (12 for months and a bonus) which all involved finding out a few things about the relevant month. The bonus was of the traditional grab-a-code-from-each variety. When we started I’d already got five of these on previous days. One during Not a Lot Happened and four during On Yer Bike. This left me with 7 plus the bonus to get. However, they were spread far and wide. The idea behind the series was that they are spread all over the Ouddorp end of Goeree-Overflakkee. There was going to be some driving involved.

The first one was cunningly in the woods not far from the RTM Tram Museum, so that was the obvious first stop. On the way there I found a simple multi. While I was at the puzzle (on a bird watchers’ hut, a bloke and his dog came up for a chat. He was apparently the owner of the hut, but it seemed ambiguous as to whether he was aware of the cache or not. I wasn’t the first person he’d noticed there but he didn’t seem completely sure of what it was about. On the way back to the car there was another one, at which I mooched around the bottom of a tree for a while before looking up to see a cache hanging from the tree several feet out of reach. I had to climb it. Thankfully it wasn’t too bad a climb. I reckon I got about 10 feet off the ground all in, but the tree was very secure and once I’d got my leg over the first branch it was very easy to climb. Not sure I’d better say too much to Kas about it though.

Back at the car I realised I wasn’t going to have time to do all the other caches on the way, and I was just going to have to do the puzzles caches and see what time it was. Turned out to be a good move, despite getting regular pangs whenever I knew I was driving past an easy roadside one. The trip was made extra exciting by me using the Freizeitkarte maps on the GPS for routing, so I had directions whilst in the car. I would never have made all of these caches in the afternoon without the routing, despite the occasional mishap (see later).

The second of the puzzles was just to the west of Ouddorp and the third was in a field between Ouddorp and Goedereede. The fourth was, to coin a phrase, many a mile distant. It was all the way over the other side of Stellendam, and was definitely the hardest to navigate to.

From here the next three were sort of homeward bound. One was down a road that took a while to find the entrance to, but the cache was an easy one underneath a picnic table stuck in a place where a picnic table served no purpose. The next two took me down a couple of roads that looked OK on the map but which turned out to very narrow single lanes with big drops down both sides, few passing places and (annoyingly) a couple of cyclists going my way who were not prepared to let me past. Just as I did pass them I had to stop for a cache. It was quick, and I got back into the car and got stuck behind them again.

This gave me all seven of the necessary caches, so I sat in the car with my pen and notebook and worked out the coordinates for the bonus. It looked wrong. It looked much too far away from the icon and sort of in the middle of nowhere. So I checked it all over and got the same answer. I eventually trusted myself and set the GPS into take-me-there mode. This was the point at which the routing failed though. It took me along a perfectly reasonable-looking road which ended at a crossroads, but one where all three of the other roads seemed to be cycle tracks. Hmmm ! 20 yards from the main road, but couldn’t get to it. I wasn’t really sure, so I waited a couple of minutes until a bloke with a dog that I’d passed caught up, and I asked him to confirm my interpretation of the signs. He agreed. Can’t go that way. Gotta go back. How did I miss that then? He told me that I could most likely get along one of the cycle paths to a nearby road, but if the police spotted me doing it there’d be trouble. I decided not to risk it. I turned around on the junction and went back the way I’d come, and took a different route at the next junction. This proved to be an acceptable route out.

The calculated location of the bonus looked like just an area of scrubland in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere because the nearest parking was some way away, and nowhere because there was nothing there. Just dunes, grass and sand. But as I approached the calculated GZ I noticed also a bridge over a ditch and some bushes. “A-ha!” I thought. “Likely cache hiding territory” And so it proved to be. After a couple of minutes making sure I was at the right spot I stuck my hand under the bridge and was greeted by a large, heavy, metallic object that looked suspiciously like an ammo can. That would indeed be the one then.

All in all that was quite a good series. The caches I found in the afternoon were :

By this time my day was over. It was getting late and there was some “stuff” to do in the evening. So I drove off home.

The “stuff” involved washing some running kit, munching on some sausages, mash and salad, drinking beer and logging geocaches while Kas was working on her new business website.

Tomorrow would be our last full day at Port Zelande. That came around quickly.


The Grevelingenmeer

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No, it’s not a disease, it’s a place. The Grevelingenmeer is the lake that was created behind the Brouwersdam as part of the Deltaworks project in the 70s and 80s. It is now a fairly substantial lake used mainly as a wildlife habitat and for water sports. It’s one of the estuaries that was closed off from the tides and so now has a constant water level and very little water flow. It also happens to be the lake that Center Parcs Port Zelande is built on, and they have a nice little tourist attraction of a moderately sized boat that does short tours of the lake from the marina. We decided this would be a worthy way of passing a couple of hours so had pre-purchased tickets the day before for a sailing at 10am.

10am at the boat meant we needed a fairly early start on what was a sunny but quite cool morning. We arrived in reasonable time but then had a major scare as I realised I’d left the tickets for the boat trip in the car, away over the far side of the car park somewhere. Thankfully, though, I had my car keys in my bag so at least I didn’t have to run back to the chalet to fetch those. I still had to run out to the car and back to get the tickets though.

As it turned out, as is ever the case, the boat didn’t leave at the advertised time, so I stood around panting and sweating a bit before getting on the boat, wondering why I’d run so quickly. Ho hum ! The other people who were waiting for the boat were giving me a funny look too.

The boat trip lasted around 90 minutes and essentially skirted the south coast of the lake along to Brouwershaven and back. I was somehow expecting it to go a bit further than that, but I guess it was a slowish boat. We were sitting up on the top deck and in comparison to the previous few days it wasn’t very warm. Like numpties we’d all failed to dress ourselves appropriately for a trip on the lake, so I think we were all a bit on the cold side.

As the boat trip was a whole 90 minutes there was ample time for the kids to demand some form of food and drink (even though we’d not long since had breakfast) so Kas grabbed some drinks, crisps and sweets from the small bar on the boat. This resulted in Kas and the kids missing a fair chunk of the trip out, but at least they were in the warm whilst they were doing it.

The boat trip was, as boat trips tend to be, fairly sedate. I think the kids enjoyed it, but there was a bit of soulful staring out over the water involved so it’s difficult to tell.

Maybe they were just getting a mournful about having to set off for home the following day. I was starting to get that kind of a feeling. It normally starts for me about a week before we go home, so holidays of a week or less are terrible for me because I spend the whole time being sorry about having to leave.

When the boat got home again we decided to scoot off to try to complete a couple of Earthcaches so that we were pushing forwards with our attempt to complete the Groundspeak “7 Souvenirs” challenge. So far we’d acquired 3 different souvenirs for 3 different caches types – a Traditional, a Multi and a Puzzle. An Earthcache would keep that ticking along nicely.

The Earthcaches we chose were over at Ouddorp Harbour. They were :

The first one was a bit of a duck-out job, to be honest. The description requires that you visit the island of Hompelvoet out in the lake, however this is a nature reserve and is not accessible during the months when birds are nesting, and as a result you can log the cache by taking a photo of yourself on the main shore with the island in the background. The nesting season runs pretty much all the way through the spring and summer. Hompelvoet is the just discernible line of trees in the middle of the lake behind us in the photo here. The photo is as close as we got. I was slightly disappointed that our boat trip hadn’t circled it, as that would have felt a bit more like “doing” the Earthcache properly, but hey ho !

The second of the two concerns a small sluice which used to be used for letting excess water out of the lake into the sea, and then latterly was considered as a way of allowing some brackish water into the lake, but at some point in the past it was blocked up, being no longer needed for either purpose.

What was quite disappointing was that although Ouddorp Harbour is a fairly substantial marina with many boats moored up there are absolutely no facilities apart from a yachting club that is only open for yachters who’ve bought a mooring licence, so what would have been a beautiful spot to stop for lunch was inaccessible to us. That made it a much shorter trip than it could have been.

So we returned to Port Zelande and had a bit of lunch, a liquid lunch in my case, with some sandwiches and crisps and the like. After this we went back to the chalet and chilled for a while, contemplating our navels and starting to assemble a few things back into the suitcases. We had the great idea of packing all the clean stuff into the same suitcase so that the following day, when we were stopping over in Ghent, we’d only have to take one suitcase into the hotel rather than all of them.

We then had time for one last trip to the swimming pool. It turned out to be the longest trip of the whole holiday. Izzy suddenly discovered some water wings, so something, and as well as our usual amount of plodging in the shallow pool she also got brave enough to go for several trips around the outdoor water slide. Actually, we all did, and I was quite enjoying it too. Funny thing, that. I normally hate swimming, but somehow on this afternoon it seemed like an excellent way to spend a couple of hours.

They don’t take reservations at the Pizza joint in Port Zelande so we got ourselves cleaned up and wandered off back to there early in the evening. It was fairly busy but not enough to stop us from getting a table straight away.

On the way back to our chalet on our final night at Port Zelande we somehow got into a jokey session of pig latin, the nett result of which is that the kids now refer to me as “Buttus Maximus”

Once we got back the evening sort of died a death. We got the kids to cram a few things into their bags and then Kas and I did a bit more of that so that the cases were ready all bar the stuff we needed overnight, and then we went to bed pretty early. We had a busy day in store for the following day and Port Zelande wanted us totally out of the way by 10am.


Atomic!

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So we came to our final morning at Center Parcs and had until 10am to vacate the cottage. This is quite early to get a family of four out of somewhere so we got up pretty early and while Kas and Izzy were doing some packing and sorting out of stuff me and Ami wandered across the car park to fetch the car in for loading.

Before we could do loading I decided we’d give it a bit of a clean first though. Nearly 2 weeks of travelling near the seaside meant we had a fairly large amount of sand inside the boot and on the rubber mats inside, all of which wanted getting rid of. Thankfully I could just about get the car close enough to the house to use the hoover, but it still took some time to do. There was a lot of sand.

After this we had a sort-of rolling breakfast, consisting of whatever was left in the fridge and fit to eat. Whilst we were doing this we were also busily disposing of all the things that weren’t fit to eat and cleaning up any other rubbish we happened to have lying around – you’ve gotta love self-catering holidays. Nothing says “time to go home” quite like spending your morning cleaning someone else’s property.

All of this activity went swimmingly well and we managed to get the chalet cleaned up and the car loaded up well before the required 10am deadline, so we then found ourselves off on our way, with just one night of our holiday left.

We had a hotel booked in Ghent for the night but decided that as everything is nicely close together around here that we quite fancied taking the girls to Brussels to see the Atomium. It’s a pretty spectacular thing and was more or less on the way (well, on one of the ways) from South Holland to Ghent anyway.

The route there from where we were took us inland a bit over to Zierikzee and then over a long bridge towards Goes and then along the narrow stretch of island past Krabbendijke before turning south across the border north of Antwerp. The boundary between Belgium and the Netherlands is a bit confusing at the best of times (see Baarle-Hertog) but thankfully as this is the main motorway between two of Europe’s biggest ports (Rotterdam and Antwerp) the border has essentially disappeared. There is still some evidence of the control gates that used to be there 25 years ago (albeit closed even back then) – nowadays there’s a big layby where lorries used to have to park up to be cleared and there’s an overhead gantry where the customs post used to be, but that’s it.

Belgium is very compact around here. There aren’t many gaps in between the towns. Driving from Antwerp to Brussels takes half an hour at the most, even in the fairly heavy traffic we had on this day, and before long we found ourselves picking a route around the Brussels Ring trying to find the right exit for the Atomium. We did find it eventually but we ended up on a slip road that was covered in roadworks, and one closed off portion appeared so late that I essentially had to stop and reverse back down again, as I’d got myself into a position of being unable to drive up the lane I was pointing at. I wasn’t the only one though. The route in to the Atomium from the motorway seemed much more complicated than it really needed to be, but eventually we were parked up on a nice wide boulevard staring directly along the road at an enormous load of shiny silver balls connected by equally shiny metal rods.

As we approached we did a random walk-by geocache ( Atomium – stealth challenge (Expo58) ). I’d checked the day before if there were any nearby and it turned out that there was one attached to one of the legs of the Atomium itself. So as we approached the closest leg I stuck my hand up where the cache must be given the supplied spoiler photograph, and managed to put my hand straight onto the cache without needing a GPS device at all. Magic.

Since Kas and I were last at the Atomium they’ve built a flashy new ticket office and cafe arrangement at the base. It took a while to queue to get the tickets (it was very busy) but once we had tickets there was then much less of a queue to get into the building itself. We did the various expositions on the lower floors (is that the right term – might be better to say “in the lower balls”) and then joined a huge queue to get up the obviously inadequate lifts which take you up to the upper viewing gallery and the restaurant.  I suspect it’s designed to control the total number of people at the top, but there was a definite problem with people spending longer up top than their estimate.#

Once we did get to the top the view was quite spectacular. The structure has been recently cleaned and sparkled and as it was a clear sunny day we could see for miles.

After the dizzy heights we came back downstairs and sat in the new cafe having a bit of lunch. We then had about half an hour left on our parking so we wandered off down one of the avenues to see if we could get any photos of ourselves appearing to “hold up” the Atomium. They worked, sort of.

And that was that. It was only mid-afternoon but we decided there wasn’t really enough time to explore anything else in Brussels, so we jumped back into the trusty CR-V and picked our way relatively slowly along the motorway to Ghent. It was busy. Somehow, though, we managed to get the right motorway exit first time, and then managed to spot the hotel in enough time to make the next junction too. And we found ourselves parked up outside the Ghent Holiday Inn, near Ghent’s new football stadium, the Ghelamco Arena, in remarkably good time.

The check-in was efficient and we had packed such that we only needed to carry up one suitcase and the various bits of hand luggage.

It was still quite early but couldn’t really be bothered to go out, so we just went down to the hotel bar for some beer (Leffe mainly), crisps, and chat. In the bar at the same time was a bunch of proverbial middle-aged-men-in-lycra who were cycling their way from the English West Country through some of the old military cemeteries in Flanders and northern France. Ghent was an overnight stop for them, having made their way from somewhere up near Calais during the day. They were having a whale of a time.

We also couldn’t be bothered too much with dinner so we decided to just try the hotel restaurant. We normally steer clear of hotel buffet all-you-can-eat jobs as they can tend to be a bit dodgy, but in this case we caught it quite early in the evening and everything looked quite fresh, and using the buffet had the advantage of the kids eating free, so we tucked into big starters, then hadn’t left enough space for much main course, but then remarkably had digested enough to make room for far too many puddings. Well, they were quite small.

We finished off our final night away by dozing off in the room whilst watching a few bits of the BBC coverage of the 100th anniversary of the UK joining the First World War. A fairly sombre kind of occasion but it’s the kind of thing that kids need to understand. One day we’ll come back to Flanders and “do it” properly by visiting a few of the major sites.

The room was far too hot, and we couldn’t figure out how to either open the windows or switch the air conditioning on. That made for a fairly fitful night for us all.


Coming Home

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The final day of our holiday, and once again the weather was looking pretty good. I can’t believe we’ve spent a fortnight away in Northern Europe and it only rained during the daytime once.

Breakfast at the Holiday Inn in Ghent was of the buffet type, and was actually rather nice. We were in no particular hurry to get anywhere as the check-out time was quite late and we estimated we could drive to Calais for our Channel Tunnel crossing in no more than 2 hours from here, so we pretty much had all day.

We packed up our one suitcase and decided to go and take a look around central Ghent for a couple of hours. I somehow had it in my mind that Ghent was going to be a bit like Bruges, and therefore tourist-friendly and photogenic.

It took us a little while to find a car park, and then once we were out of it we then spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out where we were and which direction to walk. We made our way along to the Vrijdagmarkt, which I was assuming would be the hub of all activity, but unfortunately we got the distinct impression that everywhere and everything was shut. The only signs of activity seemed to be the near-constant sound of roadworks around the city centre and virtually every view was spoiled by the presence of one or more tower cranes in the background.

It wasn’t quite what we were expecting and it certainly wasn’t what we were wanting to do on our final day, so after somewhat less than an hour we were back in the car and trying to find our way back out again, having done precisely nothing in central Ghent other than a bit of walking and a bit of swearing.

I’m sure it’s not that bad really, but it just didn’t seem like us to be the place we wanted to spend our last day.

Plan B was therefore put into action. Plan B hadn’t really existed until we were nearly back at the car, but it involved covering most of the miles between Ghent and Calais as soon as we could, so we decided we’d go and have a look at Dunkirk. We bombed fairly quickly along the motorway and soon reached the services we’d stopped at for breakfast on the way out (see On Our Way). By this time we were at a certain point with the fuel tank of the car where it seemed worthwhile to fill it up, especially seeing as Belgium seemed to be cheaper than both the Netherlands and France. What we didn’t know until we stopped was that the cheapness is, in part, required to compensate you from the extreme pain of trying to actually use the pumps at this station.

The procedure, as I eventually worked out, was that you had to go inside and pay first (having estimated how much you needed to pay), then they’d let you fill the car, and then if you’d spent less than you paid for you could go back inside (and queue again) to get a cash refund for the difference. I understand that this was to stop people from filling up and doing a runner, but surely a pay-at-pump option achieves the same thing. Anyway, it took about 3 times as long to fill up as it ought to do.

On that note though, I should say here that I was quite impressed by the fuel consumption of the CR-V. This holiday was the first time I’d had a chance to look at the consumption over an extended period, and by my reckoning we drove about 1200 miles on the trip and I used somewhere between 100 and 110 litres doing it. That is a substantial improvement on the performance of my old car. OK, the new one is diesel not petrol, but it’s still much better, especially given that the new one is less aerodynamic and probably heavier. Modern technology, huh!

Dunkirk proved quite easy to get to and we parked up in a vast (and deserted) underground car park not far from the beach and casino. Our first stop was lunch, and we sat outdoors on the edge of the beach (getting our various bits well sunburnt) and munched our way through some very nice jacket potatoes with various fillings.

After this we had a bit of a walk along the promenade towards a war memorial that was the start of a multi-geocache called Hommage à Georges Guynemer – Aviateur français. The endpoint of this cache took us to a little gem of a place that we’d otherwise never have visited – a small museum about Operation Dynamo. It was a fairly small place but it was a) out of the strong sunshine and b) full of interesting displays and a brief information film. It kept us occupied for about an hour or so.

After the history lesson we then proceeded back to the beach, which turned out to be the very beach that most of the soldiers were evacuated from, and attempted to do our own rather trivialised re-enactment, involving a bit of plodging in the sea whilst the girls were doing their best to get soaked and we were constantly moving our stuff further back up the beach to avoid the incoming tide. It was a rather pleasant way to spend our last “proper” hour of holiday before getting down to the final bit of travelling.

And once we finally decided enough was enough, at about 5 pm, we walked back up to the promenade and followed it along in search of an ice cream parlour. Well, we were still on holiday and so ice cream is part of the deal. We found an excellent place with all kinds of weird and wonderful flavours.

And that was it for your basic holiday activities. OK, so there was a bit of driving through France, a queue on the motorway, a tunnel trip, a McDonalds at Maidstone Services and then some more driving home, but fundamentally, leaving the beach was the end of the holiday. Apart from the virtual cache at the tunnel terminal called End of the Holiday, of course. Grabbing this cache very conveniently meant that by August 5th we’d already gathered 5 of the 6 cache types required for the August Challenge. We only had an event to attend to get the final souvenir, and as we arrived back home that night we’d already got plans in place for 5 events in the space of 3 days.