Flower town

After the excitement of the Bedminster Secret Gardens open day last Sunday, it’s nice to be visiting someone else’s garden, as opposed to having hundreds of people visiting mine! Keukenhof is the garden we’ll be visiting; it’s a bit larger than mine, which is probably a very good thing at there will be thousands of others inside it with us.

Keukenhof is the finest spring garden in the Netherlands – in fact in Europe. The garden is only open between March and May and it’s open to show off the thousands of spring bulbs at their best. Situated just outside Lisse, the gardens are at the heart of the Netherlands bulb district of Bollenstreek (which translates to ‘bulb region’). The gardens were created to help bulb growers show off their products to the world. It must have been a success as the gardens attract nearly a million foreign visitors a year – and given that its only open for three months is pretty impressive.

Mike looking very Dutch with his orange coat and orange dog in the centre of Lisse

The quiet little town Lisse with a population of just over 22,000 people, suddenly becomes the centre of the Dutch tourist industry every spring. Hundreds of coaches full of tourists arrive each day. Of course Lisse now appears to be well-prepared for this horticultural invasion. All the shops in town decorate their windows for the event and planters are beautifully filled with spring delights.

Lisse looking lovely from top to toe

Most visitor appear to arrive and leave on the same day, but some – like us – choose to stay locally. It’s fair to say that Lisse much makes the most of it’s one big asset – as well as visiting the gardens, it’s possible to hire a bike (painted orange of course) and ride around a special route to see the bulb fields. If the weather isn’t good there is the black tulip museum where the history of the tulip is explored. If retail therapy is more your sort of thing then you can always go shopping for, er… bulbs. Whether it’s at pop up stall along the roadside or in the local Aldi, bulbs are for sale everywhere.

Adjacent to the gardens is the Keukenhof forest, a beautiful woodland that is cris-crossed with paths. The forest is the perfect place to exercise an energetic ‘hond’. Although the signs say ‘dogs must be kept on leads’ all the local dog walkers we saw jut ignored this (don’t you just love the Dutch?!). So, as the saying goes: ‘when in the Netherlands… do as the Dutch do! Zoly was very appreciative of this civil disobedience and was zooming and whizzing around the forest paths like a demon.

The soil in this area is very sandy (perfect for bulb growing), so underfoot it feels a bit like being on the beach – and Zoly loves the beach, it’s so good for exfoliating the paws!

Into the woods of Keukenhof 

After the forest we called into the Keukenhof gardens information office to plan our trip to the gardens tomorrow. The women at the desk spoke perfect English and was incredibly helpful. She advised on the quietest times to visit and confirmed that provided we get ‘stamped’ on our way out tomorrow, we can come and go as many times as we like in the same day. So with tomorrow’s plans sorted we wandered back into Lisse, wandered around the pretty town centre, picked up a pizza and headed back to our hotel where we have very nice apartment suite with a lounge, kitchenette, large bedroom, bathroom and walk in closet (I should have packed more clothes!). We’re now fed and watered and ready for an early night to prepare ourselves for a full-on day of tulip mania tomorrow. 

Keukenhof here we come 

Deserted at sea

We’ve caught the ferry from Harwich quite a few times now. Usually we travel by bike, but as Zoly wasn’t quite ready for that experience yet, we came by train. I think it’s fair to say that Zoly has not exactly fallen in love with our lovely Dutch Doggride bike trailer! It’s quite a long journey to Harwich, even for us to cope with (especially with Mike’s persistent back pain) so we were also a little anxious about how Zoly would cope – especially going on the ferry for the first time.

He was great on the trains and even on the Underground in rush hour. A top tip – if you want to avoid the crush on the Tube in rush hour – take a dog. We seemed to create an exclusion zone around us. Of course, little did people know that if Z decided to shake his head his slobber would have easily exceeded this zone. Fortunately for everyone the saliva mostly remained attached to the dog. The journey from Liverpool Street was pretty uneventful apart from a woofing incident when a leather clad bloke suddenly came through the train door from another carriage, but mostly Zoly snoozed on the floor.

On arrival at Harwich International (somehow it doesn’t quite have the same ring as St Pancras International) we trekked over to Morrison’s (or maybe that should be ‘Morrison’s International’ as we needed to get some food for our and the dog’s breakfast. In our rush to leave the house I’d forgotten the carrot and meat for Zoly plus there was no point in caring soya milk from the west coast to the east. The trudge through the arse-end of Harwich to reach a desolate and windswept retail estate really makes you wonder what the European visitors disembarking the ferry must think of when this is their first glimpse of Britain. No floral clocks or fluttering European flags here, just a B&M warehouse, Costa coffee, Bargain Buys and a massive ‘Vote Leave’ banner on the first roundabout as you leave the ferry terminal. If I were them, I’d be tempted to turn around and head straight back to the Netherlands.

A very warm welcome (not) to England for our European neighbours

Mike did have a go at dislodging the ‘vote leave’ banner, but it was too well staked into the ground. Zoly gave it a sniff but even he couldn’t be bothered to waste his piss on it. It did seem particularly ironic that a little town stuck out on edge of Essex that must be so reliant on Europe for trade and jobs should be where we found this banner – the first we’d seen. In previous journeys across the east of England at election time the countryside had been coming down with UKIP banners, but not this time. Maybe all those farmers are starting to worry that Brexit would bring an end to their free money subsidies. 

There she blows!

The sight of the ferry berthed at Harwich is always exciting. The ship is so huge it looms large above the quayside making the lorries look like Dinky toys. We’re used to boarding the ferry on our bicycles via the car-loading area, but being on foot this time we entered via the foot passenger terminal. The terminal building is pretty uninspiring, a large waiting room with café (closed of course, just to demonstrate the great British customer service!), vending machines and toilets. It was very crowded as one train after another emptied. 

Unfortunately Zoly who had been so good on the journey didn’t cope very well with the crowded waiting room and woofed at a group of unsuspecting Indian passengers. As you can imagine for me and Mike this is very upsetting on two levels – a) Zoly shouldn’t woof at anyone as we don’t want people thinking he’s a dangerous dog (he’s not – if he ever got hold of you he’d more likely lick you to death than maul you) but more concerning is the thought that b) is Zoly being racist? Why did he woof at the Indian passengers? Can dogs be racist? How could two left-leaning gay men end up with a dog that woofs at people from different continents? I think our anxieties about b) says more about us than Zoly!

We retreated to the far end of the waiting room, round the corner where the waiting crowds were well out of sight and there was no one for Zoly to get wound up about. Mike went and spoke to the women checking people through the walk on passenger gate and explained that Zoly was a bit anxious (not to mention us!) as this was his first foreign trip. She was very nice and said she’d let us know when the crowds went down. This was about thirty minutes later and once we’d passed through security and check in we were loaded onto a bus to be driven onto the boat. The foot passenger walk way is closed for replacement – hence the bus ride.

Once on board we went to passenger services to get the kennel key code and took Zoly down to his accommodation for the night. The kennel was already occupied with two other sheep dogs in their cages. We chose a cage above these for Zoly so that he wouldn’t be looking at the other dogs. He was very good going into the cage. I lifted him up and put him on the blanket we’d carried for him to sleep on. Stena Line also provide duvets for the dogs and water bowls so we took advantage of these. There was no woofing, just a bit of whimpering – but to be clear, this was mainly from Mike who was getting more and more anxious about being separated from Zoly for the night. Maybe I’m hard-hearted but I was trying to stay calm as I didn’t want Zoly to pick up on any vibes.

We left Zoly without making too much fuss. Mike stood outside the kennel with the door ajar for a while just to make listen that Zoly wasn’t howling or crying. There was none of that so we headed up to our cabin. I’d barely taken my coat off before Mike had tuned the TV onto the kennel channel. The cctv had six camera angles, Zoly appeared in shot six. He was sat bolt upright with his head facing the door, clearly awaiting our return. The other dogs all appeared to be snoozing (although we watched one owner come into the kennel and then proceeded to sedate her dog), so watching Zoly clearly alert and waiting for our return was heart rending. 

A horror movie – the sort of things you could have nightmares about!

Now where did I put those sedatives – I think Mike needs one

I wasn’t sure watching the kennel channel all evening was going to do any of us much good. Fortunately after about 25 minutes Zoly was looking more settled, if not entirely relaxed. The boat’s engine shuddered into life at 11pm to mark our departure. Zoly perked up at the rumble, but soon was down again. We switched off the TV and hoped that the gentle engine throb might lull him to sleep rather than the far worse prospect of traumatising the poor love into never wanting to go on a boat ever again – a bit like the bike trailer, but on steroids!

Keukenhof 2016

We travelled overseas with Zoly for the very first time. He has had a Pet Passport issued especially. The original plan was to cycle with Zoly in a Dutch Doggyride trailer – but he really doesn’t like being in his trailer unfortunately , so we think we’ll need to be very patient and give him more time and training to get him used to travelling in it. Luckily, Zoly likes trains and buses – so that’s how we’ll travel + the overnight ferry crossing of course. We’re not sure how Zoly will deal with being on a ferry in a cage in a kennel – he’s not been on his own overnight since he was a small puppy – all the more reason to keep the joys of travelling in a dog trailer for another time.

King of the hill

It’s been four whole weeks since we came home from our Easter break in Cornwall – so it’s about time we wrote the last entry in the blog (just before we start our next mini-break blog).

Thursday 31 March was our last full day in Cornwall and after a week of quite showery weather we were finally blessed with full sunshine and no rain. We couldn’t pass up the chance for one final long walk and we had our sights set high. Mike and Zoly had climbed up and down Kit Hill on their long walk the previous day, but were keen on going back and showing Matthew around. Located between Callington and Tavistock, Kit Hill is a country park managed by the country council, but for most of the nineteenth century it was a home to a quarry (where the stone for the William Yard and most of London’s Thames bridges was cut) and a mine. These industries have now long gone and in their place paths and bridleways cross the hill.

Until the 1980s the Hill was the property of the Duchy of Cornwall (so basically our land robbed from us by the crown). To commemorate the birth of Prince William the hill was ‘gifted’ to the people of Cornwall (in other words, we were all given something that we already owned and since there was no more money to be made from it for Charlie Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor, handing the hill to the council meant that we could all pay for the upkeep). Did I ever mention I’m a republican?!

Kit Hill is the highest point in this part of Cornwall and the summit it topped with a granite column. Unfortunately it’s been somewhat vandalised by the multiple mobile phone masts and communication dishes strapped all over it. The only good thing is that the view from the top was superb – so there was no need to look at the heritage phone mast.

With the clear sunny weather the views extended all the way to Plymouth and over the Tamar Valley to Dartmoor. We could just make out the Royal William Yard and the inlets that form the outline of Plymouth Harbour. It was the perfect place to eat out lunch and savour the view.
Our return trip was down the hill to Callington (not much to write about there) and a hop on the bus back to Calstock before walking back through the Cotehele estate to the cottage. The end of a holiday is always a little sad, but it’s nice to go home too – and anyway it was only going to be a four week gap before our next trip. More blog entries to follow. Hup, hup Holland (and Leicester)!

We conquered that there hill!

Happy valley

The mild climate and the damp valleys that are quite common in Cornwall are perfect for certain kinds of plants. Big and exotic looking ones! Majestic tree ferns, prickly giant gunnera and giant bamboos that tower above you like enormous trees. The valley garden at Cotehele is full of these kind of plants creating a wonderful jungle feel.

The entrance to the valley garden from the terraced garden is through a tunnel that runs under a path dividing the formal terrace garden and the valley. At the top of the valley a medieval stew pond is overlooked by a summerhouse with views down the valley. Alongside this, a fine stone dovecote with a beautiful domed roof. Both of these features would originally have provided sources of food during the winter months, thankfully the doves and fish are purely ornamental these days. 

A stream runs from the top of the valley flowing into a pool before cascading into another, then another before finally reaching the Tamar at the bottom. The constant water provides the perfect damp atmosphere for the plants to flourish, but also adds a wonderful soothing sound as you wander through the garden. Cotehele isn’t the biggest valley garden I’ve visited – but it’s intimacy is truly enchanting, well worth a visit.