Beweegbare bruggen

I have mentioned bridges a few times over the last couple of months because they are such a big feature of boating in the Netherlands. A bridge is a brug in Dutch, with bruggen being the plural. Beweegbare means moveable so a beweegbare brug (or BB for short) is a movable bridge. The charts (maps) of the rivers and canals show all of the bridges, both fixed and moveable, along with their heights. For some strange reason the heights are always quoted in decimetres. On the iPad version of the charts (which is an App from ANWB, the Dutch equivalent of the AA or RAC) there is an additional symbol (usually, but not always, in the right place!) showing the bridge. Clicking on the bridge symbol brings up additional information such as opening times. Again, these are mainly accurate but we have come across quite a few discrepancies.

Some of the bridges around Leiden

This chart shows some of the bridges around Leiden, most of which we have passed under twice this week. Taking one bridge as an example, number 623 in the middle at the bottom of this picture, the chart tells us that this is a railway bridge (spoorbrug) with a height of 14.5 decimetres (1.45m) and a width of 9.9m. It also tells us that there is a fixed part of the bridge (vast) that has a height of 2.5m, which is high enough for many boats to pass under without waiting for the bridge to open. The opening times for this particular bridge are quite complicated because it has to tie in with the trains passing over it.

Rail bridge opening times

Most bridges have different opening times on different days of the week and they are also different during the main boating season (usually mid-April to mid-Spetember or October). This bridge generally (but, we found, not always!) opens at four minutes and thirty-four minutes past each hour. When planning a journey you need to take into account opening times as some of the bridges close for lunch and/or during morning and evening rush hours, to minimise disruption to the vehicular traffic.

In many parts of the country we have found the bridges to be manned (by a brugwachter). These bridges often open as you approach and are sometimes accompanied by a wooden clog being swung at the boat so you can deposit a prescribed amount of money for the toll (the bruggeld). In other places the bridges are unmanned and they rely on cameras to spot the boats arriving. This is generally less efficient (from the boater’s perspective) as you have to nudge up to the bridge to make sure you’re within sight of a camera and then hope that someone, somewhere is looking a monitor.

All bridges operate a traffic light system. There are three vertical lights – red, green, red. Under normal circumstances there will be a red light at the top when you approach a bridge. If both red lights are on it means the bridge is closed for a prolonged period and you might as well find somewhere to tie up and wait. When a green light comes on along with the red it means that the bridge will open soon(ish) and that you will be allowed through first, before any boats waiting on the other side. Eventually the red goes out and the green remains, meaning proceed.

Getting ready to open

Seeing the green light come on under the red is very reassuring as it means that someone has seen you and they will in due course, usually in the next few minutes, lower the barriers for the pedestrians, bikes and traffic and then open the bridge.

Many of the bridges can be contacted by VHF radio so you can ask them to open. This is a big challenge when you don’t speak Dutch and struggle to pronounce the name of the bridge you’re waiting at. (Hooghkamerbrug or Duivenvoordsebrug anyone?) And of course you stand no chance of understanding the reply, if it comes. I have resorted to this a few times and, to be fair, it has usually done the trick. However there was one bridge where I called a couple of times and got no response. Eventually a Dutch person on the boat behind called on the same channel and we got a red and green light straight away. Clearly the brugwachter had not understood what I was asking for!

The final option at some of the bridges is what we have come to know as the “melding button”. This is a button, usually accompanied by an intercom, often tucked away in a hard to reach place, that you can press to let the brugwachter know you would like the bridge to be opened. We have honed our technique and now have the melding button off to a fine art. I nudge the boat forwards and Liz stands on the front with a boat hook. As we get close she presses the button and, if a response is forthcoming, attempts to say the bridge name followed by “alsjeblieft” (please). Sometimes the brugwachter will respond in Dutch, sometimes in English and sometimes not at all. We then keep our fingers crossed that a green light will be forthcoming.

A well aimed boat hook and a melding button

Throughout these manoeuvres we have wondered who is watching us or speaking to us and what they might be seeing. Is it a sophisticated multi-screen control centre or is there someone occasionally flicking around the cameras and seeing if they spot any boats. It often feels like the latter when you’ve been waiting 15 minutes for something to happen but we know that the Dutch are very efficient so that scenario seems unlikely. Finally I was able to see the inside of one of the brug “huts” and this is what was there:

Inside a bridge control room

It does indeed look like there are multiple monitors, presumably each for a different bridge, and each having a split screen showing four different cameras that cover the water and the road traffic around a bridge.

Why am I boring you with all this information about bruggen? Well, they have featured very heavily in this week’s travels. There have been several very long waits (and sometimes no waiting at all) and on one day we had 19 bridges open for us.

It started with our journey back out of Katwijk, which is up a “cul de sac” canal. We had spent our three-day / four-night working week in Katwijk and, after two days of storms the sun had come out. This meant much nicer lunchtime walks with Tex and we are able to see this seaside town at its best.

Stichting Jachthaven Katwijk – the end of the road

Once upon a time the canal connected to the sea, but two large dams now mean you have to return along the same route as far as Leiden. At that point you can go north, which is where we came from, or south which is where we were heading, bound for Delft.

Delft was one of the places on our “must visit” list right from the start of the trip. We had heard it was a nice place and of course it’s famous for its blue and white pottery. We had considered visiting back in June when we were in the south of the Netherlands, but at that time decided to go east towards Utrecht instead of west to Delft. When we arrived in Delft at lunchtime on Friday we were initially a bit disappointed because the only moorings (the town moorings, or gemeente haven) were right next to a main road and did not look particularly nice. After a discussion with the harbour master we discovered we could moor under a big “no mooring” sign on a different bank, further away from the road. This turned out to be a great spot and we stayed for two nights.

Delft was much larger than we had expected – it’s actually a small city rather than a small town. We arrived at the end of what we in the UK would call “freshers week” at the university and there were young people everywhere. They were mainly in large groups being given a tour of the town or engaged in some other kind of “bonding” activity, mainly in orange t-shirts. As we sat eating lunch on a restaurant terrace we watched one after another go up to a door in a nearby building, press the bell (nine times) and wait. Eventually, someone would appear at the door, pass them some large packages and close the door. Some minutes later, the door would re-open and the packages would be taken back inside. The caller would then walk away. This was either some kind of strange initiation process into one of the clubs or a not very subtle drug running operation.

The older part of the city has some lovely buildings and we enjoyed strolling around. As well as the pottery, Delft is also known as the home of the painter Johannes Vermeer so images of the Girl with a Pearl Earring were a common sight.

Delft City Hall, in the Markt square

We happened to be in town for the weekend of the annual Delft jazz festival. A stage arrived in the Markt square in the evenings and a free concert was given. I don’t really understand jazz music but was keen to have a listen after we finished dinner in a nearby restaurant. Perhaps I would learn something. After a few minutes I realised that I still don’t “get” it and it still sounded like a bunch of people with random instruments playing different tunes at the same time. Oh well, I’ll have to remain a heathen on that front.

A visit to Delft would not be complete without a trip to the pottery factory. There used to be over thirty factories in the town but now only one remains – Royal Delft, which dates back to 1653. The factory tour was very interesting and very quiet – I think we were the only people in there.

One of the Master Painters at work in the factory

From Delft we retraced our route back up the Delftse Vliet and Rijn-Schiekanaal towards Leiden. After an overnight stay at Voorschoten along the way, we finally entered Leiden on Monday morning after having skirted around it twice over the previous two weeks.

The gemeente haven in Leiden is very pleasant and quite central. We explored some of the city on our first day and dodged some big rain showers. We’re hoping to see a bit more of the city in the evenings whilst we’re here and are keeping our fingers crossed for some drier weather.

A slightly damp Leiden
Sheltering, waiting for the rain to pass

All this rain does have its advantages. This is the scene from the front of the boat on our first evening in Leiden.

I wish … it would stop raining!

Over the past ten weeks we have rarely retraced our steps but this week has been a bit different. Here’s where the route took us.


Next week will be our final week of cruising, at least for this year.

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