Nobody could accuse my son John of being a stick-in-the-mud. His first career job was in Catalonia, he met his beautiful Colombian wife in Madrid, (or was it London), and he has recently moved to a new job in Groningen in the northern fringe of Holland. So Joy and I have never been short of a nice destination to go and visit.
Before John landed his job I had not really been aware of Groningen but a friend who has cycled just about every country in Europe had passed through on his way to Scandinavia. He said it was a beautiful old medieval city which he had reached via a 21 kilometer bridge. With growing anticipation Joy and I started to plan our first visit, and I booked a passage on the P and O Hull-Rotterdam overnight ferry.
As usual our planning process incorporated a number of cock-ups and I’ll deal with those first. To start with, I had booked the Sick Bay into Fellows Speed Shop in Birmingham where they were extending my gear box to accommodate the greater power available from the Subaru conversion. So the van would not be available on our chosen date and we decided to use Joy’s unlovely, and unloved, Renault Estate. This was due its MOT the day before we set off but it failed due to a mysterious little cut in a rear seat belt. A replacement would take several days so Adele, my daughter, offered us her car. (Adele and her husband, Ed, and her two boys would be joining us in Groningen but they don’t share my aversion to flying and so would be coming out with EasyJet.)
My second cock-up arose whilst making our ferry booking online. Each time I ticked the box to indicate we are taking a pet the transaction failed. If I tried it without the dog all went well. Joy had heard something about a dog that had died on a P and O crossing and we came to the conclusion that dogs were no longer carried on this route. We discussed taking the longer way round via Dover-Calais but decided eventually that we would leave Leo at home.
The third, and possibly the silliest cock-up crept up on us during our day of departure. We were booked onto the 8-30pm overnight crossing from Hull, only about a two hour drive down the M62 from Manchester. Life seems pretty hectic at the moment and I didn’t give too much thought to when we needed to set off until quite late in the afternoon. We were rapidly running out of time without realising it. At about 4-30pm I thought it would be a good idea to go and pick up Adele’s car and I contacted P and O to confirm what time we needed to be there to check-in. They said 7pm at the latest and it suddenly dawned on me that we would be cutting it fine. To assist Adele and Ed, we were taking the kids’ pram and other baggage in the car and we chucked this in with our luggage and set off with the satnav telling us we would arrive just after 7pm. I put my foot down but quickly ran into stationary M60 rush hour traffic. It was nearly 6pm by the time we got to the M62 and we called P and O to say we would be late. They said they would not extend check-in time and we sadly turned round and went home, after forking out £50 to postpone our crossing to the next day. Joy phoned John to tell him the disappointing news and I went off to play tennis.
We gave ourselves far too much time the next day and we arrived in the ‘City of Culture’ with hours to kill. Unfortunately Hull lived up to expectations and we found nothing more interesting than a Carpet Right outlet, (we are having an extension and Joy wanted to check out flooring) and a Laura Ashley store, (ditto for lighting). We had to settle for a Frankie and Benny for coffee.
The crossing itself was great; these ferries are huge and have a wide choice of bars and restaurants. There was even a dance floor and live band. No use to us though because after a good meal and a bottle of red we were in bed and asleep by the time we set sail. The only disappointment was that when we checked about dogs we were told we could have brought Leo and that the online difficulty was just a blip. There was even a dog exercise area on the car deck with fake trees and lamp posts.
The drive up to Groningen could not have been easier and our only disappointment was that the satnav did not take us over the 21 kilometer bridge described by my cyclist friend. We agreed to set up the satnav to take us that way on the return journey.
We met John at the university where he works as an English lecturer and were given a short tour by his boss. Apparently Groningen is Holland’s most prestigious university and it is ranked 70th in the world. The city itself is breathtaking – very old Dutch buildings, criss-crossed by canals, cobbled streets and as you’d expect of a Dutch city, bicycles rule the roads. Nobody wears a helmet, or any specialist equipment. It looks like a fairy tale town. Being a university city everybody seems very young. John says the only downside is that everywhere he goes he is always the oldest person there. The upside is that there are loads of bars, restaurants, music clubs and the atmosphere is lively, friendly and laid back. Though that might also be a reflection of the ‘coffee bars’ where you smoke what you like…
By the next morning, thanks to various planes, boats and trains, the whole family was able to assemble in Groningen and John took us on a tour of the market, (amazing), parks, squares, and canals.
There is no ‘stag party’ culture as it is hard for Brits to get there and so bars and restaurants are very welcoming. This may change as there are plans to open direct flights from Manchester, so watch this space. We watched the Man City game in John’s local Irish bar where the range and quality of the beers probably matches anything on offer in our own Magnet in Stockport. A great afternoon marred only by the last minute equaliser that robbed City of two points.
John has done what he did went he went to work in Spain and has built a great life for himself. In Spain he became fluent in Spanish and now he plans to learn Dutch. He has found a lovely apartment in the old city centre and we even met his landlord, a charming character who runs a florist downstairs. He always finds local football teams to play with. The only difference is that in Spain he was a single guy and now he is married. Unfortunately Carolina is unable to join him at the moment but they are a truly internationalist couple and recognise the benefits they get from spreading their wings as much as the challenges. They see each other two or three times a month and seem to pack a lot of fun into that. John also gets loads of holidays, including 7 weeks in the summer!
There were two more bombshells to come before this little trip came to an end. On the last day little Ellis contracted chicken pox and so would not be able to fly home. We resolved this by giving Adele back her car so that they could come back on the ferry and Joy and I got tickets for the train to Rotterdam where we joined the ferry to Hull. The train ride was very pleasant, especially before the conductor pointed out that we were in First and had tickets for Second. We had another night in the same restaurant on the ferry, same table, same menu choices, ( I know, I’m not as adventurous as my son), and then took a taxi to the train station in Hull. It was raining and Hull had not improved since the first time but we managed to get on an early train to Manchester. Leo had been staying with a really nice dog minder and had been enjoying three walks a day, but even so he seemed happy to see us again.
The second bombshell came as we were preparing to disembark the ferry and everybody was watching a giant screen as the news filtered through from America. Less said about that the better. But we’re already making plans for a return trip to Groningen – probably combine it with a ski trip to the Alps in January. This time in the Sick Bay and with Leo on board.