Late summer in Belgium part 3

Down the Belgian Sambre

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

August 15th to 26th 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well, we were in no great rush!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voila! It all worked perfectly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the locks were enjoyable too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We passed a tranquil night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it made me quite cheerful!

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

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

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

All the more for me then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(We think it is an owl feather)

Hull maintenance in Zelzate

29th September – 23rd October 2020

As we left the marina at Spanjeveer dawn was breaking on a lovely late September day. We were on our way to have the hull pressure washed and repainted – part of the five yearly maintenance programme.

The Moervaart was glorious in the early light, and we shared the calm waters with geese preparing for their winter habitat.

Calliope came out onto the big Gent-Terneuzen canal as the sun was emerging from behind the chemical works and other industrial sites.

The hour and a half cruise from Spanjeveer to Zelzate was both pleasant and interesting for me – and required concentration from the captain as we moved through the huge canal towards the boat yard.

We passed our share of wonderful gigantic seagoing ships, powerful little tugs, and plenty of other working boats.

We arrived a little early and had a pleasant wait, getting to know our new surroundings.

Carron Marine is situated right on the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. A border patrol boat was a frequent passer-by, checking that no coronaviruses passed from one country to the other no doubt!

Then the fun began, getting Calliope gently ‘beached’ on the two trolleys that would pull us at the slipway. (Apologies for the washed up rubbish! Not us)

Before too long we were pulled out of the water and placed behind our friend Peter’s boat on the slipway and chocked up for our stay.

A quick inspection showed an intact bow thruster, 6 be-barnacled but solid anodes and a ‘gift wrapped’ propeller.

Our high rise living could now begin, 10’ above the ground and with superb views out across the canal.

Then began a few days of waiting our turn in a shipyard busy getting commercial barges back out to work. The yard is full of photographic opportunities!

It gave us free time to explore the area. There is not a lot to see in Zelzate but there is a small pleasant park between the boat yard and the town. The lake in the park is part of the original line of the river, complete with a small flock of geese and a ‘scenic’ chemical works on the other side!

The town itself is unpretentious, has all necessary shops and services, and a nice church.

It was easy to keep busy. There was end of season cleaning to do aboard and Stu fitted a new water pump one day. The weather was very variable – blue skies one minute and storm force winds and rain the next. The sunsets, directly behind us, were constantly stunning.

We walked a lot and went out for beer and frites with Peter one evening, finding more new beer to try!

The activity on the canal was never ending, day and night, from little metal skiffs to huge ocean going ships, tugs and Dutch border patrols.

Then, on a wet windy day, came our turn for work to start – the pressure wash, to remove the relatively small amount of weed, baby mussels and tiny barnacles. It felt strangely exciting!

The following week was a time of weather watching – waiting for weather windows that were long enough for sanding down, priming, top coating.

At last the grey skies were considered right enough and the guys got to work on the preparation, searching out all the little places where five years of enjoyable intensive cruising have left their little marks – all surface level scars thank goodness!

Then followed a couple more days too wet for painting, but good for watching what goes on around us and searching out interesting objects to photograph in the shipyard.

We also did more walking around Zelzate, discovering amongst other things the Mietje Stroel – their female equivalent of the more famous ‘mannekin pis’ statues found around Belgium.

And we bought a near impossible jigsaw to keep us busy – night and day!

And there was one glorious sunset after another, often flooding the yard with such golden light you would think I had a filter on the camera!

Then the weather set fair for a day’s painting on Friday! The first coat above the waterline was applied!

A glass was raised that evening in honour of the next stage being accomplished! This was not the best time of year to be attempting outdoor re-painting, but the coronavirus had put paid to the more sensible plans earlier in the year.

We waited on tenterhooks through a very wet weekend, watching the skies and the forecasts. Would Monday allow the second coat?

I did have some fun on Sunday, persuading the Captain to push me out on the metal skiff to grab a water logged branch that was trapped on the slipway rails!

Disappointingly it was grey and moist on Monday morning so we walked into Zelzate market and bought one or two goodies, then found a moment of sunshine in a the park for an impromptu picnic!

Amazingly when we returned to Calliope we found the team drying off the last of the rain drops from the boat and about to add the second coat! And on it went, followed by the requisite six hours without rain; hooray – great progress.

The jigsaw too was making progress – which would be finished first, the barge or the puzzle?

There was constant daily activity on the canal, but that evening saw 10 minutes of big sea going ships with attending tugs, border patrol boats and commercial barges all passing in a rush hour mass.

But it was clear that the seasons were changing and we made ourselves extra cosy with our Refleks stove – toasty warm.

We had everything crossed for good weather to continue for the final paintwork, so were relieved and smiling to see the sunlit dawn.

After two weeks the better weather meant that things were beginning to draw to a close – with the below-the-waterline paint being applied, and the jigsaw nearing completion.

In fact after a bit of a last minute shock when the ‘last’ two pieces didn’t fit ……

…. we were able to place the 1000th piece! So the jigsaw won.

The following day the final coat was applied and we stood back and admired what the team at Carron Marine had done – beautiful!

That evening we drank a toast to the ‘blackened’ Calliope as the sun went down.

While the work had been going on we kept busy with odd jobs around the boat, an autumnal clean, and more walking around the area.

There are things here that fascinate me, like the last old house in the old town of Zelzate, quite grand amongst all the cottages, and the potato vending machine!

And our last day was also the last day of pubs and restaurants being open in Belgium for the foreseeable future, because of coronavirus.

So we treated ourselves to a delicious meal out at the local Italian restaurant as a ‘last supper’. (There seems to be quite a bot of raising a glass of rosé in this blog! There must have been plenty of things to celebrate.

Before we left I grabbed a photo of the old customs house, now a B&B, where we almost stayed instead of staying on the barge! It is right next door to the boatyard, so a good place to stay for the non-intrepid.

Although sad to be leaving the area it was time to move on. Three weeks out of water trying to keep the repainted hull as dry as possible meant that we had been unable to use our black water tank, grey water tank and sink as normal. We were also running short on fresh water and had been bringing jugs of water on board from a nearby tap.

The steps down from the barge, and up to the loo and tap were getting colder each day, although always adventure and a bit like camping out.

But nights were quiet, dark and cosy.

Got going early removing chocks and blocks that had supported us and lowering us gently onto the wagons that would run us down the slipway.

(She went down faster than she came up ….)

Splash down was faster than we expected! Luckily Peter was on hand to take this video as I was not ready for the moment.

Having splashed into the water, we then needed to splash some water in and on Calliope before we sailed away. We and wash down filled the fresh water tank enough for the rest of the season, and I had a happy bit of wet-play hosing off all the dust and much that cannot help accumulating on the boat when you are in a busy yard for three weeks.

At last it was time to bid a fond goodbye Carron Marine, Alex, Joey, Tim, Martin and the rest of the team.

Then we were out on the canal heading south to Gent and going towards the Zelzate bridge that we had never seen open – today it opened!

Here are two happy Calliope crew – we’re back on the water! We are on the big Gent-naar-Ternuezen Kanaal, and enjoying every minute.

On the outskirts of Gent we stopped to replace our two gas bottles as we were just about out. The first place we moored up next to unfortunately did not have the right fittings for our gas system. Luckily less than a kilometre along the road was an alternative supplier so we set off with the sack truck – there and back twice and replaced both bottles.

We felt really good then. We had gas, freshwater, empty grey and black water tanks and fully charged batteries. All the utilities one takes for granted in the house are always much more interesting on a boat and you learn to use them wisely.

Before long we were through the bridges, round the bends, and back into Portus Ganda. Calliope settled her gleaming hull beneath the glowing October creepers. ….

… and we paid a short outdoor socially distanced visit to our great friends on Dreamer. Coronavirus sadly put paid to our plans for a reunion supper together, but there was just enough warmth left in the evening air for a half hour chat together.

Next morning we planned to leave at 9, but a quick glance at the waterways notices showed that the first lift bridge, just round the corner, was going to be closed for repair apart from a short spell between 1200 and 1230. This gave me time to walk into Gent for some more great bread, and a couple of treats – a mini Merveilleuse de Fred each, and a worstbroot to share.

Add to that the Gent mustard that appeared as if by magic on our roof that morning (thank you naughty Mieke mustard fairy!), and we were set to leave.

We said goodbye to a grey Gent in style with a sail-by of Dreamer and a farewell salute to Frans.

We had good views of some of the tremendous street art of the city, encouraged by the council, and appreciated the autumn colours along the banks – these at at Tolhuissluis.

Soon we had turned onto the Verbindingscanal, our chosen route out of town, passing all the interesting boats that are moored along both sides.

We had another wait before we went through the swing bridge as that is closed between 1230 and 1300; lunch is important. But after that we were truly on our way.

We turned to starboard to join the Brugsevaart, past many colourful houses and under a bridge that is in the process of being demolished, or so it seemed to us; we passed under without incident.

Next we approached the Ringvaart, the M25 of the canal world around Gent, often busy with mega-barges in both directions; we consulted the AIS system to see what was around.

All was clear so we poked our nose out, a quick visual check, and dashed across towards Brugge.

After a few kilometres a turn to port into the Kanaal van Schipdonk, or Afleidingskanaal van de Leie, took us on towards Deinze where we wanted to stay the night. Once again we checked the AIS and could see we would be following another barge along the canal.

That turned out to be a rather heavily laden, slow moving barge so we crawled along behind it until we reached the turning for Deinze.

There was a pleasure turning onto the Leie at Deinze. We have been up here a couple of times before. We knew where we were going. We had phoned ahead and checked that the bridge into the town quay was operating and that there was room to moor.

Our only two, pleasant, surprises were the new almost completed footbridge ….

…. and a ferris wheel next to the church. looking glorious as the sun began to set. It seemed to be there for half term and was going to bet going the following night. We would miss it – “shame”, said the Captain!

The weather was slightly less glorious when we left Deinze in the rain the following morning, but we had had yet another pleasant evening in this unassuming little town.

I missed most of the trip eastwards along the Leie due to a conference call Trustee meeting of a charity I work with, but I was called upon to be on deck for the two locks we passed through. At the first lock it was still raining, but by the second the skies were clearing.

Harelbeke Lock, the last one, on the outskirts of Kortrijk, has just finished a major design and rebuild, and is looking very smart.

So finally we came into Kortrijk, our current home port. What a wonderful, calming, end-of-the-season feeling, even though we had to squeeze into the 21 metre space waiting for our 20 metre boat! The Captain ceremoniously took down the flags and we were officially tied up for winter.

That left us a day and a half of cleaning, maintenance and winterising, moored up in our favourite spot.

There was also time for a final gobbled wafel! Due to the closure of cafés and restaurant ts it had to be a take-away, eaten in a cold grey, empty square, but delicious just the same.

There was left over bread that allowed plenty feeding of the ducks and coots and moorhens, causing more than one coot-war!

It was time to go home until next year, but also still time for an evening walk around Kortrijk to get a few more images to help me remember how lovely it is to be here.

Our journey home on three trains was straightforward enough, though was masks-on for the full six hours against the virus. Ever since we left the UK four months ago we have been wearing masks in public places so didn’t feel too afflicted – and, so far, it has kept us in good health – so well worth it.

Steerers’ Epilogue

And so – another great summer, with wonderful memories of places and people (and beers) we got to know along the way. The people in particular that you meet on boats are from all walks of life, but share the same insane and wonderful common denominator of a floating maintenance schedule – and will rally round anyone within that community needing assistance.

It’s a special life, and I’d just like to finish off Lesley’s last blog of the year if I may, by saying that we pinch ourselves all the time for these years we are enjoying afloat.

We were heading for Holland this year before the virus persuaded us to stay within the Belgium borders – and it has been a delightful adventure. We’ve been to fascinating places we’d not heard of months previously, and enjoyed every one.

Where will we be next year? It doesn’t matter, it’s all good!

Down and up the Durme

16th to 29th September 2020

We left Gent on the Tuesday, with a lovely send-off, knowing (or should I say thinking?) we had almost 2 weeks to kill while waiting to go into the boat yard for the 5-yearly hull cleaning and painting.

The cruise out of Gent was interesting in itself, up through the working parts of the port, going past not only big canal commercial barges but also the huge seagoing ships – some seeming to have lost their Plimsoll line!

And a few interesting little boats too.

Some kicked up a good wake; we almost felt back at sea!

The turn onto the little Moervaart canal (this is what the river Durme is named as it goes through the moor lands north of Lokeren) seemed very calm in comparison.

We had imagined turning immediately into the countryside! But there was a kilometre of industry to travel through first.

It was not far to the port where we had booked in for the night – the one by Spanjeveerbrug at Mendonk .

We were soon pleasantly settled in right next to another bailey bridge – that must be our third bailey bridge next to a mooring this year, and in fact in our lives.

It was so pleasant that we decided to spend a second night there too. I had cycled into one village for bread both days so Stewart and I took a walk in afternoon in the other direction out amongst the flat fields of the polders.

The first stage of our cruise one down the river towards Lokeren gave an indication of the lovely scenery to follow.

The journey down the Durme through the 7 lift and swing bridges, spaced over 16 kms, is done in the company of any other boats going that way – 2/3 chances each day depending day of week etc. We went to the first bridge and moored up for lunch, ready for a 1315 start.

The cruise down to Lokeren is constantly fascinating. We were lucky enough to go down in September sun, enjoying the rural views along the way. I loved the now defunct, non-moving, Vapeurbrug – more photos of this one on our way back!

We went through a succession of bridges in a small convoy of two boats – us in the lead – and at the last bridge our companion barge peeled off to moored on the waiting pontoon for the night.

We continued on towards Lokeren, with the river becoming increasingly bendy, including several hairpins. It also became increasingly busy with kayaks and small electric hire boats.

We would come upon these as we rounded a bend, towering above them, with the Captain making sure we didn’t hit any!

As we rounded the final bend into Lokeren port we were hailed from the bank by Tony, a Brit who lives on a boat there. He strongly suggested that we turn round in the slight widening of the bend and go astern into the moorings. So we did

It wasn’t that easy, us being 20m long and the winding hole being about 24m wide, and plenty of people stopped to watch super Captain Stu manage it slowly and carefully. At one point we were beautifully broadside on to the river, stopping all other water traffic.

But before long, at the end of quite a long day, we were comfortably moored up in the park-like surroundings of the town port.

We stayed for four warm sunny days, enjoying Lokeren’s ambience. The city is small with a centre that only retains a few old buildings – the allies bombed it by mistake towards the end of WW2. But there is still plenty to enjoy, with the river running through the centre, a lively central square, and quite a few fountains! It’s prosperity was built on making felt for hats, which involved cutting the hair off rabbit and hare pelts – hence the rabbit statues.

We treated ourselves to a frituur supper one night, in a funky 50’s diner style fritterie.

The food was good too!

We had a nature day, walking along the river and up into one of the many parks, a history day at the museum, and an art day, engaging with some of the sculptures that are all around the city – much of it metallic.

The art day was quite hot so we rewarded ourselves in the shade with a new beer for Stu (note the very classy bottle) and a new Kriek for me (note the rather bling glass!).

Apparently the beer was ‘thumbs-up’ good.

It was a very pleasant place to spend some September days ……..

……. although we awoke next morning to a completely different scene!

This was the day of our departure – the geraniums the only brightness in sight.

We had booked the first bridge at 1030 so Stu set off very slowly, round the twists and turns of the river, often only visible from the wheelhouse at the moment the bow reached the bend!

This took a lot of the helmsman’s concentration.

By the time we reached the first bridge at Daknam the midst was starting to clear, but it had been an exhausting trip and the waiting pontoon (with a 30 hour mooring limit) seemed delightful – so we decided to stop our voyage until the next day.

Moored up in the rising mist there was a sense of relief – no urgency to continue now; lovely lovely.

And as the mist cleared we discovered just how lovely it was, a very peaceful rural place to wait for 24 hours.

Just looking out of the window in the morning was a joy, watching the moorhens and coots finding their breakfast around the water lilies.

The little village of Daknam is quite close to the mooring. It has developed its own fame a being the site of the Lions Court in the medieval story of Reynaud the fox, who cheats the King out of his gold. A stuffed fox proudly stands beside the church and other reminders of the story are around the village.

But as I walked round the village my phone rang and it was the shipyard to let me know that our arrival date there was delayed by 5 days! New plans had to be made.

Only one night is allowed on the Daknam pontoon so we were still ready to go next morning at 1030, on a day with much greater visibility than the one before!

The sunshine and fresh air pulled me towards the other side of the river from the mooring and a quick walk between maize fields before we set off.

I promised more photos of the old Vapeurbrug on our way back – here they are. What a fabulous piece of industrial history.

We decided to enjoy our delay and headed for the recommended willow tree mooring at The Bavohoeve brasserie. This must be one of the prettiest places we have stopped, although the high winds that arrived later that day did rather cover Calliope with willow fronds!

The mooring is free but one feels obliged to eat there, so we had an extremely pleasant meal, isolated from the next table by big polythene sheets! I hope I did not disgrace myself too much by showing my appreciation of the mussel juice!

We asked to stay a second night, and promised to come up for a drink or two – equally enjoyable. The colours in the morning were glorious across the river, surprisingly with rape in bloom in late September.

It gave us a day in pleasant surroundings and I took a walk in breezy sunlight before a storm brewed up around us, whipping the willow branches around the wheelhouse while we were cosy within.

We had booked back in at Spanjeveer marina for our last few days on the Dorme/Moervaart and cruised up there in the sun before lunch next day. It took all of 5 minutes! We were only just round the bend, so soon tied up.

By the afternoon Storm Odette was spinning towards us alternating sun and squally showers. Captain monitored his ropes carefully as we were in for a night of it!

It absolutely poured with rain all night, and the wind blew noisily all around us. It was still raining in the morning, so a day aboard looked likely and I started the autumn cleaning of all the drawers on the boat.

The geese began their day on the mud at the side of the river, but as the waters rose a foot they climbed up onto the bank and watched from there.

Later the sun surprised us and made an appearance. We were running short of one or two essentials like milk, potatoes and onions, so I cycled off to the closest mini-supermarket at Zaffelare. It was a pleasant 15 ride there, and a pleasant 30 minute ride back, as I got lost!

I came back to the boat to a beautiful evening of racing clouds and happy cattle, back out after sheltering from the storm.

Two lazy days left until we are off to the shipyard. On Sunday Stewart and I walked to the closest village bakery for fresh bread – a country walk, much of it along a footpath between fields. We had plenty of time to do some internal boat cleaning and maintenance, getting ready for the winter shut down.

I was drawn outside again later and found another circular walk around country lanes and wooded tracks. I passed by this lovely little chapel, dedicated to St Bavo.

Our last day here at Spanjeveerbrug was wet again – all day! I discovered during our stay that the word ‘veer’ in Spanjeveerbrug means ferry, and I am not surprised that a ferry was needed here in the past – so much water! Actually the ferry went over the old course of the river, now a fishing lake.

So this is how Monday September 28th 2020 looked for us – weather for cleaning the fridge, cooking windfall pears in spicy wine, and dancing to my favourite Youtube videos. Off to Carron Marine in the morning!

Back to Gent, via Leuven

31st August to 16th September 2020

I have promised myself no more than 5 photos a day this time …. unless it is photos of a town or city that deserves more than five – so let’s get started. (Update; I didn’t quite manage this!)

The last post took us to Mechelen on the Dijle and on the Dijle-Leuven canal. We were on the canal and set off from Mechelen towards Leuven, stopping on the way at a quiet-out-of-the-way mooring next to Silos (very posh) restaurant.

It was a short journey, with only one minor event when one of the doors of a lock would not shut behind us. Luckily the guys were there working on the lock, and after changing a fuse (literally) all came back to life.

The restaurant being a bit expensive for our pocket we walked the kilometre back to the lock to find a bar, passing a roosting cormorant along the way. I liked the fact that our drinks were similar colours, though different size glasses (mine was pineau de charentes).

Back aboard we were treated to yet another ‘skies-on-fire’ Belgian sunset

Our peaceful mooring was only slightly disturbed in the morning by the passing of Marvik – just a gentle sway as she passed by.

After breakfast we were off on the last few kilometres to Leuven – just 15 and 1 lock. Just outside Leuven we passed the old Remy tower, with its newer, but still old, one behind. This is not a testament to cognac but to grain. We had been warned, by Flanders waterways, that we might pass the trials of a model commercial barge – and we did!

Then into Leuven, past the new Stella Artois brewery – photos of the old brewery to come!

Having allowed myself extra photos when in an interesting city, I feel I can add in a few here. Day 1 in Leuven easily used up our 10,000 steps per day. The centre of town was very busy with students arriving for university, queuing up to register, meeting friends and cyclin around finding their accommodation. But we found some quite corners too.

The botanical garden, Kruidtuin, was especially peaceful and beautiful.

On the way back to the boat we found, first, a relatively quiet bar, and secondly an Indian restaurant – not exactly Belgian, but very good. Then back to our mooring in the basin at the end of the canal, with the old Stella Artois brewery being dismantled astern of us.

Stella Artois is inextricably linked to Leuven, after a Mr Artois, head brewer at the Den Hoorne brewery, bought the brewery, changed the name to Artois, and grew from then on to the mega global business that it is today. I visited the brewery shown in these photos back in 1987, and remember well the gate posts topped by the lanterns that became part of the Stella image; all now rather dusty and sad. But the beer tastes good!

Day 2 in Leuven we walked up the wooded hill above the harbour, and then on through the city to the groot (big) beguinhof. For those new to the word beguinhof, they are areas which were created to house beguines – lay religious women who lived in their own community without taking vows or retiring from the world, and often offering shelter to single women and their children who needed safe shelter from the world.

In a way similar to Oxford, Leuven is a University city full of separate colleges, each with their own fabulous old buildings and gateways. I could have filled a blog just with these, but chose instead on building, one gate-way, and students thronging the streets, all correctly wearing their anti-coronavirus masks.

Our beverage intake that evening was in four stages. First we found a bar that I had discovered sold my favourite Kriek beer – aged old red by Petrus. Then we sat beneath the old Stella brewery partaking of the famous brew. Back on board, quietly preparing our evening meal. we were visited by a waitress for the Florida bar that we were moored against. She brought us complementary cocktails and a dish of grilled green mini-peppers! This was a total surprise, so stage four was to go ashore and join the owner of the bar and his friends for a round or two more! I slept well that night.

Next day we left Leuven, but I would happily return and certainly recommend it to visitors, whether by boat or other means. Out we went past the massive new brewery, through misty locks, and on to the zoo. Yes, there is a zoo outside Mechelen and there is a pleasant quiet mooring nearby. If there is anything to unsettle the calm it might be a passing big boat, so the Captain watched carefully as the first one arrived – but virtually no disturbance at all.

The tides were right for us to leave the Leuven-Dijle canal within the next few days so we set off towards the northern end of the canal, stopping for a short visit back to Mechelen as we passed through. Being beginhof and brewery fans we managed to see both – the brewery being the one that brewed the special bottle Stu bought last time we were in town, and the beginhof being what was left of quite a small one. Lunch was a light-bite treat, my hummus on toast looking like a work of art and very ‘leaker’ (tasty).

As a souvenir I bought myself a Mechelen mask – such are these strange times. Then off down, or was it up, the canal we went.

We went to the end of the canal and moored up just before Zennegat lock. What a change; when we came through here on the other direction a week before it was misty, rainy, and generally gloomy. This time we could enjoy the landscape.

Zennegat is where the rivers Dijle and Zenne meet, with the canal beginning right between them at the confluence, with a nature park right alongside as well.

Here is an aerial view (not my photo) showing the Zenne above, canal central and the edge of the Dijle on the right.

The view across to Calliope on my evening promenade

We had a definite plan to just have one night at Zennegat, but two things conspired to change our mind. One was the pure delight of being there. The other, more important, was hearing out of the blue from friends on a Piper boat who we had not seen for almost 6 years when they set off across the Channel and we were going round the Kent coast for our winter in Portsmouth Harbour. Gerald and Janet were arriving at the next day to begin their own cruise down to Leuven.

And arrive they did, mooring up in front us on their new Piper boat Affinity (their third!) – causing us to look a little on the scruffy side!

Our second day at Zennegat was a lovely mixture of time with Affinity crew, and time walking next to all the nature. Leaving their boat, perfectly sober, the wind caught our map and into the canal it fell, quickly followed by the Captain’s reading glasses. The former was recovered and dried; the latter were not.

At 11.45 we slipped our ropes and left our mooring in calm clear waters and skies.

The first obstacle is a pedestrian/cyclists bridge that opens in quite an unusual fashion – very slowly too.

Then into the last of our double-oval locks, this time with a slidey pole for the rope.

We dropped down two or three metres – obviously a variable depth because we were off out onto a tidal river, with the last hour or so of outgoing tide.

And there we were, set loose on the river current.

Well I’m sorry, but the days on the rivers had too much going on for the five photo restriction; I really tried, but you would have missed too much. So here goes..

First we were on the Dijle, but not for long. We soon joined the Rupel, and before long we began to see navigation lights atop tall poles, hinting at the changing tide depth and mudbanks each side.

A further 12 kilometres and we were joining the Zeeschelde, hopefully as the tide started to turn and carry us up towards Ghent.

Initially it seems quite a hard push, and although Calliope’s engine was more than a match for the waters we made relatively slow progress.

Then, as slack water time arrived, we moved faster up this broad river. It was a Sunday so little commercial traffic around – just buoys to mark our channel and ….

…. a few Sunday leisure craft leaving his well in their wake.

We had set off at 1145, expecting to be at our Dender turn-off by around 1600, and knowing that the locks stopped operating at 1800 on a Sunday. So we were very pleased to see this gloomy but welcoming sight – Dendermonde lock – at about 1730. In, up and out, all within about 15 minutes.

We were back on the gentle Dender, where amazingly, and truly, 20 minutes after leaving the lock the sun had come out. There was an initial disappointment – we found the pontoon occupied, but the timber piles just beyond were ready and waiting for us and actually became our preferred place to tie up

Monday was a lovely autumn day. We walked down the old Dender into Dendermonde and found it was market day. In addition to buying one or two essentials we bought yummy hot dogs and sat down by the river to eat them listening to the carillon from the local church.

The evening with Calliope was so peaceful, only ‘disturbed’ by a laden barge gliding by, scarcely ruffling the water as she passed.

Calliope enters the lock cut

We were up and at it earlier than usual the following morning; I had asked the Dendermonde lock keeper the best time to leave and catch the tide up to Ghent, and this meant casting off at 7.45 – when I am normally in bed drinking tea, or asleep!

We were quickly through the lock – at high tide a drop of only 1m – and about to join the Zeeschelde.

It was a mucky start! The water running off the rising guillotine style lock door was full of mud! We were totally splattered!

I did manage to get it quite a bit cleaner as we went along, but closer inspection led to plenty more work once we were in Gent!

It took less than 2 hours to reach Merelbeke lock, whizzing along at up to 14 kph at times and almost twice our normal cruising speed. The voyage was fine though – we passed interesting looking small towns, a few commercial craft from large barges to small ferries, and plenty of countryside. If you get the tides right there is nothing to fear from this trip.

We continued round the Ring Vaart – the waterway ‘ring road’ of Ghent – until we reached the much smaller Brugse Vaart where we had decided to turn off and head into the city – only to discover our progress suddenly arrested by an unmarked mud bank caused, as we found out later, by the wash from the large commercial vessels powering round the corners to Brugge and Ghent Seaport. It wasn’t a big issue though, as the bow wave from the first commercial gave us enough lift to reverse off the bank and back into free water.

This was a new route for us into the city and we looked forward to some new sights. There were plenty of good places for houseboats to moor, many of them old working boats.

One of these was the ….. bridge – an interesting road bridge on a central turn table, with a fixed pedestrian bridge above. Sadly the light was all wrong to get a good photo of this but I hope you get the gist.

Then we came to Tollhuissluis – a lock that was due to close a few days later but we sneaked through beforehand. It’s the first time I have been in a lock with a tram running alongside I think (yes it is there through the trees). And the bollards were set at a deliberate angle that I have not seen before either.

The final approach was through some lovely old docks and a right hand turn down a pretty short canal into Portus Ganda…..

…. and our mooring on Roodtorenkaai.

We stayed for a week in Ghent, getting to know the city much better, partly thanks to our friend Mieke who lives (with husband Frans) on boat their Dreamer in Ghent and is herself and is an official city guide!

So here are just a few images from our stay.

We walked round the city a lot. I have taken so many photos of Ghent on previous visits that these are an odd jumble of images, including one at the Friday Market.

We had a few beers, and a pizza!

We had visitors who, charmingly, arrived by boat and brought their lovely dog Google.

We went to the Open Monument Day at the Abbey St Bavo.

We got more of the Zeeschelde mud off the boat.

We had coffee and Coke.

And we went to watch our friend Bart play in, and ultimately win, a boule tournament.

The mooring was lovely, morning, noon and night and we had glorious weather!

Then woke to a misty morning for our day of departure!

But the sun soon cleared and we were underway with a lovely send-off and a final glance back at the past week’s mooring.

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.