For a lifelong cyclist Amsterdam is heaven – once you get your bearings that is. That skew-whiff grid of canals is totally bamboozling at first. The initial 24 hours completely did my head in. Utterly lost. Embarrassing for someone who prides himself on being able to find his way around. Since then however, the cycling has been sublime.
Absolutely the way to see Amsterdam. The town is small enough for all the highlights to be easily accessible by bike, and a very relaxed place. I think those sedate canals really do calm things down.
Whether motorist, cyclist or pedestrian, it seems the attitude is relax and consider the other road users. Rolling around on my bike, the feeling of being quite at ease is tinged with a delicious sense of freedom and adventure, what travelling should be like, but rarely is for me, a travel stress-head.
My wife and I have decided to visit the parks. This is the first warm sunny weather seen in a month. And as we roll through the parks, Amsterdam Bos, Vondelpark, Oosterpark and Westerpark, anybody who can be is out here, a parade of colour and movement, kids splashing through water features, people playing ball games, flying kites, dancing or just soaking up the sun.
At Westerpark, buoyed by our high spirits we just keep rolling on, right out the end of the park, past the old gasworks, to infinity and beyond! We find ourselves riding along a dyke looking out over a canal. On the low ground across the canal, what’s that… a forest? gardens? a suburb? a canal development? Little cottages and flower gardens peek out from under the eaves of a forest of deciduous trees across the canal. We have to explore!
I struggle to find the words to describe what we have found. And photographs on this day of bright sun and deep shadow just won’t capture the magical atmosphere in here, this paradise of dappled sunlight and shadow on leaf and twig all wrapped in the fragrance of rotting leaf mould. God, I love that smell! This place is so unusual, so beautiful, so completely entrancing, I feel like we have stumbled into the enchanted forest, a giant woodland threaded with small sunny meadows of daisy-strewn lawns, tiny cottages and bright gardens, all subdivided by a network of paths and tiny canals.
Along the canals, yellow iris, ferns, astilbes and phragmites reeds have naturalised, but are deftly managed to prevent them choking the waterways.
On the water, ducks, moorhens, and assorted waterbirds glide, wade and waddle through their own version of paradise.
Paths are lined and shaded by informal avenues of trees beneath which dappled sunlight falls on rough hedges and a random mix of woodland herbs, wildflowers, weeds and self sown seedlings in deep leafy mulch, long corridors of wildness at the heart of the city. These truly are nature strips!
Beyond these verges where nature runs wild, through rickety gates and occasional breaks in the hedges, you catch flashes of forest glades, sunny flower gardens and bright cottages. It is these forest glades, half glimpsed, then glimpsed again from the rolling bike, a flashing dance of sunlight and green shadow, that give the forest its enchanted feel.
Sloterdijkermeer is a community allotment garden club. There are a number of these large allotment gardens dotted around Amsterdam, where they are seen as being part of essential green belts or ‘lungs of the city’. This site was used to harvest peat in medieval times, before being reclaimed for pasture by walling out the water in the Renaissance. The allotment garden was established to provide an area for workers to grow vegetables on reclaimed swampland in the Great Depression. It appears that as times became more prosperous in the second half of the 20th century, there was a shift away from vegetables to ornamental gardening.
There are hundreds of allotments rented by members of the club. Most have small cottages in which the members live between April and October, a kind of country summerhouse, 10 minutes from city centre. Once rent is paid, the only requirement is that you tend your garden for your period of residency. And clearly, the members love tending their gardens, which were overflowing with peonies, roses, foxgloves, late spring in full flight at the time of my visit.
What an incredible idea! You lump all the gardeners together, give them some fertile land, and tell them to go for it. This inspired idea has resulted in the Garden of Paradise, the most delightful woodland garden I have ever seen. It’s all the more special for having been created collectively, over generations by ordinary gardeners, rather than being a grand estate created at the behest of one privileged individual. This is truly a community garden of the first order.
If someone had described this social experiment to me beforehand, I think I would have expected a series of overly manicured, prissy gardens. Not so! There is a broad range in the intensity of management across the various allotments. Some look as though they are barely touched, weeds pushing through lawns.
Others have the close attention to detail you might expect to find in a Japanese garden.
Overall however, the human touch is light. Nature is given plenty of scope to express herself freely. And Nature is verdant, fecund here! Because the domestic gardens are barely glimpsed through the nature-strips-run-wild under the trees, you really do feel that you are in a woodland or forest. These ‘nature strips’ running through the entire community bring not only wildness, but also a sense of unity to the whole.
I just love the balance of Nature and culture that has been achieved here in this forest-garden, or whatever you want to call it. On land that has been used by humans for nearly a thousand years, a balance has evolved organically through a delicate interplay of open-ended ecological and social processes, rather than being constructed according to a predetermined design. Nature simply would not be here in her velvet green woodland cloak without the engineered land reclamation work from centuries ago. Humans and Nature in true collaboration! The result is perhaps the most enthralling integration of human culture and Nature I have seen, certainly in a city. It’s biophilic city life at its best.
Why didn’t anybody tell me? Why didn’t anybody say? I had thought the gardener in me had lost out to the cyclist when I chose to give Keukenhof, The Netherlands’ top garden attraction, a miss. Massed bedding displays are not really my thing. (Who would have guessed?) Plus I’d missed the big show, which happens in early spring. And it meant getting off the bike and onto a bus. And then this, surprised by beauty. What a fortunate choice!