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.

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