During the 5 month winter season we made two trips out to check on Calliope – and to enjoy the city of Kortrijk too. The first trip was in December. We had thoughts of enjoying a Christmas Market and buying some unusual presents for all and sundry – that bit didn’t quite work out but we had an enjoyable few days just the same.
The ferry trip and road journey was uneventful and we arrived in Kortrijk with enough daylight to see that the pontoon and Calliope’s deck were nestling under a blanket of leaves; Autumn had visited during our absence! Sweeping to be done.
It was quite cold and wintery outside, but down below, the the stove going, a cup of tea and a hot water bottle I soon felt snug. I love being aboard in winter; she’s such a warm boat to live on.
Once I started clearing off the leaves it became apparent that quite a lot of dust and grit had arrived with the foliage – hmmmm, extra cleaning tools required! But there was an artistic element to the affair – the leaves had left stencilled imprints across the roof, some worthy of photography.
Our few days in Kortrijk gave time to see the Christmas illuminations – very pretty, and here are just a few. The Broel Towers and the covered ice rink in the Grote Markt with its guardian reindeer were especially lovely.
Disappointinglythe 2019 Christmas Market was a lot smaller than normal, and in a large marquee. However the atmosphere within the marquee was good, with gluwein abundantly available, and music, dancing, food and gifts happening too.
We had a chance to catch up with some boating friends up and down the pontoon, hearing about the weather we had missed and the weather still to come. It’s good to know that friends are keeping an eye on your boat while you are away.
The best three boat watchers for us are Martin and Sally on the permanent mooring behind us, and Peter whose barge is moored ’round the corner’ on the canal. Not every day was gloomy; I took a sunny opportunity to catch a photo of Martin and Sally’s boat just 50 yards away.
They invited us, and Peter, to lunch aboard one day – a wonderful lunch that started at 1pm and had us staggering home at 2100. We started our Christmas celebrations early!
And then it was time to set off home. We had a beautiful calm ferry crossing, with one great excitement when we spotted whales off the starboard bow! (No photo to prove it – sorry.)
Back in Gosport we were soon into full swing for Christmas decorations, card writing, present wrapping, and general family fun – no time at all to miss Calliope.
The February Trip – servicing
The main reason for the timing of this trip was to coincide with our good friends Ian and Nicky travelling north from their barge in Auxonne to spend a few days with us. It was so good to spend a few days with them, rather then the usual few hours.
And on top of that, Ian is a time served marine engineer, willing and more than able to help Stewart service the boat engine, advise on other maintenance issues, and problem solve a couple of niggly bits! [Ian has now set up a small business servicing and repairing boat engines in France and England – send me a message if you want his details – he is good!]
We left our winter ‘mooring’ in Gosport with the sun rising golden above Portsmouth. I must explain that our winter ‘mooring’ is tethered to the ground – a house – but at least it looks out over water!
Captain and crew (or Communications Officer as I am apparently to be known) arrived a couple of days ahead – long enough to warm up Calliope, get some provisions aboard, and become reacquainted with this lovely city.
Once Nicky and Ian arrived, with dogs Freddy and Milly, the fun could begin in earnest. Evening one was a short introduction to Kortrijk, it’s local beer (Omer) and our favourite bar by the station – followed by an enormous meal of ribs and frites!
A fair amount of Belgian beer had been sampled before we slightly staggered home.
Next day had to begin with work for the engineers. Luckily Nicky and I don’t fall into that category so we took the dogs for a walk along the river, and then headed into town for a look round – a good mix of history and food.
By late afternoon the mechanical stuff was done – engine oil changed, gear box oil changed, filters replaced, tensions checked, rudder stock greased, engine mountings tightened, and a needy home found for a spare nut found on the floor! At last the marine-engineer-in-chief was free to join in the Kortrijk walk-about.
We did walk along the river, stare at some of the beautiful old buildings, read some of the history, and listen to the carillon on the Groot Markt. But the weather was miserable, so after some shopping to buy chocolates for the family (funny how much tasting one has to do) we retired to a waffle shop with the unlikely name of Lord Nelson!
As always I went OTT with my waffle, this time covered in really good fresh fruit, with a side of advocaat custard to pour on top – het was lekker! (Ah, my Dutch lessons are paying off at last).
Back to Calliope and the Captain, who had remained on board. It was time for a glass of wine while we waited to eat the massive and delicious lasagne that Nicky had brought with her.
Milly was official observer.
Sunday, another grey day, allowed time for a couple of niggles to be problem solved – a radiator not keen on heating up, and a light that had stopped coming on (no, not needing a new lamp!) Super hero Ian sorted both of these while Nicky and I walked the dogs and bought bread and sausages before a giant English/Belgian fry up brunch. Mmmmm!
More walking was required to make room for the planned evening meal – pizza at our favourite Kortrijk pizzeria. Thanks Nicky for the photo.
Next day our guests were due to leave. But it was Monday, market day, so we walked round all the stalls before they left. I bought new white asparagus for a risotto later, and further chocolate purchases were made too. Then it was time to wave them all good-bye.
The weather had not being very kind over these few days, but soon after Ian and Nicky departed the sun came out and blue skies prevailed. Looking up and down the river Leie form the boat all was calm and beautiful, for a while.
And then hail blasted down, making a right racket on the roof and turning the pontoon slippery with ice. Winter still had a grip on Kortrijk, but all was to carry on warm and welcoming below.
That afternoon Sally, Martin and Peter, three friends from other barges, came round for a catch-up-chat and cup of tea, which became a glass of wine, and slid imperceptibly into more wine, asparagus and parmesan risotto, and the remains of tiramisu and rijstaart from the days before; more good times with friends.
Stu and I were left with one last day to tidy up and pack up before we were making the return journey to the UK. The servicing of the engine had identified a few things we needed to buy – anti freeze, some spare fuses, filler – so we walked a couple of kilometres to Plan-It, a DIY store. The walk back was less fun. Why didn’t I realise how much a 5L container of anti freeze would weigh?
But it gave us an excuse to stop along the way for lunch in our second favourite fritteur, by the station. And this was the first of four days of fish and chips for me!
Back aboard we settled down to enjoy our last evening and night on Calliope for a few weeks. In the morning we packed the car and by 9.30 we were on the road to Dunkirk and our ferry.
The ferry was a bit late, but once aboard we grabbed our favourite seat in the restaurant and I soon had my second plate of fish and chips before me – actually the best fish and batter off the four days.
Exploring the ship I discovered that one area had recently been refurbished and now housed a pizza and pasta café. Of course it was too late for our meal for this trip, but definitely one to try out in future.
The other discovery was a secret corner to sit in, with big comfy chairs, and a round window through which to view the channel.
So here to finish this min-trip are a series of ‘through the round window’ images.
And now we are back home, waiting and planning for a few weeks before the 2020 voyage towards The Netherlands begins, with a ‘bottom-blacking’ experience booked into a boatyard near Gent beforehand. This will be a whole new country experience for us – new lock and bridge systems, mooring rules, and finding our way around shops, bars and restaurants. Bring it on!
The eighth of September dawned brightly, if a bit chilly – then turned black as clouds rolled in. Autumn is suddenly upon us. It is only two weeks since the temperature was in the thirties and I was off swimming with the family.
Looking at the sky I wasn’t sure of I could get to the bakers and back before an unwanted shower, but I made it!
We set off from our second free Brugges mooring, next to the wonderful modern Scheepdalebrug bridge, and immediately went under another great bridge, but this time an old railway one. Actually the photo is deceptive because there is a new railway bridge behind the old one and the train, of course, runs on the latest one!
Calliope and crew were now on the Brugges – Oostende canal. The voyage on day one was pleasant; the canal is broad and clean, with an avenue of trees and long stretched off views across the lowlands of Belgium.
We discovered yet an other interesting bridge at Nieuwegebrug these Belgians are superb at bridge design.
There was plenty of activity on the canal that Sunday; it seems there had been a boat rally at Ostende, because we passed convoys of cruisers making their way back to Brugges Yacht Club, all very jolly!
There were partial plans afoot to moor up for the night near Jabbeke. It had been recommended, and had obviously also been recommended to others as it was full up when we drew near.
But in fact this ended up being to our advantage as we arrived at Plassendale lock, expecting it to be a bit of a dodgy mooring, and found a delightful place to pass the afternoon and night.
It was an interesting area, with old buildings, an unusual large lock basin onto the Plassendale to Nieuwpoort canal, seemingly with sea lock style lock gates to protect against his tides along the coast.
But we had to rush back when darkening skies reminded us we had left all hatches open on Calliope!
It happened to be Monument Day in the area, and we were moored right next to a site that had been a Spanish fort, built in the 1600s. Later it had been used by the British and, I think, the French and the Belgians. An enthusiast has bought part of the site, with two old original buildings, and has a four year project to renovate them.
In the meantime he shows people round and runs a funky little outside bar/café, protected from sun and rain by sails strung above the tables. We enjoyed rijstart and beer, not at the same time, and had a good walk around the area to better understand the history.
The café was selling rijs tarte – a new Belgian favourite of mine and Stu’s – a sort of version of cold creamy rice pudding in a crisp pastry shell. We were good and instead of a calorie laden piece each we shared a portion. YUM YUM!
And before I added Kriek cherry beer to my misdemeanours of the day there was another short walk for us both, with posey Miss LJ out on the old swing bridge that used to cross in front of he lock.
The view out across the canal and the adjacent smooth farmland was peaceful; evening was so quiet, with big skies glowing pinky gold and twilight blue.
On Monday we were awoken by the swish of a passing commercial barge – nothing uncomfortable – and then, after breakfast, we phoned the lock to ask to pass through and on our way towards Neiuwpoort.
It is an interesting lock, currently open with water levels the same each side, but with road bridges each end to be opened for our passage. The lock chamber is big and sort of rounded, with two sets of white painted lock doors at one end.
So out onto the Plassendale – Nieuwpoort canal with stretching views across pastureland and nature reserves towards Ostende and the North Sea.
It was just a few kilometres to Oudenburg where we had heard of a free pontoon mooring with water and electricity available. As we drew close we could see that there were 7 boats filling the 80ms available, but as we arrived two of the boats left! Hooray.
We sneaked in at the front of the row, right next to the water tap.
We just keep finding such calm untroubled moorings this year. Here the water was silken and reflective, with acres of green across on the other bank. OK, so there was a road quite close to us, but that was quiet at night, and only the occasional cyclist or horticulturalist (see later) came close to us.
Odenburg is a small town with history from Roman times, a good supermarket, at least one excellent baker and a variety fo shops, bars etc. Definitely a good place for boaters to stop, as the neat pontoon genuinely does provide free water and electricity (10v).
Lunch was a bit delayed because when I got back with the daily bread I found Stewart in the middle of an inspection with the Flemish Waterway Authority – all very pleasant and helpful. Our papers were in order and although we had no oar for secondary propulsion (!) our bow thruster counted. Phew! We just had new activators to buy for our lifejackets, as the current ones had sneakily become out of date; we definitely have not had them for 5 years!
In the afternoon we went exploring. There is an interestingly laid out park next to the Roman museum. The shrubs are placed to define the areas of an earlier abbey, and good notice boards (unfortunately in Flemish) explain where you are and what was there in days past.
Once back on board we were twice visited by locals offering to sell us produce from their gardens. The first arrived by bike and sold us potatoes, jam and eggs, then gave us some tomatoes too.
The second lived just along the canal path and offered eggs and rhubarb. Of course I already had eggs, but rhubarb …..! I went back with him to his absolute jungle of a garden and veg plot. He cut the rhubarb and then offered me a look around his ‘biologique’ garden. He pointed out, and I tasted, lots of leaves and flowers – he is a real forager. His ‘greenhouse’ is jammed with tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes etc and his garden is a dense mass of fruit trees – quince, apple, mulberry, pear, plum, cherry. Somewhere amongst it all two chickens ran happily, but I never saw them; just his cat.
And next day I cooked the rhubarb, adding, for a bit of piquancy and verve, some Picon bitter orange liqueur – it worked a treat!
We had delicious osso buco for supper, though I say it myself. And a tightly fought game of Scrabble which I only just won! Like mother like daughter – no prisoners taken….
Next morning was bright, but chilly. Time to restart the winter breakfast schedule!
I enjoyed the refreshing walk up into town for bread, along by the old canal, with its reeds, ducks, and occasional pedestrians.
The board by the pontoon said to only stay 24 hours. Several other boats along the pontoon plainly ignored this and our inspector told us that they were not legally binding notices – just suggestions. However we were keen to see Nieuwpoort so rang the lock keeper and asked her to open the various bridges along our 21kms way.
As we travelled the sun rose higher in the sky and the temperature rose too, to a very nice 20C. We passed under lift bridge after lift bridge, all opened by our friendly lock keeper.
There were other things to fascinate as we cruised – a cow on a roof, the low white painted farmsteads, the bright floral efforts of some villages, until we reached our destination, Nieuwpoort.
Nieuwpoort is quite a complex of waterways and marinas! Luckily we saw an empty space on the first pontoon we came to so tied up and ate lunch in a strong sea breeze. After lunch I scrabbled my way round to the marina office. Yes, scrabbled; to get over one of the many waterways I had to climb some steep earth steps up to a road bridge, and then similar on the way down! OK, OK -you won; let’s move on shall we …….
Having found the famous Ben, harbour master of much in Nieuwpoort as well as Verne, I discovered that another mooring closer to town at half the price. So Stewart and I decided to motor on down to the Gravensluis mooring – an interesting mooring as you will see – and book in for 3 days.
Once moored up we set off for a promenade around the town. Getting on and off Calliope required stepping off at the bow onto a 10” wide beam and walk along it to a nice big platform that adjoined the land. Lucky we are so agile (ha ha!).
We walked round past the Westhoek Marina, past the Saint Joris lock, the Binnenhaven, the IJzerdijk river, the Veurne sluice, and virtually all round the Ganzepoot, or Goosefoot where 7 waterways join.
The town is another interesting one, very damaged in the world wars, but much rebuilt in the previous styles so the streets have buildings with different architecture.
The day was still blue skied and sunny when we returned to the boat for ‘drinkies’ on the back deck; very nice.
Wednesday was different and horrible – gale force winds, lashings of rain, scudding clouds, and a Captain who had come down with scurvy or some other mariner’s affliction.
So it was me off to the pharmacy for medications that would be “most efficacious in every case”. I had to laugh at myself crawling along the beam from the bow to the disembarkation platform, scared to walk in such wind for fear I was blown into the water!
So overall it needed to be a quiet day, with a very wholesome leek, potato and broccoli soup for the invalid to eat with grated cheese and scrumptious croutons stirred in.
My walks were giving me a chance for one or two more snaps around the town, especially the King Albert Memorial, looming gloriously over the end of the canal. Due to its shape and the changing skies it kept looking exciting to this very amateur photographer!
Thursday looked a lot better at first, both weather and health. I zoomed off to the town hall and gathered up brochures on Nieuwpoort, them found an excellent baker for the daily bread. Back to Calliope for lunch and a catch up on the Brexit news (Aaagh!) and to mop the Captain’s brow. He was getting a bit better.
As Stu had now missed our two days in Nieuwpoort, and because we could get another 4 days for the price of 2 (the deal here is 7 days for price of 5), plus our DBA 10% discount, and being scrimpy with our mooring funds, we decided that we would stay another few days. After all it is a nice mooring, generally quiet and undisturbed.
I dutifully walked the 1.4 kms to see Ben and requested the extra 4 nights. “No problem”, I was told so I passed over my debit card. Ah that was a problem – surely I could pay such a small amount by cash. OK, I can and will – just another 2.8 kms to walk tomorrow with the cash! This is proving good for my health and weight.
Next day became quite a walking day so it was lucky that it dawned mistily bright. The Captain’s fever meant that all our bedding needed a visit to the launderette, so on top of the 2.8 kms to see Ben, there was about the same to the launderette. And then later on the same again to get Stu to a nice young Belgian doctor; followed by about the same to the pharmacy for the antibiotics, all under beautiful Nieuwpoort blue skies and sun.
And not only was it sun filled blue skies in the day; the evenings turned rose/gold, and a full moon appeared to complete the sky’s splendour.
Saturday was just as lovely; thank you Blue Sky god. Amongst my walks on Saturday was one out to the sea harbour marina – the largest in Europe with berths for 2000 boats! I found an excellent chandlery and bought our new life jacket activators while Stewart slept himself gradually better.
In addition to the marina I came across a ‘car gymkhana’, with lots of happy speedy people rushing about in souped up vehicles.
I just want to make an aside here about how lovely and friendly the Belgian people are. At almost any opportunity they will start chatting to you – in the queue for bread, stopping by your boat, at the launderette. They mostly speak such good English and it is embarrassing being unable to speak Flemish, beyond ‘tank u vel’ (thank you very much), ‘tot ziens’ (goodbye) and a vague attempt at counting from one to three, so far!
They are also manically keen on cycling. People of all ages cycle everywhere. Bike tyre pumps are provided in public spaces. The roads are laid out for cyclists, and pedestrians, and the car drivers respect this. I know if is a largely flat country, so cycling requires a bit less effort, but even so I am impressed by the children who cycle to school, the older couples who go out together for a cycle ride into the country, and of course the inevitable many lycra-clad clubs who whizz by at alarming speed.
By Sunday Stu seemed to be on the mend so we planned a tram ride. There is a tram line here that basically runs along the coast from De Panne in the West to Knokke, beyond Zeebrugge, in the East. Our plan was to do the Westerly line, getting off just before the end to walk in woods and look out over huge dunes.
The sun shone, again, the tram rattled along and we had a good day out, including a simple lunch. The walk was calming and gentle, with the only real hill the one climbing up to the viewing platform over the dunes.
We had several glimpses of the North Sea, looking a lot bluer and welcoming than it usually looks for the UK’s eastern shores!
Overall it was a lovely day, although we realised that Stu had overdone it and still needed to take it easy.
So next day, which was somewhat grey, we did nothing but a bit of food shopping (me) and a short walk to the 2000-boat marina (both).
Our last day in Nieuwpoort, this trip, turned out to be one of those end-of-summer sunny days with a bit of a breeze and a few clouds – just right for a walk all along the harbour boardwalk to the North Sea.
The fishing boats and wharf are quieter now than in the past, but still a few boats around and a good smell of fish!
As we got towards the harbour mouth we could see the lighthouse on the opposite side of the channel, unreachable for us as the little ferry that runs across only operates at weekends and feast days.
Never mind – it meant that we got to the sandy shore of the North Sea, looking out vaguely towards England.
A cheap and cheerful friterie lunch and a tram ride home finished off the first half of the day.
The second half, or third, was spent sociably with two from an other barge, Antonia. We met up in the square by the church and town hall for a beer or two and a meal; a good way to complete our sojourn in the town.
Captain Stu seemed so much better and we felt confident about voyaging once more, so next day we retraced our wake for 500m, turned to starboard and went through the Saint Joris lock with its guillotine lock gates.
This took us into the beautiful Binnenhaven, where excited young people learn to sail, cormorants dry their wings, and cruisers moor up for winter.
We found our exit in the far right hand corner, leading us into the river Ijzer for a calm two hour cruise to Diksmuide.
The river is gentle, running through low land pastures, with more farms than villages.
We have been to Diksmuide before, twice, by car, so we had an idea what we were coming to. The harbour master had told us where to moor and we found our space.
But what we had not realised is that we would be right opposite the amazing and famous 22 storey high “Museum at the Yser”, with its carillon of bells ringing out every 15 minutes.
There was time to give Calliope a bit of a wash down and begin to clear the falling autumn leaves from her decks; plenty more of those to follow! All this before a purple evening descended – just stunning!
We stayed a couple of days at Diksmuide. It’s a nice mooring, but a bit on the expensive side, especially when they charge you extra for everything – even 2 minutes of shower water is €0.50 and you have to pay to get rid of rubbish too!
The river is well used, not just by retired old bargees like us, but also by youth groups who appear to have plenty of energy to spare after they have had their history lessons around the town!
Anyway it is another interesting town; another that was totally ruined during WW1, but has been rebuilt to look as it did before with a huge market place surrounded by ‘old’ buildings.
The Captain was still in low energy mode from his illness so we did more resting than exploring. During a couple of strolls I saw the rebuilt beguinage (a village within a town where nuns, and often other single women, lived behind high walls)
The morning of our departure was another stunner; what an autumn we are having in Belgium!
I took a last walk round before we left, clicking away at the IJzerdijk Tower and the other memorials around it. I found the ‘walls’ made of rusted WW1 shells particularly poignant.
Then last part of this Belgian voyage took us down to Ypres. It was very important to us to go there as Stewart’s grandfather fought there in World War 1 and he wanted to get a better understanding of what his grandfather endured, along with thousands of others.
The river vista was open and clear, so I had a few minutes at the helm – nothing to hit here! A flock of seagulls followed us along, diving expectantly into our wake from time to time, but I didn’t see any fish pulled out.
We were to turn off the Ijzer onto the Ypres canal at Knokkebrug – a bridge that needed to be opened for us. There was a pleasant interlude of 15 minutes or so waiting for the ‘bridge-lifter’, a very pleasant lady called Corinne to arrive in her Flemish Waterways car.
Then on down to Ypres, along the Kanaal Ieper-Ijzer, which was much prettier and more rural than we had expected.
It also became progressively more verdant! The surface of the canal was covered in a mass of tiny plants – apparently not algae, but tiny bright green leaves. By the time we arrived in the canal basin at Ypres, ready to moor, we still had a lime green carpet all around us.
I eventually found out that is a type of cress, called eendkruss, or duck cress – and certainly the ducks hoover it up.
Freddie, the harbourmaster, showed Stewart a challenging place to moor! We had to turn round and reverse between two boats into a space where our stern was almost up against the basin wall! But of course Captain Stu did it with patience and aplomb and we were soon moored up. (What Freddie??? BACKWARDS????)
During our two days in Ypres we spent time reflecting on the wars, and the futility of it all – the massive loss of life and the mental and physical horrors that those who survived had to cope with.
The ramparts round the southern side if the town are so quiet and calm now, yet were spectators to the seemingly endless slaughter and destruction that carried on all around a hundred years ago. Sorry to be a bit maudlin, but it is so important that in remembering and honouring those who fought we also remember never to let it happen again.
The famous Menen gate forms part of the ramparts area and is one of the original entrances to the town, although the current portal is fairly new.
. The names of those of the allies whose lives were taken at Ypres are listed almost endlessly on all aspects of the gateway.
The names are set out by regiment so Stu could look for his grandfather’s regiment and I could look for my grandfather’s.
Neither of us had realised how completely destroyed Ypres had been. The reconstruction, is fantastic. The market square, as in Diksmuide, is completely rebuilt; likewise the Cloth Market, Belfry and churches.
On Day 2 we went into the cloth market which now houses the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum – an excellent representation of both the horror and heroism of WW1 in the area. Highly recommended.
The entry included a chance to go up (and down) 230 spiral steps to the top of the belfry and look out over the city. It was very dizzy-making, even for me who isn’t bothered by heights (or so I thought!)
On our last evening we went to the Last Post service at the Menen Gate. I deliberately and respectfully took no photos of the service itself, but wanted to record the large number os people who were there, and apparently similar numbers come every day; long may it continue.
There is nothing I can really add after that experience. We left Ypres next day – the next chapter. Amen.
We returned to the boat in Kortrijk on August 13th, full of fatigue after a week of long road trips and an excellent South of France party weekend. There was 10 days to fill until our next family visitors arrived in Kortrijk so we set out for a short and enjoyable cruise.
Despite the dull skies we immediately felt a sense of peace and tranquility – that gentle movement on the water, the open views from the wheelhouse, the wild birds, and just the two of us together for a while.
It took a day’s acclimatisation and rest before we set off along the river. There was some re-provisioning to do, some cleaning, new fenders to tie on and, most exciting, new navigation maps to explore.
So it was on Thursday that we eventually slipped our ropes and backed (yes, reversed, astern) out of the comfortable arm of the River Leie where we had been moored for over a month.
I was immensely proud of the Captain, taking us under the low bridge with PV panels intact and out onto the river.
My only part in the manoeuvre was to call the Flemish waterways man and ask if we could leave, and go through the red light at the end of the port.
It was so lovely to be on the move again, initially watching Kortrijk slip away before the vista opened up onto broad open countryside, cows, horses, farms and villages.
Calliope felt small as she passed by one commercial barge after another – this is a busy, friendly, waterway, with industrial captains waving their greetings as they go by. There is a wonderful irony to the perspective in this photo, making us seem at least as large – it is a mirage!
We were aiming for Wervik and after a couple of hours the huge church of this relatively small town came into view. As always a bit of PMT (pre-mooring tension) kicked in. Would there be space for us on the wharf at Wervik?
We were lucky – only one large barge on the wall and plenty of room for us. We were prepared for the widely spaced bollards, knowing that we would be making use of stout railing posts too. We soon made fast and had lunch.
t was after lunch that a little fun began. As the big barges passed up and down stream some slowed down past the moor boats, and others didn’t. Our lines creaked and groaned with strain. There was only one thing for it – break out the Haslar ropes!
When we were moored at Haslar Marina in Portsmouth Harbour for a full winter we invested in some much thicker ropes to see us through the gales and storms, Once we deployed these fore and aft, plus a couple of springs, Calliope rocked as gently as a baby in a crib.
This was our cue for a quiet walk round a grey-skied town. It was very quiet to start with as it turned out to be a public holiday (Assumption of Mary) and everything apart from some of the bars was shut. We did study the church, finding it even bigger than it had appeared from the water.
And then the quietness was overturned by raucous happy singing, music, and one of the oddest vehicles we had ever seen.
It was a sort of truck powered by six cyclists each side who were all sitting at, and enjoying the products of, a bar in the centre. Others sat around the edge, singing and drinking, laughing and shouting.
It was a wedding – a couple who had lived together 27 years and decided to get married. They stopped next to us, bridge and groom jumped down, and invited is to join in dancing. So ensued a few crazy minutes before the trundled on their very merry way!
Back on the boat we had a quiet evening, with a happy Captain sipping wine while the wonderful sunlight cast interesting shadows and brightened the riverbank colours as the dark clouds swept by.
Later, as I sat up waiting for two noisy fishermen to steady down and maybe go home, I noticed the neon lines of the bridge and the nearby lamp post reflecting along our grab rail.
And later still, through the window and still waiting to go to bed, the moon rose across the water.
Next day, Friday, Calliope and crew carried on up the river, at this point still called the Leie as we were mostly in Belgium, and still mostly in Flanders. But as we continued we found ourselves moving between France and Belgium, Wallonia and Flanders. The border follows the north bank of the original course of the river, but due to a series of man made deeper wider sections, to accommodate commercial craft, boats now weave between the two countries. Thanks to the EU there are no customs posts, tariffs or passports required!
It was fascinating to see the very different church and town hall spire and dome shapes along this journey. I show here those from Comines (the French side) and more will follow. Much of Comines was rebuilt between the wars and this colourful church and more austere town hall were built during that time.
The river was still quite broad at this point, but narrowing – wide enough yet for the big commercial barges that would turn off towards Lille at the Canal de Deûle junction. The countryside was peaceful, pastoral, with grazing cattle and horses here and there.
As we turned away, under grey skies, from the more industrial Deûle to enjoy more of the rural Leie we certainly noticed the difference. It became more bendy, more overgrown with trees and bushes at the edges, gently closing in around us.
At this point, sort of between the Belgian Leie and French Lys, the river becomes known as the Lys Mittoyenne. It is full of water birds – mostly coots and ducks as usual, but with a good sprinkling of kingfishers (saw them every day), grebes AND little grebes (!), moorhen, heron and cormorants. Sadly none of my photos were good enough to include.
Our aim was to moor at Armentières, which necessitated one more lock just at the edge of the town. As we approached I radioed ahead, expecting to be heard because we had done a radio check at the previous lock. But no response. So I tried the phone, allowing it to ring and ring until it just stopped.
The lock came into view; no lights of any colour to indicate its operating status. Maybe it was a holiday – the previous day had been a French national holiday. Maybe sit was a strike day. With some difficulty we managed to moor to a bollard and a very narrow ladder. I climbed out and walked to wards the lock to enquire.
This jolted the young girl holiday-job éclusier into action! The doors began to open and I ran back to the barge to join the Captain for the run into the lock space. The lock and weir buildings must have been rebuilt between the two world wars, such is their beautiful art deco design.
And we were also jolted – into a reminder of the size of ‘narrow-gauge’ locks! All went well and we were handed a zapper to use on the next lock, then hand in at the subsequent one. It was to be a short electronic journey.
The hoped for pontoon mooring was empty and waiting for us, so within a few minutes we were tied up, re-fendered, and getting our lunch together.
Our customary walk round the town was a little on the dull side – sorry Armentières. Then town was one of the many that was devastated in both world wars and despite a few monumental buildings remaining (mostly banks) the town somehow seemed a bit down-at-heel. To be fair there were nice flower displays everywhere to brighten it. A fair ground to enliven things also spoilt my view of the town hall! (And in the way back down stream I caught the big Friday market all across the space.)
However the people were friendly and that is what counts most.
Next morning, after a rapid walk to the boulangerie and back (ha! we are back in France!) we left the mooring and were ‘Westward ho’ on another grey drizzly day. Is this really August?
As we left Armentières we could not but help notice a monumental set of buildings – the old malting and brewery of Motte-Cordonnier. There has been a brewery on or near this site since 1650 so it was with great sadness that this one closed on the 1990s. However the Family Motte have recently decided to start brewing again. For this keen to know, here is a link, in French, to their endeavours. I wish them Bon Chance.
We soon reached Bas Saint Maur écluse and used our tele commander with aplomb!
The lock was a ‘massive’ 60cms rise, in a very pretty location with plants and trees adding to the landscape.
Immediately above the lock there is a pond leading to the small weir that managed to be incredibly photographic, due to some old wooden posts, lucky repflections and calm waters. (Remember this scene – it recurs later).
Farmland took over the landscape, mainly Charolais cattle probably for beef. The French are proud of their Charolais beef. I loved the big ol’ bull lying at the front of his herd, watching out for danger while his cows and calves fed, slept and played.
On an animal theme, I continuously and hopelessly take photos of water fowl and their your – moorhens, coots, crested grebes, ducks, little grebes, herons, swans ….. and all are out of focus because we are moving along! Grebes are also notoriously shy, diving under water the moment a camera or human eye turns their way. Anyway I caught one grebe as we were waiting to go into the lock and I was hiding behind the gunnel. Hooray.
We reached Estaire and its 30m pontoon soon afterwards. As we were heading towards the town we noticed an amazing white steeple to a church in the distance way off to the right, and were amazed to find that after the bends and turns of the river our mooring was literally in the shadow off the said church – but white steeples against grey skies do not make good photos.
But on the way back blue skies prevailed!
The pontoon seemed quiet at first. It was pretty with lots of purple and yellow flowers along the bank.
By the time we had finished lunch we had been joined by several friendly fishers, and realised that in a way we were ‘trespassing’ on their usual angling platform. We were all able to share the space happily and several fish were caught.
Captain with crew went for a short walk into Estaires. It was a little plain, although we found a pleasant park and three good boulangeries. The town hall played a sweet little carillon tune and when I went for a second walk in the evening it stood out against the golden evening sky beautifully.
There had been discussions about how far up the river we would navigate – would be go all the way to Canal d’Aire and down to Lille, up the Deûle and back to Kortrijk? Or get as far as Saint-Venant and turn round? The latter plan won, especially when we got to Saint-Venant and saw how nice it was!
Not far out of Estaires, and expecting to be in the country, Calliope passed a huge chemical works of some kind. I googled them – a company called Roquette – and was amused to discover that their strapline is “Voyage au couer de la nature!” To be fair they are a worldwide company who overall are researching to find more natural ways to produce food, make up etc. And they do transport at least some of their goods away by barge.
Overall it was a pleasant day’s cruising through flat farming land with plenty of bird life. In fact it ws the fourth day in a row that we saw kingfishers! But I reckon that to get a photo of them you need to be a wildlife pro.
The one uniquely interesting thing along the way was the lock at Merville. We have never seen a lock with lift bridges at either end – traffic flowing one way over one end and the opposite over the other; in fact a whole roundabout surrounded the lock! It meant waiting for each bridge to lift, but we were in no hurry.
Coming up and put of the lock at Saint-Venant was a total and wonderful surprise. We had no idea that we would be entering a wide basin with plenty of room to moor (with stakes) on a long grassy bank, or the option of going into a decent size port de plaisance (although there probably wasn’t room for a 20m barge!)
it’s a long time since we used stakes, but the old habits of leaping ashore holding a lump hammer and two unwieldy stakes still remained deep in my soul and before too long we were safely moored, managing to share a low stone bollard with the boat behind. Lunch came next.
Of course after lunch came the walk round the village. This one has plenty of stories to tell! During WW1 one of the buildings became the HQ of the local British Army, later taken over by the Portugese. There is an ancient hospital, some amazing old barracks, and some rows of cottages at whose previous use we could only guess.
There is also a small basin off the main one which used to have a granary on the wharf side. Now all that is left is an unusual turntable bridge at the entrance, forever stuck on the open position, and dating back to 1887.
The clouds gradually and completely cleared and the flat landscape meant we had huge skies to look at from the barge.
The braver of the wildfowl were all around and I took the opportunity to get rid of some sections of baguette that we had not managed to mop up. Two geese, one Greylag and one Brent I think, had made a love match and were continuously together. A family of swans inhabited one of the many wide drainage ditches dug all over the place.
Stu and I had had a walk over to look at the port as well as the village; we had discovered a bar restaurant that seemed to just fit the bill for supper. We strolled over at about 5.45 in time for drinks in the evening sun. Somehow the sun allowed a funky photo of me drinking Kriek cherry beer.
Then the meal; I am a sucker for trying regional dishes. Potj was in the menu and I asked what it was. The explanation was of a mix of cold chicken and pork set in gelatine, with fries. I had to try, and I was not disappointed. I would definitely eat it again m- I think the gelatine was the natural jelly from the bones when cooking the meat – much nicer than aspic.
On the way back to the boat and just before we crossed the lock gates the view of the church, sky, and trees all composed themselves into a nice arrangement for my last photo of the day.
Unusual for us on this trip, we decided we liked it so much here in Saint-Venant that we would stay another night. This meant a nice slow start to our morning and it began as blue as you like. A young moorhen came calling and one of our neighbours departed into the blue as I sat on the back deck with my breakfast.
Little jobs started being done around the boat – fuel additive, clean out of the shower trap, good sweep of the stairs, turn the boat so that we could fill up with water, and another spider hunt.
(Have I mentioned the spiders? In the six days since we returned too the boat we have between us taken over 100 spiders to find a new life ashore. We have never had so many on board before and can only imagine that several nests of spiders hatched out while we were away. I think we are down to our usual dozen or so now, whose job is to catch flies and mosquitoes.)
And then the squalls started swirling in, one after another. Each time we thought we could risk a run to the boulangerie the sky darkened, the wind whipped up and the rain drove down onto the water.
Eventually we were able to buy our daily bread, have a good lunch aboard, and after a digestive half hour we went for a walk. It was sunny but with a stiff breeze, making us a little chilly at times. Stu was pleased to leap back aboard when we returned.
We stayed on Calliope for the rest of the day and had a surprise visitor. A French lady stopped by with her two year old and started to talk to us, because her daughter’s name was also Calliope! Of course she had to have a tour of the boat, and went off seemingly very pleased.
The evening was quiet and still. A time to finish writing this and be ready for a 9.30 lock in the morning, arranged earlier with the éclusier.
We are turning back on ourselves now, back East and downstream, starting off on a blue sky day with so few locks that I can sit on the back deck with a cup of tea and enjoy the unfolding view.
I don’t plan to do a full blog of the return journey, but if we stop at new places or anything monumental happens I will record it below.
Well we did stop at new places – Sailly-sur-la-Lys for two nights, because we really liked it, and mid stream just before Bac-Saint-Maur lock, for the pure isolation of it.
Sailly is a relatively unremarkable village, although it took its share of suffering in the two world wars. We were moored on a comfortable pontoon which we shared each afternoon with three round electric boats that people can hire. It was generally quiet – just occasional friendly passers by – and the views of the river were peaceful transitions from dawn to dusk.
On our in-between day we went for a good walk through an orchard of apples, pears, plums, sloes and everything delicious – then along the river bank, at a pace that is easier for the camera!
Before we left Sailly, on my quick trek to the Carrefour Contact for bread, I took photos of some of the houses – many have delightful coloured tiles above the windows and seem to have art deco references.
Then at Bac Saint Maur lock – simple tranquility tied onto the iron divider between the weir and the lock.
Armentières was the same as one the way upstream, but I mention it again because of the lock. Once again we phoned to say we were on our way, and once again initially had no reply. When we did reach the éclusier, who was based at Merville, we discovered that we would be waiting over two hours for her. This gave us a relaxing pause in our journey!
Then on going through the lock I discovered something I had missed on the way up! The lock gates are slightly curved and when open they swivel under the lock wall. These photos adopt really explain it! But it is fairly unique in my experience.
The third new place we stopped at was Comines, a town of two halves and two nations! With the river Lys running between them, there has been a Comines France and a Comines Belgium since 1713, and a chequered history of nationality for centuries before that. Thanks to the EU they are now becoming Comines Europe.
We moored on the Belgian side behind dutch barge Moon Dance, and had a walk round both towns, discovering that the multicoloured dome belonged to a fascinating church, and the slate clad belfry to the town hall – both built between the wars.
The weather had become quite hot again – so much so that the slipway was inviting and I enjoyed a bit of a splash. Later we enjoyed a drink and stories of barging in Europe with MoonDance crew, then picked an excellent Chinese/Belgian restaurant for supper.
Our last morning before steaming back to Kortrijk dawned fair, with the sun behind the famous Comines towers.
It was a sunny Sunday and the river was busier than ever. It is interesting to be following a dutch barge as two big commercial barges come towards you, a flotilla of canoes is trying to over- and under-take you, whilst families in speed boats weave in and out creating crazy wakes and parties of cyclists, walkers and horse riders watch on from the banks!