June on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin – weedy in parts; ultimately glorious

June 10 – 18 2019

Monday 10th June – we had left Soulanges on the Canal de L’Aisne á la Marne in the morning and by lunchtime we had turned to port at the T junction at Vitry-en François and were heading up the Oest (West) section of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin.

Leaving industrial Vitry

We had 111 kilometres to travel uphill to Void, with 70 locks to help us. We had been warned by other boaters that the canal was full of weed, growing and floating, and indeed the VNF issued a warning to battle.

Before long the blue skies turned to grey and the rain that was to be with us for several days, on and off, began to fall. With locks to negotiate every kilometre this is not as much fun as it might seem.

We were following a commercial barge that was making particularly slow progress; however slowly we tried to go we kept catching her up, and then had to hang around at a lock waiting for our turn, but that’s what sharing canal space is all about.

And it is good to see he canals still being used for commercial purposes – taking freight of the road.

It was not too long before we reached the very pleasant mooring we had picked out on the map – Bignicourt-sur-Saulx. It is a delightfully peaceful place to stay the night, and a walk round the village elucidated some history from World War 1, when the village tried desperately to hold back a German advance across the river and canal, but were overcome and many lives were lost.

The village includes a chateau that is a small hotel, and opens its gardens to the public on a Saturday.

This was Sunday!

This bridge over the Saulx was a focal point of the fighting.

This beautiful snail was my other major find of the evening.

The next morning seemed drier so we drew in our ropes and went on our way. There was a need to find a baguette for lunch if possible. Google maps located one in the next village, where there was also a good long jetty so we felt our luck was in. However every space was taken apart from a short length at the far end, quite close to the next lock.

A plan was hatched – Stewart would put the bow into the small space, I would (somehow) jump off and rush to the boulangerie and back while he hung about mid stream waiting for me and the lock.

It worked! I arrived back with baguette in the wet weather baguette bag just in time to watch the lock gates open and Calliope glide in.

When will the sun shine again?

We continued in the rain, eating lunch along the way. By the tenth lock of the day we were wondering if it would every stop – and still 5 more to go to the night’s mooring.

It got so chilly that we thanked Piper for the heater that blows warm air up from the engine room!

This kept the Captain warm – I meantime was out in the elements. Lucky I like water.

Things got interesting around Sermaize-les-Bains, where a lock is followed in short succession by two bridges, a sharp S shape bend under a third, followed by a basin leading into the next lock, out of which was reversing a large commercial barge!

Astern astern

Uo until now sensors either side of the canal had detected our approach to a lock and begun to prepare it for us, but as we reached lock 55 the system changed.

Now we could put to use the telecommander, or zapper as we preferred to call it, pointing it at each lock when we reached the command sign on the edge of the canal.

On up through another three locks and we reached Revigny-sur-Ornaine where we hoped to stop for the night. We had been warned that the wooden jetty was taped off, but still usable, so headed towards it. But the owner of the Belgian cruiser already tied up there, came gingerly towards us to want us off – most planks of the jetty had rotted through – so Plan B came into operation.

Plan B – moor up against the VNF ice breaker, Asterix

Plan B came to be the best plan! At about 8pm, in great agitation, our Belgian friend came to our boat to point out that the water level in the bief was rapidly dropping and they were already aground! He phoned the pompiers (fire service) and gendarmes, the latter of whom duly arrived looking very perplexed. Raising the water in a canal had not been in their training.

ut they were trained in making phone calls to useful people and after another 20 minutes two VNF cars sped up. By then we had discovered that several of the ‘vantelles’ which allow water into and out of the adjacent lock had remained open and water was simply pouring out of our stretch of the canal (bief). The VNF cavalry got to work once more, partly opening up three next locks up the canal and over night the level gradually rose.

And us? Well moored to Asterix we were further out into the channel in deeper water, and unharmed by the experience.

I like to note the different style of lock-keeper houses on the different canals. On this canal the houses are built on 3 levels at the back, and two at the front – reflecting the fact that the canal is built up on a levée

Some are no longer occupied and left in varying degrees of decay and neglect.

This one has almost been captured by nature – it’s glazed entrance porch scarcely visible.

We had been told that the pont-levée (lift bridge) at Mussey would not be lifted between 11am and 2pm, so although only 6 kms away we set off at 8am in case there were problems at any of the 4 locks between us and the bridge.

And as luck would have it, we got stuck in the first lock!

Stewart tried to clear the masses of weeds that were stuck around the sensors on the lower lock gate; the lock was not filling with water and our best idea was that the system did not know that the lock gates had shut – but to no avail.

So Lesley’s ‘lock French’ to the rescue, phoning the éclusier’s office to explain where we were and what the problem was.

It worked, and we were soon free and on our way, enjoying an artistic array of canal weed as we left the lock.

The art of floating weeds
Mussey Pont-Levée

We reached Mussey pont-levée in time to get through and onward before lunch. And then two further lift bridges to arrive at Bar Le Duc.

We moored up on the quay alongside the camper van park – all very civilised. It was possible to see the old town in the distance on top of a hill so once rested from our cruising exertions we started walking towards it.

We went over the river Ornain, and began to go upwards – steps and roads – onto a rampart style walk with stunning views of the roofs of the newer, but still old, town below.

The ‘higher’ town, dating from medieval times hosts so many interesting buildings, so here are a few – the Chateau, now a museum, the church (where we had a private tour from an enthusiastic guide in his eighties, and pretending did to understand),and the c13 covered market, the clock tower.

My favourite weird story from Bar de Luc is about the wife of a Prince of Orange who, when he was killed in the siege of St Dizier asked for a sculpture to be made of what he would look like 3 years after he died (if dug up!)

Here is the strange (full size) result!

So weird to my mind.

We strolled and rolled back down the steep roads to the newer town below and found a pavement bar to revive us before and relaxation before returning to the barge for the remainder of the evening.

Next day was mainly a boat day – filling with water, cleaning winter green from window edges, and re-stocking with provisions.

Then we went out to walk round another part of town before beer and pizza.

This took us over the lovely Notre Dame bridge over the Ornaine river, with old houses flanking the banks.

Michaux, inventor of the bicycle

We discovered another of Bar de Luc’s famous son’s – Michaux – though I am sure he did not look like this!

We found a second bar with Stewart’s favourite game! And he came up against a mini pinball wizard; they enjoyed what was apparently a good pinball game.

The pizza itself was interesting on three levels/Police outside pizza place, and lovely old church. First, it was delicious, and cooked by a Tunisian, not an Italian. Second, whilst eating a table on the pavement we were suddenly disturbed by two police cars, sirens screeching, once of which drove onto the pavement. The police jumped out and arrested a young lad who looked quite innocent, but unsurprised.

And then there was this lovely old church – a complete mish-mash of styles.

Easterly leaving of Bar de Luc

We continued our journey on Friday, following a yacht at first, under a pont levée. We soon lost sight of them, being surprised by a big barge after an S bend under a bridge!

Bye bye Bar de Luc, as the bridge comes down

Later that day we had another lock that would not open – leading to an hour’s wait in a peaceful spot – then the same again 3 locks later!

On this one I had to scramble ashore from the bow into who knows what undergrowth, in order to reach the lock and use their phone.

It was too remote for us to have reception on the mobiles!

We were unable to tie up, even to a tree trunk, and with the engine off we drifted pleasantly and quietly from side to side.

But all good fun!

Once we were on our way again we passed by many moss laden lock doors, water lilies, and pieces of old lock keeper’s equipment, (I think these structures were to hold the long barge poles). Ah, this is the life!

Reached Tonville-en Barrois and found a delightful mooring just at the edge of the village, but out of sound of any road. Just birds, and later rain drops, to soothe us.

We took a walk round the village and were pleased to find a boulangeries for the morning, plus an amazing old fortified church, going back to the c12. And, more exciting for me, the first lavoir of the season.

The singing of the rain

Overnight it poured and poured with rain, hammering down on the roof of the boat – we love that sound – but it had consequences for the weediness of the canal next day, as you will see.

I made a quick trip to the boulangerie before we left Tronville, with a plan for the day of 17 locks – but we fell at the first hurdle. The first lock was chock-a-block with weed, and once full the doors would not open to let us out.

Captain Stu had a go at clearing the sensors with a boathook to no avail, so on the phone to the VNF and then settle down to enjoy the enforced break, plus wash down the side of the barge following the previous days spattering from the guy cutting and strimming the grass next to our mooring.

That was lock 27. Subsequently we were held up at locks 20, 19 and 17 – in every case waiting outside the lock because the doors would not open and the ‘deux feus rouges’ appeared, meaning ‘en panne’ again.

At least we were not as unfortunate as this Norwegian yacht, which ran aground and was truly stuck for quite some time.

They did get free, and caught us up later.

We heard that another yacht had had its keel snapped off in the low water and had to be craned out of the canal – I hope that is not true.

We ate lunch on the go, enjoyed the sunshine and lockside flowers, and had a visiting dragonfly on the deck (sorry the desk is so dirty!)

At one of the ‘stop-locks’ I had time to study and photograph the system of pulley wheels that must have been used to haul barges under the bridges, while then patient horses walked round.

All of this had a good outcome – we stopped short of our planned mooring and found a countryside idyll at Naix-en Forges, with a grassy bankside and woods of birdsong above.  

Naix-aux-Forges also possesses quite an unusual lavoir, with steps down from a front doorway, arched windows, and an oval shape wash basin, still with fresh water running in, presumably from a stream.

And what is more, by then we appeared to have left behind the thick carpets of weed. Hooray!

All clear for tomorrow we hope.

Next morning before we left, and in the interests of my new resolve to lose weight (go, I forgot to tell you that didn’t I?) I then took a walk up to the road bridge and down the canal path to the next lock, while Stewart got under way and met me at the écluse.

We were now out in the weed-free glorious cow studded countryside, with blue skies, billowing clouds, and scarcely ever a boat to be seen.

We passed pastures full of flowers, little villages in the distance, and big hunting birds – mostly red kites, soaring above us.

The locks all worked perfectly, ready and open for us as we approached.

This was definitely one of the most enjoyable days on this canal – one of those days when you want to shout “this is why we did it!”

It is only with photos that I can do justice to the colours, the clarity of the water, the natural surroundings. Sorry not to wax more lyrical, but a picture paints a thousand words after all.

This day took us up to the top of the canal – next task the 5km tunnel to the other side. So we moored up just before Lock 1 at Demange-aux-Eaux, attached in a relatively precarious non-maritime way; each rope across the pontoon and round a signpost on the bank! But there were no bollards or cleats on the pontoon so little choice.

From the lock bridge at Demange

Luckily there is only a long distance view of this outrage.

We went for our customary walk around the village – a village with no shops, cafés, bars or restaurants. But they have a lovely bridge over the (much narrower than Bar De Luc) Ornaine river, and a church visible across the fields that has its entry over a tributary. Yes, that’s me posing on the church bridge.

Naix-aux Forges lavoir

As we crossed a smaller bridge we noticed what must have been in the past a lovely long, sunlit lavoir, and now seemingly used to store village bits and pieces. It was all locked up, netting across the washing area and the beautiful wood sides left to perish.

I managed a photo from yet another bridge. I can almost see and hear the chatter and splashing of the women as they washed their clothes; quite pleasant on a sunny summers day, but far from attractive to have that chore in the winter.

Maybe some day the villagers will decide it is a nice idea to restore it all.

I had a bit of ‘really-me’ time sitting on the pontoon, my feet in the water, and with a perfect mini world of nature below me. In the clear waters were tadpoles and little blue and yellow fish. Flying above were several types of dragonfly, bee and butterfly, darting from flower to flower, or water weed to water weed. All of course moving too fast for me, apart from these two feeble attempts, plus the dragonfly sex scene on our geraniums.

Stu and Boris swap canal and wine stories

That evening we made the enjoyable ‘mistake’ of inviting our neighbours, Boris and Marsha, across from their cruiser African Queen to swap notes on canals, locks and moorings.

They are lovely friendly people and we got to know them very well over some wine, breadsticks, and a remarkably good rum – from St Nicholas Abbey, Barbados.

With the knowledge of the tunnel in front of us, we called an end to the fun before it got too late – but definitely up for it next time!

Off to bed with a full moon shining – and is that Venus just to the right?

And so it was Mauvage tunnel day. I make it sound more frightening than it is of course. It’s just that I know Stewart doesn’t like the narrowness of the tunnels and the way they suck Calliope into the side.

Still we started off brightly, through lock 1, and heading for the left hand turn towards the tunnel. Seemed a shame to be going underground on such a beautiful June day, but only for an hour.

The arm up to the tunnel entrance passes the old ‘Towing Service’ building. Until quite recently all boats and barges were towed through the tunnel and some of the service boats were moored up outside.

Then into and out of the tunnel – all 4.785kms of it, well lit and with a path running alongside the water where our éclusier friend rode his bike to keep us company. It took almost an hour of Stewart’s undivided attention to make sure we kept a straight path, and we emerged into the sunshine undamaged and undaunted.

There are 12 locks down into the next town, Void-Vacun. That felt good after the 70 upward locks of the previous week! We took on the first 7 and then stopped for lunch, allowing nature girl a few more photos!

An hour later and we arrived in Void, to find all the official moorings full, the bridge about to be closed for work next day, and the shops closed – it is Monday in France after all!

But all worked out fine. We were permitted to moor up on an old industrial wharf where goods from huge silos (we are not sure what) were once moved by barge, and now by lorry. It was surprisingly peaceful, the occasional lorry on the weighbridge gone by 4pm, the gates locked, and the space left to us and dozens of house martins.

Evening view across to Void-Vacun

After a tranquil evening and night we were up in the morning to watch the VNF tug do its mighty work pushing an iron barge topped with a massive girder for the bridge repairs. We watched as we walked over the passerelle to the town for food shopping.

The town was far more interesting than we had expected, with another old covered market place, with 44 columns to reflect the Roman buildings of nearby Nasium. For some bizarre reason, 4 are rectangular and the best are circular, in no particular pattern that I could detect.

A small river runs through the back of the town, the river Vidus, right by the little Proxi supermarket. We also found a good boulangerie and a great boucherie, with typical slightly raucous butcher’s chat!

As we walked back to the boat we cut through under Les Halles, the old market place, and found ourselves on front of a mighty fortified gateway, through which are the church, the chateau …

… and a characterful, part fortified, pigeon house. So much more to Void than immediately catches the eye.

The old Void bridges and lavoir

And in case you thought I had forgotten the lavoirs, Void’s lavoir has now gone, but a photo including women doing their washing is next to the canal bridge where it used to stand.

And then I went for a walk round the back of town and found another lavoir, on a branch of the River Vidus, next to a pretty tumbling area of the river.

Back to Calliope for the evening and a quiet time on the back deck waiting for sundown – rather late at this time of year, with the summer solstice only 3 days away!

Tomorrow morning it will be good bye to Void, and good bye to the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, Oest.

Late start to 2019 – Sillery to Vitry

(Skipper’s note: Loose plans for this year had seen us heading further north towards the Lille/Cambrai area for next winter. However with two of the three canal choices we had to get up there currently closed half way through, we decided to go Route Four – and turn south – About Face . . . . )

So eventually – after moving house, a full service and eight new solid solar panels on the roof (well done Skips) we are off, heading south on the Canal L’Aisne à La Marne – and within 10 minutes and under grey skies we met our first lock – my first for 8 ½ months!  Luckily I remembered what to do, and had good French instructions to aid me..

We had half a plan to go all the way to to Condé-sur-Marne that day, but after two hours, 3 locks, and the threat of an ‘orage’ (thunderstorm) with 98kph winds we decided to moor up on an old industrial wharf in a basin at Sept-Saulx.

The wharf edge was decorated by poppies, my favourite flower, so we took this to be a good omen and tied up. Sitting back and planning next steps it occurred to us that we did not have canal guides for the two canals we were aiming for, and it is not easy to have post delivered along the canal ….. however a call to Damien, the Capitaine we got to know so well during our 5 week sojourn at Chalons-en-Champagne last year, and somewhere we would be passing in two days time, resulted in agreement for the new guides to be delivered there.

Skipper’s aside: I have, for as long as I am still a European, furled my Red Duster and raised a defaced European Union flag – nailing my colours to the mast as it were.

I find this photo of Lesley’s poppies doubly poignant, being a symbol of the utter futility of the millions of young European lives destroyed in the First World War by the machinations of a small number of power crazed autocrats determined to reorganise obsolete frontiers for their own benefit.

At the time of writing, my simple flag is a big plea to my countryfolk not to put those frontiers back in place.

Clouds gathering at Sept-Saulx

 We managed a walk round the village before holing up as dark clouds gathered and sure enough it did begin to rain – big fat drops that splattered the calm surface of the canal. Later thunder lightning and a strong wind joined in as forecast, although not anywhere near 98kph.

Panels still looking good though . . . .

Waiting for the Billy Tunnel green light

The next day it was still raining so we hung on until about 10am before setting off to Condé– a trip of  only 14.5 kms, but including a 2.3km tunnel and 8 locks. 

The Billy tunnel is described in the Du Breil canal guide as ‘attractive‘ – an odd word for a tunnel. But it is in a lovely area with a delightful mooring place to wait your turn, and runs in a good straight line so that you can see light at both ends of the tunnel all through your journey. We waited for a full sized commercial barge to emerge before it was our turn.

Captain Stu also noticed this time (it was Calliope’s 3rdvoyage through) that the commercial barge leaving was hugging the towpath side. On closer inspection in the half light, the wooden rail just above the water line that we previously thought was a crash barrier turns out to be a rubbing rail, and if you allow yourself to get ‘sucked’ onto it (Stu’s words) you slide through ‘like a rocket slid on rails (Stu’s words).

Truly marvelous’, Stu

We ate lunch during the wonderfully simple ‘chained’ set of 8 locks down, ie the next one prepared and opened for us as we approached.  And at 2.30 we arrived and moored up at Condé-sur-Marne; day 2 of our 2019 odyssey successfully completed.

Moored at Conde-sur-Marne with lock number 8 behind us

“So far so good,” says Captain Stu.

While the Captain became galley slave I took myself off to find what the maps called an aqueduct. And this is what I discovered – a c19 way to take water from the river below up into the hills. The tower is/was a pumping house. I later met a school teacher from the village who told me that the water is for the canal, nit for agriculture as I first thought.

I returned to the French equivalent of sausage and mash with onion gravy – mmmmm – and a quiet evening aboard reading more of my latest Ian Rankin.

The only disturbance was watching another storm moving in and waiting for the heavy rain and thunder. Still, there’s nothing finer than been tucked up in the wheelhouse in a good old proper storm is there?

Next morning was far better – grey skies, but no rain – so we slipped the ropes and set off back down the Canal Lateral de la Marne towards Chalons en Champagne, our home for 5 weeks last Autumn and where we planned to collect our maps.

We were accompanied along the way by a casual stow away with an orange head.

As we came into Chalons we were amazed to see a tall tall crane above the cathedral, with a group of people seemingly clinging on at the top! I watched with a certain degree of shock, wondering what they were doing – maybe protesting about something, as the French often do. And then I saw them begin to slide down one at a time! They look like flies in these photos, but zoom in!

It was only later when we had moored up that I discovered this was part of some elaborate preparations for a huge sound and light show occurring at the cathedral in two days time, sadly after we expected to have left Châlons.

The Furies festival, taking place in the park adjacent to the mooring

Ah well, Châlons still saw to it that we were entertained. We had managed to arrive one day onto the famous Furies festival. This is a 5 day free festival held mainly at outside venues around the city, with links (I think) to the Circus school here. It focuses on the bizarre and surreal, a mixture of street theatre, circus and music.

Stewart and I had an early evening wander round, and I found plenty to intrigue; their festival currency of ‘the furie’, the airstream crepe cafe, the music of Babil Sabir 2 (google them!), the strange play illustrating the aftermath of a car crash, and the very unusual tightrope strip and sex-act-on-the-wire show (luckily rather blurred on account of my shock)!

And you know you are in the Champagne region when only alcohol that the relaxed pop-up bar by the lake serves is 2 types of champagne, ratafia and rosé wine!

The plan was to carry on next day, with our new maps to guide us. However they were not delivered by 2pm, Captain’s cut-off time for slipping away on what turned out to be another wet and windy afternoon. Well at least we are near Stewart’s favourite boulangerie, so I got some of their quiche for a comforting supper.

And in the end we were waiting another two days for our new map books to arrive. In fact it was so windy most of those 48 hours that we were quite pleased to be tied up in such a nice town.

It also have me two more days of the Furies festival! Friday was fun with the crazy ‘A Good Place’ team, where their snaking waiting crowd was encouraged to join in dance routines and other entertainment; an incomprehensible (it was in French) promenade in the Jardin d’Anglaise with the two male performers running and shouting amongst the audience and round the park; and a bit of trapeze mastery when the wind died down.

Sally, Tin Tin, Morphios and Stu

Being in Châlons on Saturday also gave me the opportunity to go to the market and buy some delicious fruit, veg and bread. We took a stroll down to the River Marne in the afternoon and returned to find our lovely neighbours on Pavot suggesting champagne in the ‘Cosy Bar’ by the lake with their dogs. How could we possibly refuse?

The evening developed into a festival before I went into the centre of town to watch a great tightrope performer in the square, with a backdrop of some of Chalon’s beautiful old buildings.

Then a rapid march back to the Cathedral for one of the most dramatic and astonishing spectacles of my life. It began with an angel appearing on the roof of the Cathedral.

Then other angels appeared, in ones, twos and threes, seemingly from the night sky. As they ‘flew’ towards earth they began to scatter white feathers which gently drifted down on us mortals below.

The angels became ever more daring, and with ever more feathers

Until finally we were showered with feathers from every direction. The delight that swept the crowd was infectious and people behaved as if in a snowstorm, throwing feathers in the sir, dancing to the music, and laughing.

I am so glad that I didn’t miss this!

My boat is covered in feathers. Did I miss something?

Next day we were up on time and raring to go. There was a quick run to the boulangerie for fresh bread, and then we set off south down the Canal Lateral de La Marne watching Châlons fade away in the distance.

Before too long we were at the first lock, pleased to see the green and red lights that told us the lock was being made ready for us

And on we went down past the villages and silos, the winding holes for big barges to turn round, locks and countryside.

Occasionally we saw wildlife, usually herons. There are plenty of young herons trying out their fishing skills at this time of year.

He’ll not catch much sat on that bollard . . .

He’s not sitting. He’s standing! Look closer.

Our lunch time stop at La Chaussee sur Marne

We carried on until we reached Soulange, knowing it to be a peaceful rural mooring and just right following city dwelling in Châlons. I have to admit that we were a little disappointed when another small cruiser squeezed onto the jetty behind us – notwithstanding that it is important always to welcome and help others to moor – even if they are rather noisy.

I took a walk over to the river Marne and along the bank for a while. There was a lovely view back to Soulange church through the undergrowth, and tranquil scenes of the river.

It seemed to be the first day of the dragonflies – they were everywhere, flitting about just out of range of my camera most of the time, but I did get a few ‘on film’.

Then back to our mooring to discover that old friends Matthew and Helen on a sister Piper barge Havelock had arrived – we shared a jetty with them at the T&K marina on the Thames when we were first in the water. A rare treat, although as Stewart was a bit under the weather it was just me who was able to enjoy their company.

Soulanges sunset

The day finished with one of the most beautiful canal sunsets I have seen, ah La Belle France.

Next day was destined to see us down to Vitry-en-Francois, and the end of our known waterways. We would be launching into a new canal by afternoon, so we enjoyed the last of the Canal lateral de la Marne.

I think that the most memorable ‘look back’ was to the quarry mooring where we stayed last year and our ropes were covered with blue butterflies.

Then at last, the junction at Vitry, and we turned left onto the Canal de La Marne au Rhin, and new vistas opened before us.

From Blaton to Namur; a journey of 3 canals

22 – 27 July 2020

Canals Nimy-Blaton-Peronne, du Centre, and Brussels-Charleroi

As we left the Ath-Blaton Canal at Blaton and joined the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes our hearts sank a little; we were leaving a narrow-gauge rural canal for the width of the commercial , industrial, super highway canal system again.

But we needn’t have worried, al least not at the start. Having negotiated the final 7 locks in the Ath-Blaton we still reached our next mooring by midday.

This was the Grand Large de Pommeroeul – an amazingly peaceful mooring on a very long pier in a large basin.There was only one other barge on the pier – somewhat larger than its and making Calliope suddenly microscopic! (It’s a bit of an optical illusion in fact, but don’t let that stop a good story…)

The basin was to be the start of the new Pommeroeul-H….. Canal, linking Belgium and France. However after 10 years of operation from 1982-92 the ‘siltation’ was so bad that out had to close. The Belgians dredged their side; the French, so far, have not – although it is due to be done by 2021.

In the meantime all the necessary equipment – locks, sluices, piers etc – remain unused. The huge lake after the first lock is now a leisure amenity for the locals, great for swimming, canoeing, fishing, jet-skiing and more.

We took a walk (2.5kms) into the village of Pommeroeul, famous for its ‘croncq clocher’, the crooked steeple of the church, and its iguanodons. I have photos of the former, but not the latter. The museum of the iguanodons should be visited if you like dinosaurs; in the 19th century coal miners discovered a huge mass of fossilised dinosaur bones including several full iguanodons, crocodiles, birds and other.

Our view out across the Grand Large changed rather when a second commercial barge joined us. It was from the Infinity group; we have met up with several of these barges and the crews have always been polite and friendly, so no surprise when later on the Captain walked along the pier for a chat.

The change in view made no difference to our enjoyment of the evening in the sun at (almost) the centre of a wide open water space. Cheers!

We awoke to another glorious day and were off Eastwards along the canal.

Now it did begin to seem more industrial! This would continue through most of our journey past Charleroi and a bit beyond! (Great photo LJ)

At Mons we moved seamlessly from the Nimy-Blaton-Peronne canal onto the Canal du Centre. The occasional more rural scene did appear.

And we had the first of our larger locks, 5m deep and about 80m long, shortly followed by one of 10m depth. We ascended both with no problem, with the floating bollards in the big one making things much easier.

At Thieu the quay was mainly empty; we were soon moored up and could have lunch. All very peaceful.

Boats went by.

Fisherman (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) came and went.

Then there were three things of interest that happened over the next 21 hours …..

….. we walked up the old Canal Historique, getting great views of Ascenseur 4, the final downstream one of the four that took barges up and down prior to the new(ish) method.

We were also allowed into the working area. The old Ascenseur works using two boat lifts and the counterbalance of water to raise and lower them. Although water supplies the ‘muscle’, it is still manually operated. (Smelled like an old machine shop too – Mmmmmmm)

It is a lovely walk along the old canal historique to Strèpy. Last time we were here the annual festival was on and it was a very lively place all along the canal bank – much quieter this time.

We searched for a bar with a nice open seating area – still on the 1.5m distance coronavirus rules – but only found this one bar open; friendly and good beer.

You can get good sense of the grandeur of the aquaduct leading up to the top of the modern boat lift when walking the old canal path.

And also good views of the ascenseur (the boat-lift) over the top of the lower part of Strépy.

On the return from our walk we were a little alarmed to see lots of blue flashing lights near Calliope! As we got closer it was clear it was not a boat in trouble. A car had gone into the canal, luckily with no people inside.

After 2 ambulances, 3 police cars, 2 fire brigade vehicles (one for diving equipment) and a car from the Wallonian waterways authority, the rescue got underway. A car breakdown truck completed the team and a yellow VW Polo was dragged out.

The last of the interesting events at Thieu was the planned one – going up, next day, on the Strepy-Thieu Ascenseur.

We came down it last year, so it was not completely new, but it is spectacular and amazing in its engineering and views nonetheless.

So no apologies for all the photos. I was amused by the ‘Risk of Decapitation’ sign – I managed to keep my head.

We continued along the modern Canal du Centre, through the Porte de Garde, with black clouds looming. But they came to naught.

At the end there is a T junction with the Canal Brussels-Charleroi. We were expecting this to be horribly industrial – our memories did not serve us well because it meanders along between gentle green hills for quite a way. (We know Charleroi itself will be a different story!)

The mooring plan was to be above the lock at Viesville, where we stayed last year. This worked out fine; plenty of space

We knew there was the chance of being gradually surrounded by gentle-giant commercial barges as they came in to rest overnight, but in fact only one arrived, reflected magnificently in the evening light.

Even the lock had an industrial beauty that evening.

More interesting was the boat moored below the lock – another Piper barge that we had been communicating with for about a year, but never met, so we walked down the hill to say hello to El Perro Negro and crew.

They were waiting for a diver to return to fix a new impeller in their bow thruster, to replace the one damaged by something in the water – always a risk along the waterways.

After that pleasant interlude it was back to Calliope for supper and a stroll along the bank, before bed.

As we left next day the rain arrived as we descended the lock – quite a deep one at 7m.

Below the lock we passed El Perro Negro, waving and promising to meet up again soon, which in fact we did that evening, after a long days cruising for both boats.

We had a couple more 7m locks to go down before Charleroi – both happily with floating bollards and small bollards in the wall, spaced reasonably for a 20m boat if you get in the centre of the lock.

It was still felt quite ‘country’ as we came through those last two locks, with herons and other birds still in evidence.

We were ready for the industrial nature of Charleroi, rather run-down and abandoned, and found this graffiti really cheered it up.

Stewart has on his mind that Charleroi is a horrendous place to take a barge through. Certainly last year it was quite early on in our experience of Belgium’s big canals and massive barges. There are double right-angle blind bends moving from Canal Brussels-Charleroi Canal to La Sambre and it is right to proceed with caution.

The lock in Charleroi is right in the middle of current and redundant industry. Sounds of crashing metal ring out all around.

And one must be extra aware of commercial barges coming towards you as you leave this lock as you enter a length of waterway where you drive on the left – not the right! It’s a ‘blue boarding’ area if you are over 20m; with Calliope just under 20m we don’t have blue boards, but Captain said I should be ready with a large blue seat cushion, just in case.

It was now just one day away from additional crew joining us at Namur, so we made an emergency stop at Tamines where you can more up right next to a supermarket – although several feet below pavement level!

Just a few kilometres on and we could finally stop for the night at Auvelais. The pontoon here is quite a sweet place to stop, although there seemed to be more trains than last time we were here! Not long after El Perro Negro arrived, diving work on the bow thruster complete. Cause for a joint celebratory drink with them; just the right end to the day.

After the pleasant aperitif interlude, and after supper, I went for an exploratory walk looking for the local Intermarché. Although we had shopped earlier that day we had not managed to find fresh milk – often a problem in Wallonia. In climbed up and up towards a main road, suddenly finding myself in a lovely woodland war cemetery – far from what I had expected and very quiet and peaceful.

My walk back was on the opposite bank (don’t ask!) and I caught a different view of the mooring along with some old Auvelais riverside buildings.

Next morning we were off down to Namur to moor up and be ready for our guests arrival at the station. First things first – I went over to the village to get some fresh bread for our lunch – in the rain.

We set off quite early for us, now in the sun, and soon reached the first lock at Mornimont, where we were told we must wait for two more boats to join us. Oh well.

It turned out that one of the boats we were waiting for was El Perro Negro! They had phoned ahead to the lock before setting off and we then waited 40 minutes for them to catch us up. Could have stayed in bed!

We continued on down the Sambre, passing the striking abbey at Floreffe, particularly magnificent as we passed with this ‘biblical’ sky behind it.

Two hours later and we were moored up in Namur, on the Sambre, tied to railings and with a hanging wall for company.

The debarkation method was interesting, and tried out after lunch; it works.

Then we rested and waited until time to go to the station and meet new masked crew – our eldest two, Amanda and Ashley, who had travelled ‘coronavirus-safe’ all the way by Eurostar and Belgian rail to Namur.

It was so good to have them aboard – competent crew to be tested on our cruise down the Meuse.

They arrived a day after Belgium announced that masks must be worn in all public areas, including streets, and only taken off at home or when you sit down at a bar or restaurant – which we did several times over the next 30 hours.

We had a full day next day in Namur, and used it to cross the Sambre and explore the amazing citadel up above the other side. The ‘Searching for Utopia’ by Jan Fabre – it is a self portrait astride the turtle and a copy of the one we saw in Nieuweport last year.

The views from the citadel are amazing as I am sure you can imageine. Here are a few from the top.

The happy captain playing games – can you spot him?

We spent the second evening aboard Calliope, starting with a good selection of starters, which attracted a wasp that got trapped in Amanda’s hair – the brave Captain chased it off!

We were also joined by geese who guzzled up any spare bread we had on offer!

As the sun got lower in the sky there was the occasional swell in the water as big barges with friendly crew passed gently by.

An extra evening stroll found not only another bar to try, but also another marvellous sculpture by the river – a bronze sculpture, encrusted with ceramics, of the magical bay horse Bayard with the four sons of Aymon astride, seeming to jump over the river Meuse.

Stu’s designer eye was drawn to the new art/culture building on the banks of the Sambre, with its beautiful staircase.

Returning to Calliope we all enjoyed the changing skies as dusk drew in.

And so, having looked at the mighty Meuse from several angles, we were ready next day to move onto it and go down to Huy. (Pronounced in French: ‘Oi!’ felt right at home Mush)

In the morning Stu gently took Calliope down the final half kilometre of the Sambre, past buildings old and new …… (I do like that building a lot )

Upstream on the Dender and on to the Ath-Blaton Canal

6th to 22nd June 2020

This journey was both tranquil with at times a challenging edge, as you will discover! It was well worth the effort; there are several places I would stay at longer next time through.

The previous blog had us arriving on the Dender from the Boven-Zee-Scheldt and mooring up here just outside Dendermonde.

Dendermonde has been bypassed by the new canalised Dender, so we decided to walk down the old river, now closed off from the new part, and take a quick look at what has been an important town.

We walked into town on the open side, and back along the wooded side. It makes a very pleasant 3km walk, with young water fowl along the river at this time of year, screeching for more food!

Almost all the way along are huge bollards, spaced out for big commercial barges, evidence of the earlier importance of Dendermonde as a trading town.

Further evidence, if any is required, is seen when you arrive at the town. A huge lock is still in place, although no longer used.

The town square still shows some of its former grandeur, although much of it is rebuilt side the two world wars to look the same as before.

Back to the barge for the evening and wonderful calm after being moored on the centre of Gent for a few days! In fact a group of 4 teenagers arrived with chairs and drinks to sit on the pontoon for a couple of hours; they were very polite, saying hello and asking us to let them know if they were too noisy. We hardly knew they were there.

The mooring is only allowed for 24 hours, so despite it being so peaceful and pleasant we set off the next morning – but only after a good chat to one of the three fisherman who turned up on the pontoon before I was even out of bed. He spoke excellent English and knew some of the other British boats that have moored there.

The river from Dendermonde to Aalst is generally quiet, and mostly rural. However there is some industry, and at one point the factory had commemorated the Tour de France which had its Grand Départ in Brussels in 2019.

Sod’s Law struck again as the only boat we passed on our journey was an extra large one on the narrowest section of the river! But the ‘skipperess’ of the barge neatly steered her to starboard and we passed by unscathed.

As we approached the outskirts of Aalst we made contact with the bridge and lock keeper. There are a couple of bridges in the centre of Aalst that must be raised (or tilted) for boats to move through. The Zwartehoekbrug was the only one we needed to get through to reach our mooring and it was soon raised.

The interesting thing became what to tie up to ….. few bollards, no cleats, no rings ….. but a line of large blocks of concrete to stop cars tipping onto the canal, so the bow rope was strung round one of these. It worked; this large laden barge passing by tested it out!

We were soon off for a walk round the town. We had read that it was a great place to visit, and it’s true. Under normal non-coronavirus circumstances they have three huge carnivals a year – one all about men dressing up as women, though nothing to do with transvestism. The statue above captures the moment a man happily takes off his high heels!

My main memory will be a waffle moment! Crew persuaded the Captain that it would be nice to sit in the shade with a beer – or with a fully fruited sangria and fully fruited waffle!

We stayed on board for the evening and were surprised by visitors at around 8pm, who made a return visit next evening as well. I must admit the bread we fed them was rather good. (Please don’t tell me off for feeding them bread!)

Next day was rather wet. In amongst some unexciting events like shopping we did get another surprise visitor – this time a moorhen on the roof. They don’t fly much to my knowledge – only when they skitter across the water, so I was definitely surprised too see it there.

Our other main event was a Scrabble match. It was closely fought, but finally the Captain’s superior verbal skills led to his victory.

Then it was time to carry on up the Dender (without Sid James and Kenneth Williams). It was an obstacle course of a journey!

It was like this ….

  • Request and wait to go through the Aalst tilt bridge Sint-Annabrug
  • Through the narrow Aalst manually operated lock by the sugar factory
  • Under a lift bridge .. to find we had to …
  • … squeeze past two moored working barges which were pile-driving a new edge to the river
  • Round a bend to find another large working barge and crane lifting new sections for the pile-driver
  • Round another bend to see a low narrow bridge with several canoes full of children the other side
  • And then, out into the country until our next adventure!

Here is the pictorial adventure.

All was calm until we reached the next bridge and lock at Teralfene. First there was a bit of a wait; no problem. We are happy midstream.

Then once in the lock, the lock-keeper asked us if we would wait half an hour for another boat to arrive so that he could save water; of course we said yes and had lunch in the bottom of a lock – not for the first time.

We continued on with the other boat, a cruiser with pleasant crew. They let us know that one of the bridges on Geraardsberge, just upstream, was closing at the end of the day for 5-6 days! It has to be said that I should have known. I receive all the emails about closures every day, but this one slipped past my (non)eagle eye.

It was either make a dash for Geraardsberge that day (no thank you) or remain downstream for almost a week.

We were following the path highlighted green on the map. Pink indicates a lot of what we did on 2019.

A plan was hatched and we drew in at Okegem, on a sloping wall and very low mooring cleats. The Captain made us safe with re-corded fenders!

As usual we went for a walk, initially around our side of the river in Pamel. Right next to our mooring was a sculpture of Victor de Klerk. He was an unfortunately fat man, around 55 stone, and possibly the heaviest man in Europe during his life in the mid 19th century. His is not a happy story.

Later I went over the bridge to look at the village of Okegem, after a tasty prawn pasta supper.

Skies became blue and the scene changed, becoming beautiful and tranquil. We sat on the back deck until sunset, revelling in the places our Piper has brought us ….

…. and enjoying Stewart’s shadow art!

Although we liked to at Okegem we decided to carry on to Ninove – at least a 4km cruising day! Calliope moved from a pink sunset to a pink bridge, welcoming us into Ninove.

The mooring we had expected to use was occupied so we went astern for a hundred yards or so and came into moor on a good long floating pontoon next to a footbridge laden with petunias; what a beautiful scent.

It was clear that we would be here a few days, so I will not repeat days of shopping in the local Del Haize supermarket! We did attempt to get an idea of the town, including the Graan Markt, where a big building was in the process of being pulled down by a monster munching machine!

Later that day Captain Stu did his good waterways deed of the day, hauling out a huge long wooden log/pole that was floating downstream ready to cause damage to someone or something.

I did go for an evening stroll on the first evening juts as the sky was clearing for sunset. The clarity across the town was superb.

Day 2 we were settling in. We went for a walk up to the next mooring along the river, next to an old rail bridge, to see if it was worth moving along a few kilometres, but the pontoon was filling up as we arrived.

On the way back, dodging the rapid cyclists sharing our path, I noticed the giant colourful ‘cotton reels’ across the river. Not sure what they are, but a colourful display nonetheless.

Early that evening we had a couple more items to buy at the shops, and that morphed into a couple of cold beers (and Sangria) at a local bar, segueing into one more drink and a good burger and frites at an other hostelry – a good time was had by all!

Back to the boat. It certainly is no hardship being here.

Over the days we got to know Ninove a little better, seeking out the remaining older parts of the town amongst the new. Two of the city gates still remain, appearing suddenly along otherwise relatively modern streets! Koeport seems to mean Cow Gate, but I suspect that is wrong. There is a story attached to it – when the town of Aalst, just down river, laid siege to Ninove they were desperate to lock the gate but could mot find the key, so a carrot was used to bolt it shut. A passing donkey ate the carrot, unlocking the gate for the invaders, and ever since the people of Ninove have been known as Wortels – Flemish for carrot.

We also went to the abbey, all that is left of what was a big monastic community. It is huge! Even the size and style of the confessional box is awesome. Outside some archeological work has begin to find the remains of some of the previous buildings.

We were entertained by the young waterfowl as always. The high call of adolescent moorhen, coots, grebes and ducks were all around. The adult moorhens were much bolder than I am used to in UK and happily stalked about on the pontoon beside the boat.

My walks often took me along the river bank and up to the next lock, just over a kilometre away. The locally typical weir mechanism, with its pulleys and chains, was a sight to behold!

We used some of our time for more maintenance and cleaning. Stewart got to grips with some painting whilst I cleaned metal and we both had a real go at all the glass!

I am realising that we are rather good at rewarding our efforts with a refreshing drink – this time at the swimming pool café just across the park. I have rather fallen for the Sangria, a 14% concoction full of fruit so that I can make believe it is healthy.

Dreamer behind Calliope

Two days before we were due to leave we were joined on the pontoon by an even bigger barge than us! Dreamer belongs to Frans and Meike, the latter being a WOB member, so automatically an immediate friend.

the second pot of mussels

After inviting them aboard for a few drinks on the first night we received an invitation back that could not be refused! We are asked to a supper of fresh mussels! We supplied the frites from an excellent local frituur and a red berry gateau from a local bakeri. They supplied and cooked huge pots of delicious fresh large mussels!

Later Meike and I went to see a street theatre / circus performance behind the town hall – all perfectly socially distanced. It was very entertaining in a typically French way, full of mime, acrobatics and comedy.

Throughout our stay we have enjoyed the changing view of the foot bridge before us. The shape of it lends itself to interesting photos against some lovely skies.

Bye bye Mieke and Frans

Finally we got the email to say that the bridge was now open and that next day we could move on upstream towards our next destination – so earlyish to bed, ready for our next voyage, and waving goodbye to new friends as we left.

Soon after we left Ninove we caught up with Piper boat Tadham Castle waiting for us at the first lock. We had a pleasant morning following them through a series of locks and bridges.

We were out in the country at last, with views across farm land, woodland, and left over parts of grand estates.

Waiting for bridge opening in Geraardsbergen

There was a bit of a delay while the lock/bridge keeper moved at his own pace from bridge, to bridge, to lock. Each had to be opened and allow us all through – and we had by now tagged onto a cruiser at the front as well. Finally we all arrived at Geraardsbergen, with its now famous newly opened bridge, just visible in the distance while we three boats wait for it to be raised.

This all took a while, and once we got to the final lock there was of course only room for the first two boats. Calliope was left below the lock, tied up, and allowing time for lunch.

The lock, when it opened for us, was in about the worst condition I have ever seen a lock before. The quays were topped with flaking plywood and the only things too attach to were plastic covered chains part way down the walls! Ah well, it all worked, and they seem well on the way to building a new one along side.

Soon we were cruising into our mooring place, the last space at the Geraardsbergen marina. I was glad I had phoned ahead and booked! We moored just ahead of Tadham Castle; this was fortuitous as they were able to lend us a hose to attach to two of our hoses, to stretch the 50 m. from the water tap to our tank!

Geraardsbergen is spread across two hills, either side of the Dender. A lot of walking up and down slopes is required! We had a couple of nights there, allowing Stewart and I time to sample several beers in the main square.

We also sampled the local ‘delicacy’, Mattertaarte, a sweet pastry, much lighter than it looks in the photo, with an interior of almond flavoured curd cheese – a sort of Bakewell tart without the jam. Our one meal out was far more global – Chinese.

As with many of the Belgian towns and cities we visit there are lots of wonderful old buildings. In Geraardsbergen there is also the original (apparently) Mannekin Pis, complete with a coronavirus mask.

(This is a completely random paragraph, thrown in so that I can show you our little-giant green grasshopper visitor who flew into in the wheelhouse in Geraardsbergen)

We had lovely weather while there, causing us to walk a mile or so to a Brico in the hope of buying a new parasol – our third attempt this year – but to no avail. You will continue to see us sitting in the sun.

one of the two large barges entering a lock ahead of us

When we left Geraardsbergen and arrived at the first lock we discovered that this time we were in a convoy of four boats …….

… two of which were massive barges, slightly unwieldy in these rather narrow waters and locks.

The lock keeper team who were travelling with put all four of us separately through each lock and lift bridge before continuing to the next one. We were the last of the four, consequently frequently in a queue!

Queuing became our new normal for the day!

The passage through Lessines was industrially interesting …. and we left one of the big barges there, shrinking our convoy to three.

Lessines looked an interesting place altogether and it was a shame not to stop their ourselves, but we were on catch-up from our enforced long stay in Ninove.

The éclusier team changed here, carrying us forward with some new faces. It sort of reminded me of days gone by when the team of horses pulling the barge would be changed; rest for horse and man etc. (You may not know that song – look it up – “Home Lads Home” – beautiful and sad, and nothing to do with barges!)

Rebaix

Calliope cast off from the convoy at Rebaix – a very pretty tranquil country mooring.

This was our peace and quiet at the end of a hectic day!

I went for a walk up into the village, then down to join the river further along, collecting photos as I went, before walking back to a perfect evening.

Forgive me for occasionally sharing my love of the nature we see along the way. At this time of year there are so many young birds own the water – moorhen, coot, grebe, goose, and of course duck – all with their own particular cuteness. At this mooring we also saw, but did not photograph, kingfishers and hares – the latter in a field, not the water!

The morning at Rebaix dawned as bright as the evening before.We had explained the the éclusiers that we planned to carry on to Ladeuze the next morning. This was apparently a little difficult to organise because of so much other boat movement along the river and its continuation, the Ath-Blaton canal.

But something was sorted, and they arrived next morning planning to get us to Ladeuze if possible. (Those’ thank-you’ cans of beer the previous day had been worth it).

Waiting for a new team at Ath

They got us as far as Ath – 3 kilometres – before having to abandon us outside a lock. We were told that another team would arrive in 20-30 minutes, so we settled down for an hours wait.

It is here that the waterway changes from the Dender river to the Ath-Blaton canal.

The next team, two young men, polite but slow, arrived and we set off through Ath with its lift bridges and six locks – all manually operated.

We were not clear of the city when it was their lunch time, so we were left at the bottom of a lock for a almost two hours; quite a pleasant place to be on a warm day and we had our lunch to eat too.

Our ‘likely lads’ returned and we carried on with our slow progress unit suddenly, at a lock, we were surrounded by additional éclusiers. By the time we were through the lock we realised that the team had changed yet again!

I flattered this team, talking them they were the meilleur équipe (best team) and they looked after us well up to Ladeuze. A few cans of beer was their reward.

The mooring at Ladeuze is lovely – a grassy bank with a few trees and picnic tables, plus everything a boat could need – secure mooring, water, electricity and a shower block – although all but the first were unavailable, whether due to coronavirus or other issues I dont know.

The other ‘institution’ of Ladeuze is Chez Gina. This local bar that has been run by Gina for other 60 years – she is now in her 90s and still to be seen sitting in the bar every day, although she has younger help to serve the customers. The bar is a museum piece, and the prices are almost as historic! It was the cheapest glass of Kriek I have had anywhere.

I took my usual walk, this time around sunset, along the canal then back through the fields; wonderful.

‘Breezey’ in our wake

In the morning the ‘likely lads’ returned, almost on time, and, along with the cruiser ‘Breezey’, we travelled to Grandglise. The first part of the day was still in the ascendence ….

…. but then at lock 11 we started our descent towards Blaton.

It was altogether a scenic route, starting with a lovely old lock house – how wonderful to have the opportunity to live in this!

Stu extracts a bike from the bike shed

At Grandglise, between locks 8 and 7, we said goodbye to ‘Breezey’ and crew and moored up for our last night on the Ath-Blaton. I chose to cycle the two and a half kilometres to an Intermarche for extra supplies – a more exhausting trip than anticipated. Must be my age! Or the weight of the beer, wine and mixers!

Despite this I went for my usual promenade around the area. Always interesting, but this time the only photogenic character was this cow, who was in a field at a level above my head!

After a quiet last evening on the canal, providing Captain with a chance to improve the cording to the red ensign, we settled down to a peaceful night.

yellow flower canal side mix

It was a good final day on the Ath-Blaton Canal. In fact it was a half day with just 7 locks within 2 kilometres, a couple of capable guys working with us, and a boat coming up, meaning that half the locks were ready for us.

I enjoyed the lock wall flowers, which get submerged each time the lock is full, and emerge, dripping, as the water empties out again.

At one lock I was concerned to watch a mother duck and three ducklings swim into the lock ahead of us! I made sure we did not crush them against the side, then looked on as the mother climbed out and called to her dizzy babies to follow. Eventually they did. But that was not the end of the story. Our éclusier noticed that a fourth duckling was now alone in the canal stream above the lock, and in a gentle way he herded the mother and three siblings back along the bank to find and join the prodigal son; lovely!

At lock 4 we had been told that we could take on water – and when we arrived it looked as if the lock itself had taken own more water than it could cope with! The lock was overflowing, with the mooring bollards surrounded by water.

Nonetheless we got tied up. Before we could deploy our hose we found an éclusier running a hose out from their shed, all ready for us to fill up as we went down. Somehow it worked, although I felt that ropes and hoses and water were everywhere in a tangle.

Just three easy locks to descend, and we were at Blaton – the end of the canal.

Blaton

We got a glimpse of the town from the old basin as we turned towards the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes canal, one of the main arteries through Belgium, and the start of the next chapter.

Pont des Lilas – gateway to the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes Canal

Kortrijk to Dendermonde – on the Leie and the Scheldt

The continuing adventures of Calliope, with observations from the wheelhouse in italics.

28th June – 6th July 2020

It is interesting how new cruising seasons begin. There is always a certain amount of apprehension, re-learning the maritime tricks that were so familiar 6 months ago (or in this case over 9 months ago because of the coronavirus lock down). The Captain had serviced the engine with good friend Ian Williams back in February, so it should be all systems go.

The ‘river arm’ with Calliope in the distance; Captain reversed out of here.

Reversing out of the river arm onto the main river with its huge commercial barges, in a strong wind, under a bridge only just high enough has its own excitement. Halfway into the manoeuvre realising that the bow thruster batteries had died during the winter added an extra piquancy!

Out onto the main river by the ‘Beach Bar’, waving goodbye to friends

Nonetheless super Captain Stu navigated its gently out onto the main river Leie, turned us to face North East, and we were off past the war memorial on our port side, stark against the blue sky.

Following distant Doris under Kuurnebrug at Harelbeke

Our days cruise plan was just 20kms, 2 locks and one lift bridge to Deinze; an ‘ease-yourself-in’ sort of a day. Actually it took 5 hours! We were surprised at the amount of commercial traffic out on a Sunday and it did not take long to accompany big barge Doris into the Harebeke lock.

We both had a long wait at Waregem. My efforts at learning Dutch all winter are useless, but luckily we understood enough of the lock keepers’s French to understand that we were in the second lock with Doris!

Initially we had to wait mid stream for about half an hour, until another 150m commercial ahead of Doris entered the lock. Then at least we could moor up to wait, and enjoy a quick sandwich.

Moving on out of Waregem Sluis

Eventually it was our turn and we moved gently downwards with Doris. As we left the lock, or sluis as I should say here in Vlaanderen, we found a bit of a queue waiting to come up as well! There is a huge amount of work going on at Waregem, building a new much longer lock to take today’s commercial traffic.

After another hour or passing even more of the ‘big boys’ we turned away from the commercial route and onto the old Leie river into Deinze, coming under the lift bridge and onto a mooring on the almost empty town quay.

And here at Deinze the Captain raised my colourful WOB (Women on Barges) flag to stream out in the high wind.

Next day the captain turned mechanic/electrician and began to problem solve the bow thruster issue. It turned out to be the batteries. After five and a half years of driving an electric motor they were on their last legs.

Starting to lift out the dead bow-thruster batteries

Luckily Stewart found a battery shop only a few hundred yards away. Unluckily we had left our sack truck in the UK, and batteries being the weight that they are (44Kg each in this case) we needed a sack truck to shift them – and the sack truck shop was almost 2 kms away. Good – I can get some of my 10,000 steps in for the day.

Sack truck under arm we went to the battery shop, which were all for cars and unsuitable. But we were directed on to a big chandlery; they tried their best but could not get the AGM styler that we prefer so it was back to Calliope and onto the internet, looking for batteries. It was not as easy as we had hoped.

We were rewarded for our efforts that evening by lovely skies over the church at sundown – note the still empty mooring…..

But next day it was wet and misty. We holed up aboard most of the time continuing on the battery mission. To cut a medium length story short, we eventually managed to order the ones we wanted, to be delivered from Antwerp direct to the boat by the end of the week. So we settled into a few Deinze days.

I ventured out in the wet for a walk downstream, enjoying the fresh air and greenery

Later Stewart and I took a walk around the lovely De Brielmeersen park. The best thing we saw was a stork, really close, but I couldn’t take a photo as we were using the phone to talk to granddaughter at the time. So you get the fountain, Stewart and a nice blue flower.

Wednesday dawned even wetter; in fact it had cured with rain all night. This is more the Belgium weather that I expect! I discovered that the Deinze market is on a Wednesday and persuaded Stewart that this would be a good place to look for provisions – lovely …..

Belgium is still taking the coronavirus seriously, which is a good thing. Although this is an outdoor market we were stopped at the entrance, given a mask to wear and our hands were sanitised. What a suspicious looking pair!

Buying ready made moussaka – cheating but delicious

We bought from several stalls, including a new table cover for the wheelhouse to smarten us up. My favourite stalls are the vishandels (fish mongers) and slajeris (butcher/delis).

Back to Calliope with our small haul, and for lunch.

That afternoon the weather began to cheer up. While the Captain took his customary siesta I had an extra excursion, walking up the Markt, or main street, then going down a wide side alley to discover a secret little garden, perhaps attached to a big house once upon a time, but overlooked by industrial units now.

I continued on my unknown way, emerging near the museum which has its own flock of hens and cockerels, all very showy. Here are my favourites.

I returned to the boat to find Stu ready to do a quick Carrefour shop to get the things the market could not supply, and as we returned to the boat we saw the lift bridge swing into action (that’s not right!) to allow a convoy of four more Piper barges through to moor behind us!

Deep Thought, Otium, Mimosa, Archangel, and Calliope – a pick of Pipers….

There was just room for the five of us, plus the other craft already moored up, and after some rope throwing and tightening everyone was secure. It was good to meet up with 8 other Piper people, and a very pleasant evening was spent together on a widening of the pontoon by Otium drinking beer and wine, exchanging yarns – and all pretty much socially distanced as required!

Next morning the row of boats looked even more splendid in the morning sun when it peeped between the clouds. And the day began with the ‘Arrival of the Batteries’ – hooray. Stewart and I moved them to their new home under our bed and I left him to install them while I started saying goodbye to everyone.

Astene

We left Deinze min-morning with super powered bow-thrusters, and continued down the Leie, passing through the old lock and under the manually lifted bridge at Astene.

There is a row of rather lovely old boats moored up below the lock – always worth a photo of at least one. Beauty.

We ate lunch on the go, in the rain, winding our way around the curves, bends and hairpins of the river, enjoying the wildlife. This included, surprisingly, two terrapins basking in the sun on a log!

We noticed last time we came along this part of the Leie all the big posh houses, old and new, with their robot lawn mowers and some interesting sculptures. I hope the owners of the one on the left like geese!

At Sint-Martens-Laten we were lucky enough to find the 24 hour mooring empty and although we are a bit long for the official space we decided to stop and hope we were not in anyone’s way. It is a lovely, usually peaceful, place to stop for a night (think Bray-sur-Leie).

Quite quickly we discovered that we were moored next to the location for a live Belgian TV programme to be filmed that evening! Two Dutch singers, André Hazes Jun and Günther Neefs, were to be interviewed by Belgian journalist Karl Vannieuwkerke, and we were asked if they could light up Calliope in the background – our barge a TV star now!

While we awaited the excitement to come we went for a walk round the village. It has been an ordinary rural village with a windmill to grind corn. Then a group of artists moved in at the end of the C19, augmented after WW2. It became a home for Expressionists, known later as the Latem School.

It is still a very artistic place, with at least three good modern galleries, and sculptures placed all round the village. I felt uncomfortable taking photos in the galleries, but here is the garden of one of them.

There was an especially noisy young coot chick at the mooring, harassing its exhausted parent for food non-stop! But cute, in an ugly sort of a way, all the same.

The fishing three

After an exciting evening of being a backdrop we woke up to find the TV crew had gone and we were back to the peace and green of the village, with three quiet attentive ‘fishermen’ nearby.

I did my usual sprint-walk to the nearest bakery to ensure we had fresh bread for lunch, and this time I allowed myself to take a few art and sculpture photos.

And then it was time to go – to continue our meander down the next bends of the Leie towards and into Ghent. There is always something to look at along here – boats, pieces of art, the houses, the gardens. An entire blog could easily be filled with photos along this stretch of the river.

The river would continue to change shape, create new bends, shallows and currents if not for the number of riverside residents encouraging boaters not to leave a damaging wash behind them. We are certainly try to leave a very light ‘wake-print’ behind us.

Eventually the river leads through the pretty village of Sint-Denijs-Westrem and to the diversion of the Leie across the Ring Vaart (a watery M25) and on into Ghent.

An empty Ring Vaart

We were lucky, arriving at the super waterway around Ghent when no huge commercial barges were coming in either direction – indeed no small barges were around either – only a few canoes making a mad dash across from one side to the other.

acres to spare!

About half a mile inside the Ring as we went under a bridge we met our first traffic coming the other way – a cruiser, sensibly on her own side of the river.

We came on into Gent (now spelt the Belgian way), starting to recognise various features from last year. As we came into the centre, past the entrance to Coupure canal, we saw our friend the Capitain of the port watching out for us.

We knew that this time there was no space for us at the main Lindenlei mooring where we had been the previous year. We were to turn to starboard and enter Ketelvest. He was ready to jump into his little red dinghy and lead us to our new mooring.

Soon we were tied up and comfortable between two bridges, with skies filling in from grey to black.

Undeterred we soon set off for one of several walks around Gent. I took so many photos here last year that I have tried to restrict myself this time. Here is a small gallery, definitely not showing all the main tourist attractions.

Remember, this is the year of Covoid-19 and all of its restrictions. Although Belgium is ahead of the UK in the unlocking of social distancing, there are still many reminders of the virus – streets that are one way for pedestrians, many people in masks, hand sanitiser at the entrance to everything.

Nonetheless we had arranged to stay three nights in Gent, with the second night being a bit of a celebration. We had ‘celebrated’ both our birthdays and our wedding anniversary locked-down at home, so now with the bars and restaurants open in Gent we were set to celebrate 32 years of living together with a tasty meal. And we did.

Our final day required some tasks too be achieved. Firstly we needed to top up our water tank; easy peasy, normally. However this time it ended up requiring two visits to the Brico for a connector (We left ours in a tap in Kortrijk) (Doh!), two visits from the Capitaine of the port (the euro payment mechanism in there water bourne had jammed) and three lengths of hose. (Don’t ask!).

While Calliope was being watered she was ‘assaulted’ by masses of crazy canoeists, many of them out of control of their craft! It was all good fun and part of a birthday celebration. The people of Gent like to use their waterways to celebrate everything, in a very happy, sometimes boisterous, way!

Other tasks, like taking on of provisions, cooking, cleaning etc were achieved more easily! The day was exceptionally windy, and initially grey, grey, grey.

But it ended almost entirely blue, clouds all blown away, and flags horizontal from the mast.


On Monday morning we were due to set off into waters new. This would involve the Boven-ZeeSchelde – a mix of rivers leading towards Antwerp. We had been warned that it might be difficult, that the tides needed to be right (it’s tidal from Antwerp right up to near Gent) and that there could be a lot of commercial barges around coming out of lockdown.

South East outskirts of Ghent, on the Schelde

So how did we do? Well we set off in the sunshine, a new way out of Gent for us, past interesting buildings and boats.