Halcyon Days Revisited

It was on the way home from this year’s HUBB UK meeting at Baskerville Hall (inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes adventure) that we dropped into the Nagshead RSPB reserve.

We sat patiently in the pond side hide, camera trained on a log at the water’s edge. In-between torrential downpours, Rosana finally got her photo.

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Halcyon Days

There it was. A blur of blue and orange.

Did you see that?

No, what?

haven’t seen one for years – get your camera ready, it will be back soon.

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We waited, quietly, still like statues. The water gently burbled and babbled beside us. Not that deep nor all that wide, but enough that we’d needed to use a fallen tree as a makeshift bridge across this New Forest stream, the ford too deep with recent rainfall to navigate on foot.

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What did you see?

A Kingfisher, it will be back soon.

We waited, patiently. Nature came and went, we waited some more. The trees rustled in the cool summer breeze and we waited.

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Whoosh. That same blur, heading in the other direction now. Electric blue and burning orange.

Did you see it?

Yes.

Did you get a photo?

No.

Doesn’t matter, you saw it.

Yes, it was beautiful.

Springwatch

Spring, a time of rebirth and renewal.

New life appears in nests, in burrows and barns and in farmers’ fields – tweeting, grunting and bleating and all of it wanting to be fed.

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Colour erupts around the countryside and the sun starts to warm our cold bones.  The sweet smell of pollen lingers in the air, the bees begin to buzz and butterflies flit amongst the flowers.

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Betty feels the change of season too. Regular readers might remember a breakdown a couple of years back, an inexpensive valve failing and destroying a very expensive cylinder head. There were ongoing issues leading to a subsequent complete rebuild of the engine that should really have solved every problem we had.

Instead, things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Crossing the Houtribdijk last year, the little red oil light of doom illuminated. We checked, we had oil. We didn’t have any strange noises…yet. The light went out.  Volkswagen, in its infinite wisdom, designed a very complex oil pressure monitoring system to monitor a very simple engine. A system which is prone to failure. A combination of two pressure sensors and input from the alternator. We knew we had some alternator issues so put two and two together and came up with three.  The van got us home and we replaced the alternator and the pressure sensors. It didn’t solve the problem. Connecting up a pressure gauge revealed the ugly truth.

So here we are, emerging from the depths of winter and Betty is reborn with a sparkly new engine. Our journeys now lacking the colour of a multitude of warning lights, the unpleasant bouquet of leaking diesel and the cheerless chirping of unlubricated metal on metal. Nothing screams to be fed oil or coolant.

Dull and dark winter journeys that bring exciting, bright and vibrant springtime joy.

Betty Bus reborn, back on the road and back in a field.

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In Bruges

A windmill stands proudly on the bank of the canal, overlooking one of the many gates into the city. As we pass through the gate we are greeted by a marching band. Not a bad first impression.

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We were heading home now, back south towards Calais and the ferry back. The Netherlands had been good to us. Maybe the weather hadn’t been as kind as it could of, but we’d met some lovely people, eaten more cheese than science had thought was possible and visited some really diverse and interesting places.

Being able to get around so easily on a bike had been fantastic, with none of the traffic worries of riding in the UK. We’d discovered delicious Dutch baking along the way, like their German cousins, the dark breads are full of flavour and general yumminess.

We hadn’t got to all the places we’d wanted to visit. Our plan to visit the island of Texel was abandoned when a violent storm rolled in off the North Sea, trapping us in a beachside bar for a few hours before we finally braved the run back to a van that was rocking so much it almost brought on a bout of sea sickness. There was no way Rosana was getting on a boat.

We ran out of time to visit Amsterdam and the Hague and they, along with other vast areas of the map will have to wait for another time.

Breaking up the journey home we had crossed into Belgium and were now in Bruges, another city full of canals, another contender for the title of Venice of the North. We’d arrived at Camping Melming the previous evening in the most torrential rain and sat on our pitch for some time waiting for a break in the weather to get ourselves set up, as had our neighbours.

But the weather gods had smiled on us and we walked the short distance into the city under a mostly blue sky. The marching band welcome was nice enough, but there was better to come. Men and women dressed in stunning masquerade fashion paraded the streets, posing for photographs with passers by. Costumes were extravagant and colourful but contrasted with expressionless painted masks giving them a gothic aura.

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The marching band seemed to follow us into the centre of the city, which was getting a little embarrassing. We dived into a coffee shop to try and lose our tail.

In the Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film ‘In Bruges’, Harry (the chief gangster) describes Bruges, in amongst a great deal of profanity, as a fairy tale city with fairy tale buildings and that’s a perfect description. Bruges is a beautiful city, old and incredibly well preserved. The narrow medieval streets, distinctive old buildings and a plethora of canals combine to create a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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It is, therefore, understandably quite busy with tourists, although not as busy as we’d feared it might have been.

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Chocolate shops line the streets, their delicious looking treats dressing the windows and luring you in. The gaps between chocolatiers are filled with lace shops, Bruges other speciality. We stopped for lunch in the oldest Fritterie on the market square, one last chance for chips and mayo before we returned to a world of chips and ketchup. An afternoon snack of waffles kept our energy levels up, while suicidally strong Trappist beers took care of hydration.

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We only had a day and it wasn’t nearly enough to see everything we wanted. We left the city long after darkness had fallen, agreeing that Bruges deserved a return visit to take in everything we had missed.

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But our time was up, it was time to head home.

Cheese with Everything

The Dutch love their cheese and nowhere was this more evident than in Alkmaar.

We dropped the van at a campsite on the outskirts of the the city, where the owner clearly knew the rules and put us next to another Westy, then cycled along well maintained cycle routes into the centre.

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It’s a medieval city, pretty and very lively. Narrow lanes bustle with people and the canal side cafes are full with shoppers and tourists.

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In the centre is a large market square, the Waagplein. Each Friday during the spring and summer it hosts a very special cheese market. It’s not a real cheese market in that you can’t actually buy the cheeses, but a tourist attraction showing how cheese was traded in days of old. It is an incredibly popular show and draws great crowds to the city. Cheeses are graded and weighed, transported on two man sleds. Barges bring the cheeses into market and traders exchange special handshakes to agree on a price. All the while the quality inspectors sample the produce, although in this show they share that role with the eager crowd.

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The market is a fun spectacle and it’s not really a problem that the cheeses are not for sale as Alkmaar has many cheese shops (and unsurprisingly a cheese museum). On Cheese Market Day, real cheese market stalls set up around the perimeter. Both shops and market stalls encourage you to ‘try before you buy’ the many different variations of cow, sheep and goat cheeses. Trying to decide which cheeses to buy is hard, but delicious work. Who knew that cheese and cumin was such a wonderful combination? Of course, if you tire of cheese (if that is indeed possible?) there are always alternatives, such as the chips with mayo or the pancakes…

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