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.

Kortrijk to Dendermonde – on the Leie and the Scheldt

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

28th June – 6th July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Following distant Doris under Kuurnebrug at Harelbeke

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

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

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

Moving on out of Waregem Sluis

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

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

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

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

Starting to lift out the dead bow-thruster batteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buying ready made moussaka – cheating but delicious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fishing three

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

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

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

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

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

An empty Ring Vaart

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

acres to spare!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

South East outskirts of Ghent, on the Schelde

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

After about half an hour we joined the main Schelde river and continued on down to the Marina where we were due to join the Ring Vaart – main waterway circling most of Ghent.

Marelebeke Marina

We had aimed to time this right for the tides. Going out through the narrow entrance of the previous lock (or barrage) would take us into Marelebeke double lock waiting area, and the top of the tidal river Schelde.

Into one of the two locks at Marelbeke

We arrived as the last of the downstream barges was in the locks and we only had 15 minutes to wait before our turn to follow.

If you ever need to do this, aim to be at Marelbeke about 4 hours after high tide at Antwerp. High tide at Melle and Marelbeke is 3.5 hours later than Antwerp, and as the tide turns any commercial barges going to Antwerp will set off. We wanted to be just behind them; somehow it worked!

All alone in a great big lock we descended gently, about 1m, to join the high water of the Boven-Zee-Schelde. It was all remarkably straight forward. The lock ‘guillotine’ door rose, and off we went, riding the tide. (But as always we were careful not to get smug.)

Timing our speed

Stu decided to work out what speed we were travelling. Our RPMs were kept to just over our usual cruising of 1100, and then timed how long it took us to go 6kms. It took just half an hour, so a speed of about 12kph – over 50% faster than normal due to the fast flowing tide.

Notes from the dashboard: Top line – VHF is on at channel 10 as always on busy commercial waterways. Second line – we’re in 15.1 feet of water, it’s 10.20 local time and we’re heading due south – you don’t need a compass when the sun is shining …..

The Boven-Zee-Schelde is not a wide river, mostly through countryside, with the occasional small town. The skies were threatening, but so far, so far, no rain.

For a long time we saw no other craft, but eventually we went through a town with some river action – a barge that was collecting up the masses of floating debris in the river – mainly reeds – plus a ferry and a small working boat.

Other things along the way, a flotilla of geese across the bow ….

…. a very low ‘flying’ aeroplane ….

… and shallow sandy shores on some of the curves as the tide retreated.

Didn’t she do ‘Puppet on a String’?

As it got close to lunch time I had some time at the helm so that Captain could eat. Even I was safe in such wide, empty waters. It began to rain, quite hard, but I know where the switch for the wipers is!

Our one piece of passing traffic

We came a long way down the gently bending river, almost to our turn-off, with no traffic around. Then, just as we approached the turn onto the Dender on a shape double bend, our first commercial barge of the day appeared, pushing hard against the flow. Luckily Stu was alert and smartly side-stepped to starboard! Smiles and waves from the commercials skipper.

Then it was our turn into the Dender and the Dendermonde lock. I had radioed ahead and the lock-keeper had prepared the lock for us; the gates were opening as we turned upstream.

It was a lock with high sides, but with bollards set into the walls so that we could put ropes round low down and move them up as we rose a couple of meters. Once more guillotine gates opened, and we were onto the scenic Dender river.

The first thing we saw was a commercial barge being unloaded of huge coils of metal – maybe not as scenic as we thought …

We had read of a mooring 2km up river and thought that would be good for us – but would it be empty? As we approached we could see a cabin cruiser moored there, but as it is a 30m pontoon still probably room for us?

As we got closer, the cruiser left! How lucky are we? And the sole occupant was a fisherman. We gently moved alongside, tied up, and counted ourselves lucky.

We had arrived at Dendermonde! And on a lovely peaceful mooring we enjoyed a wonderful evening sky.

Late summer start from Kortrijk – the Covoid-19 affect

21st June – 28th June 2020

[the bits in italics are added by Captain Stu]

Yes, it wasn’t until 21st June that we could return to Calliope and start the summer aboard! Of course it was all due to the Covoid-19 coronavirus pandemic and it was absolutely essential that we neither spread the virus ourselves, or were ill in a foreign land – Belgium.

Setting off from St Pancras on our masked journey – wing-nut and wife, waiting for a train.

So we sat tight until the authorities on both sides off the channel deemed it safe for us to travel from UK, through France, and into Belgium. Our original April 1st Eurostar tickets to Lille had long since been exchanged for vouchers. On rebooking we found that the train was not currently stopping at Lille, so, masks fixed as required, we went to Paris, then back to Lille, and finally to Kortrijk. Phew!

Bars are open in Belgium!

We left the UK part way through the easing of the three month lock-down; no bars, restaurants, cinemas etc open amongst other things like hairdressers and gyms. We were therefore delighted and slightly shocked when leaving the station at Kortrijk to see our favourite bar open with plenty of customers! As long as it is safe, hooray!

No time for bars that day; more important to get to our boat and relax, which we did with beer, luckily left in the fridge from our February visit!

I just had to have a quick late evening walk to see the river, the city, and the quite amazing skies. The colours here are somehow extra vibrant.

Next day was about starting to get shipshape. We had returned to a very dirty boat due to a mix of sticky sycamore sap and builders dust from nearby developments. It was also time to re-varnish the wheelhouse and repaint the roof so ….. here we go ….

Painting the cabin roof (only 30 feet to go…..)
The reward (We’ll tidy up later …..)

In amongst the days of work we took lovely walks around Kortrijk, both sides of the river. I cannot avoid taking photos when there are so many interesting shapes and colours. Here’s a taste of this fascinating small city.

There are many more photos of Kortrijk in other parts of this blog, both Summer and Winter, so I have not repeated them here.

And we continued to enjoy the fact that bars were open! One of our favourites is under the trees in the park at Plein, only 5 minutes from the mooring. Coronavirus had instituted a new ordering method – sending your table number and order by SMS, in Flemish! We did manage, but only after I had apparently sent our order top some unknown unsuspecting person in Eire.

Most evenings ended up on the back deck appreciating being back afloat, looking up, through the tress to the sky, down into the water, and along the river at the constantly changing view.

One of the things I like best about the mooring in Kortrijk is the birdlife on the water. Ducklings are always engaging and I have the chance to watch the way their mothers’ herd them and talk to them.

The moorhens were building a nest, the coots were visiting to ask for food ……..

…and the heron made evening visits, with a roof roost across the river.

After several days of blazing sunshine and temperatures into the low thirties we had a couple of days of rain and showers, and a thunderstorm.

The greyest day

Once that blew over it seemed a good time to get on the move and continue our exploration of Belgium, its beers and its waffles – and maybe on into the Netherlands!

Bye bye Kortrijk, until the autumn.

Calliope check – two winter trips to Kortrijk

The December Trip – shopping

During the 5 month winter season we made two trips out to check on Calliope – and to enjoy the city of Kortrijk too. The first trip was in December. We had thoughts of enjoying a Christmas Market and buying some unusual presents for all and sundry – that bit didn’t quite work out but we had an enjoyable few days just the same.

Leaving home on a winter’s morning, bound for Belgium

The ferry trip and road journey was uneventful and we arrived in Kortrijk with enough daylight to see that the pontoon and Calliope’s deck were nestling under a blanket of leaves; Autumn had visited during our absence! Sweeping to be done.

It was quite cold and wintery outside, but down below, the the stove going, a cup of tea and a hot water bottle I soon felt snug. I love being aboard in winter; she’s such a warm boat to live on.

Once I started clearing off the leaves it became apparent that quite a lot of dust and grit had arrived with the foliage – hmmmm, extra cleaning tools required! But there was an artistic element to the affair – the leaves had left stencilled imprints across the roof, some worthy of photography.

Looking better with barge and pontoon cleared of fallen leaves

Our few days in Kortrijk gave time to see the Christmas illuminations – very pretty, and here are just a few. The Broel Towers and the covered ice rink in the Grote Markt with its guardian reindeer were especially lovely.

Disappointingly the 2019 Christmas Market was a lot smaller than normal, and in a large marquee. However the atmosphere within the marquee was good, with gluwein abundantly available, and music, dancing, food and gifts happening too.

We had a chance to catch up with some boating friends up and down the pontoon, hearing about the weather we had missed and the weather still to come. It’s good to know that friends are keeping an eye on your boat while you are away.

The best three boat watchers for us are Martin and Sally on the permanent mooring behind us, and Peter whose barge is moored ’round the corner’ on the canal. Not every day was gloomy; I took a sunny opportunity to catch a photo of Martin and Sally’s boat just 50 yards away.

They invited us, and Peter, to lunch aboard one day – a wonderful lunch that started at 1pm and had us staggering home at 2100. We started our Christmas celebrations early!

And then it was time to set off home. We had a beautiful calm ferry crossing, with one great excitement when we spotted whales off the starboard bow! (No photo to prove it – sorry.)

Back in Gosport we were soon into full swing for Christmas decorations, card writing, present wrapping, and general family fun – no time at all to miss Calliope.

The February Trip – servicing

The main reason for the timing of this trip was to coincide with our good friends Ian and Nicky travelling north from their barge in Auxonne to spend a few days with us. It was so good to spend a few days with them, rather then the usual few hours.

And on top of that, Ian is a time served marine engineer, willing and more than able to help Stewart service the boat engine, advise on other maintenance issues, and problem solve a couple of niggly bits! [Ian has now set up a small business servicing and repairing boat engines in France and England – send me a message if you want his details – he is good!]

We left our winter ‘mooring’ in Gosport with the sun rising golden above Portsmouth. I must explain that our winter ‘mooring’ is tethered to the ground – a house – but at least it looks out over water!

Captain and crew (or Communications Officer as I am apparently to be known) arrived a couple of days ahead – long enough to warm up Calliope, get some provisions aboard, and become reacquainted with this lovely city.

Once Nicky and Ian arrived, with dogs Freddy and Milly, the fun could begin in earnest. Evening one was a short introduction to Kortrijk, it’s local beer (Omer) and our favourite bar by the station – followed by an enormous meal of ribs and frites!

A fair amount of Belgian beer had been sampled before we slightly staggered home.

Next day had to begin with work for the engineers. Luckily Nicky and I don’t fall into that category so we took the dogs for a walk along the river, and then headed into town for a look round – a good mix of history and food.

By late afternoon the mechanical stuff was done – engine oil changed, gear box oil changed, filters replaced, tensions checked, rudder stock greased, engine mountings tightened, and a needy home found for a spare nut found on the floor! At last the marine-engineer-in-chief was free to join in the Kortrijk walk-about.

The delights of Belgium – waffles, chocolate and beer!

We did walk along the river, stare at some of the beautiful old buildings, read some of the history, and listen to the carillon on the Groot Markt. But the weather was miserable, so after some shopping to buy chocolates for the family (funny how much tasting one has to do) we retired to a waffle shop with the unlikely name of Lord Nelson!

As always I went OTT with my waffle, this time covered in really good fresh fruit, with a side of advocaat custard to pour on top – het was lekker! (Ah, my Dutch lessons are paying off at last).

Back to Calliope and the Captain, who had remained on board. It was time for a glass of wine while we waited to eat the massive and delicious lasagne that Nicky had brought with her.

Milly was official observer.

Sunday, another grey day, allowed time for a couple of niggles to be problem solved – a radiator not keen on heating up, and a light that had stopped coming on (no, not needing a new lamp!) Super hero Ian sorted both of these while Nicky and I walked the dogs and bought bread and sausages before a giant English/Belgian fry up brunch. Mmmmm!

More walking was required to make room for the planned evening meal – pizza at our favourite Kortrijk pizzeria. Thanks Nicky for the photo.

Next day our guests were due to leave. But it was Monday, market day, so we walked round all the stalls before they left. I bought new white asparagus for a risotto later, and further chocolate purchases were made too. Then it was time to wave them all good-bye.

The weather had not being very kind over these few days, but soon after Ian and Nicky departed the sun came out and blue skies prevailed. Looking up and down the river Leie form the boat all was calm and beautiful, for a while.

And then hail blasted down, making a right racket on the roof and turning the pontoon slippery with ice. Winter still had a grip on Kortrijk, but all was to carry on warm and welcoming below.

The Bossuit-Kortijk kanaal, where Peter keeps his barge

That afternoon Sally, Martin and Peter, three friends from other barges, came round for a catch-up-chat and cup of tea, which became a glass of wine, and slid imperceptibly into more wine, asparagus and parmesan risotto, and the remains of tiramisu and rijstaart from the days before; more good times with friends.

Stu and I were left with one last day to tidy up and pack up before we were making the return journey to the UK. The servicing of the engine had identified a few things we needed to buy – anti freeze, some spare fuses, filler – so we walked a couple of kilometres to Plan-It, a DIY store. The walk back was less fun. Why didn’t I realise how much a 5L container of anti freeze would weigh?

But it gave us an excuse to stop along the way for lunch in our second favourite fritteur, by the station. And this was the first of four days of fish and chips for me!

Back aboard we settled down to enjoy our last evening and night on Calliope for a few weeks. In the morning we packed the car and by 9.30 we were on the road to Dunkirk and our ferry.

The ferry was a bit late, but once aboard we grabbed our favourite seat in the restaurant and I soon had my second plate of fish and chips before me – actually the best fish and batter off the four days.

Exploring the ship I discovered that one area had recently been refurbished and now housed a pizza and pasta café. Of course it was too late for our meal for this trip, but definitely one to try out in future.

The other discovery was a secret corner to sit in, with big comfy chairs, and a round window through which to view the channel.

So here to finish this min-trip are a series of ‘through the round window’ images.

And now we are back home, waiting and planning for a few weeks before the 2020 voyage towards The Netherlands begins, with a ‘bottom-blacking’ experience booked into a boatyard near Gent beforehand. This will be a whole new country experience for us – new lock and bridge systems, mooring rules, and finding our way around shops, bars and restaurants. Bring it on!

Winding our way to our winter mooring

27 September – 10 October 2019

We were taking the long autumnal way round. We had left Kortrijk in late August and set off on a loop of northern Belgium and France, in order to arrive back where we started and tie up for the winter.

Now we were on the last lap, crossing borders, changing waterways, and soaking up the last of the sun, or getting soaked, depending on the weather.

If you are crossing into France between Veurne and Dunkirk you have to phone 2 days ahead and plan to meet a VNF person at the Ghyvelde bridge where your papers will be checked before the bridge is opened and you are allowed to pass into France. We had all this sorted and set off from our mooring in Veurne in plenty of time – until we wound round the first bend, saw another (low) bridge, and had to phone to ask for this to be lifted !too

waiting in Veurne for the Ieper bridgeto open

Unfortunately there was a problem with another bridge in the vicinity so we had to wait – just half an hour – for the lock-keeper-cum-bridge-lifter to appear. That put a little pressure on our run to the Belgian border, but all was fine.

The bridge, interestingly (to me) was not a lift bridge at all. It was a swing or turntable bridge, swinging round so that it was parallel to the canal, on the right on this photo.

Then we were out onto the Nieuwpoorte to Duinkerke Kanaal, the sun behind us in the East and the flat, almost coastal, farmlands of Belgium stretching out under grey skies on each side.

In some ways it was an unremarkable journey, so I took the opportunity to put my feet up and observe Stu at the helm.

Looking back at Veurne I saw some of the historic towers I had not managed to photograph while we were there (too much rain), and then looking forward to enjoy the final flat farmland as we edged towards France. 

crossing the border

There was no definitive border line on the canal, although the border town of Adinkerke was interesting – packed full of Tabacs, brazenly selling cigarettes at lower prices than neighbouring France! The closest to a border that we saw was a bridge that used both languages to explain its presence.

Before too long we were through the first, and then the second, French lift bridge – or pont levée as I should probably now write.

waiting at Dunkirk

We traveled on to Dunkirk (Duinkerke), arriving at a ‘red-light’ lock as we entered the city. There were not many clues as to whom we should notify of our arrival. I walked up to the lock; no éclusier; no notice with a phone number or VHF channel to use for communication.

The Stu noticed the new sensors just in front of Calliope! Moving forward we triggered the sensors, the doors opened and Calliope sailed in.

We tied up and looked for a way to operate the lock – no poles, levers, remote controls – but a faded sign said to press the black button?????
Stu climbed up the long ladder on the other side found a red and green button, pressed the green, the normal lock-operating colour in Framce, …… nothing.

Then suddenly I saw, on the other side of the lock, in an alcove, something dangling on the end of a chain! We moved Calliope over, grabbed the chain, and hey presto, there was a black button (or white to go to in the opposite direction back to Belgium).

the canal through Dunkirk 1

One press and we were on our way again, Captain Stu steering us through the outskirts of Dunkirk.

the canal through Dunkirk 2

Not far after the lock we took a 90 degree turn to the left onto the Canal de Bergues – an 8 kilometre connection between Dunkirk and the lovely fortified town of Bergues. Do go there if you get a chance! I will tempt you with the following photos!

Bergues has been fortified for centuries, with the famous Vauban applying complex finishing touches – zig zag ramparts, moats and islands. This map gives an idea of it all -red dot marks our mooring.

There was a choice of moorings; our preference was just before the canal turned in front of the old walls of Bergues – a tranquil slightly isolated spot, but within easy reach of the town.  Perfect.

We had two days and three nights here. The weather veered between gale force winds with lashing rain and bright September sunshine; fairly typical of northern Europe in autumn I think.

To encapsulate our time in Bergues, we were entertained by 94 geese …… or as they say in Nottingham – Ey up ducks

We walked the ramparts, in rain and in sun ……..

We walked the streets to better understand the layout ……

We went to the two old towers – one a steeple that used to be a guide to sailors when the coast was much closer to Bergues, and the other part of an old abbey built on a ‘green hill’ that was the founding of the town.

And we enjoyed all of it.  The autumn light and colours created such golden green views in every direction.

The maze of water channels, sluices, locks, water gates and moats could fill a blog of its own.

On  Monday it was time to go. Got up on time for a change and quickly walked into town to see the Monday market (still setting up) and buy some Bergues specialities – saucisse and fromage (very smelly, but thrice dipped in beer), plus other local delicacies from the boucherie/charcuterie I had visited before.

blue/green bridge on Canal de Bergues

We had arranged with Friday’s lock keeper to be at Jeu de Mail, the lock to leave Dunkirk (West) at 1030 and had a pleasant cruise up the Canal de Bergues in the sun. Then just as we reached Dunkirk the phone rang.

I struggled to fully understand what was being said – it seemed that the lock Jeu de Mail was closed for 3 weeks starting that morning; we couldn’t wait for it to reopen as we did not have time.

We were told that we could instead go out into the Post of Dunkirk where all the ferries and cargo ships are, join the Bassin Maritime, a wide channel just in from the coast, then go through the big Mardyck lock into the Mardyck Derivation. That would bring us back to where we wanted to be.

But we could not see how to get into the Port from where we were, so arranged to meet up with the eclusier. With the aid of several maps of Dunkirk port area she showed us the way. Off we went into the Gare d’Eau, a big basin that included a lock through to Darse 1 in the Port.

But the lock had 2 red lights, indicating it was broken. Who to call? The two phone numbers on the notice had no reply, so onto the harbour master VHF and try to explain in my French what was happening. It was no-deal. Bateaux de Plaisance could not go through the commercial Mardyck lock, even if they were 20m long!

Warning – work happening on the canal!

So what to do? We presumed we would have to retrace all our steps (if you can have steps on a boat), return to Veurne, to Nieuwpoort, to Brugges, to Gent, to Deinze and finally to Kortrijk. I was back on the phone to ask for them to open the two pont-levées on the route back to Veurne, leaving messages on two different numbers because no-one answered. All good fun!

Dunkirk

Just as we approached the first, automatic, lock eastwards my mobile rang. I could hardly believe that I was understanding correctly – in exceptional circumstances they were going to stop work at the Jeu de Mail lock, open it just for us, and then start work again! Another explanation might be that this was easier for them than driving all the way back to open the bridges but, hey, we’re in France – that’s how they are and we just love them for it.

And that is what happened. We turned into the Canal de Bourbourg and waited for two work boats to move over and let us through to the lock.

gloomy day in Jeu de Mail lock

We were the last boat to be allowed through the lock for three weeks! And then we were off again, and actually all of that excitement had only held us up for an hour.

Now we were on the big wide part of the Canal de Bourbourg, empty but for us.

After an hour or so we joined the Mardyck line for a couple of kilometres.

Then the canal de Bourbourg peels off and continues to the left, narrow and pretty, past a set of lucky live-aboards.

As we continued towards the town of Bourbourg, our target for the night’s mooring, the canal became a countryside waterway with swans and coots peacefully co-existing.

We came to Bourbourg écluse with the intention of going through and mooring up just off the main canal – but our phone fun continued with no-one answering the supposed correct numbers. I walked down past the two town lift bridges looking for alternative numbers; none to be found.

entrance hall to Bourbourg Mairie

I tried a canal side bar, who sent me to the Mairie, who helpfully gave me a number, that gave me another number, where I made contact with an éclusier who could not come for two days – or maybe tomorrow if I was lucky!  I was lucky, and we settled down for pleasant evening below the lock.

I was fascinated as I walked around Bourbourg to see two vending machines selling local produce, from local people’s gardens and chickens! So fascinated that I went back in the morning before we left and bought some of the eggs and tomatoes you can see here – what a brilliant idea!

We were all ready for the éclusier to arrive before the stipulated 0900. He came at 0845 to get the lock ready – all by hand; a truly manual lock. I helped wind open one of the gates so that Calliope could glide in, and then one of the éclusier’s mates arrived and took over the winding duties.

After the lock there are two pont levées to be opened so we cruised slowly round the town, giving our new friend time to stop traffic and then open, hydraulically, each bridge.

One of the canal side building walls has been transformed into an open air art gallery, with ;paintings of famous Bourbourg people through the centuries. There is a sign there naming them all, but I regret I did not make a note.

Then we were off towards the end of Canal de Bourbourg where a double-doored lock would let us out onto the river Aa. The skies to port were on the heavy side and we hoped we would escape the storm.

By the time we reached the lock things were looking celestially better, or at least the sky was a lighter shade of grey, and the water a brighter shade of lime. I went to help the double winding required for a double door lock! Yes, it was another manual one. Stu meantime could gently spectate.

Then we were out on L’Aa – wide open spaces again! Cruising on L’Aa had been a long term ambition after we had driven over the Aa valley time and again on our trips from the UK to various points in France.

The day became bluer as we traveled South, meeting up twice more with the éclusier who opened two bridges for us at Saint Nicolas and Bistade (Hmm, sky still looks a bit grey in the Saint Nicolas photo!).

Then we were past the turn off for the Canal de Calais, and could see hills in the distance! After so many weeks in the joyous flat lands of Belgium and North France hills were quite a novelty!

Before long Calliope reached Watten and the Y-junction with Canal de la Haute Colme – part of the wide water highway linking the coast with Lille. The history of the rivers and canals in this region is complex, especially as all the Google searches I am doing come up in French – but it is interesting so worth looking up again when I am in the UK.

Suffice it to say that without turning to left or right you could find yourself on the Canal de la Haute Colme, L’Aa, Canal de Neufossé, or, further down, Canal d’Aire! They are all linked up to create a Grand Gabarit, or ‘big size’ canal, for the giant commercial barges.

Within another 3 kms we were looking out for the entrance to La Houlle – a short river that ends at Houlle itself, and a place to moor for the night away from the barge superhighway.

The next few kilometres were fascinating. After passing under the bridge onto the Houlle we went through a large basin, and then into a narrow winding river lined by highly individual cottages – those on the left linked to the road on the right by flat bottomed chain ferries – one per dwelling!

We arrived at the Houlle pontoon without any trouble, disturbing the resident ducks as we threw our ropes around the cleats. What a peaceful undisturbed place we had found! One lonely fisherman appeared for a while, and someone walked a dog past – otherwise we saw no-one.

We took a walk round the village – no photos of note, but there is a very old church and a good gin distillery, plus a bar and a restaurant. With rain very much in the air we cut our walk short, missing the chance to walk from Houlle to Moulle, where (as the Captain says) they probably play boulles!

Before long the rain was upon us, accompanied by this beautiful rainbow. That led into a perfect evening on the River Houlle. It is an interesting river, not just because of its short length, about 4km, but because of its origin in a series of artesian wells that also provide millions of gallons of water to the people of Dunkirk.

In the morning the weather was perfect. Stu took the barge another 100 yards upstream to a widening where all 65 foot of Calliope could turn with ease.

Then back down the Houlle in the October sunshine (yes, it is the 2nd of October already), passing by the interesting houses, the many fishing platforms, and the many many little channels going off at each side. It would be great to have a canoe here and go exploring!

After 40 glorious minutes we were back at the bridge out onto the Grand Gabarit and its attendant giant barges. At this stage the canal was once more named L’Aa, to my delight; out on the L’Aa again.

Saint Momelin

We had a 25 kms southbound journey to accomplish before our planned exit form the superhighway and onto the River Lys, including two locks. The canal seemed deserted as we passed Saint Momelin village and skirtede Saint-Omer. We had high hopes of going through the locks alone rather than with a big commercial barge.

Then, just as we approached the first lock, Flandres, I looked through the rear window (stern window?) and saw Dakota bearing down on us. She overtook us with ease, and just as well because we would much prefer her in the lock first; we followed her in.

It was not a particularly easy lock. It was almost a 4m rise – not too much – but without a series of bollards up the wall to secure to. There was one for each of us at deck level, and then as we rose it was necessary to climb on the roof and try to lassoo the bollard sitting back on the quay. I missed twice, but luckily was third time lucky, just in time. The Captain was expert with his first throw.

Then just 2 kilometres further was a mightier challenge – the 13m lock Les Fontinettes. After the earlier experience I radioed ahead and asked if they had ‘bollards flottant’ – and phew, they did, even if they were spaced rather a long way apart. This lock has a striking art deco bridge over it, but I was requested not to take photos in the lock, so I only have one of us leaving.

There were still 13 kms to go to reach La Lys; that is about an hour and a half in cruising language. We took it in turns to helm and to eat lunch. Knowing there is a lock at the start of La Lys I phoned ahead (no VHF channel for this one) and asked if we could go through Fort Gassion écluse.

Oh dear – we are such beginners in the art of autumnal cruising in northern France! There was no chance of gong through the lock today, but maybe tomorrow …. so we settled our minds on an evening in the little basin outside the lock, but at least off the superhighway.

We still had one more encounter with an industrial size barge however. As our turning came into view and the Captain prepared to turn across the other side of the canal a big fully laden gas tanker appeared steaming towards us! We slowed down and waited; nothing else for it apart from getting run down! And then turned into our haven for the night.

We were moored just across the big canal from Aire-sur-Lys (the river Lys straddles the big canal) and we could see one or two towers of the city in the distance.

We also needed milk and set off for a walk to the city for a look round and quick shop. The city is another of those full of little waterways. Apparently it was a centre for moving goods from water to land in days gone by. This led to some magnificent buildings, all symbols of power!

Back to Calliope and what looked a nice peaceful mooring for the evening.

Don’t be fooled! At the end of the channel behind Calliope is the big big canal Neufossé. When commercials go past a wash is sent up the channel – usually producing gentle waves. BUT when a big barge went past fast we could almost surf on the first surge that arrived, throwing our boat in the air, then hitting the lock gates in front of us, sending up spray, before bouncing back at us while at the same time further waves were still coming in! All chucked us about a bit!

The sky was reflected, gilt edged, in the water so wonderfully that I went for a walk downstream to get another view.

In the morning as we were entering the lock, another big barge went past the end of the river entrance, throwing the slow moving Calliope forward towards the far lock gates, then throwing us backwards again as the surge rebounded!
Very exciting, and safely managed by Captain Stu!

That lock behind us we travelled onwards along the Lys, through the countryside of Pas de Calais. It was an other of those bright sun days and we were steering directly into it, with dew glistening across the cabin roof.

Our journey, with our friendly female éclusier, took us thorough a pont levée and another lock.

The lock was in the middle of nowhere – such a peaceful place. It must have been wonderful; to live there when there was a lock keepers house to occupy.

I also noted some nice rusty old ironwork, linked to part of the water management system. I love this stuff!

By midday we had arrived at Saint-Venant, a place we have been to, and enjoyed, earlier this year. The mooring was empty, although the marina across the river seemed full of boats packed up ready for winter.

We had a plan for the evening – to visit again the Restaurant by the marina. So we had an old fogies date night, got dressed up a bit smarter than usual boating attire, and walked over. The food is good, casual, substantial and very tasty!

My carbonnades flamandes and Stu’s braised jambon were SO good, and then I really pushed the boat out (ha ha) with a slice of french fried chocolate brioche topped with caramel sauce and cream! I could not resist licking every sugary drop from the plate!

looking for Lorenzo

We had been warned that Hurricane Lorenzo would be with us next day from mid morning, so we deployed our thick ropes, battened down everything on deck and planned a cosy day on board. But the day began azure skied!

There was still time for a walk first, over the river and along to the next village, Haverkerke, over a passerelle, and back along our bank.

In fact we discovered that we were moored by chance in a sheltered spot and despite seeing flags blowing horizontally across at the marina we remained fairly calm through the storm.

Then it was time to leave Saint-Venant and complete our voyage back to Kortrijk and the winter mooring. This meant being back onto same waterway as we enjoyed in August – the river Lys (France) / Leie (Belgium) so I will restrict myself to just a few words on the journey.

We went through the locks , at Saint-Venant, Merville and Bac Saint Maur amongst the start of the autumn colours.

We stopped for one night at Armentieres – an enjoyable mooring once again, this time with an October feel to the air.

Then on to where the Lys joins the Canal de Deule and becomes a monster canal once again. At the junction two spots of colour on a grey day – the bale packaging of a colourful farmer, and the giant ‘scooper’ used to move dredged up sludge from one barge to another – but not on a Sunday!

I nipped up to the office at écluse Comines in order to show our ship’s papers and get permission to enter Belgium once more. At the next lock, on the next day, we would move from Wallonia to Flandres and need to pay for our license to be on their waterways for the next 6 months.

Then a slow cruise into the Comines mooring just half a kilometre after the lock. It was still grey, but after lunch we went for a walk, arriving back before the heavens opened for the rest of the day – pouring rain, hail, thunder and lightning and a strong wind were our accompaniment for the last night out on our 2019 cruise!

But a rainbow cheered us up, plus a game of Scrabble that cheered up the Captain – he won! – Don’t start ……

And so finally we came back to Kortrijk. There were no dramas on the last day. We fitted snugly under the bridge into the port, and the entire pontoon was empty, waiting for us to choose our berth.

It was nice to tie up firmly on familiar territory, all prepared for the winter months ahead. In the few days before we left Calliope alone and drove back to the UK we fitted in a day trip to France to buy a new bottle of Butane (our gas connector is a standard French one).

On the same trip we visited the magnificent Villa Cavrois, near Lille. It is an Art Deco palace, built for a family at the start of the 1930s, with the architect given free rein to design house, garden, furniture, decor – the whole lot. And despite a chequered history, especially during WW2, it was able to be restored to its amazing former look.

one of the Broel towers, visible from the mooring

That’s it for 2019. A final evening walk around Kortrijk to admire the buildings, bridges, river, squares and people before on Thursday October 10th we set off for our land based home in the UK. See you in the spring …..

Moving on from Ypres to Veurne

23rd to 26th September 2019

This was the last few days in Belgium before we slipped out into France for a week – then to return to Belgium for the winter. But more of that later.

Calliope in Ypres port

Two days was not really long enough to do Ypres justice, but we had our winter mooring to get to. So we found ourselves leaving on a sunny Sunday morning – that was not to last!

Up the Ypres Ijzer canal we cruised, and through the first lock. The surface of the water was as iridescent green as before.

Just before the second lock we knew there was a pontoon; we stopped and moored up – our rural retreat for a night, totally quiet once the last of the few boats went through the lock.

We were lucky with this mooring. So many of the pontoons next to locks are for one hour waiting only, This one, and the one not far upstream, are 72 hour pontoons!

With the surface of the canal still so green I determined to find out what it was; it is known in Belgium as eendekroos, and in English it is simple duckweed. I was intrigued to know how it grew, seemingly without roots in the mud somewhere, so picked some out.

The internet tells me that duckweed is one of the smallest flowering plants in the world. The tiny plants consist of one to three leaves, with a single root-hair protruding from each frond. This hangs below the surface to obtain nutrients from the water rather than from soil. They multiply by flowering. Don’t let them take over your garden pond!

As the afternoon drew on the wind began to strengthen, blowing masses of autumnal leaves from the canal side trees – all of which floated above the duckweed, like leaves landing on a lawn.

An autumn carpet.

Before the evening was out a big rain storm hit us, lashing down on Calliope with us feeling snug and dry within. Next morning the boat was covered in leaves, twigs, water and dirt – a cleaning job for me!

On Monday morning we were up and away through the lock, then to the top of the canal where it joins the Ijzer river.

This time we turned left towards Fintele, finding another famous old Piper boat Para Handy right round the corner coming towards us.

Not much time for a chat beyond ‘Ahoy there Para Handy’ as they headed East for Diksmuide and Nieuwpoort and we headed West towards Fintele and Veurne.

It was not long before we reached Fintele.We had been told how nice it was, but were not prepared for such a lovely mooring, out amongst the polders.

This was another learning for us – ‘polders’. Wikipedia describes them as follows. ‘A polder is a low-lying tract of land that forms an artificial hydrological entity, enclosed by dikes or ditches’ – well and truly in the lowlands low, where the wind most certainly does blow blow blow!

Our first walk around the area uncovered a tiny village, more a hamlet, or a few houses, a bar and two restaurants. One of the restaurants is famous for eels and I was keen to try, but luckily for Stewart they were closed for their annual holiday! Shame…..

There used two be a temporary bridge across the Ijzer here, built each spring and dismantled each autumn, to get the cattle across onto the polders once they had drained of their winter floods. There is still a ‘mock-up’ to be seen, and plenty of bridges crossing the many ditches as well as the river.

That evening the combination of setting sun, storm clouds, and flat lands produced some amazing light across the polders – and then as the skies cleared there were new delights fore and aft, west and east.

One of the walks discovered a new donkey friend, although I suspect he was keener to make friends with the carrots that I didn’t have in my pocket! Doesn’t matter – I just want any donkey that I can have – which is zero at the moment.

Probably the jolliest and most unusual sight around Fintele is the knitted covers for anything that stands still long enough, including bicycle racks and wooden posts! Very alternative.

Calliope was joined by two other boats on the second night, one of which was to travel with us up through the lock and the bridges to Veurne. It was a wet windy day for travelling, so I put on my wet and windy travel clothes.

It is an unusual lock at Fintele – wide, with sloping sides and a pontoon to moor to on one side. As we shared with a Le (hire) Boat the lock keeper suggested that they enter the lock first and go to one side; we then enter and moor to the pontoon and they raft up to us – for the mighty journey of 60cm into the Lovaart.

The Lovaart is a small, narrow, peaceful canal named after the village of Lo through which it passes. It runs from Fintele to Veurne and is only 14kms long. Through most of its length to is pleasantly overgrown and I am sure that on a sunny day is is beautiful.

It manages to have 10 bridges along its short length, half of which require opening to allow boats through. The bridge at Kellensaarbrug is broken, and propped (safely) open. Of course we were following Le Boat, so the lock-keepers-cum-bridge-openers were keen for us to pass through together – and the heavier Calliope travels at a slower speed than the plastic Le Boat to avoid destroying the canal banks – but we all got there eventually.