I knew only a little about the Netherlands before going there.  I knew it was flat.  I knew about the low-lying polderlands and the extensive drainage system from A-level geography.  I knew there was an association with windmills, but hadn’t realised that they were more for pumping water than for milling grain into flour, and some were even for sawing timber.

My first impressions of the country were clouded by the frustrations of driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road for the first time.  Despite an intention to avoid towns and cities, especially those we didn’t even need to be close to, we suddenly found ourselves IN Amsterdam!

Thank goodness it was Sunday and there wasn’t too much traffic on the roads. Jim drove slowly and concentrated on keeping to the right; I looked around desperately for road signs and trams ‑ our travellers’ handbook said that trams took right of way over everything except emer­gency vehicles and they expected you to know that.  It was all rather nerve‑wracking.  Sudden­ly the town centre was left behind and we were on a road to nowhere ‑ it ended in a tramyard!

As we turned back towards the town centre, a car full of youths pulled up and one of the occupants asked us a question in French.  They didn’t seem to speak English any more than we spoke their language but eventually we understood they wanted to know the way to Antwerp ‑ HELP ‑ we just wanted to know the way out! 

We moved on, but suddenly the side door of the camper slid open and a box of cassettes spewed its contents into the road.  The Belgian lads passed us again as we picked up the pieces; later we saw them stopped in the middle of a crossroads with the boot up and belongings flying out. They waved cheerfully as we went past.

Eventually we reached the outskirts of Amsterdam, back on the road we had come in on.  We wanted Lelystad, a reasonable‑sized town some 30 km from Amsterdam, however, as we realised later, the road was actually sign-posted to a bigger town on the next page of our road atlas.  But at least we had now got it sorted out. 

So why, at each of the subse­quent turnings, did we ended up going the wrong direction?  This was the first day of a year of continental driving ‑ surely it wouldn’t all be like this ‑ we were already at each other’s throats!

Somehow the nightmare took us into a small village with a grassy enclosure in its centre.  Small children were passing bread through the fence to the fallow deer inside.  It was by now early afternoon, so we stopped for lunch and watched the deer. Then we gritted our teeth and set off again.

After four hours of driving, we completed what should have been a one and a half hour journey to the Flevoland Polder.  It was not a good introduction, either to the Netherlands or to continental driving, but I dare say we would have had a similar experience in whichever country we had started.

We did get used to driving on the right hand side of the road, although there were odd occasions when we reverted to type. The confusing sets of three numbers on some motorways we later discovered were due to the EEC renumbering the major trans‑Europe routes.  It caused us several problems when a book would tell us route so‑and-­so, but that road did not seem to exist.

In general Dutch roads were of good quality, and most villages were by‑passed so that you hardly knew that they existed. Occasionally we came across cobbled roads, but they were relatively smooth and not unpleasant to travel on.  Then there were the bicycle tracks ‑ Fietspad ‑ often separated from the road by a grassy verge and sometimes quite wide if they had to accommodate farm vehicles as well.  Often they would shoot off across‑­country where no car could follow.  Cyclists, and pedestrians and horses, were obliged to use them; just as well, we thought, because front and rear lamps (on bicycles) did not seem to be compulsory.

There were other aspects of Dutch life that took some getting used to. We needed groceries on Monday morning, but the shops in Lelystad were closed ‑ the Dutch weekend didn’t seem to finish until Monday lunchtime.  We had more success in the nearby village of Dronten later in the day.  Shopping in small towns proved to be fairly easy, most had a small supermarket as well as, or instead of, the usual butcher, baker, etc.  They stocked a wide variety of items, though I was surprised at the poor range of vegetables, whether fresh, frozen or canned.  Bacon and lamb were missing, and fresh milk seemed extra-ordinarily expensive (British milk was still subsidised) so we made a change to the cheaper semi‑skimmed UHT milk.

The people themselves appeared friendly and forthright.  We were impressed with their linguistic abilities ‑ many spoke English, German and French as well as their mother tongue.  One guy explained that, as the Netherlands was only a small country, it received TV broadcasts from the neighbouring countries of Britain, France, Germany, etc so that people grew up hearing these languages and learnt them alongside their own ‑ much more effective than the British system of exposure to a foreign language only in the schoolroom in which it is taught.

But our reason for visiting at this time of year was to see the geese arrive for the winter – hundreds of thousands of them.  And we certainly saw plenty of them.  With them, came the cold weather – several days of clear skies and below-freezing temperatures. Cold enough that the gas froze in the camper, and we couldn’t get a hot drink until the sun had thawed things out a bit.  One Dutch bird-watcher apologised for the weather – he said it wasn’t usually like this in winter.  It was replaced by a few days of thick mist, rain, and cloud – typical north Atlantic coastal weather.

The nature side of this trip starts here

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