Night Boat to Breda
Breda, Netherlands May 2020
Under the cover of semi-darkness, “Pearl Earring”, her code name for this mission, made her way through the park, hoping that she wouldn’t be recognised. She imagined suspicious eyes boring into her back and it felt as if she was dragging a headless corpse behind her instead of a wheelie case…
Thankfully the station was deserted as she boarded the train to the docks to pick up the night ferry. Her first mission…. to reach Holland by first light, undetected…
OK … maybe it wasn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds, but it raised a few eyebrows when I told friends that I was defying the current lockdown (and Foreign office) advice to travel out to visit my son Dan in Holland. There were extenuating circumstances, but this pandemic has instilled a huge variety of emotions in everyone but most people who defy the “guidelines” are generally being vilified. Personally I feel that as an (almost!) grown up, I watch the news, read copious articles written by respected leaders in the fields of science, health, business (and in my case travel and aviation) and am able to decide for myself what constitutes “common sense” in this situation.
To that end, I concluded that my son’s (and to be honest my own mental health) was getting a bit shaky and was worth risking the journey for. Walking through our (frankly quite busy) park, I still felt a bit of a “Dominic (Cummings)” – I think I’ve just invented a new Cockney rhyming slang word – to be leaving the virus behind to visit Dan.
The station was deserted and the barriers up – nothing like the normal commuter rush hour. For the next 50 minutes I was transported (in more ways than one) by the views out of the window of the glorious sunset over the Essex/Suffolk countryside… It almost felt normal, and my usual anticipation and excitement at beginning a new journey took over.
Arriving into the grandly named “Harwich International” ferry terminal with only a handful of fellow travellers, I was ushered through the delightfully simple and speedy check in procedures by the friendly Stena line staff. With no duty free shops to navigate and few restrictions on luggage allowance plus no tedious removal of shoes, laptops, watches, keys, phones etc… at security, it made a refreshing change from travelling by air. Containers of liquid of any shape and size were permitted, which was lucky as Dan had asked me to bring out a couple of bottles of Nando’s sauce! Oh if only they knew the mischief I could get up to with those fiery liquids on a half empty ferry!
I dropped my case off inside my cosy cabin and returned to the unimaginatively named “Deck 9”. I had romantic visions of watching the sun going down over the River Stour, but since the only open bar/café was full of rowdy truckers (not necessarily following social distancing guidelines) I decided to retire to my cabin to watch “The Great British Sewing Bee” with a cup of tea. I certainly know how to live! My adventure had begun!
I was lulled to sleep by the soft hum of the engines had a good few hours shuteye with no iceberg themed nightmares. I wasn’t best pleased however, to be roused at 5.30am (and then every half hour) the following morning by the holiday camp style tannoy announcing that “Breakfast was now being served in the café on Deck 9”!
Abandoning all hopes of drifting off again, I washed, dressed and made my way up to the café for a cuppa as the ship slowly drifted into the port of Hoek Van Holland. Disembarkation was even easier than embarkation, and after a slight hiccup (I jumped on the bus outside the terminal thinking it took us to the metro station when in fact the station was right next door!), I was on my way to Rotterdam. I’d made it!
Pt 2 : Trojan Cows…
The Dutch are about to bring in a mandatory rule that everyone should wear facemasks on public transport, but most people were practising social distancing and the trains and stations remained pretty deserted. My footsteps echoed around the enormous modern monolith that was Rotterdam Centraal Station as I changed trains to NS Dutch rail network. Arriving safely in Breda and giving my son a hug after five long months was just what I needed and I felt the stresses of the past few weeks slipping away as we strolled over the road to his new home in the blazing sunshine. I do like what I’ve seen of the Netherlands. Breda is a reasonable sized town, situated in North Brabant – between Rotterdam and Tilburg. It has an impressive castle, a wonderful gothic church in a central cobbled square (the Grote Markt), a much utilised park, and of course – a canal! It was once the centre of the Dutch food and drink industry and was home to Holland’s largest brewery (Oranjeboom – now only brewed in Guernsey – go figure!) until 2004. There is still an impressive collection of craft breweries in the town and no visit would (under normal circumstances) be complete without a pub crawl with my experienced guide! At one brewery (Beers and Barrels) you can even reserve a table with its own tap and you pay for the beer by the kilo! I have visions of compulsory “weigh ins” on the “way in” … and again on the way out (to the loos!). Unfortunately all restaurants and bars were still closed and due to re-open on 1st June – bad timing on my behalf!
Dan had recently moved into a handsome 30’s built town house opposite the station and I was looking forward to my show round. I had originally booked flights at the end of March to help him move in but due to the pandemic, all plans were cancelled and we were placed in lockdown, so the poor thing had to organise everything on his own. He’d made an impressive start with the decorating and fixing up, and apart from giving the house a good clean (being a bloke, he figured he’d wait until he’d finished the remodelling – whenever that might be!), I’d offered to do a spot of work on the garden.
But before I was set to a week’s hard labour, I was treated to a pleasant afternoon enjoying the sunshine on a walking tour of Breda’s “Blind Walls” – no not what you might find at the end of a “blind alley”, but a series of over 80 murals by International artists each relating to a part of Breda’s history.
As a single man, Dan’s fridge was full of beer, pepperoni and not much else, so I suggested we might do some food shopping later that day. In Holland, social distancing is only 1.5 metres – rumour has it that it’s because the medical experts there reckon the virus is so stoned it can’t be bothered to travel the extra 50cms (I may have made that bit up!). In any case, the supermarkets and most large shops ingeniously ensured this distance was maintained by insisting that everyone take a trolley and kept it in front of them at all times. So there was no queues to enter or at check out – and no shortage of loo rolls, flour etc. It was all extremely civilised. In fact none of their stores had closed – just brought in social distancing measures from the start and it felt strange to be walking down a relatively “normal” and fully functioning high street with everything open for business. Bars and restaurants were making preparations to open the following week, and you could sense the excitement!
The Netherlands seem to have a lot more outside space than the UK, so there was plenty of room in the large open squares to separate the tables. They were all due to open again on 1st June, which coincidentally was Whit Monday. I shuddered to think of the chaos this would initiate if they re-opened our pubs on a sunny Bank Holiday. But of course, here it was all very well organised with bars opening table bookings on-line for a 2 hour slot. Dan naturally was all over it and had already booked several consecutive slots for a long awaited pub crawl with his mates!
The following days flew by and comprised of visits to the Dutch versions of B & Q, Wyevale and Ikea, weeding and planting up his tidy little front and back gardens, helping him with decorating tips and rustling up some home cooked healthy dinners. I felt like I’d been reinvented as a low budget cross between Charlie Dimmock, Mary Berry and Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen (not a pretty picture)!
I was initially a bit shocked when Dan suggested we met up with a friend for a walk to Belgium… Fortunately it turns out we were quite close to the border and Dan regularly has to make site visits there (and currently has to produce a certificate to state that he is travelling for legitimate business purposes). As we strode off into the open countryside, I had visions of being interrogated by armed guards with ferocious looking dogs. I was slightly disappointed to find the border marked simply with a large stone! Dan told me this walk was called “The Smugglers Route” and I pondered on what supplies were actually trafficked between the two countries. Apparently many items were smuggled between the Netherlands and Belgium, even up until 1970. These included butter, sugar, coffee, salt and cigarettes; but also women’s tights, cows, soap and bikes.
Exactly how or why these were smuggled in or out of which country was not explained, but I imagined a kind of “Trojan cow” on (bike) wheels full of contraband (including the rest of the bike!) which could be surreptitiously “moo-ved” across the border.
We didn’t see any contraband cows or smugglers – but the walk took us through idyllic rolling fields, sand carpeted pine forests and reedy lakes. And of course, we had the added frisson (or should that be Friesian?!) of knowing we had illegally crossed the border!
Dan told me of a peculiar nearby “intermeshed” town – Baarle Nassau (Holland)/Barle Hertog (Belgium) – which sits directly on the complicated borderline between Belgium and Netherlands. The numerous enclaves actually dissect several homes and shops including a supermarket and a café and are marked by white crosses with “NL” on one side ad “B” on the other! I’d hate to be there when the two national sides play each other at football, and the current differing quarantine and social distancing restrictions were causing havoc. For example, the Dutch were allowing socially distanced gatherings of up to 30 people inside, but in Belgium it remained at 20, which I imagine poses the question for establishments straddling a border, “can they allow for 50, 30 or 20 people??”! One partitioned clothing store had to “close” the Flemish side whilst keeping the Dutch section “open” and they could only sell clothes on the Dutch side. I wondered which side the changing room was on!
I had enjoyed my small slice of “normality” but the time had come to make my way back home to our infested isle before compulsory quarantine was put in place. I bid a fond “Hou dou” to Dan (the Brabant for “Goodbye” – must be very confusing for any Northerners visiting the area!) and set off back to the Hook.
Unwisely as it transpired, I’d booked a daytime sailing for my return, forgetting that this would involve more people congregating in the ferry’s limited public spaces. To add to my problems, a compulsory Zoom meeting to discuss possible redundancies at work was inconveniently scheduled for mid-way through my journey, so I had to find a location on board which didn’t actually look or sound like I was on a ferry in the middle of the North Sea!
This was no mean feat as a large Irish family along with countless screaming children seemed to have taken over most of the seating areas. Getting more raucous by the hour (and by the Guinness by the look of it!), finding a quiet spot for my meeting became quite a challenge! Wandering the length of the ship I was surprised to find the fruit machine section was still operating, but my hopes of finding a tranquil slot were unfruitful, dashed by a loudly snoring lorry driver who had beaten me to it. Continuing my search, I then settled on the unmanned check in desk by the drivers’ deck entrance. Although the background fitted the bill, I was concerned that my meeting might be interrupted by a trucker asking me what time we were disembarking, or a tannoy message advertising the current duty free offers (yes..that was still open too!). I finally settled myself in a “pay as you go” massage chair under the stairwell, put myself on mute, and prayed that the drivers lounge didn’t empty out during my call.
Meeting completed, I felt nicely relaxed despite still not having a job to return to! I returned to the café only to find the Irish contingent now joined by a trio of Liver birds, who looked like they were returning from an illegal hen weekend (and to think I felt guilty about travelling out to visit Dan!). Despite their obvious hangovers, and encouraged by the Irish and several hairs of the dog, they proceeded to scare off the rest of the passengers, including some very tough looking truckers! Thankfully we made it back to Blighty without it all kicking off too much, and slowly (very, very slowly) drifted past the huge container port of Felixstowe and into Harwich as the sun began to set.
I was anticipating being questioned/body searched/temperature checked/breathalysed (the Irish were in trouble!)/arrested as I walked through passport control, but then remembered that “World Beating” track and trace app that we had in place, so of course, all of this was unnecessary. Unchallenged I made my way back to Essex on the deserted train, my mini adventure over and my mission accomplished.