15 – 24 August 2019
We returned to the boat in Kortrijk on August 13th, full of fatigue after a week of long road trips and an excellent South of France party weekend. There was 10 days to fill until our next family visitors arrived in Kortrijk so we set out for a short and enjoyable cruise.
Despite the dull skies we immediately felt a sense of peace and tranquility – that gentle movement on the water, the open views from the wheelhouse, the wild birds, and just the two of us together for a while.
It took a day’s acclimatisation and rest before we set off along the river. There was some re-provisioning to do, some cleaning, new fenders to tie on and, most exciting, new navigation maps to explore.
So it was on Thursday that we eventually slipped our ropes and backed (yes, reversed, astern) out of the comfortable arm of the River Leie where we had been moored for over a month.
I was immensely proud of the Captain, taking us under the low bridge with PV panels intact and out onto the river.
My only part in the manoeuvre was to call the Flemish waterways man and ask if we could leave, and go through the red light at the end of the port.
It was so lovely to be on the move again, initially watching Kortrijk slip away before the vista opened up onto broad open countryside, cows, horses, farms and villages.
Calliope felt small as she passed by one commercial barge after another – this is a busy, friendly, waterway, with industrial captains waving their greetings as they go by. There is a wonderful irony to the perspective in this photo, making us seem at least as large – it is a mirage!
We were aiming for Wervik and after a couple of hours the huge church of this relatively small town came into view. As always a bit of PMT (pre-mooring tension) kicked in. Would there be space for us on the wharf at Wervik?
We were lucky – only one large barge on the wall and plenty of room for us. We were prepared for the widely spaced bollards, knowing that we would be making use of stout railing posts too. We soon made fast and had lunch.
t was after lunch that a little fun began. As the big barges passed up and down stream some slowed down past the moor boats, and others didn’t. Our lines creaked and groaned with strain. There was only one thing for it – break out the Haslar ropes!
When we were moored at Haslar Marina in Portsmouth Harbour for a full winter we invested in some much thicker ropes to see us through the gales and storms, Once we deployed these fore and aft, plus a couple of springs, Calliope rocked as gently as a baby in a crib.
This was our cue for a quiet walk round a grey-skied town. It was very quiet to start with as it turned out to be a public holiday (Assumption of Mary) and everything apart from some of the bars was shut. We did study the church, finding it even bigger than it had appeared from the water.
And then the quietness was overturned by raucous happy singing, music, and one of the oddest vehicles we had ever seen.
It was a sort of truck powered by six cyclists each side who were all sitting at, and enjoying the products of, a bar in the centre. Others sat around the edge, singing and drinking, laughing and shouting.
It was a wedding – a couple who had lived together 27 years and decided to get married. They stopped next to us, bridge and groom jumped down, and invited is to join in dancing. So ensued a few crazy minutes before the trundled on their very merry way!
Back on the boat we had a quiet evening, with a happy Captain sipping wine while the wonderful sunlight cast interesting shadows and brightened the riverbank colours as the dark clouds swept by.
Later, as I sat up waiting for two noisy fishermen to steady down and maybe go home, I noticed the neon lines of the bridge and the nearby lamp post reflecting along our grab rail.
And later still, through the window and still waiting to go to bed, the moon rose across the water.
Next day, Friday, Calliope and crew carried on up the river, at this point still called the Leie as we were mostly in Belgium, and still mostly in Flanders. But as we continued we found ourselves moving between France and Belgium, Wallonia and Flanders. The border follows the north bank of the original course of the river, but due to a series of man made deeper wider sections, to accommodate commercial craft, boats now weave between the two countries. Thanks to the EU there are no customs posts, tariffs or passports required!
It was fascinating to see the very different church and town hall spire and dome shapes along this journey. I show here those from Comines (the French side) and more will follow. Much of Comines was rebuilt between the wars and this colourful church and more austere town hall were built during that time.
The river was still quite broad at this point, but narrowing – wide enough yet for the big commercial barges that would turn off towards Lille at the Canal de Deûle junction. The countryside was peaceful, pastoral, with grazing cattle and horses here and there.
As we turned away, under grey skies, from the more industrial Deûle to enjoy more of the rural Leie we certainly noticed the difference. It became more bendy, more overgrown with trees and bushes at the edges, gently closing in around us.
At this point, sort of between the Belgian Leie and French Lys, the river becomes known as the Lys Mittoyenne. It is full of water birds – mostly coots and ducks as usual, but with a good sprinkling of kingfishers (saw them every day), grebes AND little grebes (!), moorhen, heron and cormorants. Sadly none of my photos were good enough to include.
Our aim was to moor at Armentières, which necessitated one more lock just at the edge of the town. As we approached I radioed ahead, expecting to be heard because we had done a radio check at the previous lock. But no response. So I tried the phone, allowing it to ring and ring until it just stopped.
The lock came into view; no lights of any colour to indicate its operating status. Maybe it was a holiday – the previous day had been a French national holiday. Maybe sit was a strike day. With some difficulty we managed to moor to a bollard and a very narrow ladder. I climbed out and walked to wards the lock to enquire.
This jolted the young girl holiday-job éclusier into action! The doors began to open and I ran back to the barge to join the Captain for the run into the lock space. The lock and weir buildings must have been rebuilt between the two world wars, such is their beautiful art deco design.
And we were also jolted – into a reminder of the size of ‘narrow-gauge’ locks! All went well and we were handed a zapper to use on the next lock, then hand in at the subsequent one. It was to be a short electronic journey.
The hoped for pontoon mooring was empty and waiting for us, so within a few minutes we were tied up, re-fendered, and getting our lunch together.
Our customary walk round the town was a little on the dull side – sorry Armentières. Then town was one of the many that was devastated in both world wars and despite a few monumental buildings remaining (mostly banks) the town somehow seemed a bit down-at-heel. To be fair there were nice flower displays everywhere to brighten it. A fair ground to enliven things also spoilt my view of the town hall! (And in the way back down stream I caught the big Friday market all across the space.)
However the people were friendly and that is what counts most.
Next morning, after a rapid walk to the boulangerie and back (ha! we are back in France!) we left the mooring and were ‘Westward ho’ on another grey drizzly day. Is this really August?
As we left Armentières we could not but help notice a monumental set of buildings – the old malting and brewery of Motte-Cordonnier. There has been a brewery on or near this site since 1650 so it was with great sadness that this one closed on the 1990s. However the Family Motte have recently decided to start brewing again. For this keen to know, here is a link, in French, to their endeavours. I wish them Bon Chance.
We soon reached Bas Saint Maur écluse and used our tele commander with aplomb!
The lock was a ‘massive’ 60cms rise, in a very pretty location with plants and trees adding to the landscape.
Immediately above the lock there is a pond leading to the small weir that managed to be incredibly photographic, due to some old wooden posts, lucky repflections and calm waters. (Remember this scene – it recurs later).
Farmland took over the landscape, mainly Charolais cattle probably for beef. The French are proud of their Charolais beef. I loved the big ol’ bull lying at the front of his herd, watching out for danger while his cows and calves fed, slept and played.
On an animal theme, I continuously and hopelessly take photos of water fowl and their your – moorhens, coots, crested grebes, ducks, little grebes, herons, swans ….. and all are out of focus because we are moving along! Grebes are also notoriously shy, diving under water the moment a camera or human eye turns their way. Anyway I caught one grebe as we were waiting to go into the lock and I was hiding behind the gunnel. Hooray.
We reached Estaire and its 30m pontoon soon afterwards. As we were heading towards the town we noticed an amazing white steeple to a church in the distance way off to the right, and were amazed to find that after the bends and turns of the river our mooring was literally in the shadow off the said church – but white steeples against grey skies do not make good photos.
But on the way back blue skies prevailed!
The pontoon seemed quiet at first. It was pretty with lots of purple and yellow flowers along the bank.
By the time we had finished lunch we had been joined by several friendly fishers, and realised that in a way we were ‘trespassing’ on their usual angling platform. We were all able to share the space happily and several fish were caught.
Captain with crew went for a short walk into Estaires. It was a little plain, although we found a pleasant park and three good boulangeries. The town hall played a sweet little carillon tune and when I went for a second walk in the evening it stood out against the golden evening sky beautifully.
There had been discussions about how far up the river we would navigate – would be go all the way to Canal d’Aire and down to Lille, up the Deûle and back to Kortrijk? Or get as far as Saint-Venant and turn round? The latter plan won, especially when we got to Saint-Venant and saw how nice it was!
Not far out of Estaires, and expecting to be in the country, Calliope passed a huge chemical works of some kind. I googled them – a company called Roquette – and was amused to discover that their strapline is “Voyage au couer de la nature!” To be fair they are a worldwide company who overall are researching to find more natural ways to produce food, make up etc. And they do transport at least some of their goods away by barge.
Overall it was a pleasant day’s cruising through flat farming land with plenty of bird life. In fact it ws the fourth day in a row that we saw kingfishers! But I reckon that to get a photo of them you need to be a wildlife pro.
The one uniquely interesting thing along the way was the lock at Merville. We have never seen a lock with lift bridges at either end – traffic flowing one way over one end and the opposite over the other; in fact a whole roundabout surrounded the lock! It meant waiting for each bridge to lift, but we were in no hurry.
Coming up and put of the lock at Saint-Venant was a total and wonderful surprise. We had no idea that we would be entering a wide basin with plenty of room to moor (with stakes) on a long grassy bank, or the option of going into a decent size port de plaisance (although there probably wasn’t room for a 20m barge!)
it’s a long time since we used stakes, but the old habits of leaping ashore holding a lump hammer and two unwieldy stakes still remained deep in my soul and before too long we were safely moored, managing to share a low stone bollard with the boat behind. Lunch came next.
Of course after lunch came the walk round the village. This one has plenty of stories to tell! During WW1 one of the buildings became the HQ of the local British Army, later taken over by the Portugese. There is an ancient hospital, some amazing old barracks, and some rows of cottages at whose previous use we could only guess.
There is also a small basin off the main one which used to have a granary on the wharf side. Now all that is left is an unusual turntable bridge at the entrance, forever stuck on the open position, and dating back to 1887.
The clouds gradually and completely cleared and the flat landscape meant we had huge skies to look at from the barge.
The braver of the wildfowl were all around and I took the opportunity to get rid of some sections of baguette that we had not managed to mop up. Two geese, one Greylag and one Brent I think, had made a love match and were continuously together. A family of swans inhabited one of the many wide drainage ditches dug all over the place.
Stu and I had had a walk over to look at the port as well as the village; we had discovered a bar restaurant that seemed to just fit the bill for supper. We strolled over at about 5.45 in time for drinks in the evening sun. Somehow the sun allowed a funky photo of me drinking Kriek cherry beer.
Then the meal; I am a sucker for trying regional dishes. Potj was in the menu and I asked what it was. The explanation was of a mix of cold chicken and pork set in gelatine, with fries. I had to try, and I was not disappointed. I would definitely eat it again m- I think the gelatine was the natural jelly from the bones when cooking the meat – much nicer than aspic.
On the way back to the boat and just before we crossed the lock gates the view of the church, sky, and trees all composed themselves into a nice arrangement for my last photo of the day.
Unusual for us on this trip, we decided we liked it so much here in Saint-Venant that we would stay another night. This meant a nice slow start to our morning and it began as blue as you like. A young moorhen came calling and one of our neighbours departed into the blue as I sat on the back deck with my breakfast.
Little jobs started being done around the boat – fuel additive, clean out of the shower trap, good sweep of the stairs, turn the boat so that we could fill up with water, and another spider hunt.
(Have I mentioned the spiders? In the six days since we returned too the boat we have between us taken over 100 spiders to find a new life ashore. We have never had so many on board before and can only imagine that several nests of spiders hatched out while we were away. I think we are down to our usual dozen or so now, whose job is to catch flies and mosquitoes.)
And then the squalls started swirling in, one after another. Each time we thought we could risk a run to the boulangerie the sky darkened, the wind whipped up and the rain drove down onto the water.
Eventually we were able to buy our daily bread, have a good lunch aboard, and after a digestive half hour we went for a walk. It was sunny but with a stiff breeze, making us a little chilly at times. Stu was pleased to leap back aboard when we returned.
We stayed on Calliope for the rest of the day and had a surprise visitor. A French lady stopped by with her two year old and started to talk to us, because her daughter’s name was also Calliope! Of course she had to have a tour of the boat, and went off seemingly very pleased.
The evening was quiet and still. A time to finish writing this and be ready for a 9.30 lock in the morning, arranged earlier with the éclusier.
We are turning back on ourselves now, back East and downstream, starting off on a blue sky day with so few locks that I can sit on the back deck with a cup of tea and enjoy the unfolding view.
I don’t plan to do a full blog of the return journey, but if we stop at new places or anything monumental happens I will record it below.
Well we did stop at new places – Sailly-sur-la-Lys for two nights, because we really liked it, and mid stream just before Bac-Saint-Maur lock, for the pure isolation of it.
Sailly is a relatively unremarkable village, although it took its share of suffering in the two world wars. We were moored on a comfortable pontoon which we shared each afternoon with three round electric boats that people can hire. It was generally quiet – just occasional friendly passers by – and the views of the river were peaceful transitions from dawn to dusk.
On our in-between day we went for a good walk through an orchard of apples, pears, plums, sloes and everything delicious – then along the river bank, at a pace that is easier for the camera!
Before we left Sailly, on my quick trek to the Carrefour Contact for bread, I took photos of some of the houses – many have delightful coloured tiles above the windows and seem to have art deco references.
Then at Bac Saint Maur lock – simple tranquility tied onto the iron divider between the weir and the lock.
Armentières was the same as one the way upstream, but I mention it again because of the lock. Once again we phoned to say we were on our way, and once again initially had no reply. When we did reach the éclusier, who was based at Merville, we discovered that we would be waiting over two hours for her. This gave us a relaxing pause in our journey!
Then on going through the lock I discovered something I had missed on the way up! The lock gates are slightly curved and when open they swivel under the lock wall. These photos adopt really explain it! But it is fairly unique in my experience.
The third new place we stopped at was Comines, a town of two halves and two nations! With the river Lys running between them, there has been a Comines France and a Comines Belgium since 1713, and a chequered history of nationality for centuries before that. Thanks to the EU they are now becoming Comines Europe.
We moored on the Belgian side behind dutch barge Moon Dance, and had a walk round both towns, discovering that the multicoloured dome belonged to a fascinating church, and the slate clad belfry to the town hall – both built between the wars.
The weather had become quite hot again – so much so that the slipway was inviting and I enjoyed a bit of a splash. Later we enjoyed a drink and stories of barging in Europe with MoonDance crew, then picked an excellent Chinese/Belgian restaurant for supper.
Our last morning before steaming back to Kortrijk dawned fair, with the sun behind the famous Comines towers.
It was a sunny Sunday and the river was busier than ever. It is interesting to be following a dutch barge as two big commercial barges come towards you, a flotilla of canoes is trying to over- and under-take you, whilst families in speed boats weave in and out creating crazy wakes and parties of cyclists, walkers and horse riders watch on from the banks!
Where is the peaceful Lys now????