Late August in the region of Antwerp

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

18th to 31st August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially when accompanied by this little beauty.

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

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

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

What a send off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was the Prisoners Gate …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another park and another bridge for me to stand on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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