In the morning, we decide to push on up to Leiden. There is an opening of the railway bridge at Gouda at 1028, but we have the lifting bridge as well as a lock to get through, so we leave our mooring at 0845 to give ourselves plenty of time.
We get through the lifting bridge with no problems, and enter the lock and tie up. A barge behind us goes into the commercial lock. In a few minutes, the water in that lock goes down and we can just see the top of the cabin moving along at ground level. Before long it is on its way.
“Right”, I tell the First Mate. “It’ll be our turn in a minute or so. They were probably just giving priority to commercial traffic. Get your lines ready.”
Nothing happens. We wait for about ten minutes. Still nothing happens. Another large barge enters the commercial lock, and before long, it too is on its way. I call out to the lockkeeper who happens to be walking along the side of the lock.
“Is everything OK?”, I ask. “We need to get to the railway bridge by 1030.”
“We have a slight problem”, he says. “But we have nearly fixed it.”
A small white repair van arrives. The driver goes over to a electrical junction box and fiddles around inside.
“Just another ten minutes or so”, says the lockkeeper to us.
I look at my watch. The time is 0945, but it will still take a half-an-hour or so to get to the bridge after leaving the lock. It’ll be cutting it fine.
“I’ll go and put on a cup of tea”, says the First Mate, disappearing downstairs.
Minutes later, there is a worried call from the cabin.
“What was that graunching sound?”, she says.
“Nothing. Everything is OK”, I say, not having heard anything on deck.
A few seconds later, everything is not OK. The boat lurches to one side and the ropes tighten against the bollards on the bank.
“Hurry”, I say. “They seem to be letting the water out of the lock. Go and release your line. I thought they said it would be ten minutes.”
I manage to loosen my line from the shore bollard, but the First Mate can’t get hers undone from the cleat. Somehow the weight of the boat has tightened the line around itself and trapped it. I rush over and try and free it, but it is impossible. The boat lurches more to the side, held up by the rope. It’s scary.
“I’ll go and get a knife”, says the First Mate, as I struggle with the line to no avail. ”We’ll have to cut the rope.”
She rushes back into the cabin and rifles through the cutlery drawer. It seems to take an age, but she emerges with the bread knife. I grab it and start sawing at the rope. The deck of the boat is now at an angle of about 45° and we both have to hang on to the guard rails. Suddenly, the rope parts, and Ruby Tuesday falls back into the water with a massive splash. A mini-tsunami engulfs the opposite bank.
“I am sorry”, says the lockkeeper, seeing what had happened from the other side. “Once the procedure has started to release the water, I can’t stop it.”
It would have been nice to have warned us that you were going to let the water out after making us wait for nearly half-an-hour, we think to ourselves. We are both quite shaken at the speed a potential disaster developed, and make a rule that in a lock we won’t relax our vigilance and will always make sure our lines are freely running.
We reach the railway bridge with five minutes to spare. It lifts up exactly on time and we motor through. Things are looking up at last.
We continue on our merry way. The First Mate is particularly fascinated by the life being lived at the canal side.
In between villages, we pass through farm land, cows and sheep grazing peacefully . We find it intriguing that the fields are actually lower than the canal, so that we are looking down on them.
Sometimes the road runs just alongside the river. It seems strange to be sailing in one direction and cars and trucks to be driving in the other.
Suddenly there is a single toot from behind. A huge barge has sneaked up behind us and wants to pass on our starboard. Normally overtaking is on the port side. It’s not clear why, but we decide not to argue. We pull over to the left, making sure that there are no barges coming the other way. Our barge zooms past us on a metre or two away.
We pass lifting bridge after lifting bridge of all shapes and sizes. There seem to be so many of them on this stretch of the route. Some are synchronised and know that we are coming in advance and have the bridge open and ready for us to pass through, others we call on the VHF to let them know that we are waiting and the bridge opens. Some however, seem to operate on their own timetable, and we have to wait.
We eventually reach Leiden. We had originally planned to stay at the Gemeentehaven, the municipality harbour, but we were told that they only have 1.8 m of water which wouldn’t be enough for our 2 m draft. So we are looking for somewhere else to tie up to while in Leiden.
“What about just over there?”, says the First Mate. “There is a sign saying that mooring is permitted for up to three days.”
It is just the river bank, but sure enough there is a sign saying that mooring there is permitted. There are two or three boats already there. We edge gently into a space between two of them, and tie up to the small bollards cemented into the canal bank. There is no power or water supply, and we are not exactly in the city centre, but it is close enough to cycle or walk, but the best thing is that it is free. We can manage on our own water supplies and battery power for three or four days, so no problem there.
We unload the bikes and cycle into the city centre for a coffee and cake. I start to read a brochure on the history of the city so that I am up to speed.
Leiden has had its ups and downs over the years. It started off as a small village where the Old Rhine and New Rhine rivers meet. In 1100, it was subsumed into the County of Holland, and became a city in 1266. The towering Hooglandse Kerk was built in the 15th century. In the 16th century, Leiden sided against Spain in the Eighty Years’ War and withstood a siege by the latter for six months, receiving supplies by cutting the dykes and letting the water in so that ships could sail over the fields to the city. As a reward, William of Orange established a university there, the oldest in the Netherlands. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the city flourished with the establishment of weaving, printing and publishing industries.
Coffees finished, we explore the narrow streets in the old part of town. Through one window we see a group of students in a tutorial with their lecturer. The subject on the screen in front of them is ‘Colonialism in Africa’. In another street, we see little cafes with more students outside drinking coffee, smoking cannabis, and discussing the works of Rembrandt. All very cerebral.
We eventually come to Burcht van Leiden, the castle, perched on a small motte near the city centre. We climb the steps up the side of the mound, go through the gate, and enter. Inside, to the right of the gate, is a small winding staircase to the narrow pathway around the battlements. We wait for a couple to descend before climbing up. They are not wearing masks. There doesn’t seem to be a designated one-way system to follow to maintain social distancing as in many other places we visit, but we see another couple in front of us walking clockwise. We do the same. On the top, the view over the city is magnificent. To the north we spot the massive Marekirk we had cycled past earlier.
We are halfway around the battlements when we notice another maskless couple walking anti-clockwise towards us. We turn around so as to avoid having to pass them. Another couple, also without masks, is a few metres behind us. We are trapped.
I draw my sword. The two soldiers in front advance menacingly, their own swords drawn. Behind me are two more.
“Give yourselves up”, they say. “William will spare you.”
“I think it’s all over”, says Ada, by my side. “I can’t see any way out except surrender to Uncle William. He may be crazy, but I don’t think he will kill us.”
We had been through a lot together since the start of the Civil War, our fortunes waxing and waning with each battle. For the last few months we had taken refuge here in the castle. I look down into the keep. William is standing there, hands on his hips, grinning up at us, victory within his grasp. Soldiers stand guard at the gate. It doesn’t look good this time.
“There’s one way out”, I say determinedly, pulling my visor down tighter. “If I can just manage to reach that tree branch, we can escape, and you can lawfully keep County Holland. Come on!”
Grabbing Ada by the arm, I step onto the parapet and gauge the distance to the branch. The soldiers behind us run towards us. There is a clash of swords as I try and fight them off. They retreat and nurse their wounds. At least they are socially distanced now, I think. They were a bit too close before. And without visors too. I could have caught some nasty plague from them.
“No, no”, says Ada, tugging at my arm. “It’s too far to jump. You’ll kill us.”
Her voice sounds different yet familiar…
“It almost looked there for a minute as if you were going to jump”, says the First Mate, her hand on my arm, and a worried look on her face. “It’s a long way down. It would have hurt.”
I rub my eyes. For a few Walter Mitty moments there I had been back in 1203 when William the Crazy had laid siege to the castle to capture his niece Ada, the then Countess of Holland, so that he could claim the throne instead. I am her last surviving retainer, sworn to protect her to the last. In the event, I fail, and she is captured by William and imprisoned on the isle of Texel in the North Sea. She continues her fight to regain her county, but without success, and William’s descendants become the royal line.
“Look”, says the First Mate. “The other couple have turned around and are going back the way they came. We don’t have to pass them now.”
I put my sword away and relax. There is still a lot of Leiden to enjoy.
The next day, Anne and Marianne, some old friends and colleagues from a previous job come over for lunch. Anne works for a university and is focusing on developing fossil fuel free glasshouse systems. Glasshouse crops are a major industry in Holland, and consequently also a major emitter of CO2, so reducing dependence on fossil fuels will pay dividends in terms of greenhouse emissions. Marianne is involved in coordinating and managing development projects in a range of countries. We had met them years ago while working in the Philippines on the same project.
“I studied in Leiden”, says Marianne. “It’s nice to be back after all these years.”
We have lunch. It is great to catch up with them after so many years. Their children are similar ages to our son, so we have a lot in common. They still have a few years to go until retirement, but are looking forward to it.
After lunch, we feel the need to stretch our legs, so we walk into town. On the way, they tell us about the Leiden alms-houses. Although these exist in many cities, Leiden is noted for them, partly because there are so many of them (around 35), partly because they were privately funded, and partly because many have been beautifully restored. Almost all were founded between 1400 and 1800, which encompassed the Dutch Golden Age. Basically, they were funded by wealthy individuals who established charitable foundations to manage them, with the purpose of providing accommodation for elderly people with few resources of their own.
They take us to St Anna’s Alms-house, apparently the oldest in Leiden, having been founded in 1492 by a brewer.
“They were philanthropic in nature”, says Anne. “But often the motive behind them was to ensure a place in heaven by doing good works. Perhaps the brewer felt guilty that he had grown rich by ruining so many families through drink!”
We push open the door and peer inside. We see a small courtyard with a garden surrounded by windowed apartments. It is quiet and peaceful, a respite from the busy street outside. At the far end is a little chapel, apparently with the original stained glass, apart from one window which was destroyed in 1807 when a munitions barge in the nearby canal exploded.
“At first the occupants were often poorer members of the benefactor’s family, or his employees, but later they became more available to anyone”, says Marianne. “However, they usually had to fulfil strict conditions, such as being of a particular religion, and sometimes had to sign away their meagre assets. And there were strict rules of behaviour once they were there. But in return, they received free housing, food and clothing for as long as they lived.”
“Old age was classified as being between 50 and 60 years old in those days”, says Anne. “Just thought you might be interested to know.”
“Maybe you should apply”, the First Mate says to me.
“I am in the Decrepit classification these days”, I say. “Well past the Old Age one. They wouldn’t have me.”