Tuesday, 31 March 2015

8 reasons to visit the Netherlands - without going to Amsterdam

8 reasons to visit Holland and not go anywhere near Amsterdam
“You’re going back to the Netherlands?”
“Isn’t it a bit boring?”
“Amsterdam is great but the rest is flat and uninteresting, isn’t it?”
 “I’ve been to Amsterdam, but I’ve never thought about going to the rest of the Netherlands.”
These are the kinds of responses I received when I told friends I was returning to the Netherlands. It has become a love affair for me. Me who’s always gravitated towards mountains is now enchanted by this flat, flat country. And I’m not bothered about going anywhere near Amsterdam. Here’s why.
1.       Great cycling
This is the thing. Cycling is civilised in the Netherlands. You can go off-road without worrying about getting a flat tyre because the cycle paths are surfaced. This also means more speed.  Neither do you need to worry about being knocked off your bike by a lorry, sprayed by a car on a rainy day, deafened by traffic or choked by exhaust fumes. And where there are no cycle paths, the roads are quiet. Plus the cyclist has priority. The routes are surprisingly varied and interesting too. There are undulating dunes; coastal forest; roadside canals; country lanes in the polders; wetlands, dykes and seawalls, plus pretty towns and villages – all with plenty of cafés and restaurants along the way for  a pit stop.
2.       Great beaches
Wide, white beaches that stretch out for miles - the Netherlands has some of the best beaches in Europe. I’ve not been in summer yet, but even in autumn and winter the beaches are busy with walkers, kite flyers and land yachters. The Dutch love the outdoors and a bit of cold weather doesn’t put them off. Then there are the beach pavilions …
3.       Beach café culture - the strandpaviljoen
From the land, the beaches are hidden from sight because of the soaring dykes, so opening a café with a view isn’t easy. The solution? Build the café right out on the beach. Almost every beach in the Netherlands has the ubiquitous ‘strandpaviljoen.’  Built into the dunes or right out on the sand on stilts, the beach pavilions have shabby-chic sophistication, beach-hut cool and New England style, combining casual soft furnishings, distressed furniture and decorations of candles, pebbles, shells and driftwood. Not only do the beach cafés look good, they also serve good food and a decent selection of Dutch beer. And how about a beach pub crawl? We stayed near Callantsoog, where there were three beach pavilions side by side. Crawling through the sand a few yards, with the sea roaring in your ear, is much more appealing than crawling through hard and dirty city streets!
4.       Islands
Yes, islands. The Wadden Sea islands stretch out a trail of droplets above the mainland: Texel (pronounced Tezel by the locals), Vieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog (with a few sandbars in between).  In the summer the boats plough across to the islands from the mainland, and from one island to the next. This trip, I only visited Texel, but I can’t wait to return in the summer so I can island-hop with my bicycle. Texel is a mini Netherlands, with the best of the Dutch landscape compacted into a small area: shoreline and seawall, coastal woodland, mountainous dunes, long, golden beaches and wetlands packed cheek-to-jowl with waders – which brings me to the birdlife.
5.       Birdlife
Black storks, gannets, spoonbills, oystercatchers, ducks of all descriptions, Northern lapwings, greenshanks and redshanks. I’d never seen so many birds packed into one small area as I did on Texel. And the large number of over-wintering birds was striking on the mainland as well. Because of the flatness of the land, your eye is level with the sky – and the birds that inhabit it. I’m not a twitcher, but because the birds in the Netherlands are always in your line of vision, you become more aware of them – crossing  in front of you, swooping and curving into constantly changing patterns; migrating to feeding grounds.
6.       Charming towns and villages
So Amsterdam is charming with its tall narrow buildings (a building tradition that came about because the Dutch were taxed according to the width of their houses) lining the canals and the narrow streets. And of course, there are the equally charming sit-up-and-beg bikes that come in every shape, colour and size. Actually this describes most towns in the Netherlands: Try the historical towns of Middelburg, Goes and Zierikzee in Zeeland, Alkmaar in North Holland or Utrecht in its eponymous province for starters, but every part of the Netherlands has its share of historical towns and villages. Check out the old fishing villages on the Markermeer and the Ijsselmeer. Then there’s the Netherlands’ answer to Venice – the car-less Giethoorn, a village of canals, boats and thatched cottages.
7.       Language heaven
Almost everyone speaks English - and probably another couple of languages for good measure. When I ask the Dutch whether they’d like me to speak in German or English, they often shrug their shoulders and say they don’t mind. I usually speak German for the practise, but the Giethoorn waiter was very disappointed that I’d run out of languages after English and German. He’d hoped to show off his French, Spanish and Arabic. While Dutch people feel obliged to learn a bit of the language when they go somewhere new on holidays (the same waiter told me), my understanding of Dutch is at best receptive. But it’s great fun working it out as it’s a halfway house between German and English.
8.       Koffie en Koek
I’ve never had a bad cup of coffee in the Netherlands and the apple cake, standard in most Dutch cafés, is second to none.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Haunted by a smile at Auschwitz

There is row upon row of photographs lining the walls of one of the barracks blocks at Auschwitz I. Face after face along the length of the building; both sides. These photographs were taken at least two years before Auschwitz was liberated - before the SS speeded up its killing machine; when the Nazis neither had the time nor the inclination to photograph each prisoner or record their details. When the trains from all across Europe headed straight for the crematoriums.
Like everything at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the sheer numbers make it hard to see beyond the mass of humanity to the individual lives: the mother, the father, the sister or brother; the lover, the colleague, the resistance fighter and the defiant; the quiet and unassuming; the meek and mild. Behind each photographed face is a story, a narrative cut short – reduced to a few details beneath the picture: a name, a nationality, a date of birth and deportation… and the date of death.
As I walk along the corridor, I gaze at the photographs of the women, masculine in appearance with their cropped hair, striped prison uniforms and identification tags, all gazing into a camera with expressionless faces.
Helena Bargiel stands out from all the other women. She causes me to stop in my tracks, and leaves me wondering why her picture is so compelling. Then I realise what it is that makes her stand out from all the others. She is smiling. This is a photograph that could have been taken by a friend, or someone in her family. As Helena stares into the camera, her face is open and confident and filled with optimism and strength. And I wonder what her story is.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is as flat as the polders of the Netherlands, the land stretching out to the woods in the far distance.  Beneath the winter ice and snow, the land is punctuated with watch towers and the remaining brick columns and gables of the bombed barracks blocks. In between, the metal ribbons of barbed wire are strung out across the frozen wastes. Just before the woods, the bombed crematoriums lie in tatters beside the ash ponds, the Nazis' attempt to conceal the damning evidence as the Russians approached.
 In the other direction the railway tracks lead the eye in to the death gate. It’s the landmark people most associate with Auschwitz, along with the cynical ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work will make you free) entrance gate at Auschwitz I. I walk the path taken by those selected for the crematorium - the young, the old and the weak - but I have no idea what it was like to be in their shoes.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is as flat as the polders of the Netherlands and a place of mountains: a mountain of empty Giftgas canisters (zyklon B); a mountain of wire spectacles and circles of glass; a mountain of shoes; a mountain of shaving brushes and enamel bowls and jugs; a mountain of suitcases and a mountain of hair.  The individual lives of so many people are heaped into singular mounds, and it’s this I find the most distressing. In the mountain of suitcases, I find solace in the individual names neatly painted onto the lids: Franz Engel, Klara Goldstein, Marie Kafka, Leon Singer and Paul Gelbkopf. But even at that, the individual names are just that: I don’t know their stories - and what makes each person identified on the suitcase an individual human being.
As we stand beside the collapsed crematoriums, the sun pale and shadowy in the snow-filled sky, our guide says: The Auschwitz prisoners resisted every day. They resisted death, fought to stay alive, organised food, supported the weak and the dying, holding onto the day when they would be liberated – when they could go back to their families and their homes. But the few who were finally liberated, realised on leaving Auschwitz that they had lost everything: their families, their homes and their lives. There was nothing left. Nothing.
Back home, I try to find out more about Helena.  Her photograph tells me her prison number is 32099; that she was a Pole born on the 2nd of March 1916; deported on the 29th January 1943 and dead by the 14th October 1943, still in her twenties.  Online I find her name hidden in among the long list of names beginning with B, as recorded by the German officials at Auschwitz. I learn that she came from Nowy Sacz southeast of Krakow and that she was a Catholic. That’s it. Nothing more. So I imagine narratives for her to match the strength in her face; imagine she was a member of the Polish resistance, or that she had hidden a Jew. In truth, she may just have been taken to Auschwitz for more ‘banal’ reasons - simply because she was a Pole and therefore an ‘Untermensch’ - a person of inferior race.
But as far as I can tell, Helena’s story is lost for ever, like so many others in the ‘mountains of Auschwitz.’
1.1   Million people (possibly more) died at Auschwitz
1 million of the victims were Jewish.
70-75,000 non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz
Today Auschwitz-Birkenau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (lest we forget)
This year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
First published on Wanderlust online magazine on my Freewheeling blog, 8th February 2015

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Is this the strangest town in Europe?

I’ve always been fascinated by odd borders – isolated towns and villages cut off from their own countries like islands in a foreign sea, or places straddling borders. So when my husband Tom suggested a visit to Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog, a town that is a muddle of Belgium and the Netherlands, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Baarle is a place with a split personality, I doubt many tourists would visit it. It’s a fairly non-descript place, with a mix of squat, featureless modern buildings and some older sturdy Flemish-styled brick buildings, but from a geographical point of view it’s one of the most fascinating places in Europe.

 No sooner had we parked in the town’s car park than the questions began. The line of white crosses, or iron pins, (indicating the border throughout the town) crossed the car park diagonally. We drove our car into a parking space in the Netherlands. Another car sat in Belgium a few spaces away, while the car opposite ours straddled both countries in its parking space. Who had responsibility for the car park, I wondered. Did the Dutch and Belgian authorities share the takings from the central ticket machine? And what about maintenance costs? Did they split them evenly – or did they just maintain their own patches? My head was hurting already, and I hadn’t even left the car park.

But this was just the beginning. We crossed the road from the car park to a bargain store, the border running through the middle of it. I bought a beanie in one country and paid for it in another. We wandered on through the town, sometimes in Belgium, sometimes in the Netherlands. There was no rhyme or reason to where the iron pins or studs popped up to indicate the border. It was not as if one side of the road was Belgium and the other the Netherlands (although this was sometimes the case) – it was much more complex. I entered one shop in Belgium, but as soon as I stepped back over its threshold, I was back in the Netherlands.

So here’s the lowdown with Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog: there are 22 Belgian enclaves inside the Netherlands (isolated pockets of Belgium in the Netherlands) and seven Dutch ‘counter’ enclaves in Belgium – pockets of Dutch land surrounded by Belgian land which in turn is surrounded by the Netherlands. Think Russian dolls. This crazy entanglement of Holland and Belgium goes back to the medieval lords of Breda and Brabant who were engaged in an endless round of rental and sales agreements along with land swaps. After Belgium came into existence in 1830, The Maastricht Treaty clarified and ratified the borders – but never simplified them.

On Kerkplein I came to a 3D model map of Baarle, the enclaves electronically rising and falling to show which were Belgian and which were Dutch. Of course, in reality the land doesn’t rise and fall to let you know which country you’re in; just the lines on the streets and the flag colours painted on the sides of the door number tiles to orientate the visitor – and probably the residents too.

By this stage, my head was spinning from working out whether I was in the Netherlands or Belgium. Yikes, I was in need of a large whiskey, but as it was still mid-morning a coffee would have to do. As we’d just spent a week in the Netherlands, we thought it would be nice to have our mid-morning cuppa in Belgium – only the Belgian cafes were still closed and the Dutch cafes around the corner were open. As you can imagine, the residents of the town can take advantage of favourable laws, whether they are in a Dutch enclave or a Belgian one.
Likewise, services come in pairs: churches, fire services, police forces, council workers and mayors. And if all this sounds very complicated, imagine how it must have been before the two countries joined the European Union.

But at the end of the day, there is still the small matter of which government you pay your taxes to. As houses are sometimes partly in the Netherlands and partly in Belgium, the position of the front door decides which municipal the owner pays their taxes to. Some residents have been known to move their door in order to pay a more favourable rate of tax. Even this can become problematic. Before we left the town, we passed a house with two front door numbers (and two doorbells) as the border goes right through the middle of the front door. With this household, the lucky owners get to choose which country they want to live in.

Baarle feels like a surreal social construct, or an elaborate joke or hoax – something like the Truman Show – but perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the fact that Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog is very much a real place.  We live in a very strange world.

Originally published on my Freewheeling blog for Wanderlust e-zine.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The lost villages of East Anglia and Zeeland

Last year at this time, we made our way across East Anglia to the Norfolk Broads, driving over vast empty spaces that stretched out to the horizon and on past homes marooned on the ripples of black ploughed up land like becalmed ships at sea. Crossing the wastelands, the feeling of being at sea was enhanced by the roll of the road – our car now travelling over a waterlogged, shifting landscape. Ahead, nothing interrupted the ocean of scruffy wetlands but for the odd isolated windmill, sails spread out to embrace big skies.
We were on our way to Norfolk and Suffolk for a week of cycling and canoeing, and exploration of seaside towns and villages like Southwold and Aldeburgh; echoing the fenland bleakness, on the cusp of winter.
We visited Aldeburgh on a cold, bright day in November: fishing boats shored up on the pebbled beach; guest houses hunkering down for winter. The beach was only a place for a brisk walk; head down against the icy wind, coats pulled close around the neck. As we waded through the pebbles, we came to a long spit with a Martello tower in the distance. We headed out onto the spit towards it. Other than the lookout, there was just a boatyard and boathouse - where once there’d been a thriving boatyard, a village and a long row of store huts. The last house in Slaughden was called ‘The Hazard’, because of the frequent storms. Once a thriving farm, it eventually lost its 30 acres to the sea - a farmhouse without its land. A non-farming family took it over in 1922, but in a space of a few years they’d been flooded out four times. In 1926, the storm was so severe; the inhabitants woke up to find the shingle had reached the top floor! In the Great Storm of 1953 the rest of the village succumbed to the sea and the broad slice of land was reduced to a narrow spit.
At the end of our week on the Broads, we took the coastal road home. We stopped off at Sea Palling, another seaside resort devastated by the storm of ‘53. The sea had breached and ripped through a section of the protecting sand dunes and carried away the Longshore Café, a bakery, general store and several homes. Villagers clung to the roofs of their homes as the ocean engulfed them, waiting to be rescued. Seven people died and thousands of acres of land were destroyed.
Further along at Happisburgh, we could see how nature had taken great ‘bites’ out the land. The neighbouring medieval village of Whimpwell had long surrendered to the sea, only surviving in the names of lanes and buildings.
A few weeks after returning home, a severe storm, combined with a spring tide, caused devastation again - a storm as severe as the storm of 1953. But unlike 1953, there was no loss of life this time- and less damage -thanks to advances in meteorology and technology. None the less, three properties fell into the sea, and another four were badly damaged.  The sea continues to claim back.
Roll on a year, and we’re in Zeeland in the Netherlands, spending another week cycling and exploring. Learning about the impact of the Great Storm of 1953 in East Anglia a year earlier, I had not given a thought to the devastation across the sea in the Netherlands. Nearly two thousand people lost their lives here – and tens of thousands lost their homes. The Dutch were determined never to let a catastrophe of this scale happen again.
Patrick, my son, and I saw this as we cycled across a bridge over the Oosterschelde in the mist, seven long miles following the line of the storm surge barrier and dam. And of this, almost three miles of massive sleuse gates that can be closed at a moment’s notice.
We cycled on to Zierikzee, the land flat, flat, flat; the sea always out of sight on the other side of the dyke. Beyond the town, the Watersnood Museum tells the story of the 1953 flood, its cost, and the massive building programme of 13 delta works across the area. One exhibit of a trashed room is accompanied by the words: We lost everything in one fell swoop. From our wedding photos to the bread bin: all gone.
Cycling back over the Zeelandbrug, and along the coast, it struck me that this bleak, but strangely poetic landscape, echoing East Anglia across the sea, holds a fragile beauty.

First published on Wanderlust's web mag on my regular blog, Freewheeling

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Playing Russian Roulette on the Odontotos, the toothed railway

I had the train timetable clutched in one hand, my ears pinned back, feeling for vibrations underfoot.
"There's a train due down the mountain in about 20 minutes," Tom said. "We need to be careful not to get caught in a squeeze."

We were in the Greek Peloponnese, flanked by Mount Chelmos on one side and the eastern extension of Mount Panachaiko on the other. Squashed between the two is the Vouraikos Gorge, with its great sculpted walls of limestone and conglomerates. And squashed again within the gorge is 'Odontotos', the 'toothed' railway.
Long, long before the rack and pin railway was built, Hercules – a guy with a bit of a reputation for brute strength – had arranged a seashore rendezvous with the woman he loved, Voura. Not prepared to let the few mountains in his way make the going arduous, or downright impossible, he used his legendary strength to force a passageway through to the ocean and his girl – and the Vouraikos Gorge was born.
Of course in reality, it's the power of nature, not Hercules, that has created this wild, dramatic and incredibly beautiful valley. From the seaside town of Diakofto, we took the first train of the day up to the tiny village of Zachlorou. Getting off, we crossed the line to the taverna, freshly hosed down with water; the waiter brushing up the remaining leaves scattering the terrace. We enjoyed a Greek-style 'Nes' coffee overlooking the gorge, watching butterflies dance a pas-de-deux above the riverbed, savouring the early morning quiet and coolness beneath the plane trees before walking into the heat of the Greek day... and a game of Russian Roulette on the railway track.
A year earlier in Sri Lanka, I'd watched the locals use the railway lines as a convenient footpath. It seemed a foolhardy activity, if not downright dangerous, yet at the same time, there was something romantically appealing about walking a train track. When I read about the 'Odontotos railway' and the 13 (or 22) kilometre trek back down to the sea along the sleepers – I knew this was one walk I had to do.
Now walking down the mountainside, it was almost time for the train to reach us on its return journey to Diakofto. As we stepped along the sleepers, we realised there was mostly plenty of space at the side of the track, but at other times there was nothing but a drop – or a tunnel wall. I didn't want to be squished by a train – or to be pushed, like a ragdoll, into the gorge below.
I heard a faint sound, a high frequency hum. Was it the wind? It was difficult to tell, but I was certain I could feel the metal of the track vibrate beneath my feet. Then there was no doubt about it: we could hear the rumble of a train. We leapt to the side and sure enough the train rounded the bend, the driver blowing his horn enthusiastically - just to be clear we weren't going to step onto the track again.
As the day wore on, it was reassuring to see that the train timetable more or less matched the arrival of the train as it trundled up and down the mountain – in accordance with our rough calculations of how far down the track we were. None the less, it felt as if we were engaged in a risky game, particularly in the narrow tunnels or in the gouged out rock face.
The goatherd, on the track below us, was equally aware of the imminent arrival of the train. We heard him before we saw him, whistling to his goats, the telltale sound of bells echoing around the gorge. As we rounded the corner, we found him sitting on the side of the railway line, his flock now safely out of way on the steep banks of the River Vouraikos.
Before I saw him, I'd pictured the goatherd as an old man with a chamois leather face, perhaps with a stained cotton shirt of frayed cuffs and collar, and a rough woollen waistcoat. I imagined a flat cap and pleated trousers gathered with string. His eyes would be watery and he'd be chewing on a blade of grass while holding a crook in a weathered hand.
But instead, when I turned the corner, I saw a boy dressed in combat trousers and a baseball cap talking into his mobile – the kind of lad you'd see lounging around an air-conditioned shopping mall, not this wild and inhospitable landscape.
"Kalimera," I shouted out.
The young goatherd gave me the customary curt Greek greeting, a sort of downward, upward nod, before continuing to chat into his phone.

We left the boy behind and soon reached the narrowest point of the gorge – a sliver of daylight streaming through the rocks at Portes. Here the train is forced through a tunnel. A sign indicated no entry for walkers. The alternative offered to us was a rusting metal bridge with handholds too far away to grasp. With my younger son Patrick, a similar age to the goatherd, I set off across the bridge.
Between the metal planks, not much wider than our feet, the gorge fell away sharply to the river that was tumbling down towards the Gulf of Corinth. Tom, and our elder son Jamie, looked on in disbelief – both vertigo sufferers.
Three quarters of the way over, I saw the section of metal I was stepping on had eroded to half its original width. On either side of the eroded plank, there were sheer drops. We made it across and looked around. Tom and Jamie were nowhere to be seen.
We spotted them emerging from the forbidden tunnel. They'd preferred the narrow blasted route through rock, with no room either side for human bodies – if perchance a train would come through...

We continued down the valley, elated to see the town of Diakofto and the sea spread out at our feet. We'd played the game of Russian Roulette – and won – bones and bodies still intact.

The Odontotos-Diakofto-Kalavryta Railway fact file

  • The Odontotos rack and pin railway is said to be one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world.
  •  Odontotos means the 'tooth' train.
  • The 22 kilometre train journey starts at the coastal town of Diakofto and terminates in the mountain village of Kalavryta.
  • The journey in its entirety takes approximately an hour (one way).
  • There are over three miles of cogged sections.
  • You can walk the entire section from Kalavryta (22km) or alight at Zachlorou and walk the lower, and most dramatic part (13km) – or simply buy a return ticket for the train.
  • There are six tunnels and 49 bridges along the entire length of the railway line.
  • Vouraikos Gorge is in a National Park that includes limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites. It's also a European nature conservation site (Natura 2000), chosen for its unique flora and fauna, geological, scientific and educational value.
  • During the Second World War all 1,200 men of Kalavryta, including boys over the age of 13, were executed by the Germans for their alleged part in the Resistance. The Germans rounded up the remaining women and children and set the town on fire. More fortunate than the men, most of the women and children escaped.
  • At the cliffside monastry of Agia Lavra, a flag of freedom marks yet another Lakavryta resistance over a century earlier – when the people of Kalavryta revolted against the Turks.
  • Just a few miles away from Kalavryta is a ski centre, offering some of the best snowboarding and skiing in Greece.
First published on Wanderlust e-magazine as part of the Freewheeling blog

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Is this the world’s strangest racing championship?

Is this the world’s strangest racing championship?
The girls, country gals born and breed, with names like Betty and Ginger, are ready and lined up to do battle at any price – at least in their owners’ minds. Welcome to the strangest racing event in Britain, maybe the world.

The World Championship Hen Race takes place on the first Saturday of August every year at the Barley Mow pub in Bonsall, Derbyshire. The summer event seems bizarre to say the least: Who in their right mind would think of racing bird-brained chickens on an annual basis? Only Bonsall, is the answer.  Indeed Bonsall’s a weird place any time of the year.  For a start, it touts itself as the UFO centre of the world, with its residents claiming numerous sightings of unidentifiable objects on the moors above the village.
There’s no sign of little green men on this rainy, August day: just fifty odd hens, their owners and trainers, along with several hundred bemused spectators, some who have come from the other end of England to enjoy the event.
The hens’ owners fuss over their feathered friends, although some of the names, it now materialises, are less country sweet and more sardonic nasty – names such as Korma, Kebab, Nugget and Drumsticks. It’s just as well the fowl have a poor grasp of English – and their fate.
But for now, they are preened and pampered, tucked in cages with fresh straw and water, some with umbrellas over their cages to keep them dry.
The races begin, the birds lined up with their trainers. And it’s off. Some of the hens shoot across the 15 metre track in record time and there are murmurs of ‘fowl’ play. Race assistants are allowed to rattle bags of food at the other end of the track behind the finishing line, but today’s crafty tactics include rattling metal tins and banging forks to ensure there’s no doubt where the finishing line is. It’s enough to ruffle a few feathers. Other rumours have been circulating that some over-competitive trainers have been coaching their hens for months, putting them through a rigorous exercise regime and keeping a close eye on their diet.
Some of the other birds, however, are hopeless cases, stopping to peck at the ground, amble over to the audience or even wander back to the starting line. They’ve ‘beaked too early,’ Colette, the Barley Mow landlady and mistress of hen puns, comments.
Other potential winners of the feathered variety allow their competitive streak to get the better of them. But Collette, adjudicator as well as commentator, is taking no nonsense: the slightest peck, never mind a full blown hen fight, gets the yellow card, then disqualification.
I’ve decided on my favourite now. A solemn boy dressed in red from head to toe is racing his bird, Road Runner, and she looks a cracker. She’s got stiff competition though from Save Our NHS and Living Wage entered by the local Labour councillor.
Then there’s a tough looking guy calling himself Coop-erman, dressed in a  brightly coloured suit printed with words like ‘booo, crack and pow’, and his gangster accomplice, The Master General , kitted out in sinister black. They clearly mean business. Just as I’m starting to feel I’m in the middle of a whacky dream, a man with an Irish accent steps onto the racetrack in cowboy hat, jeans and suede waist-coat and starts to sing Nessun Dorma – to inspire the hens, it transpires.
A number of heats later and the final line-up is ready to go. Road Runner’s in there, and would you believe it, she shoots across the track in seconds: pure poultry in motion. It’s been a closely run race and I have to wait a few minutes while video is scrutinised. But finally the winner’s declared – and it is Road Runner.
By the end of the champion races I’m convinced I’m in the middle of the most surreal dream, with Road Runner sitting serenely in the winning cup and another feathered competitor drinking ale from her owner’s wooden tankard.
And just as I’m thinking things can’t get any madder, the two assistant organisers who’ve come dressed to the event in matching feather-print dresses and boa scarves, run up the track to do a human version of the race.
It’s all getting too much for me by this stage and I realise I’m in need of a lie down. 

10 other crazy events from around the world:
1.       Fire swinging in Stone Haven, Scotland
2.     Cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire
3.       Battle of the Oranges, Ivrea, Italy
4.     Baby Jumping Festival, Castrillo de Murcia, Spain
5.     Holi Festival of Colours, India (Coloured power)
6.     The monkey buffet festival, Lopburi provence, Thailand
7.     Boryeong Mud Festival, South Korea
8.       Penis Festival, Kawasaki, Japan
9.     The Tuna Toss, Port Lincoln, Australia
10.  Moose Dropping Festival, Talkeetna, Alaska

First published on Wanderlust's web mag as part of my regular blog, Freewheeling
A version of this piece won the Telegraph's Just Back Competition in September 2014

Monday, 28 July 2014

Cycling through England

Just after 8am we slip out our own front door... and start to travel.

We will not cross skies or seas or bolt across the land in trains or cars; not travel at 500 mph - or even 100 - but at the stately speed of 10.
Sometimes less, if there are hills in the way.

We're on bikes, my son and I, travelling down through the Midlands of England into Hertfordshire - on a journey that normally takes just over two hours by car.
We will take three days.

On the first day we cycle as far as my neice's house with a present for her new born baby. Years later I'll tell Alyssa we rode 55 miles with her 'welcome to the world' present in the pannier. By the third day I will reach her Grandmother, my sister. I'll pass on the latest news about her daughter Rachel and husband, Steve, and tell her all about Ayssa. Never mind that the news will be two days old and out of date.
I'm experiencing what it's like to live in the past - when times were slower and news travelled slowly too.

At the beginning of the the First World War, young men, some just boys, joined up to see the world - or at least the trenches of France. Many of them had been no further than a five or ten mile radius of their village or town. Such was life for most of people. Travel was mostly restricted to foot or bike, occasionally a train. And now I'm experiencing that pace of life.
The world looks very different from a saddle.

At 8.30 we've reached the Cromford canal, shrouded in morning mist. I breathe in the smell of wild garlic; hear the Little Grebes pipe on the water. The dew-covered verge-side vegetation slaps against my legs; cold, wet.

Cycling engages all the senses. Travelling by car or train or plane sanitises them.

Late morning, we leave the dismantled railway trail and canal path behind. We stop in the village of Belton in search of a caffine shot. Two women hog the single outside table of the village shop. The pub has closed down. A local stops and asks:
"Can I help you?
"The pub?"
"Sorry, the pub has closed, but come and have coffee with me."
We follow him down the street to the Victorian house with its cottage garden and orchard. Raymond has a summer house, a Victoriana vintage chic-shabby living-room open to the orchard on two sides. It's a British take on the outdoors Mediterranean living space. He brings us coffee and cold water.
You don't have to go to Eastern Europe or further afield to receive hospitality from a stranger.

Over the next two days we cycle along country lanes, past barges on canals, through villages and towns.
We squelch through dark, puddled tunnels and slip past street musicians in market towns.
We watch children at play in city parks and young British Asians gathering for barbecues. In Leicester we'll follow Muslims in long, white gowns as they head for the mosque during Ramadan. We'll hear the wood pigeon and the skylark. We'll hear the roar of traffic on the motorways, and I'll visibly shrink at the speed of the traffic from the bridge above.
We'll stop at village pubs and park cafes and skirt city shopping streets, and I'll have a detailed picture of modern Britain.
You get a much stronger sense of what Britain is today, if you travel by bike.

By the end of day three I'm tired and hot, and I've never reached my sister's house with such elation. I'm so happy to be at a journey's end.
But I'm already thinking of my next trip through England... and beyond.

Cycling by numbers:
8 cups of coffee on the road
5 cities
4 ice-creams
3 pairs of sunglasses lost
1 puncture
0 carbon footprint