Tues 17th Sept.
Ghent, Bruges and the north coast.
Now I was really behind. This four-hour knock back meant that I had to do at least 100km a day to make the ferry I’d booked my ticket for, on top of already being behind schedule from the problems in Germany. Thankfully the bike was still running well and I had enough in me for a solid days riding.
I left at the crack of dawn. While I was packing up I saw early commuters in the house on the edge of the park going to work, spotting me by my tent. It always felt like I was a kid playing army men when I was camping, the objective not to be seen by the enemy. To blend in to your surroundings and become wild, like the creatures that inhabit the area. That was always my thoughts after having done this for so long and the thought of being spotted blew everything. No-one every came over and said anything in the few times I had been seen camping, probably to avoid any conflict, the only time I had been rumbled was early on in the french countryside near Nantes by a farmer who let me stay anyway.
As it happens this was the last night I would be camping and an end to playing army or fears of being rumbled again. The end of bad sleep, folding up a wet tent and wrapping it into the back to sit on the back of the bike for hours before I get a chance to air it out and the end of sleeping on a deflated mattress. I had a host on the coast in Belgium for tonight, providing I get there and had a host organised in Cambridge when I got back to England.
I don’t remember anything between the spot where I woke up and Ghent, other than stopping in a bar to have a coffee and a bakery before that to get bread and a pastry. The bar had the same dead atmosphere of the cafe I first came into when I got into Belgium.
I had no expectations of Ghent nor did I have much time there. Although it was a very beautiful city and I would love to spend more time there if I was there again. My plan was to stop briefly and keep cycling. But a briefly became not-so-brief and I soon realised that if I was going to spend anytime in Bruges to look around and get to my hosts for the night on the coast it might be a good idea to get a train to Bruges. I really didn’t want to as I could’ve easily done it two.
I went to a tourist office there to locate the train station and had my first slip off the bike slamming into the ground in about three months. People came quickly to check on me. I was fine, just the pride that was damaged. The train took about 30 minutes and then I was in the mythical city of Bruges.
The weather made a turn for the worse here and while I was cycling around the centre I had another slip. Slam back into the floor. Clearly it wasn’t my day.
The plans to see the city were dwindled by the weather, so I just got some food looked around the centre, bought some tat and planned my escape.
I was still using Google maps, which meant stopping to check them every fifteen minutes or so, taking the iPad out of the front pannier, made more annoying by the rain. I made an error on the road leaving Bruges and managed to correct it before it was too devastating.
Now I was on the right track, it meant nailing the distance between Bruges and the coast as quickly as possible. The next major stop was Ostend which was 18 miles (28km) from Bruges. It was getting late and although I had the advantage of slightly later sunset in Holland and Belgium over Germany, it still wasn’t enough to keep me riding in the daylight.
It was raining too, although it wasn’t heavy it was consistent combined with wind and cold that was a form of misery I could only associate with being near the sea on a gloomy day.
I got to Ostend and it was still light. A good sign. Seeing the see always felt triumphant, like you’ve maxed out the roads due to shear mileage. I took my time by the sea. It was remarkable how english this stretch of coast felt. Cold, miserable and wet. All things I associate with a youth growing up by the sea in Devon.
It was another 18 miles to my where my hosts lived, although I didn’t really know this at the time and though it was too far to go. Darkness came over the landscape and the rain kept coming. I’d lost my back light while I was running around Antwerp (not the only thing I lost there) so I only had the front one. Cycling in the rain at night with one light wasn’t good. I was glad I didn’t get stopped by any police.
The next town was Nieuwpoort. This was good, now I was close. I had to go out of my way here and follow the road around where the sea comes into the town. Then it was just a mile or two from here. I was still going full pelt.
Finally I reached the road I need, having to stop regularly and check it with the glimpses of map I’d saved. My host hadn’t given me a house number, but had just written “It’s the house with the VW transporter van outside”. Great. I went up and down the road at night and found the only VW transporter the was. I knocked on the door and a surprised looking young woman answered. I asked if she was who I was looking for and she said now and got her husband. I showed them the email and explained I’d knocked because of the van and then it clicked. The guy I needed lived a few doors up, sometimes he takes in cycle people. I apologised for disturbing them and thanked them for helping. I was so close to my final night in Europe being over.
I found the house with the VW van parked in the drive. I knocked on the door and got a similar response as I did the other night. “We didn’t think you were coming”. Yeah, yeah I know.
I had become so cold during cycling that my hands, arms and legs had become numb. They took my in, had leftover food and offered a shower. Even after ten minutes in the shower I still hadn’t thawed out properly and thought about what I would be like if I had to camp in this. I know I would’ve got on with it and been okay once I was in the sleeping bag, but I was so grateful to have a bed again. Warmshowers had saved my skin a number of times on this trip.
A few weeks before setting off, I hadn’t heard of Warmshowers and was planning to wing it most of the time with camping and occasionally stay in hostels. Now it was such an important and life-saving element of the trip, I really don’t know how I would’ve done without it, or how different things would’ve been if I hadn’t heard about it. To any aspiring tourers reading, definitely check it out and donate to it if you can. It’s an incredible community.