vrijdag 17 mei 2019

Valedictory quadrangle

The Dutch Vignettes were written for an international audience. Some geographical names have been anglicized. See Footnotes for the originals.  

They look like lakes, but actually they are peat bogs. The wide lakes between Amsterdam and Utrecht are man-made, created by peat-cutters. The water-table in this part of the country being quite high, the ditches filled with water as soon as the peat was out, conveniently creating canals along which the dried soil could be removed. After years of peat extraction, the result was a plethora of useless lakes like those at Loosedrift.

House at Loosedrift
(Google Maps)
Heading west on my customary biking round, I follow a narrow road through a quite rural-looking village. To my right, in a park-like setting, I'm allowed a glimpse of the stately House at Loosedrift, painstakingly restored Dutch classicism at its best (so I thought - but actually it's a contemporary replica in 18th-century style, known locally as The Nine Limetrees). Well-hidden from the immodest public view by strategically grown shrubs and trees. No more than a glance to my right.

For years, this had been my bike training ride. A more or less square trajectory which I could complete in about an hour. The predictability made it easy to fit it into my day's schedule - not that I biked every day, but knowing how long it took certainly made it easier to decide to mount the purple Batavus Challenger and go. We were, however, about to leave Hilversum for another part of the country, so this ride would be my farewell to the square-shaped route. A valedictory quadrangle.

I am overtaken by a confidently spluttering green old-timer; caring for vintage cars is a popular pastime here of the well-to-do citizens that have taken up residence by the lakeside.

Further along the road, converted farmsteads, a village school, a few shops and a church. Decked out in orange vanes, fluttering in the breeze, a shop on the left of the road proclaims itself to be 'The New Baker', supplying 'bread and luxurious bonbons'. A determined-looking woman comes out holding a bag which she carefully stuffs into one of the panniers of her black bicycle and then she wheels off.

Next to the baker's is a modest church building. Not exactly a tin chapel, but in the same unassuming league. For such a small, relatively rural community, Loosedrift is remarkably well-endowed with churches. According to a varnished wooden plaque on its door, this one is serving the Reformed Parish, with a single service at 10am on Sundays. There's no-one around, today being Thursday.

The narrow two-lane road curves gently to the right, passing a shipyard full of pleasure boats, some cradled in wooden docks along the road: The Hare, Star Heres, Morning Star. Not everybody here appears to be into driving vintage cars. After all, the lakes are the attraction, not the roads.

Another, somewhat taller, church moves into view; this one, looking like a proper church with a tower, belongs to the Dutch Reformed parish, which is presumably not only larger than the other one, but also seems to be hungrier for the word of the Lord, being open for services Sundays at 10am and 6pm, so the plaque on the porch is saying.

The trees surrounding the church and lining the road turn this into a pleasant, shadowy spot. A fairytale touch is added by the castle to the right. As we're in the middle of a former peat bog this is unlikely to be a medieval fortification, and indeed it isn't. Seepstone Castle, a romantic folly that appears to have got out of hand, was built in the 1920s by the last remaining member of a noble family who wanted a lasting memorial to his ancestors.

A proper castle he wanted, with stables and varied gardens and all. The current head gardener is a somewhat gruff lady who appears to be in total control of the grounds. The result is most convincing, seen from the outside. I must admit that I swished past this place on my tenspeed numerous times, but never visited it.

Like many such places in the Netherlands, this hamlet too does not appear to feel embarassed by presenting such a predictable picture postcard village image. Even the horses pretending to do nothing, grazing on the grass meadows seem to be part of the conspiracy. Look, we're just an ordinary village.

But the picture changes when the narrow road widens into a deserted bus turning loop. This is where the ordered world ends, at this overgrown bus terminus with its sagging bus stop sign, while the road continues.

Gone are the baker and the horses; all of a sudden we're on a narrow tree-lined strip of land with a huge lake on both sides. The dam is the only land left after the peat was cut and carried off. The shipyard marking this point is called Treehook; once barren, the dyke is leafy. Dotted alongside the road are dwellings, many of which are unmistakeably weekend cottages standing empty, waiting for Friday evening to arrive.

Others are luxury villas, each with their own little jetty at the bottom of a lakeside garden. At least, that's what I assume, because many mansions are surrounded by tall walls or impenetrable hedges. Anything for privacy.


I grip my handlebars for a sharp turn to the left, and I'm heading south. On this side of my quadrangle, guess what, another shipyard, with huge yachts this time.  The road is not a dyke anymore; on the right is the bank of Southern Loosedrift Lake, while on my left long and narrow plots of land behind large bungalows reach out a bit further to the lake beyond, which is named after this settlement, Brooklyn Fawn.

My southbound pedalling is briefly interrupted by a left-right zigzag, during which I'm tracing the Utrecht-North Holland provincial border for a while.

The next church - it's not only shipyards and villas - is at Tenfarms. I don't bother to pull the brakes and inspect the service timetable next to the wooden door. The symmetrical building features a tower with a clock which is showing the correct time. But I must not look, because a sharp turn to the left over a simple bridge has to be negotiated carefully; on an earlier occasion I had to make an emergency stop here to avoid swerving into the water-filled ditch along the first part of the road east.

On early summer mornings, this leg of my square-shaped cycling round presents the epitome of Dutch clichés: a reddish sunrise acting as a backdrop to a windmill. Being an essential element in the local drainage system, the mill helps to keep the surrounding land dry, pumping water up into a clever network of ditches.

In recognition of its services through the years, and possibly as a charm to ward off mishaps, an earlier owner named the mill The Faithful Watcher. It looks like a wooden shed perched on top of a little thatched pyramid, but with its four sails it is unmistakably a windmill.

Averting my gaze from the picture postcard scene, the horizon to my left is dotted with a couple of tiny church spires and the Hilversum telecom tower. A sticker slapped on a traffic sign, no parking here, is advertising Radio 509, probably a very local station and one that definitely won't be using the telecom tower for its broadcasts.

I'm now on a long straight towards the east, below wide Dutch skies. Running right across the peaty area the road is aptly named Cross Dyke.

If this were Ireland...
(Google Maps)
Glancing to the right, trying to find the little stub that is Utrecht cathedral tower on the horizon, I'm looking across a former peat extraction zone which has been allowed to return to nature. A patchy mixture of water, soil, ducks, sheep - the landscape about which K. Schippers wrote: if this were Ireland, I would take a better look.

The road through 'Ireland' ends after an unmetalled strech of track which is not really suited for my light tenspeed bike with its high-pressure narrow tyres. Course gravel and pointy rocks are making an assault on them. But as it was the only way to complete my circuit, I always had to negotiate it. It is here, exactly half-way, that I suffered my one and only puncture in the decade or so that I regularly rode this circular, square, route. Serves me right, stingy Dutchman, for not renewing the worn-out tyres in time. So there I stood, a suddenly disabled rider. The weather being nice, I foolishly decided to retrace the circuit on foot, which would have taken two hours or so. Having reached the road again, I was passed by a young woman in a four-wheel drive. She stopped, took a worried look at me and said, 'Do you have to walk far?' - 'Hilversum,' I said. 'OK, I'll drop off my son at his judo classes and then I'll come back and drive you there, if you're still around,' she decided, leaving me little choice.

She drove off with her son and I plodded on, accompanied by floppy noises made by my flattened rear tyre. Some twenty minutes later I was again overtaken by a familiar-looking car. 'Hop on,' the businesslike young lady said. 'Your bike can go in the back.'

As we negotiated the narrow road, she told me that she had carried out such rescue operations before. 'You remind me of my father. He got stuck in the wilderness with a broken bike, and I had to go and fetch him.' She dropped me and the bike off on the corner of our street, barely waiting to hear my expressions of gratitude. And off she drove, back to the polder.

But this time around, my (new) tyres survive the cruelties inflicted on them by the rocky gravel path, and I continue east. Cross Dyke changes name at Eagleshook, a well-kept farming settlement, and becomes Count Floris V Road, named after a 13th-century ruler over Holland.

Here I lose the wide views. Both sides of the road are lined with trees and shrubs. A sandy path with lush green borders branches off at right angles to the left, into the green overgrowth, but with the memory of the rough gravelly stretch just behind me, I won't venture there.

I continue riding at a steady pace on the narrow lane, emulating Count Floris's determination. A car creeps up and remains politely behind me, possibly assuming that I'm a serious amateur cyclist systematically training for a major race. To live up to his expectations, I make an impatient wave forward with my left arm, signalling to the driver that it's safe to overtake me, so get on with it and stop pottering on behind me.  He carefully passes me on the left, blades of grass tickling my right calf. The driver raises one hand in recognition of my gesture.

Pedalling towards the end of Count Floris V Road, I see a couple of horse breeding farms and villas appear.  I'm approaching the last leg of my tour.


At the crossroads I change direction. Turning left again, to the north. This used to be the main connection between Utrecht and Hilversum: a two-lane road running in a straight line through some villages, until a parallel motorway was built, a couple of hundred metres to the east. I can hear it humming, invisible beyond the homes of Hollands Raiding village.

So, aiming for the north at the crossroads, I embark on the last leg of this ride which I've completed countless times over the years that we've lived in Hilversum. For the next two kilometres or so, we're on a separate cycling track beside the provincial road. For now, I'm using the paved cycling track on the left side. Occasionally, cars pass by, in both directions.

The first stretch is flat, and soon I pass underneath a huge viaduct that is being constructed here, crossing the road, bike lanes, and all. The concrete monstrosity is wide enough to carry six lanes, I notice when I'm passing underneath it. The cycle path has its own tunnel.

There is no six-lane motorway overhead, however. The viaduct will be a so-called ecoduct, and its surface will be covered in shrubs and other vegetation, forming a corridor between two adjacent nature reservation areas.

The Netherlands' "nature" is a patchwork of small protected areas of outstanding beauty, crisscrossed - or hacked to pieces - by roads, like the one that I'm riding along. Roads are an insurmountable, deadly barrier to animals who are innocently wandering from one protected zone to another. But once they will be able to cross over to the other side using the six-lane wide viaduct, hares, foxes, mice, badgers, toads and what have you, will have safe passage here. If they follow the centre line, shy animals like deer won't even see the road below.

No time for more thoughts about nature, because I'm approaching an odd-shaped little roundabout which I have to negotiate in order to continue straight ahead, but on the other side of the road.

This is where the hilly bit finally begins, conveniently positioned towards the end of my hitherto flat ride. I have often rounded the loop in the opposite direction; less pleasant because then I had to start climbing right away, before my leg muscles had had a chance to warm up.

Now though, I swiftly make the first ascent, up Swallow Hill, to the country house that is serving as the Headquarters of the Inspector-General of the Netherlands' Armed Forces. The job had been created for Prince Bernhard, Prince Consort since 1948, who was getting restless and bored after World War II, when he had been a dubious hero on behalf of the Dutch Royal Family. That's the story in a nutshell, anyway.

The gates on the lane to Bernhard's office were closed, I noticed as I glanced to my right, pushing the pedals hard to get to the top. I'm not an athlete, but I can reach the summit of this bump with little effort. The next and final one will be worse.

The descent into Hilversum, along the straight local road through the densely wooded areas of  what remains of Lepers' Forest, is long, so I get a minute to regain my breath, freewheeling downhill until I get a little frightened by the increasing speed at which I'm going. No braking though, I will need the momentum very soon.

Looking back over my shoulder while I'm thundering downhill through the tunnel of trees, and then casting a look ahead, I'm certain that the road is free, and I swerve full speed across the two-lane tarmac, turning sharply left into a leafy residential area. And it's not named The Height for nothing.

Profiting from the remaining bit of descending speed, I shift down a couple of gears, and begin pushing hard to get to the top of this vicious hill. Hardly having started the painful ascent, I need to make a sharp turn to the right, into Oak Lane. Ouch. Going straight ahead would have been easier. In the gardens of the villas here, retired businessmen are mowing their lawns, busy mothers are loading children and hockey gear into their Volvo station cars, and a boy in shorts is delivering newspapers. Slackers, I think, egging myself on, the only one who's really making a physical effort here is me. Not fair, I know, but it helps me to make those final pedal turns.


At the top, I leave the villas behind, not deeming them worthy of another look - pah - and embark on the very last part: the oddly wide, but almost traffic-less, Kolhorn Road. Gently downhill all the way, westwards again.

I pass the cemetery, to my left, with its restrained entrance building designed in 1957 by Willem Dudok, the city's long-serving modernist architect. To my right, a garden village that, as I roll by, gradually turns into an ordinary estate  with homes for ordinary people. Like me. I whizz irresponsibly fast past a school, the gradual downslope making it easy to continue at this speed.

On the ultimate stretch the road forms the border between our neighborhood and the untouched heathland which surrounds most of the town. Goodbye, Hornbow Heath.

One more right turn, and I pull the brakes, exactly where that brisk lady from Loosedrift set me down years ago with a punctured tyre after giving me a lift. I get off the bike - first steps always shaky - and roll the trusted two-wheeler into the shed.

A quick shower, and then it's time to continue packing. We're moving next week. I hope that near our new place I'll find as rewarding a training round as I had here.


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