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)

Late summer in Belgium part 1

July 28 to August 5th 2021

If you have been following the Calliope blog you will know that we were stuck in the UK well past our normal April return to the boat, and when the usual cruising season begins. At first we more concerned about the Brexit effect than anything Covid related, wondering how we could spend 6 months in Belgium and/or the Netherlands when neither country was offering a visa other than the 90 day Schengen one.

In the end it became immaterial because the spread of Covid-19 in the UK and in the EU meant that borders kept closing, requirements for tests and quarantine both sides of the channel kept changing, and overall we took several months to find a gap in the pandemic that fitted with other (UK) demands on our time.

So it was not until July 28th that we excitedly set forth for Dover and the ferry to Calais. The journey there was most remarkable for its speed and ease – it seems that many potential holiday makers were still being prudent and taking ‘stay-cations’ in 2021.

Our double vaccination certificates, passports and ferry ticket got us past all the possible hold ups at the Port of Dover. We didn’t even have to empty the car and prove we had no meat or dairy products with us. Good law abiding us; we had only brought what was permitted food wise, plus a few spare parts for the boat and a new toaster.

Coming into Calais

The crossing was in a force 5 to 6 south westerly and could have been a little rough, but the ferry ploughed through it nobly and quickly. It was sufficiently smooth to enjoy the complementary meal that DFDS were giving to the few non-freight passengers. And we were reminded of one of the benefits of Brexit (of which we are not great fans overall) – duty free shop! We were so amazed at the prices that we bought Kraken rum, Zubrowka vodka, gin and Bacardi, plus some wine. That should keep me going until Christmas – unless we have visitors aboard, which would be very nice.

The run from Calais to Kortrijk was also uneventful, apart from the joy of coming back into Kortrijk, recognising familiar places, and before too long looking down at our boat from the footbridge over the river.

Hooray! Back where we belong!!!!

Now we just have to find pleasant ways to get through the 10 days of quarantine and the two necessary PCR Covid tests before we are free to cruise on our merry way.

(I didn’t mean that ➡️ kind of ‘merry’! That was just evening one relaxation)

One of the main tasks is to give Calliope a good clean – just outside because inside was as sweet smelling, clean and dry as when we left her the previous October. But the outside was somewhat grubby after an autumn/winter/spring of leaves, blossom, dust and birds. And the geraniums and herbs left on board in the lee of the wheelhouse had definitely succumbed to the weeds!

Plenty to do!!

And so quarantine begins with the chimney skyline opposite, down to Broel towers -a view that I have come to love.

Day 2 – walk two miles to get tested and take opportunity to ‘escape’ quarantine a bit longer by having a baguette by the river on the way back both tested negative – phew! Later there was food shopping to do (yes, it is allowed). This meant passing the bridge at the end of the port that we must revers under soon, and the first lock of the Kortrijk-Bossuit canal that we will go through soon.

The Captain turned shipwright, plumber and electrician later, fixing a new sensor to the freshwater tank (so that the guage reads correctly to show how much we have left) and replacing the electrical connector that was broken during the fallen tree episode last winter.

Despite having bought enough food earlier to make several meals, we collapsed into our first ever experience of Deliveroo, ordering pizza and salad from our favourite Pizza Cotti restaurant in Kortrijk, and being slightly amazed when it actually turned up – albeit on the bank opposite!

Luckily there is a footbridge within 25m, in the centre of which I met the delivery man with arms outstretched, at a quarantine distance!

Day 3 – the start of the clean up, with the aim of getting rid of all the main dirt and then we can do a second ‘shiny’ clean later. Made a good start – just look at the difference, mainly from the Captain taking mop and bucket to the cabin roof and deck.

I made a start on the canvas wheelhouse roof and dog box covers, and cleaned up the PV panels for maximum electricity generation – when the sun shines!

There are various things apart from cleaning Calliope to keep us amused. One of the most endearing is watching the various birds and their antics. We feed them occasionally so they come looking for food every day – not the grebes of course. We don’t have any fish for them!

The rain came to wash off more of the dust and dirt as I had hoped, and left us with an evening of gleaming roofs on the Broel towers and St Michael’s church towers in the background.

Day 4 – we needed for milk and bread and it was Sunday. The only local supermarket open on a Sunday is the Carrefour across the main river so we set off for essential supplies.

Here we are mid stream.

The rest of the day we spent dodging rain showers, cleaning windows, adding a neat white stripe along the hull, playing patience and learning Dutch.

Always plenty to do!

Overnight there was more rain; always a comforting soothing sound to be tucked warm and dry up on your Piper with the rain drumming on the cabin roof! But we did want to do more outside work on the boat next day so …..

…. Day 5 – pleased to see this through the kitchen hatch when I got up in the morning!

The boat cleaning and maintenance continued . It’s surprising all the nooks and crannies that collect dirt, sycamore seeds, algae and spider webs during the winter. And the movement of the boat always takes its toll on the paintwork. Luckily we gave everything a good clean before we left last October so inside and out it is all manageable. And keeps us occupied during quarantine!

Day 6 – we had been warned that we would need to move Calliope before 0830 so that we were not splattered when the pontoon was jet washed.

I was still in bed drinking tea when I heard the early rising Captain out starting to untie ropes, so I thought I’d better get up, dressed. and on duty on deck.

I was just in time! You can see in the photo the difference between the new section of pontoon, and the section waiting to be cleaned up.

Then onto a wonderful moment – casting off and feeling Calliope move beneath us again!

Here we go – all of 300 yards astern down the Leie! We were aiming for the mooring belonging to Pavot and our friends Martin and Sally – they were away cruising in France. And it wasn’t long before we were tied up there.

We have temporarily borrowed Pavot’s mooring before – it’s nice to be among the trees.

And we get a different view from this mooring – we can see the big Commercial barges go past the end of this arm of the Leie, and prepare for the bow wave to move down the channel towards us.

One sees many aspects of nature from the barge – all of it interesting even if commonplace.

This, I think, a Speckled Wood butterfly that came to visit on the wheelhouse.

The bow waves cause wonderful distortions of the reflections in the water – a mixture of Dali and Monet!!

We could se the pressure washing procedure taking place back where we had been moored, and by mid afternoon all was clean and clear for us to return – our second cruise of the day!!

And still officially in quarantine!

That was enough excitement for one day, apart from the phone calls from Brussels Covid quarantine checkers to ensure we were on track for our second PCR test the next day – after which, I was told, my case would be closed!

But still plenty of time to continue with the maintenance tasks, and removing some more spiders.

Day 7 – a day of hope! We went and collected the car to drive to the Laboratory for our second test, and were met again by friendly staff who helped us with form filling and soon had us back out in the fresh air. We used the car to collect a few things from the Brico (DIY store) and a stock up on food and wine before back to the boat for lunch and to await our results.

It isn’t long after that another Piper boat chugged into view and to moor behind us. We had been expecting Happy Chance and although we had not met her crew before we were delighted too say hello and arrange for a meeting over beer that evening.

The plan was to go to our favourite bar in the park (as long as our negative results came through) but just as we were about to set forth the rain came down so we all settled down on Calliope instead.

After some beer, wine and nibbles we all knew each other quite well! But Stu and I had planned supper out so it was time for a temporary parting of the ways.

We set off to one of our favourite Kortrijk casual dining experiences – Pitta Pyramid – Egyptian food from a lovely friendly little restaurant where the owner always amazes us by remembering us! We definitely filled ourselves up here and waddled back to the boat. Our last night in town for a while passed very pleasantly.

Day 8 – We had initially hoped to leaver Kortrijk on the 10am lock up from the river Leie into the Bossuit – Kortrijk canal. But it was already booked, so we slipped down to the 2pm lock. This meant we had a few extra hours before we left.

Kortrijk has a summer of art installations across the city and we managed to see a few as we sped round the centre (on foot) buying a new Ships Log, beer replacements, and looking for a new chopping board (failed on that last one!). Then time for a coffee with new friends on Happy Chance before lunch and …. we are off!!!!

First lock of the 2021 voyage – Sluis 11 Bossuit – Kortrijk canal. Photo credit to Happy Chance crew.

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!