Some rothar, a few kolo, a dviratis or two, some pyörä, 
at least one hjóliđ and lots of fiets at Amsterdam station's bike-park 


Friendly, comfortable, beautiful Amsterdam…

Final days are melancholy days.  Your mind is preoccupied with the lastness of the things you do.  The final day in a foreign city; the final mouthfuls of unfamiliar food, good or bad; your last tram rides; the final few hours you’ve been granted to soak up the views and the sounds; your last few postcards bought, written and sent; the search for gifts, mementoes, souvenirs.

Mementoes and souvenirs.  I couldn’t help it and it’s always the same, wherever and whenever I go.  Already - with still a day to savour once again the flavours of one of my favourite cities - I was aware of the mountainous stock of memories my German Journey had given me.

I’d been lost in thoughts such as these all through breakfast and was still distracted by them as I stepped out of the hotel and straight into the path of a passing cyclist.  I saw her more or less just in time, leaned back heavily against the railings and thus avoided what would certainly have been a particularly painful collision with her handlebars.

She stopped in her tracks and ran back to me, full of the most profuse apologies for an incident that hadn’t really happened and which would have been my fault anyway.  While I was reassuring her that I wouldn’t be troubling the Dutch health system, I noticed how tall she was, how lovely her waterfalls of auburn curls were, how brightly her eyes shone, how genuine was her concern and how snazzy her cycling outfit looked.

In my old age, I seem to be becoming susceptible to such things.  As I watched her ride sexily away towards the Rijksmuseum, I decided that, on my return to psychological terra firma, I would seek help of some kind - perhaps a herbal remedy or hypnosis or an injection.

Things, I decided, can’t go on like this.  Whatever next?


Chastened, I called in to see the wonderful Julietta at the French boulangerie on Leidsestraat.  I’d promised to go back at the end of my German Journey to tell her all about it but she was far too busy to listen; this was, after all, a fine and sunny morning and the first day of April.  The tourist season seemed to have kicked off in a big way while I’d been travelling and discovering.

So I sat in a corner, out of harm’s way, with a coffee and a croissant (as you do) and thought about my heavenly cyclist.  And in particular, about the word she’d used for her bike;  she’d called it her fiets, which seemed a very strange word, even by awkward Dutch standards, for a bicycle.

English is stolidly prosaic:  bicycle - ‘two wheels’.  The ‘translate’ app on my iPhone told me that many other languages, too, adopted this matter-of-fact attitude, to the extent that Georgian, Basque, Estonian, Filipino and even Welsh actually use the same word - ‘bike’ - and that Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and others use a version of it.  Even Norwegian manages ‘sykkel’

So why, I mused over my latte, doesn’t Dutch?  Where on Earth does fiets originate?

I investigated further and found that other tongues are just as eccentric.

French calls them vélos, from velocipede - ‘speed foot’ - and German, Fahrrad - ‘journey wheel’.  (In German, to cycle somewhere is to ‘travel by wheel’.)

Elsewhere, real linguistic mystery sets in.  In Polish, a bike is a rower, in Lithuanian it’s a dviratis, in Finnish it’s a pyörä, in Icelandic it’s a hjóliđ and in Czech, Slovak and Slovenian it’s a kolo.

This is the kind of esoteric trivia I indulge in when I wish to forget for a moment, as I did then, that this was the last full day of my German Journey.


Friendly, comfortable, beautiful Amsterdam….

I spent the day wandering, consciously ‘slowing down’.  I visited a few of my favourite ‘brown cafes’, walked by my favourite canals, took a little tram ride just because I could, lingered on canal bridges and said Hello to two Dutch police horses.

My meanderings took me across the Amstel to the flea-market on Waterlooplein.

I think of it as an old-fashioned version of eBay; if something can be bought, it can be bought on Waterlooplein.  Amidst all the retro stuff from the 60s and 70s - kaftans, parkas, kipper ties and flares - there were mountains of picturesque irrelevancies.  I saw three buckets of rusty keys, someone's entire shoe collection, lots of LPs and vinyl singles, prints and pictures, hundreds of hats...
 At Waterlooplein market

It's always busy there because there's always something there that somebody wants.  It's what car-boot sales are evolving into and Amsterdam got there first - years ago.

Nearby, I bought a coffee outside the Rembrandt House and looked at Amsterdam's Big Mistake - the 'Stopera'.  If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then the Stopera is the city's camel.

Apparently, the Council decided that the city needed an opera house.  So far, so good.  But it also decided that a new town hall was needed as well - and that they should be housed in the same building.

In itself, this decision need not have turned out as badly as it did.  They could have built their new town hall offices and made them look like a grand, avant-garde opera house.  Instead, though, they built an opera house and made it look like a bland and faceless office block.

The result is, by common consent, the worst building in Amsterdam.  Every city has to have a 'worst building', of course - places like Plymouth and Sunderland consist almost entirely of worst buildings.  But each time I look at the Stopera (even the name is off-putting), I wonder whether it needed to be quite so ugly and out of keeping with what is, after all, an intimate and cosy city into which monumental buildings of this size need to be fitted very carefully indeed.


Now that I'd re-acquainted myself with those aspects of the city that always make me feel happy and content and thoughtful, I walked lazily back across the river into the old town.  At the Flower Market I bought some bulbs and a solar-powered butterfly.  That’s the mood I was in by now.  I felt buoyed enough to take the plunge and sample a traditional Amsterdam snack.

Street-food here, as in England and elsewhere in western Europe, often reflects a colonial past.  So there are speciality rolls, wraps and platters from Indonesia (the old Dutch East Indies) and Surinam (Dutch Guiana, on the northern coast of South America).  But I opted to try something much closer to home - a street snack I'd somehow neglected to sample on my many previous visits to Amsterdam.

And that's because, as far as I am concerned, if God had meant us to eat pickled herrings in a bap, he wouldn't have given us apple and bilberry pie with custard.

But here on Koninksplein, at the western end of the Flower Market, stood the most famous herring bar in all of Amsterdam.  There's always a queue here - like the one for 'real' hamburgers in Hamburg station - so I joined it and bought a herring bap.

It was scrumptious.  I ate it on a bench under what many people say is the oldest tree in the city, talking to an off-duty cobbler who ate three of them.  He looked out at the masses of tourists and said - rather generously, I thought - that he could understand why everyone wanted to come to Amsterdam but, too often, they didn't go anywhere else in Holland.  Why, for example (he mused), didn't more people visit his home town - Deventer?

With unforgivable conceit, I declared that at least one English visitor had been there - twice!  My trains into and out of Germany had stopped there.  With matching smugness, he suggested that maybe next time I should actually disembark.


After we'd shaken hands (and I had solemnly sworn to spend some time in Deventer), I remembered Patricia, my travelling companion on the outward journey, whose home-town it was, too.  I wished I could get in touch with her or sit beside her here under the plane tree on Koninksplein.  I wanted to tell her about all the things that had happened to me after she'd got off the train that morning at Deventer.  The need I felt to try and change her mind about Germany almost amounted to anxiety.

Until I realised that, in a way, she'd been right.  Germany had not been 'cosy, comfortable and friendly' - it had been much, much more than that.


From Koninksplein I walked round to another of my favourite little Amsterdam squares:  the Spui ( - say spow).  On Sundays, the usual book market there is replaced by an art-market which I'd never managed to visit.
A street-plaque on the Spui

I'm glad I made the effort this time.  There were about forty stalls displaying artworks ranging from neo-impressionism through home-made baroque to the further extremes of worrying and unsettling surrealism.  And there amongst them was the genial Gerard Carbo.
 Gerard Carbo

The man himself was a work of art.  Long white hair matched by a full white beard - and all of it framing a large, smiling and happy face.  I loved his paintings and cards and told him so.  He seemed to be able to turn the intimacy and smallness of Holland inside out.  Sometimes, his paintings were of wide and open skies, endless seashore and fields.  The Netherlands 'felt' enormous, windswept and wild.

In others, he displayed a similar, but more 'homely', version of inverted Dutchness.  The boats that bobbed on his painted seas were of another Holland - rural and coastal and personal - and his painted flower-heads were sober and measured.
He gave me a card as a memento of our meeting.  It's a lovely, wistful and sombre painting of some tulips.  I'm looking at it now and have just realised what a perfect reflection it is of the way I was feeling that final afternoon.


Eventually I washed up at my hotel again.  Not for me the pubs and bars and cafes of Sunday-night Amsterdam.  I wanted to wallow in the sad lastness of the evening.  And to wallow in a bath, too.
The art-deco exterior of my hotel

I needed someone to share my aloneness with and thoughtfully, the hotel had provided me with a squeaky plastic duck who served the purpose admirably.  With breathtaking originality, I called her Kwaken (the Dutch for ‘quack’) and she bobbed sympathetically in the bath-water while I poured my heart out to her.

She still does.  Kwaken is my new best friend.
Kwaken and me
I stole her.


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
Stephen and his dog Fergie (she's on the right)
In this blogposting...
* Yesterday, Today, Forever
* Alan Turing
Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war...

Last Thursday’s entrails did not augur well.

As the morning wore on towards the appointed hour of 1100, the dark and menacing clouds, which had been thickening up to dropping consistency like diabolical celestial meringues, began to tip their unwelcome and drenching loads onto the green and innocent earth below.

Driving to Birkheads Nursery, Hildie and I exchanged despairing glances as my Ferrari’s windscreen-wipers completely failed to make any impression on the torrents being unceremoniously discharged all over the car.  The mist didn’t help, either, shrouding everything, as it did, in its grey cloak of cloying mystery.

The Nursery lay quiet and sighing, as if audibly disappointed that the first day of Summer had not brought with it weather more amenable to the AGM it was hosting.  But all was not lost, for - sitting dapper, sleek and swaddled in warmth - we found Neville already enjoying the glow that only a well-brewed latte can provide.

We joined him and, before too long, the usual variety of truckshunter topics was being aired, discussed and dispensed with.

There was even an impromptu agenda.  For Hildie had brought along, secreted amongst the multitudinous folds of her handbag, a mystery bar of chocolate.  The mystery was not, of course, that it was a bar of chocolate but rather the flavour that had been applied to it.
Hildie's amazing discovery

Amazingly, Hildie had unearthed what is probably the only bar of Marmite-flavoured chocolate on earth.  We all sampled it, we all recognised the Marmite flavouring and we all thought it was interestingly awful.

Vivienne arrived soon afterwards to take our minds off the chocolate and, behind the counter, Mike and Christine regaled us with light-hearted quips and quiddities.  It was all typically good, truckshunter fun - although naturally we maintained at all times the quiet, restrained dignity that always accompanies our AGMs.

Last to arrive - and no less welcome for that - was Stephen, accompanied by his new bride, Heidi.  It’s always good to meet someone daft enough to attend one of our AGMs for the first time and I think and hope that Heidi now feels part of the wider fellowship that is our Honourable Order.

Unable to prevent our co-host Mike from making jokes and telling tales, we instead invited him to take photographs of this memorable solsticial event, which - as you can see - he did.
Christine, Hildie, Neville, Vivienne, Mike, Heidi and Stephen (l to r)

So although our AGM - unusually for such events - was meteorologically ill-starred, it transpired that the auspices were misplaced after all.  It was a wonderful meeting and if all future AGMs are as much fun as this one, I will be a happy man.

Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to get to Birkheads in such atrocious weather and to Christine and Mike for being such good hosts.  Except for the jokes.

During the AGM, Vivienne had mentioned a new sculpture she’d noticed.  It was unveiled only a week or so ago and stands near the site of Montagu View old pit in Scotswood. 

It’s called Yesterday, Today, Forever and, according to the plaque next to it, commemorates the 38 men and boys who lost their lives when the pit accidentally flooded in 1925.  The different elements of the sculpture represent the area’s heritage, its present generation and its future.

Hildie and I stopped to look at it.  It’s lovely.

Thanks Vivienne.


Today, June 23, is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing who invented modern computing virtually single-handed during and just after the Second World War.  Many websites on the internet tell of his achievements - just Google his name.  (The Google homepage is devoted to him today.)

You can read about an interesting new sideline on his tragic death at
(If the link doesn't work, copy and paste it into your browser's Search box.)

Whenever I think of Alan Turing's terrible life story, I'm reminded of how much times have changed for gay people in England since he died.  I was 4 at the time, so in my lifetime, homosexuality has become (broadly) accepted as a fact of life.  For most of the people of western Europe, it has become a non-issue; gay people are no longer persecuted and virtually no-one questions their equal rights.

There are some sad exceptions, of course.  France still has some way to go towards acceptance of gay people and Italy remains firmly rooted in about 1350 as far as gay rights are concerned.  In eastern Europe - and, of course, in many other parts of the world - conditions are much worse.

I am very lucky indeed to live where I do and to enjoy rights that Alan Turing wouldn't even have dared to dream about.    


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
In this blogposting…
* Moses:  A Warning To Us All
* Le blog à Pépère
* A Warning To Us All - 2
Onward and upward…


Our next AGM takes place tomorrow - Thursday 21 June, the longest day and the first day of Summer.


We will be celebrating this auspicious event in the celestial calendar by imbibing copious quantities of coffee (or whatever), and munching on gargantuan slabs of carrot cake, at Birkheads Nursery, which is signposted just to the east of the road between Sunniside and Stanley.

The event begins at 1100, as usual.  Be there.


I’ve received this heartwarming story from Dave Shannon…

‘A burglar broke into a house one night.  He was shining his torch around, looking for valuables, when a voice in the dark said 'Jesus knows you're here.'

He nearly jumped out of his skin, switched off his torch, and froze.

After a while, when he’d heard nothing more, he shook his head and continued.

Just as was pulling the DVD player out so he could disconnect the wires, he heard - clear as a bell - 'Jesus is watching you.'

Freaked out, he shone his torch around frantically, looking for the source of the voice.

Finally, in the corner of the room, his torch beam came to rest on a parrot.

'Did you say that?' he hissed at the parrot.

'Yes', the parrot confessed, and then squawked, 'I'm just trying to warn you that Jesus is watching you.'

The burglar relaxed. 'Warn me, eh? Who in the world are you?'

'Moses’, replied the bird.

'Moses?' the burglar laughed.  'What kind of people would call a parrot Moses?'

'The kind of people that would call a rottweiler Jesus.'’


I’m flattered to report that Serge’s recent blogpostings have been composed in my honour.  He’s aware of how much I love walruses and seahorses and has put together two classic Truckshunter Digests of these wonderful animals in his postings 115 and 116. 

I especially like the pictures because they suggest a reason why I love these creatures so much:  they look so ‘unlikely’ - as if someone, somewhere, made a couple of wayward evolutionary mistakes which somehow got past the Design Control Department.

I’ve found walruses irresistibly appealing since I was very young but the most startling picture in Serge’s collection must be of the Leafy Sea Dragon (in the hippocampe section of posting 116, third picture down).  This unbelievable marine confection deserves some kind of award.  I want some of whatever its designer was on.
Another Leafy Sea Dragon

The Dicton Français (French Proverbs) in posting 117 mean, in order…

Exceed the limits (Go the extra mile)
Divide and rule
Make two rocks with one stroke (Kill two birds with one stone)
The ends justify the means
Faith can move mountains
Take a look.  If this link doesn’t work - http://spepere.blogspot.co.uk/ - cut and paste it into your internet browser’s Search box.

Incidentally, I am - as far as I know - the only person who calls him Serge.  Everybody else - friends and family - call him Pépère, which is an old, ‘street-French’ word and virtually untranslatable.  The nearest I can get is a mixture of ‘cool’ and ‘unflappable’.


A friend has sent me this fanciful story from the internet.  It was originally set in the US but I have transferred the references to the UK.

‘After I retired, my wife insisted that I accompany her on her trips to our local superstore. Unfortunately, like most men, I find shopping boring and prefer to get in and get out. Equally unfortunately, my wife is like most women - she loves to browse.

Yesterday my dear wife received the following letter from the superstore....

Dear Mrs Samsel,

Over the past six months, your husband has caused quite a commotion in our store.  We cannot tolerate this behaviour and have been forced to ban both him and you from the store.

Our complaints against your husband, Mr Samsel, are listed below and are documented by our cctv cameras.

June 15
Took 24 boxes of condoms and randomly put them in other people's shopping trolleys when they weren't looking.

July 2
Set all the alarm clocks in Housewares to go off at 5-minute intervals.

July 7
Made a trail of tomato juice on the floor leading to the women's restroom.

July 19
Walked up to an employee and told her in an official voice, 'Code 3 in Housewares. Get on it right away'.  This caused the employee to leave her assigned station and receive a reprimand from her Supervisor that in turn resulted in a union grievance, causing management to lose time and costing the company money. 

August 14
Moved a 'CAUTION - WET FLOOR' sign to a carpeted area.

August 15
Set up a tent in the Outdoor Leisure department and told children he would invite them in if they would bring pillows and blankets from the bedding department, to which twenty children responded.

August 23
When an assistant asked if they could help him, he began crying and screamed 'Why can't you people just leave me alone?'

September 4
Looked right into the security camera and used it as a mirror while he picked his nose.

September 10
While handling hammers and saws in the DIY department, he asked the assistants where the antidepressants were.

October 3
Darted around the store suspiciously whilst loudly humming the 'Mission Impossible' theme.

October 6
In the Car department, he practiced his 'Madonna look' by using different sizes of funnels.

October 18
Hid in a clothing rack and when people browsed through, yelled 'PICK ME! PICK ME!'

October 21
When an announcement was made on the loudspeaker, he assumed a foetal position and screamed 'OH NO! IT'S THOSE VOICES AGAIN!'

And last, but not least:

October 23
Went into a fitting room, shut the door, waited a while, and then called out very loudly, 'Hey! There's no toilet paper in here.'   One of our assistants passed out.’


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
 Sleek, streamlined - and late

In this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey - Day Eleven
Go for it….

...will take place at 1100 next Thursday 21 June at Birkheads Nursery, just off the Sunniside to Stanley road.

If you have any agenda items, keep them to yourself.  There are quite enough already.

Agenda or no agenda - a splendid time…..



German inter-city trains are comfortable, roomy, frequent, affordable - and invariably late.

Whatever other stereotypes about Germany you believe, you can forget the one about how meticulously businesslike and efficient it is.  On my two European journeys I have used ten German railway services and none of them - not one - has run to time.

On my Grand Tour two years ago, my worst experience of this unexpected phenomenon occurred when my train from Cologne to Munich arrived fully two hours late.

(As a matter of fact, only half of the train was late - my half.  The other eight carriages arrived in Munich on time.  To find out how this could have happened in a country as notoriously well-organised as Germany, flip back to blog 201, posted in June 2010.)

This unfortunate tendency for German trains to run more or less as they please hit my journey plans below the belt yet again on my final morning in Hamburg.  I was already feeling disconsolate as I trundled my suitcase noisily along behind me and mentally compiled a list - as tends to happen on departure days - of all the things I ought to have done but hadn’t.

The sunshine didn’t help either.  As everywhere else, Hamburg looked different with the fresh Spring sun beating down on it; for the two days of my sojourn it had been a city of wind, sleet, rain and even snow.  Now, just as Winter seemed to be finally leaving it in peace, I had to leave too.

I shook a metaphorical fist at the heavens, swearing I would get my own back somehow.  This was unwise.  A few seconds later, the announcer at the Hauptbahnhof told me - and everyone else on platform 13b - that our train would be half an hour late.

Half an hour’s delay does not, at first sight, seem all that cataclysmic.  What’s thirty minutes between friends?  But there’s a ‘however’.  However...my journey to Amsterdam involved two changes of trains, one at Osnabrück and the other at Hilversum.

The first was crucial.  Osnabrück is where I was meant to be picking up the train from Berlin into Holland, and they run only every two hours.  And my connexion time was 20 minutes.  A Dickens-style calculation would have run as follows…

Train from Hamburg makes up time, you reach Osnabrück in time to catch your connecting train = happiness.
Train from Hamburg stays 30 minutes late and you miss both your connecting trains = misery.

It turned out to be misery.

The train finally left Hamburg almost 40 minutes late, thus adding an unwelcome edge of tension and weltschmerz (not to mention Sturm und Drang) to what are normally sentimental and hopelessly over-romantic departures; me looking wistfully out of train windows, sadly wiping a tear from my right eye and whispering Thankyou, Brussels/Verona/Venice/Cologne/Florence etc etc etc for looking after this lonesome traveller on his journey of discovery to your city blah blah blah.

Wistful I wasn’t.  Anxious and irritated are closer to the mark.

Once late, the train obviously decided that it may as well be hung for a Schaf as a Lamm and ambled along the line as if it was admiring the Saxony scenery through which it was meandering.  I was half-expecting the locomotive to stop for a sunbathing break or don its knapsack and go for a hike in the surrounding woods.

But it picked up speed considerably after Bremen - which, from the station, looked a bit like Ipswich on a bad day - so that we arrived in Osnabrück slightly less late than we had left Hamburg.

But it was still too late.  My connexion for points west had left 10 minutes ago.  And the next train wasn’t due until two hours later.

Insofar as an ageing, tired traveller with a gammy leg and a suitcase can ‘storm’ anywhere, I stormed into the Information Office prepared to bang my British fist on the desk and wave the Union Jack for all it was worth.  I was going to tell them that their trains were a disgrace, that I was due in Amsterdam for the funeral of a dear friend (or that I was supposed to be the Best Man at a Dutch wedding), that DB had single-handedly ruined the rest of my life here on Earth and that, if they didn’t compensate me in some way, I would picket the station and/or (probably ‘and’) write to the Queen - who is, after all, German.

It didn’t quite work out like that, though.

As I put on my best ‘frustrated, anxious and worried’ look and entered the booth, I was confronted by a Germanic Greek god of incandescent beauty.  Close-cropped hair and beard, carefully trimmed.  Clean, strong features and unblemished skin moisturised and cossetted to within an inch of its life.  A wide, smiling mouth revealed ‘American’ teeth.  And his bright, brown komm näher eyes were almost obscene.

Naturally, he knew I was English without me saying a word.  He helped me with my suitcase, smiled as if I was his long-lost father and offered me a cup of coffee.  I couldn’t help but think of the disgruntled harpies that usually man our English equivalents and have the attitude of circling hyenas.

Amazingly, he already knew the names of all the delayed passengers and had a compensation voucher ready for me - cash to spend on food and drink while I waited for the next train.

By now - and admittedly under the seductive influence of this adonis of the iron way - my irritation had evaporated such that, when he told me that the next rain - not due for another two hours - was already running 20 minutes late, I smiled and said So geht’s! - That’s life!

I was putty - and possibly several other substances - in his hands.


The train arrived - as, eventually, they do - and carried me across this journey’s last remaining fragments of German territory.    And once again, I was distracted from tearful, parlour-poetry style, farewells by something I noticed outside in the fields…


I am generally - and quite rightly - regarded as having the incisive perspicacity of creosote; the mature wisdom and sagacity of a compost heap.  Naivety was designed with me in mind.  I am the two short planks people talk about.  I am the fool that’s soon parted from his money, the one born every minute; the one people don’t suffer gladly.  The old fool the like of which there isn’t.

It’s much worse than mere gullibility.  I seem to be impervious to hints, tips and winks.  And if you present me with a series of facts that can only lead to one possible conclusion, I will arrive, via illogicality, immaturity and straightforward wishful thinking, at entirely another.

Thus it was that, by a process of elimination and deduction that would have plunged Sherlock Holmes into bottomless despair, I ascribed a national characteristic to German people that they did not merit.  Namely, that there was a German equivalent to the RSPB and that every single citizen was a member of it.

But there isn’t and they aren’t.

The first thing I noticed as the train headed for the border was the copious amounts of mistletoe hanging from the trees.  It looked lovely, as if Germany was saying Goodbye to winter.  And other heavily romantic things like that.

Then it was the sentry-boxes.  I saw dozens of them, standing quite alone in the middle of turnip fields, in marshes and on the edges of forests.  They were raised on stilts about 3 feet off the ground, each with a short ladder for access.

Confident that I was right about the mistletoe, I deduced, with razor-sharp intellectual panache worthy of Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot, that these structures were hides.

So far, so good.  Then the two-short-planks effect kicked in.

I worked out that Germany must be packed to the riggings with birdwatchers.  Every weekend - and on some fine evenings, too - hordes of town-trapped Germans would cycle into their glorious countryside, expensive binoculars draped round their necks, clamber up into one of the hundreds of hides, and happily tick off the warblers, buntings, waders, finches, larks and woodpeckers.  And occasionally get excited at the sight of a hedgehog or a fox.

And I was half right.  But the important half was the half I got wrong.  Substitute a powerful rifle - or, as far as I know, a Gatling gun - for the binoculars, add a hip-flask of schnapps and it all becomes clear.

Our German friends do indeed sit in their sentry-boxes and look at birds.

And then they try to kill them.

And so.  And so…..

To Amsterdam again.  Friendly, comfortable, beautiful Amsterdam.  And it wraps itself around me and hugs me and says - Hello again, wanderer!


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com

 ...and part of what they're looking at 
In this blogposting….
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day Ten
Proceed with caution…

...will take place at 1100 next Thursday 21 June at Birkheads Nursery, just off the Sunniside to Stanley road.

I invited the Queen to attend as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations but have received no reply from Buckingham Palace, probably because of the images in blogposting 367.

Despite Her Majesty’s absence, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.



There’s something odd about the human condition that struck me for the first time on this tenth day of my German Journey - a blustery, cold and quite deeply unpleasant day in Hamburg, meteorologically speaking.  And it’s this:  we seem to like things that are smaller - often much, much smaller - than they were intended to be.

We coo and gurgle inanely at the sight of a baby creature of any kind, human or (say) crocodile.  We transform some of the world’s mightiest tree species into bonsai pot plants.  We shove our gawping faces in at the windows of dolls’ houses.  We breed dogs small enough to fit inside our handbags or pockets.  We squeeze brains the size of a small planet into the thinnest, flimsiest smartphones we are capable of designing.

It seems to me that the only small things we don’t like are those things that are, and always were, meant to be small - like cockroaches, wasps, Barrow-in-Furness or Nicolas Sarkozy.  Otherwise - and given a choice - we definitely appear to prefer the scaled-down version to the giant, economy-size.

No-one is immune.  Willows are generally tall and graceful trees with enough botanical and aesthetic interest not to warrant an alternative.  But, many years ago, when I discovered an unusual, dwarf species called Boyd’s Willow, there was no stopping me.  I investigated an area of horticulture previously unknown to me; not just dwarf trees, either; dwarf willows.
Boyd's willow
It was an obsession.  By the time I moved away from Sheffield, my postage-stamp garden was graced with 23 different types of dwarf willow gathered from specialist nurseries all over the country, and including (I’ve just remembered) the Scottish Mountain Willow - arguably, the world’s smallest tree.

Until this Friday morning, I’d never ‘homed-in‘ on this miniaturising tendency of humanity, as it were.  I’d never had reason to.  Until now, it had been a comfortably ignorable aspect of the way we all are - like snoring or breaking wind.

It wasn’t going to be so easily ignored for much longer, though. 

I stepped out of the metro and into Hamburg’s rejuvenated dockland.  Around me were offices, flats, new bridges and walkways - even a new concert hall.  There were cafés and bistros, restaurants and bars.  Amongst them all, in a gaunt, 19th-century dockside warehouse, I was to find breathtaking evidence of the pleasure we get not just from scaling down our world but with it, ourselves.

Miniaturland (which should need no translation and isn’t going to get one) started life a few years ago - and is still often described - as the world’s largest model railway.  And, having seen an internet video of it, I suppose that’s pretty much what I was expecting.  I knew it was going to be big, of course, so in my mind’s eye I was imagining an area roughly the size of seven or eight bedroom floors.  There would be lots of intricately modelled scenery and the layout would be complex, with several unwashed, bearded, bespectacled German nerds gleefully flicking switches and slurping mugs of tea.
The coal mine
So much for the naivety of expectation.  In the years since its inception, Miniaturland has grown and developed and grown again and been extended and further developed - a process which is continuing as I write and which has produced an imaginative, world-beating and complex snapshot in miniature of what seems like the whole world and everyone in it.
A village birthday party
You can’t see the other end when you start at the beginning.  Partly, this is because it’s so big; but it’s also because, like the human world it depicts in such breathtaking detail, Miniaturland is not one ‘scene’ - one layout - but at least a dozen.  To get from tableau to tableau, you have to walk round corners, climb a few steps, walk through a few archways and even stand on a few balconies and mezzanines (so that you can view the tableaux from up-a-height, like God).
A village fete
The modellers have tried to present as great a variety as possible of the kind of environments most of us would recognise.  Wild open countryside, mountains and forests, villages, small towns and grand cities.  Factories, quarries and mines.  Castles, ski resorts and funfairs.  Loud and boisterous football matches.
The grotto, with tourists and - bottom right - a pot-holer
The alpine tableau features mountain railways, hot-air balloons, rock-climbers (about an inch high and complete with crampons, ice-axes and ropes), ramblers and even a couple of base jumpers.
The allotments outside the airport's cargo apron
The village scenes include markets, parades (which move), wedding parties, tractor-pulling races and beauty contests.  There’s a show-jumping arena (Germany v UK), a swimming pool, an entire beach with sunbathers.  There’s a village fete and animal-show - complete with love-making in the long grass. 
The canal and boat-lift
There’s a large and busy dock, with canals and locks.  There are angry hold-ups on motorways while traffic of all kinds moves freely on others ( - I’m still not entirely sure how they do this).  Elsewhere, cranes are unloading lorries in trading estates or accidents have just happened - the police and ambulance have just arrived.
A dunch - the police have just arrived
One townscape features a burning building, with fire engines in attendance and more on the way.  Another shows the cross-section of a dam, with the rotting and derelict buildings of a drowned village underwater on its reservoir side.
The sunken village is on the right
The closer you look at each tableau, the more you notice.  The open-air pop festival looked almost exactly like the ones I’ve been to.  There’s the field of food-tents, here’s the security tent and the lighting rig, there are the long lines of toilet cubicles, with people waiting to use them.  When the band comes on, hundreds of tiny pinprick flashes from the audience show that, as in ‘real life’, photos are being taken.
The music festival
Elsewhere, there’s a performance of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet; the audience rises to a standing ovation at the end.

There’s even a model of the Miniaturland building itself, which made me wonder if there was an inch-high audience inside it looking at another such model - and so on, in an ever-diminishing cycle that defies infinity.
Miniaturland within Miniaturland
Night follows day, too.  Every ten minutes or so, the warehouse lights are dimmed so that we can see the tableaux as they would appear at night.  Street- and vehicle-lights come on - the strip-lighting in the railway stations actually ‘flickers’ on, as such lights do in stations everywhere.  Parties, celebrations and discos suddenly flash into night-time life.
The cement-works at night
In houses and apartment blocks, lights in different rooms go on and off as the rooms are occupied and vacated by the inch-high inhabitants of Miniaturland.

If this is a description draped in sugary superlatives - well, so be it.  Miniaturland is a work of art that enthrals and amazes everyone who visits it.  It’s a masterpiece of its kind - a mind-exploding exhibition of imagination, observation and jaw-dropping delight.
Three of Miniaturland's creators
The last tableau exemplifies the concept perfectly.  It’s a fully functioning airport.
Terminal 1
There are two terminals.  Aircraft are being serviced and loaded or are taxiing to and from the runway.  Airport buses shuttle passengers around.  The metro station is underground here (as they usually are at airports) and is barely noticeable.  The airport apron is busy with cars and taxis and the multi-storey car park is busy too.
At night, it’s transformed into the bright, brash and restless place that airports always are.
The control tower; notice, lower centre right, the ludicrous bit of 
modern sculpture that airports always have
And opposite the terminals, aircraft take off and land in perfect imitation of the real thing.
The airport car park at night - a pleasing touch of detail
This last tableau, like all the others, teems with action, movement and detail and is the one where visitors linger and gasp the most.  Everyone from wide-eyes toddlers to gawping grandparents, pointing out the details to each other; making sure they don’t miss any part of this genuinely astonishing experience.

When I finally emerged from Miniaturland - over four hours and 105 photographs later - I knew already that this had been one of those life-enhancing experiences as unforgettable, in its way, as a first view of mountain scenery, of some great and noble building or of a celebrated painting or sculpture.

If art exists to divert, interest, amuse and challenge us - to make us think or wonder or ask questions - then Miniaturland is truly a stupendous and magical work of art because it does all of these things.


Here is a long, complicated and quite exhausting definition of what Art is.  I found it on an otherwise unimpeachable website.

‘Art is a term that describes a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, which cover the creation of images or objects in fields including painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and other visual media. 

Architecture is often included as one of the visual arts, though like the decorative arts, it creates objects where practical considerations of use are essential in a way that they are usually not - for painting for example.  Music, theatre, film, dance, and other performing arts, as well as literature, and other media such as interactive media are included in a broader definition of art or the arts. 

Until the 17th century, art referred to any skill or mastery and was not differentiated from crafts or sciences, but in modern usage the fine arts, where aesthetic considerations are paramount, are distinguished from acquired skills in general, and the decorative or applied arts.

Many definitions of art have been proposed by philosophers and others who have characterized art in terms of mimesis, expression, communication of emotion, or other values. During the Romantic period, art came to be seen as ‘a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science’.

The nature of art, and related concepts such as creativity and interpretation, are explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics.’

Not a word about model railways.


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
In this blogposting…
* Useful Household Tips:  Number 718
* A Day in the Life of a £50 Note
* News From Nowhere
Don’t blame me…

It’s amazing how useful a tube of toothpaste can be - at least according to a ludicrous household hints website I was recently directed to.

If you try any of these suggestions, please report back.

'Crayon marks…
Squirt a small dab of non-gel toothpaste on the wall where the mark is.  Rub gently with a soft cloth then rinse with warm water.

Deodorise hands…
Can’t get garlic or onion odour off your hands?  Wash them with a blob of toothpaste.

Smarten up your trainers by rubbing scuff marks with an old toothbrush and non-gel toothpaste.

CDs and DVDs…
Get rid of light scratches by squeezing a little non-gel toothpaste onto a cotton-wool ball.  Wipe over the CD or DVD from the centre out to the edge.  Rinse with water and dry with a  non-abrasive, lint-free cloth.

Goggle defogging…
Coat the inside of swimming goggles with toothpaste then wipe it off - they’ll stay crystal clear.'

Or you could just clean your teeth.

 This was sent to me a few weeks ago…

'It's a slow day in a little town. There's a chill in the air, and the streets are deserted.  Times are tough, everybody is in debt, and everybody lives on credit...

On this particular day a well-to-do type of bloke is driving through town. He stops at a local hotel and lays a £50 note on the desk saying he wants to inspect the rooms because he wants to spend a night in the town..

As soon as the man walks upstairs, the hotel owner grabs the £50 and runs next door to pay his debt to the butcher.

The butcher takes the £50 and runs down the street to settle his debt to the farmer.

The farmer takes the £50 and heads off to pay his bill at the supplier of his animal feed.

The bloke at the Farmer's Co-op seizes the £50 and runs to pay his debt to the local prostitute, who has also been facing hard times and has had to offer her services on credit.

She in turn dashes to the hotel and pays off her room bill with the hotel owner.

The hotel proprietor then places the £50 note back on the counter to await the return of his potential guest.

A few minutes later the man returns to the desk, says the rooms are not satisfactory, pockets the £50 and leaves town.

No one produced anything. No one earned anything.
However, everyone concerned is now out of debt and now looks to the future with great optimism.

And that’s how the Government is conducting business today.'

* Two Siberian tiger cubs abandoned by their mother at a zoo in Russia have found an unusual wet nurse - a shar-pei dog called Cleopatra.  The dog has been cleaning the cubs and feeding them as if they were her own.
Saved from certain death
* A woman is praising Boston transport workers for rescuing her 3-year-old daughter's stuffed animal from the train tracks.

Casey Carey-Brown ( - wonderful name - ) said that the stuffed animal "jumped" from her daughter's push-chair and fell onto the tracks as they were getting off the train.  The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers acted quickly to save her daughter's stuffed bunny from being run over by calling the oncoming train, halting it, and rescuing the toy from the tracks.

She’s thanked the workers who helped in the rescue effort, saying ‘you really didn't have to do what you did today, but you have made a little 3-year-old incredibly happy.’
 Dorothy (108) and Marjorie (105)
* Two sisters have been officially recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest siblings in the world.

Dorothy Richards is 108 and her sister Marjorie Ruddle is 105.

They were born and brought up in Northampton before attending colleges in London and eventually returning to the east of England to look after the family home when their mother died.

The sisters celebrated their record with a tea party at the Peterborough nursing home where Mrs Ruddle lives.

A spokesperson from Guinness World Records confirmed the sisters had the ‘highest combined age of two living siblings’.

The total age of the sisters is 213 years, three months, and 27 days.
The face of evil....well, mischief
* One of England’s most prolific burglars has been jailed for five and a half years.  Pensioner Simon Berkowitz (65) admitted five burglaries, one count of going equipped to burgle and two counts of fraud.  He has more than 250 convictions spanning more than 50 years.
Last year's Duck Race at Burton Latimer
* And finally...this year’s Duck Race in the Pocket Park at Burton Latimer, in Northamptonshire, due to take place yesterday (Saturday 9 June), has had to be postponed because the river is 1.5 metres above its normal level and the park is waterlogged.

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 21 June at Birkheads Nursery, between Sunniside and Stanley.

There’ll be planking, a tango and some tongue-twisters.  But, despite that, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
Hamburg's Town Hall square and First World War Memorial Column

In this blogposting....
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day Nine
Do your worst...


It all seems to have started with the frikadelle; a large, thick patty made by mixing minced beef, soaked stale bread, eggs, chopped onions, salt and pepper.  Slapped into a pan of hot fat and served up with vegetables and boiled potatoes (though never in a bun, which came much later) the frikadelle was cheap and filling, and became one of the staples of Hamburg’s working classes. 

With increasing affluence, it would normally have disappeared into the vaults of some gastronomic museum somewhere - the sort of oblivion where hazlitt, tripe, faggots and black pudding belong, if the world was a more reasonable place.  But, as everyone knows, economic history threw a spanner in the works; the humble frikadelle was taken to America by emigrants from Hamburg, lost its stale bread, eggs and chopped onions, shrank dramatically and became the hamburger we all know and despise to this day.

What I wanted to sample, though, was the real thing - if I could find it.  And I’d already been pointed in the direction of the station’s food hall - which sounded like an unpromising place to find some folk-food.

But I’d reckoned without Hamburg Central Station.  It’s a compressed version of the city it serves - big, breezy, brash and busy - a great place to hide from the Ice Age that was developing outside.  There are two, double-decker alleys of shops running across it at each end - and they weren’t the usual, overpriced, rip-off piles of tat we’re used to in English railway stations, either.  Amongst them I found a specialist, home-designed and handmade jewellery shop, a model railway shop of intriguing density, a modern-art photographic studio and one of Hamburg’s biggest and best bookshops.

(I called into the bookshop later and - emboldened by conceit - bought a book in German.  It was written by a footballer called Moritz Volz and was all about the years he spent playing in England.  It's called Unser Mann in London and I don't understand any of it.)
The book I bought - and will probably never read

All this and a food hall, too. 

It was a Hamburg institution and I could see why.  You could go all round the world in eighty mouthfuls.  Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Argentinian, Dutch, French, Vietnamese, Thai - I counted sixteen outlets and gave up.  None of them seemed to be of the usual, multinational Nando’s/Yo Sushi/Subway type, either.  They all looked like small businesses - and they all looked mouth-wateringly cheap.

And there, with a queue of ten cold and hungry Hamburgers, was my shangri-la - the best hamburger bar in Hamburg.  And, served the way Mother Nature intended, they are surprisingly simple and unadorned.  No hateful, sloppy gherkins in sight.  No lukewarm lettuce or tomato.  Just a large, inch-thick meat patty - qv - still with its eggs and stale bread intact, and served in a big, wholemeal bap.  You can put mayonnaise or ketchup on it - or, if you’re a real prole - both.

I had both.

The cold had made me hungry, or at least that’s the excuse I’m sticking to for having two.

While I was wolfing my hamburgers I noticed the proprietor of the cake-stall next door smiling graciously and indulgently at me.  As I wiped the last traces of ketchup off my shirt, I walked over to her.  She was what you might call a well-turned-out middle-aged lady with a hairdo not unlike the Queen’s and an unnervingly seductive smile.  Like everyone else I’ve ever met in Europe, she knew at once that I was English without my saying anything at all.  That’s when I realised I even eat Englishly.

She asked me, in English, if I had enjoyed my hamburgers.  Blamelessly, her accent was heavily German - and of the local, ‘Low German’, kind.  Deep and throaty and reassuring.  When she asked me if I’d like to try her franzbrötchen, I almost asked her to marry me.  ‘Everyone in Hamburg‘ she said ‘eats a franzbrötchen at least three or four times a week’.  Which seemed a good enough reason to me.
A franzbrötchen like Lisbeth serves up

The name means ‘little French cake’ but no-one seems to know why.  In truth, they do look a bit like baroque croissants, but the similarity ends there.  They’re heavier, gutsier and much sweeter, filled (as they are) with cinnamon, raisins, almonds (sometimes) and sugar.

Just to make sure that I liked them - and to spend five more heavenly minutes with Lisbeth (for it was she) - I had two.  And another coffee.


Despite what the puffed-up and comfortably coiffured citizens of Munich might think, there’s no doubting Hamburg’s status as Germany’s second city.  It bellows its importance at you from street-level to its striking and bespired skyline. 

This is not just Hamburg; this is the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg - a reference to its mediaeval status as one of the Holy Roman Empire’s major ports and trading centres.  The Hansa League of cities, of which Hamburg was a founder member, was an unbelievably wealthy and powerful force in northern Europe for over 400 years and Hamburg doesn’t mind wearing this heritage on its collective sleeve, cocking a snook at what it obviously perceives as other, less prosperous and less powerful cities like Frankfurt, Cologne or Stuttgart.

It’s self-consciousness doesn’t seem to blow over into conceit, though.  It’s one of those places - grand and monumental and thriving - where visitors can understand its citizens’ pride and join in.
Hamburg - the Venice of the North

And they like you joining in here.  In the large and stately square that befits a Town Hall of such obvious opulence, I was accosted twice.  A group of high-school girls on some kind of assignment - all smiles and miniskirts - asked me a range of extraordinary questions like how would I improve Hamburg or what were the main things I disliked about it.  I told them - not untruthfully - that there was nothing I would change and that I liked their city a lot.

Two or three minutes later, a couple of university students asked if they could take a photo of me because I had a beard.  This sounded deeply suspicious, like one of those ludicrous secret messages being passed to entirely the wrong person; ‘the moon is full and the cauliflowers are ready for picking’. 

They explained that their mission that day was to find men with beards and photograph them in twos (as if that explained everything).  So we hung about looking unsavoury until another bearded fellow appeared.  He was a butcher from Lübeck called Stefan and he was obviously as gullible and as easily manipulated as I was.   The students took a picture of us which I did not have the presence of mind to ask for a copy of.  By the time I did have the presence of mind, the students and Stefan had disappeared and it was the past of mind.

I wandered smilingly north, toward the Alster.  This edge of the square is formed by a canal, the First World War Memorial Column and an arcade of fashionable shops and eating-places.  It looked and felt welcomingly Venetian in this chilling weather.

Everyone smiles a lot in Hamburg.


On my way to the metro, I decided to call into a church that lay en route, just to see what it was like.  It had one of the largest and oldest organs in Germany.  It also had one of the spookiest curates I’m ever likely to meet.  He followed me round the empty, echoing church and kept sidling up to me, whispering things in Low German.  I didn’t understand anything he said - or exactly how Low his German was - which is probably just as well.


I decided to seek further shelter from the atrocious weather by taking my customary journey on a bus or metro to its destination, just to see where it went.  When I looked at the map in the metro station, my mind was made up at once.  One of the termini of metro Line 1 is Poppenbüttel. 


I’m still not sure why I find the name so uproariously funny; no-one else does.  But I knew - I just knew - that I had to go there.  So I did.
Just to prove that I was actually there...

It was quite nice, in an ordinary, Poppenbüttel kind of way.


By the time I'd returned to my hotel, it was snowing.


Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 21 June at Birkheads Nursery, between Sunniside and Stanley.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.  I don’t know how we do it.


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com