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 )

The river Meuse – La France a Belgique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The saxophone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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