If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Denmark Trip Day Seven

Oosterbeek and the War Cemeteries, 111 miles

I slept well, and woke up around 8 am. By the time I had dressed and stumbled about aimlessly for a while, Keith and Ken were packing and ready to go. I had a long chat with Keith about his bike. It was a Harley Davidson Fat Boy:

I have long held a prejudice against Harleys. Too much of the 'All-American' image that doesn't sit well on a tubby 40-year-old from Chipping Sodbury; too slow, bad brakes, no ground clearance. A bike that is all about image and sound (Harley have even tried to patent the famous 'potato-potato' sound of the V-twin), and chrome and gen-yoo-ine Screamin' Eagle accessories, and as far removed from my idea of biking as it is possible to be. This prejudice was compounded by a relative of Anna's, a country solicitor who owns a Harley, complete with tasselled bars and saddlebags, and wears all the fringed leathers to match. He seems as far from baaaad as it is possible to be, and is therefore at the centre of Harley's demographic. However, Keith did a partial conversion job on me.

He worked for a large motorcycle dealership in Stoke, and got this bike when it was brought in as a trade-in for something else, with only a thousand or so miles on the clock (owner decided on a yacht instead?). He had had sports bikes by the bucketload, and finally got fed up of the chase for more speed, faster times and points on his licence. He had bought a smaller Harley as an experiment, liked it, and then spent serious money on the Fat Boy. He said it made riding a wholly different experience - you don't go very fast, but you enjoy the journey, and the vibe is unlike anything else: no pressure, no racing, just you and your Hawg and the road.

Having spent three out of the last six days riding pretty quickly, looking for chances to get ahead, constantly watching the mirrors for cars with funny lights, ducking the wind, balancing the need to make progress and the need to get there in one piece, I saw what he meant. The Pan is a wonderful and very capable (and safe) bike, but I have to confess that more than once I wished that I had a bit more time, and I was on my trailbike pottering along minor roads at 55, rather than blasting up the autobahn at nearly twice that. I would have enjoyed the journey more, although it would have taken probably a week longer for the whole thing. And the journey's the thing, isn't it? The destination is only half the story. The Pan is huge and flexible, and will let you potter along at 50 if you wish, without complaining - but when you know that a simple twist of the right wrist will have you flying towards the horizon at imprisonable speeds, in comfort and safety, it's hard to potter. We're always wanting to get to the next horizon, but a fast bike perhaps makes that just too accessible. A slower bike doesn't tempt you just to hammer on - you can sit back and enjoy the scenery too. Maybe there's a Harley somewhere in my future. Or maybe the next trip will be on the trusty Yamaha. Who knows?

I had decided (more or less as soon as I realised how comfy those foam mattresses were) that I was going to stay another night at D'n Toerstop and use the extra day to visit the war cemeteries near Arnhem.

Anna's cousin's father was 28 when he was killed in Operation Market Garden, where the Allied forces tried to capture and hold the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The story goes that he survived the parachute drop OK, but was killed in hand-to-hand fighting in the town itself when the 'weakened and demoralised' German forces defending the area turned out to be anything but. He is buried at the military cemetery at Oosterbeek, and when Anna and I had a holiday there a few years ago, we made the visit. Since I was in the area, and with a day to spare, I thought it would be good to see it all again.

I took the motorway for the 50 miles or so to Oosterbeek and found the cemetery eventually (it's up a side road and not massively well signposted). I looked up the record and located the grave, and stood for a while, contemplating not only his name, but the stones around inscribed with only "A Soldier Of The War". There are no words to describe how I feel when I visit places like this - only that everyone should go there at some point, and stop, and forget about their Playstations and televisions and motorbikes and jobs and mortgages, and just think about what is around them. It's humbling.

What makes it more poignant is the care with which the graves - thousands of them - are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Local people, mainly older, are there every day, tidying and tickling and occasionally repairing and restoring. Once a year, local children visit and lay flowers. Still.

I am going to quote in full the text from a memorial stone there, which speaks of the bonds between people who have shared such sacrifices:


50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us.

This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen, while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.

You took us into your homes as fugitives and friends,
We took you into our hearts.
This strong bond will continue
Long after we are all gone.

1944 — September — 1994

At this point, I didn't see much point in hanging about, so I decided to head back to the campsite and get things ready for my final day of the trip. I was pig-sick of motorways by this time, so I asked Jane nicely to take me back by a scenic route. She obliged, in fine style. We went into Germany and through part of the Reichswald Forest, and then back into Holland through small villages and tiny farmsteads. All very well - but I was getting very low on fuel. I had calculated that I could fill up close to the campsite, which would give me a full tank to take me all the way back to the UK before I needed to fill up again. Amazingly, and uniquely in my experience, British fuel prices were actually lower than in France, and I didn't need to spend a lot of extra Euros filling the pockets of M Sarkozy and his gang. But the scenic meander back to Melderslo was taking longer than I thought. I was getting closer to the campsite, and the fuel display on the bike was reading 'miles to empty' - first 50, then 30, then 20 ...

And I couldn't remember if there was a filling station in Melderslo. If I got back there and there wasn't, I was stuffed, as I wouldn't have the fuel to get out again and find a petrol station. And then I remembered Jane. She's a clever girl. You can ask her to find the nearest petrol station to your current location and then take you there. So I pulled over and asked her the question. Luckily, there was one a few miles away, so I headed there and pulled onto the forecourt, sucking fumes. I was thus the helpless candidate for The Most Expensive Petrol Anywhere In Europe, at €1.41 a litre - that worked out at £1.23, and I can tell you that the Pan's tank is not in any way small. The fuel and a sandwich cost me nearly forty quid. But at least I got some.

I got back to the campsite ready for a sit down, a beer and perhaps a snooze. But someone had other ideas. As I pulled the plastic chair out onto my 'verandah', I heard a noise like a cricket chirping. But it was too loud and too regular to be a cricket - it had to be man-made. I thought it might be a burglar alarm for one of the buildings on the far side of the road, but then I realised it was closer to home than that. About 20m away from my cabin was a tiny tent with a chopper parked alongside. The noise was coming from the chop. I went to investigate, and found that the culprit was a 120 decibel alarm attached to the bike. Something had obviously set it off in the afternoon, and it had decided to carry on until its battery ran out.

It was the kind of noise you couldn't ignore, so I had a closer look. It was a cheap thing, just a steel cable wrapped through the wheels, with a black box (the source of the racket) laid on the ground under the bike. I turned it over, and there was a small aperture in the bottom which was where the noise was coming from. My first thought was to urinate into it, but then I didn't know what voltage it ran on, and that might be a bit risky, on a personal level. I had a bottle of water with me, and that would have done just as well, but if I stopped it sounding it might be permanent, and I didn't want to deprive a fellow biker of his only security on what might be a long trip. So I found some soft paper in a litter bin and stuffed it into the opening. It worked, in that it cut the noise to about half of its previous level. I went back to the cabin and got on with my pottering, and after about half an hour decided to go for a shower.

When I came back out, it was raining hard and the noise had stopped. I walked over to the bike and took out my paper and kicked the unit back under the bike. Silence is golden, and sometimes nature steps in to help. I was walking around the site taking some photographs later on when the bike's owner came back.

Check out the complete wartime BMW rotting away in the entrance. There's a project for someone. That's not the chop's owner, by the way. He was twice as wide.

I met many people in the few days I was away, but this guy and his friend were the weirdest I came across. The bike's owner (we'll call him Hansel) was in his early 20s, short, and must have weighed at least 25 stone. He had a long tuft of beard on the point of his chin, and eyes that pointed in different directions. He had a kind of menace about him - not the menace of a streetfighter or a hard man, but that of a soft, nasty boy who tortures cats. His 'friend' (we'll call him Gretel, then) was about 30, silent, tall and wiry, with tattoos on almost every available square inch of skin.

Hansel started the conversation, asking me where I had been, and telling me that they had been 'shopping'. He spoke in poor English, heavily accented (the barman later told me he spoke to them in Schweitzerdeutsch, and they could hardly understand him either). Everything was 'verry fun'. I told him about the alarm (omitting my paper-stuffing exploits) and expressed the opinion that the rain had stopped it. "Nein, but I put it unter the bike, it cannot have rained on been." He went and checked it and came back. "Ah, it now working is again. This is good. I would not like the old lady to lose, she means much to me."

I asked him about the bike (always a good wheeze for defusing awkward conversations). "She is an old 1978 Shovelhead, she has been with me long time, great old lady." A few clouds of doubt had been gathering in my mind. If you look at the picture of the bike above, you will see that it is designed for style rather than practicality, to say the least, and when I realised that here were two biggish guys, one tent, one bike - travelling together, must be - I wondered how the hell they managed to get a tent and kit for two people on something that had no carrying capacity whatsoever. I struggled to get my stuff on the Pan, and there's only one of me, and the Pan was designed for this kind of thing. Then all was revealed.

"The old lady, she is not so good these days. It is over 700 km from Switzerland, and I think maybe she won't make it. So we come in car with trailer." Let me get this right: you collect your friend, load the bike onto a trailer, drive to a bikers-only campsite, park the car round the corner, and ride in like you had just crossed half a continent? "Yes that is so."

I know a little about biker culture, and I am pretty sure that if this were generally known, and the site was full of genuine bikers, then if the owners hadn't thrown them off, the other residents would have taken pleasure in doing so. Possibly violently. Perhaps that was why they were travelling round in early September, when the sites were empty and the chances of detection were slim.

Hansel, Gretel and I were the only residents that evening, so we were forced to eat together. They sat at one end of the bar, talking in their strange gutteral way, and I sat as far away as possible, talking to the barmaid and trying to understand the music system (a screen behind the bar had a 'virtual deck' with sliders and knobs and all the upcoming tracks listed; fascinating). The spare ribs - yes, they were good enough to have twice - were mountainous, perhaps as an end-of-season clearout, and I dined well. When the beers started flowing, I made an excuse, gave an elaborate yawn, and retired to my cabin. It was 8 pm. I was asleep by 8.15, and slept for ten hours solid.

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