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.

Next stage of the Belgian odyssey – Nieuwpoort, Diksmuide and Ypres

8 September to 21 September 2019

The eighth of September dawned brightly, if a bit chilly – then turned black as clouds rolled in. Autumn is suddenly upon us. It is only two weeks since the temperature was in the thirties and I was off swimming with the family.

Looking at the sky I wasn’t sure of I could get to the bakers and back before an unwanted shower, but I made it!

We set off from our second free Brugges mooring, next to the wonderful modern Scheepdalebrug bridge, and immediately went under another great bridge, but this time an old railway one. Actually the photo is deceptive because there is a new railway bridge behind the old one and the train, of course, runs on the latest one!

Calliope and crew were now on the Brugges – Oostende canal. The voyage on day one was pleasant; the canal is broad and clean, with an avenue of trees and long stretched off views across the lowlands of Belgium.

We discovered yet an other interesting bridge at Nieuwegebrug these Belgians are superb at bridge design.

There was plenty of activity on the canal that Sunday; it seems there had been a boat rally at Ostende, because we passed convoys of cruisers making their way back to Brugges Yacht Club, all very jolly!

There were partial plans afoot to moor up for the night near Jabbeke. It had been recommended, and had obviously also been recommended to others as it was full up when we drew near.

But in fact this ended up being to our advantage as we arrived at Plassendale lock, expecting it to be a bit of a dodgy mooring, and found a delightful place to pass the afternoon and night.

It was an interesting area, with old buildings, an unusual large lock basin onto the Plassendale to Nieuwpoort canal, seemingly with sea lock style lock gates to protect against his tides along the coast.

But we had to rush back when darkening skies reminded us we had left all hatches open on Calliope!

It happened to be Monument Day in the area, and we were moored right next to a site that had been a Spanish fort, built in the 1600s. Later it had been used by the British and, I think, the French and the Belgians. An enthusiast has bought part of the site, with two old original buildings, and has a four year project to renovate them.

In the meantime he shows people round and runs a funky little outside bar/café, protected from sun and rain by sails strung above the tables. We enjoyed rijstart and beer, not at the same time, and had a good walk around the area to better understand the history.

The café was selling rijs tarte – a new Belgian favourite of mine and Stu’s – a sort of version of cold creamy rice pudding in a crisp pastry shell. We were good and instead of a calorie laden piece each we shared a portion. YUM YUM!

And before I added Kriek cherry beer to my misdemeanours of the day there was another short walk for us both, with posey Miss LJ out on the old swing bridge that used to cross in front of he lock.

The view out across the canal and the adjacent smooth farmland was peaceful; evening was so quiet, with big skies glowing pinky gold and twilight blue.

On Monday we were awoken by the swish of a passing commercial barge – nothing uncomfortable – and then, after breakfast, we phoned the lock to ask to pass through and on our way towards Neiuwpoort.

It is an interesting lock, currently open with water levels the same each side, but with road bridges each end to be opened for our passage. The lock chamber is big and sort of rounded, with two sets of white painted lock doors at one end.

So out onto the Plassendale – Nieuwpoort canal with stretching views across pastureland and nature reserves towards Ostende and the North Sea.

It was just a few kilometres to Oudenburg where we had heard of a free pontoon mooring with water and electricity available. As we drew close we could see that there were 7 boats filling the 80ms available, but as we arrived two of the boats left! Hooray.

We sneaked in at the front of the row, right next to the water tap.

We just keep finding such calm untroubled moorings this year. Here the water was silken and reflective, with acres of green across on the other bank. OK, so there was a road quite close to us, but that was quiet at night, and only the occasional cyclist or horticulturalist (see later) came close to us.

Odenburg is a small town with history from Roman times, a good supermarket, at least one excellent baker and  a variety fo shops, bars etc. Definitely a good place for boaters to stop, as the neat pontoon genuinely does provide free water and electricity (10v).

Lunch was a bit delayed because when I got back with the daily bread I found Stewart in the middle of an inspection with the Flemish Waterway Authority – all very pleasant and helpful. Our papers were in order and although we had no oar for secondary propulsion (!) our bow thruster counted. Phew! We just had new activators to buy for our lifejackets, as the current ones had sneakily become out of date; we definitely have not had them for 5 years!

In the afternoon we went exploring. There is an interestingly laid out park next to the Roman museum. The shrubs are placed to define the areas of an earlier abbey, and good notice boards (unfortunately in Flemish) explain where you are and what was there in days past.

Once back on board we were twice visited by locals offering to sell us produce from their gardens. The first arrived by bike and sold us potatoes, jam and eggs, then gave us some tomatoes too.

The second lived just along the canal path and offered eggs and rhubarb. Of course I already had eggs, but rhubarb …..! I went back with him to his absolute jungle of a garden and veg plot. He cut the rhubarb and then offered me a look around his ‘biologique’ garden. He pointed out, and I tasted, lots of leaves and flowers – he is a real forager. His ‘greenhouse’ is jammed with tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes etc and his garden is a dense mass of fruit trees – quince, apple, mulberry, pear, plum, cherry. Somewhere amongst it all two chickens ran happily, but I never saw them; just his cat.

And next day I cooked the rhubarb, adding, for a bit of piquancy and verve, some Picon bitter orange liqueur – it worked a treat!

We had delicious osso buco for supper, though I say it myself. And a tightly fought game of Scrabble which I only just won! Like mother like daughter – no prisoners taken….

Next morning was bright, but chilly. Time to restart the winter breakfast schedule!

I enjoyed the refreshing walk up into town for bread, along by the old canal, with its reeds, ducks, and occasional pedestrians. 

The board by the pontoon said to only stay 24 hours. Several other boats along the pontoon plainly ignored this and our inspector told us that they were not legally binding notices – just suggestions. However we were keen to see Nieuwpoort so rang the lock keeper and asked her to open the various bridges along our 21kms way.

As we travelled the sun rose higher in the sky and the temperature rose too, to a very nice 20C. We passed under lift bridge after lift bridge, all opened by our friendly lock keeper.

There were other things to fascinate as we cruised – a cow on a roof, the low white painted farmsteads, the bright floral efforts of some villages, until we reached our destination, Nieuwpoort.

Nieuwpoort is quite a complex of waterways and marinas!  Luckily we saw an empty space on the first pontoon we came to so tied up and ate lunch in a strong sea breeze. After lunch I scrabbled my way round to the marina office. Yes, scrabbled; to get over one of the many waterways I had to climb some steep earth steps up to a road bridge, and then similar on the way down! OK, OK -you won; let’s move on shall we …….

Having found the famous Ben, harbour master of much in Nieuwpoort as well as Verne, I discovered that another mooring closer to town at half the price. So Stewart and I decided to motor on down to the Gravensluis mooring – an interesting mooring as you will see – and book in for 3 days.

Once moored up we set off for a promenade around the town. Getting on and off Calliope required stepping off at the bow onto a 10” wide beam and walk along it to a nice big platform that adjoined the land. Lucky we are so agile (ha ha!).

We walked round past the Westhoek Marina, past the Saint Joris lock, the Binnenhaven, the IJzerdijk river, the Veurne sluice, and virtually all round the Ganzepoot, or Goosefoot where 7 waterways join.

The town is another interesting one, very damaged in the world wars, but much rebuilt in the previous styles so the streets have buildings with different architecture.

The day was still blue skied and sunny when we returned to the boat for ‘drinkies’ on the back deck; very nice.

Wednesday was different and horrible – gale force winds, lashings of rain, scudding clouds, and a Captain who had come down with scurvy or some other mariner’s affliction. 

So it was me off to the pharmacy for medications that would be “most efficacious in every case”. I had to laugh at myself crawling along the beam from the bow to the disembarkation platform, scared to walk in such wind for fear I was blown into the water!

So overall it needed to be a quiet day, with a very wholesome leek, potato and broccoli soup for the invalid to eat with grated cheese and scrumptious croutons stirred in. 

My walks were giving me a chance for one or two more snaps around the town, especially the King Albert Memorial, looming gloriously over the end of the canal. Due to its shape and the changing skies it kept looking exciting to this very amateur photographer!

flags and tram lines along the quai

Thursday looked a lot better at first, both weather and health. I zoomed off to the town hall and gathered up brochures on Nieuwpoort, them found an excellent baker for the daily bread. Back to Calliope for lunch and a catch up on the Brexit news (Aaagh!) and to mop the Captain’s brow. He was getting a bit better.

As Stu had now missed our two days in Nieuwpoort, and because we could get another 4 days for the price of 2 (the deal here is 7 days for price of 5), plus our DBA 10% discount, and being scrimpy with our mooring funds, we decided that we would stay another few days. After all it is a nice mooring, generally quiet and undisturbed.

I dutifully walked the 1.4 kms to see Ben and requested the extra 4 nights. “No problem”, I was told so I passed over my debit card. Ah that was a problem – surely I could pay such a small amount by cash. OK, I can and will – just another 2.8 kms to walk tomorrow with the cash!  This is proving good for my health and weight.

Next day became quite a walking day so it was lucky that it dawned mistily bright. The Captain’s fever meant that all our bedding needed a visit to the launderette, so on top of the 2.8 kms to see Ben, there was about the same to the launderette. And then later on the same again to get Stu to a nice young Belgian doctor; followed by about the same to the pharmacy for the antibiotics, all under beautiful Nieuwpoort blue skies and sun.

And not only was it sun filled blue skies in the day; the evenings turned rose/gold, and a full moon appeared to complete the sky’s splendour.

Saturday was just as lovely; thank you Blue Sky god. Amongst my walks on Saturday was one out to the sea harbour marina – the largest in Europe with berths for 2000 boats! I found an excellent chandlery and bought our new life jacket activators while Stewart slept himself gradually better.

In addition to the marina I came across a ‘car gymkhana’, with lots of happy speedy people rushing about in souped up vehicles.

I just want to make an aside here about how lovely and friendly the Belgian people are. At almost any opportunity they will start chatting to you – in the queue for bread, stopping by your boat, at the launderette. They mostly speak such good English and it is embarrassing being unable to speak Flemish, beyond ‘tank u vel’ (thank you very much), ‘tot ziens’ (goodbye) and a vague attempt at counting from one to three, so far!

They are also manically keen on cycling. People of all ages cycle everywhere. Bike tyre pumps are provided in public spaces. The roads are laid out for cyclists, and pedestrians, and the car drivers respect this. I know if is a largely flat country, so cycling requires a bit less effort, but even so I am impressed by the children who cycle to school, the older couples who go out together for a cycle ride into the country, and of course the inevitable many lycra-clad clubs who whizz by at alarming speed.

By Sunday Stu seemed to be on the mend so we planned a tram ride. There is a tram line here that basically runs along the coast from De Panne in the West to Knokke, beyond Zeebrugge, in the East. Our plan was to do the Westerly line, getting off just before the end to walk in woods and look out over huge dunes.

The sun shone, again, the tram rattled along and we had a good day out, including a simple lunch. The walk was calming and gentle, with the only real hill the one climbing up to the viewing platform over the dunes.

We had several glimpses of the North Sea, looking a lot bluer and welcoming than it usually looks for the UK’s eastern shores!

Overall it was a lovely day, although we realised that Stu had overdone it and still needed to take it easy.

So next day, which was somewhat grey, we did nothing but a bit of food shopping (me) and a short walk to the 2000-boat marina (both).

Our last day in Nieuwpoort, this trip, turned out to be one of those end-of-summer sunny days with a bit of a breeze and a few clouds – just right for a walk all along the harbour boardwalk to the North Sea.

The fishing boats and wharf are quieter now than in the past, but still a few boats around and a good smell of fish!

As we got towards the harbour mouth we could see the lighthouse on the opposite side of the channel, unreachable for us as the little ferry that runs across only operates at weekends and feast days. 

Never mind – it meant that we got to the sandy shore of the North Sea, looking out vaguely towards England. 

A cheap and cheerful friterie lunch and a tram ride home finished off the first half of the day.

The second half, or third, was spent sociably with two from an other barge, Antonia. We met up in the square by the church and town hall for a beer or two and a meal; a good way to complete our sojourn in the town.

Captain Stu seemed so much better and we felt confident about voyaging once more, so next day we retraced our wake for 500m, turned to starboard and went through the Saint Joris lock with its guillotine lock gates.

This took us into the beautiful Binnenhaven, where excited young people learn to sail, cormorants dry their wings, and cruisers moor up for winter.

We found our exit in the far right hand corner, leading us into the river Ijzer for a calm two hour cruise to Diksmuide.

The river is gentle, running through low land pastures, with more farms than villages.

We have been to Diksmuide before, twice, by car, so we had an idea what we were coming to. The harbour master had told us where to moor and we found our space.

But what we had not realised is that we would be right opposite the amazing and famous 22 storey high “Museum at the Yser”, with its carillon of bells ringing out every 15 minutes.

There was time to give Calliope a bit of a wash down and begin to clear the falling autumn leaves from her decks; plenty more of those to follow! All this before a purple evening descended – just stunning!

We stayed a couple of days at Diksmuide. It’s a nice mooring, but a bit on the expensive side, especially when they charge you extra for everything – even 2 minutes of shower water is €0.50 and you have to pay to get rid of rubbish too!

The river is well used, not just by retired old bargees like us, but also by youth groups who appear to have plenty of energy to spare after they have had their history lessons around the town!

Stu studies the architecture!

Anyway it is another interesting town; another that was totally ruined during WW1, but has been rebuilt to look as it did before with a huge market place surrounded by ‘old’ buildings.

The Captain was still in low energy mode from his illness so we did more resting than exploring. During a couple of strolls I saw the rebuilt beguinage (a village within a town where nuns, and often other single women, lived behind high walls)

moored up in Diksmuide

The morning of our departure was another stunner; what an autumn we are having in Belgium!

I took a last walk round before we left, clicking away at the IJzerdijk Tower and the other memorials around it. I found the ‘walls’ made of rusted WW1 shells particularly poignant.

Then last part of this Belgian voyage took us down to Ypres. It was very important to us to go there as Stewart’s grandfather fought there in World War 1 and he wanted to get a better understanding of what his grandfather endured, along with thousands of others.

The river vista was open and clear, so I had a few minutes at the helm – nothing to hit here! A flock of seagulls followed us along, diving expectantly into our wake from time to time, but I didn’t see any fish pulled out.

We were to turn off the Ijzer onto the Ypres canal at Knokkebrug – a bridge that needed to be opened for us. There was a pleasant interlude of 15 minutes or so waiting for the ‘bridge-lifter’, a very pleasant lady called Corinne to arrive in her Flemish Waterways car.

Then on down to Ypres, along the Kanaal Ieper-Ijzer, which was much prettier and more rural than we had expected.

It also became progressively more verdant! The surface of the canal was covered in a mass of tiny plants – apparently not algae, but tiny bright green leaves. By the time we arrived in the canal basin at Ypres, ready to moor, we still had a lime green carpet all around us.

I eventually found out that is a type of cress, called eendkruss, or duck cress – and certainly the ducks hoover it up.

Freddie, the harbourmaster, showed Stewart a challenging place to moor! We had to turn round and reverse between two boats into a space where our stern was almost up against the basin wall! But of course Captain Stu did it with patience and aplomb and we were soon moored up. (What Freddie??? BACKWARDS????)

During our two days in Ypres we spent time reflecting on the wars, and the futility of it all – the massive loss of life and the mental and physical horrors that those who survived had to cope with.

The ramparts round the southern side if the town are so quiet and calm now, yet were spectators to the seemingly endless slaughter and destruction that carried on all around a hundred years ago. Sorry to be a bit maudlin, but it is so important that in remembering and honouring those who fought we also remember never to let it happen again.

Stu at Menen gate

The famous Menen gate forms part of the ramparts area and is one of the original entrances to the town, although the current portal is fairly new.

. The names of those of the allies whose lives were taken at Ypres are listed almost endlessly on all aspects of the gateway.

The names are set out by regiment so Stu could look for his grandfather’s regiment and I could look for my grandfather’s.

Neither of us had realised how completely destroyed Ypres had been. The reconstruction, is fantastic. The market square, as in Diksmuide, is completely rebuilt; likewise the Cloth Market, Belfry and churches.

On Day 2 we went into the cloth market which now houses the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum – an excellent representation of both the horror and heroism of WW1 in the area. Highly recommended.

The entry included a chance to go up (and down) 230 spiral steps to the top of the belfry and look out over the city. It was very dizzy-making, even for me who isn’t bothered by heights (or so I thought!)

On our last evening we went to the Last Post service at the Menen Gate. I deliberately and respectfully took no photos of the service itself, but wanted to record the large number os people who were there, and apparently similar numbers come every day; long may it continue.

There is nothing I can really add after that experience. We left Ypres next day – the next chapter. Amen.

Bringing the good news from Kortrijk to Gent and Brugges

Kortrijk is a good place to take on new crew and entertain them.

We had son and grandson with us for a few days and managed to fit in swimming, paddle boarding, a summer night market, the Trench of Death and a football match at Lille!

And although Calliope never left the pontoon we did get the youngest one involved as a galley slave and doing bits around the boat like filling the water tank.

But then family time was over and we were ready to set off for the final journey of the summer, starting off downstream on the Leie towards Gent.

We – or should I say Captain Stu – reversed out of the port again, and into the main river between the ‘trainer’ graffiti bridge supports and the Beach Bar, closed at 9 on a Sunday morning.

Downstream we went towards the first lock, hailing them by phone as we approached. We were told we could use the lock with a commercial barge that was ready to go, and we soon saw her on the left bank above the lock. We moored up opposite waiting, and waiting and waiting, for her to enter the lock.

After a while it became apparent that she was not ready – she still had to load her car onto the back deck, fuss with various boxes and ropes, etc. So we enjoyed a pleasant half hour relaxation.

By the time we reached the second and last lock of the day the blue skies were disappearing and it was starting to rain.

The lock was rather impressive in its construction, especially as it was only a 2.6m drop!

We continued past the entrance to the canal up to Roeslare – not our direction this trip.

Then came to the right hand bend in the river that separated us from the canal for the commercials that continued on in a straight line.

There was a bird surprise for us as we turned the bend – a field mainly of geese but with a few storks as well.

We came up to Deinze lift bridge, calling ahead to ask for it to be opened for our tall craft. The skies were still grey, but clearing, as we squeezed through and towards a nice long pontoon with plenty of space.

We moored up towards the far end form the bridge – a lovely mooring. The skies continued to clear and before long we were in full warm sun.

After a bit of a rest we were off for a walk, first up the main street our side of the river, and then into a big park, De Brielmeersen. It has gardens, lakes, playgrounds, animal enclosures and more, and was suitably busy on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

We came back to Calliope as the sun began to descend, leaving us with a gentle evening aboard after the walk.

Next morning, Monday, seemed to be ‘back-to-school’ day and we found that we were moored across the road from a school. Youngsters arrived early in the sunshine to meet up and chat with friends they maybe hadn’t seen for a few weeks. The whole place was alive with happy chatter. And then, at lunchtime, many re-emerged to sit on the sunny pontoon and eat their lunch; a lovely sight.

The brightness of the day meant that we got better views of Deinze bridge and church – both within a couple of hundred yards, and in view of our mooring.

A day without cruising meant plenty of time for another walk, initially across the bridge and into the main part of town, and a second outing to the park once more. Then on Tuesday morning we were off downstream towards Gent, past Deinze mill and its various architectural styles.

After just 3 kilometres Calliope reached Astene old (unused) lock and lift bridge. We radioed ahead for a lift!

There were a number of interesting things we were to see along the Leie that day, starting at Astene watching the ‘bridge-keeper’ manually lower the barriers and raise the bridge, the old tug boat moored up the other side, and an old gold American sedan on the towpath.

The Leie is amazingly bendy along the grey stretch to Gent! The map does not bear full testament to some of the hairpin bends that the Captain had to manoeuvre round – quite a lot of ‘astern’, but no bow thrusters! Sorry the photos are so dark; it was a gloomy day.

It is also a stretch with plenty of monied properties – maybe the homes of the richer Ghent people? (Ghent ghentry?) There were wonderful old houses and thoroughly modern residences, side by side, many with robot lawn mowers humming up and down the acres of grass.

Eventually we made it to the crossing with the Ring Vaart (a wide commercial canal around Gent) and crossed it without seeing another ship. As we went back into the Leie we were into a boat haven with lots of boats of all types moored up, including a new Piper! Sadly, no-one aboard to say ‘ahoy’ to.

And then we were into Gent (local spelling of Ghent) proper and finding our mooring. We had booked ahead and been told we would be in Ketelvest, so preparing to turn to starboard off the Leie and under the bridge.

you can just see us in the distance!

But instead we saw Heinrich, the Capitaine, waving to us from the long long Lindenlei pontoon to come in there. He placed us at the very far end, 200 meteres plus from the road entrance to the port, and therefore conveniently quiet in terms of other boaters walking by.

Naturally we went for a stroll round Gent. Here are a few of the photos of the city.

There are so many many wonderful buildings in Gent, many with fabulous roof lines. If you have been there you will consider my photos rather paltry in terms of conveying this amazing place.

Maybe these are better.

We also walked up to the parks on the other side of the river – and yes, I do mean ‘up’ – we found a hill in Gent! We found lakes, band stands, frogs (can you spot the red frog?) and more.

The second day was design and modern art day. In the morning we spent quite some time in the lovely old house that holds the Design Museum – an eclectic mix of designer objects and special exhibitions.

Then in the afternoon we found the Scandinavian design shop Bolia. It is in an old church and has been fitted out in an indescribably simple, effective, atmospheric way. You must see for yourself if you like highly functional, minimal, beautiful residential interiors. This is just a screenshot of someone’s photo showing how the display dividers are suspended from the high beamed ceiling.

Stewart continued with the culture, walking up to the Modern Art gallery. He enjoyed the time there, although not hugely impressed – and did not take photos. I, meantime, looked up the best waffles in Gent on Google and within 10 minutes I was seated and waiting for my ‘Bridge Waffle’, the best on the menu. It was delicious, incorporating cream, banana, ice cream, chocolate and advocaat custard! Yum yum yum. When in Belgium …… forget the diet ……

Even our mooring provided interest. On our first evening a crazy bunch of paddle boarders meandered noisily along the river, including one board with a dog aboard

.

It has to be said that a fair amount of time was spent in the water as well as on it!

We were then pleasantly invaded by 5 of the Dunkirk small ships for 2 nights. These are some of the actual boats that rescued thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in WW2. They still attend rallies and celebrations – this time guests of the Belgian authorities as part of the 80th anniversary of the end of the war.

Then we had the divers who never reached the water, one on a rooftop and one on a balcony.

And beautiful light in the mornings.

One silly thing, but amused my simple mind. On our last evening we went out with new friends Jim and Michael from the boat Burra Billa for a drink at a canal side bar – very pleasant if a little chilly. In amongst the pretzels placed on our table was this little biscuit with a cheerful Belgian face.

On the third morning we decided it was time to take Calliope on towards Brugges. The voyage began with a spin round to retrace our steps – or retrace our wake maybe. Captain Stu executed one of his great 11 point turns and we were away.

Before long we were back to the Ring Vaart – this time to join it heading north. We were lucky again, with no cross traffic, so turned starboard onto the big wide motorway of a canal and headed for Kanaal Gent-Oostende.

This Kanaal was a little plain to be honest – partly because it runs through a deep cut in the landscape, so mostly all you can see is the sloping sides, although occasional cows, goats and sheep grazed the slopes and gazed blank eyed at us as we passed.

Kanaal Gent to Oostende

Thus it was quite exciting when we had a bridge, a passing boat, and a house all in view at the same time!

Similarly a flock of geese almost blocking our passage was worth photographing, and a barge being filled, or emptied, of grain. (Emptied, the Captain says)

Keer Sluis (Guard lock) Beernem

We had thought to stay at the marina at Beernem until discovering it would be €30 for one night. So our next choice was above the guillotine shaped guard lock a few kilometres further on. We knew that people did moor up to the 3 huge old commercial barges that filled the 250m quay there, but on inspecting it we were not keen and continued on to Brugges.

Here at Brugges our customary luck returned and the free mooring at St-Katelijnepoorte was free. We tied up near the big swing bridge in a bit of a gale, but luckily before the rain that came down a couple of hours later.

Although a bit tired from our enforced longer than planned cruise, we thought we had better prove we had been in Brugges by taking a walk round town and a few photos. It was unsurprisingly full of tourists doing the same thing. We have been here before, so after an hour we headed home to cook up some cold weather comfort food – egg, chips and beans. Yum yum.

morning view from the barge

The morning was a lot lot lot brighter!

Almost as I awoke the swing bridge (turntable bridge in my book) swung, or turned, open for three leisure craft – 2 up and 1 down. It was an opportunity to take photos of the bridge in the sun so I jumped out of bed and got a couple for the blog.

The mooring also looked somewhat more pleasant in the sun, and in this ‘pleasant’ frame of mind I noticed the sign by the pontoon informing me that pleasure craft can wait here for just 24 hours. So we planned our get away to the other end of town – just 4 kilometres so less than an hour, we thought.

The Flemish for Bridge is Brug; it was a clue ……

Gent Poort bridge

From our mooring at St-Kattelijnpoort to Scheepdalebrug there are 4 windmills, an odd shaped lock, and 8 bridges – all of which were lift or swing. We were ready to go at 9.30, but when we asked for the bridge to be opened we were told to wait half an hour and follow a commercial barge through. No problem says we…..

Coupure Harbour

…..except it was such a slow journey, waiting behind Ave Maria at each bridge for traffic to be stopped and the bridge to be raised or turned, depending on its mechanism. We gently passed the entrance to Coupure port, a favourite with many boaters.

Actually it was all very interesting and the slow pace meant that photos were easier to take.

We went through a double bridge at Kruis Poort, separated by a hundred yards and lifting on different sides of the canal.

And then past the four historic windmills, all placed alongside the canal.

The lock was interesting too.

We squeezed through the entrance after the commercial barge which took all of the port side of the lock, leaving us the semicircular right hand side – no problem for those time served on the Canal du Midi.

The lock went down very gently, Ave Maria went out, and Stewart was then able to manoeuvre Calliope into a position where she could exit the lock. I have to say that it took a lot more bow thruster than our normal navigation!

Ave Maria enters the lock for the commercial port

Soon after that Ave Maria turned off to go into the port, and we continued to the fascinating canti-lever modern bridge at Scheepdalbrug.

Eventually that opened for us and we drew in to the pontoon that was waiting for us, three and a half hours after casting off for our one hour journey!

So the lesson is, make sure you allow lots of time to go round Brugge in your boat. It is an interesting journey with plenty to see, but can take a while!

Having moored up, lunched and rested a bit we entered the city from the opposite direction and enjoyed more of the old Flemish architecture, but it was once more very busy with tourists (who can blame them for coming?) so retraced our steps, stopping at a Carrefour to replenish vittles and enjoyed another evening on our very own bit of canal on Calliope.

The weather moved between black clouds and pure sunlight, sometimes allowing a mix of the two.

And we sat cosily in the wheelhouse, watching the rain move in and move away, before an early night. Bye bye Brugges – we are off tomorrow.

The Upper Lys, Leie and Mitoeyenne

15 – 24 August 2019

We returned to the boat in Kortrijk on August 13th, full of fatigue after a week of long road trips and an excellent South of France party weekend. There was 10 days to fill until our next family visitors arrived in Kortrijk so we set out for a short and enjoyable cruise.

Despite the dull skies we immediately felt a sense of peace and tranquility – that gentle movement on the water, the open views from the wheelhouse, the wild birds, and just the two of us together for a while.

It took a day’s acclimatisation and rest before we set off along the river. There was some re-provisioning to do, some cleaning, new fenders to tie on and, most exciting, new navigation maps to explore.

So it was on Thursday that we eventually slipped our ropes and backed (yes, reversed, astern) out of the comfortable arm of the River Leie where we had been moored for over a month.

I was immensely proud of the Captain, taking us under the low bridge with PV panels intact and out onto the river.

My only part in the manoeuvre was to call the Flemish waterways man and ask if we could leave, and go through the red light at the end of the port.

It was so lovely to be on the move again, initially watching Kortrijk slip away before the vista opened up onto broad open countryside, cows, horses, farms and villages.

Calliope felt small as she passed by one commercial barge after another – this is a busy, friendly, waterway, with industrial captains waving their greetings as they go by. There is a wonderful irony to the perspective in this photo, making us seem at least as large – it is a mirage!

We were aiming for Wervik and after a couple of hours the huge church of this relatively small town came into view. As always a bit of PMT (pre-mooring tension) kicked in. Would there be space for us on the wharf at Wervik?

We were lucky – only one large barge on the wall and plenty of room for us. We were prepared for the widely spaced bollards, knowing that we would be making use of stout railing posts too. We soon made fast and had lunch.

t was after lunch that a little fun began. As the big barges passed up and down stream some slowed down past the moor boats, and others didn’t. Our lines creaked and groaned with strain. There was only one thing for it – break out the Haslar ropes!

When we were moored at Haslar Marina in Portsmouth Harbour for a full winter we invested in some much thicker ropes to see us through the gales and storms, Once we deployed these fore and aft, plus a couple of springs, Calliope rocked as gently as a baby in a crib.

This was our cue for a quiet walk round a grey-skied town. It was very quiet to start with as it turned out to be a public holiday (Assumption of Mary) and everything apart from some of the bars was shut. We did study the church, finding it even bigger than it had appeared from the water.

And then the quietness was overturned by raucous happy singing, music, and one of the oddest vehicles we had ever seen.

It was a sort of truck powered by six cyclists each side who were all sitting at, and enjoying the products of, a bar in the centre. Others sat around the edge, singing and drinking, laughing and shouting.

It was a wedding – a couple who had lived together 27 years and decided to get married. They stopped next to us, bridge and groom jumped down, and invited is to join in dancing. So ensued a few crazy minutes before the trundled on their very merry way!

Back on the boat we had a quiet evening, with a happy Captain sipping wine while the wonderful sunlight cast interesting shadows and brightened the riverbank colours as the dark clouds swept by.

Later, as I sat up waiting for two noisy fishermen to steady down and maybe go home, I noticed the neon lines of the bridge and the nearby lamp post reflecting along our grab rail.

And later still, through the window and still waiting to go to bed, the moon rose across the water.

Next day, Friday, Calliope and crew carried on up the river, at this point still called the Leie as we were mostly in Belgium, and still mostly in Flanders. But as we continued we found ourselves moving between France and Belgium, Wallonia and Flanders. The border follows the north bank of the original course of the river, but due to a series of man made deeper wider sections, to accommodate commercial craft, boats now weave between the two countries. Thanks to the EU there are no customs posts, tariffs or passports required!

It was fascinating to see the very different church and town hall spire and dome shapes along this journey. I show here those from Comines (the French side) and more will follow. Much of Comines was rebuilt between the wars and this colourful church and more austere town hall were built during that time.

The river was still quite broad at this point, but narrowing – wide enough yet for the big commercial barges that would turn off towards Lille at the Canal de Deûle junction. The countryside was peaceful, pastoral, with grazing cattle and horses here and there.

The Deûle to the left and the Leie to the right.

As we turned away, under grey skies, from the more industrial Deûle to enjoy more of the rural Leie we certainly noticed the difference. It became more bendy, more overgrown with trees and bushes at the edges, gently closing in around us.

At this point, sort of between the Belgian Leie and French Lys, the river becomes known as the Lys Mittoyenne. It is full of water birds – mostly coots and ducks as usual, but with a good sprinkling of kingfishers (saw them every day), grebes AND little grebes (!), moorhen, heron and cormorants. Sadly none of my photos were good enough to include.

Our aim was to moor at Armentières, which necessitated one more lock just at the edge of the town. As we approached I radioed ahead, expecting to be heard because we had done a radio check at the previous lock. But no response. So I tried the phone, allowing it to ring and ring until it just stopped.

waiting before écluse Armentières

The lock came into view; no lights of any colour to indicate its operating status. Maybe it was a holiday – the previous day had been a French national holiday. Maybe sit was a strike day. With some difficulty we managed to moor to a bollard and a very narrow ladder. I climbed out and walked to wards the lock to enquire.

This jolted the young girl holiday-job éclusier into action! The doors began to open and I ran back to the barge to join the Captain for the run into the lock space. The lock and weir buildings must have been rebuilt between the two world wars, such is their beautiful art deco design.

And we were also jolted – into a reminder of the size of ‘narrow-gauge’ locks! All went well and we were handed a zapper to use on the next lock, then hand in at the subsequent one. It was to be a short electronic journey.

The hoped for pontoon mooring was empty and waiting for us, so within a few minutes we were tied up, re-fendered, and getting our lunch together.

Our customary walk round the town was a little on the dull side – sorry Armentières. Then town was one of the many that was devastated in both world wars and despite a few monumental buildings remaining (mostly banks) the town somehow seemed a bit down-at-heel. To be fair there were nice flower displays everywhere to brighten it. A fair ground to enliven things also spoilt my view of the town hall! (And in the way back down stream I caught the big Friday market all across the space.)

However the people were friendly and that is what counts most.

leaving the pontoon at Armentières

Next morning, after a rapid walk to the boulangerie and back (ha! we are back in France!) we left the mooring and were ‘Westward ho’ on another grey drizzly day. Is this really August?

As we left Armentières we could not but help notice a monumental set of buildings – the old malting and brewery of Motte-Cordonnier. There has been a brewery on or near this site since 1650 so it was with great sadness that this one closed on the 1990s. However the Family Motte have recently decided to start brewing again. For this keen to know, here is a link, in French, to their endeavours. I wish them Bon Chance.

We soon reached Bas Saint Maur écluse and used our tele commander with aplomb!

The lock was a ‘massive’ 60cms rise, in a very pretty location with plants and trees adding to the landscape.

Immediately above the lock there is a pond leading to the small weir that managed to be incredibly photographic, due to some old wooden posts, lucky repflections and calm waters. (Remember this scene – it recurs later).

Farmland took over the landscape, mainly Charolais cattle probably for beef. The French are proud of their Charolais beef. I loved the big ol’ bull lying at the front of his herd, watching out for danger while his cows and calves fed, slept and played.

On an animal theme, I continuously and hopelessly take photos of water fowl and their your – moorhens, coots, crested grebes, ducks, little grebes, herons, swans ….. and all are out of focus because we are moving along! Grebes are also notoriously shy, diving under water the moment a camera or human eye turns their way. Anyway I caught one grebe as we were waiting to go into the lock and I was hiding behind the gunnel. Hooray.

arriving in Estaires

We reached Estaire and its 30m pontoon soon afterwards. As we were heading towards the town we noticed an amazing white steeple to a church in the distance way off to the right, and were amazed to find that after the bends and turns of the river our mooring was literally in the shadow off the said church – but white steeples against grey skies do not make good photos.

But on the way back blue skies prevailed!

The pontoon seemed quiet at first. It was pretty with lots of purple and yellow flowers along the bank.

By the time we had finished lunch we had been joined by several friendly fishers, and realised that in a way we were ‘trespassing’ on their usual angling platform. We were all able to share the space happily and several fish were caught.

Captain with crew went for a short walk into Estaires. It was a little plain, although we found a pleasant park and three good boulangeries. The town hall played a sweet little carillon tune and when I went for a second walk in the evening it stood out against the golden evening sky beautifully.

There had been discussions about how far up the river we would navigate – would be go all the way to Canal d’Aire and down to Lille, up the Deûle and back to Kortrijk? Or get as far as Saint-Venant and turn round? The latter plan won, especially when we got to Saint-Venant and saw how nice it was!

Not far out of Estaires, and expecting to be in the country, Calliope passed a huge chemical works of some kind. I googled them – a company called Roquette – and was amused to discover that their strapline is “Voyage au couer de la nature!” To be fair they are a worldwide company who overall are researching to find more natural ways to produce food, make up etc. And they do transport at least some of their goods away by barge.

Riverside farms

Overall it was a pleasant day’s cruising through flat farming land with plenty of bird life. In fact it ws the fourth day in a row that we saw kingfishers! But I reckon that to get a photo of them you need to be a wildlife pro.

The one uniquely interesting thing along the way was the lock at Merville. We have never seen a lock with lift bridges at either end – traffic flowing one way over one end and the opposite over the other; in fact a whole roundabout surrounded the lock! It meant waiting for each bridge to lift, but we were in no hurry.

Coming up and put of the lock at Saint-Venant was a total and wonderful surprise. We had no idea that we would be entering a wide basin with plenty of room to moor (with stakes) on a long grassy bank, or the option of going into a decent size port de plaisance (although there probably wasn’t room for a 20m barge!)

it’s a long time since we used stakes, but the old habits of leaping ashore holding a lump hammer and two unwieldy stakes still remained deep in my soul and before too long we were safely moored, managing to share a low stone bollard with the boat behind. Lunch came next.

Of course after lunch came the walk round the village. This one has plenty of stories to tell! During WW1 one of the buildings became the HQ of the local British Army, later taken over by the Portugese. There is an ancient hospital, some amazing old barracks, and some rows of cottages at whose previous use we could only guess.

There is also a small basin off the main one which used to have a granary on the wharf side. Now all that is left is an unusual turntable bridge at the entrance, forever stuck on the open position, and dating back to 1887.

The clouds gradually and completely cleared and the flat landscape meant we had huge skies to look at from the barge.

The braver of the wildfowl were all around and I took the opportunity to get rid of some sections of baguette that we had not managed to mop up. Two geese, one Greylag and one Brent I think, had made a love match and were continuously together. A family of swans inhabited one of the many wide drainage ditches dug all over the place.

Stu and I had had a walk over to look at the port as well as the village; we had discovered a bar restaurant that seemed to just fit the bill for supper. We strolled over at about 5.45 in time for drinks in the evening sun. Somehow the sun allowed a funky photo of me drinking Kriek cherry beer.

Then the meal; I am a sucker for trying regional dishes. Potj was in the menu and I asked what it was. The explanation was of a mix of cold chicken and pork set in gelatine, with fries. I had to try, and I was not disappointed. I would definitely eat it again m- I think the gelatine was the natural jelly from the bones when cooking the meat – much nicer than aspic.

On the way back to the boat and just before we crossed the lock gates the view of the church, sky, and trees all composed themselves into a nice arrangement for my last photo of the day.

Unusual for us on this trip, we decided we liked it so much here in Saint-Venant that we would stay another night. This meant a nice slow start to our morning and it began as blue as you like. A young moorhen came calling and one of our neighbours departed into the blue as I sat on the back deck with my breakfast.

Little jobs started being done around the boat – fuel additive, clean out of the shower trap, good sweep of the stairs, turn the boat so that we could fill up with water, and another spider hunt.

(Have I mentioned the spiders? In the six days since we returned too the boat we have between us taken over 100 spiders to find a new life ashore. We have never had so many on board before and can only imagine that several nests of spiders hatched out while we were away. I think we are down to our usual dozen or so now, whose job is to catch flies and mosquitoes.)

And then the squalls started swirling in, one after another. Each time we thought we could risk a run to the boulangerie the sky darkened, the wind whipped up and the rain drove down onto the water.

Eventually we were able to buy our daily bread, have a good lunch aboard, and after a digestive half hour we went for a walk. It was sunny but with a stiff breeze, making us a little chilly at times. Stu was pleased to leap back aboard when we returned.

We stayed on Calliope for the rest of the day and had a surprise visitor. A French lady stopped by with her two year old and started to talk to us, because her daughter’s name was also Calliope! Of course she had to have a tour of the boat, and went off seemingly very pleased.

looking at the weir to the left and the lock to the right

The evening was quiet and still. A time to finish writing this and be ready for a 9.30 lock in the morning, arranged earlier with the éclusier.

We are turning back on ourselves now, back East and downstream, starting off on a blue sky day with so few locks that I can sit on the back deck with a cup of tea and enjoy the unfolding view.

I don’t plan to do a full blog of the return journey, but if we stop at new places or anything monumental happens I will record it below.


Well we did stop at new places – Sailly-sur-la-Lys for two nights, because we really liked it, and mid stream just before Bac-Saint-Maur lock, for the pure isolation of it.

Sailly is a relatively unremarkable village, although it took its share of suffering in the two world wars. We were moored on a comfortable pontoon which we shared each afternoon with three round electric boats that people can hire. It was generally quiet – just occasional friendly passers by – and the views of the river were peaceful transitions from dawn to dusk.

On our in-between day we went for a good walk through an orchard of apples, pears, plums, sloes and everything delicious – then along the river bank, at a pace that is easier for the camera!

Before we left Sailly, on my quick trek to the Carrefour Contact for bread, I took photos of some of the houses – many have delightful coloured tiles above the windows and seem to have art deco references.

Then at Bac Saint Maur lock – simple tranquility tied onto the iron divider between the weir and the lock.

Armentières was the same as one the way upstream, but I mention it again because of the lock. Once again we phoned to say we were on our way, and once again initially had no reply. When we did reach the éclusier, who was based at Merville, we discovered that we would be waiting over two hours for her. This gave us a relaxing pause in our journey!

Then on going through the lock I discovered something I had missed on the way up! The lock gates are slightly curved and when open they swivel under the lock wall. These photos adopt really explain it! But it is fairly unique in my experience.

Comines mooring

The third new place we stopped at was Comines, a town of two halves and two nations! With the river Lys running between them, there has been a Comines France and a Comines Belgium since 1713, and a chequered history of nationality for centuries before that. Thanks to the EU they are now becoming Comines Europe.

French Comines church and town hall

We moored on the Belgian side behind dutch barge Moon Dance, and had a walk round both towns, discovering that the multicoloured dome belonged to a fascinating church, and the slate clad belfry to the town hall – both built between the wars.

The weather had become quite hot again – so much so that the slipway was inviting and I enjoyed a bit of a splash. Later we enjoyed a drink and stories of barging in Europe with MoonDance crew, then picked an excellent Chinese/Belgian restaurant for supper.

Our last morning before steaming back to Kortrijk dawned fair, with the sun behind the famous Comines towers.

It was a sunny Sunday and the river was busier than ever. It is interesting to be following a dutch barge as two big commercial barges come towards you, a flotilla of canoes is trying to over- and under-take you, whilst families in speed boats weave in and out creating crazy wakes and parties of cyclists, walkers and horse riders watch on from the banks!

Where is the peaceful Lys now????

Moving on to Kortrijk- along the Upper Scheldt and Kanaal Bossuit-Kortrijk

10 – 12 July 2019

I am going to try to bring brevity into this edition. It is after all only 3 days long.

At 7.40am we turned into the Upper Scheldt, known as the Haut Escaut at its other end in France. We had been surprised at 6.30am to find we were going down the two big Peronnes locks immediately, and therefore were turning into the river less than an hour later. (see previous blog post)

The advantage to this? It meant we would arrive at the Neptune Chandlery and gasoil barge before it opened at 8, and be first in queue.

We pulled in alongside, tied up and had a cup of tea while we waited, only to find we were waiting at the BIG commercial barge pump (red diesel) and had to pull along to the the little leisure boat pump (white diesel).

Not a problem. By 8.45 both tanks were filled, I had bought bread at the adjacent Aldi, and we had added the two volumes of the De Rouck waterways map from Reims to Rotterdam plus a mop to our gazoil bill.

Calliope headed down the river, and towards Tournai, passing fortifications with a historical tale to tell, families of mixed geese, and working barges.

Tournai has been a favourite place for people to moor, but this year the whole pontoon is undergoing restoration work.

What amazed me is how the ancient 13th century three arched bridge is still standing with so many huge boats passing through over the centuries. Apparently it was raised 2.4m in 1948 to allow the bigger barges, but now it may need to be widened for today’s even larger working traffic.

After Tournai the riverside was more rural – poplars, villages, wild birds and fields.

But still plenty of boats, commercial and pleasure, queuing for the low drop locks along the way, that seemed to be very slow in operation,

Maybe because of the work being done alongside them.

Leaving the waiting area below Bossuit lock

Finally we made it to the Bossuit lock, and the turning into the canal. A quick chat with the lock keeper ascertained that they would like us to wait an hour and go up through the lock with a commercial barge. Naturally we agreed and moored up to wait.

I took the opportunity to go to the lock office and buy our Flanders vignette. Whilst it is free to cruise in Wallonia, there is a charge in Flanders (€85 for 3 months or €135 for 15 months). The two lock keepers were very pleasant and helpful, and before I left they suggested that we should lock-up immediately as the commercial barge had been delayed – probably back at the locks we had eventually passed through that afternoon!

So up we went, 9.49m, using good floating bollards that had a sloping cone on top to help the rope slip down properly. Good idea.

The reach above the lock was wide, calm, tree and duck lined, and with a pontoon mooring just waiting for two weary travellers who had been up since 6!

Is it any wonder that we decided to stay there an extra day and rest?

Although the rest was a bit more tiring than expected. We were still on a mission to get fresh milk for Stewart and I found a small Intermarche supermarket about a half hour’s bike ride away, according to Google Maps.

We obviously do not cycle at Google Map speed; after an hours ride, albeit mainly through lanes and farmland, we arrived. And they did not have fresh milk! But they did have sandwiches and cold drinks, so after finding a seat along the road we had lunch with close up view of the N391.

We did get back eventually and after a snooze we settled down to a mesmeric mindlessness, watching first a little red survey boat chug slowly in and out of the lock. Then later watching two coots doing what coots do best – work hard at making a totally inappropriate nest, even though it is all drifting up and down the canal as the flow changed direction.

Next day Kortrijk! I was up and ready, for a change, mariner’s pigtail a-flap. We knew the route – two more biggish wide locks in the company of the Bossuit lock keepers, and then 3 shallow narrow locks with a bicycling lock keeper alongside.

We were soon up through the first lock – one of those where you shift your rope up onto higher bollards in the wall as the lock fills – then the second, and reached the narrowing of the canal an hour before our appointed meeting with the cycling lock keeper.

There was nowhere at all to moor by the lock so the Captain turned round and we tied up by a road about 200 yards back. This gave me two opportunities. One was to walk rapidly to and from a bakery for good fresh Belgian bread.

The other was to grab photos of some wonderful bird life – families of baby coots with their red and yellow crowns, young moorhen walking on lily pads, and, never quite in focus, a grebe that was albino white on one side – very strange.

45 minutes later we saw the lock doors ahead opening – manually. We hadn’t seen that for a while. And what a narrow lock entrance it seemed! We went from 12.5m wide to 5.15m, and Cap’n Stu steered us in perfectly, missing the coot family swimming lesson.

After the ‘massive’ drop of 1.8m we came out into what felt far more like a UK canal in days gone by, narrow, overgrown and beautiful. It was a similar scene beyond lock 10, and by then we were in the outskirts of Kortrijk, passing old warehouses and barges.

Out onto the River Leie

Then the final little lock, still with our cheerful talkative lock keeper and his bike, at Sluis 11, out onto the river Leie and a hairpin turn to port into the original river bend where we were to moor. The main river now bypasses this short stretch to accommodate the large modern working barges.

We carefully went under the 3m bridge, watching intently our new PV panels on the wheelhouse roof. Phew, they fit. And glided into a lovely pontoon mooring from where we could explore the old town and watch the birds on the water.

First evening out in the town provided moor good Belgium beer, and this time the frites and mayo Stewart had been hoping for.

We stayed in Kortrijk for about 4 weeks, so a separate chapter will describe this lovely place, and then back to cruising. So just a taste of our Kortrijk experience for now.