Brussels to London by bike. Day One: Flat Flanders

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5.45am Do zobaczenia ┼╝ono!

My steel horse champing at the cleat in crepuscular Brussels, I headed west and crossed the Brussels-Scheldt canal. At 20 miles, the River Dender at Ninove was draped in mist. Eleven miles of soggy low visibility later, and I arrived at the Grote Markt at Zottegem, empty but for the statue of the Count of Egmont. Flemings seldom venture out of their homes before 9am. Their well-breakfasted cats loiter in the driveways. Another eight miles through dew-drenched Payottenland: still no Flemings, but the occasional donkey. The Scheldt at Gavere is the ancient boundary between the Western and Eastern Franks; nowadays apparently they speak Flemish, though I can’t attest to this as there still weren’t any human beings in evidence. 152 miles to Hackney. Next I crossed the Lys at Deinze, and stopped off for koffie en croissantje.

Back on the road, the mist had lifted and the sunshine bore down intensely. Just before Tielt I had to make an energy raid in the knapsack for dates and dried apricots. I was eyed warily by sheep. The roads in Flanders are straight, flat and tedious, but the monotony is broken by the lovely town squares with their gabled guildhalls and belfries. At 10.30, the people of Tielt were awake and drinking beer in the Grote Markt. Olivier le Daim, who cut the hair of Louis IX of France, as well as performing other, baser biddings, is the town’s most esteemed denizen. The scoundrel met his end upon the scaffold in Paris.

I decide to stop for lunch at Diksmuide, close to the frontline in the First World War, 68 miles from Brussels. Oerbier is a delightful tipple, brewed just outside Diksmuide. It washed down a vispotje, overlooking the attractive, flag-draped Stadhuis, and was followed up with another powerful local offering, Ijzerbier. Lekker!

I had enjoyed lunch a little too much. The beers, the delicious cheesy fishy stew thing and the sultry mid-afternoon sun resisted progress over the next 35 miles to Dunkirk car ferry. Poppies lined the road to Veurne, nearing the French border and the duney coast, a reminder of the region’s bloody history. The final, bland stretch followed the Colme canal, along the edge of central Dunkirk.

This is soulless, expansive territory, impelling its inhabitants to create convivial towns. I was relieved to reach the car ferry, order a bottle of Shepherd Neame, and watch the sunset. It was dusk when the white cliffs reared into view.