Late Summer in Belgium – part 2

The voyage to meet Mieke and Frans

Canal Bossuit-Kortrijk, L’Escaut and Canal de L’Espierres

5 – 14 August 2021

Sluis 11 Kortrijk-Bossuit Canal; our first of the season.

(Think I have included far too many photos! Apologies, but hope you enjoy them)

Here we go at last! After 9 months of Covid- delay in the UK, and then quarantine in Kortrijk when we returned to Calliope, the day finally dawned when we could go cruising again. When we planned and bought Calliope in 2014 our whole idea was to spend six summer months of each year travelling the inland waterways of Europe and seeing cities, villages and the countryside from canal and river perspectives. So after 5 years of all going to plan it was disappointing in 2020 to wait until mid June to get started, and even worse this year to wait until the start of August! All Covid rules driven of course, and we do realise that we are so much luckier than many, having the health of ourselves and our family intact and owning this beautiful craft to escape to.

This was our first ‘naughty talk’ (Nautic Talk) experience. During the winter we had followed the advice of Mieke and Frans, Belgian bargee friends, to buy these in order to communicate much more freely along the length of a 19.8m boat when coming in to moor in locks etc. We certainly could hear each other better, including every bit of heavy breathing and burp! Joking aside, they are very useful.

We came up 1, 2, 3 small locks at the start go the Bossuit-Kortrijk canal with the assistance of a friendly lock keeper who journeyed by car between the locks. The last lock came out upon a summer school of excited young canoeists, who dashed safely to one side as we emerged.

Nature was very evident as we moved along – water lilies, young water fowl and plenty of green.

Our friends from Happy Chance cycled speedily ahead and took a photo of us passing through. It is always a treat to get a photo that someone else has taken as it can show both Stewart and I aboard – he is the shadowy figure in the wheelhouse!

We also passed by ‘Miss X’, the boat belonging to a Belgian friend of ours. He has sent many hours converting her from a fuel barge into a boat to live and cruise on. He is doing a great job!

Soon we came to our first big lock of the season. We were still rising along the canal, so easy to attach to the floating bollards at the bottom of the lock and float to the top!

The next lock, Moen, was the start of our descent and before too long after that we were mooring up for the night at the end of the canal just before Bossuit, the final lock down to the river Boven-Schelt / Haut-Escaut (depending on whether you are on the Belgian or French side/end of the river!).

That evening there was more of the constant communication between ourselves and Mieke, working out where we would meet. They would be coming from the opposite direction on the Escaut, having come down the Dender river, but were currently waiting at Ladeuze for a change in the weather. It looked like we would have a few days to kill and could look for a diversion.

A glass of beer – Kreik in my case, always seems to help with map redoing and course plotting!

We had agreed with the Bossuit lock keepers that we would take the 0900 lock down. As I was slowly getting up and enjoying my cup of tea I felt the boat moving and on looking out the window I spied a very large working barge coming out of the lock. She had just come up from the river below.

The lock was now ready for us, but luckily the lock keeper was happy to wait until I had my breakfast before we slowly and calmly dropped down 9.5m.

The lock doors opened and we were out to meet the Haut-Escaut – we were turning to starboard into the French speaking Wallonian section! A change of language was required – the one we find much easier.

The river opened up ahead of us as we set off upstream towards the junction with the Canal de L’Espierres – a small and relatively unused canal that goes through to Lille, changing its name at the Franco/Belgique border to Canal Roubaix.

The morning’s blue skies were wonderful for our trip – but the sun doesn’t always shine and within half an hour we were peering our through a rainy windscreen.

I was looking at the Visuris live water traffic app so that we would know of there were any commercial barges in the vicinity, and (apparently) there were none. Then we went round a bend to find two in front of us – and I realised that Visuris covers Flanders whilst we were now in Wallonia!

As Stewart began to plot his course between them I realised that we were passing the tiny entrance to the canal we wanted!

Luckily there is a very wide junction to allow barges to turn into the canal at the right angle, and after an unplanned 360 degree turn we were heading towards the Canal de L’Espierres, which looked so narrow we were not sure we would fit!

Of course as you get nearer it starts to look wider and as the Captain expertly steered is through, despite the cross wind trying to take Calliope off course, we saw that we had at least 1ft to spare each side!

Then we were through and the canal opened up a little wider as it bent away to the left. It was green and calm; here is where we could enjoy whiling away a few days until Mieke and Frans were moving towards us.

Soon we met our team of éclusiers for the L’Espierres part of the journey. They met us by the first lock and explained they would be with us through the next 3 lift bridges and another two locks.

The first lock was a delight, and a reminder of all the locks on small canals we have travelled. Then after the first lift bridge we saw a quiet mooring with a good pontoon so asked if we could stay there overnight. It was agreed they would join us again next  morning.

So moored up at Sainte-Leger we settled down for a quiet afternoon and night. The only excitement came from my walk the other side of the canal where I discovered a wonderful little dairy farm shop and returned with a bag of goodies! Oh and the arrival of another boat on the pontoon, owned by a very pleasant French couple who shared the journey with us next day.

Next morning dawned bright and sunny; just right for some toast with butter form the dairy farm, and the cows who made it seen in the distance.

Our team returned and the two boats set off. All seemed very tranquil until the second lock of the day at Leers-Nord, where three small boats came down, we went up, and then found our hoped for pontoon for the next few days was full.

Luckily we could see that there was also mooring against the steel shuttering along the bank, with good metal Ts to tie up to. But wanting to turn round we first made a short excursion into France to the nearest winding hole. 

Then back to Leers-Nord and tied up to the yellow Ts. And there we were right next to another Piper boat, ArchAngel, belonging to people we met briefly last year; lovely to see them again! We were invited on board that evening for a drink or two, and plenty of good conversation.

We all know each other far better now! And Stewart has met a new Belgian beer – a strong blond!

Apparently it means slob!

Back home for supper, followed by a glass of wine.

Sometimes the contrast between the outward natural calm of the waterway and inward mild chaos of our lives is almost captivating.

The weather was being very variable, from downpours and thunder to bright breezy sunshine. Seizing my chance I set off in the latter for an evening walk along the bank, briefly saying goodbye to Wallonia, then turning back as the skies darkened again!

Next day was a day at Leers Nord. There was a bread run to the local Del Haize supermarket, clearly set up for its role on the French border to see tobacco at a cheaper price than the shops over the border – the other side of the street!

And there was more maintenance and cleaning of Calliope in between the thunderstorms – she is starting to look quite spruce now. My cleaning efforts were observed by some very sad fishermen on the opposite bank! Eventually they did pass the time of day with something like a smile.

Each day I take at least a short promenade along the canal, mostly for exercise but also to discover flowers, insects (the non-biting varieties), birds and occasional animals. I have been amazed by burdock – presumably of the dandelion and burdock variety, which I have never knowingly seen growing before. I also love the wooden steps put against the bank to help her climb to of they fall in – only at the French end!

Then there are the incursions of the natural world into the wheel house – normally winged, and sometimes just the feathers picked up along the way.

And each evening, weather permitting, we sit on the aft deck, wondering at how lucky we are to lead this life.

Day 3 was a Sunday. Stu and I went to Del Haize again, for a bigger stock up this time. I turned a bit later to buy a few pants to replace the weeds in our two plant troughs. I was too late for geraniums this year and have made do with these.

Fingers crossed they will develop and become a bit more of a floral display!

In the early evening we went with our ArchAngel neighbours to the local bar, conveniently placed along side the lock only 150 yards away. Stewart was introduced to two new Belgian beers, each with its own special glass, while I had my usual Kriek. Only another 2990 of the current 3000+ Belgian beers to track down and try!

Then back to supper and another beautiful evening on the back deck, facing the setting sun and the new set of wondrous reflections in the water and across the stern.

We decided to stay one more day, mainly to make it easier for us to fill up with water when ArchAngel left the pontoon the following day. In fact Tony from ArchAngel appeared with a long hose at Calliope’s bow, offering this to Stewart so that we could fill up where we were! An ideal solution, but by then we were content to stay the fourth night at Leers Nord. This would fit well with what was now an arrangement to meet Mieke and Frans at Antoing in a few days time.

Overall it was a good lazy day. In the afternoon we thought we had time between showers for a walk along the canal into France, over the first bridge, and back into Belgium and Leers Nord on the other aside of the canal. But as can be seen, we got caught in a short downpour and sheltered under the trees. Nothing like good summer rain to freshen everything up.

Next morning we were joined by Kati – a local lady who Stewart had met the day before and invited to join us for the cruise to Tournai. She has cycled and walked the canal and river paths in the area all her life, but never travelled them on the water. The same friendly group of éclusiers joined us for the set of locks and bridges Calliope must pass, each a new experience for Kati who loved it all.

After an hour or so we reached the junction with the Escaut, and the opening up of our horizons.

Almost immediately Kati understood thew difference in traffic on the narrow rural canals, compared to the big rivers!

The river in this area is a real mix of rural scenes and industry.

The industry itself is another mix, from derelict to ultra modern, providing some interesting shapes, shadows and outlines.

By now Kati and I decided that it was a good time to open the bottle of Clairette de Die that she had brought, and enjoy an aperitif with our mini cruise.

The poor Captain could not join in!

Before long we were entering Tournai under the ancient watergate bridge which is currently undergoing massive modernisation to allow for the passage of the biggest commercial barges. Of course it is sad to see the dismantling of the 13th century Bridge of Holes (photo from our voyage two years ago), but also good to see that the rivers and canals of Belgium have a thriving barge transport system.

The artists impression of the final ‘new’ old bridge is not so bad so maybe it will be OK when finished – and if you, like me, thought the artist had made a mistake with the rounded towers, take another look. The towers are rounded as you approach Tournai, and flat within!

So this CAD drawing shows the bridge as approached from Bossuit direction.

We came on through the city, under the newest bridge – a slim attractive modern structure, looking for, and finding, the ‘port’, tying up just before Strelitzia appeared round the bend. Already Mother Duck had brought her brood to look for bread!

We were pleased to find plenty of space in the new port and it was simple to be safely moored. Calliope is at the far end, looking quite small despite her 20m! At the moment it is free to stay here in Tournai. There is electricity supplied through very modern low bornes with QR codes on top to access a supply, but our PV panels were keeping the batteries topped up sufficiently.

The new wall built to protect the port works very well so very little wash from the big barges.

After a pleasant sandwich lunch on board, and more Clairette to drink, we ventured ashore for a walk round this intriguing, historic city. Having Kati with us meant we got a non-selfie of the two of us together.

Hooray!

I have only included a few photos of the cathedral and the Grand Place, but there are so many old buildings in side roads and down allies that Tournai deserves much more than an overnight stop. However we were on a mission to meet up with these very good Belgian boating friends the next day, so one afternoon and evening was all we had there.

After a quick shopping trip to buy sunflowers for Mieke and contributions to a planned barbecue that evening we were off, out of port Tournai and saying goodbye to the coot couple living just across from us.

There only 6 kilometres to cover from Tournai to Antoing and it was less than an hour before we turned to port to find a mooring place immediately behind Dreamer, Frans and Mieke’s barge. And in the background, the fairytale Rapunzel style castle of the Prince des Lignes.

What a moment! Back together after 10 months of Covid separation!

Mieke and Me!

Then followed four days and nights of eating together, drinking together, walking together and talking together, captured by this gallery of fun.

All of this includes Google or course, their lovely 20 year old dog who comes everywhere in her own carriage!

We tried several times to visit with the Prince (ha ha!) but had to make do with our wanderings around the perimeter. Actually there are open days, and there was one the day we were leaving, but it was already fully booked so we did not stay on for the extra day.

The Captain and I also took ourselves for a stroll `around the small Antoing park – joyfully mostly in the shade on what turned out to be a hot day!

It is worth mentioning that the mooring here is surprisingly pleasant – and we were almost at the edge of the little basin. We had views out across the Escaut – almost always something going on.

Thus it was finally time to part company again. Mieke picked a wonderful wild flower bouquet to brighten our way ahead. They were on their way to meet up with family, not seen for many Covid-separation months, and we were off to do a loop into France – the next chapter!!!

Bye bye Antoing

Moving on to Kortrijk- along the Upper Scheldt and Kanaal Bossuit-Kortrijk

10 – 12 July 2019

I am going to try to bring brevity into this edition. It is after all only 3 days long.

At 7.40am we turned into the Upper Scheldt, known as the Haut Escaut at its other end in France. We had been surprised at 6.30am to find we were going down the two big Peronnes locks immediately, and therefore were turning into the river less than an hour later. (see previous blog post)

The advantage to this? It meant we would arrive at the Neptune Chandlery and gasoil barge before it opened at 8, and be first in queue.

We pulled in alongside, tied up and had a cup of tea while we waited, only to find we were waiting at the BIG commercial barge pump (red diesel) and had to pull along to the the little leisure boat pump (white diesel).

Not a problem. By 8.45 both tanks were filled, I had bought bread at the adjacent Aldi, and we had added the two volumes of the De Rouck waterways map from Reims to Rotterdam plus a mop to our gazoil bill.

Calliope headed down the river, and towards Tournai, passing fortifications with a historical tale to tell, families of mixed geese, and working barges.

Tournai has been a favourite place for people to moor, but this year the whole pontoon is undergoing restoration work.

What amazed me is how the ancient 13th century three arched bridge is still standing with so many huge boats passing through over the centuries. Apparently it was raised 2.4m in 1948 to allow the bigger barges, but now it may need to be widened for today’s even larger working traffic.

After Tournai the riverside was more rural – poplars, villages, wild birds and fields.

But still plenty of boats, commercial and pleasure, queuing for the low drop locks along the way, that seemed to be very slow in operation,

Maybe because of the work being done alongside them.

Leaving the waiting area below Bossuit lock

Finally we made it to the Bossuit lock, and the turning into the canal. A quick chat with the lock keeper ascertained that they would like us to wait an hour and go up through the lock with a commercial barge. Naturally we agreed and moored up to wait.

I took the opportunity to go to the lock office and buy our Flanders vignette. Whilst it is free to cruise in Wallonia, there is a charge in Flanders (€85 for 3 months or €135 for 15 months). The two lock keepers were very pleasant and helpful, and before I left they suggested that we should lock-up immediately as the commercial barge had been delayed – probably back at the locks we had eventually passed through that afternoon!

So up we went, 9.49m, using good floating bollards that had a sloping cone on top to help the rope slip down properly. Good idea.

The reach above the lock was wide, calm, tree and duck lined, and with a pontoon mooring just waiting for two weary travellers who had been up since 6!

Is it any wonder that we decided to stay there an extra day and rest?

Although the rest was a bit more tiring than expected. We were still on a mission to get fresh milk for Stewart and I found a small Intermarche supermarket about a half hour’s bike ride away, according to Google Maps.

We obviously do not cycle at Google Map speed; after an hours ride, albeit mainly through lanes and farmland, we arrived. And they did not have fresh milk! But they did have sandwiches and cold drinks, so after finding a seat along the road we had lunch with close up view of the N391.

We did get back eventually and after a snooze we settled down to a mesmeric mindlessness, watching first a little red survey boat chug slowly in and out of the lock. Then later watching two coots doing what coots do best – work hard at making a totally inappropriate nest, even though it is all drifting up and down the canal as the flow changed direction.

Next day Kortrijk! I was up and ready, for a change, mariner’s pigtail a-flap. We knew the route – two more biggish wide locks in the company of the Bossuit lock keepers, and then 3 shallow narrow locks with a bicycling lock keeper alongside.

We were soon up through the first lock – one of those where you shift your rope up onto higher bollards in the wall as the lock fills – then the second, and reached the narrowing of the canal an hour before our appointed meeting with the cycling lock keeper.

There was nowhere at all to moor by the lock so the Captain turned round and we tied up by a road about 200 yards back. This gave me two opportunities. One was to walk rapidly to and from a bakery for good fresh Belgian bread.

The other was to grab photos of some wonderful bird life – families of baby coots with their red and yellow crowns, young moorhen walking on lily pads, and, never quite in focus, a grebe that was albino white on one side – very strange.

45 minutes later we saw the lock doors ahead opening – manually. We hadn’t seen that for a while. And what a narrow lock entrance it seemed! We went from 12.5m wide to 5.15m, and Cap’n Stu steered us in perfectly, missing the coot family swimming lesson.

After the ‘massive’ drop of 1.8m we came out into what felt far more like a UK canal in days gone by, narrow, overgrown and beautiful. It was a similar scene beyond lock 10, and by then we were in the outskirts of Kortrijk, passing old warehouses and barges.

Out onto the River Leie

Then the final little lock, still with our cheerful talkative lock keeper and his bike, at Sluis 11, out onto the river Leie and a hairpin turn to port into the original river bend where we were to moor. The main river now bypasses this short stretch to accommodate the large modern working barges.

We carefully went under the 3m bridge, watching intently our new PV panels on the wheelhouse roof. Phew, they fit. And glided into a lovely pontoon mooring from where we could explore the old town and watch the birds on the water.

First evening out in the town provided moor good Belgium beer, and this time the frites and mayo Stewart had been hoping for.

We stayed in Kortrijk for about 4 weeks, so a separate chapter will describe this lovely place, and then back to cruising. So just a taste of our Kortrijk experience for now.

So I regret it wasn’t brief, but hope it’s been enjoyable.