COLOUR ME HAPPY
NIGEL HEATH looks forward to spring after a river cruise through Belgium and the Netherlands
ATEAM of more than 30 gardeners has been busy planting seven million tulip, daffodil and hyacinth bulbs in a very large garden in Holland. And the spectacular result next April and May will be the now world-famous Keukenhof Spring Flower Show, set in 80 acres of wooded parkland.
Literally tens of thousands of blue hyacinths will create the illusion of a river meandering through the trees in just one of many spectacular showpieces.
Around 800,000 visitors will enjoy the show, with its carnival atmosphere, over eight weeks and it’s reckoned that nearly 50 million people from more than 100 countries have come to see the flowers since Keukenhof opened 69 years ago.
Like visiting the Taj Mahal, this was, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and, of course, we bought some tulip bulbs for our cottage garden back home.
It all began in the spring when my wife Jenny and I had a ‘bulb’ rather than a light bulb moment and decided on a flight to Amsterdam for a river cruise through Holland and Belgium onboard the MS Serenity.
This ‘Venice of the North’ is not only famous for its canals but as home to the largest flower market on the planet, in nearby Aallsmeer.
The morning after boarding the ship in the heart of Amsterdam, we were being ushered into the flower market where the process of auctioning a staggering 20 million cut blooms from all around the world every weekday morning was in full swing.
But nothing could have prepared us for the sheer scale of the world’s largest trade building stretching away into the distance.
Here, dozens of flower cart towing trucks, each with an operator, buzzed about like a swarm of demented bees, not collecting pollen, but delivering blooms to the various despatch points.
Not far from this madding crowd, we entered Aallsmeer’s historic town gardens to see a replica of the simple wooden Dutch auction clock used after two local flower growers chanced upon the idea of selling their blooms to the highest bidder. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is a ‘living’ museum tended by local volunteers and features award-winning varieties of roses dating back to the early 19th century plus lilacs, hydrangeas and many other species.
Lunch back onboard was followed by a sunny afternoon boat tour around the bustling canals of old Amsterdam.
What with all the historic buildings, passing water traffic and crowds of tourists just above our heads, it was difficult to know just where to look next.
Following a fine six-course dinner, we
– and no doubt 140 other extremely well-fed passengers – slumbered the night away while MS Serenity cast off from her berth and slipped silently out of the city.
Sleepily, I pulled back our cabin curtains at 7am to see a windmill floating by! No silly, it’s us moving, not the windmill, I realised.
The crucial water-pumping role the old windmills played in allowing the Netherlanders to literally keep their heads above sea level, was explained by an extremely knowledgeable guide on our visit to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk.
For centuries before the invention of steam engines and electric power, these now iconic windmill homes, were the only means by which the land could be drained. Even the positioning of their sails was used as a signal to tell neighbouring mill operators when to start pumping – or even to announce a birth or a death in the family.
“But what about the little boy who put his finger in the dyke?” I asked.
“Huh! That was a story made up by an American authoress who never even set foot in Holland,” our guide replied, to the huge amusement of our fellow shipmates. Soon we were back onboard for lunch while MS Serenity cruised on to the picturesque riverside town of Dordrecht, where we disembarked for a coach drive to the village of Appeltern. Here, local landscape gardener Ben Van Ooijen also had a light-bulb moment by designing three small, but different, gardens to give clients an idea of just what he could create for them.
That was 35 years ago and today there are more than 200 of them, including one inspired by the Dutch painter Vermeer, an obligatory Japanese garden and many others illustrating every imaginable hard and soft gardening concept using all manner of different materials. “No need to visit Chelsea ever again!” I thought. While we were out, the catering crew had decorated the dining room for a Pirate Dinner and fancydressed up to serve us as MS Serenity cast off and set course for the busy inland port of Antwerp in neighbouring Belgium. Sea shanties were played over the PA system and all manner of barges and other cargo-carrying river craft
came floating past our big picture windows, contributing to the nautical theme.
Our destination the following morning was the 17th century Chateau De Grand-bigard and gardens, described as a showpiece of Belgium’s architectural heritage and with its picturesque five-arched bridge, floral garlanded moat, floral displays and ancient stone tower, few could disagree.
On a far larger scale, while based in Antwerp, was our visit to the country’s National Botanical Garden set in over 200 acres of English-style wooded parkland with the moated Bouchout Castle as its magnificent centrepiece.
An impressive highlight of the garden was its Plant Palace where we were transported instantly to the tropics.
Sailing out of Antwerp that evening, bound for Rotterdam and those famous Keukenhof Gardens, there was only one building dominating our harbour skyline.
That was the port HQ, a large old stone office block with a huge ‘futuristic’ structure ‘floating’ over the top, designed to reflect the sky in all its changing moods but looking for all the world like a giant crab that had just crawled out of the water and was about to devour the building.
Bloomin’ remarkable, really.
Port of Antwerp HQ
The flower auction at Aallsmeer
Spring flowers in Keukenhof Park, The Netherlands
Flower fields at Kinderdijk MS Serenity Chateau de Grand-bigard Amsterdam