Well here we are at the end of what was supposed to be ‘Finish It February’. As is usually the case with us, there are now even more jobs to finish than when we started the month, but that’s how it is when you have too many ideas! Looks like tomorrow brings ‘Make A Start March’!
Several months ago, our good friend Folk Musician and Singer/Songwriter Johnny Campbell (link) asked us if we fancied joining him for the final Dutch leg of a tour he was doing of Germany and the Netherlands. Why not, we thought, it’ll be nice to spend the time with Johnny, go to some chilled gigs, and visit some very pretty places – as well as being able to tie in a little Valentine’s trip into Amsterdam and a long-awaited catch-up visit with our lovely friend, super-creative musician, songwriter and poet Jankobus Seunnenga (link) in Friesland.
After weighing up the travel options, we decided that taking our car on the overnight ferry would suit us best, giving us more flexibility and freedom. (As well as more space to fetch ‘souvenirs’ back!). Gary was looking forward to revisiting the Netherlands, for the first time without the responsibility and graft of performing himself, so he was happy to take on the responsibility of driving.
February the 13th, the day of our trip arrived, and after dumping a load of Etsy parcels at the Post Office, we headed to the ferry port at North Shields. The trip went without much incident (there’s only so much excitement you can have on a ferry) and although we didn’t get a great sleep in our cramped windowless and airless cabin, it was just nice to be heading away on a small adventure.
We arrived in IJmuiden ferry port pretty knackered the next morning, but soon pulled ourselves round on the short journey to Amsterdam, where we parked up in the Olympic Stadium car park. We were too early to check into our hotel, The Alfred (link), so we grabbed a few essentials and awkwardly trammed and bussed it across town to The Mouse Mansion (link), a hugely inspiring shop/museum and workshop owned by artist and children’s book author thingy thing that Helen was keen to visit due to her love of doll’s houses. Brains bursting with ideas and a bag bursting with trinkets, we headed to a nearby bar, Café de Tuin (link), recommended by the Mouse Mansion lady, where we recharged the batteries of both ourselves and our phones and enjoyed a couple of beers and a bit of people watching.
After that, we wondered around the canals, taking in the quintessential Amsterdam vibes, which for some unknown reason made us thirsty quite often (must be all that water flowing around!), so we made a few more pit-stops to quench our thirst and allow Gary to alleviate his overactive bladder (is this a genuine old bloke problem or just a ruse to go in bars – Helen is not so  sure, despite Gary being on medication for his “wee” problem).
We were having a wonderful time exploring the nooks and crannies of Amsterdam but as the afternoon wore on, it came time to check in to our hotel. We trammed back to the car, picked up our overnight bags and headed to the Alfred. The friendly and polite receptionist greeted us warmly but before handing us our room keys asked us to pay the Amsterdam city tax of 6 Euros. After Gary had picked his jaw up off the floor and dusted the moths off his wallet, we were soon ensconced in the again-windowless basement room of our hotel.
Having freshened up, we took a lovely stroll through Amsterdam’s museum quarter and called in to the Vegan Junk Food Café on Marie Heinekenplein for an evening meal and a pint of (what else?) Heineken.
Next day, Wednesday, we were up early and excited to get on the road heading northwards to Friesland to see Jan and his family. We had decided to take the route over the Afsluitdijk road, which was a good call, it was beautiful, driving across the IJsselemeer sea – a real wake up for the senses. Once we’d crossed, it wasn’t long after passing through the wonderful scenery in the Leeuwarden area, we reached the small village where Jan lives with his family.
Jan, Sjoukje and daughter Ika made us so very welcome. It was emotional to see Jan for the first time in around five years, and to finally meet Sjoukje and Ika, whom we had heard so much about. After a bit of a catch up round the dining table and some very nice vegan biscuits, we were introduced to the four resident chickens – real beauties they were, one called Mick Jagger, and one called Nugget, which gave us a laugh!
Jan treated us to a little tour of nearby town Dokkum, which was absolutely stunning, and showed us a Maple tree that he had written a poem about when he was poet in residence for the area. We had a browse around the local market, musical instrument shop (of course!), vintage shops and flea markets (of course!). Although we had promised ourselves not to bring too much stuff home with us, we did pick up a few vintage crockery items for our Etsy shop. Sadly, there just wasn’t space for the beautiful Gretsch guitar and antique harmonium that Gary had his eyes on…
That evening, when Ika was home from school, we all headed into Leeuwarden for a meal at the Lazy Lemon and a saunter around town before heading home where Gary and Jan talked through plans for a future musical collaboration – more details on that when the time comes.
Next day, Jan took us for a bracing, shall we say, visit to the Holwert-Ameland ferry pier for a bit of sea air, followed by a walk up to the huge and fantastic ‘Waiting For High Tide’ sculpture of two women by Jan Ketelaar on top of the nearby Nieuwe Zeedijk, and a couple of fascinating detours into magical Friesian hamlets.
After some more of those nice biscuits and hot coffee back at the homestead, it was time to bid farewell to Jan and Sjoukje and head over to Groningen, where we were meeting Johnny at the digs he had arranged for us before his gig that night.
On our journey, we drove past hundreds of Dutch flags, carefully arranged but mysteriously hanging upside down, all along the roadside edge of every field we passed. What was this all about? Other than that, the journey was uneventful, and we soon arrived outside the digs in Groningen, where Johnny was waiting for us outside, having arrived there himself a couple of days earlier from Germany.
We greeted each other warmly with smiles and hugs and, after briefly settling into our room (which again was windlowless!), we had a walk up into the town centre. Having explored a bit and taken a few cheesy photographs, the rain started coming on, so we grabbed some hot food on the hoof while heading back to the digs. Picking up Johnny’s guitar and merch, we took off on foot again to that night’s venue, Podium VerWondering (link), a floating theatre on an old Victorian barge. This was such an interesting venue with a warm atmosphere, a great sound, and fantastic welcoming hosts. Also on tonight’s bill was Johnny’s long-time friend, an incredible singer and accordion player called Jan-Roelof Bathoorn, who opened proceedings and got things off to a great start, captivating the audience with a fabulous set of Balkan-style songs and tunes. Then, following a short interlude, Johnny delivered a well-honed through hard-touring set of both self-penned and traditional songs to a wonderfully attentive and appreciative capacity audience. He was in fine voice, whilst accompanying himself with his trademark skilful guitar playing.
After the gig, we enjoyed relaxing in fine company with some great conversation and of course, not to be impolite, a few drinks before heading back to base camp.
As we were travelling by car, giving us a bit of time to kill, and as Johnny is a keen walker and bird watcher, it seemed a great opportunity to visit the Oostvaardersplassen Nature reserve, a special protection area for bird life, en route to the next gig, which was back in Amsterdam. We all hoped to catch a glimpse of the magnificent White-Tailed Sea-Eagle, which the reserve is famed for. We enjoyed a pleasant, if cold and blustery, walk and a good chat, and when we paused to look at some wild Polish Konik ponies, there it was – the Sea Eagle! Johnny’s expert eye immediately recognised it soaring above the trees. We all felt really privileged to have witnessed this beautiful creature – mission accomplished!
The Amsterdam gig was at a private address, so we can’t really give away too much detail, but the route was winding and narrow, and more than a couple of ducks nearly met their maker under our wheels! We were welcomed warmly and looked after by a fantastic, friendly bunch of people. We were served a lovely 3-course vegan meal and slept like logs. Johnny’s gig in the brilliant venue went great, and next morning after a pot of hot coffee, we were on our way again, this time to the small town of Boskoop.
We arrived early in Boskoop but it being a small town, there wasn’t much to do, so we drove a few kilometres into the nearest city, Gouda, internationally famous for its cheese of course but also for Stroopwafels (syrup waffles) and its grachten (canals). Johnny is now something of a connoisseur of these fabulous Dutch treats, but we won’t embarrass him by waffling on about it. Anyway, none of us had been to Gouda before, so this was a chance for us all to explore new territory.
Gouda is a beautiful city though it has to be said, whichever way we turned there was cheese everywhere, whether it be real or plastic, presented in delicate slices or in huge wheels the size of a Ford Escort tyre, or hanging as a sign or emblem from the walls of houses and shops, many of which were only accessible via a small humped-back footbridge over the canal. Ironically, in the cheese capital of the Netherlands, we sought out a restaurant that served vegan food where we enjoyed a delicious vegan lasagne made with vegan cheese (without a lump of Gouda in sight).
After stuffing our faces, we thought we’d better head to the venue back in Boskoop, The Stables (link) Hosted by the wonderful Hans (Johnny Verger - link) and Karin, we were spoiled rotten with a beautiful homecooked meal and comfy bedroom in their what can be described as stunning home.
The intimate venue for tonight was superb. Designed and decorated wonderfully by Hans and Karin themselves, it stands as a testament to their passion and support for travelling musicians. This place is something special. Indeed, with a roaring log fire and fantastic stage/sound set up. This was another capacity crowd for Johnny and the people were so friendly and chatty. There were even one or two other English people there and everyone got into the spirit of Johnny’s excellent show, joining in when invited and giving him a rapturous ovation at the end.
We particularly enjoyed meeting the incredible Liesbeth, a music promoter herself with an incredible decades-long background in the music industry. Through her work in PR and design at Polydor, she had met and shared many weird and wonderful experiences with all kinds of big names in the music industry but her main background was as a well-respected and much-adored promoter on the Folk Scene. She regaled us with endless stories and anecdotes of many names in the music industry, particularly on the Folk scene, and knew many of the people Gary knew and vice versa. In fact, it seemed there wasn’t a single folk artist she didn’t know personally and had a story about, but don’t worry folks, your secrets are safe with us! She’d even seen Gary’s old band The Whisky Priests at the Melkweg in Amsterdam in the mid-90s – arguably a high point of her illustrious career and long list of experiences! With Liesbeth and Gary sharing many mutual friends and acquaintances, she asked Gary to pass on her love to anybody who she knew in the UK, so if you’re reading this and know Liesbeth, she says “Hi!”
The evening continued in fine form after the show as we repaired to Hans and Karin’s kitchen, where we sat chatting and sharing stories. Hans proved to be a fascinating conversationalist with his wealth of incredible life experiences and great anecdotes. He entertained us with tales of his adventures as an international tree broker, alongside his own exploits as an accomplished and experienced musician, meeting, recording and performing with many great international artists in his own right.
Next morning, after a fine breakfast, we bid farewell to our wonderful hosts Hans, Karin, Boris the cat, Cocky the African-grey parrot and yet more chickens.
On arrival in Haarlem for the final gig of Johnny’s Tour, the three of us put our best feet forward and headed into town for another round of exploring. In a fancy and not inexpensive cheese shop, Johnny ummed and ahhed over whether or not to buy some rare French (?!) cheese to take back to England for his mum. It was clear to us that, being a Yorkshireman, the price of the cheese was making him feel queasy, so we dragged him away and took him for a pint to calm his nerves. After being fed and watered in the Café XO bar in the centre of town, it was time to head to our host Yvonne’s house. Once again, we were given a very warm welcome despite Yvonne not feeling well and her co-host husband Paul being away out of town for a few days. We felt humbled as Yvonne had prepared her first fully vegan meal from scratch specially for us and it was lovely, as were our rooms – we were being spoiled again!
It was an important gig for Johnny, at the prestigious Taverne De Waag, a former weigh house, and one of the oldest folk clubs in the Netherlands, which has seen the likes of Simon & Garfunkel and Pete Seeger perform in it’s bar. The Taverne is a beautiful old building with so much character and a great atmosphere for intimate gigs. The room was rammed to the rafters as there’d been a nice article in the local newspaper about Johnny’s show – people just kept coming and coming, it was packed, and the beer and wine was flowing fast. The gig went brilliantly, with plenty of singing along – a great crowd of real music lovers. We had a last little come-down drink then headed back to Yvonne’s who again treated us like royalty with food and drink – she was amazing, and a great conversationalist – Gary sat up for ages talking to her about all kinds of things. She gave Helen a Sweetheart plant (she had loads of amazing houseplants that Helen admired), so we nicknamed her our ‘Sweetheart Of Haarlem’. What a star.
Monday morning arrived – home time. We said our goodbyes to Yvonne and dropped Johnny off in town where he went to finally buy that cheese before getting his train to the airport. We hung around town, mainly chilling out in the Café XO bar again as we were knackered.
At the ferry port, we were waiting for a DFDS staff member to check our passports and documents at the little booth, smugly congratulating ourselves on nothing major going wrong on the trip, when the lady opened her little window and said “you’ve booked onto the wrong ferry – you’re a month early”. Oh for F***s sake! Panic! What a pair of tools. “Don’t worry”, she said, “I can just change your booking, but it will cost extra – you can upgrade to the Commodore Suite for Three Hundr…” “What’s the cheapest??” “Bunk beds, 75 Euros.” “That’ll do!”
How we laughed. 
After we had finished swearing, sweating and weeping. At least we had got on the ferry! We actually really enjoyed the journey home, watching the waves through the bar window, to the soundtrack of fruit machines and a cheesy covers bar band. The swell of the waves and a rather nice Talisker Dark Storm nightcap on top of the beer and wine helped us rock off to sleep, and next thing we knew we were heading into Canny Shields watching the seals swim alongside us. There’s nowt like coming home.
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