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.

Canal de Sambre à l’Oise

A wonderful week on country waters

30th August – 5th September 2021

Robert Louis Stevenson was still with us as we moved onto the canal built in the 1800s to link the Sambre at Landrecies with the Oise at La Fère – both places mentioned by RLS in his book ‘An Inland Voyage’. To write in his marvellous style is far beyond my reach, but I will attempt to use a slightly more lyrical style to describe the people and events on this magically empty stretch of water.

(I am doomed to failure, but let’s give it a go).

We left Landrecies with replenished stores – enough to see us through our week away from commerce, apart from the ubiquitous baguettes that we hoped to find from time to time. Luckily there is a fair size Carrefour just up the road – and they were selling off LOTS of wine before they changed to their new lines; Dame Fortune smiled our way.

I had noticed the WW1 cemetery in Landrecies and then read how close we were to where the war poet Wilfred Owen died. He was probably killed crossing the canal on a raft when the allied forces were pushing back the enemy.

He is buried in Ors cemetery, close to Ors lock. Here is where his prophetic words came true:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. “

Soon after Ors we were at Catillon-sur-Sambre, trying in vain to use our zapper (remote control) only to see a helpful, seemingly happy, member of the French state waiting to lift the bridge for us.

Long may this last. I have tried to find out how many jobs on the waterways have been lost to automation, and how many lock keepers losing their lock side homes, but cannot find a source for that information.

In days gone by, now long ago, the bridge keeper would have worked from the brick hut on the right, and open and closed the roads and bridge by manual labour. Now he has a dull grey metal cabin in which to press his operating buttons.

We always hope to reach our next night’s mooring by lunch time, giving us the afternoon to explore the area. Such was the case at Bois L’Abbaye, the last lock on the Canal de la Sambre before it becomes the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise. We knew that the mooring was by the lock, but were surprised by just how adjacent the quay was to the lock gates!

We came out of the lock, and with magnificent skill from the Captain, and of course some adept rope throwing from the crew, we moved sideways into moor. Engine switched off and absolute peace descended over us and Calliope.

Time now to enjoy the French rural life; lunch, siesta, and then a walk around the long fishing lake that we doisciver4d behind the trees, and which runs, hidden, along side the canal for two kilometres.

Bois L’Abbaye was also the place to say goodbye to our friendly zapper – the first we have seen that allows you to choose your language and then receive merry little messages to make your voyage easier. But good-bye it was, and into its little letterbox it was posted.

Next morning, ‘zapperless’, we continued on our way; next stop somewhere down a flight of 17 locks. The first 14 locks are within the space of 8 kilometres – and first we had to reach Étreux, the start of our rapid descent!

The cruise along to Étreux was smooth and uneventful, and we arrived full of interest and mild apprehension about what the next few hours would bring. The flags were out waiting for us, including the Union Jack, which has been removed from some flagpoles since Brexit.

It’s easy to see the long chain of locks on the map, some closer than a few hundred yards apart, but until you understand how it is all going to operate, and whether bollards are easily accessible, there is a feeling of ‘wait and see’ in the air. In this lock, number 2 I think, the ‘bollards’ in the wall to let ourselves down were cross shaped and not always easy to throw a line over, but as everything was slow and gentle it wasn’t a problem.

In fact it all turned out to be simple and straightforward. We were accompanied by a series of èclusiers who, like kingfishers, have their own stretch of the canal and will stay with you until the end of their territory – whereupon another takes over.

The VNF van with its accompanying éclusier was usually ahead of us at the locks, but on this occasion he arrived just as we were closing in on raising the operating rod.

And for those who are not familiar with these ‘operating rods’, here is a close up from an other lock.

(We did once, a long time ago, manage to pull the red alarm rod once trying to get balance and purchase on the green rod! Not a good idea – to brings all sorts of people running)

Our thought had been to moor up after lock 8 but we were speeding along so successfully that we decided to continue to lock 14. And just as that decision was made, and the canalised river took snake like turn under Vénérolles bridge, the water became very shallow on the inside of both bends! Captain Stu coped as always and we did not run aground.

By midday we were appropriately at lock 12, Hannapes. We enjoyed going through Hannapés, first of all with its lift bridge just before the lock, stopping the local traffic in its tracks for a few minutes – but not inconveniencing many! Someone has taken the time to create a nice garden be tween the bridge and the lock, and in fact around the lock itself. These little touches add to the enjoyment and variation of our travels all the time.

The second lock at Hannapés have me a chance to collect a little more lock nurdiness. The lock gates here are true natural moss gardens; I would love to spend time studying the various flora gathered on these gates! And the water levels along this stretch mean that almost as soon as the lock gates close behind you a waterfall starts to fall into the empty lock, sometimes threatening to drench the Captain who always has the stern rope!

Finally we came through into Tupigny, where the young éclusier was reminded of the manual effort that went into the locks in the days of Robert Louis Stevenson! One vantelle (panel that lifts within the lock gate to let water in/out) had a problem with its automation and he was compelled to use the winding method of old – something with which that many boaters in the UK will be very familiar.

It was an hour past our usual lunch time, but we could see our mooring 100 yards in front of us, so all well.

I neglected to say that this day was the anniversary of the day we met, long ago at a folk club. So we were pleased to find an excellent solitary, legal, even romantic, mooring at Tupigny.

In the afternoon we walked round the village, slightly in hope of a bar where we could start our anniversary celebrations, But although a very well kept village there was no bar that looked to be open that day.

So we returned to the boat and had a wonderful home made tapas style supper on the back deck. And a gentle sunset to match the rosé. What could be better?

As we left Tupigny next morning we saw some of the work that is still going on on this re-opened river/canal to modernise it.

Here a swing bridge is being replaced. Looks like it will be completed soon.

Out of Tupigny and back out into the country, with a straight run down towards the second Grand Verly lock. These wide open spaces, with the pastoral hills beginning to rise around us, never cease to fill us both with natural wellbeing – our form of mindfulness I guess.

The main reason for the 14 year closure of the Sambre mentioned earlier was the failure of two viaducts at Vadencourt and Macquigny, shown by the two red ‘no entry’ marks on our map, and both now rebuilt thanks to a €30m investment shared by the French government and various local authorities.

So here we are arriving at the first of the two new pont canals; very smart! And over one of many many loops of the Oise we go.

Of course the locks along this stretch were out of use for years. They all seem to have had a new coat of paint in VNF blue and green. And the house Lock 21, Proix Noyales, has been turned into a lovely home and garden. I wonder how they feel after all the very quiet years to suddenly have boats full of people coming by.

The local wildlife are also having to get used to boats appearing from round the bend! A branch rather awkwardly placed for barges has been a good fishing spot for this heron until we arrived.

Towards lunchtime we were approaching Origny-Ste-Benoite – our mooring for the night. The initial view looked somewhat industrial, and turned to to be a major sugar factory, utilising sugar beet from a huge surrounding area.

Even as we came to and through Oriogny lock we were wondering why we had chosen Origny – the one;y place we could see to moor being ‘underneath some HUGE silos – but we tied up, had lunch, and looked around!

We were on one side of a huge empty basin on a quay unused apart from the grain-watching pigeon collection! Lorries came occasionally at the other en d of the quay to deposit their load, and a tractor passed us by even less often – so amazingly peaceful given the setting. And when they all went home for tea, even better.

Moy-de-l’Aisne

The next day’s morning sun lit up the saloon and galley magically, getting me up and going.

I returned to both the previous day’s boulangeries, hoping to find quiches in one of them . (I have now learned that am more likely to find a quiche in a butcher than a baker … so expect sweet things plus bread in a boulangerie and savoury ready to eat delicious meals, plus raw meat, in a boucherie.

Anyway I did find bread for lunch and a huge pain au chocolat which seemed to be a perfect breakfast.

But there are chances to live on these lock houses. Usually you cannot buy them, but at a peppercorn rent you can enter into an agreement to do it up at your own cost.

As we moved on down to our next halt I was reminded again of RLS who, apparently, almost got sucked into a ‘siphon’ under this pont canal. He was on the river underneath where it flows through a series of holes in the structure, rather than a full river.

He was alerted by someone on the bank and avoided getting jammed, with his canoe, under water!

Another sense of wonder along the way was the cappuccino style froth in some of the locks. I am sure that the brown foam is somewhat dirty, but the overvall effect is very stylish!

We arrived, stopping just below Hamégicourt lock, to just what we had hoped for – and even an empty picnic bench waiting for us to have al fresco lunch. Happy Captain.

We had our customary walk – this time a kilometre into Moy-de-l’Aisne – and found that RLS had got there first! He had enjoyed watching people going in and out of the moated chateau – unfortunately destroyed during the First World War. And he stayed at the Mouton D’Or – also no more! There was evidence of confident building after the war; many houses had towers, steeples, and echos of chateau style decoration.

As we came through Hamégicourt lock the man who now lives in the lock house(a retired lock keeper we later discovered) emerged to say hello and watch Calliope descend.

I used my best French to say how lucky I thought he was to live in a lock house, and he replied that he thought I was lucky to live on a boat! He invited us back to see his little secret garden later.

So we did – and discovered that we were in the presence of a sculptor of some renown. His stable is now a workshop, and full of dustcover cloaked pieces of his art. He is a very private man, so I am not showing his work or his name, but here is his barbecue – sculpted out of various old objects and built to the right height for him to cook.

And he was delightfully kind in giving me a present from the wonderful collection of dusty antiquities he had stored in his workshop.

This little tin ‘bath’ is now mine and will for ever remind me of our stop at Moy.

That evening the quietness, the light, the sound of birds – all combined to make it one of the gentlest evenings of the summer.

But that was before we travelled a full 2 kms to Vendeuil, even deeper into the country, even more peaceful. Even now, writing this, I shake my head in wonder at the perfection of the place.

Vendeuil – here we are, moored tip on a hot day in the shade of trees next to a field of rambling cows, moving together in synchronised grazing. I think a very few cyclists went past, and one boat gong in the opposite direction – a real shock as we saw so few other craft on this canal.

There was the scheduled walk in the afternoon. A long lake runs alongside the canal at this point – no doubt a stretch of the troublesome run-away Oise. We had hoped to get down to it, but it was a private fishing lake so we just enjoyed the view. We were surprised to see a lot of wild hops growing – normally hops are grown in Alsace.

We had a wonderfully dark and peaceful night, expecting it to be or last on a tranquil mooring for some time.

On Saturday 4th September, two weeks and two days after entering the Sambre at Charleroi, we were leaving this scenic waterway, heading for Beautor and within three and a half kilometres of this canal meeting the Canal de St Quentin – another story!

Our three hour trip included a complete change of lock style for the two locks at Travecy, with these recessed blue bollards – very smart and easy to work with. There was also nice green growth on the second lock wall – hanging gardens of Travecy!

We waved goodbye to our new friends at Travecy, and also to our last Canal de Sambre à l’Oise lock – a sense of the end of a journey – the end of our heading South.

Time to veer slightly West before heading back north for the winter.

The mooring in Beautor – along a huge empty 100m+ quay, was much nicer than we had expected. And nicer than this photo suggests.

It was very quiet – some traffic across the bridge behind us, but not close enough to be troublesome. Otherwise a quay that rarely had people or cars on it, with a bank opposite that was an isthmus between the canal and the ever wandering Oise.

Nice enough to attract a few cyclists and dog walkers.

So nice that we stayed two nights.

That afternoon we needed to do a quick shop at the LeClerq supermarket, a convenient 500 yards away.

It was hot, but had to be done that day as the shops were shut on the following day, Sunday.

When we returned, fully laden, the locked up wheelhouse had clocked up a magnificent 40 degrees C!

But all cooled down with doors open and a sun setting earlier now that we were into September, and a change in the weather!

The route to Le Clerq took us past the church – an art deco building that couldn’t help but grab our attention.

I wish now that I had gone inside too – I wonder what it is like. Google will help me!

The heat caused billowing clouds to gather, thunder to roll, and eventually rain to fall; a sweet half-rainbow appeared too.

The following day we had a good walk round La Fere, the historic military town across the other side of the canal. It is another of the places where RLS washed up and has quite a bit to say about the number of soldiers and reservists in town. Now it seems to be entirely civilian.

But there are huge remnants of the military presence – magnificent in their grandeur and might!

and parts of the old town, although tired, are still fascinating.

Streams and tributaries of the Oise find their way between streets all over the place!

The two towns of Beautor and La Fere have gone to great effort to be Ville de Fleurs. Everywhere possible are huge and colourful beds of flowers and grasses. Boxes adorn every surface and most lamp posts have their own min-garden! I bet it wasn’t like this for Robert Louis.

And more! I took even more photos so I am treating to you to just a few of the many.

The walk to La Fere also resulted in bread for lunch. We were ready to eat to when we got back from our exploration.

I was still keen to have a better understanding of the wiggles of the l’Oise, so took a walk along to the next bridge, over, and back along the other bank – where I found the Oise curling round just a few feet away.

RLS gives wonderful descriptions old the tortuous meanderings of the river, always rushing in haste to the sea, so it is nice to get a sense of his experience.

That evening the effects of the sunset were spectacular. Our last night on this totally stunning, completely absorbing, very relaxing and tranquil waterway – La Sambre and the Sambre à l’Oise Canal.

Carry on up the Sambre!

The French Sambre

26th to 29th August 2021

This is a nice short blog, especially in comparison to some of my recent ramblings. We had three nights and the best part of four days on this stretch of the 2021 voyage. Bienvenue en France!

We left Erquelinnes on a blue and sunny morning, crossing the border into France almost immediately at the Belgian 0 kilometre post. A squat reminder of the border crossing.

We were passing through Jeumont and its Haute Nautique a few minutes later, wondering whether the water and electricity borne now worked – others boaters had reported them as out of service.

This is where we had walked to the day before to find fresh milk. All these cows we keep passing, and the only milk in most supermarkets is homogenised on the shelf stuff.

A kilometre on we met the first lock on the French section of the Sambre, mooring up below the lock on the waiting pontoon to find out how these locks will operate.

It keeps us on our toes moving from one water way to another and one country to another at the same time. At least the language didn’t change – Wallonia to France.

Mounting a somewhat underused staircase to the lock we could see that we must collect a remote control from the hut, and do to that we must use the intercom – or filling that phone the command office further along the river. The intercom failed, so a call was made, and after a few translation difficulties we were delivered remote control number 18 through a reverse ‘letter box’.

We were off – and in charge of our own lock operation. We have met this system before in France, and rather like it, although on some waterways the lock operating systems are out of order as often as they work. Fingers crossed!

We were heading for Hautmont and its modern port. That meant another two locks and 18 kms – a good morning’s journey. The lock at Hautmont has an interesting approach, round a bend, under a bridge, and with a weir stream kicking Calliope to one side! All was managed perfectly by the Captain at the helm.

The port is immediately after the lock, large and newly appointed, and deigned for smaller boats within, plus a long pontoon outside, on the river, for larger vessels like us.

All of our moorings so far this year have been free, but we were happy to pay the €20 (€1 per meter) for a night here. We were able to fill up with water, get rid of all our rubbish, and have an easy place to tie up to.

A short walk into town to find a boulangerie for lunch time bread revealed the church and fountain of the main square.

A later, longer, walk took us past again as we went in search of a radiator cap. We did find the Norauto store, but they had nothing as old fashioned as a radiator cap!

However we found another store that sold us a new clock for the galley wall, a new lamp for the back cabin, and some transparent hose that the Captain had a use for.

I will leave that to your imagination!

The view up river from our Hautmont mooring was industrial, but also dramatic as clouds rolled in that evening.

By morning the black skies were blue, and being enjoyed by a young heron on the quay until it saw me and took fright – and flight! I was more excited by the prospect of fresh French croissants on our first morning in France, and returned to yesterday’s boulangerie to buy some – a real treat!

We had read that the new port included a ‘pump out’ to empty black water tanks (the poo tank to the uninitiated) and a diesel pump operated 24/7 by credit card. We couldn’t see either of these facilities, and on asking the Captiaine we were told they were ‘la bas’ with a casual wave of the arm upstream, but not working.

We set off on a short 9 kms cruise to find a country mooring for the next night, and just round the first bend found the pump out and diesel quay – smart and new, but awaiting repair! Maybe next year …..

Our view from the Quartes mooring

At Quartes, below the small town of Pont-sun-Sambre, we spied the waiting pontoon for the lock – ideal! We stopped for lunch to try it out, and with no other traffic on the river needing to use the pontoon I phoned the local VNF office to ask if we could stay there for the night. Bien sur! No problemo!

It was a wonderfully relaxed day, with this vista all around us while we were on the boat. We walked up into the town and found the boulangerie ready for use the next morning. It is a fascinating little place in some ways, causing me to look it up on the internet and discover that Robert Louis Stevenson had written an excellent chapter in his book ‘An Inland Voyage’, about his travels in a canoe through Belgium and Northern France.

It is very well worth reading – far better than my paltry way with words! Here’s a link

http://www.online-literature.com/stevenson/inland-voyage/6/

Despite the charms of Quartes we were wary of overstaying or welcome on a lock mooring and were ready to leave next day. We had realised, looking at the map, that a four mile trip round a loop in the Sambre would place us closer to the boulangerie than walking from the Quartes mooring so this is what we did.

We moored at the ‘official’ Pont-sun-Sambre mooring and I walked a few hundred yards into town – to the most popular boulangerie I have even seen! I joined 8th in the queue and before I got into the shop there were fourteen behind me! We were across the road from the post office, which I was delighted to see had been the post office since 1932.

Captain Stu and I were surprised to find a traffic light system in operation at the next lock, and to see it with a double red light – which means ‘en panne’, or out of order! And as we drove towards it we could also see a fire engine, another emergency vehicle, and lots of pompiers (firemen) looking onto the lock. Had there been an accident?

But almost immediately the lights turned to green and red – lock in preparation – and the gates opened for us to go in.

We had a cheerful ‘Franglaise’ conversation with the pompiers and it seemed they were simply ‘looking at’ the lock, maybe to understand how it now operated with its new traffic lights.

They waved us cheerfully on our way.

Three kilometres on from that excitement, and along some narrow waters with startling skies above, we found the slightly muddy pontoon at Bras Mort de Leval.

The ‘dead arm’ mentioned (Bras Mort) refers to a tight twist of the Sambre that was nipped off in 1836 to make a more navigable canal for the barges working up and down the river. Leval refers to the nearby village which was served by the river traffic almost 200 years ago.

But the evening was perfect – sundown on the back deck and total peace and quiet apart from distant trains. This is what we cruise for!

(Oh, and for the croissants, cheeses, beers, waffles, wines ……….. )

And then in the morning the best bit of nature watching! A stork following the cows and egrets across the field opposite.

Apologies for the lack of clarity – only had my phone to hand!

But the black and white of the cows complementing the black and white of the stork was something a bit special!

And here we are already on our last day on the actual river Sambre. We joined it at Charleroi 10 days ago to come upstream fore the first time. We went the other way last year, down stream to Namur where it joins the mighty Meuse.

Lets enjoy a little more of the lovely River scenery.

Amongst the fields and woods we had locks 3, 2 and 1 to go through . At Number 2, Hashette, the lock keepers house stands empty and deserted because of the automation along the French Sambre.

The big VNF notice on the right tells us that it is available as a ‘project’, which essentially means you pay them a tiny rent in return for doing the house up to a standard agreed with them.

It’s in a lovely remote place. Any takers?

We continued through number 3, Les Étoquies, where we chatted with a retired lock keeper living by the lock with his three dogs, goats and chickens.

Then, as we reached Landecies where the river meets the canal head on, we confusingly meet another lock number 3. This is the start of the locks for Canal Sambre à l’Oise. The first 3 continue going upwards, numbered 3, 2 and 1!

I noticed a very different type of paddle on this lock. (This is the part of the lock that lifts to allow water to pour in from above.)

This is probably a bit geeky of me! But I love locks and all their differences. This one has 8 rounded ‘shutters’ in the gates that gradually lift, allowing more and more water in. Maybe both the other two rising locks on this section will be the same ……

Tomorrow we will move directly onto the Canal de Sambre à l’Oise, and it will probably will seem very similar – except that after the next two locks going upwards we will find ourselves descending.

Late summer in Belgium part 3

Down the Belgian Sambre

with some Haut Escaut, and Canals Nimy-Blaton-Ath, de Centre and Brussels – Charleroi

August 15th to 26th 2021

We left Antoing and friends Mieke and Frans, setting off up the Haut Escaut towards the two big locks at Péronnes; these still ring alarm bells in the mind of the Captain as we had something of a rude awakening (6am) when we came down through them two years ago in the company of two large commercial barges and several smaller craft. (See blog post from July 2019 – ‘A River and Three Canals in a Week’).

The 2021 experience was much better – even pleasant! For a start we now had a means of communicating from end to end of a 65′ barge, with the accompanying noise of lock mechanisms and rushing water!

As the photos show, we had much more stately progress through the two Péronnes locks this time. It was made easier by being the only boat in the lock and able to choose our position on the bollards to suit the length of Calliope. Also experience, and the Nautic-talk made a difference. Quite enjoyable overall!

The wide straight section of canal after the locks was the perfect opportunity for crew to take over at the helm for a while – the only thing to avoid on a Sunday being the fishermen!

We were now on the Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes canal, heading East, enjoying the quietness of a mainly non-working day for the commercial barges.

(Of course we recognise and respect the big contribution that these working barges make to the waterway network and love them really!)

Further along the canal we were surprised to suddenly find the green carpet of duckweed normally associated with smaller, less used canals. It looks glorious, but is a bit of a nuisance.

Once through the duckweed we began to see interesting reflections. I love the way that the reflection of the steps seems to go back under the bank!

We knew where we were heading – Pommroeul! This huge, currently unused, basin with its long long mooring pier, is somewhere we have stayed before. There was a slight trepidation that it would be full of week-ending commercial barges, but, as you can see, it was totally totally empty!

This huge basin is the entrance to the ill-fated 12km long Pommeroeul-Conde canal, built to form another link between the French and Belgian canal systems. It opened in 1982, but due to heavy silting had to close 10 years later. Dredging from the Belgian end has taken place, and the French section (with the help of EU money) is almost clear as well. The canal is due to re-open in 2022, so probably no more peaceful mooring for leisure boats then!

Beyond the drop down from the lock is a ‘lake’, currently enjoyed by bathers, jet-skiers, ribs and other water sports; the cormorants wait for their turn when everyone has gone home! I took a walk along to the next bridge, round and back, to take it all in before it changes next year.

Then to settle down to a peaceful evening on the boat – or maybe not! I still had unspent energy so with a silent disco in my ears I danced up and down the pier. Poor Captain, with such crazy crew!

The sunset and sunrise were equally beautiful in their way, although Monday dawned with a lot of cloud and the threat of rain to come.

And as we set off next day it was immediately evident that Sunday and passed and a new working week was beginning!

We waited to allow a commercial barge, Karin, to go ahead of us – a slight mistake as she turned out to be travling rather slowly due to a heavy load.

Ah well, we were in no great rush!

A few kilometres on Karin drew in to a widening in the canal to let us pass, giving a friendly wave as we went by.

As we passed Mons the canal became the Canal de Centre and we looked ahead to the two locks we would go up that day. Luckily I had previously written in the map book what kind of bollards we should expect, so we were pleasantly prepared. We shared the locks with a small cabin cruiser, who found it a bit more difficult as the bollards tend to be around 15m apart, but they managed too.

We were heading for Thieu for the night, hoping to stay on the long quay by the entrance to the Canal Historique. And once more we were in luck, with only one other boat moored up there. Plenty of space for Calliope!

Although it was a bit wet still we went for a walk over the river to the village of Thieu.

We were looking for somewhere to buy bread the next morning, and having found the only boulangerie closed on Tuesdays we carried on to make sure the little minimarket was still there, and would be open!

Next morning I was back over the bridge to buy some bread, and a few other essentials – a short trip, but one that logged 3000 steps and got me a nice photo from the bridge of our resting place.

But then we were off – off to ascend the marvellous piece of engineering that is the Ascenseur Strèpy-Thieu. We have travelled this boat lift twice before, but of does not cease to amaze. It is a 75.3m vertical trip with awe-inspiring views of both machinery and scenery!

As we prepare to cast off Elan, a barge full of scrap metal, comes past and will be our company on the way up.

We reach the basin below the lift and wait a while until first the ‘doors’ open, and then Elan goes in.

We continued along the Canal de Centre, a wide, straight, modern canal, planning to reach Viesville lock for the night. However after only two and a half kilometres an alarm went off on the boat and we realised that the engine had overheated.

There are few places to stop and tie up along this stretch of canal but we were luckily just passing an industrial wharf, currently empty.

Captain Stu took us alongside, we tied up, and had lunch while we waited for the engine to cool down and understand the ‘problem’.

It turned out that we were short of water in the engine cooling system – that will teach us to get complacent about something that has always been fine whenever Stewart checked!

A short while after adding some water and testing the engine (now seemingly OK) a barge arrived to sue the wharf for commercial purposes, so we went on our way again.

Sadly then repair was not quite as simple as initially expected and within 5 minutes the engine overheated again. This time we were right beside the only reasonable public mooring along this part of the canal, so quickly tied up and switched off to wait for the engine to cool again, and further investigations to take place.

We adapted our red ensign to be the Belgian red flag of ‘immobile’ and made the decision to stay there overnight in order to fully let the boat cool down and understand the issue. In the morning an exchange of messages with the ever helpful Piper boats team pointed towards an airlock in the coolant system following the top up the previous day. Captain, turned Engineer, spent some time in the engine room and soon sorted it out! Simple really, as long as our know what to look for and what you are doing.

We were soon on our way again, keeping an eye on the temperature gauge, which remained reassuringly low.

Before long we were turning to starboard onto the Brussels-Charleroi Canal and heading for our next few locks.

The skies changed from light grey to dark, from potential sunshine to potential downpour. The scenery was changing to rise higher each side and become more wooded. There was evidence of the summer holidays with youngsters our learning the art of rowing.

We were in needs of fresh milk – the Captain is not very keen on the homogenised milk that is most common on the shelves of the supermarkets here.

I was pleased to see a Carrefour on Google maps that was seemingly near the canal. They usually have fresh milk – so all we had to do was find a mooring close by.

And we did; an old bollard hidden in the grass and something that the Captain tied onto.

And the Carrefour was really close! The roof was visible form the mooring!

We had made a plan to stay at Viesville lock where we have stayed overnight before and been very comfortable amongst groups of working barges waiting for the early locks down next day. But having announced out intention to the éclusiers he recommended that we carry on to the next lock, Gosselies, and stay there – so we did.

Having dropped down the lock we discovered that our mooring options were not as great as anticipated – a long wooden pier one side, with bollards about 30m apart, or a long high wall where the bollards were more comfortably spaced for us. We thought we would get as far from the lock as we could, only to find a ‘No Parking’ sign part way along, meaning that we had to moor close to the lock than we would have preferred – but all seemed OK – in fact very pleasant and calm.

It was an ideal opportunity to start cleaning off the grime that accumulates as you cruise through the more industrial areas – a good evening’s exercise when you cannot get off the barge to go walking!

It was less so in the night when we were woken a couple of times – once by a spider that had fallen in through the window and into our bed! Once by a sense that Calliope was leaning to one side, due to the water level falling and the mooring ropes holding her up on the starboard side – easily rectified by a swift trip up on deck. And then from 6am the barges starting to come and go through the lock, and the planes beginning their daily schedule from Brussels-Charleroi nearby! All good fun, and part of life on a boat.

We were looking forward to the next day’s cruising as it would take us, eventually, away from the industrial canals and onto the Haute Sambre – a smaller and much less used river. But first it was through the current and past working life of the Charleroi area. There is a huge amount of scrap metal business the area, but past evidence of steel works and their, now green, slag heaps.

We had one lock along the way and had to wait a while to use it. A gaggle of hybrid geese helped to pass the time and eat up our left over bread.

The lock itself, Marchienne-au-Pont, is only 7m and has floating bollards, so not a major obstacle. Although when the bollard at its highest floating point in somewhat below the level of the fore-deck it does require a bit of leaning over and swinging rope hopefully to catch it!

But of course once you start to go down in the lock it evens out and all is well.

Less than 3 kilometres on we were into Charleroi and turning right onto the Sambre.

This sign is confusing as it shows the turning towards Bruxelles, Mons and Tournai that we had just come from!

We turned onto the Haute Sambre in the direction of Thuin.

We were finding the riverbanks ever changing, from industrial to residential, from city park to countryside. And within 5 kms we were at our first Haute Sambre lock, Monceau-sun-Sambre. I had phoned ahead to the éclusier as normal good practise and he said that he would prepare the lock. So we were surprised when we came round a slight bend to go into the lock to find that the gates were closed.

Thinking that the éclusier would be keeping a watch for us to arrive the Captain held Calliope midstream as best he could, given the cross wind! After a while, lock gates still closed, I called again. Ah yes, he would now prepare the lock! And after another five minutes we saw that the lock was beginning to empty.

After another five minutes the gates opened and we went in – both looking as always for the best option for securing both ends of the barge. It was difficult; we went to the front of the lock looking for options. It is only a 4.9m lock, but the bollards at the top are set back and impossible to see from the bottom of the lock. I was just climbing onto the roof in the hope of throwing a rope from there when the éclusier appeared and gestured to us to come astern and tie to two bollards low down in the wall.

This was seemingly odd advice as there were no bollards higher in the wall to move up to as the water n the lock rose, but we obediently did as we were told. And then all became clear!!!! The éclusier appeared above us with a big hook and a long piece of cord, which he let down, we hung our ropes to, and we took up and passed round d the hidden bollards on the quay!

Voila! It all worked perfectly.

Soon the lock was full and were ready to carry on up river, under grey skies.

A quick few things should be said about the Sambre. For 15 years the river could be cruised from its French side and its Belgian side, but not all the way through. Now this beautiful route between the two countries has been reopened (July 2021), following reconstruction of the aqueducts at Vadencourt and Macquencourt. The French Government paid for half the cost of restoring the canal, the rest of the €15 million investment being covered by the local authorities.

There is evidence of the infrastructure being improved further, with river side roads and paths being relaid, new pontoons and water/electricity supplies for plaisanciers, and dredging of sections in danger of silting up. Travel this waterway! It’s worth it.

Now we really did feel we were out on the country. We saw a king fisher – our first this year – mild mannered cows chewed peacefully as we went by; fisherman nodded and pulled in their lines; the small village of Landelies came into view.

The next lock is at Abbaye d’Aulne, a mere two and a half kms further, where we were to moor up for a couple of days. Once more we helped at the lock, and then onto the long quay just beyond where there was plenty of space for us.

The Abbaye is a monumental place – just full of interest, history, ruins and architecture. Lunch came first but then a walk round the ruins was a must. According to legend (and the English guide book) the Abbey was formed in 637 and there have been monastic structures here ever since. It was in the 12th-13th Century that the Cistercians settled in here, forcing the local inhabitants to sell their property to the abbey on pain of excommunication. Not exactly a kindly thing to do.

That evening in part of the Abbey grounds on the far side of us a big non-dancing disco was held. I did walk up and have a quick look and listen, but then back to Calliope for a quiet sunset rosé with my lovely man.

But our evening out was to the Mini Golf Terrace bar, overlooking the weir stream of the river. We both sampled the Abbaye beer – it is still brewed in local town Thuin, but no longer by the monks! I tried their Cherie cherry flavoured beer – sadly not a patch on the Kreik cherry beers, brewed in a different way. Stewart’s blonde was just right for a summer evening.

To complete our ‘date night’ we went for a meal at one of the many restaurants around the Abbey, and recommended to us by a local couple. Our aperitifs were served with the ruins as backdrop.

After a shared starter Stewart chose jamboneau – it was huge and we brought home what he could not eat to use for another meal! I had a platter of cold smoked fish with salad – also huge! But we still struggled through a shared ice cream dessert!

With stomachs full we staggered across the weir stream bridge and back to Calliope for a peaceful night, only disturbed, occasionally, by the lovely gaggle of geese.

Our next stop was not far away. We were heading for Thuin. The description of the mooring and the town both sounded nice.

It was to be one of those windy rural trips, cruising gently through nature, with three small locks along the way.

The map book shows that all the phone numbers for the locks have changed over the past few years, but luckily we had been provided with a new list at the first lock.

And the locks were enjoyable too!

At one of them, right out away from towns and villages, the Captain attempted to recruit some canine crew, whilst I chatted to a goat, after being the one to do the manual work of opening the lock gate. It’s what crew are for really!

By lunch time we could see the Thuin moorings and were lucky to find plenty of space at the upstream end. Here the quay was a better height for Calliope.

Although there is a Steak House alongside this is not open yet, and it was one of the quietest town moorings we have ev er encountered.

Currently there is not water or electricity on the moorings, but a big sign to say that all of this is being developed and will be available soon.

Already there is a useful tap inland of the path approximately half way along the low pontoon mooring.

After lunch it was on to exploring the town which is divided into the Haute Ville at the top of the hill, and the Bass Ville at the bottom, by the river, which is known as the batellier’s, or boatman area. Day one was to explore at the top, including following a route to see the .hanging gardens. These are residential gardens built onto small terraces down the southern slopes of the hill – there is little flat land to be had!

It certainly was a hilly route, with narrow paths and alleys winding up and down. To be honest little could be seen of the gardens as they tended to be behind walls and gates, but it was an interesting walk.

And the considerable effort of the walk was a good reason for a beer in the square at the top before going back to Calliope for a floating supper.

As mentioned above, this was a peaceful mooring, quite some way from roads, bridges and railways.

We passed a tranquil night.

We always enjoy our encounters with animals as we pass along our way.

This young cat lived nearby and is obviously fascinated by boats. She would sit looking at our boat for ages, and then come aboard in quite a proprietorial manner.

Sunday morning she was at her bravest, inspecting the waters from the bow.

But things did get noiser later, as you will read.

We could hear something being set up along the quay – there was a PA, the start of a bar, and a gathering of people. But time for us to walk around the battelier’s area first.

Back at the boat we began to get an idea of the event that was to unfold. There was to be a race on the river, using unusual craft, for reasons not quite understood by its, but obviously to be fun. We went to watch the start, and were surprised to see the ‘starting gun’ was some kind of old fashioned blunderbuss!

Here is a link to a video of the start, including the first capsize, within 20 seconds! https://youtu.be/Yg543RuXGKU

They held the race again and again and again, some of the competitors being fuller and fuller and fuller of beer and Flambée!

Cherries and Griottes being two of my favourite flavours in an alcoholic context it is not surprising that I managed to but some samples – just €1 for a shot of La Flambée, a 33% d’eau-de-vie with a 12 month sozzled cherry at the bottom of the glass – so strong that it almost blew my head off!

Yes, it made me quite cheerful!

As evening arrived we thought we would try the frituur on the corner, after I had a walk to get closer to my 10000 steps for the day! Just as I returned the heavens opened and rain absolutely poured down!!! I dashed to cover under one of the umbrellas set up but the Confrèrie, and watched as the street began to turn into a secondary river! Hmm, an excuse for another shot of La Flambée!

At last the rain stopped enough for Stewart to join me and the beer I had ordered for him – and to meet one of the senior figures in the brotherhood.

And from our new friend I was also able to buy some of the pork paté with cherries – very rich and much more to my taste than to Stu’s!

All the more for me then.

Other than a somewhat disappointing frituur experience that I had to queue half an hour to buy, that was the end of a wonderful time on Thuin. We would recommend to anyone making a stop there! So next morning it was cast off under a down cast sky and head on upstream towards the French border. Only two more stops until we are there; we could have dashed across in a few hours, but we are enjoying our amble along the Sambre.

Merbes-le-Chateau appealed because of its DBA (Butch Barge Association) description as a ‘basic mooring in a quiet area’. We had plenty of water from the last time we filled up Leers Nord just over two weeks ago, and our PV panels mean we virtually never need to plug into a marina’s shore power.

We were back to rather grey travelling, but that often leads to calm waters and good reflections.

We had three locks to navigate before we reached Merbes. And it was at the second that we had a surprise

A big sign at the end of the lock warned of work going on in the river on the next bief, or stretch of water.

And sure enough as we rose up with the water in the lock we saw almost the whole width of the river blocked by three working vessels.

By the time we reached our last lock of the day the rain had begin to fall – a light summer rain, but still capable le of giving you a good soaking while you stand in the bow at a lock, so I was prepared!

He was able helped by his mate – maybe also an éclusier – so that despite the manual potation of everything we were soon on our way.

Our mooring was a couple of kilometres further along, one side or the other of the bridge at Merbes. It was up to us to choose what looked best for Calliope as we arrived. For us having the bow, with our cabin beneath, furthest from the bridge was likely to be quietest overnight.

It wasn’t long before we began to wonder who had described it as quiet! A lorry, a large van, a JCB, some men with an angle grinders and a huge street cleaning vehicle all reversed down the slope behind us and began to work along the riverbank road! But it did not take long, and in fact it is all part of Wallonia Waterways bringing the river up to scratch for an increase in boaters now that the river is open through France.

Our other interruptions were the regular ‘pushers’, bringing the mud barges to and from the works down stream.

They all had friendly crews, and again it is good to see waterways being brought back to life.

We went off for a walk, as usual, after lunch. This time, after a quick tour of the small village, we set off to cross the river on a footbridge and into a green pathway.

Signs of autumn are coming in already, ands n to even the end of August, There were masses of sloes that will be ready for sloe gin in a few weeks, but we will have moved on.

On our way back we got up close to the dinosaur at the opposite side of the river to our mooring. I tried offering food, but to wasn’t interested!

As the day drew to a close, with lorries and mud barges gone home, it did become the promised quiet mooring.

Through the trees we could just see the unusually shaped church steeple, and could listen to it strike the hours.

We were delighted to have this Jersey Tiger moth aboard at the start of the journey.

When it opens its wings to fly the underwings are bright red.

The roof was still wet with dew, hence the bubbly effect of the roof!

On the port side we came upon the place where the mud was being unloaded from the barges, and presumably taken away in lorries.

This sillty soil will be welcomed by many gardeners I think!

We came through Écluse 1 of the Belgian Haut Sambre – a small, happy lock, with the bollards painted different colours.

This made it very easy for the Captain to let crew know which bollard to use – “You take the red one and I will take the blue”.

There is a large port at Erquelinnes, with a narrow en trance from the river.

Calliope could fit through, but as usual we went fore the quieter more solitary mooring a bit further up the river.

We were very content on the customs quay. Behind us was over 100 yards of empty wall – occasionally used by fishermen and women and young lads swimming. Overall a perfect place for us, so we stayed two nights!

We were in need of a re-stock of the cupboard and fridge, so we set off on a half hour walk to the road with three good size supermarkets – and with fresh milk at the top of our shopping list. We filled up several shopping bags – but not with fresh milk. None was to be had in Erquelinnes!

So that created the plan for next day. We would walk along the river, over the French border, and in the next town, Jeumont, go to the Carrefour where fresh milk is normally to be found.

It was a successful walk in every way. The weather was perfect – sunny but not too hot. The industry and the nature along the riverbank was interesting; we saw disused factories, the site of an old pont levée, a rat, a lizard and more besides.

Jeumont Carrefour came up trumps with the milk, and also my favourite salmon parmentier and the Captain’s favourite St Felicien cheese, all smuggled back into Belgium undetected ….

We inspected the halte nautique next to the bridge, but could not tell if the electricity and water now worked – a DBA member passing a few years ago mentioned that they had been switched off.

The sun continued to shine all the way back, lighting up the teazle barbs.

We found out that the nearby port was originally very much a working port

In the afternoon we went to have a look at the port. It is very big – 300m long and 45m wide. Although the entrance, under a railway bridge, looks narrow it is easily wide enough for our 4.2m wide barge, as can be evidenced by the barges already in the port. I have tried to discover the historical industries off the town, but apart from seeing plenty of farms around I cannot work it out.

As we returned from our exploration I was tempted to go for a swim myself – but this time I was more restrained and only my toes got wet.

The bush at the end of the quay marks the en trance to the port, and Stu was on our back deck taking this photo – so you can see how close we were.