|After taking the scenic route to the Belgian border via the tourist town of Sluis, I arrived at the campsite in the Bruges suburbs early enough to do a final lot of laundry before heading into town. Bruges is one of the finest and best preserved medieval cities of Europe and having visited plenty of times previously I knew just where to head for the best beer in town. I then moved on to a restaurant I knew that had travelled some distance upmarket since my last visit, and consequently ended up with a nice but very expensive meal. I returned to the Brugse Beertje for a couple more beers and caught the last bus from the city centre to the campsite. Next morning I got up early and backtracked a few miles in order to return to the North Sea Coast route, which I took to Ostend, home of Marvin Gaye.
The Belgian coastline is very built up, probably since it's only forty-odd miles long and serves the seaside requirements of a densely populated nation. By far the largest of the Belgian resorts, Ostend was once a very prestigious holiday destination. These days it's maybe lost some of its cachet, but it's still a vibrant place, and contrasts well with Bruges. It's largely built on the grid system, and bursting with modern apartment blocks and hotels, though there are some nice Art Deco and neoclassical facades to admire if you keep your eyes peeled. If beaches are your thing, you'd do well to find a nicer city beach anywhere, with miles of fine sand just a few yards from the main streets. In Botteltje, it boasts another of the greatest bars in Belgium. There is a ferry to Ramsgate, where I was planning to stay on the way home, but for some reason it doesn't take foot passengers or cyclists, so I had no option but to continue to Dunkirk.
The following day I was only doing a short hop to the last coastal town in Belgium, De Panne, so I was in no hurry and wandered around the city. I found Fat Matilda sunbathing on a traffic island. It was extremely windy and difficult even to walk. I attempted to visit the James Ensor Museum but there was a group being shown around and I was told to come back in the afternoon. Instead I set off for De Panne, a ride which started along the promenade for several miles directly into what was probably the strongest wind of the entire trip. For some sections the aforementioned fine sand was snaking along the tarmac towards me, and loads ended up in my hair, eyes, ears and pockets. At Middelkerk, I took the opportunity to take a more inland route, and it was about 6pm by the time I reached the hotel at De Panne, as I'd taken a couple of café stops as well as being slowed by the wind. As I entered town I saw an advert for a leafblower (leafblowing seems to be big in this region) that summed up my tour very succinctly.
If you read blog entry #15 you may recall my disappointment with the pubs closing early in nearby Veurne: it was partly because of that, and partly because I'd never stayed at De Panne, that I stopped here and not in Veurne again. However, once again I was the last customer in a bar at a fairly early hour, and once again a chain had been placed across the entrance preventing new customers from entering. I left, and no other bars were open so I had an early night.
I've ridden from De Panne or Veurne to Dunkirk on several occasions and have yet to find a nice route. This time I managed at least to avoid Dunkirk entirely (the port is some distance to the west of the city), skirting around it to Loon Plage. The weather was identical to the weather I had on the way to Dunkirk port in July, a headwind with several showers and one serious deluge. I was booked on the 2pm sailing but only just missed the previous one at 12, so went into Loon Plage to kill some time in a café.
Arriving at Dover I saw a cycle route sign to Deal. In fact there were two signs, the one seemingly more direct said 'alternative route'. I took this one but it involved hauling the bike up several flights of steps, certainly an alternative to cycling. Still, it wasn't too long before I was on top of a white cliff looking down at the ferry I had just rolled off.
The ride to Deal and onto Sandwich was agreeable with the wind now behind me, but the sky ahead was black and I knew I wouldn't reach Ramsgate before the clouds burst again. Sure enough, the deluge came as I left Sandwich, so once again I turned up at a hotel soaking wet. I wasted no time finding The Belgian Café down on the front and very nice it was too. It's had a long-standing listing on my website but I'd never visited the bar or the town before.
The following day I was only going as far as the Medway Towns, which seemed straightforward. However, yet again it turned out to be more strenuous than I'd anticipated and with the headwind (I was once again going west), it was dark by the time I reached Chatham. I had considered stopping to see the Cobblers live on TV, but I'm very glad I couldn't find a pub showing it, as they lost a poor game and I'd have arrived in Chatham very late indeed. Having checked into my hotel, I went straight back out to get a meal, then went to Rochester to have some beers at The Man of Kent, discovered when visiting the town for the Gillingham game last season, and soon to be revisited in the same circumstances.
I left the hotel at the same time as a large group of cyclists on a weekend ride to Canterbury. We wished each other well and I headed off on my final leg. After Gravesend I was on the Thames cycle route which I took as far as the Thames Barrier at Woolwich. I realised that if I continued on the Thames from there it would be well after dark by the time I got to Ealing, and as my lights were no longer reliable I took the direct road route thereafter, stopping for a sharpener at The Dog and Bell in Deptford.
I reached Ealing at dusk and that was the end of the grand tour.
Obviously if you've been reading my posts you will know it's been an endurance test a lot of the time, but I hope I haven't come across as too negative as it's been a tremendous experience. I've seen many places to which I'd eagerly return and there were plenty of others near my route that I didn't manage to see this time, but will try and visit at some point. Even as I gritted my teeth and wrestled with the wind for control of the bike, shared narrow roads with speeding trucks or rode through yet another torrential rainstorm, I tried not to lose sight of the good stuff. "This ain't bad, I've had it worse than this", was my mantra during the really challenging bits, although sometimes I really hadn't seen it worse that that.
For the record, from Dunkirk on April 11th to Ealing on October 9th I rode 8492 miles, an average of 46 miles a day, though if non-cycling days are eliminated, the average ride length was 65 miles. I got through four sets of tyres, four chains, a headset, one lot of bar tape and a pair of wheels. I broke three spokes and had just six punctures, the last being at Wisbech, 3500 miles back. I took one plane and thirty boats.
Once again, thanks for reading my posts and for all the emails and texts. Particular thanks to everyone who put me up and those who looked up local info for me along the way. I now have to reacquaint myself with reality and look for gainful employment.