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.

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.

The arrival in Veurne is interesting, requiring a 180 degree turn into the ‘non-lock’, once it is opened, in order to get to the port. But then we were there, nicely moored under the trees on a quiet bend. Our home for two days!

We went and looked at the basin part of the port as well. Ben, the harbourmaster who also looks after Nieuwpoort, had asked us to moor on the pontoon and we could see why – the basin was filling up with boats that were wintering there for the next few months. Autumn is drawing in! (and only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the autumn gales)

The weather continued to be grey and wet. Nonetheless we had a bit of a walk round the town during and inbetween the showers. Veurne is an interesting town with plenty of intriguing buildings, but due to the rain I failed to get any photos apart from one of the station – such a huge edifice for a small town that I just had to!

So that was our last two full days in Belgium for a week or so. We were to leave Veurne heading for the French border on Friday. Typically the day was bright and blue – at first!

Luckily we had learned that in order to pass into France on the Nieuwpoort – Diunkerken Kanaal we had to phone or radio ahead a day or two in advance. This had been done on Wednesday, with a little difficulty! (Two phone numbers didn’t work and the one provided by Dunkirk port had an answering machine waiting for my halting French – but it worked!).

We wanted to get away on time to meet our VNF friend at the French border at 11am. However the first hurdle in Veurne is a lift bridge 200 yards form our mooring, and on phoning to request an opening we discovered that we would have to wait half an hour on a nice waiting pontoon while another bridge was repaired!

Eventually we got away and I grabbed a long distance photo of some of the towers and steeples of Veurne that I had missed during our visit.

Already the weather was turning grey as we steamed westwards away from the still rising sun and through the polders and farmlands of northern Belgium.

After about 8 kilometres we came to a footbridge that more or less marks the border, and slipped into France with just enough time to reach our VNF rendezvous. The story continues …. A bientot…..(with a French hat on the ‘o’)

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

8 September to 21 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

flags and tram lines along the quai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stu studies the architecture!

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

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

moored up in Diksmuide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stu at Menen gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the good news from Kortrijk to Gent and Brugges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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