The region of Flanders in Belgium is a mecca for two-wheeled travel and it’s particularly vibrant in the spring when, hot on the heels of the arrival of new lambs and spring flowers, the picturesque town of Oudenaarde is flooded with cyclists and spectators for the One Day Classics season. Hubs and I make a point of trying to take a spring holiday there every year to pass our days on a cloud of bread-heavy breakfasts and joyful pedal-by-numbers1 tours along peaceful canalways and through farmland and miniature villages via woodlands and watermills, giving a few ‘allez’ with gusto as the riders whizz past, and seeing each sunset off with plenty of white asparagus, chips and craft beer.
The real highlight, though, of cycling this region is discovering what accoutrement the next café will supply with your coffee. Thus far we’ve been treated to cheesecake, witches’ noses or cuberdon (a sort of Ribena-flavoured sugar dome probably native to Bruges), chocolate Easter eggs, speculoos biscuits2 (of course), commonly a measure of custardy advocaat and once, a foam shrimp.
Imagine our disappointment, then, to have to cancel this year’s trip due to the travel ban.
In a display of British stiff upper lip that even my maternal grandfather would be proud of (he named his dog after Winston Churchill), we decided to make the best of it and discover some routes closer to home. And so it was that we came across the Kirkpatrick MacMillan Byway.
Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a blacksmith c.1840, is widely credited as being the inventor of the bicycle. His hometown, the village of Keir, is a short ride from our house. He is buried in a graveyard a short walk from the roadside down a woodland trail, the entrance to which is guarded by a mob of crawing ravens perched way up overhead in fat nests. His gravestone sits in the middle of a verdant copse ripe with purple crocuses and air so still that the bees hovering above them sound like a swarm and it seems quite plausible that time might have stopped altogether.
No wonder MacMillan invented the bicycle. The cycling round here is JUST AS LOVELY AS BELGIUM. Wait, that’s not it. It’s JUST LIKE BELGIUM. The gentle, rolling hills! The sweet smell of sun-baked manure on the breeze! The quirky, distinctive and immaculate farmhouses3 with conversation-generating garden ornaments and menageries of animals (Llamas! Goats! Geese! Bees!). There were even windmills – well, wind farms anyway – and on our approach to Dunscore I could have sworn it was Zwalm or Michelbeke swimming into view, church spire-first, peeking through a break in diligently ploughed fields. The only reminder that we were actually on lockdown was the absence of open coffee shops to stop in, but then the cafés of Oudenaarde keep such weird opening hours4 that it still felt like we were on holiday.
In stark contrast to our Belgian cycle jaunts though, there was barely another cyclist on our route. Many times in Oudenaarde I’ve been overtaken at a hair’s breadth by a group of wannabe pro riders pumped with ambition, testosterone and energy gels, desperate not to be outdone by a female rider on an off-the-rack bike (can you see a theme emerging here), and the Oudenaarde local authority had to install speed bumps (or snelheid drempels, as I think they’re called) along the towpath of the famous Schelde canal in order to deter mobs of cyclists from cutting up unsuspecting locals out walking their dogs. In the Southern Uplands on a sunny spring day, by contrast, we could have been almost alone in the world. Particularly as we turned, just north of Penpont, onto a Road to Nowhere. A road with a punishing and deceptive 14 mile ever-so-slightly-uphill drag to an end which was not in sight until the last. I found myself longing for that short, sweet5 Muur-Kapelmuur.
1 Many of the roads between Ghent and Oudenaarde are numbered at each junction and the tourist offices supply maps with all the numbers on. Therefore, navigating the innumerable quiet rural roads is made as easy as dot-to-dot.
2 A kind Samaritan dropped a load of goodies off at the hospital to sustain our critical care staff during the coronavirus pandemic. Towards the end of a particularly hectic night shift I delved in to discover a few packets of Lotus biscuits. Bless you, bless you, bless you.
3 The Flanders region is clearly a very affluent one, and this is reflected by the beautiful nouveau-vieux home builds and renovations, often in a particular Flanders style but with much individual architectural flair. Sometimes the artistic intention falls way off the mark, and these faux pas are chronicled in this Instagram Feed.
4‑ It’s not uncommon to see a sign on a Flandrien café door read something like: Maandag – gesloten (closed) | Dinsdag – gesloten | Woensdag – open 0700-1200 | Donderdag – open 1300-1500 | Vrijdag-Zondag – gesloten. How these places stay solvent, I’ll never know.
5 The Muur-Kapelmuur is anything but short and sweet, but it was kinderspel compared to this. And there’s waffles at the top.