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!
We were taking the long autumnal way round. We had left Kortrijk in late August and set off on a loop of northern Belgium and France, in order to arrive back where we started and tie up for the winter.
Now we were on the last lap, crossing borders, changing waterways, and soaking up the last of the sun, or getting soaked, depending on the weather.
If you are crossing into France between Veurne and Dunkirk you have to phone 2 days ahead and plan to meet a VNF person at the Ghyvelde bridge where your papers will be checked before the bridge is opened and you are allowed to pass into France. We had all this sorted and set off from our mooring in Veurne in plenty of time – until we wound round the first bend, saw another (low) bridge, and had to phone to ask for this to be lifted !too
Unfortunately there was a problem with another bridge in the vicinity so we had to wait – just half an hour – for the lock-keeper-cum-bridge-lifter to appear. That put a little pressure on our run to the Belgian border, but all was fine.
The bridge, interestingly (to me) was not a lift bridge at all. It was a swing or turntable bridge, swinging round so that it was parallel to the canal, on the right on this photo.
Then we were out onto the Nieuwpoorte to Duinkerke Kanaal, the sun behind us in the East and the flat, almost coastal, farmlands of Belgium stretching out under grey skies on each side.
In some ways it was an unremarkable journey, so I took the opportunity to put my feet up and observe Stu at the helm.
Looking back at Veurne I saw some of the historic towers I had not managed to photograph while we were there (too much rain), and then looking forward to enjoy the final flat farmland as we edged towards France.
There was no definitive border line on the canal, although the border town of Adinkerke was interesting – packed full of Tabacs, brazenly selling cigarettes at lower prices than neighbouring France! The closest to a border that we saw was a bridge that used both languages to explain its presence.
Before too long we were through the first, and then the second, French lift bridge – or pont levée as I should probably now write.
We traveled on to Dunkirk (Duinkerke), arriving at a ‘red-light’ lock as we entered the city. There were not many clues as to whom we should notify of our arrival. I walked up to the lock; no éclusier; no notice with a phone number or VHF channel to use for communication.
The Stu noticed the new sensors just in front of Calliope! Moving forward we triggered the sensors, the doors opened and Calliope sailed in.
We tied up and looked for a way to operate the lock – no poles, levers, remote controls – but a faded sign said to press the black button????? Stu climbed up the long ladder on the other side found a red and green button, pressed the green, the normal lock-operating colour in Framce, …… nothing.
Then suddenly I saw, on the other side of the lock, in an alcove, something dangling on the end of a chain! We moved Calliope over, grabbed the chain, and hey presto, there was a black button (or white to go to in the opposite direction back to Belgium).
One press and we were on our way again, Captain Stu steering us through the outskirts of Dunkirk.
Not far after the lock we took a 90 degree turn to the left onto the Canal de Bergues – an 8 kilometre connection between Dunkirk and the lovely fortified town of Bergues. Do go there if you get a chance! I will tempt you with the following photos!
Bergues has been fortified for centuries, with the famous Vauban applying complex finishing touches – zig zag ramparts, moats and islands. This map gives an idea of it all -red dot marks our mooring.
There was a choice of moorings; our preference was just before the canal turned in front of the old walls of Bergues – a tranquil slightly isolated spot, but within easy reach of the town. Perfect.
We had two days and three nights here. The weather veered between gale force winds with lashing rain and bright September sunshine; fairly typical of northern Europe in autumn I think.
To encapsulate our time in Bergues, we were entertained by 94 geese …… or as they say in Nottingham – Ey up ducks
We walked the ramparts, in rain and in sun ……..
We walked the streets to better understand the layout ……
We went to the two old towers – one a steeple that used to be a guide to sailors when the coast was much closer to Bergues, and the other part of an old abbey built on a ‘green hill’ that was the founding of the town.
And we enjoyed all of it. The autumn light and colours created such golden green views in every direction.
The maze of water channels, sluices, locks, water gates and moats could fill a blog of its own.
On Monday it was time to go. Got up on time for a change and quickly walked into town to see the Monday market (still setting up) and buy some Bergues specialities – saucisse and fromage (very smelly, but thrice dipped in beer), plus other local delicacies from the boucherie/charcuterie I had visited before.
We had arranged with Friday’s lock keeper to be at Jeu de Mail, the lock to leave Dunkirk (West) at 1030 and had a pleasant cruise up the Canal de Bergues in the sun. Then just as we reached Dunkirk the phone rang.
I struggled to fully understand what was being said – it seemed that the lock Jeu de Mail was closed for 3 weeks starting that morning; we couldn’t wait for it to reopen as we did not have time.
We were told that we could instead go out into the Post of Dunkirk where all the ferries and cargo ships are, join the Bassin Maritime, a wide channel just in from the coast, then go through the big Mardyck lock into the Mardyck Derivation. That would bring us back to where we wanted to be.
But we could not see how to get into the Port from where we were, so arranged to meet up with the eclusier. With the aid of several maps of Dunkirk port area she showed us the way. Off we went into the Gare d’Eau, a big basin that included a lock through to Darse 1 in the Port.
But the lock had 2 red lights, indicating it was broken. Who to call? The two phone numbers on the notice had no reply, so onto the harbour master VHF and try to explain in my French what was happening. It was no-deal. Bateaux de Plaisance could not go through the commercial Mardyck lock, even if they were 20m long!
So what to do? We presumed we would have to retrace all our steps (if you can have steps on a boat), return to Veurne, to Nieuwpoort, to Brugges, to Gent, to Deinze and finally to Kortrijk. I was back on the phone to ask for them to open the two pont-levées on the route back to Veurne, leaving messages on two different numbers because no-one answered. All good fun!
Just as we approached the first, automatic, lock eastwards my mobile rang. I could hardly believe that I was understanding correctly – in exceptional circumstances they were going to stop work at the Jeu de Mail lock, open it just for us, and then start work again! Anotherexplanation might be that this was easier for them than driving all the way back to open the bridges but, hey, we’re in France – that’s how they are and we just love them for it.
And that is what happened. We turned into the Canal de Bourbourg and waited for two work boats to move over and let us through to the lock.
We were the last boat to be allowed through the lock for three weeks! And then we were off again, and actually all of that excitement had only held us up for an hour.
Now we were on the big wide part of the Canal de Bourbourg, empty but for us.
After an hour or so we joined the Mardyck line for a couple of kilometres.
Then the canal de Bourbourg peels off and continues to the left, narrow and pretty, past a set of lucky live-aboards.
As we continued towards the town of Bourbourg, our target for the night’s mooring, the canal became a countryside waterway with swans and coots peacefully co-existing.
We came to Bourbourg écluse with the intention of going through and mooring up just off the main canal – but our phone fun continued with no-one answering the supposed correct numbers. I walked down past the two town lift bridges looking for alternative numbers; none to be found.
I tried a canal side bar, who sent me to the Mairie, who helpfully gave me a number, that gave me another number, where I made contact with an éclusier who could not come for two days – or maybe tomorrow if I was lucky! I was lucky, and we settled down for pleasant evening below the lock.
I was fascinated as I walked around Bourbourg to see two vending machines selling local produce, from local people’s gardens and chickens! So fascinated that I went back in the morning before we left and bought some of the eggs and tomatoes you can see here – what a brilliant idea!
We were all ready for the éclusier to arrive before the stipulated 0900. He came at 0845 to get the lock ready – all by hand; a truly manual lock. I helped wind open one of the gates so that Calliope could glide in, and then one of the éclusier’s mates arrived and took over the winding duties.
After the lock there are two pont levées to be opened so we cruised slowly round the town, giving our new friend time to stop traffic and then open, hydraulically, each bridge.
One of the canal side building walls has been transformed into an open air art gallery, with ;paintings of famous Bourbourg people through the centuries. There is a sign there naming them all, but I regret I did not make a note.
Then we were off towards the end of Canal de Bourbourg where a double-doored lock would let us out onto the river Aa. The skies to port were on the heavy side and we hoped we would escape the storm.
By the time we reached the lock things were looking celestially better, or at least the sky was a lighter shade of grey, and the water a brighter shade of lime. I went to help the double winding required for a double door lock! Yes, it was another manual one. Stu meantime could gently spectate.
Then we were out on L’Aa – wide open spaces again! Cruising on L’Aa had been a long term ambition after we had driven over the Aa valley time and again on our trips from the UK to various points in France.
The day became bluer as we traveled South, meeting up twice more with the éclusier who opened two bridges for us at Saint Nicolas and Bistade (Hmm, sky still looks a bit grey in the Saint Nicolas photo!).
Then we were past the turn off for the Canal de Calais, and could see hills in the distance! After so many weeks in the joyous flat lands of Belgium and North France hills were quite a novelty!
Before long Calliope reached Watten and the Y-junction with Canal de la Haute Colme – part of the wide water highway linking the coast with Lille. The history of the rivers and canals in this region is complex, especially as all the Google searches I am doing come up in French – but it is interesting so worth looking up again when I am in the UK.
Suffice it to say that without turning to left or right you could find yourself on the Canal de la Haute Colme, L’Aa, Canal de Neufossé, or, further down, Canal d’Aire! They are all linked up to create a Grand Gabarit, or ‘big size’ canal, for the giant commercial barges.
Within another 3 kms we were looking out for the entrance to La Houlle – a short river that ends at Houlle itself, and a place to moor for the night away from the barge superhighway.
The next few kilometres were fascinating. After passing under the bridge onto the Houlle we went through a large basin, and then into a narrow winding river lined by highly individual cottages – those on the left linked to the road on the right by flat bottomed chain ferries – one per dwelling!
We arrived at the Houlle pontoon without any trouble, disturbing the resident ducks as we threw our ropes around the cleats. What a peaceful undisturbed place we had found! One lonely fisherman appeared for a while, and someone walked a dog past – otherwise we saw no-one.
We took a walk round the village – no photos of note, but there is a very old church and a good gin distillery, plus a bar and a restaurant. With rain very much in the air we cut our walk short, missing the chance to walk from Houlle to Moulle, where (as the Captain says) they probably play boulles!
Before long the rain was upon us, accompanied by this beautiful rainbow. That led into a perfect evening on the River Houlle. It is an interesting river, not just because of its short length, about 4km, but because of its origin in a series of artesian wells that also provide millions of gallons of water to the people of Dunkirk.
In the morning the weather was perfect. Stu took the barge another 100 yards upstream to a widening where all 65 foot of Calliope could turn with ease.
Then back down the Houlle in the October sunshine (yes, it is the 2nd of October already), passing by the interesting houses, the many fishing platforms, and the many many little channels going off at each side. It would be great to have a canoe here and go exploring!
After 40 glorious minutes we were back at the bridge out onto the Grand Gabarit and its attendant giant barges. At this stage the canal was once more named L’Aa, to my delight; out on the L’Aa again.
We had a 25 kms southbound journey to accomplish before our planned exit form the superhighway and onto the River Lys, including two locks. The canal seemed deserted as we passed Saint Momelin village and skirtede Saint-Omer. We had high hopes of going through the locks alone rather than with a big commercial barge.
Then, just as we approached the first lock, Flandres, I looked through the rear window (stern window?) and saw Dakota bearing down on us. She overtook us with ease, and just as well because we would much prefer her in the lock first; we followed her in.
It was not a particularly easy lock. It was almost a 4m rise – not too much – but without a series of bollards up the wall to secure to. There was one for each of us at deck level, and then as we rose it was necessary to climb on the roof and try to lassoo the bollard sitting back on the quay. I missed twice, but luckily was third time lucky, just in time. The Captain was expert with his first throw.
Then just 2 kilometres further was a mightier challenge – the 13m lock Les Fontinettes. After the earlier experience I radioed ahead and asked if they had ‘bollards flottant’ – and phew, they did, even if they were spaced rather a long way apart. This lock has a striking art deco bridge over it, but I was requested not to take photos in the lock, so I only have one of us leaving.
There were still 13 kms to go to reach La Lys; that is about an hour and a half in cruising language. We took it in turns to helm and to eat lunch. Knowing there is a lock at the start of La Lys I phoned ahead (no VHF channel for this one) and asked if we could go through Fort Gassion écluse.
Oh dear – we are such beginners in the art of autumnal cruising in northern France! There was no chance of gong through the lock today, but maybe tomorrow …. so we settled our minds on an evening in the little basin outside the lock, but at least off the superhighway.
We still had one more encounter with an industrial size barge however. As our turning came into view and the Captain prepared to turn across the other side of the canal a big fully laden gas tanker appeared steaming towards us! We slowed down and waited; nothing else for it apart from getting run down! And then turned into our haven for the night.
We were moored just across the big canal from Aire-sur-Lys (the river Lys straddles the big canal) and we could see one or two towers of the city in the distance.
We also needed milk and set off for a walk to the city for a look round and quick shop. The city is another of those full of little waterways. Apparently it was a centre for moving goods from water to land in days gone by. This led to some magnificent buildings, all symbols of power!
Back to Calliope and what looked a nice peaceful mooring for the evening.
Don’t be fooled! At the end of the channel behind Calliope is the big big canal Neufossé. When commercials go past a wash is sent up the channel – usually producing gentle waves. BUT when a big barge went past fast we could almost surf on the first surge that arrived, throwing our boat in the air, then hitting the lock gates in front of us, sending up spray, before bouncing back at us while at the same time further waves were still coming in! All chucked us about a bit!
The sky was reflected, gilt edged, in the water so wonderfully that I went for a walk downstream to get another view.
In the morning as we were entering the lock, another big barge went past the end of the river entrance, throwing the slow moving Calliope forward towards the far lock gates, then throwing us backwards again as the surge rebounded! Very exciting, and safely managed by Captain Stu!
That lock behind us we travelled onwards along the Lys, through the countryside of Pas de Calais. It was an other of those bright sun days and we were steering directly into it, with dew glistening across the cabin roof.
Our journey, with our friendly female éclusier, took us thorough a pont levée and another lock.
The lock was in the middle of nowhere – such a peaceful place. It must have been wonderful; to live there when there was a lock keepers house to occupy.
I also noted some nice rusty old ironwork, linked to part of the water management system. I love this stuff!
By midday we had arrived at Saint-Venant, a place we have been to, and enjoyed, earlier this year. The mooring was empty, although the marina across the river seemed full of boats packed up ready for winter.
We had a plan for the evening – to visit again the Restaurant by the marina. So we had an old fogies date night, got dressed up a bit smarter than usual boating attire, and walked over. The food is good, casual, substantial and very tasty!
My carbonnades flamandes and Stu’s braised jambon were SO good, and then I really pushed the boat out (ha ha) with a slice of french fried chocolate brioche topped with caramel sauce and cream! I could not resist licking every sugary drop from the plate!
We had been warned that Hurricane Lorenzo would be with us next day from mid morning, so we deployed our thick ropes, battened down everything on deck and planned a cosy day on board. But the day began azure skied!
There was still time for a walk first, over the river and along to the next village, Haverkerke, over a passerelle, and back along our bank.
In fact we discovered that we were moored by chance in a sheltered spot and despite seeing flags blowing horizontally across at the marina we remained fairly calm through the storm.
Then it was time to leave Saint-Venant and complete our voyage back to Kortrijk and the winter mooring. This meant being back onto same waterway as we enjoyed in August – the river Lys (France) / Leie (Belgium) so I will restrict myself to just a few words on the journey.
We went through the locks , at Saint-Venant, Merville and Bac Saint Maur amongst the start of the autumn colours.
We stopped for one night at Armentieres – an enjoyable mooring once again, this time with an October feel to the air.
Then on to where the Lys joins the Canal de Deule and becomes a monster canal once again. At the junction two spots of colour on a grey day – the bale packaging of a colourful farmer, and the giant ‘scooper’ used to move dredged up sludge from one barge to another – but not on a Sunday!
I nipped up to the office at écluse Comines in order to show our ship’s papers and get permission to enter Belgium once more. At the next lock, on the next day, we would move from Wallonia to Flandres and need to pay for our license to be on their waterways for the next 6 months.
Then a slow cruise into the Comines mooring just half a kilometre after the lock. It was still grey, but after lunch we went for a walk, arriving back before the heavens opened for the rest of the day – pouring rain, hail, thunder and lightning and a strong wind were our accompaniment for the last night out on our 2019 cruise!
But a rainbow cheered us up, plus a game of Scrabble that cheered up the Captain – he won! – Don’t start ……
And so finally we came back to Kortrijk. There were no dramas on the last day. We fitted snugly under the bridge into the port, and the entire pontoon was empty, waiting for us to choose our berth.
It was nice to tie up firmly on familiar territory, all prepared for the winter months ahead. In the few days before we left Calliope alone and drove back to the UK we fitted in a day trip to France to buy a new bottle of Butane (our gas connector is a standard French one).
On the same trip we visited the magnificent Villa Cavrois, near Lille. It is an Art Deco palace, built for a family at the start of the 1930s, with the architect given free rein to design house, garden, furniture, decor – the whole lot. And despite a chequered history, especially during WW2, it was able to be restored to its amazing former look.
That’s it for 2019. A final evening walk around Kortrijk to admire the buildings, bridges, river, squares and people before on Thursday October 10th we set off for our land based home in the UK. See you in the spring …..
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!