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!

Late August in the region of Antwerp

Canals Bocholt-Herentals, Dessel-Turnhout-Schoten, Albert, Nete (and river Beneden-Nete) and Leuven-Dijle

18th to 31st August 2020

It was a Tuesday when we left the Blauwe Kai area in Limburg region and moved into the Antwerp province. The latter had been having a bit of a coronavirus spike, especially in Antwerp itself, but we felt safe isolated on our barge.

The night before I had called the lock keeper for Mol 1, literally around the corner, some 200 yards away, and stated our intention to set off through his lock next morning. He suggested 6am! I rather balked at that and suggested 9am. This was agreed upon.

There are three Mol locks, (well a Lommel and two Mol), one of them a double, within two and a half kilometres. All three locks were in various stages of dilapidation and requiring modernisation or repair.

And all three lock keepers were lovely, friendly, helpful. It was a glorious morning and a beautiful experience to go down the 11.9m required.

After another kilometre and a half we were in the really huge basin crossroads where the Kanaal Bocholt-Herentals crosses with Kanaal Dessel-Kwaadmechelen to the South and Kanaal Dessel over Turnhout Naar Schoten to the North.

We were taking the latter, adding in an extra Northern loop to use up some spare time. We moved from what felt like the widest to the narrowest of Belgian waterways.

We were not going far – just 5 kms to an area with several mooring options. Along the way we crossed paths with one of the stranger commercial barges – one transporting containers of stinking refuse, driven from the front, and with twin hulls.

We arrived at our planned destination, but no moorings were suitable! And a lift bridge faced us, necessitating a call on the VHF. At the same time we saw our friends’s boat moored at the side where we had thought to stop!

Seeing us they sprang into action and followed us up stream towards Turnhout, both soon following a very slow working barge. Along the way we had close encounters with several commercial barges, including at this bridge where we were commanded to go through first despite the near proximity of the giant the other side!

Through radio conversations we both agreed to phone ahead to Turnhout marina and book a space – except we managed to book different Turnhout marinas! Ours was out in the country where we shared a hammerhead with friends on Dreamer, looking out onto a ‘lake’ in the canal. Theirs was in the centre of town a few kilometres further on.

Many lovely things to say about this place, one being the bar. It was made somehow from half an old barge, with an outside top deck of tables and a cosy inside. Beyond this was a marquee with funky sofas and tables beneath the trees.

On Day Two at Het Gevaer Marina we did two cycle rides – one for shopping in Ravels, and one for a new tap in Turnhout. The latter gave us a glimpse of this rather lovely town, well worth a longer visit.

And the former took me past my first ever strawberry vending machine!

Back in the marina we were once more trying out the bar and it’s beer! This one, Zot, was very refreshing and is, apparently, ‘the one and only town beer of Brugges’, from De Halve Maan brewery.

Day three was the start of a very social period. Two generations of Dreamer’s family arrived and we spent a lovely time with them playing boule, enjoying a barbecue, and lots of happy chat. I managed not to disgrace myself too badly at the boule game.

The evening ended with a sunset display that both Ferre, Mieke’s grandson, and I found irresistible.

The following day we made use of the petrol station round the bend. It was planned in advance that we should arrive and moor up at 10 and wait until a tanker could arrive with our diesel. It was a nicer wait than we expected.

Especially when accompanied by this little beauty.

All was done by 1230 and we had a tank full of fuel at a very decent price.

Back at the marina I found an enjoyable way to update our devices! I could use the marina wifi, sitting downstairs in the bar with a beer and a view.

There was one more evening to enjoy the company of the Dreamer family, then off we went blazing a trail towards Schoten with the expectation that we would be followed.

What a send off!

There were many lift bridges at which to request passage and we made way steadily……

….. until we approached our first lock and were told it was under repair until noon, or 1pm, or maybe 2. So we moored up for a lunch stop. Yes, we moored partly under a bridge; we thought it was just for an hour or so.

But when the lock eventually opened Captain Stu said he felt settled here at Sint-Jozef, Rijkevorsel, and so we stopped for the night. Not long after we were joined by a cruiser going in the opposite direction which foiled our plan of moving away from the bridge. Can be a funny one, mooring under a bridge, but we were fine here.

We took our usual promenade around our surroundings, discovering a few things of which this area is proud. Firstly it’s been a major brick making place, sadly now mostly gone.

Secondly their author, Aster Berkhof, now aged 100, who has published loads of novels over a 70 year period.

Thirdly the village is the site of a major bridgehead in WW2, leading to the liberation of this part of Belgium by British Infantry and Canadian army.

Most old buildings have gone, presumably during the war, but two shrines remain. There is also a hidden blue lake in a sandy wood, which I am guessing was a originally a pit and source of sand for the brickworks.

We were totally spoiled by nature that evening, with this golden sunset.

Then up and ready to continue our journey in the morning. As we cast off at 9.30 the boatman next door ran up asking where we were going. We explained we were going through the lock – and he explained that the locks on this canal don’t operate on a Sunday!

So one more day in Sint-Jozef; we moved the boat forward, in front of them and away from the bridge, (that’s better), and settled down to a day of RnR. A short days’ cruise even by our own high standards …..

Stu – Mention the black tank? No; boats are a floating maintenance schedule, and it was sorted.

I couldn’t resist another walk up to see the lock that we will eventually go through Sluis 1 – which has an amazingly modern office. Much of the quayside has been carefully and interestingly renovated.

Our second evening here had more striking skies to keep an amateur photographer happy for hours!

The evening looked so lovely that I was off again, walking up the canal, passing another reminder of the area’s brickwork history, then through the darkening woods into the back of the village, and ‘home’.

Warning – rather a lot happens over the next two days, so more words than usual; sorry!

Monday morning we were ready to go and moved up to Sluis 1, making contact on the radio as we did so. A charming and friendly female lock keeper came to manage the operation, and it was at this point that we became aware of the work going on along this section of the canal top modernise the locks and bridges – not yet complete! Here, at Sluis 1, she had to carry a heavy box of tricks from end to end and side to side of the lock, plugging it in at each corner to open/close gates and open/close sluices. It took a while.

Many of the locks have these high poles attached to the upstream gates. They allow the Captain of a big working barge to see from his/her wheelhouse if the gates are open or closed – and presumably safe quite a few damaged gates.

At sluis (lock) 2 we waited a while for the lock keeper to set us in motion, and as we left the lock a working barge was waiting behind us for his attention.

When we reached sluis 3 an elderly lock keeper appeared to help us. Through my usual interrogation techniques, initially in Dutch, I discovered that he had been a teacher of English, Greek, Latin, French and Dutch – so we soon landed on a common language to use! I discovered that he was responsible for the nice flowers at the lock, and, as we left, he added conspiratorially that actually his son was the lock keeper, and ‘sshhh’ we must not mention that he has operated the lock! He was a lovely man.

The hold up at Sluis 4 was partly of our own making. We now understood that each lock keeper was responsible for two locks and any associated bridges, (cycling on a Waterways bike between the locks) so equally understood that the lock keeper for locks 4 and 5 was currently down at lock 5 bringing a commercial barge up, while we waited to go down.

Then just as we saw the boat arising before us another commercial, Ibis, appeared behind us. We would not fit in thew lock together so I got into the radio and asked his who would go first, him or us. “Oh thank you”, he replied. “I will go first.” Which meant we were waiting for Ibis to go down two locks, and then for an over-relaxed lock keeper to come back to see us through. It took hours – literally.

Well that was enough for one day; we moored up after lock 5, with the mobile phone number for lock 6 in my pocket.

This was Sint-Job-in-t’Goor, a lovely mooring in both extremes of weather that came upon us.

Off I went for my exercise, finding the calm blues and greens of a canal basin just along the bank.

I also saw more of the special deer ramps built into the banks to allow animals that have fallen in to find somewhere to d ramble out. France could learn from this!

There was information that I don’t entirely understand about tanks, sluices and special camouflaged pill boxes along the bank. I must translate it. Maybe someone can help me?

Evening, night and dawn were all stunning here in Sint-Job-in-t’Goor.

We planned a relatively gentle day to the end of the canal for the following day, stopping just before the last lock, 10, that would take us out onto the canal highway of the Albert Canal. And it began that way, though a bit on the damp side.

We saw plenty more evidence of the works on the locks – quite sad at Sluis 7 where our gentle veteran lock keeper, who had cycled down from Sluis 6, was in conversation with the three young engineers busy with the modernisation that would put him out of a job.

At lock 8 our plans began to fall apart. We were asked our destination for that day, and on saying that it would be before lock 10 we were informed that we could not moor there. Seeing as we had by then passed all other mooring options on the Canal Dessel Turnhout Schoten we had little option but to go on out onto the mighty Albert canal.

We were ok about this. It was easy to be flexible about not mooring at Schoten and set off onto the HUGE Albert Canal. We have been up and down the Rhone, on the tidal Thames, the Canal du Nord. So although it’s not our favourite kind of cruising we were up for the short Albert Canal challenge until we turned off it again.

But we ended up with more than enough excitement for one day. It was still ok when our passage out of the smaller canal was blocked by not one but two giant barges passing by.

I even dealt calmly with VHF to the nearby mega lock, quickly understanding we would be third boat into the largest (I mean l-a-r-g-e) lock and so we moored up to wait.

Then customs, on a boat called Nele, sprang out of hiding and asked for our papers and passports – but as these are all in order and always ready we were still ok. Nice chap, had a good laugh about bureaucracy and wearing a mask in the middle of no-where – which neither of us were …..

But sharing that l-a-r-g-e, d-e-e-p lock with four 80m barges – two strapped together and pushed by a pusher – was not quite so easy. No floating bollards, only bollards in the wall, spaced out so that we could only use one at the bow, and with all the big barges using their propellers to hold their place, so turbulence everywhere.

Initially I was unable to get a bow rope round the intended bollard in the wall, so we had to go further forward to the next mooring position and therefore unpleasantly close to the huge churning screws of Sinbad. No problem though as the skipper drove against my bow rope until the slack time during the lock fill, about half way up, when everyone cuts their engines to move their ropes up to the next level of bollards in the wall.

It took a little bit of doing and manoeuvring, but with Stu in charge of putting the bow where I needed it to be we calmly moved up the required notch. And as the lock filled, and the doors opened, we all steamed out in orderly procession, waving goodbye as we went. All’s well that ends well.

We’ve done a few tough locks by now as regular readers of my beautiful crew’s blogs will know and, though that was one to remember, if you keep your whits about you they’re all do-able.

The next stretch of the Albert Canal was actually quite pleasant, and included passing a floating church!

Soon we were at our turn off onto the Netecanal. Ah, the relative smallness and calmness; wonderful. Ah, agreed, wonderful.

We had various mooring options along here – or thought we did until we looked at each. Gradually we ticked them off as not quite right, taking us closer and closer to friends on Dreamer – and ended up tying up in front of them at Lier.

We had a good chat about the incoming storm that was causing them to spend an extra night at Lier, said hello to Google the dog, then checked and added to mooring lines, battened down hatches, ate and went to bed. It had been quite a day.

Next day became gradually calmer and was full of shopping, cooking and entertaining. Mieke and Frans came for an English supper of stew and dumplings. It’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.

Next day Dreamer set sail towards home and we began our exploration of Lier. There is so much to see in the small town and I begin with some of the old buildings including the peaceful lanes of the Beguinage.

We walked through to the Grote Markt and found the tourist office in the grand surroundings of the town Hall.

There was also a good lunch moment when we found the long sought croque madame for the captain at the café in the square. (3 years – only saying ..)

In the afternoon we visited one of the most intriguing small museums I have ever found. It was all about Mr Zimmer and the amazing clocks he created, the Jubilee clock and the Wonder clock. I cannot begin to do them justice here; I just suggest you google them and read for yourself.

Then there was the Prisoners Gate …

…  and the tributaries of the river running through the town. Lier is called the little Brugges and I am not surprised.

After all this sightseeing we were pleased to escape into calm of the park. There are quite a few Fountains around town so I have added one more in here, plus a giant red dog statue that caught our eye.

I expect you have been wondering why the people of this region are called ‘sheep heads’! Well it turns out that after helping duke to fight a war against another town they were offered either a university or a livestock market. They chose the latter and have been called ‘sheep heads’ ever since.

Just one more thing about Lier before we leave and that is the famous cake. I regret it is not my favourite of the regional Belgian cakes, although the sweet spicy taste would be good with hot custard I think.

After a good nights sleep it was our turn to proceed down the Netecanal, through Duffel lock and onto the tidal River. The lock has double doors each end to cope with the tidal changes.

As we motored downstream with the outgoing tide the skies began to blacken.

We were looking for our turning to port onto the Dijle river and eventually saw the small entrance we must go through. It looked as if we might turn away from the rain clouds, but that was not to be.

We came up to Zennegat lock with a warning from the lock keeper not to get too close to the gates until all the water had come out and then moved into a very strangely shaped lock just as the first patters of rain began to fall.

The lock had a double oval shape and was interesting, to say the least, in terms of places to moor a 20 meter barge! But there’s always a Calliope crew found a way to safely negotiate our way through.

The rain began to fall in earnest as we came up to the next lock and through various bridges. Thank goodness for my mothers old sailing wellies that I had on board. And thank goodness I like sloshing around in the water.

We came into Mechelen wondering if there would be space where we wanted to tie up, as is often the case.

Then we found a surprisingly peaceful place along the canal in a residential area. (It was less peaceful next morning at seven when builders recommenced work on a building site alongside!)

The rain stopped, the Sun found a way through the trees, and a rainbow found a way through the clouds. This is going to be an attractive mooring.

Saturday is market day in Mechelen and Saturday was the grey day we woke up to. We set off to the market taking a look at parts of the town along the way. The market was being run in a good coronavirus fashion with masks required, hand sanitiser at every entry point, a one-way system, and distancing of 1.5 m. Everyone is used to it now and it works well. The market is a good one with some excellent food stalls and we came away with some goodies to keep us going several days.

After a bit of lunch out in town, when you can in-mask, we retired to the boat promising ourselves a better look at the place next day.

As so often happens the skies and reflections along the canal were breathtaking.

The better weather attracted me back outside for a final evening walk along the canal. As I turned into the city to walk back along the streets I caught the splendid sight of the lit up Brusselpoorte gate into town.

We chose Sunday as our main ‘Explore Mechelen’ day, knowing there would be less people around. It was a joy – quiet historic streets, and a few interesting modern settings too.

Another park and another bridge for me to stand on.

And another opportunity for me to lose my mask – I don’t think I’ve mentioned how often I drop it! Poor Stewart waiting yet again for me to go searching. Ah, there it is!

We also found the remains of a complex of 7 water mills and sluices, now mostly gone, but the sense of industry past is still there.

We were close to the end of our first visit to Mechelen, planning to return when we came back up this dead end canal.  It a few more pleasures were in store – all gastronomic!

Stu bought a special souvenir beer from a new friend, Pete, we had made. He runs the solar powered boat that takes passengers up and down the canal.

The beer is made in the local brewery and is 10% ABV. (We stopped and bought some more from the brewery on our way back – Anker Brewery). It took a adjustable wrench to get the cork out the bottle, but the ensuing beer was well worth the effort.

And we had egg, chips, beans and Mechelen meatballs for supper – with HP sauce. The meatballs had been bought in the market the day before, after we were offered a taste and given half of one each free! They are delicious – a mix of pork and beef, crispy in the outside and tender and moist in the middle. Yum!

So good night Mechelen – and tomorrow will take us to the very edge of the Antwerp province.

And so at 1015 on Monday 31st August – the 33rd anniversary of us meeting – we went off under the double Plaicancebrugge bridges at Mechelen and into our next province – Vlaams Brabant.

Voyaging on through Eastern Limburg

Albertkanaal (a little), Kanaal Briegden-Neerharen, some of Zuidwillemsvaart and Kanaal Borcholt-Herentals, plus Kanaal de Beverlo

8th to 17th August 2020

Up we came through Visé lock and back onto the Albert Kanaal, with El Perro Negro not far behind. It was a boiling hot day – well up to 36C – and part of a 10 day long heatwave. I never thought that cruising in Belgium would be as hot as the Canal du Midi!

I was just as surprised by the landscape surrounding the canal. We were up in Belgium’s hill country; it’s not as flat as one expects.

An hour after casting off we were passing the massive locks down towards Maastricht. This was not for us in 2020; coronavirus put paid to our plans for a summer in the Netherlands, with 2 weeks quarantine in either direction across this border.

Cruising on between the hills – almost mountains in Belgian terms – I became aware just how close to the Netherlands border we were – it was just over the hill to our right!

I have complemented the Belgian’s on their bridge building in the past, and here is another interesting one. Yes, it is rather straight and flat, but built into its left side support is a very modern restaurant, with a balcony looking out over the water. Here is my day time photo, and the much more atmospheric architect’s night time one.

Not long after this we moved on to our next Limburgen canal – the little Canal from Briegden to Neerharen, a mere 4.5kms long, with two deep locks. The junction of this canal with the continuation of the larger Albert Kanaal was at a big widening of the canal, offering us a choice of left or right forks.

We chose to go right, entering a much narrower world, and a rural wait at the first lock while the lock keeper who managed the whole stretch brought a commercial barge up from the other end.

Before too long we, with El Perro Negro, were moving into the lock, and discovering that it was quite a long way down, and not an easy ride. I was unable le to move my mooring rope down the bollards in the wall as normal, and Calliope’s bow swung over to the other side of the lock. Luckily I could connect with a bollard there and we moved on down diagonally across the lock!

We chose to moor up for the night above the next lock, just a kilometre or so further along. It was a pleasantly quiet place, with a metal grid pontoon holding a surprise.

A pair of coots had built their best on one of the wooden supports to the pontoon, directly below the metal grid, which was extremely hot to the touch in the 36 degree heat. And the eggs began to hatch – here is one little coot with mum, while expectant dad swims about nervously.

And who else was swimming, although not nervously? I did have a purpose this time, to try to look at the bow thruster which might have stuff caught in it – but I really needed a mask for that, and anyway it all worked fine next time we used it.

As the evening rolled we enjoyed yet another hour or two on the back deck watching the sky turn pink and the wine glasses empty.

Sunday morning was cloudy, though still warm. I went off early, for me, to buy bread from a supermarket a kilometre up the canal. It deliciously began to rain as I went – that summer rain with big splats throwing up dust, and like a cooling shower after all the hot weather. But by the time I got back it had stopped. And in the meantime the Captain had been finishing repairs to the mast.

With supplies in place and repairs complete it was decided that we would move on that afternoon – not far, but to explore Eisden. This necessitated going down the deep Neerharen lock, but this time we had spotted the wires set into inlets down the wall and, being the only boat in the lock, we could position ourselves to use these bow and stern. An easy peasy glide down was achieved!

Within half a kilometre we had joined the Zuid-Willemsvaart at a wide, open junction.

And soon we were going through a series of beautifully labelled bridges, each with its kilometre marking too!

Eisden is an interesting place. It’s history is mega-coalmining, with a patriarchal system providing decent homes, gardens and environment for the miners – and grand houses and offices for the owners!

Most of the industrial side has now gone, but two mine shafts remain and a hotel now occupies the main administrative building.

A modern outlet shopping village, apparently similar to Vista near Oxford, has been built and is impressive in its layout and shops – although I am not a shopper and just did a quick walk through!

There is a small mining museum in the town but only open at weekends so it did not coincide with our visit. However it was still a pleasant walk into the town with its leafy roads.

Other areas were down as wild flower meadows – altogether a well managed place.

There seemed to have been a ‘decorate your own oil drum’ festival with lots of interesting variations along the streets. One was a robot, another a cocktail bar; this one had a ballet dancing theme.

The temperature was still way up in the high 30s during our time at Eisden. The visiting swans looked so cool I took a leaf from their book.

After two nights in Eisden we moved on to a village called Tongerlo where we hoped a) to fill up with water, and b) to have a beer in the bar next to the mooring.

Neither were to be. The water tap was set way back from the pontoon to service camper vans and our hose was too short! And the weather was so hot that the bar was closing from 1300 to 1900 each day, so our thoughts of beer before our 7pm supper time were dashed!

That evening the weather broke and I had another excuse to get drenched, crawling on the roof to get the canvas cover back onto the dog box. For me such moments are real fun. Yes, I’m weird!

After the rain I took a quick walk round the village. Then I want to nice older buildings amongst the more modern homes. And also a welcoming Muscovy duck!

We had heard of a nice peaceful morning not far away near Bochult lock, so in the morning we set off to find it. Our friends on Dreamer were still there and we tied up behind them with our back deck facing this tranquil scene.

There were a couple of interesting things in the immediate area. One was a bailey bridge, still standing 75 years after WW2. We heard the rumble of traffic across the bridge from time to time, but sometimes it turned out to be thunder!

Next day Dreamer set off under the bridge and we waved goodbye to our friends Mieke and Frans, and their dog Google.

Later we cycled over the bridge and into Bochult town for a re-provisioning trip.

The trip took us to the far side of the canal (I always think of Gary Larson when I type those last three words); this gives a good perspective of the mooring.

I’m going to interject a technical note here because I was so impressed by it! Apparently it’s not at all unique, but a first for me. At the side of the lock was a sluis allowing all extra water to whoosh through, with all accompanying debris caught on a grid – except that this machine periodically scoops it up and puts it into the adjacent skip! Love it!

The peace and quiet, day and night, (apart from the occasional passing cycling team or commercial barge), was so delightful we stayed three nights.

Despite the (continuing) heat we went for a good walk up the canal bank, mostly in the shade. Stu caught me wondering which way to go.

We worked it out – it was to the local ice cream/ bar with friends from another boat for a socially distanced beer! This being Limburg, home of Kriek cherry beer, I had yet another of those.

Next morning it was our turn to go under the Bailey bridge and on along the straight misty canal.

Three things caught my attention as we cruised gently along. All along these canals near the Netherlands border are ‘pill box’ type buildings with slits for guns to guard the canals during the war. On a lighter note we’re the graffiti style artwork under each bridge, and the way the bridges are named.

And thirdly I was taken with the Captain’s comment about these birds – “geese taking a gander.”

We had more than half a plan to get to Blauwe Kai, a big basin at the top of the Beverlo canal, and moor up with El Perro Negro, but 5 kilometres beforehand and right on lunchtime we saw other friends on Dreamer in a neat little cutting, looking very rural. Frans came out and immediately started his engine to move up and make room for us! It’s the power of WOB (Women on Barges) friendships that does it.

After a bit of jiggling we were moored behind them and a plan for drinks at 5pm emerged. Before that we had a walk in the woods, which turned out to be a big Centre Parcs site too.

A lovely evening was had by all, even if a rainstorm brought our planned al fresco drinks into the wheelhouse. It culminated, for me, with a dusk time walk and dance along the canal a kilometre or so; altogether a wonderful evening,

The next morning had shrugged off last nights rain and together we and Dreamer set off to Blauwe Kai, just 5 kms on. This is the name of the big basin where Beverlo joins Bocholt-Herentals. It’s name derives from the algae in the water here which apparently can produce rashes and diarrhoea! No swimming for me here then,

The first thing for Calliope was to fill up with fresh water, tying up behind fellow Piper boat on the water pontoon.

While Stu managed the water loading I cycled off to find bread – initially along the wrong road! The heat had returned and I was a bit tired when I returned, exaggerated by finding my boat and Captain had disappeared!

But all was well. On questioning a nearby fisherman I discovered that he had had to move off the water pontoon and was now ‘round the corner’ at the top of the Beverlo Canal. I climbed the bridge – another Bailey – in time to see a long commercial barge carefully negotiating first the bridge and then Calliope!

We liked this mooring, just tucked into the top of the canal. Passing working barges were moving very slowly because if the bridge and we were hardly stirred, let alone shaken.

In the afternoon we went for a walk between two big lakes and back along the canal.

The sun was behind us on the last stretch and I found a new use for my super sun hat, this time as a shoulder protector!

That evening we went for a good rib supper with El Perro Negro crew (quite the socialites these days) at the local restaurant, with the obligatory beer course first! It had been raining but the large parasol was not required that evening.

We awoke to our last day/s in Limberg. The plan was a cruise down the 15kms of the Beverlo canal and moor in Leopoldsburg for a day or two. It is mostly a very pretty canal, a gentle journey.

Some work was being done to improve the edges and banks just after we began – cheerful workman with his crane.

There are interesting bits – for example the lift bridge that has yellow ‘hard hats’ on its four supports!

And we found the huge industrial quays where the commercial barges had been heading.

When we reached Leopolodsburg a helpful harbourmaster came to see if he had space for or almost 20m boat, but all the spaces were 15m so Stu performed a perfect 9 point turn in the basin at the end of the canal and we began our return journey. I was so busy looking for a mooring that I didn’t take any photos!

But I got a couple of a Bailey bridge with Bailey style wooden supports, which was pleasing.

After a few kilometres we decided to moor up for lunch at a spot that said no anchoring but had posts for mooring.

It was a nice spot for lunch and we were considering staying there for the night. There were water lilies everywhere, dragonflies and flowers.

Our plans were foiled when a Flanders Waterways man appeared to let us know we must not moor there …… so we cast off and retrod our watery steps to the top of the canal where we began, passing by the places constructed for deer to climb back out of the canal and the mix of rural and industrial areas.

It was our last evening in Limburg. While Stu took to the galley I took a walk round the Blauwe Kai basin and down by the first two Mol locks that we would go through the next day.

Then we settled down to a peaceful evening and a good nights sleep in preparation for our departure from Limburg and entry into the region of Antwerp.

.

From Blaton to Namur; a journey of 3 canals

22 – 27 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boats went by.

Fisherman (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) came and went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the lock had an industrial beauty that evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The happy captain playing games – can you spot him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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