HALF-PAST FIVE is no time to be setting an alarm for, but darling Rodders had decided that we should
rendezvous at Geoff and "Dame Judy's" (Rodders' sister) house, then leave there by seven am. It's about a half hour's
drive from my house to Geoff's and it takes me an hour to hit the snooze button five times and then leap out of
bed for a bath, a shave and my morning motion - possibly too much information?
Jonathan Halbert was staying with Geoff and Caroline overnight and we were all to meet the Despicable Parsons and Keri at Dover station. I was about ten minutes early but Rodders was already up and about and feeding drug-laden frankfurters to their aptly-named sausage dog. I expected Jonathan (who had been heard in the shower) to be down by at least seven. Then I expected him to be down by ten-past, and at twenty-past the Slothful Halbert ambled downstairs complaining that he'd only had one cup of tea.
In fact it did not really matter as there was no real traffic on the M25 and we even had time for another coffee before the DP (Despicable Parsons) and Keri squeezed into the Mazda, and half an hour later we were through passport and immigration (about whom I will have a few words to say later) and I was tucking into my own version of a continental breakfast; sausage, eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, beans, toast - and a glass of red wine.
Things were going all too smoothly until we arrived at Calais and I could not find the car. Clearly, during the crossing they had moved it from one side of the boat to the other and up two decks and told everyone other than me. Small wonder I could not find it, so I called Rodders on the mobile who gave me the updated location, (what he actually said was that it had been there all along and clearly I had not been paying attention when everyone had repeatedly told me to remember "Blue Six", but I think we can safely discount his version of events). In a couple of hours we were in Antwerp.
Half an hour later, due to the DP not only reading the wrong map but reading it upside down for good
measure, we had completely overshot our target and were on the way to Denmark. We had to do a bit of back tracking
but soon enough we were at our intended destination, Ronnie's bar. The no-parking bollards were moved to allow us to park and the
first round of drinks was on the house. Now, how's that for service?
Before Rodders drunk himself incapable, we drove to the hotel and checked ourselves in. I was not
expecting great things from a hotel called something like The Ropey Seaman's Rest Home, but it was perfectly adequate, (if you
like your mattresses made from compressed granite) and we dumped our bags and walked back to Ronnie's bar for a
couple of swift halves before dinner, which was a typical Belgian meal... at a Mongolian carvery fifteen minutes'
In a Mongolian carvery there are trays of uncooked meat from which you make your selection, putting it in a bowl and handing it to the chef who throws it on a large griddle type affair and cooks it in front of you. For as long as you keep presenting him with raw meat (and there was also a buffet of salad and pre-cooked cold meat and fish) he will keep cooking it. Not only that but self-service beer was included in the price. The general idea for anyone visiting such an establishment is not to eat and drink as much as you like (as was once explained to me at a similar establishment in Twickenham by a New Zealand waitress) but to eat and drink as much as you possibly can. We came back via what is known as the "shorter but longer" route via the red light district, did a bit of window shopping and then off to bed.
The next day we had to be at Ronnie's for one o'clock for a few halves and then join the parade into town. I
had heard that the Slothful Halbert was all for visiting Rubens' house and the Cathedral that morning and tried
calling him at about ten but no reply, so just Rodders and myself headed off with the I-Spy book of Rubens.
Of the two I preferred the Cathedral, it was cheaper to get in and they let you take photos and there were as many
Rubens paintings in there. There were also several Van Dykes there as well, though how he found time to paint them
in between starring in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins I have no idea. Then off to Ronnie's where we met
up with the rest of the Handlebars and it seemed that the Slothful Halbert had heard the phone but assumed for
some reason that it belonged to someone else.
Well, a few more beers were sunk and then we went on the parade, which was lead by a twenty-foot papier maché figure known as Djon. It was a blazing hot day and a fair old walk that seemed to go on for ever, but eventually we were ushered into the town hall and plied with free beer and so that was all right. "Hooray for the Antwerp tax payer", that's what I say.
We took the shorter but longer route back to Ronnie's and clearly it was the day shift on duty because there was no sign of the attractive ladies of negotiable affection we had been admiring the previous day. In fact it would be fair to say that some of the day shift seemed, quite frankly, more than a little optimistic. Anyway we were soon back at Ronnie's where there was a DJ from Lezbania playing some fairly horrid music but lots of beer and the Höfen club had brought their own beer cart from Germany and there was another beer stall set up and food and we got to drinking and chatting and a good night was had by all. There is, however, only so much birdie song and Johnny Mathis a chap can stand and the DP, Keri and myself threw the towel in some time after midnight, leaving Rodders and possibly the Slothful Halbert, who had got into the habit of not being where anyone expected him to be, propping up the bar.
On the Sunday we were to be invited to a barbeque by Dirk from the West Vlaamse Snorrenclub near Bruges, which was perfect positioning as it was about half way between Antwerp and Calais, so after meeting pretty much everyone in The Ropey Seaman's Rest Home breakfast bar, we all (about 30 of us) trotted into town so that Keri and the DP could do some shopping, I could buy a hat and then have a farewell beer with everyone before heading off. Unlikely though it might sound we did not get lost once on the way to Dirk's house and quite a remarkable house it was too. Almost the whole of the back garden had been given over to what he called a 'swimming pond', and the Dirklets were happily sploshing about in it and the DP also took the plunge. I had more sense; I had been dipping my sore feet in it and it was freezing, and not only that but there were sharks in it.
We were introduced to a bird of prey the make of which I forget and a couple of rabbits, a hamster and a Great Dane the size of a house. Dirk and Mrs. Dirk served up a splendid barbeque, made even more memorable by the arrival of a huge cobra at the dining table and Dany and Liliane produced pudding. There was a fair amount of faffing about saying goodbye and it was looking as though we would be hard pushed to catch the ferry so we zoomed off and arrived in what should have been just enough time.
Well it would have been had my passport not been impounded. We were marched into the customs hall and I was told that my passport had been cancelled because it had been reported lost or stolen back in 2004. Since then I have travelled abroad at least a dozen times, probably more, so as I see it there are only two conclusions that can be drawn from this. Either Her Majesty's Immigration Service are such a total waste of space that if you do report a passport lost (which I never did) then who ever finds it can use it frequently for three years before they notice, or more likely some blind bureaucrat had typed in the wrong passport number. It could have been far worse, I was half expecting the rubber gloves to come out, but all they did was give me a bit of paper to get me back into the country and told me to sort it out when I got back. We did however miss the ferry but there was another one in an hour and a half and when we were finally allowed to check in the woman on the desk did not even mention that we had missed the previous one. There is actually a third possibility and that is that the immigration woman was clearly so impressed with my passport photo that she impounded it on the spot in order to keep it for herself. Back in Blighty we deposited the DP, the SH (Slothful Halbert) and Keri at Ashford station and Rodders and I had our second barbeque of the day at Geoff and Dame Judy's before I finally headed home.
All in all it was a great weekend. We met lots of old friends and made some new ones, the weather was superb, and the food and beer hardly stopped. The only two things I could possibly complain about (not counting immigration stealing my passport) were the beds you could crack concrete on and some pretty dire music but I would recommend the weekend to anyone. It is a permanent fixture for the first weekend in June so put the next one in your diary now!