A lot of what I do in the outdoors is quite tame by most standards. This comes partly from the Dutch topography and partly from the fact that I have a toddler. Before Emily, now 22 months, was born I planned to carry on as usual. I've got several hundred pounds worth of all-terrain buggy and child carrier to prove it. However, the life-changing event has proved more life-changing than anticipated. I now realise you have to temper your ambition when heading outdoors with kids. Going into the outdoors with kids will be a recurring theme here. The following is a description of a typical weekend walk with Emily in tow:
We’re a long, long way from the mountains but occasionally mountain weather comes to us. Hoar frost covers everything in view from the bedroom window and the canal is frozen solid. Holland is in the grip of the longest freeze in five years. The omens are good and it appears that the ice will stay for the weekend. I like the ice. In Holland, even though it’s of the horizontal variety, it changes the landscape. Places, otherwise inaccessible, become accessible and the myriad of canals become a Nordic skaters paradise. In the west of Holland there is more water than land (I once read that 90% of the area is water) and the network of frozen waterways is far more extensive than the road network. When it freezes the Dutch really do take to the ice. The first of many are skating past my house before breakfast is finished. Some of them will be out for the day and will cover many kilometers before nightfall, or diary appointments, drag them back home.
My thoughts are however elsewhere. Today would be a good day to go for a walk with Emily and Jane. This being Holland there are no hills to walk on but we do have the dunes and frost and ice have a way of transforming landscapes. With a bit of luck I’ll stumble across some cameos which evoke grander landscapes. Hoar frost on heather perhaps. In any case, for Emily, at just 20 months and 90cm, everything is an adventure. Besides, if the Dunes are good enough for Woomble they’re good enough for us.
It’s just a ten minute drive and we’re at the entrance to the Amsterdamse Waterleiding Duinen. The area is used to collect water for the city of Amsterdam. Water collection has had mixed consequences for this relatively young dune landscape (the dunes were formed in the 11th to 18th centuries). On the up-side, this is one of the largest undeveloped areas of dunes on the Dutch North Sea coast. Donald Trump won’t be made welcome here any time soon! However, the landscape we’ve inherited is a heavily managed one. The water table is much lower than it would be without intervention and the landscape is thus much drier than it should be, none-native pines have been planted to stabilize areas of dune, greater demand has lead to importing nutrient-rich water from the Rhine and heards of sheep, cows and deer are used to control undergrowth in large areas. That said, things are changing, and since 1990 the water company have been responsible for both water-management and conservation and there is a move to re-create the original wet dune landscape. The landscape is different to the lakes and the highlands but it seems to me that the problematic is remarkably similar.
A few minutes walk from the car park and already I see our effort is not wasted. The sky is blue, seemingly bluer than normal, and provides a stunning backdrop for sand, tree and grass all of which are sugar-coated with hoar frost. The air is sharp but feels the cleaner for it. Every few steps I feel compelled to raise my camera to my eye. Holland is a land of big skies and long views but today there is foreground interest around every corner.
We progress slowly, in short hops, pausing for me to take another photo or for Emily to inspect the next object of wonderment. We’re on a good path, in places paved, but for little legs its practice enough. It also seems we’ve chosen the right route since as we turn a corner we stumble across the sheep herd. “Sheep” is one of Emily’s words. She can practice walking and talking. It’s turning out to be a bumper day.
We turn another corner and find ourselves on an incline. We’re hill-walking in Holland! Granted, it’s not such a spectacular hill, there are no iconic tops to be found in this vicinity. The highest point in the province, a dune called the vlaggeduin, is within walking distance and is a meager 37m above sea level. Still in a country in which you find yourself more often than not below sea level its something. It would be possible to start an ascent of the vlaggeduin at -7m.
The dune in front of us may be a mere pimple but it’s interesting to see Emily take on the slope. Her usual shuffle is interrupted by a couple of uncertain wobbles but she makes the summit. I like to think she’s learning to control muscles that she’ll later put to good use on something more substantial.
Jane spots two white tails disappearing into the trees. They belong to a pair of fallow deer. These are easier to spot than you might imagine here. Their number is estimated at 1200 at present and the population is growing at some 30% per year. On a cold day such as this the deer most probably outnumber the visitors. The animal rights movement in Holland has succeeded in imposing a 5 year ban on culling and there are still 3 years to go. This is turning into a something of a controversy as hungry animals begin to impinge on the surrounding villages and farms. Worse still, on my morning commute I regularly see dead deer along the side of the road. I can’t help but feel the pressure on the environment is becoming too great. Do-gooding is, I think, doing no good hear.
I leave the path in the direction Jane is pointing in the hope of getting a photograph but my reward is a second fleeting glimpse of the white tails. Emily, follows me into the rough. She copes surprisingly well but finds progress is easier with a steadying hand from mummy. She seems captivated by the world beyond the path. I hope that’s something that stays with her!
All good things must come to an end and that end comes quickly when you’re routine involves an afternoon sleep. Emily is far from happy about turning around. I understand her frustration. I too prefer the path ahead to the path already trodden. She complains loudly as we struggle to put her into the pushchair for the stroll back to the car. I think it’s more about the loss of control than the pushchair itself. After all, who wouldn’t want to take their breaks whilst being chauffeured around wrapped up against the cold in a warm sleeping bag? The complaints are short-lived however. Deployment of the secret weapon, a slice of ginger cake, ensures a quiet ride back to the car.