Cycling, I can do it as long as I can remember. First a small bike, with two support wheels to help me balance. I can’t remember how long it took me to learn how to cycle, but in real terms it can’t have been very long. Maybe a few weeks. Then came primary school, Bloemcampschool in Wassenaar.
The school was located about 1.5 km from our home, a semidetached house in an affluent suburb of The Hague. But of course, then I didn’t know it. As a kid, I didn’t have much to worry about. And I actually enjoyed going to school. And I clearly remember the ride every day from our house to school. Leaving the path from our front door, turning left. Cycling on the Zijdeweg, past the gasoline station. Not even 100 meters from our house. And they sold ice cream as well, I can remember that. And then the crossing with the Wittenburgerweg. Nowadays traffic lights and lots of cars racing by. Then, 50 years ago, quiet. We actually played football on the small field of grass which on three sides had roads. And sometimes the ball would end up on the road. But as 8 year old, you didn’t care. And neither did the drivers, who might just stop to make sure we wouldn’t run onto the road.
I was six years old when I went to primary school. And like almost all classmates, my mother cycled the first few years with me to school. The crossing with the Wittenburgerweg was the most difficult. And in the eyes of the parents probably the most dangerous. After the crossing, turn left and a straight line north of about 1 km. Then turn right into the Bremhorstlaan. And on the left was the entrance to the school. With left of the entrance the bicycle racks. Metal stands where you would slide your front wheel into and you wouldn’t have to use your bike stand. I think most of them were covered, so that your saddle wouldn’t get wet if it started to rain during class. I’m sure we cycled rain or shine. And I can’t remember hating it for getting wet or cold. So I must have enjoyed it.
What I do remember very well, was the cycling exam we had to do at school. A police agent (I think) would come to the school and would first look at your bike: do the lights and the bell work, what about the brakes? Does the bike meet all the legal requirements. And then came the exciting part: the cycling itself, in which you had to show you know how to cycle, and that you knew all the traffic rules. And at the end we all received a personalized certificate, showing that we had passed the exam. My first certificate, and I was so proud of it.
From around that time, my parents let me cycle to school by myself. Was it 5 minutes? Was it 8 minutes? I can’t remember it anymore. It was about 1.5 km, according to the meter on my bicycle. But the most important thing: it gave me freedom. And I never had any accident. Nor did anyone else of class, as far as I remember.
Nowadays, I sometimes wonder: what would a parent of today do, if he or she went with a time machine back to the early to mid ’70’s. Would that parent be willing to let his or her child cycle to school, just like I did? Was it irresponsible what my parents did? Even with the hindsight of today, my answer would be no. Because with that freedom came responsibility. Be careful, always watch out, and don’t let yourself be disturbed. And I observed those rules.
And at the end of primary school, I decided to look further. Together with a classmate, we decided to go on a cycling tour. Two twelve year olds, backpacked with clothes, a tent and some money. And a big plan. We decided to go from our house in the west of The Netherlands to the southwest of the country and then to the south of The Netherlands. No parents, just the two of us, on the road to enjoy themselves. And the promise to call at the end of each day. Because of course mobile phones didn’t exist. And with a roadmap with cyclepaths and smaller roads where there were no cyclepaths, we took off.
Day one, about 85 km to our summer home. With river crossings by boat, cycling through small villages, and sometimes having to look on the map to make sure we didn’t get lost. Maybe a bit naive, but definitely enjoying ourselves exploring the world. Our world. And we cherished the one thing that mattered and matters to me most, and that has shaped me to who I am now: freedom, with responsibility.
Adriaan Palm is the Ambassador representing the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ireland. With a long career in politics, economics and foreign affairs, Adriaan is passionate about cycling and sustainable living.
On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us in the coming weeks.
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