A river and three canals in a week!

Well not exactly complete rivers or canals, but we did steam along 53 kms of the Base Sambre river, 20kms of the Canal Charleroi à Brussels, and 24 kms of the Canal de Centre and 40kms of the Canal Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes

And that included an unplanned en panne two night stop, but more of that later.


This was the week that we left Namur on July 3rd, and on July 10th turned onto the Haut Escuaut river. It seems like a rush but there was still plenty to enjoy, including giving Calliope a bit of a scrub down as went along.

We quickly discovered that we were into a new kind of canal, far more industrial than we had been used to on the Meuse.

We were mostly sharing locks with huge 80m+ barges, and the locks themselves were larger, with massive doors, sometimes running sideways on gantries. We often felt very small!

The frequent juxtaposition of ancient, in this case an abbey, and modern waterways transport kept me on my camera toes.

Our first night out of Namur found us at Auvelais – a little town with enough of an edge to make it interesting. Of course Stu and I went for a walk round, and it was quickly apparent that a festival of some kind, including live music, would be taking place that weekend.

There was a second, road, bridge into the village that made it clear that quite rightly the UK was still a welcome part off the EU.

We also saw a somewhat strange statue; we had seen a similar one in Namur, including two large snails as well as the little man. I have Googled this and have not come up with much.

It’s labelled Jean le Porion.

Our actual mooring was in a short indent in the canalised – just big enough for us, another, old, beautiful barge and two cruisers; all friendly, but no time to make real friends.It was a mooring of two halves – the water was mostly peaceful and quiet; the trains running over the adjacent metal railway bridge were clattering and noisy.

Next morning we were the first ones away, with a lock waiting for us just round the corner and wanting to avoid joining a queue to get through. It was our anniversary that day, so we look forward to finding a nice peaceful mooring to gently celebrate.

The journey was along the Sambre until we reached Charleroi where we turned à droite to join the Charleroi-Brussels canal. Moving through Charleroi was a sad shock to the system. It has had a huge steelworks history, pretty much now all gone. It has been replaced by a scrap metal industry with barges moving different size pieces off metal up and down the river, gradually diminishing in size from whole cars to glittering fragments.

That evening turned out to be above Viesville lock, initially very peaceful, but later with giant barges gradually piling in around us. We raised our glasses to 32 years together, watching the boats, full of scrap metal, float by.

As we went to bed a HUGE barge came in to almost touch our bow; ten minutes later another came in at our stern, in a space that should not have been big enough, but, phew, it was!

Friday was to be and exciting day, our first ever in a boat lift, and this one is the second highest on the world! We cruised towards the boat lift on a perfect day – perfect for holidaying youngsters to be to learning to sail, canoe and wind surf.

As we approached they were gathered to one side of the canal by clucking smiley ‘mother hen’ tutors, and in some cases we seemed to leave young wind surfers scattered in our wake.

Just after this we turned onto canal 2 – the Canal de Centre. The waterway opened out wide and clear as we joined the new part of this canal, towards the boat lift. The old historic, narrower, branch of the canal is still open, where the descent of 240ft is actioned by 4 separate beautiful old boat lifts.

The original canal dates back to 1879; its locks and lifts were able to accommodate vessels of up to 300 tonnes. By the 1960s the European standard for barge traffic was 1350 tonnes, so a replacement was needed.

The new gate, or ‘porte’ leading to the boat lift

Not only was the new boat lift required, but also the width and the depth of the canal leading to it had to be increased plus a huge ‘gate’ to close of the water in case of damage to the boat lift structures. It has all worked, with river traffic going up from 256 kT in 2001 to 2,295 kT by 2006!

The 4 older lifts on the original canal became bypassed by the new canal and are now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, because of their architectural and historical value. They are well worth seeing and next time we will travel via the ‘historic canal’.

This is a not-very-good photo of the most downstream of the 4 old lifts, still in use.

As we excitedly approached the boat lift it became apparent that it was not working, with red lights everywhere. There were 2 commercial barges waiting and a small German yacht, so we moored up behind them and had lunch.

arriving at the top of Strepy-Thieu boat lift

Then we suddenly realised that only one side of the pair of lifts was out of operation. The lift on the side where we were waiting had been descending and coming back up while we ate lunch, and was now here to collect the first of two waiting commercial barges. I made a quick radio call to the lift operators and discovered there was room for us and the yacht to fit in as well.

Down we went – what an expereience, what engineering! Look it up – the L’Ascenseur Funiculaire de Strepy-Thieu.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usUwiL2NJiQ

leaving the boat lift

It was less of a good experience when we came out of the lift at the bottom. The Morse control (throttle and direction) became stuck in forward; the German yacht was dithering in front of us, and all Captain Stu could do was switch the engine off completely and glide, with no propulsion or steering, into the quay between the two lifts.

With a bit of adept rope throwing we managed to moor up. And there we were, stranded, broken down. A boat lift operator came to find out why we had moored in this inconvenient place, and on understanding the problem he became very helpful.

We were advised to raise a red distress flag – not the sort of thing we have on board, but a folded round red ensign worked on the mast, and my red dressing gown was ok at the stern!

After Stewart had done several checks, and I had made a few phone calls and requests to other Piper owners for advice, we realised that it was most likely the gear cable that had snapped of jammed. Of course it was a Friday afternoon. If anything goes wrong for us it is always a Friday afternoon, and you cannot get help until Monday.

Never mind; we reached a fabulous lady boat yard owner who said the would come on Monday with her mechanic and the correct Vetus cable; all would be well. In the meantime we could enjoy a weekend beneath the boas lift, once we had discovered how we could get out to buy food, and more importantly get back in. (We had moored within the fenced and locked compound of the boat lift where only those authorised could get in).

We got that sorted and my first walk discovered a friendly little supermarket in Thieu on one side of the canal.

The next day, Saturday, we walked to Strépy on the other side of the canal – and discovered that it was the weekend of the local fête, all along the side of the historic canal.  You want waffles?  You want frites? You want good Belgian beer, or kebabs, or dried sausages, or pastries?  It was all here, plus music, entertainment, and jolly people

That day we simply looked all round, bought lunch to much along the canal, and walked back to our stranded barge.

Next day we had a plan, starting with a visit to the Ascenseur visitor centre, which was just as interesting as you can imagine. Well worth the time and money, unless you don’t have a head for heights – the visitor centre is a long way up!

One of the boat lift machine rooms, seen from visitor centre

Then a walk back into Strèpy for the continuation of the fun.

It was even busier than the day before and after a good look round we found a quietest place with a seat, by a music stage and bought beer.

I was on a mission to try all the cherry flavoured Belgian beers I could find – not in one day!

We came happily back to Calliope, past one of the old lock houses on the historic canal.

Its a lovely walk, whether along the canal or though the outskirts of the village.

It was easy to find or way back – the boat lift towers over everything in there area. We snuck into the compound by moving Heras fencing, as instructed by the helpful boat lift operator. Without her help we would have had to be back by 1730 when they all go home on a Sunday.

And then it was Monday – boat repair day! We were so pleased to see Majorie and Julian, and even more pleased when it was evident that we had a snapped cable and that Julian could fix it for us. In no time at all, what we had waited for for two and half days was done, and we were able to sail away once more.

More work with scrap metal

Our last section of the Canal de Centre was industrial again. Two green grabbers having fun picking up and throwing graspfuls of old cars, bikes, and unrecognisable metallic mess – it looked like someone’s birthday Red Letter Day experience!

We discovered yet another way to open and close huge lock doors – this time by having them disappear underwater, only to reappear once the boats are in the lock. The photo doesn’t capture the majesty of the movement! (though it does show where a boat had tried to leave before he got the green light indicating the door was fully down and took out a section of the top railing; oops)

Then on to the end of the canal at Mons, where a huge basin includes a yacht club where we moored. There was a very strong wind blowing, luckily onto the low quay where we tied up. It was a pleasant place to stay the night, listening to waved slapping onto the side of the boat, reminiscent of our winter in Portsmouth Harbour.

We did do a bit of a walk in towards Mons town centre, mainly looking for a supermarket, but regret we did not get to the interesting parts – leave that for another day.

Mons is the point where Canal de Centre ends and Canal Nimy-Blatant-Peronnes begins, therefore on the Tuesday morning we were on the last of the 4 waterways in this chapter.

It was a day of bridges against the sky – one delightful outline after another. Here are a few to sample.

The cruising plan was to get most of the way along our 40kms of this canal, and finish it next day – and that is sort of what we did. We reached our plotted mooring at Weirs at about lunch time and, leaving the Captain to sort out our ropes (see above!) and in quite hot sun I marched the kilometre or two towards the village. I luckily found a Spar with ready made sandwiches after 20 minutes. That was lunch sorted!

Later that afternoon I took a walk over the bridge to a distillery marked on the map. It was a small family run business making liqueurs from fruit and spirits, including an excellent pear brandy! The entrance to the ‘maison’ was through a gate on wheels that must have stood there since the start of the company.

So there we were, heading towards evening, a dot below the bridge, and talking to our Swedish yachting neighbours. They had heard that there was a 6 hour queue to go down the next lock, and this was corroborated by friends who went by and sent back a message.

After 7pm, when the locks closed, the Swede decided to get down to the lock ready for the morning to be, he hoped, first in queue. Soon after one then another huge commercial barge went by, then another.

By 9pm my Captain had decided that we too should get down there too and be near the front of the next day’s queue, so, with dusk closing in around us, and with or navigation lights aglow, we steamed the 4kms to Pommereuil lock.

Would we find anywhere too moor or not – that was one questions, closely followed by what wold we do if there was no space? As we approached through the gloom it looked as if we had finally lucked out. We could see through our binoculars about 6 large 80m barges – three old them rafters up against each other due to lack of mooring space.

We knew there was also a small quay for leisure boats and hopes we could fit next to the Swedish yacht, but there was a second boat there. Then, as we closed in on the lock, a space opened up between barges 4 and 5! In almost darkness we tied up to a strange high quay, moving fenders into unusual places to protect us overnight. And so to bed, expecting a lie in and a long wait to lock down next day.

between the two Péronne locks

But the next day began somewhat differently. The skipper got up at 5.45 to monitor progress. Two more 80m commercials had arrived and were floating about midstream as the first in the queue opposite us had fired up his engines, slipped his ropes and started edging towards the gate. Interestingly though, there was also movement on the two smaller boats and when Stewart radioed the lock to tentatively ask if there might be room for the third little boat he was told ‘Ouis si vous est rapide!’

Well rapide we were, and being woken by our engines starting and a loud ‘Ey up we’re off’ I threw some clothes on and climbed up the the wheelhouse to find the skipper in his slippers squeezing us into the tightest of spaces beside the stern of the giant peniche.

leaving Péronne 1 at 6.13am

We came out of Péronnes lock 1 (12.5m) and across the pond towards Péronnes 2 (5.6m) as dawn began to clear the sky.

Not many up apart from the birds! This meeting between a heron and a cormorant looked conversational.

turning into the Haute Escaut river

And once through them both it was hard a’starboard onto the Haute Escaute river where a new adventure begins, and all still before 7am!

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.