Youth Hostelling in Holland (i)
Tilbury - Hook of Holland - The Hague
As it never entered my head in 1952 to take photographs – the one precious camera in our family never being allowed near my slippery fingers, far less being offered to me to record aspects of an adventure where it would be bumped up and down in a bicycle pannier during a youth hostelling trip around Holland – I have had to browse the web to find images that nearly match the vivid pictures in my mind of some of the events that occurred in the Netherlands some fifty-two years ago.
Words like ‘ Madurodam’, ‘canals’, ‘clogs’, ‘Routex’, ‘trams’, ‘tram-lines’, ‘windmills’, ‘dykes’, ‘cheese’, ‘swing-bridges’, ‘white gravestones and crosses’, all still come to mind as ‘telecasted’ snap-shots of happenings on the roads to, and the streets of, Delft, Rotterdam, The Hague, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Alkmaar, Volendam, Hilversum, Amersfoort, Arnhem, and Njimegen.
I remember looking up in awe and amazement at the sheer height and overall size of the ship that awaited our embarking in Tilbury’s twilight. I can still recall being fascinated by the shadowy habitations on the gradually receding banks of the Thames estuary, and then their becoming distant twinkling lights. But as we nosed out into the North Sea, such reveries were rudely disturbed as the gentle swell rapidly became so mountainous that its waves soon had us all sliding from one side of the stern deck to the other.
At that point the Vicar ordered us all inside to claim any place on the deck or wooden benches that we could find to stretch out for the night. That was more easily said than done, as no sooner had one found ‘bed-room’ than one was either tossed off a bench on top of someone else, or rolled yards across the deck. It became quite clear that it was going to be a rough old crossing that night. Luckily Roy and I had eaten very little before the voyage. This hadn’t been the case for many of the others, as one after another they proceeded to empty their stomachs, again and again, in the time-honoured fashion of the sea-sick.
Roy and I felt fine, so we rapidly distanced ourselves from the ‘sick-bay’ that our converted ‘dormitory’ had become. Finding a cosy corner outside on deck, but well away from the rails, we passed a fairly contented, if sleepless, night under the stars. However, it must be recorded that enjoyment of an occasional ‘Woodbine’, frequent sorties around the rest of the ship, and not the least sign of relapsing into self-pity, all helped to make the passage of time interesting rather than miserable.
The Hook of Holland was sighted at first light and we were soon wheeling our bikes through its dockyards and setting off for – somewhere! Nobody had told us the exact details of our itinerary, but first stop proved to be Delft for sight-seeing and then onwards, over bridges and canals, and past umpteen windmills, to a rural youth hostel for the night somewhere not too far from Rotterdam - all accomplished by using the Dutch government’s innovative road-side cycle-paths.
As our reservations at all hostels included an evening meal, this first night served as an introduction to the massive helpings of vegetables, particularly potatoes, that seemed to be expected and were thus typical of Dutch hospitality. In the event, despite over-filled stomachs most of our party, who were of course feeling the effects of a disturbed night and also a day’s cycling, especially Roy and I, were, after the meal, immediately ready to ‘hit the sack’! And that is exactly what it proved to be – our first ‘taste’ and feel of straw-filled palliasses! Despite the itchy feeling created by the odd bit of sharp straw nibbling away at one’s posterior and also once one had created a ‘nest’ by appropriate wriggling, drifting off quickly to sleep proved much easier than most of us had predicted. The next day took in a brief visit to Rotterdam before we set out for a few days in and around The Hague, as prelude to establishing our main touring base in Amsterdam for about a week.
Four things about our stay in The Hague stand out in my memory. The first concerns our learning a new party cycling discipline in the city when trams and particularly tram-lines became a real threat to wheels by jamming or buckling them, or worse still by toppling the unwary into the path of on-coming vehicles. Thus the rules became – give warnings of their imminent presence by shouting the ‘code’, ‘LAMTRINES’(!), avoid them whenever possible, and if they have to be crossed, make sure of doing this at least at an angle of forty-five degrees. Pre-warned is forearmed and fortunately nothing untoward befell anyone in this context thereafter.
The second feature was the discovery of a self-service cafeteria chain called Routex [I cannot remember exactly how it was spelt, but it sounded like this] that provided excellent midday meals or snacks as well as equally good value for money. So much so that after any visit to Routex there were very few, if any of us, in too much of a hurry to get ‘back in the saddle’ in the afternoon! It soon became policy to do most of our mileage from as early in the morning as possible, relax by site-seeing after lunch, and then, if necessary, ‘free-wheel’ the remaining few miles to any new hostel destination after tea-time.
The third highlight was a fairly brief swim in the North Sea at Sheveningen one day before lunch. The air was bracing like Scotland. The sea was as cold as it always is in Scotland. But the expanse of beach was littered with high-backed basket chairs the like of which you would never see in Scotland – certainly ideal to shelter in from either wind or sun – and we blessed them that day for the former comfort!
After a welcome ‘chittery-bite’ snack and cup of soup, and as my fourth highlight, we set off to the recently completed Madurodam Amusement Park nearby. It had been opened officially on the 2nd of July 1952 and had been established as both a war monument and a charitable foundation. As I understood it then, its thematic design was aimed at representing as many features of Dutch life and culture as possible in a novel way through its buildings and communication systems in miniature – on a scale of exactly 1:25 – and thus, with tiny wee me literally the same height as the church roofs and the tops of bridges constructed around my feet, it was amazing, even then in its very early days of development, to be able to wander along its pathways and become lost in total admiration for the skill displayed in its precisely created artefacts. Unforgettable!