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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.