From Blaton to Namur; a journey of 3 canals

22 – 27 July 2020

Canals Nimy-Blaton-Peronne, du Centre, and Brussels-Charleroi

As we left the Ath-Blaton Canal at Blaton and joined the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes our hearts sank a little; we were leaving a narrow-gauge rural canal for the width of the commercial , industrial, super highway canal system again.

But we needn’t have worried, al least not at the start. Having negotiated the final 7 locks in the Ath-Blaton we still reached our next mooring by midday.

This was the Grand Large de Pommeroeul – an amazingly peaceful mooring on a very long pier in a large basin.There was only one other barge on the pier – somewhat larger than its and making Calliope suddenly microscopic! (It’s a bit of an optical illusion in fact, but don’t let that stop a good story…)

The basin was to be the start of the new Pommeroeul-H….. Canal, linking Belgium and France. However after 10 years of operation from 1982-92 the ‘siltation’ was so bad that out had to close. The Belgians dredged their side; the French, so far, have not – although it is due to be done by 2021.

In the meantime all the necessary equipment – locks, sluices, piers etc – remain unused. The huge lake after the first lock is now a leisure amenity for the locals, great for swimming, canoeing, fishing, jet-skiing and more.

We took a walk (2.5kms) into the village of Pommeroeul, famous for its ‘croncq clocher’, the crooked steeple of the church, and its iguanodons. I have photos of the former, but not the latter. The museum of the iguanodons should be visited if you like dinosaurs; in the 19th century coal miners discovered a huge mass of fossilised dinosaur bones including several full iguanodons, crocodiles, birds and other.

Our view out across the Grand Large changed rather when a second commercial barge joined us. It was from the Infinity group; we have met up with several of these barges and the crews have always been polite and friendly, so no surprise when later on the Captain walked along the pier for a chat.

The change in view made no difference to our enjoyment of the evening in the sun at (almost) the centre of a wide open water space. Cheers!

We awoke to another glorious day and were off Eastwards along the canal.

Now it did begin to seem more industrial! This would continue through most of our journey past Charleroi and a bit beyond! (Great photo LJ)

At Mons we moved seamlessly from the Nimy-Blaton-Peronne canal onto the Canal du Centre. The occasional more rural scene did appear.

And we had the first of our larger locks, 5m deep and about 80m long, shortly followed by one of 10m depth. We ascended both with no problem, with the floating bollards in the big one making things much easier.

At Thieu the quay was mainly empty; we were soon moored up and could have lunch. All very peaceful.

Boats went by.

Fisherman (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) came and went.

Then there were three things of interest that happened over the next 21 hours …..

….. we walked up the old Canal Historique, getting great views of Ascenseur 4, the final downstream one of the four that took barges up and down prior to the new(ish) method.

We were also allowed into the working area. The old Ascenseur works using two boat lifts and the counterbalance of water to raise and lower them. Although water supplies the ‘muscle’, it is still manually operated. (Smelled like an old machine shop too – Mmmmmmm)

It is a lovely walk along the old canal historique to Strèpy. Last time we were here the annual festival was on and it was a very lively place all along the canal bank – much quieter this time.

We searched for a bar with a nice open seating area – still on the 1.5m distance coronavirus rules – but only found this one bar open; friendly and good beer.

You can get good sense of the grandeur of the aquaduct leading up to the top of the modern boat lift when walking the old canal path.

And also good views of the ascenseur (the boat-lift) over the top of the lower part of Strépy.

On the return from our walk we were a little alarmed to see lots of blue flashing lights near Calliope! As we got closer it was clear it was not a boat in trouble. A car had gone into the canal, luckily with no people inside.

After 2 ambulances, 3 police cars, 2 fire brigade vehicles (one for diving equipment) and a car from the Wallonian waterways authority, the rescue got underway. A car breakdown truck completed the team and a yellow VW Polo was dragged out.

The last of the interesting events at Thieu was the planned one – going up, next day, on the Strepy-Thieu Ascenseur.

We came down it last year, so it was not completely new, but it is spectacular and amazing in its engineering and views nonetheless.

So no apologies for all the photos. I was amused by the ‘Risk of Decapitation’ sign – I managed to keep my head.

We continued along the modern Canal du Centre, through the Porte de Garde, with black clouds looming. But they came to naught.

At the end there is a T junction with the Canal Brussels-Charleroi. We were expecting this to be horribly industrial – our memories did not serve us well because it meanders along between gentle green hills for quite a way. (We know Charleroi itself will be a different story!)

The mooring plan was to be above the lock at Viesville, where we stayed last year. This worked out fine; plenty of space

We knew there was the chance of being gradually surrounded by gentle-giant commercial barges as they came in to rest overnight, but in fact only one arrived, reflected magnificently in the evening light.

Even the lock had an industrial beauty that evening.

More interesting was the boat moored below the lock – another Piper barge that we had been communicating with for about a year, but never met, so we walked down the hill to say hello to El Perro Negro and crew.

They were waiting for a diver to return to fix a new impeller in their bow thruster, to replace the one damaged by something in the water – always a risk along the waterways.

After that pleasant interlude it was back to Calliope for supper and a stroll along the bank, before bed.

As we left next day the rain arrived as we descended the lock – quite a deep one at 7m.

Below the lock we passed El Perro Negro, waving and promising to meet up again soon, which in fact we did that evening, after a long days cruising for both boats.

We had a couple more 7m locks to go down before Charleroi – both happily with floating bollards and small bollards in the wall, spaced reasonably for a 20m boat if you get in the centre of the lock.

It was still felt quite ‘country’ as we came through those last two locks, with herons and other birds still in evidence.

We were ready for the industrial nature of Charleroi, rather run-down and abandoned, and found this graffiti really cheered it up.

Stewart has on his mind that Charleroi is a horrendous place to take a barge through. Certainly last year it was quite early on in our experience of Belgium’s big canals and massive barges. There are double right-angle blind bends moving from Canal Brussels-Charleroi Canal to La Sambre and it is right to proceed with caution.

The lock in Charleroi is right in the middle of current and redundant industry. Sounds of crashing metal ring out all around.

And one must be extra aware of commercial barges coming towards you as you leave this lock as you enter a length of waterway where you drive on the left – not the right! It’s a ‘blue boarding’ area if you are over 20m; with Calliope just under 20m we don’t have blue boards, but Captain said I should be ready with a large blue seat cushion, just in case.

It was now just one day away from additional crew joining us at Namur, so we made an emergency stop at Tamines where you can more up right next to a supermarket – although several feet below pavement level!

Just a few kilometres on and we could finally stop for the night at Auvelais. The pontoon here is quite a sweet place to stop, although there seemed to be more trains than last time we were here! Not long after El Perro Negro arrived, diving work on the bow thruster complete. Cause for a joint celebratory drink with them; just the right end to the day.

After the pleasant aperitif interlude, and after supper, I went for an exploratory walk looking for the local Intermarché. Although we had shopped earlier that day we had not managed to find fresh milk – often a problem in Wallonia. In climbed up and up towards a main road, suddenly finding myself in a lovely woodland war cemetery – far from what I had expected and very quiet and peaceful.

My walk back was on the opposite bank (don’t ask!) and I caught a different view of the mooring along with some old Auvelais riverside buildings.

Next morning we were off down to Namur to moor up and be ready for our guests arrival at the station. First things first – I went over to the village to get some fresh bread for our lunch – in the rain.

We set off quite early for us, now in the sun, and soon reached the first lock at Mornimont, where we were told we must wait for two more boats to join us. Oh well.

It turned out that one of the boats we were waiting for was El Perro Negro! They had phoned ahead to the lock before setting off and we then waited 40 minutes for them to catch us up. Could have stayed in bed!

We continued on down the Sambre, passing the striking abbey at Floreffe, particularly magnificent as we passed with this ‘biblical’ sky behind it.

Two hours later and we were moored up in Namur, on the Sambre, tied to railings and with a hanging wall for company.

The debarkation method was interesting, and tried out after lunch; it works.

Then we rested and waited until time to go to the station and meet new masked crew – our eldest two, Amanda and Ashley, who had travelled ‘coronavirus-safe’ all the way by Eurostar and Belgian rail to Namur.

It was so good to have them aboard – competent crew to be tested on our cruise down the Meuse.

They arrived a day after Belgium announced that masks must be worn in all public areas, including streets, and only taken off at home or when you sit down at a bar or restaurant – which we did several times over the next 30 hours.

We had a full day next day in Namur, and used it to cross the Sambre and explore the amazing citadel up above the other side. The ‘Searching for Utopia’ by Jan Fabre – it is a self portrait astride the turtle and a copy of the one we saw in Nieuweport last year.

The views from the citadel are amazing as I am sure you can imageine. Here are a few from the top.

The happy captain playing games – can you spot him?

We spent the second evening aboard Calliope, starting with a good selection of starters, which attracted a wasp that got trapped in Amanda’s hair – the brave Captain chased it off!

We were also joined by geese who guzzled up any spare bread we had on offer!

As the sun got lower in the sky there was the occasional swell in the water as big barges with friendly crew passed gently by.

An extra evening stroll found not only another bar to try, but also another marvellous sculpture by the river – a bronze sculpture, encrusted with ceramics, of the magical bay horse Bayard with the four sons of Aymon astride, seeming to jump over the river Meuse.

Stu’s designer eye was drawn to the new art/culture building on the banks of the Sambre, with its beautiful staircase.

Returning to Calliope we all enjoyed the changing skies as dusk drew in.

And so, having looked at the mighty Meuse from several angles, we were ready next day to move onto it and go down to Huy. (Pronounced in French: ‘Oi!’ felt right at home Mush)

In the morning Stu gently took Calliope down the final half kilometre of the Sambre, past buildings old and new …… (I do like that building a lot )

Upstream on the Dender and on to the Ath-Blaton Canal

6th to 22nd June 2020

This journey was both tranquil with at times a challenging edge, as you will discover! It was well worth the effort; there are several places I would stay at longer next time through.

The previous blog had us arriving on the Dender from the Boven-Zee-Scheldt and mooring up here just outside Dendermonde.

Dendermonde has been bypassed by the new canalised Dender, so we decided to walk down the old river, now closed off from the new part, and take a quick look at what has been an important town.

We walked into town on the open side, and back along the wooded side. It makes a very pleasant 3km walk, with young water fowl along the river at this time of year, screeching for more food!

Almost all the way along are huge bollards, spaced out for big commercial barges, evidence of the earlier importance of Dendermonde as a trading town.

Further evidence, if any is required, is seen when you arrive at the town. A huge lock is still in place, although no longer used.

The town square still shows some of its former grandeur, although much of it is rebuilt side the two world wars to look the same as before.

Back to the barge for the evening and wonderful calm after being moored on the centre of Gent for a few days! In fact a group of 4 teenagers arrived with chairs and drinks to sit on the pontoon for a couple of hours; they were very polite, saying hello and asking us to let them know if they were too noisy. We hardly knew they were there.

The mooring is only allowed for 24 hours, so despite it being so peaceful and pleasant we set off the next morning – but only after a good chat to one of the three fisherman who turned up on the pontoon before I was even out of bed. He spoke excellent English and knew some of the other British boats that have moored there.

The river from Dendermonde to Aalst is generally quiet, and mostly rural. However there is some industry, and at one point the factory had commemorated the Tour de France which had its Grand Départ in Brussels in 2019.

Sod’s Law struck again as the only boat we passed on our journey was an extra large one on the narrowest section of the river! But the ‘skipperess’ of the barge neatly steered her to starboard and we passed by unscathed.

As we approached the outskirts of Aalst we made contact with the bridge and lock keeper. There are a couple of bridges in the centre of Aalst that must be raised (or tilted) for boats to move through. The Zwartehoekbrug was the only one we needed to get through to reach our mooring and it was soon raised.

The interesting thing became what to tie up to ….. few bollards, no cleats, no rings ….. but a line of large blocks of concrete to stop cars tipping onto the canal, so the bow rope was strung round one of these. It worked; this large laden barge passing by tested it out!

We were soon off for a walk round the town. We had read that it was a great place to visit, and it’s true. Under normal non-coronavirus circumstances they have three huge carnivals a year – one all about men dressing up as women, though nothing to do with transvestism. The statue above captures the moment a man happily takes off his high heels!

My main memory will be a waffle moment! Crew persuaded the Captain that it would be nice to sit in the shade with a beer – or with a fully fruited sangria and fully fruited waffle!

We stayed on board for the evening and were surprised by visitors at around 8pm, who made a return visit next evening as well. I must admit the bread we fed them was rather good. (Please don’t tell me off for feeding them bread!)

Next day was rather wet. In amongst some unexciting events like shopping we did get another surprise visitor – this time a moorhen on the roof. They don’t fly much to my knowledge – only when they skitter across the water, so I was definitely surprised too see it there.

Our other main event was a Scrabble match. It was closely fought, but finally the Captain’s superior verbal skills led to his victory.

Then it was time to carry on up the Dender (without Sid James and Kenneth Williams). It was an obstacle course of a journey!

It was like this ….

  • Request and wait to go through the Aalst tilt bridge Sint-Annabrug
  • Through the narrow Aalst manually operated lock by the sugar factory
  • Under a lift bridge .. to find we had to …
  • … squeeze past two moored working barges which were pile-driving a new edge to the river
  • Round a bend to find another large working barge and crane lifting new sections for the pile-driver
  • Round another bend to see a low narrow bridge with several canoes full of children the other side
  • And then, out into the country until our next adventure!

Here is the pictorial adventure.

All was calm until we reached the next bridge and lock at Teralfene. First there was a bit of a wait; no problem. We are happy midstream.

Then once in the lock, the lock-keeper asked us if we would wait half an hour for another boat to arrive so that he could save water; of course we said yes and had lunch in the bottom of a lock – not for the first time.

We continued on with the other boat, a cruiser with pleasant crew. They let us know that one of the bridges on Geraardsberge, just upstream, was closing at the end of the day for 5-6 days! It has to be said that I should have known. I receive all the emails about closures every day, but this one slipped past my (non)eagle eye.

It was either make a dash for Geraardsberge that day (no thank you) or remain downstream for almost a week.

We were following the path highlighted green on the map. Pink indicates a lot of what we did on 2019.

A plan was hatched and we drew in at Okegem, on a sloping wall and very low mooring cleats. The Captain made us safe with re-corded fenders!

As usual we went for a walk, initially around our side of the river in Pamel. Right next to our mooring was a sculpture of Victor de Klerk. He was an unfortunately fat man, around 55 stone, and possibly the heaviest man in Europe during his life in the mid 19th century. His is not a happy story.

Later I went over the bridge to look at the village of Okegem, after a tasty prawn pasta supper.

Skies became blue and the scene changed, becoming beautiful and tranquil. We sat on the back deck until sunset, revelling in the places our Piper has brought us ….

…. and enjoying Stewart’s shadow art!

Although we liked to at Okegem we decided to carry on to Ninove – at least a 4km cruising day! Calliope moved from a pink sunset to a pink bridge, welcoming us into Ninove.

The mooring we had expected to use was occupied so we went astern for a hundred yards or so and came into moor on a good long floating pontoon next to a footbridge laden with petunias; what a beautiful scent.

It was clear that we would be here a few days, so I will not repeat days of shopping in the local Del Haize supermarket! We did attempt to get an idea of the town, including the Graan Markt, where a big building was in the process of being pulled down by a monster munching machine!

Later that day Captain Stu did his good waterways deed of the day, hauling out a huge long wooden log/pole that was floating downstream ready to cause damage to someone or something.

I did go for an evening stroll on the first evening juts as the sky was clearing for sunset. The clarity across the town was superb.

Day 2 we were settling in. We went for a walk up to the next mooring along the river, next to an old rail bridge, to see if it was worth moving along a few kilometres, but the pontoon was filling up as we arrived.

On the way back, dodging the rapid cyclists sharing our path, I noticed the giant colourful ‘cotton reels’ across the river. Not sure what they are, but a colourful display nonetheless.

Early that evening we had a couple more items to buy at the shops, and that morphed into a couple of cold beers (and Sangria) at a local bar, segueing into one more drink and a good burger and frites at an other hostelry – a good time was had by all!

Back to the boat. It certainly is no hardship being here.

Over the days we got to know Ninove a little better, seeking out the remaining older parts of the town amongst the new. Two of the city gates still remain, appearing suddenly along otherwise relatively modern streets! Koeport seems to mean Cow Gate, but I suspect that is wrong. There is a story attached to it – when the town of Aalst, just down river, laid siege to Ninove they were desperate to lock the gate but could mot find the key, so a carrot was used to bolt it shut. A passing donkey ate the carrot, unlocking the gate for the invaders, and ever since the people of Ninove have been known as Wortels – Flemish for carrot.

We also went to the abbey, all that is left of what was a big monastic community. It is huge! Even the size and style of the confessional box is awesome. Outside some archeological work has begin to find the remains of some of the previous buildings.

We were entertained by the young waterfowl as always. The high call of adolescent moorhen, coots, grebes and ducks were all around. The adult moorhens were much bolder than I am used to in UK and happily stalked about on the pontoon beside the boat.

My walks often took me along the river bank and up to the next lock, just over a kilometre away. The locally typical weir mechanism, with its pulleys and chains, was a sight to behold!

We used some of our time for more maintenance and cleaning. Stewart got to grips with some painting whilst I cleaned metal and we both had a real go at all the glass!

I am realising that we are rather good at rewarding our efforts with a refreshing drink – this time at the swimming pool café just across the park. I have rather fallen for the Sangria, a 14% concoction full of fruit so that I can make believe it is healthy.

Dreamer behind Calliope

Two days before we were due to leave we were joined on the pontoon by an even bigger barge than us! Dreamer belongs to Frans and Meike, the latter being a WOB member, so automatically an immediate friend.

the second pot of mussels

After inviting them aboard for a few drinks on the first night we received an invitation back that could not be refused! We are asked to a supper of fresh mussels! We supplied the frites from an excellent local frituur and a red berry gateau from a local bakeri. They supplied and cooked huge pots of delicious fresh large mussels!

Later Meike and I went to see a street theatre / circus performance behind the town hall – all perfectly socially distanced. It was very entertaining in a typically French way, full of mime, acrobatics and comedy.

Throughout our stay we have enjoyed the changing view of the foot bridge before us. The shape of it lends itself to interesting photos against some lovely skies.

Bye bye Mieke and Frans

Finally we got the email to say that the bridge was now open and that next day we could move on upstream towards our next destination – so earlyish to bed, ready for our next voyage, and waving goodbye to new friends as we left.

Soon after we left Ninove we caught up with Piper boat Tadham Castle waiting for us at the first lock. We had a pleasant morning following them through a series of locks and bridges.

We were out in the country at last, with views across farm land, woodland, and left over parts of grand estates.

Waiting for bridge opening in Geraardsbergen

There was a bit of a delay while the lock/bridge keeper moved at his own pace from bridge, to bridge, to lock. Each had to be opened and allow us all through – and we had by now tagged onto a cruiser at the front as well. Finally we all arrived at Geraardsbergen, with its now famous newly opened bridge, just visible in the distance while we three boats wait for it to be raised.

This all took a while, and once we got to the final lock there was of course only room for the first two boats. Calliope was left below the lock, tied up, and allowing time for lunch.

The lock, when it opened for us, was in about the worst condition I have ever seen a lock before. The quays were topped with flaking plywood and the only things too attach to were plastic covered chains part way down the walls! Ah well, it all worked, and they seem well on the way to building a new one along side.

Soon we were cruising into our mooring place, the last space at the Geraardsbergen marina. I was glad I had phoned ahead and booked! We moored just ahead of Tadham Castle; this was fortuitous as they were able to lend us a hose to attach to two of our hoses, to stretch the 50 m. from the water tap to our tank!

Geraardsbergen is spread across two hills, either side of the Dender. A lot of walking up and down slopes is required! We had a couple of nights there, allowing Stewart and I time to sample several beers in the main square.

We also sampled the local ‘delicacy’, Mattertaarte, a sweet pastry, much lighter than it looks in the photo, with an interior of almond flavoured curd cheese – a sort of Bakewell tart without the jam. Our one meal out was far more global – Chinese.

As with many of the Belgian towns and cities we visit there are lots of wonderful old buildings. In Geraardsbergen there is also the original (apparently) Mannekin Pis, complete with a coronavirus mask.

(This is a completely random paragraph, thrown in so that I can show you our little-giant green grasshopper visitor who flew into in the wheelhouse in Geraardsbergen)

We had lovely weather while there, causing us to walk a mile or so to a Brico in the hope of buying a new parasol – our third attempt this year – but to no avail. You will continue to see us sitting in the sun.

one of the two large barges entering a lock ahead of us

When we left Geraardsbergen and arrived at the first lock we discovered that this time we were in a convoy of four boats …….

… two of which were massive barges, slightly unwieldy in these rather narrow waters and locks.

The lock keeper team who were travelling with put all four of us separately through each lock and lift bridge before continuing to the next one. We were the last of the four, consequently frequently in a queue!

Queuing became our new normal for the day!

The passage through Lessines was industrially interesting …. and we left one of the big barges there, shrinking our convoy to three.

Lessines looked an interesting place altogether and it was a shame not to stop their ourselves, but we were on catch-up from our enforced long stay in Ninove.

The éclusier team changed here, carrying us forward with some new faces. It sort of reminded me of days gone by when the team of horses pulling the barge would be changed; rest for horse and man etc. (You may not know that song – look it up – “Home Lads Home” – beautiful and sad, and nothing to do with barges!)

Rebaix

Calliope cast off from the convoy at Rebaix – a very pretty tranquil country mooring.

This was our peace and quiet at the end of a hectic day!

I went for a walk up into the village, then down to join the river further along, collecting photos as I went, before walking back to a perfect evening.

Forgive me for occasionally sharing my love of the nature we see along the way. At this time of year there are so many young birds own the water – moorhen, coot, grebe, goose, and of course duck – all with their own particular cuteness. At this mooring we also saw, but did not photograph, kingfishers and hares – the latter in a field, not the water!

The morning at Rebaix dawned as bright as the evening before.We had explained the the éclusiers that we planned to carry on to Ladeuze the next morning. This was apparently a little difficult to organise because of so much other boat movement along the river and its continuation, the Ath-Blaton canal.

But something was sorted, and they arrived next morning planning to get us to Ladeuze if possible. (Those’ thank-you’ cans of beer the previous day had been worth it).

Waiting for a new team at Ath

They got us as far as Ath – 3 kilometres – before having to abandon us outside a lock. We were told that another team would arrive in 20-30 minutes, so we settled down for an hours wait.

It is here that the waterway changes from the Dender river to the Ath-Blaton canal.

The next team, two young men, polite but slow, arrived and we set off through Ath with its lift bridges and six locks – all manually operated.

We were not clear of the city when it was their lunch time, so we were left at the bottom of a lock for a almost two hours; quite a pleasant place to be on a warm day and we had our lunch to eat too.

Our ‘likely lads’ returned and we carried on with our slow progress unit suddenly, at a lock, we were surrounded by additional éclusiers. By the time we were through the lock we realised that the team had changed yet again!

I flattered this team, talking them they were the meilleur équipe (best team) and they looked after us well up to Ladeuze. A few cans of beer was their reward.

The mooring at Ladeuze is lovely – a grassy bank with a few trees and picnic tables, plus everything a boat could need – secure mooring, water, electricity and a shower block – although all but the first were unavailable, whether due to coronavirus or other issues I dont know.

The other ‘institution’ of Ladeuze is Chez Gina. This local bar that has been run by Gina for other 60 years – she is now in her 90s and still to be seen sitting in the bar every day, although she has younger help to serve the customers. The bar is a museum piece, and the prices are almost as historic! It was the cheapest glass of Kriek I have had anywhere.

I took my usual walk, this time around sunset, along the canal then back through the fields; wonderful.

‘Breezey’ in our wake

In the morning the ‘likely lads’ returned, almost on time, and, along with the cruiser ‘Breezey’, we travelled to Grandglise. The first part of the day was still in the ascendence ….

…. but then at lock 11 we started our descent towards Blaton.

It was altogether a scenic route, starting with a lovely old lock house – how wonderful to have the opportunity to live in this!

Stu extracts a bike from the bike shed

At Grandglise, between locks 8 and 7, we said goodbye to ‘Breezey’ and crew and moored up for our last night on the Ath-Blaton. I chose to cycle the two and a half kilometres to an Intermarche for extra supplies – a more exhausting trip than anticipated. Must be my age! Or the weight of the beer, wine and mixers!

Despite this I went for my usual promenade around the area. Always interesting, but this time the only photogenic character was this cow, who was in a field at a level above my head!

After a quiet last evening on the canal, providing Captain with a chance to improve the cording to the red ensign, we settled down to a peaceful night.

yellow flower canal side mix

It was a good final day on the Ath-Blaton Canal. In fact it was a half day with just 7 locks within 2 kilometres, a couple of capable guys working with us, and a boat coming up, meaning that half the locks were ready for us.

I enjoyed the lock wall flowers, which get submerged each time the lock is full, and emerge, dripping, as the water empties out again.

At one lock I was concerned to watch a mother duck and three ducklings swim into the lock ahead of us! I made sure we did not crush them against the side, then looked on as the mother climbed out and called to her dizzy babies to follow. Eventually they did. But that was not the end of the story. Our éclusier noticed that a fourth duckling was now alone in the canal stream above the lock, and in a gentle way he herded the mother and three siblings back along the bank to find and join the prodigal son; lovely!

At lock 4 we had been told that we could take on water – and when we arrived it looked as if the lock itself had taken own more water than it could cope with! The lock was overflowing, with the mooring bollards surrounded by water.

Nonetheless we got tied up. Before we could deploy our hose we found an éclusier running a hose out from their shed, all ready for us to fill up as we went down. Somehow it worked, although I felt that ropes and hoses and water were everywhere in a tangle.

Just three easy locks to descend, and we were at Blaton – the end of the canal.

Blaton

We got a glimpse of the town from the old basin as we turned towards the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes canal, one of the main arteries through Belgium, and the start of the next chapter.

Pont des Lilas – gateway to the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes Canal

Kortrijk to Dendermonde – on the Leie and the Scheldt

The continuing adventures of Calliope, with observations from the wheelhouse in italics.

28th June – 6th July 2020

It is interesting how new cruising seasons begin. There is always a certain amount of apprehension, re-learning the maritime tricks that were so familiar 6 months ago (or in this case over 9 months ago because of the coronavirus lock down). The Captain had serviced the engine with good friend Ian Williams back in February, so it should be all systems go.

The ‘river arm’ with Calliope in the distance; Captain reversed out of here.

Reversing out of the river arm onto the main river with its huge commercial barges, in a strong wind, under a bridge only just high enough has its own excitement. Halfway into the manoeuvre realising that the bow thruster batteries had died during the winter added an extra piquancy!

Out onto the main river by the ‘Beach Bar’, waving goodbye to friends

Nonetheless super Captain Stu navigated its gently out onto the main river Leie, turned us to face North East, and we were off past the war memorial on our port side, stark against the blue sky.

Following distant Doris under Kuurnebrug at Harelbeke

Our days cruise plan was just 20kms, 2 locks and one lift bridge to Deinze; an ‘ease-yourself-in’ sort of a day. Actually it took 5 hours! We were surprised at the amount of commercial traffic out on a Sunday and it did not take long to accompany big barge Doris into the Harebeke lock.

We both had a long wait at Waregem. My efforts at learning Dutch all winter are useless, but luckily we understood enough of the lock keepers’s French to understand that we were in the second lock with Doris!

Initially we had to wait mid stream for about half an hour, until another 150m commercial ahead of Doris entered the lock. Then at least we could moor up to wait, and enjoy a quick sandwich.

Moving on out of Waregem Sluis

Eventually it was our turn and we moved gently downwards with Doris. As we left the lock, or sluis as I should say here in Vlaanderen, we found a bit of a queue waiting to come up as well! There is a huge amount of work going on at Waregem, building a new much longer lock to take today’s commercial traffic.

After another hour or passing even more of the ‘big boys’ we turned away from the commercial route and onto the old Leie river into Deinze, coming under the lift bridge and onto a mooring on the almost empty town quay.

And here at Deinze the Captain raised my colourful WOB (Women on Barges) flag to stream out in the high wind.

Next day the captain turned mechanic/electrician and began to problem solve the bow thruster issue. It turned out to be the batteries. After five and a half years of driving an electric motor they were on their last legs.

Starting to lift out the dead bow-thruster batteries

Luckily Stewart found a battery shop only a few hundred yards away. Unluckily we had left our sack truck in the UK, and batteries being the weight that they are (44Kg each in this case) we needed a sack truck to shift them – and the sack truck shop was almost 2 kms away. Good – I can get some of my 10,000 steps in for the day.

Sack truck under arm we went to the battery shop, which were all for cars and unsuitable. But we were directed on to a big chandlery; they tried their best but could not get the AGM styler that we prefer so it was back to Calliope and onto the internet, looking for batteries. It was not as easy as we had hoped.

We were rewarded for our efforts that evening by lovely skies over the church at sundown – note the still empty mooring…..

But next day it was wet and misty. We holed up aboard most of the time continuing on the battery mission. To cut a medium length story short, we eventually managed to order the ones we wanted, to be delivered from Antwerp direct to the boat by the end of the week. So we settled into a few Deinze days.

I ventured out in the wet for a walk downstream, enjoying the fresh air and greenery

Later Stewart and I took a walk around the lovely De Brielmeersen park. The best thing we saw was a stork, really close, but I couldn’t take a photo as we were using the phone to talk to granddaughter at the time. So you get the fountain, Stewart and a nice blue flower.

Wednesday dawned even wetter; in fact it had cured with rain all night. This is more the Belgium weather that I expect! I discovered that the Deinze market is on a Wednesday and persuaded Stewart that this would be a good place to look for provisions – lovely …..

Belgium is still taking the coronavirus seriously, which is a good thing. Although this is an outdoor market we were stopped at the entrance, given a mask to wear and our hands were sanitised. What a suspicious looking pair!

Buying ready made moussaka – cheating but delicious

We bought from several stalls, including a new table cover for the wheelhouse to smarten us up. My favourite stalls are the vishandels (fish mongers) and slajeris (butcher/delis).

Back to Calliope with our small haul, and for lunch.

That afternoon the weather began to cheer up. While the Captain took his customary siesta I had an extra excursion, walking up the Markt, or main street, then going down a wide side alley to discover a secret little garden, perhaps attached to a big house once upon a time, but overlooked by industrial units now.

I continued on my unknown way, emerging near the museum which has its own flock of hens and cockerels, all very showy. Here are my favourites.

I returned to the boat to find Stu ready to do a quick Carrefour shop to get the things the market could not supply, and as we returned to the boat we saw the lift bridge swing into action (that’s not right!) to allow a convoy of four more Piper barges through to moor behind us!

Deep Thought, Otium, Mimosa, Archangel, and Calliope – a pick of Pipers….

There was just room for the five of us, plus the other craft already moored up, and after some rope throwing and tightening everyone was secure. It was good to meet up with 8 other Piper people, and a very pleasant evening was spent together on a widening of the pontoon by Otium drinking beer and wine, exchanging yarns – and all pretty much socially distanced as required!

Next morning the row of boats looked even more splendid in the morning sun when it peeped between the clouds. And the day began with the ‘Arrival of the Batteries’ – hooray. Stewart and I moved them to their new home under our bed and I left him to install them while I started saying goodbye to everyone.

Astene

We left Deinze min-morning with super powered bow-thrusters, and continued down the Leie, passing through the old lock and under the manually lifted bridge at Astene.

There is a row of rather lovely old boats moored up below the lock – always worth a photo of at least one. Beauty.

We ate lunch on the go, in the rain, winding our way around the curves, bends and hairpins of the river, enjoying the wildlife. This included, surprisingly, two terrapins basking in the sun on a log!

We noticed last time we came along this part of the Leie all the big posh houses, old and new, with their robot lawn mowers and some interesting sculptures. I hope the owners of the one on the left like geese!

At Sint-Martens-Laten we were lucky enough to find the 24 hour mooring empty and although we are a bit long for the official space we decided to stop and hope we were not in anyone’s way. It is a lovely, usually peaceful, place to stop for a night (think Bray-sur-Leie).

Quite quickly we discovered that we were moored next to the location for a live Belgian TV programme to be filmed that evening! Two Dutch singers, André Hazes Jun and Günther Neefs, were to be interviewed by Belgian journalist Karl Vannieuwkerke, and we were asked if they could light up Calliope in the background – our barge a TV star now!

While we awaited the excitement to come we went for a walk round the village. It has been an ordinary rural village with a windmill to grind corn. Then a group of artists moved in at the end of the C19, augmented after WW2. It became a home for Expressionists, known later as the Latem School.

It is still a very artistic place, with at least three good modern galleries, and sculptures placed all round the village. I felt uncomfortable taking photos in the galleries, but here is the garden of one of them.

There was an especially noisy young coot chick at the mooring, harassing its exhausted parent for food non-stop! But cute, in an ugly sort of a way, all the same.

The fishing three

After an exciting evening of being a backdrop we woke up to find the TV crew had gone and we were back to the peace and green of the village, with three quiet attentive ‘fishermen’ nearby.

I did my usual sprint-walk to the nearest bakery to ensure we had fresh bread for lunch, and this time I allowed myself to take a few art and sculpture photos.

And then it was time to go – to continue our meander down the next bends of the Leie towards and into Ghent. There is always something to look at along here – boats, pieces of art, the houses, the gardens. An entire blog could easily be filled with photos along this stretch of the river.

The river would continue to change shape, create new bends, shallows and currents if not for the number of riverside residents encouraging boaters not to leave a damaging wash behind them. We are certainly try to leave a very light ‘wake-print’ behind us.

Eventually the river leads through the pretty village of Sint-Denijs-Westrem and to the diversion of the Leie across the Ring Vaart (a watery M25) and on into Ghent.

An empty Ring Vaart

We were lucky, arriving at the super waterway around Ghent when no huge commercial barges were coming in either direction – indeed no small barges were around either – only a few canoes making a mad dash across from one side to the other.

acres to spare!

About half a mile inside the Ring as we went under a bridge we met our first traffic coming the other way – a cruiser, sensibly on her own side of the river.

We came on into Gent (now spelt the Belgian way), starting to recognise various features from last year. As we came into the centre, past the entrance to Coupure canal, we saw our friend the Capitain of the port watching out for us.

We knew that this time there was no space for us at the main Lindenlei mooring where we had been the previous year. We were to turn to starboard and enter Ketelvest. He was ready to jump into his little red dinghy and lead us to our new mooring.

Soon we were tied up and comfortable between two bridges, with skies filling in from grey to black.

Undeterred we soon set off for one of several walks around Gent. I took so many photos here last year that I have tried to restrict myself this time. Here is a small gallery, definitely not showing all the main tourist attractions.

Remember, this is the year of Covoid-19 and all of its restrictions. Although Belgium is ahead of the UK in the unlocking of social distancing, there are still many reminders of the virus – streets that are one way for pedestrians, many people in masks, hand sanitiser at the entrance to everything.

Nonetheless we had arranged to stay three nights in Gent, with the second night being a bit of a celebration. We had ‘celebrated’ both our birthdays and our wedding anniversary locked-down at home, so now with the bars and restaurants open in Gent we were set to celebrate 32 years of living together with a tasty meal. And we did.

Our final day required some tasks too be achieved. Firstly we needed to top up our water tank; easy peasy, normally. However this time it ended up requiring two visits to the Brico for a connector (We left ours in a tap in Kortrijk) (Doh!), two visits from the Capitaine of the port (the euro payment mechanism in there water bourne had jammed) and three lengths of hose. (Don’t ask!).

While Calliope was being watered she was ‘assaulted’ by masses of crazy canoeists, many of them out of control of their craft! It was all good fun and part of a birthday celebration. The people of Gent like to use their waterways to celebrate everything, in a very happy, sometimes boisterous, way!

Other tasks, like taking on of provisions, cooking, cleaning etc were achieved more easily! The day was exceptionally windy, and initially grey, grey, grey.

But it ended almost entirely blue, clouds all blown away, and flags horizontal from the mast.


On Monday morning we were due to set off into waters new. This would involve the Boven-ZeeSchelde – a mix of rivers leading towards Antwerp. We had been warned that it might be difficult, that the tides needed to be right (it’s tidal from Antwerp right up to near Gent) and that there could be a lot of commercial barges around coming out of lockdown.

South East outskirts of Ghent, on the Schelde

So how did we do? Well we set off in the sunshine, a new way out of Gent for us, past interesting buildings and boats.

After about half an hour we joined the main Schelde river and continued on down to the Marina where we were due to join the Ring Vaart – main waterway circling most of Ghent.

Marelebeke Marina

We had aimed to time this right for the tides. Going out through the narrow entrance of the previous lock (or barrage) would take us into Marelebeke double lock waiting area, and the top of the tidal river Schelde.

Into one of the two locks at Marelbeke

We arrived as the last of the downstream barges was in the locks and we only had 15 minutes to wait before our turn to follow.

If you ever need to do this, aim to be at Marelbeke about 4 hours after high tide at Antwerp. High tide at Melle and Marelbeke is 3.5 hours later than Antwerp, and as the tide turns any commercial barges going to Antwerp will set off. We wanted to be just behind them; somehow it worked!

All alone in a great big lock we descended gently, about 1m, to join the high water of the Boven-Zee-Schelde. It was all remarkably straight forward. The lock ‘guillotine’ door rose, and off we went, riding the tide. (But as always we were careful not to get smug.)

Timing our speed

Stu decided to work out what speed we were travelling. Our RPMs were kept to just over our usual cruising of 1100, and then timed how long it took us to go 6kms. It took just half an hour, so a speed of about 12kph – over 50% faster than normal due to the fast flowing tide.

Notes from the dashboard: Top line – VHF is on at channel 10 as always on busy commercial waterways. Second line – we’re in 15.1 feet of water, it’s 10.20 local time and we’re heading due south – you don’t need a compass when the sun is shining …..

The Boven-Zee-Schelde is not a wide river, mostly through countryside, with the occasional small town. The skies were threatening, but so far, so far, no rain.

For a long time we saw no other craft, but eventually we went through a town with some river action – a barge that was collecting up the masses of floating debris in the river – mainly reeds – plus a ferry and a small working boat.

Other things along the way, a flotilla of geese across the bow ….

…. a very low ‘flying’ aeroplane ….

… and shallow sandy shores on some of the curves as the tide retreated.

Didn’t she do ‘Puppet on a String’?

As it got close to lunch time I had some time at the helm so that Captain could eat. Even I was safe in such wide, empty waters. It began to rain, quite hard, but I know where the switch for the wipers is!

Our one piece of passing traffic

We came a long way down the gently bending river, almost to our turn-off, with no traffic around. Then, just as we approached the turn onto the Dender on a shape double bend, our first commercial barge of the day appeared, pushing hard against the flow. Luckily Stu was alert and smartly side-stepped to starboard! Smiles and waves from the commercials skipper.

Then it was our turn into the Dender and the Dendermonde lock. I had radioed ahead and the lock-keeper had prepared the lock for us; the gates were opening as we turned upstream.

It was a lock with high sides, but with bollards set into the walls so that we could put ropes round low down and move them up as we rose a couple of meters. Once more guillotine gates opened, and we were onto the scenic Dender river.

The first thing we saw was a commercial barge being unloaded of huge coils of metal – maybe not as scenic as we thought …

We had read of a mooring 2km up river and thought that would be good for us – but would it be empty? As we approached we could see a cabin cruiser moored there, but as it is a 30m pontoon still probably room for us?

As we got closer, the cruiser left! How lucky are we? And the sole occupant was a fisherman. We gently moved alongside, tied up, and counted ourselves lucky.

We had arrived at Dendermonde! And on a lovely peaceful mooring we enjoyed a wonderful evening sky.

Late summer start from Kortrijk – the Covoid-19 affect

21st June – 28th June 2020

[the bits in italics are added by Captain Stu]

Yes, it wasn’t until 21st June that we could return to Calliope and start the summer aboard! Of course it was all due to the Covoid-19 coronavirus pandemic and it was absolutely essential that we neither spread the virus ourselves, or were ill in a foreign land – Belgium.

Setting off from St Pancras on our masked journey – wing-nut and wife, waiting for a train.

So we sat tight until the authorities on both sides off the channel deemed it safe for us to travel from UK, through France, and into Belgium. Our original April 1st Eurostar tickets to Lille had long since been exchanged for vouchers. On rebooking we found that the train was not currently stopping at Lille, so, masks fixed as required, we went to Paris, then back to Lille, and finally to Kortrijk. Phew!

Bars are open in Belgium!

We left the UK part way through the easing of the three month lock-down; no bars, restaurants, cinemas etc open amongst other things like hairdressers and gyms. We were therefore delighted and slightly shocked when leaving the station at Kortrijk to see our favourite bar open with plenty of customers! As long as it is safe, hooray!

No time for bars that day; more important to get to our boat and relax, which we did with beer, luckily left in the fridge from our February visit!

I just had to have a quick late evening walk to see the river, the city, and the quite amazing skies. The colours here are somehow extra vibrant.

Next day was about starting to get shipshape. We had returned to a very dirty boat due to a mix of sticky sycamore sap and builders dust from nearby developments. It was also time to re-varnish the wheelhouse and repaint the roof so ….. here we go ….

Painting the cabin roof (only 30 feet to go…..)
The reward (We’ll tidy up later …..)

In amongst the days of work we took lovely walks around Kortrijk, both sides of the river. I cannot avoid taking photos when there are so many interesting shapes and colours. Here’s a taste of this fascinating small city.

There are many more photos of Kortrijk in other parts of this blog, both Summer and Winter, so I have not repeated them here.

And we continued to enjoy the fact that bars were open! One of our favourites is under the trees in the park at Plein, only 5 minutes from the mooring. Coronavirus had instituted a new ordering method – sending your table number and order by SMS, in Flemish! We did manage, but only after I had apparently sent our order top some unknown unsuspecting person in Eire.

Most evenings ended up on the back deck appreciating being back afloat, looking up, through the tress to the sky, down into the water, and along the river at the constantly changing view.

One of the things I like best about the mooring in Kortrijk is the birdlife on the water. Ducklings are always engaging and I have the chance to watch the way their mothers’ herd them and talk to them.

The moorhens were building a nest, the coots were visiting to ask for food ……..

…and the heron made evening visits, with a roof roost across the river.

After several days of blazing sunshine and temperatures into the low thirties we had a couple of days of rain and showers, and a thunderstorm.

The greyest day

Once that blew over it seemed a good time to get on the move and continue our exploration of Belgium, its beers and its waffles – and maybe on into the Netherlands!

Bye bye Kortrijk, until the autumn.

Calliope check – two winter trips to Kortrijk

The December Trip – shopping

During the 5 month winter season we made two trips out to check on Calliope – and to enjoy the city of Kortrijk too. The first trip was in December. We had thoughts of enjoying a Christmas Market and buying some unusual presents for all and sundry – that bit didn’t quite work out but we had an enjoyable few days just the same.

Leaving home on a winter’s morning, bound for Belgium

The ferry trip and road journey was uneventful and we arrived in Kortrijk with enough daylight to see that the pontoon and Calliope’s deck were nestling under a blanket of leaves; Autumn had visited during our absence! Sweeping to be done.

It was quite cold and wintery outside, but down below, the the stove going, a cup of tea and a hot water bottle I soon felt snug. I love being aboard in winter; she’s such a warm boat to live on.

Once I started clearing off the leaves it became apparent that quite a lot of dust and grit had arrived with the foliage – hmmmm, extra cleaning tools required! But there was an artistic element to the affair – the leaves had left stencilled imprints across the roof, some worthy of photography.

Looking better with barge and pontoon cleared of fallen leaves

Our few days in Kortrijk gave time to see the Christmas illuminations – very pretty, and here are just a few. The Broel Towers and the covered ice rink in the Grote Markt with its guardian reindeer were especially lovely.

Disappointingly the 2019 Christmas Market was a lot smaller than normal, and in a large marquee. However the atmosphere within the marquee was good, with gluwein abundantly available, and music, dancing, food and gifts happening too.

We had a chance to catch up with some boating friends up and down the pontoon, hearing about the weather we had missed and the weather still to come. It’s good to know that friends are keeping an eye on your boat while you are away.

The best three boat watchers for us are Martin and Sally on the permanent mooring behind us, and Peter whose barge is moored ’round the corner’ on the canal. Not every day was gloomy; I took a sunny opportunity to catch a photo of Martin and Sally’s boat just 50 yards away.

They invited us, and Peter, to lunch aboard one day – a wonderful lunch that started at 1pm and had us staggering home at 2100. We started our Christmas celebrations early!

And then it was time to set off home. We had a beautiful calm ferry crossing, with one great excitement when we spotted whales off the starboard bow! (No photo to prove it – sorry.)

Back in Gosport we were soon into full swing for Christmas decorations, card writing, present wrapping, and general family fun – no time at all to miss Calliope.

The February Trip – servicing

The main reason for the timing of this trip was to coincide with our good friends Ian and Nicky travelling north from their barge in Auxonne to spend a few days with us. It was so good to spend a few days with them, rather then the usual few hours.

And on top of that, Ian is a time served marine engineer, willing and more than able to help Stewart service the boat engine, advise on other maintenance issues, and problem solve a couple of niggly bits! [Ian has now set up a small business servicing and repairing boat engines in France and England – send me a message if you want his details – he is good!]

We left our winter ‘mooring’ in Gosport with the sun rising golden above Portsmouth. I must explain that our winter ‘mooring’ is tethered to the ground – a house – but at least it looks out over water!

Captain and crew (or Communications Officer as I am apparently to be known) arrived a couple of days ahead – long enough to warm up Calliope, get some provisions aboard, and become reacquainted with this lovely city.

Once Nicky and Ian arrived, with dogs Freddy and Milly, the fun could begin in earnest. Evening one was a short introduction to Kortrijk, it’s local beer (Omer) and our favourite bar by the station – followed by an enormous meal of ribs and frites!

A fair amount of Belgian beer had been sampled before we slightly staggered home.

Next day had to begin with work for the engineers. Luckily Nicky and I don’t fall into that category so we took the dogs for a walk along the river, and then headed into town for a look round – a good mix of history and food.

By late afternoon the mechanical stuff was done – engine oil changed, gear box oil changed, filters replaced, tensions checked, rudder stock greased, engine mountings tightened, and a needy home found for a spare nut found on the floor! At last the marine-engineer-in-chief was free to join in the Kortrijk walk-about.

The delights of Belgium – waffles, chocolate and beer!

We did walk along the river, stare at some of the beautiful old buildings, read some of the history, and listen to the carillon on the Groot Markt. But the weather was miserable, so after some shopping to buy chocolates for the family (funny how much tasting one has to do) we retired to a waffle shop with the unlikely name of Lord Nelson!

As always I went OTT with my waffle, this time covered in really good fresh fruit, with a side of advocaat custard to pour on top – het was lekker! (Ah, my Dutch lessons are paying off at last).

Back to Calliope and the Captain, who had remained on board. It was time for a glass of wine while we waited to eat the massive and delicious lasagne that Nicky had brought with her.

Milly was official observer.

Sunday, another grey day, allowed time for a couple of niggles to be problem solved – a radiator not keen on heating up, and a light that had stopped coming on (no, not needing a new lamp!) Super hero Ian sorted both of these while Nicky and I walked the dogs and bought bread and sausages before a giant English/Belgian fry up brunch. Mmmmm!

More walking was required to make room for the planned evening meal – pizza at our favourite Kortrijk pizzeria. Thanks Nicky for the photo.

Next day our guests were due to leave. But it was Monday, market day, so we walked round all the stalls before they left. I bought new white asparagus for a risotto later, and further chocolate purchases were made too. Then it was time to wave them all good-bye.

The weather had not being very kind over these few days, but soon after Ian and Nicky departed the sun came out and blue skies prevailed. Looking up and down the river Leie form the boat all was calm and beautiful, for a while.

And then hail blasted down, making a right racket on the roof and turning the pontoon slippery with ice. Winter still had a grip on Kortrijk, but all was to carry on warm and welcoming below.

The Bossuit-Kortijk kanaal, where Peter keeps his barge

That afternoon Sally, Martin and Peter, three friends from other barges, came round for a catch-up-chat and cup of tea, which became a glass of wine, and slid imperceptibly into more wine, asparagus and parmesan risotto, and the remains of tiramisu and rijstaart from the days before; more good times with friends.

Stu and I were left with one last day to tidy up and pack up before we were making the return journey to the UK. The servicing of the engine had identified a few things we needed to buy – anti freeze, some spare fuses, filler – so we walked a couple of kilometres to Plan-It, a DIY store. The walk back was less fun. Why didn’t I realise how much a 5L container of anti freeze would weigh?

But it gave us an excuse to stop along the way for lunch in our second favourite fritteur, by the station. And this was the first of four days of fish and chips for me!

Back aboard we settled down to enjoy our last evening and night on Calliope for a few weeks. In the morning we packed the car and by 9.30 we were on the road to Dunkirk and our ferry.

The ferry was a bit late, but once aboard we grabbed our favourite seat in the restaurant and I soon had my second plate of fish and chips before me – actually the best fish and batter off the four days.

Exploring the ship I discovered that one area had recently been refurbished and now housed a pizza and pasta café. Of course it was too late for our meal for this trip, but definitely one to try out in future.

The other discovery was a secret corner to sit in, with big comfy chairs, and a round window through which to view the channel.

So here to finish this min-trip are a series of ‘through the round window’ images.

And now we are back home, waiting and planning for a few weeks before the 2020 voyage towards The Netherlands begins, with a ‘bottom-blacking’ experience booked into a boatyard near Gent beforehand. This will be a whole new country experience for us – new lock and bridge systems, mooring rules, and finding our way around shops, bars and restaurants. Bring it on!

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.