2015 – favourite photos of the year

Gallery

This gallery contains 17 photos.

Several of the bloggers I follow are summarising their year with a few of their favourite or most viewed posts. I thought I would do something a little simpler by picking out some of my favourite photos of the year, … Continue reading

Gardens of Aywiers – Capturing the colours (and tastes) of autumn

Gallery

This gallery contains 16 photos.

Among the most popular events where we live are the twice yearly open days at the former Abbey of Aywiers at Couture St Germain, just a couple of kilometres down the valley from Lasne. Today the former abbey buildings are … Continue reading

Its snowing – of course childish enthusiasm wins over mature common sense!

Photo Kevin MayneI had been seeing tweets and news stories all day about the snow hitting Britain and Northern Europe.

In Yorkshire there were typical shots of closed roads up on the hills while the Dutch were being oh so smug about the clearing of snow from their bike lanes.

And here it rained, and it rained and it rained.

Until about 2pm when the rain turned to slush, then sleet and finally slow.

Of course I had to go out – its like a rule isn’t it. It may have been mainly slush on top of mud but it was beautiful. (Even if I did have to clean the signs)

Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

Yet another “what were they thinking” moment – a beautiful Belgian cycle route with a bonkers twist.

Cycle route to lasne

Close to where I live there is just one cross country cycle leisure route that mimics the best farmland routes that I found on my recent tour in Flanders.

Lasne cycle route signFrom the Ottignies suburb of Mousty there is a former farm track that has now been covered by a perfectly smooth surface to make a car free cycle route, signposted to our town of Lasne, seven kilometres away.

It runs up across the open farmland with wide open views that I thoroughly enjoy, especially on these late summer evenings when the sun is low and yellow.

Looking towards Mousty on the cycle path

And then.

After winding through a few cottages we come to a small valley.

Mousty Lasne cycle path

For some unimaginable reason the planners decided to go straight down, so steeply that they then had to insert barriers which theoretically might stop unsuspecting cyclists shooting out without warning onto a Route Nationale (main road) at the bottom.

Steep hill on the Lasne Mousty cycle route

However as there is no indication that the RN is there, why would you stop? Assuming that you can ride down at all. I will just about ride down it on a day when the path is clear and dry. Which isn’t very often, because it is tree lined and usually covered in leaves or damp, so I have to walk.

From the bottom looking up it is just possible to believe that the barriers are there to aid pedestrians in fixing their climbing ropes before tackling the ascent. It certainly isn’t rideable except for the most competent of mountain bikers.

Cycle path from Mousty to Lasne

So at some point, somewhere, somebody thought it was a good idea to make a cycle route from a slippery descent with tricky chicanes and a blind entrance onto a main road. Even when they had an alternative which could take about an additional kilometre and connect to the rest of their network, actually bypassing the valley completely.

Given that the commune of Ottignies Louvain-la-Neuve is actually one of the more cycle friendly municipalities round here I say it again “what were they thinking?”

Sighs deeply,

Things can only get better – I will not despair, I will ride my bike on Sunday

Sunday was almost “one of those days”.

I promised myself 2-3 hours road bike cycle touring ride, not too heavy on the legs and taking advantage of a reasonable forecast.

First look out of the window took care of that – no way an I risking the icy minor roads round here on 25mm of rubber. So mountain bike it is.

Lasne Matin Hiver

Some fettling needed because of the hammering the bikes took over Christmas in the mud. Another 30 minutes lost.

Thorn in bicycle tyre

And then that most infuriating of seconds. I look down at the wheel, and I flick at a piece of debris. Which resists for a second and then hisses at me vigorously – a horrible thorn. Good news it didn’t happen ten minutes into the ride, bad news I am loosing the will to ride fast.

But then I am restored. Unwilling as I am to exert any mental energy into the process I let the local route network take over and guide me round one of the many routes in the area. It is so nice to feel welcomed and valued.

It took me over to Ohain, which is one of the five settlements that make up our commune (municipality) but not one I have particularly featured in the blog as I tend to go in other directions. But it is one of the few villages in Belgium to have retained its traditional village tree lined green and this one is especially nice because it slopes down a hillside.

Ohain Belgium

The white-washed cottages were almost painful to the eyes as the sun began to glare and the church sits attractively in a network of cobbled streets which livened me up and sent me happily away on the farm tracks and lanes that made up my route for the day.

Ohain Lasne Belgium Ohain Eglise Belgique

Two hours later I am a much better human being. Ahhhh.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”

Belgium Wallonia

Lasne Chapelle St lambert

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light” is a line from the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It was written as a poem for his dying father but both lines are among the most used Thomas quotes.

Thomas is an extraordinary lyrical poet, if you don’t know his work I encourage you to pick up an anthology or try reading or listening to “Under Milk Wood”, his play for voices. At Christmas every child should be read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. If you haven’t got a child of the right age borrow a suitable relative as an excuse to read it out loud, great for grandparents!

The line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” has come to me many times in the past weeks because to me it sums up an urgency to take in the best of the sunlight and autumn colour before winter’s icy grip takes hold.

I think this year that feeling has been amplified several times over and I have been trying to digest why. Foremost I suspect is a legacy of our first Belgian winter which coincided with one of this part of Europe’s worst winter spells in living memory. There is no reason why it should repeat this year but I do find each bright sunny walk and bike ride precious as if I am banking them for the hibernation to come.

lone cyclist Lasne Chapelle St Lambert

On a more positive note we are definitely inspired by our new home of the past year. Living at the top of a hill and being surrounded by tracks and trails that open up wide vistas means that we can see the interplay of the light and the landscape much more than if we lived in town or even in a village. Sunrise and sunset are more part of the day, the sun rises and sets over the land and trees rather than being eclipsed by buildings.

And I am sure my final influence is my blogging. I have gradually found my relationship with the light changing as I have tried to describe my travelling and my cycling life here in Belgium. I am gradually learning the way light changes scenery and enjoying trying to translate that into photography for an audience.

This sequence of photographs was taken on one short November walk that summed up the whole feeling. I was too busy to post them when I took them but they capture the urgency of the battle between winter’s dark and autumn’s light perfectly. I knew the storm was coming and I knew I didn’t have much time to take the dog out for his walk.

The sun was low and bright and lit up the fields and trees almost like a spotlight but it was made all the more striking by the glowering dark clouds that foretold the rain, making a dark contrast behind the foreground features.

Chemin Chapelle St Robert Lasne Autumn 2013

And as if to emphasise the difference the crop of green manure planted by the farmer was flowering bright yellow. This is a quite unusual crop, it is planted in September after the harvest of the main crop corn and sugar beet.  It then grows rapidly to a metre tall yellow flower in just six to ten weeks before it is ploughed back into the ground before the next main crop. It creates an unexpected splash of colour all over the area just as the rest of the plant life is taking on a dowdy winter hue.

Autumn trees Chapelle St lambert

Chapelle St Lambert autumn landscape 2013

In the end I didn’t escape the rain, but I did feel I had captured a precious feeling that I wanted to share.

Full version and audioclip of “Do not go gentle into that good night” here 

Today’s Belgian cycling conundrum. “What makes one set of cobble stones more special than another?”

Aside

The strangest thing.

Somebody has decided to repair a 10 metre stretch of Grand Chemin (the big path)

Grand Chemin Lasne

It is a former roman road that runs through our patch, a mix of cobbles and dirt paths, most of which are unfit for normal car and road bike use. Some of it is almost unusable except for tractors in winter.

I use it all the time as it links loads of useful tracks and trails. Even on road bikes we sometimes ride this way on the grass verge in dry weather, you can just see the worn patch we all use in the picture below.

But repair it? That would be something entirely odd.

These are the stones on the approach.

Lasne Grand Chemin

And these are the stones on the other side.

Belgian cobbles

And just the road there are some much worse sections that look like nobody has replaced a single stone for several centuries. One of the reasons I like it up here is because you can almost visualise the French and Prussian skirmishers who moved through here en route to the Battle of Waterloo, it won’t have changed much.

So why these few distinct stones? Why do they deserve maintenance in a country where the quality of a road surface is a lottery?

Curious indeed. I expect nothing less than a magic carpet ride when the work is done.

Tonight we rode

Belgium Brabant Wallon

Ben Mayne Chapelle St Lambert

My son and I came back to the house and there was only one thing to do.

Glorious late evening light. No breeze worth mentioning. Eager dog ready for the off. We rode.

Brabant Wallon Towards Grand Chemin Lasne

I was lifted up. Oh I needed this. So good to have all this on the doorstep.

And we were not alone.

Lasne Grand Chemin

Thanks Ben, thanks Murphy.

VTT Lasne Belgique

Cycling across Wallonia shows that Belgium isn’t just a low country, it is an upside down country.

Wallonia

A few weeks ago I took a day off work to ride much of the way across my newly adopted home region of Wallonia – the French speaking bit of Belgium. I was headed south to Huy to watch the Fleche Wallonne cycle race (post here) but what I also wanted was to stretch my cycling boundaries and explore. And in doing so I was able to unravel a previous confusion about the cycling landscape and prove to myself that cycling in Wallonia is indeed upside down.

I also found brilliant riding. I don’t think I have never met anyone who has told me about touring round Belgium so I had no idea what to expect when I came here. A few people had done trips to the WW1 battlefields over in Flanders and I know the odd person who has made the pilgrimage to the big bike races but I just don’t recall “cycle touring in Belgium” being a common discussion point amongst my UK cycling community.

People seeking flat and cyclist friendly riding go to the Netherlands. And to our south France is the biggest cycle touring market in Europe, possibly the world. But as in so many other things dear Belgium gets, well a little bit lost.

On this particular day I experienced two, maybe three very distinctive landscapes which in their own right would provide part of a brilliant tour, both of which show off some of the distinctive elements of Wallonia. It isn’t perfect, cyclists don’t get anywhere near as much help with routes as in Flanders, the Netherlands or France and some of the road surfaces are abominable, but there is no reason for southern Belgium not to be a great cycle touring destination.

Above all else it is completely deserted. Again I have say it, come here fellow cyclists, it is so quiet. A normal Wednesday, a weekday when people are going about their business, the commuter routes into Brussels were as congested as ever and yet I rode for hours and hours on apparently empty roads, hardly seeing a car except when I crossed busier main roads. Belgium cycle touring

Farmers were busy, but apparently nobody else.

And there is a tolerance for cyclists that far exceeds any experience I have had in the UK, and is a complete contrast to Brussels. Maybe it is the lycra, as if lby ooking like a sporty cyclist you seem to spark a certain recognition in the Walloons, but whatever it is I love being treated like a valuable property not an inconvenience.

Upside down country?

I knew that I was heading for the hilly bit of Belgium. Not massive climbs but clearly from descriptions of the Ardennes and the profiles of the bike races it was going to be an area of steep sided hills. Not so different from Brabant Wallon where I live, but probably steeper and bigger. As I like hilly country for cycling I was looking forward to it.

But what I didn’t know much about was the terrain in between, a 50-60km section between the main towns of Wavre and Namur. My previous excursions had touched on flatter terrain and open farmland, but the maps didn’t show any transition to the Ardennes which was a bit odd, I assumed it must start to climb somewhere.

That was almost how it turned out. I had half a ride on gently rolling but exposed farmland. And then I hit the valleys at the very edge of the Ardennes and I was suddenly plunged into steep sided gorges with rock walls and dark stone cottages that could have been plucked out of the English Peak District or the French Perigord Nord.

But the key to understanding the Walloon landscape revealed itself to me as I made that transition. I hit valleys, not hills.

When that realisation dawned suddenly I could make sense of a whole lot of landscapes, not only on that day, but around where I live south of Brussels. I appear to have got this whole region upside down.

I haven’t studied the geology in a text book, so go with me here, it might make sense to a cyclist.

Through Northern France and into Belgium is a wide coastal plan that gradually rises as it heads inland. There are ripples and lumps and bumps, but this is largely flat country. Further north in the “Low Countries” it stays close to sea level however further inland from the coast this plain rises to 100, maybe 150 metres above sea level. In the East in what is now the Ardennes the plain must have been pushed up by geological forces higher and forms a plateau around 700 metres high, but still these are not really mountains thrust up into the landscape, it’s geology was pretty flat when it was laid down.

So there should be no real hills.

Except that there are rivers, which have cut downwards into the soft soils and rocks over thousands of years. So instead of ups, there are downs. Instead of peaks we have flats, when you complete a big climb you end up back on the flat land. It is like the reverse of everywhere I have ever cycled, when you come off a flat section you go down, then you climb back up. That is a right pain if you feel like a bit of freewheeling after a long hill climb!

Where I live in there are many small rivers like La Lasne, Smohain, l’Argentine and La Mazerine, each of which has carved out one of our steep valleys 50-70 metres deep. This makes it feel like constant climbing if you have to travel north to south as I do every time I ride to Brussels.

On my cycle tour across Wallonia I started with a few of these dips and climbs of Brabant Wallon however I was quickly into the an area without significant streams or rivers, so when I climbed out of the last valley to Mont St Guibert there was nearly 50km of gently rolling flat farmland in front of me which will appeal to any lover of cycle tourism on tiny agricultural roads between old farms and sleepy historic villages. Think the Netherlands, think East Anglia, think the Vendee depending on your previous cycling experiences. Dramatic it isn’t, delightful it is. Walloon villageThe little towns and villages like Chastre, Walhain, Grand Leez,  Waret-la-Chausée just slipped by with the spires of their churches and manor houses making attractive punctuation points on the horizon. Wallonia Manor house

However it is pretty exposed and a nagging headwind really took the edge of my pace, I would really rather have had some variety at times.Cycle touring Belgium

I only really understood how this fitted together with the Ardennes this when I reached the valley of the Meuse just east of Namur and a great vista opened out in front of me. But instead of looking up as I had expected to the forthcoming hills I looked across?

Ahead of me the plain could have continued climbing gently and eventually reach the 600 metres of Belgium’s highest point. But it was deeply cut by the many rivers and streams feeding into the Meuse and what I could see from my vantage point was not a series of hills but a tumbling mass of valleys.Belgium cycle touring

The hills of the Ardennes are hills of sorts, but their main shape comes from crossing the valleys, not climbing hills. They do end up a lot bigger than around Brussels because the plain has been rising all the way so the valleys can cut deeper over time, but the much of the landscape is still just open and flat, just that it is 200-300 metres above sea level. This became even clearer when later in my ride I kept climbing out of the valleys and discovering more wide open farming land at the top instead of the peaks of hills I had expected. But the depth of the valleys makes them like another place. The houses are built of stone not brick, the sides are heavily wooded and the villages are just cute as anything, especially as spring blossom was just appearing.

The exception to the cuteness was the valley of the Meuse which forms the boundary of this new area. Initially I dropped very fast and steeply down a lovely side valley alongside a stream, passing mills and cottages in dark stone which reminded immediately of the English Peak District.Cycle touring Wallonia

At the end it was almost a shock to burst out onto the side of the Meuse. This is a big river, one of the workhorses of Europe and it suffers from its heritage as an industrial canal with big cement works, railways, boat moorings, main roads and a railway line all exploiting its history as transport corridor, especially on the northern bank where the main towns in this section are. The south bank looked a lot pleasanter thank goodness..Cycle touring Belgium

Ravel  WalllonnieI only rode a few kilometres along the only busy road of my day until I could get to the first bridge and across into the quiet countryside again. However I had noticed on the maps that there is a Meuse cycle route and when I rode over the bridge at I could see a flat riverside path winding away into the distance which clearly was the sort of long distance car free route that crosses Europe by the great rivers. So even a third sort of cycle touring was on offer had I wanted just to nip along the river to Huy on flat car free trails.

But I had come for the Ardennes, or at least the edge of the Ardennes, so I had planned a further30km route south of the Meuse and the route of Fleche Wallonne, circling round and come back to Huy from the south, arriving at the top of the Muy de Huy with about 100km under my wheels. I had expected constant climbing and descending but the reality was quite different.

As with the earlier section of the ride I was quickly into a network of minor roads with hardly any traffic on them. South from Namèche I was able to wind my way gradually up a lovely valley past Faulx les Tombes for several kilometres.Ardennes stone cottages

Cycle touring Belgium

I didn’t gain much height but then I turned east and climbed fairly vigorously up Gesves which it turns out is very much a plateau town, looking across high open farmland. I was getting pretty tired at this point and as I was at the top of one of my main climbs of the day I really rather hoped for a nice sweeping decent.

In fact I then had another flattish ride of about 15km northeast on plateau landscape, not what I had expected at all. However I was rewarded when I approached Modave because there was a great decent down and I made my first encounter with the Fleche Wallonne route. A relatively short steep climb out the other side took me back onto the plateau and I was finally working my way in towards Huy. Once again it was deceptive, I appeared to be riding towards a village on a low hill above the farmland. When I encountered the race publicity caravan just south of Huy it seems impossible to imagine they had just come up one of the most famous climbs in cycle racing.Fleche Wallonne caravan

Only when I got to the very top of Mur de Huy could I see that the road effectively “fell off a cliff” falling steeply down through the suburbs and then at the bottom the town is a bustling place by the Meuse. You can get a good impression of the Mur de Huy from here just by looking up at the hill behind the town.Huy

The distinction between the plateau and the valleys is so contrasting it is almost like two worlds, even the architecture and the building materials are different between high and low, as are the farming patterns and woodlands.

Cycling BelgiumThose low traffic volumes, driver respect and contrasting terrains should make Wallonia one of cycle touring’s undiscovered gems instead of something just for the Belgians and a few bike race fans. Maybe it suffers from the fact that it does offer “a bit of everything” because someone describing just one part of my ride on this sunny spring day would had told a completely different story to the next person. The downside is certainly that it isn’t easy to navigate, the theoretical Randonnee á Velo shown on some of my maps have no signposting whatsoever so you need to be confident with a map and reasonably well organised to decide if you wanted to stick to a hilly scenic ride or a meander through the lanes. And Belgiumthe Belgians have an extremely relaxed attitude to what constitutes a road for cyclists, in some cases we are talking almost cart track. However that is always preferable to a kilometre of cobbles, that really does knock back your energy and your speed, however it is so much part of the infrastructure there is just no way of knowing until you get there what you are going to be offered. Cycle lanes are almost redundant except by the main roads but they were generally reasonable quality and occasionally real gems.

All in all a brilliant day’s exploration, topped off with beer, frites and bike racing. It doesn’t get much better than that does it? Do come a visit Wallonia, there is something for every sort of cyclist here, even if it is upside down.

@30daysofbiking – how was it for you?

I last posted on 30 days of biking back on the 14th of April.

That doesn’t mean I stopped riding, it just means I ran out of steam on the blogging. It’s a great concept and it probably lends itself to the 140 characters of Twitter but I assumed my readers will probably run out of patience if I write “went to the station again” for the 15th time in a month. And it’s not as if I haven’t ridden a bike almost every day since too.

The bigger problem however was that I completely ran out of time to blog, I have had some pretty good content but I haven’t had time to do it justice. So while I am catching up with those posts I have looked back at the second half of the month and pulled out just a few highlights to close out the sequence, even if it is late. Almere and Paris were the travel highlights, but I have already blogged about those.

What was really great was being forced to note as I went along why even daily cycling is so uplifting, especially when you live out in the countryside and spring brings changes almost every day. This has been especially true this year, the late cold winter has compressed spring into a ferocious burst of energy and all of that broke during the 30 days of April.

So glory number one from the end of the month is blossom, bursting out all over.Genval Belgium Lasne Belgium

And number two is the rediscovery of touring. At last the weather has been good enough to do proper touring rides and I managed three or four of those, both local explorations, another club ride with Cyclottignies and my big trip across Wallonia. I ended April a lot fitter than I started it!Cyclottignies Club ride Brabant Wallon Lasne Houtain le Val

Finally there was one other big beneficiary of my determination to ride every day. He is a lot fitter too. When I might have just nipped out for a walk instead Murphy got lots of great cross country rides even after work and we explored a some great new local lanes off the Lasne Nature maps although not without a few barriers.

Belgium

Anyway I managed to ride every day except one in April, probably more than I would have done without the incentive of the challenge. So Murphy and I thank the 30daysofbiking guys in Minneapolis, great idea. We’ll be back next year.

To see how the rest of the world fared click here