I am not a great one for using the parliamentary recess to go abroad with my colleagues, of whom I see a lot during the sessions. In fact, the last time I went on an overseas delegation was in 1990 when I went to Belize with John Prescott. Hurricane Diana brought our visit to a dramatic close and it has taken me 19 years to recover.
I am Patron of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, who planned a two day fact-finding visit to Holland during the Easter Recess. Cycling is one of my special subjects and I am interested in seeing how we can learn from others who have a better record than we have. So I dug out the passport, found some euros left over from a holiday in Italy, packed my cycle clips and turned up at St Pancras to catch the Eurostar.
The Dutch have a natural advantage over the British. In the Beginning, when the Almighty created heaven and earth, he made part of the earth flat. This was the part that the Dutch decided to colonise and grow tulips on, unaware that it was below sea-level and that, in due course, the icebergs which the Almighty created later in the week would melt and flood them. The British chose the other side of the Channel, where you get better views and stay dry for longer.
This accounts for the difference in cycle penetration. The Dutch have 1.1 bicycle per Dutch man, woman and child, and the bicycles are used every day. We Brits have one bicycle for every two people and most of them are kept safe in the garden shed until the tanker drivers go on strike.
Cyclists in this country tend to be male, under 40 and to dress for it. Most cyclists in Holland are women, and for them it is just like walking. There are so many cyclists that car drivers there are like cyclists in London – a persecuted minority who have to fight to stay on the road.
We spent much of our time with Dutch Railways. Whereas Network Rail uses the space at or near its stations for revenue generating activities, such as Burgerking, Dutch railways use it for the free parking of bicycles. And if a passenger doesn’t own a bicycle, the Dutch station master will rent you one. 40% of those who catch the train in Holland arrive at the station on a bicycle.
At the end of our tour, which included a ride round the Hague in the rain, our hosts dropped us at a railway station so we could return to the Land where Car is King. We had forty-five minutes before departure, and we wanted to sit down for a cup of coffee and dry out. We looked round the six platforms in vain. So we walked past two thousand bicycles until we found a Starbucks.