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vrijdag 25 september 2009

Bedtime story

The year was 1970 and if the author Peter Van Greenaway’s book (written in about 1964) had been a true story, a hydrogen bomb would have been dropped on Colchester, wiping out half of London and making Britain uninhabitable - thanks to the Russians and East Germans...... and having seen Czechoslovakia in 1968 made one think! Anyway, as far as my summer holiday was concerned I decided I’d leave the heart and south of Europe alone for the time being; another go at Czecho’ and the Eastern Bloc can wait. I decided to go north - to the land of Scandinavia - taking in parts of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, not too hot too, and not full of sun worshippers only there for the beer and “birds” either. There was also no political strife. An engine strip (for inspection) in March revealed a dodgy big end (no worry if “ride to work” but for a trip like mine was a different matter). I immediately got an exchange unit (which was possible in those days) and while I was about it I renewed the clutch bearing, which had a tiny but noticeable amount of wear - and gave my “bird” a treat with new oil seals - better safe than sorry.

Having boarded the ferry, booked months in advance - essential here as this was an overnight crossing involving a cabin berth - and got my “green card” in good order - I sailed from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark; it was a very rough crossing! I rode via Odense to Copenhagen that next day (Sunday). Crossing stretches of water by shuttle-ferry (reminiscent of Torpoint, Woolwich or Windemere) was, at that time, part of life in Denmark (now bridges and, I believe, a tunnel have replaced a lot of these) and this happened twice on the way.

Copenhagen (“saunty old town of the seas” , so goes the song) is a fascinating city, with a funfair garden known by the Italian name of “Tivoli”. This world famous place has a Chinese restaurant built like a pagoda and the whole place is lit up at night by bulbs and wiring installed by the Phillips electrical company, who had a big stake in Denmark - the gardens were a picture too. My next stop was Helsingor (or Elsinore) - famous not only for the short crossing to Sweden, but its castle where our old friend Bill “Shakko” from Stratford set the scene for the world famous home truth “upright” play called Hamlet (which has been translated into 21 languages) using the fictional medieval Danish royal family’s problems as an example of what life can dish out to us all - it certainly rings a few bells. The play is often performed at this castle itself and there is a plaque of the famous bard.

Having crossed over to Sweden (at Helsingborg), I rode through forest country and spent the night at a charming, (but expensive) guesthouse overlooking a castle surrounded by a moat with boats on it. This was a monastery town called Vadstena, on the shores of Lake Vattern. On the next day, via more forest roads, to the Swedish capital of Stockholm at the Baltic. Ferries go to Finland from there; if I had time I would have loved a couple of days there in “Sibelius Land”. All round the area are places with names ended with “koping”, or Koping itself, meaning “in” or “about” the woods. There are similar places in England too, eg ; Copford (near Colchester) and Coppingford (near Huntingdon) and roads or houses named “The Copin (g) (s)”. Volvo has a factory at Koping !. Also, small log cabins, all over the woods these can be seen. The Swedes have short summers, so they make the most of them in these “summerhouses”. Having nosed around Stockholm and had a grand view of the whole city from their “radio tower” I spent the night “rough” on a park bench with the intention of going to Oslo (Norway’s capital). I did not have time to go as far as the Arctic Circle or the “Midnight Sun” area - the trip to Oslo was over 300 miles in one day. On this trip I went through more forests, saw workmen floating logs down various rivers (a common practice up there) for the timber industry (Norway’s hallmark), went to see the factory in Arboga, which makes drilling and other factory machinery (I have used some of their products in my various jobs) and a gorgeous wooden stave church (like St Martin’s in Ongar, Essex) at sunset. Also saw many expensive bicycles with Derailleur gearing (made by D.B.S.).

I arrived at Oslo at night and it was dark - and then the engine cut out. God knows what had caused that (I had had no major trouble so far). As I was near a railway station I used the forecourt as a workbench and testing ground. I stripped the magneto and cleaned the points. I also stripped the carburettor and cleaned the jet - still no joy. About two hours later, after much pushing and shoving (luckily I was young and agile) it fired up as mysteriously as it had cut out. I never really sussed out what had caused this problem. Having spent the night at the station, tired and knackered, I had a look around Oslo and its sights. Nearby is the Frogner Park , full of statues of people in the nude (with all the accurate details) and in the distance was what looked like an unfinished motorway bridge; that was a ski ramp, used in the winter sports.

Proceeding to Norway’s west coast, the scenery was similar to Sweden’s with the addition of “fjords” (similar to “firths” in W. Scotland) where the sea comes inland, resembling lakes. There were mountains too, with snow on them (this was July). The whole scene was like the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands, only much larger. Some of the roads went over mountain passes; others went through tunnels that were unlit and sometimes about a mile long. It was in one of these longer tunnels that I was dam’ nearly killed or injured. A coach came the other way with its lights full on, dazzling me. By the time it had passed and I was “re-adjusted” I found myself on the wrong side of the road. I put the machine into gear and drove to the right - and then it skidded on something that was either oil or more likely black ice. The result was that I fell off with the bike on top of me. Luckily the engine revved up and that kept the Bantam’s lights on. A car saw my lights and stopped to help - two men helped me get the bike upright and halt the traffic and then got into the car and escorted me to the end of the tunnel. It so happened that they were both ex-pat British and one of them had been an MOT examiner. He examined the Bantam and there was nothing wrong with it - but if that engine had cut out in the pitch dark and I hadn’t been spotted...........!!! I proceded down to Odda (to get over the shock and trauma) on the shores of Lake Hardangerfjord.

If there had been a bridge or a ferry over the narrow strip of water between the fjord and the coast I would have visited Bergen (famous for Greig, the piano expert) as it was only a few miles north, but - reminiscent of Invarary in Scotland - to get from one side to the other, meant a days travelling (and here, over passes and through tunnels) and then the return journey right round the fjord. This was the middle of my fortnights holiday and I did not have the time - and had to watch my money too. I did manage to ride south via the “Broken Coast” over long bridges and hopping over islands such as Rogaland (which has dirt track roads) where I went into a cafe and chatted a girl up. We were talking about motorbikes and she was in the (local motorcycle) club(!) Then I got a small ferry to Stavenger and Egersund.

Reaching Kristiansand, I boarded an overnight boat (sleeping rough on the boat) to Jutland (Denmark’s “mainland”). Riding down back to Odense, I went to see the house of Hans Christian Andersen (the fairy tale writer); apparently he and Charlea Dickens (living at Broadstairs) often wrote to each other and letters are on exhibition in the house. I entered Germany and rode through the Flensburg and Holstein (of famous beer connection) and over the Keil canal (as wide as the River Thames in London) to Hamburg, to see the town and then on to Bremen (which has a marvellous town hall). Finally reaching Holland and the town of Arnhem, to see the military cemetery and the area of the famous battle of the second world war, when our paratroopers were mown down by the German artillery. (note- in the film “a bridge too far”, about this episode, the script was wrong when it depicted the paratroopers as Americans). My friends dad had been in this battle (with a bren gun).....

A stop at S’ Hertogen-Bosch (famous for the painter Bosch) and then into Belgium, spending the night in a B&B in Antwerp. My holiday was comming to its end: I went to Bruges (for sentimental reasons) and finally to Ostend (with its imposing bandstand) to catch the (pre-booked) boat to Dover at about four-o-clock on the Sunday morning. My cash was approaching a dangerous “low”. Having arrived at Dover I went for a cup of tea in Folkestone and then on to Hythe, where the front wheel had a puncture. As I was now a member of the RAC (since 1969) they came out and fixed it for me - new tube of course. Returning via London and Westminster, I arrived at home (digs) in the small hours of the morning. I overslept and arrived back at work two and a half hours late - I had an alibi at the ready and luckily the foreman believed it!

I had seen a variety of bikes, both motorised and non-motorised. Unlike countries such as France, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Germany, Sweden had not been involved in the second world war and so was rich (and Norway wasn’t short of a bob or two). Bicycles were of the “racer” type, with multi-cog Derailleur gears. Mopeds such as the “Wooller” and “Sco” were common in Denmark (The Sco is an absolute nightmare if the chain comes off - I saw a rider struggling to fix his chain, taking much of the bike to bits in the process). Machines such as the Husqvarna (or “Husky”), built like a scrambler owing to the hilly terrain (and a favourite among the trials riding fraternity). The Sachs engined Monark moped and the ILO “Piano” moped and kickstart motorbike - these were common in Sweden. The 125cc Svithun (fitted with a Sachs engine, although I saw one with a Villiers engine in Kristiansand) was a common Norwegian bike, but a great many British machines like BSA Gold Stars, Norton Dominators and Triumph Bonnevilles/Trophies, not to mention the odd Velocette or Matchless seen at times. Club runs are popular over there. In Holland (as always) Batavius ruled the show (both bikes and mopeds and even some motorbikes) under various labels - and the “Honzumasaki bug” was beginning to show up all over the place in Scandinavia, and Holland, and Belgium, and France, and Britain......