By Liz Dodd
Covered in mud, bleeding from thorn scratches, and with pins and needles shooting along the suffocated nerves in my hands, I sat back in a French ditch and brushed melting hail from the can of beer I’d brought with me in my bicycle pannier from London.
It promptly exploded, probably because shortly beforehand I’d thrown the pannier, bike and myself down a sheer embankment to escape the motorway I’d cycled along since Dunkirk ferry port. When best friend Miranda and I decided to embark on our first foreign cycle tour, to pin it to our favourite Belgian breweries, and to wild camp along the way, we’d expected more Sideways and less Saving Private Ryan.
Before we set off a few people said to me how much they wanted to do a beer tour of Belgium by bike. The country’s excellent cycling infrastructure and sublime beer make perfect sleeping bag fellows. And after we’d ironed out the creases and got into the rhythm of touring, it was glorious – even in March’s freezing conditions.
Our route took us the 250 miles from Aylesford in Kent to Sluis in Holland and back again, with stops at some wonderful Real Ale pubs on this side of The Channel; and on the other, Westvlteren to try the best beer in the world, Rodenbach’s brewery to try more of the best beer in the world, and the beer halls of Bruges.
I’ve included a map in case anyone else wants to recreate the trip or try a leg themselves. Miranda and I are not pro-cyclists (I commute about 100 miles a week by bike), as you’ll quickly realise, although we are pro-drinkers, and we didn’t find this ride a struggle at all. After we’d figured out how to use a compass and what the French sign for “motorway” was.
For details on our bikes and gear scroll to the end
Aylesford to Thurnham (6.8 miles)
An immediate hiccough as we got tired after six miles and stopped for the morning/afternoon/night/following morning in the absolutely glorious Black Horse Inn (Thurnham, Maidstone ME14 3LD; 01622 737185; around £80 for a double)
Sat alongside the Pilgrim’s Way, which I’m sure is a lovely cycle path in summer but is muddy Hades in winter, its 18th century bar was thick with the smell of woodsmoke and the hop bundles that covered the ceiling.
A better place to neck pints of session ale, amend your ferry booking and rain down curses upon Google Maps I could not imagine. Onwards!
Thurnham to Dover (39 miles, with pushing)
Refreshed (ok, hungover) we blithely forged on along the Pilgrim’s Way, which shortly turned out to be a BMX track and No Way whatsoever. We escaped to the peaks and troughs of the A20 across a field whose primary crop was bicycle-clogging clods of clay, then on to the roaring fires and well-kept pints of the White Hart pub in Hythe (71 High St, Hythe CT21 5AJ; 01303 238304).
A race along the seafront through Folkestone brought us to the suburbs of Dover and the foot of the White Cliffs, where I took a wrong turn then insisted we climb a strange iron staircase to the start of a 300ft trail up the cliffside.
Friends, I will gloss over this part, except to say that I had gone so totally insane by the time I had dragged my 40kg of bicycle and equipment slipping and sliding to the top of that fucking cliff in the rain and the dark that I survived only by singing “you are my lucky, lucky star” over and over again like Ripley in Alien. Then amended the ferry booking.
Once you have sensibly taken the road up the hill, and not the mud slide, make sure to visit The Royal Oak (Capel-le-Ferne, Kent, CT18 7HY; 01303 244787). A wonderful little pub at the top of Dover Hill, which we cycled blindly into after scaling Dover Mountain and setting up camp in a nearby field, the staff are friendly, the darts are loud, and the ale Real and very well kept. It’s also mindbendingly cheap (£2.40 a pint) and serves £2.50 lunches.
Dover to Dunkirk (15 miles, plus motorway) (and ferry)
Dawn broke as rudely as the frost on our tent and we rolled downhill to Dover, where M got a puncture and it transpired we hadn’t booked the second bike onto our much amended ferry. No matter! After an administrative kerfuffle, three minutes to sail’o’clock found us crunching full-speed up the ramp to supportive cheers from the Dfds crew, and into a nook between the parked HGVs.
We entered Dunkerque on the motorway. A non-driver, I mistook the hard shoulder for a cycle path, and spent seven miles waving to horn-bashing lorry drivers before I realised M, behind me, was not, in fact, whooping for joy, but was actually screaming: “we’re on the bloody motorway”.
Around three miles later the cycle lane shoulder folded into itself over a bridge ahead (“FUCKING STOP!”) and, faced with either the SOS phone or a steep drop into a farmer’s field, we opted to fling our luggage, bikes and selves down the embankment into what transpired to be a river. On its banks, in a hailstorm, we failed to dry and sat enjoying the cans of Purity‘s new black ale, Saddle Black, which I’d brought with us for – er – just such an occasion.
Testament to the greatness of this beer, which was conceived on a bike trip hopefully better planned than our own, was how much we enjoyed it in our sticky trench. A nutty, pitch-dark ale, it rolled dark fruit and coffee; thick like a stout but lifted by a bit of fizz (although that might have something to do with rolling down an embankment) and zingy hops.
Dunkirk to St Sixtus Abbey (22 miles)
I don’t know whether it was the night in a hostel in Dunkirk that revived us, the novelty of better weather or the sudden, luxuriant cycling infrastructure, but we gambled into Belgium alongside quiet fields, dipping into farm shops for supplies and gaffa-taping baguettes to our cross bars.
St Sixtus Abbey (Donkerstraat 12, 8640 Vleteren, Belgium; 00 32 70 21 00 45), one of six Trappist breweries in Belgium (the others being Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort and Westmalle), and home to The Best Beer in the World, Westvleteren 12, sits among copses in flat Flanders fields. It’s well signposted and, far from being the crumbling, Gothic artifice I’d imagined, is tucked behind tall redbrick walls accented with white statuettes. The visitors’ centre (where the bar and shop are) is sharp and clean and glossy; it serves the monks’ beers and snacks including abbey cheese.
Of course, we went straight for the WV 12. We’d almost hoped that it wouldn’t be the best beer in the world, that we’d hipster ourselves out of enjoying it. But oh, it’s good. So good it invented its own class of beer – the Abt, or darker, quadrupel – and still dominates the league tables for that style. It’s rich and sweet but not overpowering; bursting with Christmas fruit and spices and chocolate; but so well-balanced it leaves you with just a ghost of mouthfeel and a massive thirst for more.
Which is unfortunate, because it’s 10 per cent and the abbey is in the middle of nowhere amid poorly lit country roads. Be warned: if you drive there nominate a designated driver and then buy them a whole case of the WV12 (which you can buy in the gift shop and supposedly nowhere else in the world) to make up.
In the interests of JOURNALISM we drank our fill of the 12 then camped (passed out under some tarp) in a nearby animal shed thing. We woke with dawn to shake the tent free of some asbestos that had fallen on it in the night and set off for Roeselare – home to Rodenbach.
(Coming in part two: Rodenbach; In Bruges)
Liz (I) rode a 2011 Ridgeback Speed hybrid (really!), with handlebar extensions, handbuilt wheels from The London Cycle Workshop (Mavic rims, Deore hubs and 36 spokes); a Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyre on the back and mystery tyre on the front; a Tourtec pannier rack (rear) and two 20L Ortlieb panniers. She slept in a Wenger Chasseral sleeping bag, on a Neo Air X-Lite women’s Thermarest, inside a Vango Banshee 300 tent. With cooking gear (meths, a single Trangia pan, an Aeropress and a beer can stove) and clothes (merino everything) I reckon I was carrying 15-20kg plus bike.
Miranda rode a Marin Muirwoods MTB with a Tortec Expedition Pannier rear rack, two Altura Arran 36L Panniers and handle bar extensions. She slept in a Snugpak Softie 9 Hawk bag on a Thermarest Prolite Plus, also inside the Vango Banshee 300.