A river and three canals in a week!

Well not exactly complete rivers or canals, but we did steam along 53 kms of the Base Sambre river, 20kms of the Canal Charleroi à Brussels, and 24 kms of the Canal de Centre and 40kms of the Canal Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes

And that included an unplanned en panne two night stop, but more of that later.


This was the week that we left Namur on July 3rd, and on July 10th turned onto the Haut Escuaut river. It seems like a rush but there was still plenty to enjoy, including giving Calliope a bit of a scrub down as went along.

We quickly discovered that we were into a new kind of canal, far more industrial than we had been used to on the Meuse.

We were mostly sharing locks with huge 80m+ barges, and the locks themselves were larger, with massive doors, sometimes running sideways on gantries. We often felt very small!

The frequent juxtaposition of ancient, in this case an abbey, and modern waterways transport kept me on my camera toes.

Our first night out of Namur found us at Auvelais – a little town with enough of an edge to make it interesting. Of course Stu and I went for a walk round, and it was quickly apparent that a festival of some kind, including live music, would be taking place that weekend.

There was a second, road, bridge into the village that made it clear that quite rightly the UK was still a welcome part off the EU.

We also saw a somewhat strange statue; we had seen a similar one in Namur, including two large snails as well as the little man. I have Googled this and have not come up with much.

It’s labelled Jean le Porion.

Our actual mooring was in a short indent in the canalised – just big enough for us, another, old, beautiful barge and two cruisers; all friendly, but no time to make real friends.It was a mooring of two halves – the water was mostly peaceful and quiet; the trains running over the adjacent metal railway bridge were clattering and noisy.

Next morning we were the first ones away, with a lock waiting for us just round the corner and wanting to avoid joining a queue to get through. It was our anniversary that day, so we look forward to finding a nice peaceful mooring to gently celebrate.

The journey was along the Sambre until we reached Charleroi where we turned à droite to join the Charleroi-Brussels canal. Moving through Charleroi was a sad shock to the system. It has had a huge steelworks history, pretty much now all gone. It has been replaced by a scrap metal industry with barges moving different size pieces off metal up and down the river, gradually diminishing in size from whole cars to glittering fragments.

That evening turned out to be above Viesville lock, initially very peaceful, but later with giant barges gradually piling in around us. We raised our glasses to 32 years together, watching the boats, full of scrap metal, float by.

As we went to bed a HUGE barge came in to almost touch our bow; ten minutes later another came in at our stern, in a space that should not have been big enough, but, phew, it was!

Friday was to be and exciting day, our first ever in a boat lift, and this one is the second highest on the world! We cruised towards the boat lift on a perfect day – perfect for holidaying youngsters to be to learning to sail, canoe and wind surf.

As we approached they were gathered to one side of the canal by clucking smiley ‘mother hen’ tutors, and in some cases we seemed to leave young wind surfers scattered in our wake.

Just after this we turned onto canal 2 – the Canal de Centre. The waterway opened out wide and clear as we joined the new part of this canal, towards the boat lift. The old historic, narrower, branch of the canal is still open, where the descent of 240ft is actioned by 4 separate beautiful old boat lifts.

The original canal dates back to 1879; its locks and lifts were able to accommodate vessels of up to 300 tonnes. By the 1960s the European standard for barge traffic was 1350 tonnes, so a replacement was needed.

The new gate, or ‘porte’ leading to the boat lift

Not only was the new boat lift required, but also the width and the depth of the canal leading to it had to be increased plus a huge ‘gate’ to close of the water in case of damage to the boat lift structures. It has all worked, with river traffic going up from 256 kT in 2001 to 2,295 kT by 2006!

The 4 older lifts on the original canal became bypassed by the new canal and are now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, because of their architectural and historical value. They are well worth seeing and next time we will travel via the ‘historic canal’.

This is a not-very-good photo of the most downstream of the 4 old lifts, still in use.

As we excitedly approached the boat lift it became apparent that it was not working, with red lights everywhere. There were 2 commercial barges waiting and a small German yacht, so we moored up behind them and had lunch.

arriving at the top of Strepy-Thieu boat lift

Then we suddenly realised that only one side of the pair of lifts was out of operation. The lift on the side where we were waiting had been descending and coming back up while we ate lunch, and was now here to collect the first of two waiting commercial barges. I made a quick radio call to the lift operators and discovered there was room for us and the yacht to fit in as well.

Down we went – what an expereience, what engineering! Look it up – the L’Ascenseur Funiculaire de Strepy-Thieu.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usUwiL2NJiQ

leaving the boat lift

It was less of a good experience when we came out of the lift at the bottom. The Morse control (throttle and direction) became stuck in forward; the German yacht was dithering in front of us, and all Captain Stu could do was switch the engine off completely and glide, with no propulsion or steering, into the quay between the two lifts.

With a bit of adept rope throwing we managed to moor up. And there we were, stranded, broken down. A boat lift operator came to find out why we had moored in this inconvenient place, and on understanding the problem he became very helpful.

We were advised to raise a red distress flag – not the sort of thing we have on board, but a folded round red ensign worked on the mast, and my red dressing gown was ok at the stern!

After Stewart had done several checks, and I had made a few phone calls and requests to other Piper owners for advice, we realised that it was most likely the gear cable that had snapped of jammed. Of course it was a Friday afternoon. If anything goes wrong for us it is always a Friday afternoon, and you cannot get help until Monday.

Never mind; we reached a fabulous lady boat yard owner who said the would come on Monday with her mechanic and the correct Vetus cable; all would be well. In the meantime we could enjoy a weekend beneath the boas lift, once we had discovered how we could get out to buy food, and more importantly get back in. (We had moored within the fenced and locked compound of the boat lift where only those authorised could get in).

We got that sorted and my first walk discovered a friendly little supermarket in Thieu on one side of the canal.

The next day, Saturday, we walked to Strépy on the other side of the canal – and discovered that it was the weekend of the local fête, all along the side of the historic canal.  You want waffles?  You want frites? You want good Belgian beer, or kebabs, or dried sausages, or pastries?  It was all here, plus music, entertainment, and jolly people

That day we simply looked all round, bought lunch to much along the canal, and walked back to our stranded barge.

Next day we had a plan, starting with a visit to the Ascenseur visitor centre, which was just as interesting as you can imagine. Well worth the time and money, unless you don’t have a head for heights – the visitor centre is a long way up!

One of the boat lift machine rooms, seen from visitor centre

Then a walk back into Strèpy for the continuation of the fun.

It was even busier than the day before and after a good look round we found a quietest place with a seat, by a music stage and bought beer.

I was on a mission to try all the cherry flavoured Belgian beers I could find – not in one day!

We came happily back to Calliope, past one of the old lock houses on the historic canal.

Its a lovely walk, whether along the canal or though the outskirts of the village.

It was easy to find or way back – the boat lift towers over everything in there area. We snuck into the compound by moving Heras fencing, as instructed by the helpful boat lift operator. Without her help we would have had to be back by 1730 when they all go home on a Sunday.

And then it was Monday – boat repair day! We were so pleased to see Majorie and Julian, and even more pleased when it was evident that we had a snapped cable and that Julian could fix it for us. In no time at all, what we had waited for for two and half days was done, and we were able to sail away once more.

More work with scrap metal

Our last section of the Canal de Centre was industrial again. Two green grabbers having fun picking up and throwing graspfuls of old cars, bikes, and unrecognisable metallic mess – it looked like someone’s birthday Red Letter Day experience!

We discovered yet another way to open and close huge lock doors – this time by having them disappear underwater, only to reappear once the boats are in the lock. The photo doesn’t capture the majesty of the movement! (though it does show where a boat had tried to leave before he got the green light indicating the door was fully down and took out a section of the top railing; oops)

Then on to the end of the canal at Mons, where a huge basin includes a yacht club where we moored. There was a very strong wind blowing, luckily onto the low quay where we tied up. It was a pleasant place to stay the night, listening to waved slapping onto the side of the boat, reminiscent of our winter in Portsmouth Harbour.

We did do a bit of a walk in towards Mons town centre, mainly looking for a supermarket, but regret we did not get to the interesting parts – leave that for another day.

Mons is the point where Canal de Centre ends and Canal Nimy-Blatant-Peronnes begins, therefore on the Tuesday morning we were on the last of the 4 waterways in this chapter.

It was a day of bridges against the sky – one delightful outline after another. Here are a few to sample.

The cruising plan was to get most of the way along our 40kms of this canal, and finish it next day – and that is sort of what we did. We reached our plotted mooring at Weirs at about lunch time and, leaving the Captain to sort out our ropes (see above!) and in quite hot sun I marched the kilometre or two towards the village. I luckily found a Spar with ready made sandwiches after 20 minutes. That was lunch sorted!

Later that afternoon I took a walk over the bridge to a distillery marked on the map. It was a small family run business making liqueurs from fruit and spirits, including an excellent pear brandy! The entrance to the ‘maison’ was through a gate on wheels that must have stood there since the start of the company.

So there we were, heading towards evening, a dot below the bridge, and talking to our Swedish yachting neighbours. They had heard that there was a 6 hour queue to go down the next lock, and this was corroborated by friends who went by and sent back a message.

After 7pm, when the locks closed, the Swede decided to get down to the lock ready for the morning to be, he hoped, first in queue. Soon after one then another huge commercial barge went by, then another.

By 9pm my Captain had decided that we too should get down there too and be near the front of the next day’s queue, so, with dusk closing in around us, and with or navigation lights aglow, we steamed the 4kms to Pommereuil lock.

Would we find anywhere too moor or not – that was one questions, closely followed by what wold we do if there was no space? As we approached through the gloom it looked as if we had finally lucked out. We could see through our binoculars about 6 large 80m barges – three old them rafters up against each other due to lack of mooring space.

We knew there was also a small quay for leisure boats and hopes we could fit next to the Swedish yacht, but there was a second boat there. Then, as we closed in on the lock, a space opened up between barges 4 and 5! In almost darkness we tied up to a strange high quay, moving fenders into unusual places to protect us overnight. And so to bed, expecting a lie in and a long wait to lock down next day.

between the two Péronne locks

But the next day began somewhat differently. The skipper got up at 5.45 to monitor progress. Two more 80m commercials had arrived and were floating about midstream as the first in the queue opposite us had fired up his engines, slipped his ropes and started edging towards the gate. Interestingly though, there was also movement on the two smaller boats and when Stewart radioed the lock to tentatively ask if there might be room for the third little boat he was told ‘Ouis si vous est rapide!’

Well rapide we were, and being woken by our engines starting and a loud ‘Ey up we’re off’ I threw some clothes on and climbed up the the wheelhouse to find the skipper in his slippers squeezing us into the tightest of spaces beside the stern of the giant peniche.

leaving Péronne 1 at 6.13am

We came out of Péronnes lock 1 (12.5m) and across the pond towards Péronnes 2 (5.6m) as dawn began to clear the sky.

Not many up apart from the birds! This meeting between a heron and a cormorant looked conversational.

turning into the Haute Escaut river

And once through them both it was hard a’starboard onto the Haute Escaute river where a new adventure begins, and all still before 7am!

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