|Nijmegen, a city in Holland, famous for it's importance in Operation Market Garden in 1944, holds another significance for over 40,000 people every year, the International Nijmegen Four Day Marches. This event, comprising a hundred miles over four days, is the stuff of legend amongst the many participants. Some vow never to return, and actually manage to stay away. Others vow never to set foot out of the UK again...but inevitably end up in Nijmegen next July. I found myself fitting somewhere in the third category, insisting as soon as I had returned from last year's event, that I would return. Holland was a mere matter of a long coach trip, a ferry crossing, and another, even longer coach trip away. Predictably, the first part of the journey was spent in banter and watching Simpson’s videos. The last part of the journey was spent in sleep.
The city is alive with street stalls and entertainers - not to mention that every single pub and café spills out onto the streets, with the smell of cooking permeating the atmosphere, it’s a nice place. Monday morning dawned, to the already familiar sound of rain. It hadn’t stopped raining thus far. I had a bad feeling that rain was going to punctuate every turn of the march. Monday is Preparation Day it’s early to bed, although some teams take this to the extreme and turn in mid-afternoon. Herts and Bucks know better than to interrupt the delicate sleep patterns. 2100 hrs is a reasonable time considering the wake-up time of 0230 hrs.
Being wise to the tricks of eating in the mess tent, I queued up and managed to smuggle many items more than I was allowed. Lunch is made at breakfast, but breakfast, continental style, might as well be lunch, for there is little difference. Start time was 0430 hrs, so we filed out into the darkness of Camp Heumensoord, and into the breech. Day One, began with the usual march past the dais and band, with a salute to Air Commodore Kennedy. Then it was out into the city of Nijmegen. Day One’s route, is named the “Day of Elst”, as the route passes through a small town called Elst before checkpoint 2. The sun was up and the day promised to be dry, which was a blessing. Newcomers to the marches quickly learnt that Dutch children seem to be taught no manners, as wave after wave of greedy brats demanded stickers or ‘soofeneeers’. Day One, is a fairly nice day, apart from the long walk along a Dutch dyke back into Nijmegen, and back across the famous bridge that Micheal Caine drove his tank across in ‘A Bridge Too Far’. We arrived back at Heumensoord before 1400 hrs, we had clocked a very fast time.
Then, it rained. Day Two dawned, about the same time as Day One, to the sound of heavy rain lashing the roof of the marquee. The usual routine of breakfast was adhered to; those who could ‘acquire’ more than they were supposed to, did so. We set out, waterproof jackets firmly zipped up and into the rain again. Day Two was wet, until we reached the big show town for the day, Wichen. The entrance to Wichen is hideous, as the route loops in and out of the town like a four-leaf clover. Eventually, we arrive and stop for lunch, but soon, we are out on the road again. The trip back to Nijmegen, where we are to pass through the packed city centre, is dry, until we reach the city itself, and the rain sets in again. After a brief respite from the weather in the Pool Position bar, we dispensed with the waterproofs and braved the wind and rain, down University Road, down the wooded Approach Road and into Heumensoord. We had shaved 20 or so minutes off of our time from Day One.
Day Three promised to be no better. Rain didn’t set in until the first checkpoint, but when it did, it didn’t stop until we reached the third checkpoint. Luckily, this year, the route had been slightly altered and we didn’t loose Cadet Holland this time around! We passed over the only seven hills on the route, or the ‘Seven Sisters’ through the town of Groesbeek. After checkpoint three, which topped the fifth or sixth hill (it’s almost impossible to count them!) the rain came down like a water fall and since no-body had bothered to put on waterproof jackets, we all got very, very wet. The mood was not helped by the fact that the route back was going to take us past just about every house in the city of Nijmegen. We got back to the beer tent to rousing applause. Three-quarters done. The last bit would be easy; morale was high, and the team could feel the end in sight. If only the rain would hold off.
But it didn’t. Day Four; earliest start so far - 0130 hrs! The rain had not yet set in, but before the day was over, we were to be soaked. The day is called the “Day of Cuijk”, a large town to the south of Nijmegen. Once at the checkpoint in Cuijk, it’s a mere 10k to the finish. However, before Cuijk, there is the small matter of another 30k! Herts and Bucks Wing, dispense with the first rest stop and bundle into a restaurant that serves lovely cheesecake and coffee. You get a proper chair, and there’s a roof - such luxury! We pass over another of the Operation Market Garden bridges at Grave, and then it’s onto one of the most bleak and featureless roads I have ever walked down in my life. They really save one of the worst parts until the last day, as this stretch is soul destroying. Entering Cuijk, however, is a welcome relief. Once at the checkpoint, down came the oh-so-familiar weather, and then we had to walk the last (allegedly excellent) 10 km in a thunderstorm. Having reached the checkpoint that signified the end, the team collapsed, tired from 100 miles of hard tarmac. There were a few relieved faces, and few faces that said “I never want to return…but I probably will!” The marchpast beckoned, but another intervention from the sky changed our minds, and we decided to head for McDonalds instead.
Saturday…time to depart. Nijmegen, is one of the, if not THE best activity that you can participate in as a cadet. The things that you learn about yourself are reward enough, plus you get a nice shiny medal. It’s a good laugh, and a ‘must-experience at least once’ event. If you’ve never been to Nijmegen, pencil it in for next year…
Cpl. Andrew CRAWLEY
|D of E|