I’m finally across the Channel, and things are still going swimmingly – apart from the other day, which was my hardest on the road yet. I’d found the perfect campsite, in the corner of a pretty green field in Flanders, and was up and on the road by 7am after a good eight hours’ sleep. So far so good.
But from there on it was one of those days that never quite gets going. I got lost repeatedly – every time I got to a new town I’d fail to find the junction I was looking for, and often went round in circles, or ended up going miles out of my way and having to backtrack. At one point I dragged my fully loaded bike up two flights of steps onto a flyover, only to discover that this wasn’t the road I wanted after all, and have to carry it all the way back down again. In at least three places the road was closed completely because of construction works and I was sent off on a scantily signposted diversion, which inevitably chucked me out miles from where I wanted to be, or on a road cyclists weren’t allowed to ride on, or facing in the wrong direction, which I wouldn’t realize until I’d ridden a couple of miles to the next signpost. There was a strong wind, which was blowing into my face at least some of the time, meaning that no matter how hard I pedalled, I could only ever move at a steady crawl. The landscape was drearily, tediously, infuriatingly flat.
And I was riding entirely on Belgian cycle paths, some of which are actually quite impressive (I followed one alongside a motorway for about 20 miles on my way into Antwerp and, while it was boring, it was at least well-surfaced), but others of which are badly cobbled with uneven bricks or flagstones, which is fine for the two or three miles most Belgians ride to school or work, but less enjoyable for the 100 or so miles I had to ride before bedtime.
By 5 o’clock I was exhausted, sticky with sweat and grime, and extremely fed up. I was tempted to start looking for a place to camp, but the sun had just come out, and the wind had died down, so I persuaded myself to carry on for another hour or two – even though the countryside I was riding through was a wild-camper’s dream. I passed miles and miles of sunny deciduous forest, interspersed with overgrown little paddocks (and surely no one would notice my little green tent nestling in one corner…) and little winding lanes, just crying out to be explored. Like a fool, I pressed on.
By 7 o’clock I was starting to panic. The sun was getting ominously low, the shadows were getting long, and I hadn’t seen any decent places to hide a tent for miles. I was travelling along a long straight road, with large open fields on either side, very few hedges, and far too many houses for me to be sure that I wouldn’t be overlooked or disturbed. I passed through Leopoldsburg, and wasted a precious half-hour following a promising cycle path that beckoned me off into the trees. But after a lengthy detour of Leopoldsburg’s leafy suburbs I realized that it wasn’t going to take me more than a few metres from the nearest house, and wearily backtracked once again.
I sped down the road from Leopoldsburg to Hechtel-Eksel, already further than I’d planned to ride that day, through a blaze of golden sunshine that I knew only too well was its last hurrah before it slipped behind the clouds and twilight fell. All along the road was acres of scrubland, undergrowth and plantations of trees – perfect camping territory, were it not bristling with signs saying ‘Army – Keep Out’ (or the Belgian equivalent). I wasn’t even tempted to try and conceal myself there. Being arrested, or accidentally shot, was the last thing I needed. Hechtel-Eksel, when I reached it, looked much like Leopoldsburg – pleasant, sprawling suburbia, but no likely camping spots, and not even an open bar or cafe where I could throw myself on someone’s mercy.
And then, like a miracle, I spotted a tiny sign by the side of the road. It had a picture of a bicycle, a picture of a bed, and an arrow. I sped past it, and then reasoned with myself that whatever this was was too good an opportunity to miss, turned the bike around (laboriously) and followed the arrow off down a winding suburban street, past immaculate gardens and houses that looked like overgrown bungalows, into the growing twilight. I wondered if I might be about to come across a cyclists’ hostel or something similar, and whether they’d let me camp round the back (to save money), and whether I’d get a hot shower and somewhere to fill my water bottles. Every time I got to a junction, there was the sign again, just a bike and a bed, quietly pointing me in the right direction.
Eventually I drew up at yet another of the enormous houses, this one with a sign informing me it was a B&B and welcomed cyclists. My heart sank. There was no way I could afford this – or at least, there was, but if I made a habit of spending money at this rate, my trip wouldn’t last longer than a couple of months. But I was too tired and trembly to care, and this felt like my last chance, so I rang the bell, apologized for my lack of English, and coweringly asked if they’d mind very much if I camped in their garden.
The B&B was run by a couple of about my parents’ age, called Elly and Karel, and they spoke English, and ushered me straight through into the garden with an air of surprise that it could possibly be considered a problem. Of course I could camp in their garden! I pitched my tent on the flawless lawn, next to a landscaped pond with wrought-iron sculptures of birds and bulrushes, and tried to fend off their offers of tea, and dinner and breakfast, in the hope that the fewer of their services I availed myself of, the less I was likely to be charged in the morning.
I couldn’t resist the offer of a bathroom though, and wallowed gladly in their power shower as three days of sweat and dirt and fear ran down the plughole. And when I came downstairs I felt human enough to make proper conversation again, and told them about my trip, and accepted a bowl of soup with very little persuasion (since they insisted they had it on the stove already), and failed to say no to the plate of pear crumble that arrived alongside it, or the cup of tea I was presented with afterwards. And while I ate, Elly ran off to get the atlas, and Karel ran my route through the computer and told me I’d done at least 100 miles, and I started to relax into a belated glow of achievement.
By 10pm I was fast asleep in my tent, and by 7am I was up and getting ready to leave. Elly filled up my thermos for the road, and I nervously asked her how much I owed them, deciding that this was a necessary treat to ease myself into the journey, and trying to convince myself that I probably won’t make it all the way round the world anyway, and so might as well enjoy the parts that I do manage.
“Oh, it’s nothing!” she responded. “You camped in the garden – and anyway, I think you need your money.”
I was so overwhelmed that I nearly cried. I hadn’t expected or deserved this, and yet somehow everything had once again worked out to my advantage. I left promising to come back and see them again on my way home (so now I have to ride around the world), and to promote their B&B to anyone I know who might ever have reason to pass through Belgium. If you ever stay there, give them my love.
And then the sun came out, and the road started to undulate, and within a couple of hours I was in Germany. It’s surprising – and reassuring – how often a good day follows a bad one.