Iain D, our Rides Secretary, led this ride and writes:
With the planned route involving redways and their bollards, and this being the first anniversary of our ride to Monschau (blog readers can remind themselves of that day’s events here), I was a little apprehensive at the start, especially given the fog that had settled over Northamptonshire.
We were joined by a few of the regular crew, one occasional member and a new rider who also teaches spin classes! And I’d got such a gentle ride planned.
The seven of us took the usual route out from East Hunsbury towards Towcester, cut across the A5 south of town to Whittlebury and then had a pleasant and trouble-free run into Potterspury where we arrived for elevenses, at eleven o’clock, just as the shop was opening for the day.
Refreshed, and with the GPS now running (!), we headed off to Deanshanger and the lanes west of Milton Keynes before turning towards the conurbation itself. With thanks to Google Streetview, we found our desired redway fairly painlessly. This was important as that particular redway should, in theory, have delivered us all the way across MK directly onto the Willen Lake promenade. Alternating between wooded/grassy areas and some of the less salubrious housing estates, it actually made good on its promise and we arrived, unscathed, at Willen Lake not 50 yards from lunch. This pleased Milton immensely.
It being a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, there was a bit of a wait for food but since we’d bagged ourselves a table out in the sun we weren’t too fussed. It seemed better to wait than to ride back in towards the town centre.
Navigating away from lunch was harder, but we headed north on the redways then west across Great Linford to pick up the Millennium Cycleway then the Grand Union canal north out of town. That lane is now more cratered than ever, and just north of the bridge it’s a little muddy, but still usable. I hear it flooded a bit over the winter which doesn’t surprise me.
We were resting up in Hanslope a short while later, taking on a few mouthfuls of water, when a large 4×4 pulled over. The window came down and we thought we knew what was coming next. What they actually wanted to know was whether we were all okay or whether we needed any assistance! That doesn’t normally happen …
The group split in Quinton, those from the east side of town opting to avoid the town centre, leaving the rest of us to make our way back to East Hunsbury and the end of a very pleasant day’s riding.
The route for the (last 2/3rds of) the day is here. I forgot to turn the GPS on at the start (oops) and, interestingly, it failed to pause itself at Willen Lake. That does seem to be a recurrent issue there. Maybe MK messes up GPS somehow?
Tuesday 23rd April – Dunkirk to Northampton – words by Iain Dawson
Ian was away early to meet up with Alex and make the 10.00 a.m. boat out of Dunkerque. As a result, those two may have been the only part of the group to have ridden in rain all week. It had finished by time Dave and I had had breakfast.
We wandered across to the supermarché to grab a few food goodies (no beer or fags on this trip) then packed the bikes and headed for the port. Rather annoyingly, the French had decided to dig up the road that we’d come in on the previous evening but we remembered the alternative from our nocturnal food run so we were soon battling the wind on the route back through Dunkerque’s industrial hinterland. We did actually see the 10.00 a.m. boat departing but it took us a further fifteen minutes to get to the port ourselves.
Dunkerque is easier to navigate than Dover – no need for red lines here – and other passengers more talkative, both dockside and on the boat itself, so we had plenty of conversation on the way back.
We should have been last off the boat in (a cold and foggy) Dover, but someone upset the deckhand by not being ready to move when instructed so we enjoyed a leisurely stroll down the ramp, picked up the red line again and a few minutes later found ourselves outside the Travel Centre where it had all begun not one week earlier.
When we got to the top of the hill, where I’d left the car, all was sunny and warm. We did break the journey home by stopping at South Mimms services which I thought was the only Motorway Services signed from a National Cycle Route. Appropriate, I thought. I’ve since discovered that Severn View is also on an NCN route.
Only one thing left to ask: Where are we going next year?
Monday 22nd April – Aachen to Dunkirk
*GERMANY – BRIEFLY*
With our hosts having to return to their normal weekly routine, Dave and I were back down at the Hbf fairly early, soaking up the morning sun (again, we had warmth). Slightly worryingly, there was an ambulance on the station forecourt and when I wandered into the ticket office I was yelled at to get out. Not told, politely, that they were unable to be of assistance, but positively yelled at. I have no idea what had happened but it can’t have
Ian and Alex arrived shortly afterwards, their host also having a weekly routine to get back into, and we had an hour to spare before our train so went for one last wander into town, taking in the theatre building.
We made it back to the station with time to spare and made the platform to discover that our train was running behind schedule. Again we didn’t know where to put the bikes but, again, the SNCB staff were extremely helpful and efficient and we got all the stuff onboard without a problem. Why SNCB reserves its scabbiest trains for cross-border service I have no idea but this one, unlike the modern, efficient, unit on which we’d travelled the previous week seemed to be related to BR’s slam-door stock from the 1950s, with the added benefit of vinyl seating. It was also about the only graffiti’d train we saw all week.
We changed trains at Liège and were pleased to see that we had the same conductor as on Thursday’s outward journey, although how pleased she was to see us I can’t say. She did seem to cheer up when we told her we weren’t getting off until Oostende – the end of the line. This rail journey was quieter than last week’s and some more senior members of the group even found time to snooze.
From Oostende, the plan was to follow the knooppunt network – similar to the German node network – to navigate back to the French border. We failed, totally, to find the first of our knooppunts but, having found a sign for the second, we broke for lunch. We were even able to bring our bikes into the fenced-off al fresco dining area to keep an eye on them at the Adriatic-themed restaurant we chose.
Ah, remember the wind that had been so kind to us on Wednesday? It was still there, and still blowing in the same direction. Trouble was, we were now trying to go in the opposite direction. At least the knooppunt network had the advantage of running inland for most of the route, but not the first few kilometres which were along the seafront and interrupted by
sandbanks that had been blown up off the beach. Eventually we turned and the wind was somewhat abated but we’d still be working against it all the way back. Once we got into the habit of looking for knooppunt network signs, they were easy to spot and the trip to the end of the network near the French border went without error, although a local in Nieuwpoort insisted on riding along with us and giving us directions as we passed
through the town. Interesting, what you learn from the locals.
The day’s first navigation mistake came at the end of the network, when someone (no names!) misread the map and made straight over a junction instead of turning right. There followed a serene few miles of road which dead-ended at a No Trespassing sign. Oops. After a brief discussion over the possible courses of action, we made France.
We crossed the French border at the spot photographed in Day 1’s blog and continued our way into Dunkerque, where navigation mistake no. 2 happened. Alex had already turned off to head to his night’s accommodation when we unexpectedly found ouselves in the town square, which hadn’t been on the route plan! After a quick discussion with some locals, we were headed the right way. Some short time later Ian found himself distraught at the discovery that right next door to our hotel was an ever cheaper one. Quelle horreur! (I should mention here that we’d paid under £10 each for the hotel room so I’ve no idea what a Formule1 charges).
The Endomondo route for our ride from Ostend to Dunkirk is here – 37 miles.
What followed is probably the best short ride I’ve had in years. There was no food to be had in the immediate vicinity of the hotel, a Buffalo Grill some 15 minutes ride away being the recommendation of the reception staff, so we called up Alex, who also hadn’t eaten, he came over and we set off, at speed, in the dark, throught the silent streets of a foreign town in search of our dinner. After a couple of miles we spotted a pizza parlour and made their day by ordering two of the largest pizzas I’ve ever seen, and four cans of Fanta.
Suitably refreshed, we retraced our route, rolled the bikes into the room (for the management had had the foresight to install us in a ground floor unit) and settled down for the night.
Sunday 21st April – A day’s ride to Monschau, high in the Eifel Hills. Words by Iain Dawson; photos by Ian Macsporran
A word of warning about this report – it tells of damaged bicycles and fallen riders. Those of a nervous disposition should look away now.
It was also unexpectedly cold!
GERMANY (YES, STILL THERE)
Our hosts had decided to join us for part of this trip – in fact they were to lead the first few kilometres – so Otto had saddled up the tandem with son acting as stoker and Elke was riding her trusty town bike (although it’s far more capable than that description suggests, and far quicker. Who needs 24 gears in town?). Ulrich had also joined us for the day.
We were treated first to a visit to the Forst tree (that’s not a typo – it’s in the village/suburb of Forst), a lime tree that’s not many generations of Aacheners from its millennium and which has developed quite an impressive girth over its lifetime. Then we hit the trail towards Kornelimunster. For light relief, along the run in to Kornelimunster, someone has replicated the solar system, which is to say that, at appropriate distances (proportional to typical distance from the sun), there are plaques representing the planets of the solar system. Each plaque contains a proportionally-sized hemisphere and some basic information about the relevant body. It was a little disappointing to find Jupiter the size of a grapefruit while earth was a mere pimple but it served to put things in perspective.
After Kornelimunster we hit another ex-railway line (other countries have had their Dr Beechings) which brought us to the Vennbahn and, eventually, to Belgium. In fact, the first part of Vennbahn that we rode runs through the German-speaking corner of Belgium. You thought they had problems because they have two languages? They’ve actually got three. What fun.
It was somewhere around here that our hosts turned back towards Kornelimunster for Sunday lunch so Phil resumed leadership duties although Ulrich was still with us and was to act as our guide later on.
BELGIUM. SORT OF.
The Vennbahn proper is a politically interesting piece of real estate. While it runs partly through modern-day Belgium and partly through modern-day Germany, it is, in fact and in law, entirely Belgian. That is to say that, although the rail line has German territory either side of it for much of its length, the trackbed and Right of Way are emphatically Belgian.
The original plan was to stop for a coffee in Raeren but, since we were making good progress, we pressed on and stopped for a brief buzzbar/waterbottle stop in Roetgen. This may have been a mistake. A few kilometres later, and I’ll mention no names here, one of us was looking at a map when they managed to collide with a bollard. The rider behind swerved to miss them and ended-up sliding face-first down the bank at the side of the track.
This was very worrying, and could have been very serious for the riders concerned but fortunately damage was limited to a few scrapes and bruises and a busted gear cable. It could have been so much worse. For future reference, please pay attention to your surroundings! Even when riding “easy” cycle tracks !!!
We continued in a more cautious mood to our day’s destination: Monschau, “Pearl of the Eifels”. What a beauty! Okay, the short, rapid, descent was welcome after spending the morning pushing up the gentle but persistent incline of the Vennbahn, and the cobbled streets were no longer a suprise, but the only adjective that springs readily to mind is “chocolate box”. I do so wish we’d had more time here. The village is small, set in a narrow valley, and it’s a tourist trap, but I’d have spent a happy day sitting outside or just wandering round looking at the place. Next time I’m bringing a sketch book. It was exceptionally cold but by this time we’d topped 2000′ in altitude and it was still April so that shouldn’t have been a surprise. We’d just got used to the unseasonably warm weather we’d been enjoying on the trip.
After spending just a few kilometres inside Germany to drop down into Monschau and make our way back up to the top, we headed back into Belgium proper, through Mützenich, to cross the High Fen, where the red flags were flying not, as we suspected, because of military manoeuvres but to prohibit access to the open country in the interests of wildlife. We were okay, sticking to forest roads, although we did still need to take care as logging operations were very much in evidence and bits of tree were sticking out over the tracks. We looped around the reservoir that serves the Belgian town of Eupen, which looked rather low on water, and then through to more productive farmland. It seems that, despite differing traditions between the neighbouring countries, locals along the border don’t even really note that they’ve crossed the border these days. I suppose that the common currency and lack of border controls (or even lack of border signs) have blurred the boundaries somewhat. It’s no surprise that this piece of the continent is really at the centre of the “European Project”.
BACK TO GERMANY
Back in Aachen, we bade farewell to Ulrich, and to Phil and Rowan who were continuing their travels in Germany for a while longer.
The Endomondo route for our ride is here – 56 miles.
Tomorrow, we’d number four on the road.
Saturday 20th April – Two rides with ADFC Aachen – words by Iain Dawson and Ian Macsporran, photos by Ian Macsporran
David and Iain spent the morning exploring the town centre on foot, having lunch, writing postcards, doing the usual tourist stuff, etc.. Didn’t get much riding done before 1pm.
Meanwhile Ian and Alex joined the ADFC Aachen “brisk” ride. This was to be a circumnavigation of Aachen around seven of its high points! Sabine took us to the meeting point – the Audimax building of the University of Aachen – where the ride was, in fact, jointly organised by the ADFC and the university cycling club. As a result, the two of us sent the average age soaring!
The route was up-and-down and up-and-down to say the least and the fit young German cyclists were kind enough to wait once or twice for the oldies to catch up! It was pretty much non-stop pedalling from 10.00 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. with just time to eat a chocolate bar and take a drink of water. But it was brilliant! After the Lousberg – yesterday a mighty hill, today just a warm-up – we had an idea of what might be in store.
Next was the Dreiländereck – the hard way – but with time for photos.
Then onto other high points culminating at one with a huge modern crucifix (Aachen is, traditionally, a Catholic city) before swooping down to the Europaplatz and onto the Railway Station, the end-point of the “brisk” ride and the start point of the “easy” ride. No time for catching breath, just some goodbyes to our new student friends and some hellos to our next friends, and then we were off on the “easy’ ride. (I think a sandwich may have been gulped down at this point.)
Meanwhile, Iain D had met up with Phil, Rowan and David and had ridden over to the shop to collect David’s bike, complete with new Shimano bottom bracket. Even out of hours the shop serves customers as they’ve seen fit to install an inner-tube vending machine on an outside wall. Couldn’t see an airline though. Got a quick tour of the southern part of Aachen from a former resident (i.e. Phil) on the way to the Hbf, passing the ADFC’s local HQ in the Welt Haus (“World House”) on the way. This is a former council-occupied building that is now leased out to a number of environmentally- or socially- aware orgainsations (think Greenpeace, unemployed-workers-cooperative cafe, etc.). I can’t readily think of a matching example here in the UK.
PLUS NETHERLANDS AND BELGIUM
So the afternoon ADFC ride was a “beginners’ ride” – via an easy route as the morning adventurers noted – up to the Dreiländereck/Dreilanderpunkt/Point-Trois-Frontieres which, as its names suggest, is where three countries come together at a single point. The ride started by crossing town to the University Hospital (Aachen has one of the largest technical universities in Germany, and also one of the largest university medical centres) to see if anyone else was wanting to join the ride (there were about 30 of us by this point). The recently installed helipad (known as the “helping hand”) has to be seen to be believed – it’s bright green and looks like a crocodile’s head. Mind you, the whole hospital is “Pompidou Centre” style with brightly-painted external pipework. Another thing we don’t usually see on our rides is someone taking a cigarette break – obviously not all German cyclists are health freaks.
We climbed our way up through the Dutch town of Vaals, stopping at an old border point, and continued to climb through woodland to the point itself.
It was also getting warm again. With not much to see (it’s more of a plateau than a point), and the service from the frites counter being appallingly slow (some of us – who had not had lunch – persevered), we headed downwards on forest tracks through a half-marathon that was nearing its end and paused, once again, near another old border crossing. At this point we had to separate from the ADFC group as we had to get back to our respective bases and freshen-up for the evening meal.
A single Endomondo route for the two rides is here – 52 miles.
BACK IN GERMANY
This is supposed to be a ride report, so I’ll skip most of the details of the meal except to say that the gift that we had sourced for our host group – a beautifully engraved bell – was handed over and much appreciated by the ADFC members present. I also still owe Brian for my share of that … I did enjoy the ride “home” though, Elke leading the way through the dark and silent streets of Aachen and us not seeing the cobbles until it was too late.
Friday 19th April – about Aachen. Words by Iain Dawson, photos by Ian Macsporran.
With David’s bottom bracket having spent the last few miles of Belgium protesting, Philip had agreed to hook him up with the best cycle mechanic in Aachen (thanks, Connie). Rowan had apparently spotted something called “shopping” and our hosts had to work for a living so Ian, Alex and I agreed to meet back at the Elisenbrunnen after breakfast and go for a ride. This wasn’t a planned part of the programme, so can’t be classed as an official CTC ride, but we were in Germany, we had our bikes, we were going to ride.
I’d put this plan before our hosts that morning, explaining that we wanted to head east of the city, and was immediately asked “Why?”. Apparently, things are much prettier if you head due north and I can’t fault Elke’s logic on that. We rode over the Lousberg, which is as close as Aachen gets to a city park.
We then pedalled through the Wurmtal, a lovely little valley with a node network to assist in route-finding.
We got to Elke’s proposed drink stop a litle before it opened so pressed on into the town of Herzogenrath. Not the prettiest place on the map but the coffee was perfectly decent and the cake remarkable. We took a slightly different route back out of Herzogenrath to pick-up directions back into town and found ourselves riding down a slightly unusual street. Unusual only in that the bus stop signs had changed (again) and the streetname was printed twice. Once in each of two languages.
Niuewstraat, as it’s known on its northern side, or Neustraße as it’s known to the folks on its southern side, is indeed unusual. The border between the Netherlands and Germany runs right down the centre of the road. The Lidl supermarket is in Germany but to get to it, you have to navigate a roundabout which is half in the Netherlands. Apparently, when the two countries play each other on the football field, this is not the place to find yourself. It was perfectly peaceful while we were there though.
The Endomondo route of our morning ride is here – 23 miles.
We picked-up our planned route back through Bank to Aachen central and stopped for a decent lunch before heading over to meet the others in the thermal baths. It turns out, to Ian’s great delight, that Aachen’s local contribution to the culinary world is black pudding, although our waitress was somewhat at a loss to understand why a cyclist would want to order alcohol-free beer. Don’t know why, everywhere seemed to sell it.
Having fed, we belted across town, back on Alex’s GPS, to the Carolus Thermen – Aachen’s other main tourist draw – to touch base with the rest of the group. Connie had arranged a courtesy bike for David while his was in for repair so we were all still mobile! A sauna and swim-session later (so relaxing), the others had disappeared off for a bite to eat so the three of us regrouped and headed across to the main rail station (herinafter referred to as the Hbf) to meet up with Bob and Sue, and Ulrich, for a tour of Aachen’s cycle facilities. These involve a lot of the usual helpful stuff, like cycle lanes, but also some superb, secure, cycle parking at the station and, crucially, left turn lanes for cyclists at some of the busy junctions.
These allow a cyclist to come through the right-hand lane to a junction, wait safely in the junction until the through traffic has cleared, and then make the left turn with priority over vehicles now waiting to cross from the sides. Brilliant idea!
The tour was followed with a bit of food and drink and, well, we had to get back at a decent time bearing in mind that our hosts had children to consider so I have no idea what happened later on. (Sabine took Alex and Ian on a tour of her favourite flood-lit buildings in Aachen!)