Canals new to the Cleddau crew

Memories of early schooldays are at best patchy, perhaps disjointed. They do not necessarily follow a chronological sequence but surface, inspired by a chance remark or image, before melting back into a blurry past… From primary school days there are recollections of singing Morning has broken down in ‘The Hut’, led by the headmaster, snowy-haired and kindly Mr Jones, and of playground grit embedded in cut knees and of boys who were loud and cheeky to the teacher…  Lessons were mostly of the arithmetic /mechanical /problems variety and of learning to write precise descriptions and identify word meanings. Just occasionally, only occasionally, there would be relief in the diet and a set of grey cloth covered geography books would be issued. These contained information about the wider world. The clearest memories from those well-thumbed pages are of white-capped, clog-wearing Dutch children and windmills with sails turning in the wind.

A strong desire to go to Holland, specifically to Amsterdam, has grown in recent years: it had to be March, Boatwif decreed, when canals shouldn’t be frozen, before any BREXIT chaos or complications,    (seen on an Amsterdam lamp post)  and before the Cleddau cruising season began in earnest…

So, despite several hours of delays caused by Storm Freya’s high winds, the Easyjet flight landed at Schiphol Airport just as dusk fell on Monday 4th March. Cheshire Mum was right: “From the air,” she’d said, “The Netherlands looks just like the Fens on steroids…” There were stretches of water everywhere – and greenhouses.

It was dark by the time the transfer into Amsterdam had been completed, but yes, here was a room with a canal side view.   The particular canal was the Singelgracht, originally a moat which circled the city during the Middle Ages.

Any map of Amsterdam displays a huge amount of blue waterway, a series of semi-circular arcs to the south of the Centraal Station and the IJ river. On Tuesday morning a guided tour by tourist boat proved a good start to exploring this totally flat and vibrant city. 

“We have more waterways* than Venice,” said the tour boat’s captain. “We are not the Venice of the north; Venice should consider itself the Amsterdam of the south…”

Boats line many of the canal banks: barges, workboats, houseboats, self-drive trip boats to hire. It was emphasised that the cost of living aboard a boat in a pretty neighbourhood is no cheap option in this city of about 850,000 inhabitants.

The glass topped tour boats provide unimpeded views of those classic tall skinny buildings with their wonderfully varied gables. 

How do you get building materials and furniture into these cramped spaces? High up on many buildings is a girder or hoist whereby a delivery can be hauled up.   A more modern way though, it seems, is by powered ladder and remotely controlled delivery crate.

Dutch elms are planted at regular intervals alongside the canals;  those which succumb to infestation (remember Dutch elm disease?) are felled and young healthy trees planted in their place. The long tap roots delve deep into the waterlogged ground. As for canal depth: “The depth is three metres – one metre of mud, one metre of bicycles and one metre of water.” (The tour boat captain’s commentary). There is no sense of polluted or stagnant water. Twice a week in winter and four times a week in summer dam gates and sluices allow the canal waters to be flushed through  and replaced with fresh water from the Amstel Delta and the lakes west of the city.

The sheer number of bicycles in Amsterdam is astonishing   (several hundred thousand more than the total population apparently). Somehow the roads manage to accommodate cars and buses, trams and bikes. There are cycle lanes (red surfaced) on which people cycle several abreast, surging in huge numbers across junctions. In four days only two riders were seen wearing cycle helmets. There are many moped riders too, a few of whom wear helmets. The bikes are not fancy upmarket specimens with a multitude of gears, rather they are uprights, often with baskets or crates in front or panniers either side of the back wheels.

The sight-seeing boat tour circled Amsterdam, occasionally diverting onto other canals. At some point the water became much wider as the boat joined the Het IJ (the IJ River). It cruised past the Centraal Station, avoiding the fast moving foot ferries  (more on those in a moment), sharing the river with heavy work barges,   passing the Rhine cruisers   (you can depart for a Rhine cruise from Amsterdam ) to re-enter the city canals near the copper clad NEMO Science Museum   and St Nicolaasbasiliek  (St Nicholas is the patron saint of seafarers). Onward the cruise went –    under several more of Amsterdam’s 1281 canal bridges back to the cruise start point.

Via maps, occasional signposts, several re-tracings of footsteps and a degree of optimism, Dam Square was found. This is the site of the original 13th century dam on the Amstel river, around which the city grew. Prominent is the National Monument  (remembering the fallen in World War 2 and in subsequent conflicts) and also the Koninklijk Paleis.    This, the Royal Palace, was originally built in the 17th century in classical style as the Town Hall, but since 1930 it’s been used for state occasions. Inside visitors can view the Citizens’ Hall  where state banquets are held, view sculptures  and portraits (the young Queen Wilhelmina)   and even stare through the window across Dam Square as if from the royal balcony.

Water has an endless appeal for Boatwif.  Free ferries (there are in six in constant operation) criss-cross the IJ waterway between the Centraal Station and North Amsterdam. The crossing takes about five minutes and passengers never have to wait more than a few minutes before the ferry departs for the opposite side. Some passengers are on foot, a few are on mopeds, one or two drive the tiniest of electric street cars  but the vast majority are on bikes. Nearby was a lock  – and a chatty lock keeper. There was another pair of ferry crossings a day or so later, to see close up the astonishing building which is the EYE Film Institute. 

Pancakes are a popular Dutch food – and on Shrove Tuesday a savoury pancake at lunch time,

eaten while watching tour boats, foot ferries and coal-moving barges, became a double treat.

The difficulty with spending time in Amsterdam is how to spend it when there is so much to choose from … The city is not short of a few museums… and it was the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum that exerted the greatest pull. The Rijksmuseum is housed in a huge and impressive building.   Crowds thronged, eager to view the current much heralded Rembrandt exhibition.  On the upper floors are Golden Age paintings, 

silverware,  intricate Delftware, colonial furniture,   references to the Dutch Republic’s naval power  and a view of the museum’s art history library.

The modernist Van Goch Museum (timed tickets only) is but a five minute walk from the Rijksmuseum. A cylindrical building is linked below street level with a more conventional building. An electronic display board highlights most recognisable Van Goch and David Hockey images.

Why David Hockney? Did any other reader come across the quirky tale of David Hockney, BBC’s James Naughtie and others getting stuck in an Amsterdam lift just a few days ago? (Read it here ).

Thrilling it was to see much of Van Gogh’s work,  but the thrill was massively intensified when viewing Hockney’s work: See here some of his East Yorkshire Woldgate works.  The pictures are huge, the colours stunning, the same scene painted in four different seasons.

Apart from the visual memories from those few Amsterdam days there were the sounds – the rumble of trams along the tramlines,     the trams’ clanging bells, one ring for a departure from a tram stop, several clangs as a warning to any persons or traffic in the way  . There’s a whirr when a gaggle of cyclists surges across a junction and the tinkling of their bells. Moped riders roar round a corner or down an alley, regarding pedestrians with apparent indifference… One evening there was a clamour of street noise, cheering and clapping, shouting and singing, caused, it transpired, by the local Ajax Amsterdam’s football team’s win over Real Madrid.

What other memories linger? Well, never was there a problem with language. Straightforward questions were easily answered but frequently Amsterdamers would open conversation and talk readily and at length in correct English.

A local custom seems to be the delivery of meal time cutlery and napkin in a paper packet.

One final curiosity – nowhere was seen a plug for a washbasin or sink. Maybe the Netherlands has so much water that letting it run straight down a drain is not considered wasteful. Can’t you just hear the Captain’s protests if this crew member on Cleddau ran water down the sink without putting in a plug…!

As to when Cleddau will be untied for her own canal cruising, well, plans are for the end of the month (with a full tank of water and operational sink plugs of course!)

*According to this source Amsterdam has 165 canals and 1281 bridges.

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2 Responses

  1. Jaqueline Biggs says:

    Glorious!!! The narrative, the pictures on the blog and the ones in my head with you and Ken in them. xxx

  2. Hi Jaq,
    It was a brilliant visit – I’d love to do it again! There was so much to see; the city is visually stunning – so many waterways and a profusion of museums and attractions. I have enjoyed digging into the guide books to try to match up photos (there was a fair number of them!) with place names…

    Sue /Boatwif

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