Late summer in Belgium part 3

Down the Belgian Sambre

with some Haut Escaut, and Canals Nimy-Blaton-Ath, de Centre and Brussels – Charleroi

August 15th to 26th 2021

We left Antoing and friends Mieke and Frans, setting off up the Haut Escaut towards the two big locks at Péronnes; these still ring alarm bells in the mind of the Captain as we had something of a rude awakening (6am) when we came down through them two years ago in the company of two large commercial barges and several smaller craft. (See blog post from July 2019 – ‘A River and Three Canals in a Week’).

The 2021 experience was much better – even pleasant! For a start we now had a means of communicating from end to end of a 65′ barge, with the accompanying noise of lock mechanisms and rushing water!

As the photos show, we had much more stately progress through the two Péronnes locks this time. It was made easier by being the only boat in the lock and able to choose our position on the bollards to suit the length of Calliope. Also experience, and the Nautic-talk made a difference. Quite enjoyable overall!

The wide straight section of canal after the locks was the perfect opportunity for crew to take over at the helm for a while – the only thing to avoid on a Sunday being the fishermen!

We were now on the Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes canal, heading East, enjoying the quietness of a mainly non-working day for the commercial barges.

(Of course we recognise and respect the big contribution that these working barges make to the waterway network and love them really!)

Further along the canal we were surprised to suddenly find the green carpet of duckweed normally associated with smaller, less used canals. It looks glorious, but is a bit of a nuisance.

Once through the duckweed we began to see interesting reflections. I love the way that the reflection of the steps seems to go back under the bank!

We knew where we were heading – Pommroeul! This huge, currently unused, basin with its long long mooring pier, is somewhere we have stayed before. There was a slight trepidation that it would be full of week-ending commercial barges, but, as you can see, it was totally totally empty!

This huge basin is the entrance to the ill-fated 12km long Pommeroeul-Conde canal, built to form another link between the French and Belgian canal systems. It opened in 1982, but due to heavy silting had to close 10 years later. Dredging from the Belgian end has taken place, and the French section (with the help of EU money) is almost clear as well. The canal is due to re-open in 2022, so probably no more peaceful mooring for leisure boats then!

Beyond the drop down from the lock is a ‘lake’, currently enjoyed by bathers, jet-skiers, ribs and other water sports; the cormorants wait for their turn when everyone has gone home! I took a walk along to the next bridge, round and back, to take it all in before it changes next year.

Then to settle down to a peaceful evening on the boat – or maybe not! I still had unspent energy so with a silent disco in my ears I danced up and down the pier. Poor Captain, with such crazy crew!

The sunset and sunrise were equally beautiful in their way, although Monday dawned with a lot of cloud and the threat of rain to come.

And as we set off next day it was immediately evident that Sunday and passed and a new working week was beginning!

We waited to allow a commercial barge, Karin, to go ahead of us – a slight mistake as she turned out to be travling rather slowly due to a heavy load.

Ah well, we were in no great rush!

A few kilometres on Karin drew in to a widening in the canal to let us pass, giving a friendly wave as we went by.

As we passed Mons the canal became the Canal de Centre and we looked ahead to the two locks we would go up that day. Luckily I had previously written in the map book what kind of bollards we should expect, so we were pleasantly prepared. We shared the locks with a small cabin cruiser, who found it a bit more difficult as the bollards tend to be around 15m apart, but they managed too.

We were heading for Thieu for the night, hoping to stay on the long quay by the entrance to the Canal Historique. And once more we were in luck, with only one other boat moored up there. Plenty of space for Calliope!

Although it was a bit wet still we went for a walk over the river to the village of Thieu.

We were looking for somewhere to buy bread the next morning, and having found the only boulangerie closed on Tuesdays we carried on to make sure the little minimarket was still there, and would be open!

Next morning I was back over the bridge to buy some bread, and a few other essentials – a short trip, but one that logged 3000 steps and got me a nice photo from the bridge of our resting place.

But then we were off – off to ascend the marvellous piece of engineering that is the Ascenseur Strèpy-Thieu. We have travelled this boat lift twice before, but of does not cease to amaze. It is a 75.3m vertical trip with awe-inspiring views of both machinery and scenery!

As we prepare to cast off Elan, a barge full of scrap metal, comes past and will be our company on the way up.

We reach the basin below the lift and wait a while until first the ‘doors’ open, and then Elan goes in.

We continued along the Canal de Centre, a wide, straight, modern canal, planning to reach Viesville lock for the night. However after only two and a half kilometres an alarm went off on the boat and we realised that the engine had overheated.

There are few places to stop and tie up along this stretch of canal but we were luckily just passing an industrial wharf, currently empty.

Captain Stu took us alongside, we tied up, and had lunch while we waited for the engine to cool down and understand the ‘problem’.

It turned out that we were short of water in the engine cooling system – that will teach us to get complacent about something that has always been fine whenever Stewart checked!

A short while after adding some water and testing the engine (now seemingly OK) a barge arrived to sue the wharf for commercial purposes, so we went on our way again.

Sadly then repair was not quite as simple as initially expected and within 5 minutes the engine overheated again. This time we were right beside the only reasonable public mooring along this part of the canal, so quickly tied up and switched off to wait for the engine to cool again, and further investigations to take place.

We adapted our red ensign to be the Belgian red flag of ‘immobile’ and made the decision to stay there overnight in order to fully let the boat cool down and understand the issue. In the morning an exchange of messages with the ever helpful Piper boats team pointed towards an airlock in the coolant system following the top up the previous day. Captain, turned Engineer, spent some time in the engine room and soon sorted it out! Simple really, as long as our know what to look for and what you are doing.

We were soon on our way again, keeping an eye on the temperature gauge, which remained reassuringly low.

Before long we were turning to starboard onto the Brussels-Charleroi Canal and heading for our next few locks.

The skies changed from light grey to dark, from potential sunshine to potential downpour. The scenery was changing to rise higher each side and become more wooded. There was evidence of the summer holidays with youngsters our learning the art of rowing.

We were in needs of fresh milk – the Captain is not very keen on the homogenised milk that is most common on the shelves of the supermarkets here.

I was pleased to see a Carrefour on Google maps that was seemingly near the canal. They usually have fresh milk – so all we had to do was find a mooring close by.

And we did; an old bollard hidden in the grass and something that the Captain tied onto.

And the Carrefour was really close! The roof was visible form the mooring!

We had made a plan to stay at Viesville lock where we have stayed overnight before and been very comfortable amongst groups of working barges waiting for the early locks down next day. But having announced out intention to the éclusiers he recommended that we carry on to the next lock, Gosselies, and stay there – so we did.

Having dropped down the lock we discovered that our mooring options were not as great as anticipated – a long wooden pier one side, with bollards about 30m apart, or a long high wall where the bollards were more comfortably spaced for us. We thought we would get as far from the lock as we could, only to find a ‘No Parking’ sign part way along, meaning that we had to moor close to the lock than we would have preferred – but all seemed OK – in fact very pleasant and calm.

It was an ideal opportunity to start cleaning off the grime that accumulates as you cruise through the more industrial areas – a good evening’s exercise when you cannot get off the barge to go walking!

It was less so in the night when we were woken a couple of times – once by a spider that had fallen in through the window and into our bed! Once by a sense that Calliope was leaning to one side, due to the water level falling and the mooring ropes holding her up on the starboard side – easily rectified by a swift trip up on deck. And then from 6am the barges starting to come and go through the lock, and the planes beginning their daily schedule from Brussels-Charleroi nearby! All good fun, and part of life on a boat.

We were looking forward to the next day’s cruising as it would take us, eventually, away from the industrial canals and onto the Haute Sambre – a smaller and much less used river. But first it was through the current and past working life of the Charleroi area. There is a huge amount of scrap metal business the area, but past evidence of steel works and their, now green, slag heaps.

We had one lock along the way and had to wait a while to use it. A gaggle of hybrid geese helped to pass the time and eat up our left over bread.

The lock itself, Marchienne-au-Pont, is only 7m and has floating bollards, so not a major obstacle. Although when the bollard at its highest floating point in somewhat below the level of the fore-deck it does require a bit of leaning over and swinging rope hopefully to catch it!

But of course once you start to go down in the lock it evens out and all is well.

Less than 3 kilometres on we were into Charleroi and turning right onto the Sambre.

This sign is confusing as it shows the turning towards Bruxelles, Mons and Tournai that we had just come from!

We turned onto the Haute Sambre in the direction of Thuin.

We were finding the riverbanks ever changing, from industrial to residential, from city park to countryside. And within 5 kms we were at our first Haute Sambre lock, Monceau-sun-Sambre. I had phoned ahead to the éclusier as normal good practise and he said that he would prepare the lock. So we were surprised when we came round a slight bend to go into the lock to find that the gates were closed.

Thinking that the éclusier would be keeping a watch for us to arrive the Captain held Calliope midstream as best he could, given the cross wind! After a while, lock gates still closed, I called again. Ah yes, he would now prepare the lock! And after another five minutes we saw that the lock was beginning to empty.

After another five minutes the gates opened and we went in – both looking as always for the best option for securing both ends of the barge. It was difficult; we went to the front of the lock looking for options. It is only a 4.9m lock, but the bollards at the top are set back and impossible to see from the bottom of the lock. I was just climbing onto the roof in the hope of throwing a rope from there when the éclusier appeared and gestured to us to come astern and tie to two bollards low down in the wall.

This was seemingly odd advice as there were no bollards higher in the wall to move up to as the water n the lock rose, but we obediently did as we were told. And then all became clear!!!! The éclusier appeared above us with a big hook and a long piece of cord, which he let down, we hung our ropes to, and we took up and passed round d the hidden bollards on the quay!

Voila! It all worked perfectly.

Soon the lock was full and were ready to carry on up river, under grey skies.

A quick few things should be said about the Sambre. For 15 years the river could be cruised from its French side and its Belgian side, but not all the way through. Now this beautiful route between the two countries has been reopened (July 2021), following reconstruction of the aqueducts at Vadencourt and Macquencourt. The French Government paid for half the cost of restoring the canal, the rest of the €15 million investment being covered by the local authorities.

There is evidence of the infrastructure being improved further, with river side roads and paths being relaid, new pontoons and water/electricity supplies for plaisanciers, and dredging of sections in danger of silting up. Travel this waterway! It’s worth it.

Now we really did feel we were out on the country. We saw a king fisher – our first this year – mild mannered cows chewed peacefully as we went by; fisherman nodded and pulled in their lines; the small village of Landelies came into view.

The next lock is at Abbaye d’Aulne, a mere two and a half kms further, where we were to moor up for a couple of days. Once more we helped at the lock, and then onto the long quay just beyond where there was plenty of space for us.

The Abbaye is a monumental place – just full of interest, history, ruins and architecture. Lunch came first but then a walk round the ruins was a must. According to legend (and the English guide book) the Abbey was formed in 637 and there have been monastic structures here ever since. It was in the 12th-13th Century that the Cistercians settled in here, forcing the local inhabitants to sell their property to the abbey on pain of excommunication. Not exactly a kindly thing to do.

That evening in part of the Abbey grounds on the far side of us a big non-dancing disco was held. I did walk up and have a quick look and listen, but then back to Calliope for a quiet sunset rosé with my lovely man.

But our evening out was to the Mini Golf Terrace bar, overlooking the weir stream of the river. We both sampled the Abbaye beer – it is still brewed in local town Thuin, but no longer by the monks! I tried their Cherie cherry flavoured beer – sadly not a patch on the Kreik cherry beers, brewed in a different way. Stewart’s blonde was just right for a summer evening.

To complete our ‘date night’ we went for a meal at one of the many restaurants around the Abbey, and recommended to us by a local couple. Our aperitifs were served with the ruins as backdrop.

After a shared starter Stewart chose jamboneau – it was huge and we brought home what he could not eat to use for another meal! I had a platter of cold smoked fish with salad – also huge! But we still struggled through a shared ice cream dessert!

With stomachs full we staggered across the weir stream bridge and back to Calliope for a peaceful night, only disturbed, occasionally, by the lovely gaggle of geese.

Our next stop was not far away. We were heading for Thuin. The description of the mooring and the town both sounded nice.

It was to be one of those windy rural trips, cruising gently through nature, with three small locks along the way.

The map book shows that all the phone numbers for the locks have changed over the past few years, but luckily we had been provided with a new list at the first lock.

And the locks were enjoyable too!

At one of them, right out away from towns and villages, the Captain attempted to recruit some canine crew, whilst I chatted to a goat, after being the one to do the manual work of opening the lock gate. It’s what crew are for really!

By lunch time we could see the Thuin moorings and were lucky to find plenty of space at the upstream end. Here the quay was a better height for Calliope.

Although there is a Steak House alongside this is not open yet, and it was one of the quietest town moorings we have ev er encountered.

Currently there is not water or electricity on the moorings, but a big sign to say that all of this is being developed and will be available soon.

Already there is a useful tap inland of the path approximately half way along the low pontoon mooring.

After lunch it was on to exploring the town which is divided into the Haute Ville at the top of the hill, and the Bass Ville at the bottom, by the river, which is known as the batellier’s, or boatman area. Day one was to explore at the top, including following a route to see the .hanging gardens. These are residential gardens built onto small terraces down the southern slopes of the hill – there is little flat land to be had!

It certainly was a hilly route, with narrow paths and alleys winding up and down. To be honest little could be seen of the gardens as they tended to be behind walls and gates, but it was an interesting walk.

And the considerable effort of the walk was a good reason for a beer in the square at the top before going back to Calliope for a floating supper.

As mentioned above, this was a peaceful mooring, quite some way from roads, bridges and railways.

We passed a tranquil night.

We always enjoy our encounters with animals as we pass along our way.

This young cat lived nearby and is obviously fascinated by boats. She would sit looking at our boat for ages, and then come aboard in quite a proprietorial manner.

Sunday morning she was at her bravest, inspecting the waters from the bow.

But things did get noiser later, as you will read.

We could hear something being set up along the quay – there was a PA, the start of a bar, and a gathering of people. But time for us to walk around the battelier’s area first.

Back at the boat we began to get an idea of the event that was to unfold. There was to be a race on the river, using unusual craft, for reasons not quite understood by its, but obviously to be fun. We went to watch the start, and were surprised to see the ‘starting gun’ was some kind of old fashioned blunderbuss!

Here is a link to a video of the start, including the first capsize, within 20 seconds! https://youtu.be/Yg543RuXGKU

They held the race again and again and again, some of the competitors being fuller and fuller and fuller of beer and Flambée!

Cherries and Griottes being two of my favourite flavours in an alcoholic context it is not surprising that I managed to but some samples – just €1 for a shot of La Flambée, a 33% d’eau-de-vie with a 12 month sozzled cherry at the bottom of the glass – so strong that it almost blew my head off!

Yes, it made me quite cheerful!

As evening arrived we thought we would try the frituur on the corner, after I had a walk to get closer to my 10000 steps for the day! Just as I returned the heavens opened and rain absolutely poured down!!! I dashed to cover under one of the umbrellas set up but the Confrèrie, and watched as the street began to turn into a secondary river! Hmm, an excuse for another shot of La Flambée!

At last the rain stopped enough for Stewart to join me and the beer I had ordered for him – and to meet one of the senior figures in the brotherhood.

And from our new friend I was also able to buy some of the pork paté with cherries – very rich and much more to my taste than to Stu’s!

All the more for me then.

Other than a somewhat disappointing frituur experience that I had to queue half an hour to buy, that was the end of a wonderful time on Thuin. We would recommend to anyone making a stop there! So next morning it was cast off under a down cast sky and head on upstream towards the French border. Only two more stops until we are there; we could have dashed across in a few hours, but we are enjoying our amble along the Sambre.

Merbes-le-Chateau appealed because of its DBA (Butch Barge Association) description as a ‘basic mooring in a quiet area’. We had plenty of water from the last time we filled up Leers Nord just over two weeks ago, and our PV panels mean we virtually never need to plug into a marina’s shore power.

We were back to rather grey travelling, but that often leads to calm waters and good reflections.

We had three locks to navigate before we reached Merbes. And it was at the second that we had a surprise

A big sign at the end of the lock warned of work going on in the river on the next bief, or stretch of water.

And sure enough as we rose up with the water in the lock we saw almost the whole width of the river blocked by three working vessels.

By the time we reached our last lock of the day the rain had begin to fall – a light summer rain, but still capable le of giving you a good soaking while you stand in the bow at a lock, so I was prepared!

He was able helped by his mate – maybe also an éclusier – so that despite the manual potation of everything we were soon on our way.

Our mooring was a couple of kilometres further along, one side or the other of the bridge at Merbes. It was up to us to choose what looked best for Calliope as we arrived. For us having the bow, with our cabin beneath, furthest from the bridge was likely to be quietest overnight.

It wasn’t long before we began to wonder who had described it as quiet! A lorry, a large van, a JCB, some men with an angle grinders and a huge street cleaning vehicle all reversed down the slope behind us and began to work along the riverbank road! But it did not take long, and in fact it is all part of Wallonia Waterways bringing the river up to scratch for an increase in boaters now that the river is open through France.

Our other interruptions were the regular ‘pushers’, bringing the mud barges to and from the works down stream.

They all had friendly crews, and again it is good to see waterways being brought back to life.

We went off for a walk, as usual, after lunch. This time, after a quick tour of the small village, we set off to cross the river on a footbridge and into a green pathway.

Signs of autumn are coming in already, ands n to even the end of August, There were masses of sloes that will be ready for sloe gin in a few weeks, but we will have moved on.

On our way back we got up close to the dinosaur at the opposite side of the river to our mooring. I tried offering food, but to wasn’t interested!

As the day drew to a close, with lorries and mud barges gone home, it did become the promised quiet mooring.

Through the trees we could just see the unusually shaped church steeple, and could listen to it strike the hours.

We were delighted to have this Jersey Tiger moth aboard at the start of the journey.

When it opens its wings to fly the underwings are bright red.

The roof was still wet with dew, hence the bubbly effect of the roof!

On the port side we came upon the place where the mud was being unloaded from the barges, and presumably taken away in lorries.

This sillty soil will be welcomed by many gardeners I think!

We came through Écluse 1 of the Belgian Haut Sambre – a small, happy lock, with the bollards painted different colours.

This made it very easy for the Captain to let crew know which bollard to use – “You take the red one and I will take the blue”.

There is a large port at Erquelinnes, with a narrow en trance from the river.

Calliope could fit through, but as usual we went fore the quieter more solitary mooring a bit further up the river.

We were very content on the customs quay. Behind us was over 100 yards of empty wall – occasionally used by fishermen and women and young lads swimming. Overall a perfect place for us, so we stayed two nights!

We were in need of a re-stock of the cupboard and fridge, so we set off on a half hour walk to the road with three good size supermarkets – and with fresh milk at the top of our shopping list. We filled up several shopping bags – but not with fresh milk. None was to be had in Erquelinnes!

So that created the plan for next day. We would walk along the river, over the French border, and in the next town, Jeumont, go to the Carrefour where fresh milk is normally to be found.

It was a successful walk in every way. The weather was perfect – sunny but not too hot. The industry and the nature along the riverbank was interesting; we saw disused factories, the site of an old pont levée, a rat, a lizard and more besides.

Jeumont Carrefour came up trumps with the milk, and also my favourite salmon parmentier and the Captain’s favourite St Felicien cheese, all smuggled back into Belgium undetected ….

We inspected the halte nautique next to the bridge, but could not tell if the electricity and water now worked – a DBA member passing a few years ago mentioned that they had been switched off.

The sun continued to shine all the way back, lighting up the teazle barbs.

We found out that the nearby port was originally very much a working port

In the afternoon we went to have a look at the port. It is very big – 300m long and 45m wide. Although the entrance, under a railway bridge, looks narrow it is easily wide enough for our 4.2m wide barge, as can be evidenced by the barges already in the port. I have tried to discover the historical industries off the town, but apart from seeing plenty of farms around I cannot work it out.

As we returned from our exploration I was tempted to go for a swim myself – but this time I was more restrained and only my toes got wet.

The bush at the end of the quay marks the en trance to the port, and Stu was on our back deck taking this photo – so you can see how close we were.

And with one last reminder from nature of our cruise along the Belgian Haut Sambre from Charleroi to Erquelinnes I will end this chapter.

(We think it is an owl feather)

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