Saturday, late afternoon

The sleet subsided and the crew unloaded bikes onto the quay. Hugo, our bicycle tour guide, adjusted each vehicle for its rider. Everyone was chatty and friendly. We had a few Brits and Australians along but I’d say the majority were Americans in the 50+ range. Not only was Hugo responsible for keeping riders safe he also had to be familiar with the routes, sights and history for our week-long sojourn, while communicating in no less than three languages: English, American AND Australian.

With saddles and handlebars set the riders tried out their steeds on the bike path. Some were more confident on two wheels than others.

There are four kinds of cyclist:

1) Those who cycle for sport

2) Those who cycle for recreation

3) Those who cycle as a daily means to get around

4) Those who can cycle – but rarely do.

I am firmly in category 3. To me a bicycle is a snappy way of getting around at little cost. There’s a joy and a freedom that comes with cycling that I don’t get from anything else. It seems pointless to change into spandex (what the British call lycra) just to go down the road. Once you have your bike, and develop a basic level of fitness, you can go just about anywhere for next to nothing. For me it is exercise, transportation, entertainment and therapy all rolled into one.

A scientist was asked, “What is the most energy efficient method in the known universe for moving a mass from point a to point b?” The answer wasn’t a solar engine, nuclear reaction or something fired from a gun but a human on a bicycle. Knowing this fact has given me renewed respect for my favourite way of getting around. If enough people cycled it would improve the health of the entire planet. But, there is a caveat to the benefits of cycling: you have to be able to do it without falling off. Looking around at the people cautiously wobbling along on their newly acquired rides it seemed highly possible that several on the tour were in category 4 – and not exactly born for the saddle.

I helped out with some initial adjustments while a couple of women from Iowa told me the snow had been so thick this winter they had “trained” for the holiday by riding stationary bikes in their basements. I remember pausing and wondering if such practice was any kind of substitute for balancing a bike in the real world. About a third of the group looked distinctly wobbly to me.

Hugo, easily visible in his neon yellow helmet had a friendly grey-bearded face and straggly hair that made him look like he should be a sea captain. While, our actual captain, called Eelke, seemed to my landlubber eyes too young to be a captain: in his thirties, wearing a matelot shirt and with blond curly hair he sat behind the wheel of his ship in a state of terminal coolness. But as we all got to know each other I was delighted to find that Eelke, and the rest of the small crew, were relaxed and friendly in their professionalism: a feature heightened from having a cargo of ukulele players aboard. Ukulele people are fun people and when you get a few together the joy is infectious. I’ve seen it time and again.

We saddled up and Hugo led us on an easy six-mile ride. Our route followed a path with water along one side. You soon start to realize that in the Netherlands every home has a water view and every lane has an accompanying canal running nearby. We all know that much of the Netherlands (over half according to Wikipedia) has been reclaimed from the sea, but still, it was amazing to stand on a dyke observing the sea on one side, while, on the other, looking down on houses and gardens that stood at least ten feet (three metres) below sea level. The sight gave me a feeling of unease – as if I was seeing something fundamentally unnatural, like an upside-down tree, blue peas or a cat playing Minecraft.

Hugo, a master story-teller, liked to stop often to tell us the story behind everything. Here was a statue dedicated to The Little Dutch Boy “who symbolizes the perpetual struggle of Holland against the water”. I think most of us have heard about the boy who, on noticing a leaking dyke, shoved his finger into the hole to plug the leak until help arrived. But there’s much more to this story and Hugo, still in his bike helmet, threw himself into the drama of the tale, hurling himself full length onto the road-bricks where he rolled and struggled as he re-enacted the boy’s epic battle with the torrent. Some of the riders were looking a little nervously at this man yelling and fighting for his life on the floor of the town square. I loved it – what an entertainer. We need more of that in this world.

Back at the ship, it was time for drinks and food. We all gathered at the bar before settling at the tables. Chef came out and walked the centre aisle making our tastebuds tingle with a tantalizing speech of what we were about to eat, “Tonight we have a beetroot salad with Italian parma ham (everybody went ‘Oooh’). Then for main course we have tenderloin (‘Aaaah’) with carrots and baked rice and a sauce of mushrooms and onions (more ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’). And for dessert we have (pausing for effect before pointing a finger in the air and saying) CHOCOLATE PIE! (Big cheer ‘Yaaay’) wiiiiith raspberry ice cream (double ‘Yaaay’). Enjoy your meal.”

He stood a few seconds looking at us, grinning with hands clasped in front of him, before going back into the kitchen as we cheered again. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it once more, ukulele people are the best.

But, having said that, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily interested in playing ukulele. For, after the dinner things were cleared away, Hugo went on at length about tomorrow’s itinerary before announcing that he was going immediately for a walk around historic Haarlem and did anyone want to come? Well of course nearly everyone did, me included, but my job was to lead the ukulele playing, so, a small group of us non-walkers stayed behind to strum. I remember enjoying a small thrill singing Jacques Brel’s Port of Amsterdam while actually moored at a port in Amsterdam.


Breakfast was a continental affair of fresh bread, sliced cheeses, meats, oats, muesli, juice, yogurt, good coffee and little packets of chocolate sprinkles to put on our bread and butter – a Dutch staple. Ready for the first full day of cycling, everyone was dressed in their finest spandex and looking slightly bow-legged in padded cycling shorts. We’d been promised a packed lunch and it dawned on us that we had to make our own meal with the leftovers from breakfast. There was a scramble to grab the best bits of left-over ham and cheese and soon we were ready to depart for Keukenhof Gardens: Hugo leading the way, with Elaine, at the end of the line, working as sweeper to catch stragglers and take care of mishaps. I stayed up front and took in the pleasure of cycling through a flat landscape (in South Yorkshire where I live – everything is uphill.) After a few minutes we stopped and looked back. The end of the line was nowhere to be seen. We waited until Elaine appeared and waved for us to continue.

This kept happening at every pause in the cycling, whether for a view, a road crossing or change in direction, the front riders were rested and ready to go just as the last stragglers were finally arriving. The solution to this concertinaing forward motion I assumed was simple: The slower riders needed to set off first and the quicker ones would overtake them and we’d all get balanced out. But I discovered, when I took over the job of sweeper, that the problem was a completely different one:

As the front of the group set off, the slower riders stayed behind; fiddling with helmet & pannier straps, buttoning jackets and cleaning spectacles. I urged them on without success and then saw why. The problem was in mounting the machines. As our stragglers pushed-off some had about a fifty-fifty chance of getting their leg across the pedal crank and onto both pedals before they veered into a bush or simply fell sideways onto the road. I was horrified. Each time the group set off I watched as five or six riders toppled like dominoes or lost control to ride into oncoming cyclists (some of whom said naughty words – but in Dutch, so as not to hurt our feelings.) The less confident riders had rented electric e-bikes but, if anything, these made the situation worse as the extra e-machinery took up e-space making it harder to get a foot over the e-middle and onto the e-pedals before landing on the e-ground.

It was mortifying (and, I have to admit, slightly hilarious in a slapstick kind of way) to see people wobbling and tumbling into grass verges at slow speed. But everyone kept smiling, no-one seemed to be getting hurt and progress was indeed made as we rode past hundreds of acres of tulip fields, which filled our eyes with colour from every direction. By late morning we’d arrived at the famous Keukenhof Gardens.

As a showcase for tulip growers, Keukenhof is the epitome of what the tulip industry has to offer. Seven million spring flowering bulbs are planted in cascades of reds, yellows, oranges, blues, purples and even blacks – flowing along borders with green lawns and sculptures to create swirling patterns and shining mosaics of waving colour. That is, if you can see them for all the people.

It was unsettling, after floating peacefully on open waterways and riding serenely on country lanes, to suddenly find ourselves jostling for elbow room among crowds of tulip loving tourists. They looked to me as if they had arrived, ticked off their bucket lists, and then thought to themselves, “Well, we’ve paid the entrance fee. We may as well wander around aimlessly for a couple of hours.”

I’m not good with crowds. I will never go to see the Mona Lisa because I know that if I did, it would irritate me no end that thousands of people had chosen the same day to go as me, and I wouldn’t enjoy it at all. After an hour of pushing through the press of humanity and eating my cheese sandwich with a couple of friends outside the heaving café I suddenly came upon a joyous sound. In one corner of the gardens, by a decorative fountain, was an automated mechanical music machine.

Built on the back of a trailer the machine was putting out a bouncy arrangement of the song Yellow Lemon Tree by Fool’s Garden. I find there’s an extra emotive power that comes from music heard while away from home. Without the normal business of daily routine perhaps we open up to a deeper level of connection, making music more stirring than it would otherwise be. I don’t know, but on hearing this multi-talented mechanical marvel blaring out its magnificent melody I was uplifted no end. I took out my phone and filmed half a minute.

Going round the back to check the workings you could see that a single belt-driven wheel was powering the ensemble, which consisted of various organ pipes, wood-blocks and drums arranged to make the jauntiest sound possible: a sound that was recorded into sheets of slotted punch-cards that continually passed through a reader in the centre. (See it here) Just brilliant. What sort of a mind can put all this invention together? I would love to make one of these in my garage – but I wouldn’t know where to begin.

While at the machine I bumped into Elaine and our resident Hawaiian dancer/singer, Robyn, and we wandered around the rest of the gardens looking at every whimsical thing that can possibly be done with tulips. After rendezvousing with Hugo and the rest of the gang at the entrance we remounted our bikes, some more successfully than others, and set off back to the ship.

I think it was Susanna who held the record for the most falls; seemingly taking a tumble every time she tried to get on. Hugo phoned the bike company and Susanna was promised a smaller bike for the following day. We got back to our floating hotel, some feeling slightly saddle-sore and worse for wear, where we showered, ate and then spent the evening laughing and drinking while using our ukuleles to strum the pains away.

To be continued…

Next time – in Part 3 – we learn the secret behind the Netherland’s world-conquering industrial might. Meanwhile Susanna abandons her new bike and learns the George Formby strum instead.