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.

Hull maintenance in Zelzate

29th September – 23rd October 2020

As we left the marina at Spanjeveer dawn was breaking on a lovely late September day. We were on our way to have the hull pressure washed and repainted – part of the five yearly maintenance programme.

The Moervaart was glorious in the early light, and we shared the calm waters with geese preparing for their winter habitat.

Calliope came out onto the big Gent-Terneuzen canal as the sun was emerging from behind the chemical works and other industrial sites.

The hour and a half cruise from Spanjeveer to Zelzate was both pleasant and interesting for me – and required concentration from the captain as we moved through the huge canal towards the boat yard.

We passed our share of wonderful gigantic seagoing ships, powerful little tugs, and plenty of other working boats.

We arrived a little early and had a pleasant wait, getting to know our new surroundings.

Carron Marine is situated right on the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. A border patrol boat was a frequent passer-by, checking that no coronaviruses passed from one country to the other no doubt!

Then the fun began, getting Calliope gently ‘beached’ on the two trolleys that would pull us at the slipway. (Apologies for the washed up rubbish! Not us)

Before too long we were pulled out of the water and placed behind our friend Peter’s boat on the slipway and chocked up for our stay.

A quick inspection showed an intact bow thruster, 6 be-barnacled but solid anodes and a ‘gift wrapped’ propeller.

Our high rise living could now begin, 10’ above the ground and with superb views out across the canal.

Then began a few days of waiting our turn in a shipyard busy getting commercial barges back out to work. The yard is full of photographic opportunities!

It gave us free time to explore the area. There is not a lot to see in Zelzate but there is a small pleasant park between the boat yard and the town. The lake in the park is part of the original line of the river, complete with a small flock of geese and a ‘scenic’ chemical works on the other side!

The town itself is unpretentious, has all necessary shops and services, and a nice church.

It was easy to keep busy. There was end of season cleaning to do aboard and Stu fitted a new water pump one day. The weather was very variable – blue skies one minute and storm force winds and rain the next. The sunsets, directly behind us, were constantly stunning.

We walked a lot and went out for beer and frites with Peter one evening, finding more new beer to try!

The activity on the canal was never ending, day and night, from little metal skiffs to huge ocean going ships, tugs and Dutch border patrols.

Then, on a wet windy day, came our turn for work to start – the pressure wash, to remove the relatively small amount of weed, baby mussels and tiny barnacles. It felt strangely exciting!

The following week was a time of weather watching – waiting for weather windows that were long enough for sanding down, priming, top coating.

At last the grey skies were considered right enough and the guys got to work on the preparation, searching out all the little places where five years of enjoyable intensive cruising have left their little marks – all surface level scars thank goodness!

Then followed a couple more days too wet for painting, but good for watching what goes on around us and searching out interesting objects to photograph in the shipyard.

We also did more walking around Zelzate, discovering amongst other things the Mietje Stroel – their female equivalent of the more famous ‘mannekin pis’ statues found around Belgium.

And we bought a near impossible jigsaw to keep us busy – night and day!

And there was one glorious sunset after another, often flooding the yard with such golden light you would think I had a filter on the camera!

Then the weather set fair for a day’s painting on Friday! The first coat above the waterline was applied!

A glass was raised that evening in honour of the next stage being accomplished! This was not the best time of year to be attempting outdoor re-painting, but the coronavirus had put paid to the more sensible plans earlier in the year.

We waited on tenterhooks through a very wet weekend, watching the skies and the forecasts. Would Monday allow the second coat?

I did have some fun on Sunday, persuading the Captain to push me out on the metal skiff to grab a water logged branch that was trapped on the slipway rails!

Disappointingly it was grey and moist on Monday morning so we walked into Zelzate market and bought one or two goodies, then found a moment of sunshine in a the park for an impromptu picnic!

Amazingly when we returned to Calliope we found the team drying off the last of the rain drops from the boat and about to add the second coat! And on it went, followed by the requisite six hours without rain; hooray – great progress.

The jigsaw too was making progress – which would be finished first, the barge or the puzzle?

There was constant daily activity on the canal, but that evening saw 10 minutes of big sea going ships with attending tugs, border patrol boats and commercial barges all passing in a rush hour mass.

But it was clear that the seasons were changing and we made ourselves extra cosy with our Refleks stove – toasty warm.

We had everything crossed for good weather to continue for the final paintwork, so were relieved and smiling to see the sunlit dawn.

After two weeks the better weather meant that things were beginning to draw to a close – with the below-the-waterline paint being applied, and the jigsaw nearing completion.

In fact after a bit of a last minute shock when the ‘last’ two pieces didn’t fit ……

…. we were able to place the 1000th piece! So the jigsaw won.

The following day the final coat was applied and we stood back and admired what the team at Carron Marine had done – beautiful!

That evening we drank a toast to the ‘blackened’ Calliope as the sun went down.

While the work had been going on we kept busy with odd jobs around the boat, an autumnal clean, and more walking around the area.

There are things here that fascinate me, like the last old house in the old town of Zelzate, quite grand amongst all the cottages, and the potato vending machine!

And our last day was also the last day of pubs and restaurants being open in Belgium for the foreseeable future, because of coronavirus.

So we treated ourselves to a delicious meal out at the local Italian restaurant as a ‘last supper’. (There seems to be quite a bot of raising a glass of rosé in this blog! There must have been plenty of things to celebrate.

Before we left I grabbed a photo of the old customs house, now a B&B, where we almost stayed instead of staying on the barge! It is right next door to the boatyard, so a good place to stay for the non-intrepid.

Although sad to be leaving the area it was time to move on. Three weeks out of water trying to keep the repainted hull as dry as possible meant that we had been unable to use our black water tank, grey water tank and sink as normal. We were also running short on fresh water and had been bringing jugs of water on board from a nearby tap.

The steps down from the barge, and up to the loo and tap were getting colder each day, although always adventure and a bit like camping out.

But nights were quiet, dark and cosy.

Got going early removing chocks and blocks that had supported us and lowering us gently onto the wagons that would run us down the slipway.

(She went down faster than she came up ….)

Splash down was faster than we expected! Luckily Peter was on hand to take this video as I was not ready for the moment.

Having splashed into the water, we then needed to splash some water in and on Calliope before we sailed away. We and wash down filled the fresh water tank enough for the rest of the season, and I had a happy bit of wet-play hosing off all the dust and much that cannot help accumulating on the boat when you are in a busy yard for three weeks.

At last it was time to bid a fond goodbye Carron Marine, Alex, Joey, Tim, Martin and the rest of the team.

Then we were out on the canal heading south to Gent and going towards the Zelzate bridge that we had never seen open – today it opened!

Here are two happy Calliope crew – we’re back on the water! We are on the big Gent-naar-Ternuezen Kanaal, and enjoying every minute.

On the outskirts of Gent we stopped to replace our two gas bottles as we were just about out. The first place we moored up next to unfortunately did not have the right fittings for our gas system. Luckily less than a kilometre along the road was an alternative supplier so we set off with the sack truck – there and back twice and replaced both bottles.

We felt really good then. We had gas, freshwater, empty grey and black water tanks and fully charged batteries. All the utilities one takes for granted in the house are always much more interesting on a boat and you learn to use them wisely.

Before long we were through the bridges, round the bends, and back into Portus Ganda. Calliope settled her gleaming hull beneath the glowing October creepers. ….

… and we paid a short outdoor socially distanced visit to our great friends on Dreamer. Coronavirus sadly put paid to our plans for a reunion supper together, but there was just enough warmth left in the evening air for a half hour chat together.

Next morning we planned to leave at 9, but a quick glance at the waterways notices showed that the first lift bridge, just round the corner, was going to be closed for repair apart from a short spell between 1200 and 1230. This gave me time to walk into Gent for some more great bread, and a couple of treats – a mini Merveilleuse de Fred each, and a worstbroot to share.

Add to that the Gent mustard that appeared as if by magic on our roof that morning (thank you naughty Mieke mustard fairy!), and we were set to leave.

We said goodbye to a grey Gent in style with a sail-by of Dreamer and a farewell salute to Frans.

We had good views of some of the tremendous street art of the city, encouraged by the council, and appreciated the autumn colours along the banks – these at at Tolhuissluis.

Soon we had turned onto the Verbindingscanal, our chosen route out of town, passing all the interesting boats that are moored along both sides.

We had another wait before we went through the swing bridge as that is closed between 1230 and 1300; lunch is important. But after that we were truly on our way.

We turned to starboard to join the Brugsevaart, past many colourful houses and under a bridge that is in the process of being demolished, or so it seemed to us; we passed under without incident.

Next we approached the Ringvaart, the M25 of the canal world around Gent, often busy with mega-barges in both directions; we consulted the AIS system to see what was around.

All was clear so we poked our nose out, a quick visual check, and dashed across towards Brugge.

After a few kilometres a turn to port into the Kanaal van Schipdonk, or Afleidingskanaal van de Leie, took us on towards Deinze where we wanted to stay the night. Once again we checked the AIS and could see we would be following another barge along the canal.

That turned out to be a rather heavily laden, slow moving barge so we crawled along behind it until we reached the turning for Deinze.

There was a pleasure turning onto the Leie at Deinze. We have been up here a couple of times before. We knew where we were going. We had phoned ahead and checked that the bridge into the town quay was operating and that there was room to moor.

Our only two, pleasant, surprises were the new almost completed footbridge ….

…. and a ferris wheel next to the church. looking glorious as the sun began to set. It seemed to be there for half term and was going to bet going the following night. We would miss it – “shame”, said the Captain!

The weather was slightly less glorious when we left Deinze in the rain the following morning, but we had had yet another pleasant evening in this unassuming little town.

I missed most of the trip eastwards along the Leie due to a conference call Trustee meeting of a charity I work with, but I was called upon to be on deck for the two locks we passed through. At the first lock it was still raining, but by the second the skies were clearing.

Harelbeke Lock, the last one, on the outskirts of Kortrijk, has just finished a major design and rebuild, and is looking very smart.

So finally we came into Kortrijk, our current home port. What a wonderful, calming, end-of-the-season feeling, even though we had to squeeze into the 21 metre space waiting for our 20 metre boat! The Captain ceremoniously took down the flags and we were officially tied up for winter.

That left us a day and a half of cleaning, maintenance and winterising, moored up in our favourite spot.

There was also time for a final gobbled wafel! Due to the closure of cafés and restaurant ts it had to be a take-away, eaten in a cold grey, empty square, but delicious just the same.

There was left over bread that allowed plenty feeding of the ducks and coots and moorhens, causing more than one coot-war!

It was time to go home until next year, but also still time for an evening walk around Kortrijk to get a few more images to help me remember how lovely it is to be here.

Our journey home on three trains was straightforward enough, though was masks-on for the full six hours against the virus. Ever since we left the UK four months ago we have been wearing masks in public places so didn’t feel too afflicted – and, so far, it has kept us in good health – so well worth it.

Steerers’ Epilogue

And so – another great summer, with wonderful memories of places and people (and beers) we got to know along the way. The people in particular that you meet on boats are from all walks of life, but share the same insane and wonderful common denominator of a floating maintenance schedule – and will rally round anyone within that community needing assistance.

It’s a special life, and I’d just like to finish off Lesley’s last blog of the year if I may, by saying that we pinch ourselves all the time for these years we are enjoying afloat.

We were heading for Holland this year before the virus persuaded us to stay within the Belgium borders – and it has been a delightful adventure. We’ve been to fascinating places we’d not heard of months previously, and enjoyed every one.

Where will we be next year? It doesn’t matter, it’s all good!

Down and up the Durme

16th to 29th September 2020

We left Gent on the Tuesday, with a lovely send-off, knowing (or should I say thinking?) we had almost 2 weeks to kill while waiting to go into the boat yard for the 5-yearly hull cleaning and painting.

The cruise out of Gent was interesting in itself, up through the working parts of the port, going past not only big canal commercial barges but also the huge seagoing ships – some seeming to have lost their Plimsoll line!

And a few interesting little boats too.

Some kicked up a good wake; we almost felt back at sea!

The turn onto the little Moervaart canal (this is what the river Durme is named as it goes through the moor lands north of Lokeren) seemed very calm in comparison.

We had imagined turning immediately into the countryside! But there was a kilometre of industry to travel through first.

It was not far to the port where we had booked in for the night – the one by Spanjeveerbrug at Mendonk .

We were soon pleasantly settled in right next to another bailey bridge – that must be our third bailey bridge next to a mooring this year, and in fact in our lives.

It was so pleasant that we decided to spend a second night there too. I had cycled into one village for bread both days so Stewart and I took a walk in afternoon in the other direction out amongst the flat fields of the polders.

The first stage of our cruise one down the river towards Lokeren gave an indication of the lovely scenery to follow.

The journey down the Durme through the 7 lift and swing bridges, spaced over 16 kms, is done in the company of any other boats going that way – 2/3 chances each day depending day of week etc. We went to the first bridge and moored up for lunch, ready for a 1315 start.

The cruise down to Lokeren is constantly fascinating. We were lucky enough to go down in September sun, enjoying the rural views along the way. I loved the now defunct, non-moving, Vapeurbrug – more photos of this one on our way back!

We went through a succession of bridges in a small convoy of two boats – us in the lead – and at the last bridge our companion barge peeled off to moored on the waiting pontoon for the night.

We continued on towards Lokeren, with the river becoming increasingly bendy, including several hairpins. It also became increasingly busy with kayaks and small electric hire boats.

We would come upon these as we rounded a bend, towering above them, with the Captain making sure we didn’t hit any!

As we rounded the final bend into Lokeren port we were hailed from the bank by Tony, a Brit who lives on a boat there. He strongly suggested that we turn round in the slight widening of the bend and go astern into the moorings. So we did

It wasn’t that easy, us being 20m long and the winding hole being about 24m wide, and plenty of people stopped to watch super Captain Stu manage it slowly and carefully. At one point we were beautifully broadside on to the river, stopping all other water traffic.

But before long, at the end of quite a long day, we were comfortably moored up in the park-like surroundings of the town port.

We stayed for four warm sunny days, enjoying Lokeren’s ambience. The city is small with a centre that only retains a few old buildings – the allies bombed it by mistake towards the end of WW2. But there is still plenty to enjoy, with the river running through the centre, a lively central square, and quite a few fountains! It’s prosperity was built on making felt for hats, which involved cutting the hair off rabbit and hare pelts – hence the rabbit statues.

We treated ourselves to a frituur supper one night, in a funky 50’s diner style fritterie.

The food was good too!

We had a nature day, walking along the river and up into one of the many parks, a history day at the museum, and an art day, engaging with some of the sculptures that are all around the city – much of it metallic.

The art day was quite hot so we rewarded ourselves in the shade with a new beer for Stu (note the very classy bottle) and a new Kriek for me (note the rather bling glass!).

Apparently the beer was ‘thumbs-up’ good.

It was a very pleasant place to spend some September days ……..

……. although we awoke next morning to a completely different scene!

This was the day of our departure – the geraniums the only brightness in sight.

We had booked the first bridge at 1030 so Stu set off very slowly, round the twists and turns of the river, often only visible from the wheelhouse at the moment the bow reached the bend!

This took a lot of the helmsman’s concentration.

By the time we reached the first bridge at Daknam the midst was starting to clear, but it had been an exhausting trip and the waiting pontoon (with a 30 hour mooring limit) seemed delightful – so we decided to stop our voyage until the next day.

Moored up in the rising mist there was a sense of relief – no urgency to continue now; lovely lovely.

And as the mist cleared we discovered just how lovely it was, a very peaceful rural place to wait for 24 hours.

Just looking out of the window in the morning was a joy, watching the moorhens and coots finding their breakfast around the water lilies.

The little village of Daknam is quite close to the mooring. It has developed its own fame a being the site of the Lions Court in the medieval story of Reynaud the fox, who cheats the King out of his gold. A stuffed fox proudly stands beside the church and other reminders of the story are around the village.

But as I walked round the village my phone rang and it was the shipyard to let me know that our arrival date there was delayed by 5 days! New plans had to be made.

Only one night is allowed on the Daknam pontoon so we were still ready to go next morning at 1030, on a day with much greater visibility than the one before!

The sunshine and fresh air pulled me towards the other side of the river from the mooring and a quick walk between maize fields before we set off.

I promised more photos of the old Vapeurbrug on our way back – here they are. What a fabulous piece of industrial history.

We decided to enjoy our delay and headed for the recommended willow tree mooring at The Bavohoeve brasserie. This must be one of the prettiest places we have stopped, although the high winds that arrived later that day did rather cover Calliope with willow fronds!

The mooring is free but one feels obliged to eat there, so we had an extremely pleasant meal, isolated from the next table by big polythene sheets! I hope I did not disgrace myself too much by showing my appreciation of the mussel juice!

We asked to stay a second night, and promised to come up for a drink or two – equally enjoyable. The colours in the morning were glorious across the river, surprisingly with rape in bloom in late September.

It gave us a day in pleasant surroundings and I took a walk in breezy sunlight before a storm brewed up around us, whipping the willow branches around the wheelhouse while we were cosy within.

We had booked back in at Spanjeveer marina for our last few days on the Dorme/Moervaart and cruised up there in the sun before lunch next day. It took all of 5 minutes! We were only just round the bend, so soon tied up.

By the afternoon Storm Odette was spinning towards us alternating sun and squally showers. Captain monitored his ropes carefully as we were in for a night of it!

It absolutely poured with rain all night, and the wind blew noisily all around us. It was still raining in the morning, so a day aboard looked likely and I started the autumn cleaning of all the drawers on the boat.

The geese began their day on the mud at the side of the river, but as the waters rose a foot they climbed up onto the bank and watched from there.

Later the sun surprised us and made an appearance. We were running short of one or two essentials like milk, potatoes and onions, so I cycled off to the closest mini-supermarket at Zaffelare. It was a pleasant 15 ride there, and a pleasant 30 minute ride back, as I got lost!

I came back to the boat to a beautiful evening of racing clouds and happy cattle, back out after sheltering from the storm.

Two lazy days left until we are off to the shipyard. On Sunday Stewart and I walked to the closest village bakery for fresh bread – a country walk, much of it along a footpath between fields. We had plenty of time to do some internal boat cleaning and maintenance, getting ready for the winter shut down.

I was drawn outside again later and found another circular walk around country lanes and wooded tracks. I passed by this lovely little chapel, dedicated to St Bavo.

Our last day here at Spanjeveerbrug was wet again – all day! I discovered during our stay that the word ‘veer’ in Spanjeveerbrug means ferry, and I am not surprised that a ferry was needed here in the past – so much water! Actually the ferry went over the old course of the river, now a fishing lake.

So this is how Monday September 28th 2020 looked for us – weather for cleaning the fridge, cooking windfall pears in spicy wine, and dancing to my favourite Youtube videos. Off to Carron Marine in the morning!

Late August in the region of Antwerp

Canals Bocholt-Herentals, Dessel-Turnhout-Schoten, Albert, Nete (and river Beneden-Nete) and Leuven-Dijle

18th to 31st August 2020

It was a Tuesday when we left the Blauwe Kai area in Limburg region and moved into the Antwerp province. The latter had been having a bit of a coronavirus spike, especially in Antwerp itself, but we felt safe isolated on our barge.

The night before I had called the lock keeper for Mol 1, literally around the corner, some 200 yards away, and stated our intention to set off through his lock next morning. He suggested 6am! I rather balked at that and suggested 9am. This was agreed upon.

There are three Mol locks, (well a Lommel and two Mol), one of them a double, within two and a half kilometres. All three locks were in various stages of dilapidation and requiring modernisation or repair.

And all three lock keepers were lovely, friendly, helpful. It was a glorious morning and a beautiful experience to go down the 11.9m required.

After another kilometre and a half we were in the really huge basin crossroads where the Kanaal Bocholt-Herentals crosses with Kanaal Dessel-Kwaadmechelen to the South and Kanaal Dessel over Turnhout Naar Schoten to the North.

We were taking the latter, adding in an extra Northern loop to use up some spare time. We moved from what felt like the widest to the narrowest of Belgian waterways.

We were not going far – just 5 kms to an area with several mooring options. Along the way we crossed paths with one of the stranger commercial barges – one transporting containers of stinking refuse, driven from the front, and with twin hulls.

We arrived at our planned destination, but no moorings were suitable! And a lift bridge faced us, necessitating a call on the VHF. At the same time we saw our friends’s boat moored at the side where we had thought to stop!

Seeing us they sprang into action and followed us up stream towards Turnhout, both soon following a very slow working barge. Along the way we had close encounters with several commercial barges, including at this bridge where we were commanded to go through first despite the near proximity of the giant the other side!

Through radio conversations we both agreed to phone ahead to Turnhout marina and book a space – except we managed to book different Turnhout marinas! Ours was out in the country where we shared a hammerhead with friends on Dreamer, looking out onto a ‘lake’ in the canal. Theirs was in the centre of town a few kilometres further on.

Many lovely things to say about this place, one being the bar. It was made somehow from half an old barge, with an outside top deck of tables and a cosy inside. Beyond this was a marquee with funky sofas and tables beneath the trees.

On Day Two at Het Gevaer Marina we did two cycle rides – one for shopping in Ravels, and one for a new tap in Turnhout. The latter gave us a glimpse of this rather lovely town, well worth a longer visit.

And the former took me past my first ever strawberry vending machine!

Back in the marina we were once more trying out the bar and it’s beer! This one, Zot, was very refreshing and is, apparently, ‘the one and only town beer of Brugges’, from De Halve Maan brewery.

Day three was the start of a very social period. Two generations of Dreamer’s family arrived and we spent a lovely time with them playing boule, enjoying a barbecue, and lots of happy chat. I managed not to disgrace myself too badly at the boule game.

The evening ended with a sunset display that both Ferre, Mieke’s grandson, and I found irresistible.

The following day we made use of the petrol station round the bend. It was planned in advance that we should arrive and moor up at 10 and wait until a tanker could arrive with our diesel. It was a nicer wait than we expected.

Especially when accompanied by this little beauty.

All was done by 1230 and we had a tank full of fuel at a very decent price.

Back at the marina I found an enjoyable way to update our devices! I could use the marina wifi, sitting downstairs in the bar with a beer and a view.

There was one more evening to enjoy the company of the Dreamer family, then off we went blazing a trail towards Schoten with the expectation that we would be followed.

What a send off!

There were many lift bridges at which to request passage and we made way steadily……

….. until we approached our first lock and were told it was under repair until noon, or 1pm, or maybe 2. So we moored up for a lunch stop. Yes, we moored partly under a bridge; we thought it was just for an hour or so.

But when the lock eventually opened Captain Stu said he felt settled here at Sint-Jozef, Rijkevorsel, and so we stopped for the night. Not long after we were joined by a cruiser going in the opposite direction which foiled our plan of moving away from the bridge. Can be a funny one, mooring under a bridge, but we were fine here.

We took our usual promenade around our surroundings, discovering a few things of which this area is proud. Firstly it’s been a major brick making place, sadly now mostly gone.

Secondly their author, Aster Berkhof, now aged 100, who has published loads of novels over a 70 year period.

Thirdly the village is the site of a major bridgehead in WW2, leading to the liberation of this part of Belgium by British Infantry and Canadian army.

Most old buildings have gone, presumably during the war, but two shrines remain. There is also a hidden blue lake in a sandy wood, which I am guessing was a originally a pit and source of sand for the brickworks.

We were totally spoiled by nature that evening, with this golden sunset.

Then up and ready to continue our journey in the morning. As we cast off at 9.30 the boatman next door ran up asking where we were going. We explained we were going through the lock – and he explained that the locks on this canal don’t operate on a Sunday!

So one more day in Sint-Jozef; we moved the boat forward, in front of them and away from the bridge, (that’s better), and settled down to a day of RnR. A short days’ cruise even by our own high standards …..

Stu – Mention the black tank? No; boats are a floating maintenance schedule, and it was sorted.

I couldn’t resist another walk up to see the lock that we will eventually go through Sluis 1 – which has an amazingly modern office. Much of the quayside has been carefully and interestingly renovated.

Our second evening here had more striking skies to keep an amateur photographer happy for hours!

The evening looked so lovely that I was off again, walking up the canal, passing another reminder of the area’s brickwork history, then through the darkening woods into the back of the village, and ‘home’.

Warning – rather a lot happens over the next two days, so more words than usual; sorry!

Monday morning we were ready to go and moved up to Sluis 1, making contact on the radio as we did so. A charming and friendly female lock keeper came to manage the operation, and it was at this point that we became aware of the work going on along this section of the canal top modernise the locks and bridges – not yet complete! Here, at Sluis 1, she had to carry a heavy box of tricks from end to end and side to side of the lock, plugging it in at each corner to open/close gates and open/close sluices. It took a while.

Many of the locks have these high poles attached to the upstream gates. They allow the Captain of a big working barge to see from his/her wheelhouse if the gates are open or closed – and presumably safe quite a few damaged gates.

At sluis (lock) 2 we waited a while for the lock keeper to set us in motion, and as we left the lock a working barge was waiting behind us for his attention.

When we reached sluis 3 an elderly lock keeper appeared to help us. Through my usual interrogation techniques, initially in Dutch, I discovered that he had been a teacher of English, Greek, Latin, French and Dutch – so we soon landed on a common language to use! I discovered that he was responsible for the nice flowers at the lock, and, as we left, he added conspiratorially that actually his son was the lock keeper, and ‘sshhh’ we must not mention that he has operated the lock! He was a lovely man.

The hold up at Sluis 4 was partly of our own making. We now understood that each lock keeper was responsible for two locks and any associated bridges, (cycling on a Waterways bike between the locks) so equally understood that the lock keeper for locks 4 and 5 was currently down at lock 5 bringing a commercial barge up, while we waited to go down.

Then just as we saw the boat arising before us another commercial, Ibis, appeared behind us. We would not fit in thew lock together so I got into the radio and asked his who would go first, him or us. “Oh thank you”, he replied. “I will go first.” Which meant we were waiting for Ibis to go down two locks, and then for an over-relaxed lock keeper to come back to see us through. It took hours – literally.

Well that was enough for one day; we moored up after lock 5, with the mobile phone number for lock 6 in my pocket.

This was Sint-Job-in-t’Goor, a lovely mooring in both extremes of weather that came upon us.

Off I went for my exercise, finding the calm blues and greens of a canal basin just along the bank.

I also saw more of the special deer ramps built into the banks to allow animals that have fallen in to find somewhere to d ramble out. France could learn from this!

There was information that I don’t entirely understand about tanks, sluices and special camouflaged pill boxes along the bank. I must translate it. Maybe someone can help me?

Evening, night and dawn were all stunning here in Sint-Job-in-t’Goor.

We planned a relatively gentle day to the end of the canal for the following day, stopping just before the last lock, 10, that would take us out onto the canal highway of the Albert Canal. And it began that way, though a bit on the damp side.

We saw plenty more evidence of the works on the locks – quite sad at Sluis 7 where our gentle veteran lock keeper, who had cycled down from Sluis 6, was in conversation with the three young engineers busy with the modernisation that would put him out of a job.

At lock 8 our plans began to fall apart. We were asked our destination for that day, and on saying that it would be before lock 10 we were informed that we could not moor there. Seeing as we had by then passed all other mooring options on the Canal Dessel Turnhout Schoten we had little option but to go on out onto the mighty Albert canal.

We were ok about this. It was easy to be flexible about not mooring at Schoten and set off onto the HUGE Albert Canal. We have been up and down the Rhone, on the tidal Thames, the Canal du Nord. So although it’s not our favourite kind of cruising we were up for the short Albert Canal challenge until we turned off it again.

But we ended up with more than enough excitement for one day. It was still ok when our passage out of the smaller canal was blocked by not one but two giant barges passing by.

I even dealt calmly with VHF to the nearby mega lock, quickly understanding we would be third boat into the largest (I mean l-a-r-g-e) lock and so we moored up to wait.

Then customs, on a boat called Nele, sprang out of hiding and asked for our papers and passports – but as these are all in order and always ready we were still ok. Nice chap, had a good laugh about bureaucracy and wearing a mask in the middle of no-where – which neither of us were …..

But sharing that l-a-r-g-e, d-e-e-p lock with four 80m barges – two strapped together and pushed by a pusher – was not quite so easy. No floating bollards, only bollards in the wall, spaced out so that we could only use one at the bow, and with all the big barges using their propellers to hold their place, so turbulence everywhere.

Initially I was unable to get a bow rope round the intended bollard in the wall, so we had to go further forward to the next mooring position and therefore unpleasantly close to the huge churning screws of Sinbad. No problem though as the skipper drove against my bow rope until the slack time during the lock fill, about half way up, when everyone cuts their engines to move their ropes up to the next level of bollards in the wall.

It took a little bit of doing and manoeuvring, but with Stu in charge of putting the bow where I needed it to be we calmly moved up the required notch. And as the lock filled, and the doors opened, we all steamed out in orderly procession, waving goodbye as we went. All’s well that ends well.

We’ve done a few tough locks by now as regular readers of my beautiful crew’s blogs will know and, though that was one to remember, if you keep your whits about you they’re all do-able.

The next stretch of the Albert Canal was actually quite pleasant, and included passing a floating church!

Soon we were at our turn off onto the Netecanal. Ah, the relative smallness and calmness; wonderful. Ah, agreed, wonderful.

We had various mooring options along here – or thought we did until we looked at each. Gradually we ticked them off as not quite right, taking us closer and closer to friends on Dreamer – and ended up tying up in front of them at Lier.

We had a good chat about the incoming storm that was causing them to spend an extra night at Lier, said hello to Google the dog, then checked and added to mooring lines, battened down hatches, ate and went to bed. It had been quite a day.

Next day became gradually calmer and was full of shopping, cooking and entertaining. Mieke and Frans came for an English supper of stew and dumplings. It’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.

Next day Dreamer set sail towards home and we began our exploration of Lier. There is so much to see in the small town and I begin with some of the old buildings including the peaceful lanes of the Beguinage.

We walked through to the Grote Markt and found the tourist office in the grand surroundings of the town Hall.

There was also a good lunch moment when we found the long sought croque madame for the captain at the café in the square. (3 years – only saying ..)

In the afternoon we visited one of the most intriguing small museums I have ever found. It was all about Mr Zimmer and the amazing clocks he created, the Jubilee clock and the Wonder clock. I cannot begin to do them justice here; I just suggest you google them and read for yourself.

Then there was the Prisoners Gate …

…  and the tributaries of the river running through the town. Lier is called the little Brugges and I am not surprised.

After all this sightseeing we were pleased to escape into calm of the park. There are quite a few Fountains around town so I have added one more in here, plus a giant red dog statue that caught our eye.

I expect you have been wondering why the people of this region are called ‘sheep heads’! Well it turns out that after helping duke to fight a war against another town they were offered either a university or a livestock market. They chose the latter and have been called ‘sheep heads’ ever since.

Just one more thing about Lier before we leave and that is the famous cake. I regret it is not my favourite of the regional Belgian cakes, although the sweet spicy taste would be good with hot custard I think.

After a good nights sleep it was our turn to proceed down the Netecanal, through Duffel lock and onto the tidal River. The lock has double doors each end to cope with the tidal changes.

As we motored downstream with the outgoing tide the skies began to blacken.

We were looking for our turning to port onto the Dijle river and eventually saw the small entrance we must go through. It looked as if we might turn away from the rain clouds, but that was not to be.

We came up to Zennegat lock with a warning from the lock keeper not to get too close to the gates until all the water had come out and then moved into a very strangely shaped lock just as the first patters of rain began to fall.

The lock had a double oval shape and was interesting, to say the least, in terms of places to moor a 20 meter barge! But there’s always a Calliope crew found a way to safely negotiate our way through.

The rain began to fall in earnest as we came up to the next lock and through various bridges. Thank goodness for my mothers old sailing wellies that I had on board. And thank goodness I like sloshing around in the water.

We came into Mechelen wondering if there would be space where we wanted to tie up, as is often the case.

Then we found a surprisingly peaceful place along the canal in a residential area. (It was less peaceful next morning at seven when builders recommenced work on a building site alongside!)

The rain stopped, the Sun found a way through the trees, and a rainbow found a way through the clouds. This is going to be an attractive mooring.

Saturday is market day in Mechelen and Saturday was the grey day we woke up to. We set off to the market taking a look at parts of the town along the way. The market was being run in a good coronavirus fashion with masks required, hand sanitiser at every entry point, a one-way system, and distancing of 1.5 m. Everyone is used to it now and it works well. The market is a good one with some excellent food stalls and we came away with some goodies to keep us going several days.

After a bit of lunch out in town, when you can in-mask, we retired to the boat promising ourselves a better look at the place next day.

As so often happens the skies and reflections along the canal were breathtaking.

The better weather attracted me back outside for a final evening walk along the canal. As I turned into the city to walk back along the streets I caught the splendid sight of the lit up Brusselpoorte gate into town.

We chose Sunday as our main ‘Explore Mechelen’ day, knowing there would be less people around. It was a joy – quiet historic streets, and a few interesting modern settings too.

Another park and another bridge for me to stand on.

And another opportunity for me to lose my mask – I don’t think I’ve mentioned how often I drop it! Poor Stewart waiting yet again for me to go searching. Ah, there it is!

We also found the remains of a complex of 7 water mills and sluices, now mostly gone, but the sense of industry past is still there.

We were close to the end of our first visit to Mechelen, planning to return when we came back up this dead end canal.  It a few more pleasures were in store – all gastronomic!

Stu bought a special souvenir beer from a new friend, Pete, we had made. He runs the solar powered boat that takes passengers up and down the canal.

The beer is made in the local brewery and is 10% ABV. (We stopped and bought some more from the brewery on our way back – Anker Brewery). It took a adjustable wrench to get the cork out the bottle, but the ensuing beer was well worth the effort.

And we had egg, chips, beans and Mechelen meatballs for supper – with HP sauce. The meatballs had been bought in the market the day before, after we were offered a taste and given half of one each free! They are delicious – a mix of pork and beef, crispy in the outside and tender and moist in the middle. Yum!

So good night Mechelen – and tomorrow will take us to the very edge of the Antwerp province.

And so at 1015 on Monday 31st August – the 33rd anniversary of us meeting – we went off under the double Plaicancebrugge bridges at Mechelen and into our next province – Vlaams Brabant.

Back to Gent, via Leuven

31st August to 16th September 2020

I have promised myself no more than 5 photos a day this time …. unless it is photos of a town or city that deserves more than five – so let’s get started. (Update; I didn’t quite manage this!)

The last post took us to Mechelen on the Dijle and on the Dijle-Leuven canal. We were on the canal and set off from Mechelen towards Leuven, stopping on the way at a quiet-out-of-the-way mooring next to Silos (very posh) restaurant.

It was a short journey, with only one minor event when one of the doors of a lock would not shut behind us. Luckily the guys were there working on the lock, and after changing a fuse (literally) all came back to life.

The restaurant being a bit expensive for our pocket we walked the kilometre back to the lock to find a bar, passing a roosting cormorant along the way. I liked the fact that our drinks were similar colours, though different size glasses (mine was pineau de charentes).

Back aboard we were treated to yet another ‘skies-on-fire’ Belgian sunset

Our peaceful mooring was only slightly disturbed in the morning by the passing of Marvik – just a gentle sway as she passed by.

After breakfast we were off on the last few kilometres to Leuven – just 15 and 1 lock. Just outside Leuven we passed the old Remy tower, with its newer, but still old, one behind. This is not a testament to cognac but to grain. We had been warned, by Flanders waterways, that we might pass the trials of a model commercial barge – and we did!

Then into Leuven, past the new Stella Artois brewery – photos of the old brewery to come!

Having allowed myself extra photos when in an interesting city, I feel I can add in a few here. Day 1 in Leuven easily used up our 10,000 steps per day. The centre of town was very busy with students arriving for university, queuing up to register, meeting friends and cyclin around finding their accommodation. But we found some quite corners too.

The botanical garden, Kruidtuin, was especially peaceful and beautiful.

On the way back to the boat we found, first, a relatively quiet bar, and secondly an Indian restaurant – not exactly Belgian, but very good. Then back to our mooring in the basin at the end of the canal, with the old Stella Artois brewery being dismantled astern of us.

Stella Artois is inextricably linked to Leuven, after a Mr Artois, head brewer at the Den Hoorne brewery, bought the brewery, changed the name to Artois, and grew from then on to the mega global business that it is today. I visited the brewery shown in these photos back in 1987, and remember well the gate posts topped by the lanterns that became part of the Stella image; all now rather dusty and sad. But the beer tastes good!

Day 2 in Leuven we walked up the wooded hill above the harbour, and then on through the city to the groot (big) beguinhof. For those new to the word beguinhof, they are areas which were created to house beguines – lay religious women who lived in their own community without taking vows or retiring from the world, and often offering shelter to single women and their children who needed safe shelter from the world.

In a way similar to Oxford, Leuven is a University city full of separate colleges, each with their own fabulous old buildings and gateways. I could have filled a blog just with these, but chose instead on building, one gate-way, and students thronging the streets, all correctly wearing their anti-coronavirus masks.

Our beverage intake that evening was in four stages. First we found a bar that I had discovered sold my favourite Kriek beer – aged old red by Petrus. Then we sat beneath the old Stella brewery partaking of the famous brew. Back on board, quietly preparing our evening meal. we were visited by a waitress for the Florida bar that we were moored against. She brought us complementary cocktails and a dish of grilled green mini-peppers! This was a total surprise, so stage four was to go ashore and join the owner of the bar and his friends for a round or two more! I slept well that night.

Next day we left Leuven, but I would happily return and certainly recommend it to visitors, whether by boat or other means. Out we went past the massive new brewery, through misty locks, and on to the zoo. Yes, there is a zoo outside Mechelen and there is a pleasant quiet mooring nearby. If there is anything to unsettle the calm it might be a passing big boat, so the Captain watched carefully as the first one arrived – but virtually no disturbance at all.

The tides were right for us to leave the Leuven-Dijle canal within the next few days so we set off towards the northern end of the canal, stopping for a short visit back to Mechelen as we passed through. Being beginhof and brewery fans we managed to see both – the brewery being the one that brewed the special bottle Stu bought last time we were in town, and the beginhof being what was left of quite a small one. Lunch was a light-bite treat, my hummus on toast looking like a work of art and very ‘leaker’ (tasty).

As a souvenir I bought myself a Mechelen mask – such are these strange times. Then off down, or was it up, the canal we went.

We went to the end of the canal and moored up just before Zennegat lock. What a change; when we came through here on the other direction a week before it was misty, rainy, and generally gloomy. This time we could enjoy the landscape.

Zennegat is where the rivers Dijle and Zenne meet, with the canal beginning right between them at the confluence, with a nature park right alongside as well.

Here is an aerial view (not my photo) showing the Zenne above, canal central and the edge of the Dijle on the right.

The view across to Calliope on my evening promenade

We had a definite plan to just have one night at Zennegat, but two things conspired to change our mind. One was the pure delight of being there. The other, more important, was hearing out of the blue from friends on a Piper boat who we had not seen for almost 6 years when they set off across the Channel and we were going round the Kent coast for our winter in Portsmouth Harbour. Gerald and Janet were arriving at the next day to begin their own cruise down to Leuven.

And arrive they did, mooring up in front us on their new Piper boat Affinity (their third!) – causing us to look a little on the scruffy side!

Our second day at Zennegat was a lovely mixture of time with Affinity crew, and time walking next to all the nature. Leaving their boat, perfectly sober, the wind caught our map and into the canal it fell, quickly followed by the Captain’s reading glasses. The former was recovered and dried; the latter were not.

At 11.45 we slipped our ropes and left our mooring in calm clear waters and skies.

The first obstacle is a pedestrian/cyclists bridge that opens in quite an unusual fashion – very slowly too.

Then into the last of our double-oval locks, this time with a slidey pole for the rope.

We dropped down two or three metres – obviously a variable depth because we were off out onto a tidal river, with the last hour or so of outgoing tide.

And there we were, set loose on the river current.

Well I’m sorry, but the days on the rivers had too much going on for the five photo restriction; I really tried, but you would have missed too much. So here goes..

First we were on the Dijle, but not for long. We soon joined the Rupel, and before long we began to see navigation lights atop tall poles, hinting at the changing tide depth and mudbanks each side.

A further 12 kilometres and we were joining the Zeeschelde, hopefully as the tide started to turn and carry us up towards Ghent.

Initially it seems quite a hard push, and although Calliope’s engine was more than a match for the waters we made relatively slow progress.