From Blaton to Namur; a journey of 3 canals

22 – 27 July 2020

Canals Nimy-Blaton-Peronne, du Centre, and Brussels-Charleroi

As we left the Ath-Blaton Canal at Blaton and joined the Nimy-Blaton-Peronnes our hearts sank a little; we were leaving a narrow-gauge rural canal for the width of the commercial , industrial, super highway canal system again.

But we needn’t have worried, al least not at the start. Having negotiated the final 7 locks in the Ath-Blaton we still reached our next mooring by midday.

This was the Grand Large de Pommeroeul – an amazingly peaceful mooring on a very long pier in a large basin.There was only one other barge on the pier – somewhat larger than its and making Calliope suddenly microscopic! (It’s a bit of an optical illusion in fact, but don’t let that stop a good story…)

The basin was to be the start of the new Pommeroeul-H….. Canal, linking Belgium and France. However after 10 years of operation from 1982-92 the ‘siltation’ was so bad that out had to close. The Belgians dredged their side; the French, so far, have not – although it is due to be done by 2021.

In the meantime all the necessary equipment – locks, sluices, piers etc – remain unused. The huge lake after the first lock is now a leisure amenity for the locals, great for swimming, canoeing, fishing, jet-skiing and more.

We took a walk (2.5kms) into the village of Pommeroeul, famous for its ‘croncq clocher’, the crooked steeple of the church, and its iguanodons. I have photos of the former, but not the latter. The museum of the iguanodons should be visited if you like dinosaurs; in the 19th century coal miners discovered a huge mass of fossilised dinosaur bones including several full iguanodons, crocodiles, birds and other.

Our view out across the Grand Large changed rather when a second commercial barge joined us. It was from the Infinity group; we have met up with several of these barges and the crews have always been polite and friendly, so no surprise when later on the Captain walked along the pier for a chat.

The change in view made no difference to our enjoyment of the evening in the sun at (almost) the centre of a wide open water space. Cheers!

We awoke to another glorious day and were off Eastwards along the canal.

Now it did begin to seem more industrial! This would continue through most of our journey past Charleroi and a bit beyond! (Great photo LJ)

At Mons we moved seamlessly from the Nimy-Blaton-Peronne canal onto the Canal du Centre. The occasional more rural scene did appear.

And we had the first of our larger locks, 5m deep and about 80m long, shortly followed by one of 10m depth. We ascended both with no problem, with the floating bollards in the big one making things much easier.

At Thieu the quay was mainly empty; we were soon moored up and could have lunch. All very peaceful.

Boats went by.

Fisherman (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) came and went.

Then there were three things of interest that happened over the next 21 hours …..

….. we walked up the old Canal Historique, getting great views of Ascenseur 4, the final downstream one of the four that took barges up and down prior to the new(ish) method.

We were also allowed into the working area. The old Ascenseur works using two boat lifts and the counterbalance of water to raise and lower them. Although water supplies the ‘muscle’, it is still manually operated. (Smelled like an old machine shop too – Mmmmmmm)

It is a lovely walk along the old canal historique to Strèpy. Last time we were here the annual festival was on and it was a very lively place all along the canal bank – much quieter this time.

We searched for a bar with a nice open seating area – still on the 1.5m distance coronavirus rules – but only found this one bar open; friendly and good beer.

You can get good sense of the grandeur of the aquaduct leading up to the top of the modern boat lift when walking the old canal path.

And also good views of the ascenseur (the boat-lift) over the top of the lower part of Strépy.

On the return from our walk we were a little alarmed to see lots of blue flashing lights near Calliope! As we got closer it was clear it was not a boat in trouble. A car had gone into the canal, luckily with no people inside.

After 2 ambulances, 3 police cars, 2 fire brigade vehicles (one for diving equipment) and a car from the Wallonian waterways authority, the rescue got underway. A car breakdown truck completed the team and a yellow VW Polo was dragged out.

The last of the interesting events at Thieu was the planned one – going up, next day, on the Strepy-Thieu Ascenseur.

We came down it last year, so it was not completely new, but it is spectacular and amazing in its engineering and views nonetheless.

So no apologies for all the photos. I was amused by the ‘Risk of Decapitation’ sign – I managed to keep my head.

We continued along the modern Canal du Centre, through the Porte de Garde, with black clouds looming. But they came to naught.

At the end there is a T junction with the Canal Brussels-Charleroi. We were expecting this to be horribly industrial – our memories did not serve us well because it meanders along between gentle green hills for quite a way. (We know Charleroi itself will be a different story!)

The mooring plan was to be above the lock at Viesville, where we stayed last year. This worked out fine; plenty of space

We knew there was the chance of being gradually surrounded by gentle-giant commercial barges as they came in to rest overnight, but in fact only one arrived, reflected magnificently in the evening light.

Even the lock had an industrial beauty that evening.

More interesting was the boat moored below the lock – another Piper barge that we had been communicating with for about a year, but never met, so we walked down the hill to say hello to El Perro Negro and crew.

They were waiting for a diver to return to fix a new impeller in their bow thruster, to replace the one damaged by something in the water – always a risk along the waterways.

After that pleasant interlude it was back to Calliope for supper and a stroll along the bank, before bed.

As we left next day the rain arrived as we descended the lock – quite a deep one at 7m.

Below the lock we passed El Perro Negro, waving and promising to meet up again soon, which in fact we did that evening, after a long days cruising for both boats.

We had a couple more 7m locks to go down before Charleroi – both happily with floating bollards and small bollards in the wall, spaced reasonably for a 20m boat if you get in the centre of the lock.

It was still felt quite ‘country’ as we came through those last two locks, with herons and other birds still in evidence.

We were ready for the industrial nature of Charleroi, rather run-down and abandoned, and found this graffiti really cheered it up.

Stewart has on his mind that Charleroi is a horrendous place to take a barge through. Certainly last year it was quite early on in our experience of Belgium’s big canals and massive barges. There are double right-angle blind bends moving from Canal Brussels-Charleroi Canal to La Sambre and it is right to proceed with caution.

The lock in Charleroi is right in the middle of current and redundant industry. Sounds of crashing metal ring out all around.

And one must be extra aware of commercial barges coming towards you as you leave this lock as you enter a length of waterway where you drive on the left – not the right! It’s a ‘blue boarding’ area if you are over 20m; with Calliope just under 20m we don’t have blue boards, but Captain said I should be ready with a large blue seat cushion, just in case.

It was now just one day away from additional crew joining us at Namur, so we made an emergency stop at Tamines where you can more up right next to a supermarket – although several feet below pavement level!

Just a few kilometres on and we could finally stop for the night at Auvelais. The pontoon here is quite a sweet place to stop, although there seemed to be more trains than last time we were here! Not long after El Perro Negro arrived, diving work on the bow thruster complete. Cause for a joint celebratory drink with them; just the right end to the day.

After the pleasant aperitif interlude, and after supper, I went for an exploratory walk looking for the local Intermarché. Although we had shopped earlier that day we had not managed to find fresh milk – often a problem in Wallonia. In climbed up and up towards a main road, suddenly finding myself in a lovely woodland war cemetery – far from what I had expected and very quiet and peaceful.

My walk back was on the opposite bank (don’t ask!) and I caught a different view of the mooring along with some old Auvelais riverside buildings.

Next morning we were off down to Namur to moor up and be ready for our guests arrival at the station. First things first – I went over to the village to get some fresh bread for our lunch – in the rain.

We set off quite early for us, now in the sun, and soon reached the first lock at Mornimont, where we were told we must wait for two more boats to join us. Oh well.

It turned out that one of the boats we were waiting for was El Perro Negro! They had phoned ahead to the lock before setting off and we then waited 40 minutes for them to catch us up. Could have stayed in bed!

We continued on down the Sambre, passing the striking abbey at Floreffe, particularly magnificent as we passed with this ‘biblical’ sky behind it.

Two hours later and we were moored up in Namur, on the Sambre, tied to railings and with a hanging wall for company.

The debarkation method was interesting, and tried out after lunch; it works.

Then we rested and waited until time to go to the station and meet new masked crew – our eldest two, Amanda and Ashley, who had travelled ‘coronavirus-safe’ all the way by Eurostar and Belgian rail to Namur.

It was so good to have them aboard – competent crew to be tested on our cruise down the Meuse.

They arrived a day after Belgium announced that masks must be worn in all public areas, including streets, and only taken off at home or when you sit down at a bar or restaurant – which we did several times over the next 30 hours.

We had a full day next day in Namur, and used it to cross the Sambre and explore the amazing citadel up above the other side. The ‘Searching for Utopia’ by Jan Fabre – it is a self portrait astride the turtle and a copy of the one we saw in Nieuweport last year.

The views from the citadel are amazing as I am sure you can imageine. Here are a few from the top.

The happy captain playing games – can you spot him?

We spent the second evening aboard Calliope, starting with a good selection of starters, which attracted a wasp that got trapped in Amanda’s hair – the brave Captain chased it off!

We were also joined by geese who guzzled up any spare bread we had on offer!

As the sun got lower in the sky there was the occasional swell in the water as big barges with friendly crew passed gently by.

An extra evening stroll found not only another bar to try, but also another marvellous sculpture by the river – a bronze sculpture, encrusted with ceramics, of the magical bay horse Bayard with the four sons of Aymon astride, seeming to jump over the river Meuse.

Stu’s designer eye was drawn to the new art/culture building on the banks of the Sambre, with its beautiful staircase.

Returning to Calliope we all enjoyed the changing skies as dusk drew in.

And so, having looked at the mighty Meuse from several angles, we were ready next day to move onto it and go down to Huy. (Pronounced in French: ‘Oi!’ felt right at home Mush)

In the morning Stu gently took Calliope down the final half kilometre of the Sambre, past buildings old and new …… (I do like that building a lot )

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!