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.

We also needed milk and set off for a walk to the city for a look round and quick shop. The city is another of those full of little waterways. Apparently it was a centre for moving goods from water to land in days gone by. This led to some magnificent buildings, all symbols of power!

Back to Calliope and what looked a nice peaceful mooring for the evening.

Don’t be fooled! At the end of the channel behind Calliope is the big big canal Neufossé. When commercials go past a wash is sent up the channel – usually producing gentle waves. BUT when a big barge went past fast we could almost surf on the first surge that arrived, throwing our boat in the air, then hitting the lock gates in front of us, sending up spray, before bouncing back at us while at the same time further waves were still coming in! All chucked us about a bit!

The sky was reflected, gilt edged, in the water so wonderfully that I went for a walk downstream to get another view.

In the morning as we were entering the lock, another big barge went past the end of the river entrance, throwing the slow moving Calliope forward towards the far lock gates, then throwing us backwards again as the surge rebounded!
Very exciting, and safely managed by Captain Stu!

That lock behind us we travelled onwards along the Lys, through the countryside of Pas de Calais. It was an other of those bright sun days and we were steering directly into it, with dew glistening across the cabin roof.

Our journey, with our friendly female éclusier, took us thorough a pont levée and another lock.

The lock was in the middle of nowhere – such a peaceful place. It must have been wonderful; to live there when there was a lock keepers house to occupy.

I also noted some nice rusty old ironwork, linked to part of the water management system. I love this stuff!

By midday we had arrived at Saint-Venant, a place we have been to, and enjoyed, earlier this year. The mooring was empty, although the marina across the river seemed full of boats packed up ready for winter.

We had a plan for the evening – to visit again the Restaurant by the marina. So we had an old fogies date night, got dressed up a bit smarter than usual boating attire, and walked over. The food is good, casual, substantial and very tasty!

My carbonnades flamandes and Stu’s braised jambon were SO good, and then I really pushed the boat out (ha ha) with a slice of french fried chocolate brioche topped with caramel sauce and cream! I could not resist licking every sugary drop from the plate!

looking for Lorenzo

We had been warned that Hurricane Lorenzo would be with us next day from mid morning, so we deployed our thick ropes, battened down everything on deck and planned a cosy day on board. But the day began azure skied!

There was still time for a walk first, over the river and along to the next village, Haverkerke, over a passerelle, and back along our bank.

In fact we discovered that we were moored by chance in a sheltered spot and despite seeing flags blowing horizontally across at the marina we remained fairly calm through the storm.

Then it was time to leave Saint-Venant and complete our voyage back to Kortrijk and the winter mooring. This meant being back onto same waterway as we enjoyed in August – the river Lys (France) / Leie (Belgium) so I will restrict myself to just a few words on the journey.

We went through the locks , at Saint-Venant, Merville and Bac Saint Maur amongst the start of the autumn colours.

We stopped for one night at Armentieres – an enjoyable mooring once again, this time with an October feel to the air.

Then on to where the Lys joins the Canal de Deule and becomes a monster canal once again. At the junction two spots of colour on a grey day – the bale packaging of a colourful farmer, and the giant ‘scooper’ used to move dredged up sludge from one barge to another – but not on a Sunday!

I nipped up to the office at écluse Comines in order to show our ship’s papers and get permission to enter Belgium once more. At the next lock, on the next day, we would move from Wallonia to Flandres and need to pay for our license to be on their waterways for the next 6 months.

Then a slow cruise into the Comines mooring just half a kilometre after the lock. It was still grey, but after lunch we went for a walk, arriving back before the heavens opened for the rest of the day – pouring rain, hail, thunder and lightning and a strong wind were our accompaniment for the last night out on our 2019 cruise!

But a rainbow cheered us up, plus a game of Scrabble that cheered up the Captain – he won! – Don’t start ……

And so finally we came back to Kortrijk. There were no dramas on the last day. We fitted snugly under the bridge into the port, and the entire pontoon was empty, waiting for us to choose our berth.

It was nice to tie up firmly on familiar territory, all prepared for the winter months ahead. In the few days before we left Calliope alone and drove back to the UK we fitted in a day trip to France to buy a new bottle of Butane (our gas connector is a standard French one).

On the same trip we visited the magnificent Villa Cavrois, near Lille. It is an Art Deco palace, built for a family at the start of the 1930s, with the architect given free rein to design house, garden, furniture, decor – the whole lot. And despite a chequered history, especially during WW2, it was able to be restored to its amazing former look.

one of the Broel towers, visible from the mooring

That’s it for 2019. A final evening walk around Kortrijk to admire the buildings, bridges, river, squares and people before on Thursday October 10th we set off for our land based home in the UK. See you in the spring …..

The river Meuse – La France a Belgique

Initially it didn’t seem so different, the change from the Canal de La Meuse to the actual river, probably because a lot of the canal section is actually on the river itself.

However as we progressed the geography changed hugely and spectacularly, as you will see.

We left Stenay after my early morning mammoth cycle ride up hill (again) to an Intermarché for a few essential supplies, including batteries for the bathroom scales s that I could find out of my diet and exercise efforts were making any difference at all. It was so nice to cycle before the heat rose – we were still in the middle of a major heatwave.

As we passed down the river we saw plenty of cows (and bulls) taking the sen foible choice, keeping cool in the river.

The day’s trip wound smoothly through meadows, past distant hills, and punctuated by stops at the locks. The high temperatures (34-36C) led to more than just cattle cooling off on the water!

By the time we reached our semi-wild mooring at Pont Maugis I too was ready for a dip. But first we moored up to two far apart bollards, half hidden in the grass and put up the parasol.

I left Captain Stu to have his siesta while I wandered off to have a swim. Should be easy enough when you are travelling on a river! But in fact I struggled to find a place where I could enter, and more importantly exit, the water. Eventually I found nice smooth stones down to the water’s edge next to the overflow from above the lock – mmmmm – cold clear bubbling water.

Later, after supper, I was off for a camera walk to see what I could make of the reflections and the sunset. The light was amazing, and everything so still.

In the morning we were off to Lumes. We had hoped for an early starter at least a 9am get away when the lock opened. But we were faced with a red light and had to wait until a lock keeper came at about 9.20, first to bring a boat up, before we could lock down.

We stopped along the way for a little shopping (beer running low with all this hot weather). We knew there was a pontoon by a supermarket, but when we got there we found that it was at a very strange angle, due to the low water in the river.

And soon after that we saw some goats on the bank – not a usual sight along the Marne.

We found the excellent Lumes pontoon without any problem, immediately recognising the one other boat moored up at the other end, but before reacquainting ourselves with our Piper friends it was time to get over the sweltering heat with another swim in the marvellous Meuse.

The next cool down was cold beer – Cherry beer for me once the froth died down! It was a new one from Borgogne; highly recommended to those who like fruit flavoured beer.

The evening continued by taking advantage of the unexpected and delightful meeting with Vicky and Guy on Manuka; a great catch up on French barging experiences over the past three years.

The DBA guide had an entry telling us to expect lots of kingfishers; sadly we did not see any, and in fact this year has been particularly devoid of them, but at twilight we did get a roosting stork just across the river.

Even after the beer, rosé wine and jollity I still managed a quick walk round Lumes before nightfall – a small village, but evidently one with some history.

It was just a one night stop, setting off towards Chateau-Regnaut next day. The style of lock houses changed again, and we really began to notice the drop in water level in the river. At the lock on the photo above the ladder steps that should reach down under the water to help people get out, now end above the water level. Hope I don’t fall in!

We came down through the deeper locks of Charleville, but saw almost nothing of the town because the main loop of the river through the city has been cut off by a new shortcut.

We started to see ever more spectacular views laid out before us from the top of each lock, and a wonderful stick dinosaur skeleton at the entrance to a lock cut!

We were lucky again with a nice pontoon mooring at Chateau-Regnaut, with a neighbourly noisy frog in the evening , and inquisitive greedy geese in the morning.

It was still very hot – so much so that it was affecting the geraniums, which usually thrive in a Mediterranean style climate, so much soaking required. Suits me – anything that gets me into or almost into the water.

We went for our customary walk around village as usual, calling in at the Capitainerie on the other side of the river next to the camper van park. She had helpfully lent us the correct connector to the water supply when she came for the tarif. As we crossed back over the bridge our shadows were starkly delineated by the high bright sun.

There was a fair amount of crashing and banging early next morning, from the opposite bank. I had read that the region was famous for its metal work; I should have recognised the logo symbol on the factory wall!

The village obviously celebrated its metal-ness with this fabulous 9 foot high horse.

As we left Chateau-Regnaut we were starting to see the Belgian influence in the gable ends of houses, and also rather liked the very art deco municipal baths

A bit further along the river bank I saw some intriguing parts of the river’s history. Above are photos of a lovely old lock wall, made of individual stones. We also passed a fascinating, complicated, still in use, sluice mechanism; it was being used as we went by.

Then there was my greatest excitement – a pile of needles for an aiguille (or needle) weir. These weirs have always appeared to me, but have largely disappeared and are replaced with modern technology weirs.

They comprise of a complete wall of wooden needles, with walkway behind, and were operated by a man (think it was always a man) walking along and adding or removing needles to control the flow of water – a very dangerous job in some weathers.

There’s link below to a 9 minute explanation (in French) of how they are built.

We kept being amazed by the wondrous scenery. Round every bend, and from the top of each lock, we were stunned into silence by yet another vista of blues and greens, with occasional villages and spires.

At Dames des Meuses lock there is an old pont-levée, seemingly always open, pushing its rusty metalwork into the sky, and just nicely setting off the Captains’s neat rope work.

And we glided out of that lock into more scenery to gawp at, including a lovely topiary effect on the top of the hill.

Later that morning we arrived in Revin, passing the tunnel on our right that we would go through the next day (see boat just coming out of the tunnel channel) and wondering if we would find a place to moor the other side of the bridge.

Our hot spirits raised as we saw a long empty stretch of quay! (Yes, the heatwave was still on). Not long before I had found a boulangerie with a ham baguette for Stewart’s lunch and some delicious ‘pain complet’ for me to have with hummus and salad.

Revin is a very well run port. It is totally enclosed, with code numbers for the gates, a pleasant garden, tables and chairs in the shade, and the usual showers etc. It was €14 a night for our 20m boat, worth every penny.

Once fed, watered and rested we went shopping. That’s met a usual past time for us but Stu needed some cool short sleeved shirts and there was a clothing superstore within a 5 minute walk.

We also managed a good food shop, stocking up so that we could aim for rural moorings over the next few days.

Work done we decided that our walking tour of the old town, the other side of the river, should include a beer and a pizza. Both were easy to find, and worth the walk.

Back on board, with the sun going down and night drawing in, Stewart spotted a young cormorant that had flown up onto a high branch instead of going back to nest with its mother. It was there for ages – and not there in the morning, so we presume all was well in the end.

There was a shiny metallic smooth sheen to the water in the morning; a lovely backdrop to breakfast, before another boulangerie trip, which this time included some galettes de Revin, to be enjoyed next time we have visitors.

Off we set for our trip through the tunnel , which began by Calliope needing to make a 180 degree turn into the tunnel channel. Always fun being cross ways to the stream, wondering if anything will come speeding round a bend into you. But all was well and we were back onto the river with its mountain high tree covered banks, blue sky, and more hot hot sun.

We hadn’t encountered a broken lock for some time, so it was a bit of a surprise. Stewart managed to out me ashore to walk up and phone for assistance (no mobile reception out where we were), at which point I discovered a cross and overheated German man, whose boat was stuck at the bottom of the lock; he had been waiting for an hour for service, (‘shitting in the shade’ as he told me!)

The wait was not so bad for me with shade, several ripe cherry trees, and an old sluice to keep me amused. In fact the VNF man arrived within ten minutes and we were soon on our way again.

We arrived in Heybes, thinking we would stop there just for lunch, but we settled into the mooring, realised it was still hot and we were tired, and decided to stay the night.

Heybes and surrounding area is famous for its slate mines, so it was not surprising to see some wonderful slate roofs, this one being the town hall.

What a history this village has. Heybes is another of these villages totally destroyed in WW1. across a period of just 3 days in August 1914 the village was bombed and burnt to the ground with 600 houses destroyed and 61 civilians killed. I am pleased to say that it is now rebuilt and thriving.

Prior to the war the village had 8 lavoirs. Once there was a new water supply it was thought that only one was needed, and this was rebuilt into the slope up to a higher row of houses. The image on the left is as it is now; the one on the right is from the past, with lavoir half way down the hill in the same position.

The walk round this village was disturbed by a loud revving of motor bike engines. Closer inspection revealed a biker’s wedding at the church, with all their friends outside revving their bikes. The bride and groom sped away helmet-less on a Harley, she in high heels.

Still on our mission to reach Lille we again only stayed the one night. As we began the next day’s journey I spotted a fishing party camped out in a picturesque curve of the river – a heavenly spot.

We were now heading for the Ham tunnel, a 500m tunnel that saves a 8km loop in the river.

The entrance to the cut leading to the tunnel had an other old pont levée, left continuously in a part open position, maybe signifying the height of the tunnel to come!

Here we are going into the tunnel entrance. It has an interesting ‘ceiling’ roughly hewn out of the solid rock and unlined most of the way through, among for rather uneven heights along the way.

Coming out of the tunnel is quite an experience as you go straight into a lock, and look out over a wide valley, with a different landscape.

That was our last lock down into the town of Givet with its towers and its citadel up on the hill – but more spectacular citadels are to come.

We moored on the quay opposite the main marina, which only has space for smaller boats, but we had our very own ladder to climb off and on and were quite happy there.

As evening drew on we watched storm clouds gather – and indeed rain did, at last, fall that night, thank goodness! The heatwave was ending.

Next day saw another change. Suddenly we were amongst the big boys! Just down from Givet is the écluse named les 4 Chiminées. This has been brought up to European standards, so the large commercial barges can now come to the port there, loading, unloading, and feeding the swans!

From now on we would be sharing the water and locks with these sturdy guys.

And a third big change was the change of country. Our last lock in France and into Belgium we go! Wallonia to be precise.

Lots of things seemed different – the width and length of the locks, the shape and size of the lock gates, the sudden surprise when a huge quiet barge creeps up behind to share the lock with you.

Commercials have the right of way, and this definitely slowed our progress on this stretch. We waited 40 minutes at the forest lock, another 30 at the next, both for barges to come up, and for barges to join us to go down.

All good testing experiences. (ok that’s not a sentence because it hasn’t got a verb, but it works for me.)

I have mentioned the landscape becoming more cliff like, and so much so that it attracts lots of climbers. These are the Rochers de Freyr, south of Dinant. There is a climber in the top left photo, so small she was like a spider on a wall.

It turned out to be a long long day, mainly due to waiting at locks, so we were pleased to arrive at Dinant. We used advice from another bargee about where to moor and were pleased we had used his choice. We had the best views across the river to the Dinant citadel and church, away from the bustle of quayside bars and restaurants. And – after looking at an increasingly faded French courtesy flag for 3 or 4 years – we have a new shiny Belgian one.

I think we all know that the Belgians are famous for their beer, so no surprise that we found this shop, but did not dare go inside! It turns out that Dinant is the famed home of one of the most widespread Belgian beers – Leffe – which was brewed at the Abbey on the outskirts of the town. I dont know what the monks would think of the modern brews like Rituel (subtle flavours of fruit and bitter spices) or Radieuse (delicate hints of citrus and coriander seeds), but I plan to try them.

Stewart began the tasting experience with a Leffe blond outside the restaurant where we had our dinner. I had a Picon beer, more common in the north where it they also serve Picon wine.

And for me the first dinner in Belgium had to be moules, this time with garlic and cream. Mmmmm. Tasty.

But Dinant is famous for something else too – something I had no idea about beforehand.

The saxophone.

There were saxophones everywhere – madly coloured ones that somehow represented all different countries round the world, silhouettes attached to lamp posts, a huge glass one in front of the town hall, and one in the arms of Adolph Sax’s statue next to where he was born.

The moules gave me such energy that I washed down one side of the boat with these amazing views to keep me company as evening wore on.

We set off early (for us) with our first Belgian baguette, in the hope of avoiding too many commercials – we love them really and think it is great that so much is transported on the water, but …… it can seriously delay our journey.

As we left we saw the Leffe abbey, in the distance, so not a good photo.

The shapes of the roofs became more and more ‘Belgian’ – of course. There were some lovely designs, and only a very few shown here. I do love the bell shapes either side of the house in the bottom photo.

Although the scenery had changed to a degree we still saw some high tree clad hills, often with a row of houses clinging near the top. They must have fabulous views down over the river valley.

It was not to far to cruise the final part of our La Meuse journey. Arriving in Namur, we chose to go round the corner into the start of the Basse Sambre river where a) it seemed quieter, b) no fee to pay, and c) away from the big commercial barges, or so we thought!

Within minutes we discovered out was not as quiet as we thought! Barge after barge, laden and empty, growled past, but not upsetting in any way. Didn’t even upset my mug of tea.

In habitual form we went off to take a look at the city, and sample more Belgian beer in a different shady square – this time an Houppo beer for Stu – and for me a Pineau de Charente; very nice.

We were moored beneath the Citadel – an amazing piece of architectural fortification and history. The signs around the citadel approach told me that the original citadel dates to Roman times. It achieved its present extent in the 17th century. under Dutch control. Eventually it became part of a new ring of forts around Namur to prevent the city from being attacked with artillery.

My evening walk was a march up to the top of the hill and a march down again, swapping photos with Stewart who was on the boat down below. One or other of us is in each of these photos (mostly me, sorry)

The view from the top out across the city roofs is panoramic and worth the climb. I would spend longer there next time, and go in the day time when the locked up bits are open!

So ends our Meuse meander, although to be fair, turning the corner onto the Sambre meant that we had already left the Meuse; maybe I should not have included these final photos. Well Namur is on the Meuse; it was just us who were now on the Sambre, which is the next, shorter, chapter.

Heading north up La Meuse part 1

The waterways comprising La Meuse include the river itself, the Canal de la Meuse, called, prior to 2003, the Canal de l’Est Northern branch. At the same time the southern branch was renamed the Canal des Vosges. Together they formed a 245 mile long canal within the Franco Prussian border.

This part, Part 1, is about our travels on the Canal de la Meuse – the northern branch.

June 19 – June 26 2019

Leaving Void-Vacun under storm skies

It was time to change canals – always interesting to find out what the new waterway will be like.

Propping up the bridge

We left Void, still on the Canal de La Marne au Rhin, first thing, passing under the bridge that was closed the day before, and which clearly still has more work to be done.

After a sort stretch we found ourselves on a short aqueduct over a river (was it La Meuse) before needing to take a share left hand turn onto our new canal. I rather liked the geometric Art Deco style of the aqueduct railings.

And immediately our first lock was upon us, opened by our nice new yellow zapper. We could see close by a huge cement factory that appeared to utilise stone and/or chalk from close by quarries.

When we got to the second lock we were right alongside the said cement factory, listening to the grinding of its huge evolving tubes. Everything, and I mean everything, was covered by varying depths of fine white powder. The whole factory was white, almost ghostly.

Our zapper quickly had the lock doors open, we were in, tied up, and Calliope decended to the bottom …. but the down stream lock doors remained closed.

Luckily I was above the lock, waiting to walk the kilometre to the next one, so could easily go to the ‘Aide’ button and call for help. But poor Stu was down in the depths, and then it began to rain! No matter – within a few minutes the VNF Service van arrived and we were on our way – all the way to lock 3 where the upstream lock doors didn’t open.

Once more I was above the lock, having walked from the previous one, and on the intercom again for Service!

All of these halts gave me a chance to take a look at the lock door make-up on this canal – and we were back to the metal doors that I had not see for some time; great big plates of metal, riveted together.

We did far better from then on, and at lock 4 we enjoyed the shapes and arches of the three bridges after the lock. (Touch to port skipper….)

We arrived at Eaville where we wanted to stop, and after a French family kindly moved their cruiser back a couple of bollards we were able to tie up for lunch and for the night – just before the next lock.

Those morning storm clouds continued to gather and soon after lunch the first of several thunderstorms passed across and we were pleased we’d elected to stay put.

Eaville church

We found time during one of the drier moments to walk the kilometre up to the village of Eaville, looking for fresh milk (no luck). We did find quite a grand church for such a small place, with a bike on display in front, (see bottom left) to promote the fact that the Tour de France would be passing through the village soon.

Next day we set off as soon as the locks opened, but not as early as the three boats already waiting below the lock to ascend once we were out of the way. Where had they come from??

We were moving along between pastures and villages in a distinctly river fashion, rather than canal …

…. and indeed the Meuse river joined and left us as she meandered slowly down hill. The junctions were all different – and as the weather kept changing the light in the photos is all different too.

Stopped off in Commercy long enough to do a quick shop in Aldi, which is right by the quay (no fresh milk there either), and then I walked up into town to look for madeleines as this is the town where they were invented. But would you believe it, unless I wanted to buy a kilo of them I couldn’t have any – except fancy gift wrapped ones!

One woman lavoir – I can’t help but wonder who it was for.

Then on we went downstream, passing at one lock the smallest lavoir I have seen so far – a one person lavoir!

The river/canal had some interesting quirks, like this railway bridge on an S bend, which as you come downstream you can hardly see! It is overhung with foliage, and the railings to the walkway through bear testimony to the number of boats that have bumped along the side on their way through.

I enjoy seeing the differences between canals in all kinds of ways. On this canal the lock houses are more cottage like, but still have an extra floor at the back on the slope down from the canal. They have the name of the lock engraved in stone above the door, a nice touch in this area of quarries.

We do get animal moments along the way! This little collection includes a young fox being seen off by a pair of magpies (the fox seems slightly bemused); a nesting grebe guarding an entrance to La Meuse river; and some inquisitive young cattle that I encountered on a rural bike ride to a supermarket!

Back to the journey! We were heading for St Mihiel, and hopefully a mooring in the town – but that was not to be. At least I caught sight of the local lavoir, unusual with its two slender central columns supporting the roof.

Just beyond St Mihiel we saw a possible mooring, at the edge of a rather run down looking campsite. It looked a bit shallow and the bollards were set back from the edge, so we came in slowly and all was doing well until I dropped a fender in the water, and got stranded on the land, and lost my rope all while the current was gently easing the boat back out into the river. Oops. Second time round was thankfully accomplished with more dignity.

The manager was out playing table tennis 50 yards from the quay, so I asked him if it was ok to moor. “bien sûr” was the reply.

Settling down with a cup of tea we noticed wed were directly opposite a peaceful WW1 cemetery, the white crosses and Islam markers shining against the grass. So many of these in the area – such a waste of young lives.

Before the afternoon was over I jumped on the bike and cycled off to the Intermarché while the skipper did manly things down in the engine room – a 9 minutes cycle ride from the boat according to Google Maps. After 25 minutes, much uphill, and getting lost twice I found it and hooray, they had fresh milk! It was on the way back down tracked between fields that I found the aforementioned cattle.

Next day, and the next lock, held a surprise – we had forgotten that the zapper was to be redundant for a while and we were back to manual lock keeping.

This has disadvantages – progress is slower – and advantages – we get to step off and do some turning of handles to open and close the lock gates.

The scenery along the Meuse is superb, pastoral, open and wide, often with a church spire or two to break up the horizon. There will be more examples to follow!

And we saw strange things like a tractor being ‘storked’ and an old tree that from a distance looked like an olive tree – perhaps someone will put me right as I don’t expect an olive tree in the middle of of a field of cows in north east France.

Lunch time was spent at Ambly-sure-Meuse, a grassy mooring at the edge of a small village recreation ground. Despite its small size Ambly does have a boulangerie so déjeuner requirements were met.

We hadn’t seen a boat since we left St Mihiel, but suddenly after lunch we passed quite a few, all in pairs – maybe on their way to find Noah’s ark (rather a tenuous connection). Many were cruisers, many looking similar and many from Holland, so we began to wonder if they were hire boats. But also a pleasant surprise – another Piper Boat, Tadham Castle.

Calliope passes on down stream

And Tadham Castle took a photo of us too – a passing Piper photo shoot.

Afternoon brought us in Dieue, and luck was with us as there was just space for us to squeeze in in front of an Australian catamaran on the quay. It turns out that Dieue has quite a history, and there were two sign-guided tours, one around the village itself and one around its neighbour Rattentout across the canal. We set off round the Dieue tour.

We saw where the embroiderers lived, the cobbler (now in semi ruins), the miller (now a brewery and bar), and lots of lovely old building with various functions of old. And of course a lavoir.

Later I went for a walk round Rattentout, somehow less quaint, but with a couple of interesting sights.

I followed the signs up a steep lane called Rue de les Carrièrers (quarries) wondering if anything would be at the top. At first all I could see was a path into a wood.

Then I saw a sign half hidden amongst tall nettles. Surging forward bravely I read that there was a statue to the virgin Mary, looking out over the valley. Sure enough as I walked into the wood I suddenly found her, on a mound of rounded stones. And from there, a great view across the Meuse.

Lavoir de Rattentout with raising floor

The second special find was a lavoir the likes of which I have never seen!

The water flows under the lavoir, rather than in front as is normally the case. And because the water level could change frequently depending on the activity of the turbines in a local factory a system of Archimedes screws and cast iron wheels allowed the floor to be raised or lowered. Amazing!

Our day at Dieue was Midsummers Day, the longest day of the year, so at sundown I took a photo to celebrate the solstice.

Next day was Saturday and we were heading to Verdun. The river was lovely along the way, plain easy sailing, and by 11am we arrived at the interesting tunnel through the fortifications built around the city by Vauban in the 17th century. The tunnel leads immediately to the lock down into the town.

It was an interesting manoeuvre for the Captain as we approached the tunnel from a right angle and could not be sure if there was a boat coming towards us, or in the lock. There did not seem to be the usual traffic light system to let us know whether to proceed or not, so we moved forwards cautiously until we could see that the lock gates were open for us – then full steam ahead(ish).

We had hoped to find a space in Verdun but the only spaces on the long pontoon were too short for Calliope. We did note another Piper barge, La Bas, on the pontoon, and they offered for us to raft up against them, but too late for Captain Stu to change course. It did have one good result – Patrice on La Bas took a photo of us as we passed on.

Belleville mooring in the morning sun

We headed on another kilometre to Belleville-sur-Meuse and made fast with ease to a pleasant little pontoon at the edge of a small park. After lunch and a siesta we were ready for a walk back into Verdun.

Gate of Verdun

We walked by the huge gateway to the town and explored some of the old narrow streets.

We walked up to the top of the hill by the huge statue of Charlemagne, looked in a few shops for shirts for the Captain (did you know that French for a short sleeved shirt is chemisette?).

We also found a restaurant that looked worth returning to later.

Then back down to the quay in the hope of finding the crew of La Bas aboard – and they were.

After a good bit of Piper boat, waterways, and general barge conversation we were treated to a glass of absolutely delicious champagne – very special because it is only made with white grapes. We also heard of an imminent heatwave set to sweep across Europe, including France, in a few days time.

The railway bridge at Belleville-sur-Meuse

Stu and I left them in peace and after a beer on the quay and a wonderful traditional meal at the little restaurant we had found we walked back down the river to Belleville, passing one of many beautiful bridges.

(Although it is not easy to see in the photo, this bridge must only be passed under by the right hand arch, which then leads into a 20 km canalised section of the river, whilst the other arches lead towards a long weir.)

It is now Sunday and a morning visit to the boulangerie for a baguette is essential as they all tend to close at noon. With bread safely aboard we carried on our journey on another glorious day, and with countryside stretching to either side. The only sadness in all of this was knowing how this same countryside and surrounding hills were the scene of the Battle of Verdun during WW1.

A hundred years on, and in addition to the military cemeteries there is still some evidence, such as the remains of blown up bridges, decimated villages and memorials.

Our next stop was Consenvoye, a village occupied by the invading army a century ago. It was here we saw an interesting tiny part of the post war reparations. On a walk round the village Stewart and I saw a building at the top of town that we both thought looked like a modern lavoir, but it was impossible to get in or even to see through the windows. I did ask if I could sit on Stu’s shoulders, but he declined!

Later, in the evening, I went for a second walk and this time saw a van pull up by the building so I used my best school girl French to ask about the building. On hearing that it had indeed been a lavoir, built after the war, I asked to see inside. It is now a village store, but it is clear that this was a very modern lavoir compared to many I have seen. And interesting to me that in 1919, when my grandmothers were in their twenties, a lavoir was still considered to be the way to wash ones clothes in rural France.

So enough of war, important though it is to remember.

The mooring at Consenvoye is on a small loop of the river that passes close to the village. The village was in there middle of a major brocante (like a car boot sale) when we arrived. We were surrounded by cheerful stalls on both sides of the narrow channel, so initially not the quiet mooring we had anticipated! But all good fun.

It was a hot day and we needed to fill up with water with the heatwave on its way.

Such a shame that the tap sent a fine spray in all directions from the connector, and that I had to sit and wait until the tank was full!

By early evening the brocante had ended, the stalls packed up, and quiet descended.

There was another interesting find at Consenvoye – a vending machine that apparently baked fresh baguettes 24/7 so for a Euro one could get your daily bread in a village that no longer had a boulangerie. We did not buy one, although I was keen to try the experience.

Next day I walked over to the adjacent lock to see if the éclusier had arrived at 9am as promised; the previous day they were a bit late. Stewart meantime reversed out of our mooring channel and came round to face the lock

We then discovered something that we have not seen since the Yonne river, three years ago. The lock here has sloping sides and a floating pontoon to attach to during the locking process. It all seemed very modern, easy and tidy.

While I am on the subject of ‘les écluses’, or locks, here are a couple of observations from this canal/river.

We have become used to bollards inset into the walls of deep locks so that you can move your ropes up (or down) as you go. On this canal there were a few alternatives to the inset bollard. There have been crosses, half-rings, bars and the good old sliding pole, but much broader than before.

old lock house with current itinerant éclusier’s hut next door

There have also been changes on the lock houses, the later ones being smaller and with gables above the front door.

These seem to be the more rural, remote, locks, with bigger houses attached to locks on towns and cities.

And the names of the locks, originally carved in stone above the door, as mentioned before, are gradually being replaced with blue metal signs, sometimes placed straight on top of the stone one as here at Sep.

Now that the éclusiers travel between locks and no longer live in the lock houses, unless they have bought them, they are provided with a little ‘hut’ instead, where they can make coffee, phone calls and have a loo.

My last bit of lock info for now is two photos of rusty old lock ‘gear’

The first is some kind of pulley system attached to the quay of a lock. We have seen these just a few times and must be linked to pulling laden barges into locks, maybe after horses had disappeared and various narrow gauge railway engines had taken their place on some canals.

The second is a winch at Remilly-Aillicourt lock, where we were moored up for the night – you can just see Calliope framed in the triangle of the winch.

Now back to the journey.

Soon after Consenvoye, in fact 4 locks after at Warinvaux, we moved from manual locks with cheerful éclusiers arriving in vans to do the work, back to ones operated with our yellow zapper.

We stopped briefly at Dan-sur-Meuse, in the lock (a bit naughty that) because I had seen that there was a boulangerie on the lock island. I rushed off and within 10 minutes had the daily bread. As we left the lock there were lovely views of the Dan-sur-Meuse church placed high above the river. No risk of flood up there!

For part of the day’s trip we were buzzed repeatedly by a slinky military helicopter that was virtually on its side as it went round tight corners. We think it was the new Guepard helicopter, maybe on secret trials as it was working above a large flat field with no military installations in sight.

Eventually, after a long day for us – almost 30 kilometres in what was becoming a heat wave – we reached the outskirts of Stenay and were delighted to see that the mooring we hoped for, an old factory mooring opposite a small weir, was free.

Phew! Tied up, parasol up, cool drinks up on the back deck and we were sorted for the evening.

It has to be said that I was ready for all of the above. This is how hot I had got.

Whereas later in the evening, with parasol down, Captain Cool was looking good.

I did take an evening walk round Stenay once it had cooled down to about 28 and there was plenty of shade. There were some interesting buildings, but nothing special until I saw the old mill in the last in the sun’s rays.

Calliope moored against a high old industrial wharf, opposite a weir

We were now onto our last day on the Canal stretch of La Meuse. The day started with me gallantly cycling to the local Intermarché, a mere two kilometres – but Google maps failed to tell me that it was up hill again! I walked up part of the distance, between fields of wheat so no unpleasant.

Once back on board we cast off and were away to the first lock, just round the corner. There were only 5 locks for the day, but 36 kilometres, on another of the heatwave days. No wonder we saw so many cows paddling in the water.

We found a relaxing place to stop for lunch before the voyage went on.

We passed storks circling in the sky (yes there is a stork up there), a church with a definite change of shape at Remilly-Aillicourt, and boys making the most of the hot weather by jumping in from a bridge over the (canalised) river.

Moored for the night above Ramilly-Aillicourt lock

When we moored up just before Ramilly-Aillicourt lock we were once again very hot – about 34 degrees in the wheelhouse even with the windscreen down and a reasonable breeze blowing in.

Stewart had a siesta. I went to find somewhere to swim, but finding a place to get in, or rather get out, of the river was not so easy. Eventually I found I could climb down next to the overflow from above the lock – delicious cool clear water to flump and splash about in!

After supper, when the air had lost its heat, I took off with the camera and took a couple of reflective photos that seemed too work quite well. One was of the railway bridge, where not only did the stone supports reflect well, but also the track of the bridge, looking almost real across the surface of the water.

The other was simply of Calliope, gently swaying in the evening sun.

And then there was the comfy Captain waiting to welcome me back home, with all the paraphernalia .

So just one more thing before we leave the Canal de l’Est Northern Branch, alias the Canal de la Meuse, we have yet another change in the look and feel of the levers used to set the lock operations in motion, caught in its full glory at Remilly-Aillicourt lock

We were 6 kilometres from Sedan where the next day we would enter the official La Meuse river, taking us on to Belgium. A fiery sunset was a reminder of the heat of the day gone by, and the heat of the day to come, destined to be the hottest of the heatwave.

June on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin – weedy in parts; ultimately glorious

June 10 – 18 2019

Monday 10th June – we had left Soulanges on the Canal de L’Aisne á la Marne in the morning and by lunchtime we had turned to port at the T junction at Vitry-en François and were heading up the Oest (West) section of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin.

Leaving industrial Vitry

We had 111 kilometres to travel uphill to Void, with 70 locks to help us. We had been warned by other boaters that the canal was full of weed, growing and floating, and indeed the VNF issued a warning to battle.

Before long the blue skies turned to grey and the rain that was to be with us for several days, on and off, began to fall. With locks to negotiate every kilometre this is not as much fun as it might seem.

We were following a commercial barge that was making particularly slow progress; however slowly we tried to go we kept catching her up, and then had to hang around at a lock waiting for our turn, but that’s what sharing canal space is all about.

And it is good to see he canals still being used for commercial purposes – taking freight of the road.

It was not too long before we reached the very pleasant mooring we had picked out on the map – Bignicourt-sur-Saulx. It is a delightfully peaceful place to stay the night, and a walk round the village elucidated some history from World War 1, when the village tried desperately to hold back a German advance across the river and canal, but were overcome and many lives were lost.

The village includes a chateau that is a small hotel, and opens its gardens to the public on a Saturday.

This was Sunday!

This bridge over the Saulx was a focal point of the fighting.

This beautiful snail was my other major find of the evening.

The next morning seemed drier so we drew in our ropes and went on our way. There was a need to find a baguette for lunch if possible. Google maps located one in the next village, where there was also a good long jetty so we felt our luck was in. However every space was taken apart from a short length at the far end, quite close to the next lock.

A plan was hatched – Stewart would put the bow into the small space, I would (somehow) jump off and rush to the boulangerie and back while he hung about mid stream waiting for me and the lock.

It worked! I arrived back with baguette in the wet weather baguette bag just in time to watch the lock gates open and Calliope glide in.

When will the sun shine again?

We continued in the rain, eating lunch along the way. By the tenth lock of the day we were wondering if it would every stop – and still 5 more to go to the night’s mooring.

It got so chilly that we thanked Piper for the heater that blows warm air up from the engine room!

This kept the Captain warm – I meantime was out in the elements. Lucky I like water.

Things got interesting around Sermaize-les-Bains, where a lock is followed in short succession by two bridges, a sharp S shape bend under a third, followed by a basin leading into the next lock, out of which was reversing a large commercial barge!

Astern astern

Uo until now sensors either side of the canal had detected our approach to a lock and begun to prepare it for us, but as we reached lock 55 the system changed.

Now we could put to use the telecommander, or zapper as we preferred to call it, pointing it at each lock when we reached the command sign on the edge of the canal.

On up through another three locks and we reached Revigny-sur-Ornaine where we hoped to stop for the night. We had been warned that the wooden jetty was taped off, but still usable, so headed towards it. But the owner of the Belgian cruiser already tied up there, came gingerly towards us to want us off – most planks of the jetty had rotted through – so Plan B came into operation.

Plan B – moor up against the VNF ice breaker, Asterix

Plan B came to be the best plan! At about 8pm, in great agitation, our Belgian friend came to our boat to point out that the water level in the bief was rapidly dropping and they were already aground! He phoned the pompiers (fire service) and gendarmes, the latter of whom duly arrived looking very perplexed. Raising the water in a canal had not been in their training.

ut they were trained in making phone calls to useful people and after another 20 minutes two VNF cars sped up. By then we had discovered that several of the ‘vantelles’ which allow water into and out of the adjacent lock had remained open and water was simply pouring out of our stretch of the canal (bief). The VNF cavalry got to work once more, partly opening up three next locks up the canal and over night the level gradually rose.

And us? Well moored to Asterix we were further out into the channel in deeper water, and unharmed by the experience.

I like to note the different style of lock-keeper houses on the different canals. On this canal the houses are built on 3 levels at the back, and two at the front – reflecting the fact that the canal is built up on a levée

Some are no longer occupied and left in varying degrees of decay and neglect.

This one has almost been captured by nature – it’s glazed entrance porch scarcely visible.

We had been told that the pont-levée (lift bridge) at Mussey would not be lifted between 11am and 2pm, so although only 6 kms away we set off at 8am in case there were problems at any of the 4 locks between us and the bridge.

And as luck would have it, we got stuck in the first lock!

Stewart tried to clear the masses of weeds that were stuck around the sensors on the lower lock gate; the lock was not filling with water and our best idea was that the system did not know that the lock gates had shut – but to no avail.

So Lesley’s ‘lock French’ to the rescue, phoning the éclusier’s office to explain where we were and what the problem was.

It worked, and we were soon free and on our way, enjoying an artistic array of canal weed as we left the lock.

The art of floating weeds
Mussey Pont-Levée

We reached Mussey pont-levée in time to get through and onward before lunch. And then two further lift bridges to arrive at Bar Le Duc.

We moored up on the quay alongside the camper van park – all very civilised. It was possible to see the old town in the distance on top of a hill so once rested from our cruising exertions we started walking towards it.

We went over the river Ornain, and began to go upwards – steps and roads – onto a rampart style walk with stunning views of the roofs of the newer, but still old, town below.

The ‘higher’ town, dating from medieval times hosts so many interesting buildings, so here are a few – the Chateau, now a museum, the church (where we had a private tour from an enthusiastic guide in his eighties, and pretending did to understand),and the c13 covered market, the clock tower.

My favourite weird story from Bar de Luc is about the wife of a Prince of Orange who, when he was killed in the siege of St Dizier asked for a sculpture to be made of what he would look like 3 years after he died (if dug up!)

Here is the strange (full size) result!

So weird to my mind.

We strolled and rolled back down the steep roads to the newer town below and found a pavement bar to revive us before and relaxation before returning to the barge for the remainder of the evening.

Next day was mainly a boat day – filling with water, cleaning winter green from window edges, and re-stocking with provisions.

Then we went out to walk round another part of town before beer and pizza.

This took us over the lovely Notre Dame bridge over the Ornaine river, with old houses flanking the banks.

Michaux, inventor of the bicycle

We discovered another of Bar de Luc’s famous son’s – Michaux – though I am sure he did not look like this!

We found a second bar with Stewart’s favourite game! And he came up against a mini pinball wizard; they enjoyed what was apparently a good pinball game.

The pizza itself was interesting on three levels/Police outside pizza place, and lovely old church. First, it was delicious, and cooked by a Tunisian, not an Italian. Second, whilst eating a table on the pavement we were suddenly disturbed by two police cars, sirens screeching, once of which drove onto the pavement. The police jumped out and arrested a young lad who looked quite innocent, but unsurprised.

And then there was this lovely old church – a complete mish-mash of styles.

Easterly leaving of Bar de Luc

We continued our journey on Friday, following a yacht at first, under a pont levée. We soon lost sight of them, being surprised by a big barge after an S bend under a bridge!

Bye bye Bar de Luc, as the bridge comes down

Later that day we had another lock that would not open – leading to an hour’s wait in a peaceful spot – then the same again 3 locks later!

On this one I had to scramble ashore from the bow into who knows what undergrowth, in order to reach the lock and use their phone.

It was too remote for us to have reception on the mobiles!

We were unable to tie up, even to a tree trunk, and with the engine off we drifted pleasantly and quietly from side to side.

But all good fun!

Once we were on our way again we passed by many moss laden lock doors, water lilies, and pieces of old lock keeper’s equipment, (I think these structures were to hold the long barge poles). Ah, this is the life!

Reached Tonville-en Barrois and found a delightful mooring just at the edge of the village, but out of sound of any road. Just birds, and later rain drops, to soothe us.

We took a walk round the village and were pleased to find a boulangeries for the morning, plus an amazing old fortified church, going back to the c12. And, more exciting for me, the first lavoir of the season.

The singing of the rain

Overnight it poured and poured with rain, hammering down on the roof of the boat – we love that sound – but it had consequences for the weediness of the canal next day, as you will see.

I made a quick trip to the boulangerie before we left Tronville, with a plan for the day of 17 locks – but we fell at the first hurdle. The first lock was chock-a-block with weed, and once full the doors would not open to let us out.

Captain Stu had a go at clearing the sensors with a boathook to no avail, so on the phone to the VNF and then settle down to enjoy the enforced break, plus wash down the side of the barge following the previous days spattering from the guy cutting and strimming the grass next to our mooring.

That was lock 27. Subsequently we were held up at locks 20, 19 and 17 – in every case waiting outside the lock because the doors would not open and the ‘deux feus rouges’ appeared, meaning ‘en panne’ again.

At least we were not as unfortunate as this Norwegian yacht, which ran aground and was truly stuck for quite some time.

They did get free, and caught us up later.

We heard that another yacht had had its keel snapped off in the low water and had to be craned out of the canal – I hope that is not true.

We ate lunch on the go, enjoyed the sunshine and lockside flowers, and had a visiting dragonfly on the deck (sorry the desk is so dirty!)

At one of the ‘stop-locks’ I had time to study and photograph the system of pulley wheels that must have been used to haul barges under the bridges, while then patient horses walked round.

All of this had a good outcome – we stopped short of our planned mooring and found a countryside idyll at Naix-en Forges, with a grassy bankside and woods of birdsong above.  

Naix-aux-Forges also possesses quite an unusual lavoir, with steps down from a front doorway, arched windows, and an oval shape wash basin, still with fresh water running in, presumably from a stream.

And what is more, by then we appeared to have left behind the thick carpets of weed. Hooray!

All clear for tomorrow we hope.

Next morning before we left, and in the interests of my new resolve to lose weight (go, I forgot to tell you that didn’t I?) I then took a walk up to the road bridge and down the canal path to the next lock, while Stewart got under way and met me at the écluse.

We were now out in the weed-free glorious cow studded countryside, with blue skies, billowing clouds, and scarcely ever a boat to be seen.

We passed pastures full of flowers, little villages in the distance, and big hunting birds – mostly red kites, soaring above us.

The locks all worked perfectly, ready and open for us as we approached.

This was definitely one of the most enjoyable days on this canal – one of those days when you want to shout “this is why we did it!”

It is only with photos that I can do justice to the colours, the clarity of the water, the natural surroundings. Sorry not to wax more lyrical, but a picture paints a thousand words after all.

This day took us up to the top of the canal – next task the 5km tunnel to the other side. So we moored up just before Lock 1 at Demange-aux-Eaux, attached in a relatively precarious non-maritime way; each rope across the pontoon and round a signpost on the bank! But there were no bollards or cleats on the pontoon so little choice.

From the lock bridge at Demange

Luckily there is only a long distance view of this outrage.

We went for our customary walk around the village – a village with no shops, cafés, bars or restaurants. But they have a lovely bridge over the (much narrower than Bar De Luc) Ornaine river, and a church visible across the fields that has its entry over a tributary. Yes, that’s me posing on the church bridge.

Naix-aux Forges lavoir

As we crossed a smaller bridge we noticed what must have been in the past a lovely long, sunlit lavoir, and now seemingly used to store village bits and pieces. It was all locked up, netting across the washing area and the beautiful wood sides left to perish.

I managed a photo from yet another bridge. I can almost see and hear the chatter and splashing of the women as they washed their clothes; quite pleasant on a sunny summers day, but far from attractive to have that chore in the winter.

Maybe some day the villagers will decide it is a nice idea to restore it all.

I had a bit of ‘really-me’ time sitting on the pontoon, my feet in the water, and with a perfect mini world of nature below me. In the clear waters were tadpoles and little blue and yellow fish. Flying above were several types of dragonfly, bee and butterfly, darting from flower to flower, or water weed to water weed. All of course moving too fast for me, apart from these two feeble attempts, plus the dragonfly sex scene on our geraniums.

Stu and Boris swap canal and wine stories

That evening we made the enjoyable ‘mistake’ of inviting our neighbours, Boris and Marsha, across from their cruiser African Queen to swap notes on canals, locks and moorings.

They are lovely friendly people and we got to know them very well over some wine, breadsticks, and a remarkably good rum – from St Nicholas Abbey, Barbados.

With the knowledge of the tunnel in front of us, we called an end to the fun before it got too late – but definitely up for it next time!

Off to bed with a full moon shining – and is that Venus just to the right?

And so it was Mauvage tunnel day. I make it sound more frightening than it is of course. It’s just that I know Stewart doesn’t like the narrowness of the tunnels and the way they suck Calliope into the side.

Still we started off brightly, through lock 1, and heading for the left hand turn towards the tunnel. Seemed a shame to be going underground on such a beautiful June day, but only for an hour.

The arm up to the tunnel entrance passes the old ‘Towing Service’ building. Until quite recently all boats and barges were towed through the tunnel and some of the service boats were moored up outside.

Then into and out of the tunnel – all 4.785kms of it, well lit and with a path running alongside the water where our éclusier friend rode his bike to keep us company. It took almost an hour of Stewart’s undivided attention to make sure we kept a straight path, and we emerged into the sunshine undamaged and undaunted.

There are 12 locks down into the next town, Void-Vacun. That felt good after the 70 upward locks of the previous week! We took on the first 7 and then stopped for lunch, allowing nature girl a few more photos!

An hour later and we arrived in Void, to find all the official moorings full, the bridge about to be closed for work next day, and the shops closed – it is Monday in France after all!

But all worked out fine. We were permitted to moor up on an old industrial wharf where goods from huge silos (we are not sure what) were once moved by barge, and now by lorry. It was surprisingly peaceful, the occasional lorry on the weighbridge gone by 4pm, the gates locked, and the space left to us and dozens of house martins.

Evening view across to Void-Vacun

After a tranquil evening and night we were up in the morning to watch the VNF tug do its mighty work pushing an iron barge topped with a massive girder for the bridge repairs. We watched as we walked over the passerelle to the town for food shopping.

The town was far more interesting than we had expected, with another old covered market place, with 44 columns to reflect the Roman buildings of nearby Nasium. For some bizarre reason, 4 are rectangular and the best are circular, in no particular pattern that I could detect.

A small river runs through the back of the town, the river Vidus, right by the little Proxi supermarket. We also found a good boulangerie and a great boucherie, with typical slightly raucous butcher’s chat!

As we walked back to the boat we cut through under Les Halles, the old market place, and found ourselves on front of a mighty fortified gateway, through which are the church, the chateau …

… and a characterful, part fortified, pigeon house. So much more to Void than immediately catches the eye.

The old Void bridges and lavoir

And in case you thought I had forgotten the lavoirs, Void’s lavoir has now gone, but a photo including women doing their washing is next to the canal bridge where it used to stand.

And then I went for a walk round the back of town and found another lavoir, on a branch of the River Vidus, next to a pretty tumbling area of the river.

Back to Calliope for the evening and a quiet time on the back deck waiting for sundown – rather late at this time of year, with the summer solstice only 3 days away!

Tomorrow morning it will be good bye to Void, and good bye to the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, Oest.

Late start to 2019 – Sillery to Vitry

(Skipper’s note: Loose plans for this year had seen us heading further north towards the Lille/Cambrai area for next winter. However with two of the three canal choices we had to get up there currently closed half way through, we decided to go Route Four – and turn south – About Face . . . . )

So eventually – after moving house, a full service and eight new solid solar panels on the roof (well done Skips) we are off, heading south on the Canal L’Aisne à La Marne – and within 10 minutes and under grey skies we met our first lock – my first for 8 ½ months!  Luckily I remembered what to do, and had good French instructions to aid me..

We had half a plan to go all the way to to Condé-sur-Marne that day, but after two hours, 3 locks, and the threat of an ‘orage’ (thunderstorm) with 98kph winds we decided to moor up on an old industrial wharf in a basin at Sept-Saulx.

The wharf edge was decorated by poppies, my favourite flower, so we took this to be a good omen and tied up. Sitting back and planning next steps it occurred to us that we did not have canal guides for the two canals we were aiming for, and it is not easy to have post delivered along the canal ….. however a call to Damien, the Capitaine we got to know so well during our 5 week sojourn at Chalons-en-Champagne last year, and somewhere we would be passing in two days time, resulted in agreement for the new guides to be delivered there.

Skipper’s aside: I have, for as long as I am still a European, furled my Red Duster and raised a defaced European Union flag – nailing my colours to the mast as it were.

I find this photo of Lesley’s poppies doubly poignant, being a symbol of the utter futility of the millions of young European lives destroyed in the First World War by the machinations of a small number of power crazed autocrats determined to reorganise obsolete frontiers for their own benefit.

At the time of writing, my simple flag is a big plea to my countryfolk not to put those frontiers back in place.

Clouds gathering at Sept-Saulx

 We managed a walk round the village before holing up as dark clouds gathered and sure enough it did begin to rain – big fat drops that splattered the calm surface of the canal. Later thunder lightning and a strong wind joined in as forecast, although not anywhere near 98kph.

Panels still looking good though . . . .

Waiting for the Billy Tunnel green light

The next day it was still raining so we hung on until about 10am before setting off to Condé– a trip of  only 14.5 kms, but including a 2.3km tunnel and 8 locks. 

The Billy tunnel is described in the Du Breil canal guide as ‘attractive‘ – an odd word for a tunnel. But it is in a lovely area with a delightful mooring place to wait your turn, and runs in a good straight line so that you can see light at both ends of the tunnel all through your journey. We waited for a full sized commercial barge to emerge before it was our turn.

Captain Stu also noticed this time (it was Calliope’s 3rdvoyage through) that the commercial barge leaving was hugging the towpath side. On closer inspection in the half light, the wooden rail just above the water line that we previously thought was a crash barrier turns out to be a rubbing rail, and if you allow yourself to get ‘sucked’ onto it (Stu’s words) you slide through ‘like a rocket slid on rails (Stu’s words).

Truly marvelous’, Stu

We ate lunch during the wonderfully simple ‘chained’ set of 8 locks down, ie the next one prepared and opened for us as we approached.  And at 2.30 we arrived and moored up at Condé-sur-Marne; day 2 of our 2019 odyssey successfully completed.

Moored at Conde-sur-Marne with lock number 8 behind us

“So far so good,” says Captain Stu.

While the Captain became galley slave I took myself off to find what the maps called an aqueduct. And this is what I discovered – a c19 way to take water from the river below up into the hills. The tower is/was a pumping house. I later met a school teacher from the village who told me that the water is for the canal, nit for agriculture as I first thought.

I returned to the French equivalent of sausage and mash with onion gravy – mmmmm – and a quiet evening aboard reading more of my latest Ian Rankin.

The only disturbance was watching another storm moving in and waiting for the heavy rain and thunder. Still, there’s nothing finer than been tucked up in the wheelhouse in a good old proper storm is there?

Next morning was far better – grey skies, but no rain – so we slipped the ropes and set off back down the Canal Lateral de la Marne towards Chalons en Champagne, our home for 5 weeks last Autumn and where we planned to collect our maps.

We were accompanied along the way by a casual stow away with an orange head.

As we came into Chalons we were amazed to see a tall tall crane above the cathedral, with a group of people seemingly clinging on at the top! I watched with a certain degree of shock, wondering what they were doing – maybe protesting about something, as the French often do. And then I saw them begin to slide down one at a time! They look like flies in these photos, but zoom in!

It was only later when we had moored up that I discovered this was part of some elaborate preparations for a huge sound and light show occurring at the cathedral in two days time, sadly after we expected to have left Châlons.

The Furies festival, taking place in the park adjacent to the mooring

Ah well, Châlons still saw to it that we were entertained. We had managed to arrive one day onto the famous Furies festival. This is a 5 day free festival held mainly at outside venues around the city, with links (I think) to the Circus school here. It focuses on the bizarre and surreal, a mixture of street theatre, circus and music.

Stewart and I had an early evening wander round, and I found plenty to intrigue; their festival currency of ‘the furie’, the airstream crepe cafe, the music of Babil Sabir 2 (google them!), the strange play illustrating the aftermath of a car crash, and the very unusual tightrope strip and sex-act-on-the-wire show (luckily rather blurred on account of my shock)!