I was sitting in my nice warm VW Fox eating a cheese and tomato sandwich and watching wet sycamore leaves helicopter down onto my windscreen. The rain had blown over but the trees above me were sodden with moisture. The window was half-down and a breeze came in, soft and fragrant - one of those clean, pure breezes that we city-dwellers think are such treats to experience. In this wood, in the far north of Denmark's mainland province of Jutland, I appeared to be alone. It was still August but the first tips of the oak and ash leaves were beginning to yellow as the dawn temperatures dropped and autumn began to take up residence.
The car door slammed and echoed through the wood. I pushed through a thick hedge which grabbed at my jacket and seemed unwilling to be disturbed. But with a heave I was past the pointing twigs and slapping wet leaves and in my own Narnia on the other side. A green path led away, lined by sentinel oaks and from further off in the wood came the sounds of laughter. Along the path cycled a family dressed toe-to-toe in bright red, utterly drenched anoraks and ponchos.
They looked on me not as a potential enemy - this strange man on his own in a lonely wood in rural Denmark - but as a long-lost friend. "Hi," called the father; the mother waved. I was greeted with a sea of smiles and perfect teeth and blonde hair matted to foreheads. The children (one boy, one girl) were close in age but neither older than 10. Whenever my long-suffering parents dragged me up wet mountains in Wales during our family holidays I howled like a banshee - so much that I am surprised that they did not leave me there for good. Yet there in that wood was a family soaked to the skin, cold too no doubt, with sore calves and creaking knees and perhaps a touch of saddle rash, neither bleating nor showing any sign of discomfort. In fact they gave the distinct impression that that day was perhaps the best of their lives.
Did they not crave the Mediterranean? The beach? The sun? Apparently not. "We are on the great North Sea Route but we took a detour because the wood looked nice," the father told me when I admired their bikes and the numerous panniers attached. "We have everything we need for three weeks on the road." They had enjoyed four days of dry weather and endured seven of wet. It's good, they said - healthy to be wet and dry in one day. "Like taking a shower in the outdoors," said the mother.
After 20 minutes chatting to the happiest family in the world in that otherwise deserted wood in northern Jutland, I needed no more persuasion. The next day I drove north, parked my car in the delightful town of Skagen and hired a bicycle. The bike shop had no panniers and was fresh out of bike lights, so I would have to settle for being a day-trip cyclist. No matter. In August in northern Denmark the days are long and cycling can be performed from 4am to 10pm without lights - or panniers.
On my first morning I pored over the map while limbering up with coffee, croissants and pickled herring in Skagen's delightful Brøndums Hotel, my base for the next few thigh-testing days. The North Sea Cycle Route is a long-distance cycle path which travels 6,000km along the coasts of seven countries, using existing national cycle routes. It opened in 2001 and is the world's longest cycle route according to the Guinness Book of Records. The Danish section starts at the German border and hugs the west coast all the way to Skagen before turning south to Århus.
I joined the route and headed south through the town, past its yellow-walled and terracotta-roofed houses and into the Skagen Klitplantage nature reserve, making a detour to visit a geographical wonder - a church built in the 14th century which has been all but swallowed up by the encroaching sand. Onwards through the Bunken Klitplantage reserve before taking a right turn along a side road which leads to the small settlement of Skiveren looking out over a mournful North Sea, layered with a grey and steady swell.
If ever you want to escape the rat race and disappear from life for a while, Skiveren is the place to go. Of course it helps if you have a strong melancholy streak in you that demands hours of sitting and staring at a brooding seascape and watching the many Arctic terns performing acrobatics in the northern air. I mistimed my return trip, making numerous detours off the path, and found myself freewheeling back into Skagen under a 9pm dusk, just in time for a plate of yet more pickled herring and pumpernickel bread, to which I was happily becoming addicted.
The morning brought a sky filled with sunshine. The breakfast waiter proudly informed me this was the famous "Skagen light", the same radiance that has drawn painters there for many years. "We have had a lot of rain this summer but now the light has returned," he said, as if reading the foreword to a Norse saga. I asked him where to cycle on a day of such brilliance and he pointed north. There isn't much north beyond Skagen. In fact, it is only a few kilometres to the most northerly point of Denmark - the large sand spit known as the Grenen.
A few hundred yards out of town I caught up with a peloton of 20 cyclists, their bikes draped in panniers and small Danish and Swedish flags flying from 1.5m aerials. They were pedalling serious vehicles - racing bikes that looked as if they had a few thousand kilometres behind them. I felt a fraud as I overtook them on what can only be described as a lady's shopping cycle. I got halfway through the pack before a shirtless man struck up a conversation.
"Nearly there," he panted. "Nearly where?" I asked. "The top! The end of the road." The Grenen is the end of the North Sea Route, or the beginning, depending on your preferred direction of travel. This cycle team had slogged north from Holland "apart from one bit on a train", the man admitted. "You can ride in with us. We will be having a party." And so I rode in to the Grenen car park with the real cyclists as they rang their bells and whooped for joy and relief at having made it to "the top".
People stared and smiled and wondered how one cyclist had come so far on a shopping cycle with no panniers. I parked my bike, left the team to their celebrations and walked through the dunes and along the beach to the very tip of Denmark, a serene place where the Skagerrak and Kattegat straits meet in a scrappy confusion of wavelets lapping over the sandbank. Ankle-deep in cool water and under a huge open sky, I promised myself I would come back to Denmark and cycle the North Sea Route, and arrive here at the end of the journey, exhausted and exhilarated and desperate for another plate of pickled herring.