Late Dutch

January 9, 2012

This post is a little retrospective — from my first couple of days on the walk. It appeared on The Times online just before Christmas, and I forgot to put it on this blog. I’m in Ulm now, resting up for a few days, and I have time to remember these things. So: from the top.

I was woken soon after dawn by ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ emanating from hidden speakers in the ceiling. My ferry – the hulking Stena Hollandica, less of a ship than a shopping mall – was just docking in the Hook of Holland. After a perfunctory passport check I watched the other passengers head for the train, then stubbornly turned inland to walk the 20 miles to Rotterdam. Hail rattled off my hat and tinkled musically in the bare branches, but the sky soon cleared. The countryside unfolded into a scene so Dutch it felt quite surreal – dikes and polders, cycle-ways, old windmills and modern wind turbines, with the occasional cargo ship slicing its way through the fields.

Almost nothing is left of the Rotterdam Paddy wrote about in 1933. The Nazi bombardment of May 1940 literally flattened the medieval city, leaving nothing but the town hall, the damaged belfry of the great church, and a bronze statue of Erasmus turning the page of a book. Paddy’s ‘beetling storeys’ and ‘hump-backed bridges’ have long since been replaced by glass-fronted insurance buildings and expressionless office blocks, high streets crammed with corporate stores competing for trans-national blandness. The house in which I stayed that night, in a street of red brick and plasterwork with a faintly gingerbread feel, only survived because it stood 500m beyond the ‘fire line,’ the point at which the annihilation ended.

The following day I attempted to find the same route Paddy walked out of the city – ‘a wonderful flat geometry of canals and polders and willows’ – but found myself trudging instead through a dreary sprawl of suburbs and ring roads. The coffee in my flask had gone, the wind was blowing colder, and just as my spirits were starting to ebb a woman pulled up in a car: ‘My husband and I saw you walking, and thought you might like to come in for a cup of coffee and some cake.’ Their home was only a minute away, so I bent my no-lifts rule, and was soon ushered into a house of chirruping budgies and children. Much may have vanished since Paddy walked this route, but it seems the essential goodness of people still remains intact.

After coffee, the husband took me outside for a tour of his honk – ‘a honk means just a cosy place’ – a kind of garden shed he built to double as a spare room. He invited me to stay the night, but Dordrecht was just a few miles away, and I knew its wharves and cobbled streets had been spared the same destruction as Rotterdam – hopefully, traces of that older world might be more apparent. So I thanked them and re-hefted my bag. I had to be getting on.

… and on I got. And, hopefully, will continue getting.

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