Thursday, August 28, 2014

Only in Wallonia

Today, I decided to have an away day. Owing to all the commitments and deadlines I have this summer, there's been no time for a holiday as such, so I felt that having drafted several sections of my dissertation and done a heap of boat work, I deserved some hours off. So, with Koos in Poland and too much rain for painting, I went south to seek the company of those wonderful Wandering Snails of note, Anne and Oll.

Their narrowboat, generally referred to simply as Snail, was moored at Pommeroeul which is a lovely village in the far south of Belgium. However, as is often the case, the canal is a good stretch from the village itself and the Snail was moored at the junction between the busy and much used Canal Nimy Blaton-Peronnes and the Canal Hensies-Pommeroeul, which is no longer accessible to boaters owing to serious silting at the French border through which it passes (a long story for perhaps another post). As a result, there is a large lock at the junction with the canal from Blaton to Peronnes that is no longer in use.

Canal junction with the lock being the thin blue line between
the two basins

It is a lovely spot, even when the weather is bad (as it was today). I have been there a couple of times before but hadn't matched the name to the place until I arrived. There is a wide basin just before the lock and the sense of space and even solitude is marvellous (see aerial photo here). I'd had what might be called an 'interesting' drive down given that I got lost three times on route and endured Sindy shouting at me every time I slowed down to find out where I was. Added to that, it poured with rain for most of the journey, and I was an hour and a half later than I said I'd be. As a result, my sense of humour had taken quite a hammering by the time I pulled up next to the jetty. Even so, it was lovely to step out of the car (in the drizzle) and breathe in the fresh (damp) air and take in the space and tranquillity of the place again. It was also wonderful to see Anne and Oll again and we spent some good catch-up hours together.

But there is one thing about the lock at Pommeroeul makes it particularly special. In fact, it empitomises what makes Belgium, and particularly Wallonia, such a fascinating country. This ├ęcluse hasn't been used for twenty years, yet it is still manned and the lock keeper is there in his office on a daily basis. About the only work he has to do as far as operating the lock itself goes is to open the gates occasionally to let a boat in so the crew can fill up with water; other than this, he has no other locking duties to perform. Twenty years. To have a job that is no job. Almost unbelievable isn't it?

The rather grand and business-like lock keepers office

The lock from the end closest to the Blaton-Peronnes Canal

When I heard this I could only shake my head in wonder and laugh. Belgium is always full of surprises. It is the home of surrealism and somehow this disused, but permanently manned lock sums it up for me.

There is something very gallic about it too - and it reminds me in a way of the automated locks in France that don't operate at lunchtime (true). A quirk that fits in well with the French reputation for their love of lunch.

But this is even more mystifying. Perhaps it is because the Belgians take the quirks just one step further, and the Wallonians, (being French-speaking) go another step beyond that too. So what can I say except what my title says? Where else could this happen? Nowhere else of course. Only in Wallonia.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The heart of the matter

My post before last was about the history of the Vereeniging, and one of my long standing blog friends, Mel of The Heron's View fame, asked about the engine, an at once sore and dear subject. The sore part is that I had to have the lovely old Industrie engine as shown in that post removed, so I thought I would take this opportunity to explain why.

The Vereeniging was 'born' in 1898 with a Van Rennes parrafin engine  like this:

Thanks to for this image

This served the Mur family until 1921 when it was replaced by the single cylinder semi-diesel hot bulb engine I described in my earlier post. When I bought the Vereeniging, this lovely old beast had been lovingly restored by the previous owner. In actual fact, I think the barge itself was merely the housing for the engine as far as he was concerned. I was very proud of my Industrie motor for many years, but the truth of the matter was that it did rather dictate what we did with the barge. It was very difficult to start - needing large quantities of compressed air and a good technique for 'bursting' the air into the cylinder -  not to mention gas bottles to fuel the burner for pre-heating it. The process of getting it going took a good half hour but if you counted in the time it took to fill the air bottles, this was more like an hour and a half.

Then, when we were on the way, I had to constantly re-fill its little oil pots that were positioned around its bulk because all the wonderful, but largely mechanical moving parts had to be kept lubricated. This meant diving down into the engine room at regular intervals and risking losing limbs in my attempt to avoid the spinning (and massive) fly wheel as I topped up each of these small receptacles.

Nevertheless, I was happy to put up with this as long as the engine remained reliable. In the end, though, it wasn't. It let us down on three separate occasions, the worst of which was when it just died in the middle of the Hollandsch Diep - a huge open stretch of water between two of Holland's southern peninsulars. In many ways, this was the deciding event for me and I realised with a mixture of sadness and resignation that much as I loved the Industrie, I wanted to 'fare' safely even more. The engine had to go. Here is the film of when it was removed with dear friend Philip (of Watery Ways fame), who bought it, looking on.

However, I still wasn't prepared to sacrifice authenticity completely and as a replacement, I found a 1955 Samofa two cylinder engine - another classic, but easier to both turn over by hand and also to convert to electric start. It took a massive amount of work to install it and adjust it for the Vereeniging, but in the end, with its push button starter, I was delighted with my 'new' old motor. And best of all, it still made the same wonderful clapping sound as the Industrie did. Here below is the film I made of it being installed.

So there we are. That is the story of the Vereeniging's engine. The Samofa is still going well and so far, has never let us down. We don't fare far these days (my work is too busy), but when we do, we can at least just start and go… and keep going...and we still have a wonderful old classic to show for it.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Decking the sail

So I have a new decksail, otherwise described as a raincoat for my barge. And I'm very happy with it. It looks so much neater, cleaner and just simply better than the older, but very expensive canvas one I mistakenly bought two years ago, thinking it would look more authentic. In the end, it just looked a mess. And leaked.

I really need a decksail at the moment because my hatch boards are not sealed and I have no steel roof under them. However, I have to say it's been quite an adventure getting the new one in place - what with my limited transport means on one hand and the torrential rain we've recently had on the other.

I ordered the decksail a few weeks back from a company based in the north of Holland (the province, not the country). It arrived at our boat yard in the Oude Haven in a big box last week, so I went to the post room and looked at it in some perplexity. Trying to lift it proved beyond me - it was not only heavy, but very bulky, so I came up with another solution. I have one of these shopping trolleys that lots of elderly people use. I barely used it for ages, but I now know why they are so useful.

They are brilliant (both the people and the trolleys) because they can carry all sorts of stuff quite apart from shopping - a real boon if you have to move of things around without the help of motorised wheels. In most cases, this includes things like the weekly washing and materials for the re-cycling bins. In my case, I decided mine could carry my decksail from the yard to the barge. Luckily, one of my neighbours, the benevolent Bas, was there while I was wrestling this loosely rolled length of brown pvc out of the packing box. Given that it was rather like manhandling a drunk and out-of-control snake, I was really grateful he was there and he very obligingly helped me control the beast and get it into the shopping trolley ready to transport to the Vereeniging.

This is what it looked like:

So then I wheeled it down to the Vereeniging and managed to load it on to the gangplank. To my delight, both wheels fitted neatly between the sides of the plank and I could push it carefully down to the end. Then I lay it on its back, nipped back up to the quay and went down my neighbour's plank so that I could lift it onto the deck from its recumbent position on my own plank. I know none of this is all that interesting in itself, but it goes to show how patient you have to be with some of these things - especially when you're on your own (Koos was busy with other things in another part of the country). Getting it inside would have challenged me just too much if my daughter hadn't turned up and helped me heave it through the hatch and down the stairs. It stayed in a corner until this last Thursday, which I dedicated to the day of the decksail.

The first step was to remove the old one - another exercise in problem solving. I had to get the mast out of the way and move everything off the hatch boards before I could take it off. As I'm not all that strong, moving the mast proved interesting. It involved a five pound hammer and a good deal of grunting peppered with wild expletives. Removing the chimney from my stove was much the same except I avoided the hammer for this stage of the proceedings. The risk of polluting the whole harbour with carbon from its rather encrusted lining was enough to incur a several thousand euro fine. Lastly, I took off the roof window, which needs some repairing anyway. This required the help of a large screwdriver which I used as a mini crowbar because all the screws holding it in place had rusted solid.

Eventually I managed to clear everything and clean the underlay ready for the new decksail, which I heaved out of the hold and spread out. But then the Dutch weather decided to play its usual summer card. Up to this point it had been sunny and warm as the men on the news had predicted, but as if from nowhere, a huge black cloud sneaked over the buildings behind us and deposited its load directly onto my barge. Leaving the decksail untied and unfixed, I threw everything vulnerable inside, grabbed Sindy, who'd been snoozing on deck, and rushed for shelter. We spent the next half hour in the yard post box chatting with a charming old gentleman who'd also taken cover there while we watched the deluge going on outside.

So much for the forecast of a dry day.

When I made it back to the barge, I was much relieved to find nothing had blown away, so I continued fitting and fixing my wonderful clean, shiny, neat and very brown new (but wet) decksail into place. It took two more downpours before it was done, but this time I stuck them out getting totally soaked in the process. As a result, its arrival on the my barge's scene feels like something of an achievement.

So, in honour of the first day on show, here are a couple of photos. You might not notice much difference yourselves, but to me, it's quite magnificent. And at least it won't shrink or fade (much). Or get mouldy. Or be difficult to clean. Altogether now…a huge sigh of relief!

Note the still wet decks. In fact we had three downpours
during the afternoon.

"This is my good side"

A beautiful pair of historic barges

Monday, August 04, 2014

A piece of floating history

Just recently, I've joined a group called Women on Barges on Facebook. It's a lovely forum where women from all over the world share information about the boats they live and travel on. Many of them live on historic barges as I do, and they're very interested in the history of all the different vessels. As there is no specific place on the internet where there is information about my barge - at least not in English, I thought I'd do a post that compiles all the information I've gathered about my Vereeniging. I know I've written about it in different places and in my books, but I don't think I've ever written a complete potted history of my barge here, so for anyone who's interested, read on!

Roelof Mur
The Vereeniging is the type of barge known as a pakschuit, which is otherwise described as a small beurtschip (barges that followed particular routes according to a timetable). It was built in 1898 by Roelof Mur, a skipper whose family had been transporting goods along the canals of north and south Holland (the provinces, not the country) for generations. The Murs had previously used barges called trekschuiten which were pulled (trekked) by horses from town to town. They were often used as passenger carriers too. Here's a photo I found on the net of a reconstructed passenger trekschuit (thanks to

However, in the late 19th century, some barges were having engines installed to help skipper's maintain speed and reliability. Sailing barges would use both engine and sail power, but the Vereeniging, commissioned by Roelof Mur, was one of the first examples of a barge built solely for motor power. It was built in Alphen aan den Rijn under the name Loenen Amsterdam II at one of the two boat yards there, but sadly it is not known which one. I don't have the original meetbrief and things can get confused over time and with changes to documents, so it was either Boot or Pannevis, but I'll never really be sure.

A copy of the original photo taken of a newly-built
Vereeniging in 1898

You can see from the copy of an original photo above, it had a very slim loading mast and derrick, no winch and no rigging for sails. If you can enlarge the photo enough, you'll see that there is a man's face in the window of the engine room (the first window behind the hold)! I'll bet he was determined not to be left out of the image!

The first engine installed in my barge was a Van Renesse paraffin-fueled motor. This served the Mur family until 1921 when a semi-diesel single cylinder hot bulb engine from the Industrie works was installed in its place.

Single Cylinder hot bulb engine (1921) from the
Motorfabriek Industrie

The Vereeniging plied the canals and waterways between Amsterdam and Alphen a/d Rijn, but it was built to its specific dimensions (19,5 x 3,2 metres) so that it could pass through one particular lock on the Oude Rijn, which would only take barges of that width. The cargo it carried was varied and consisted of any goods that needed transporting between the smaller towns on these waterways, sometimes even cattle (or maybe sheep). You'll have seen it has a very large foredeck (four metres long) which is also pretty flat. This would have been space where non-perishable goods could be loaded and perhaps the odd cow or small flock of sheep (I'm guessing here). 

It also has a small back cabin (the roef) which still has the original bench seats and cupboards. This was where the Murs accommodated a few passengers on their travels, combining the two uses of a trekschuit.

The only archive information I've been able to find is of some small newspaper reports about transactions with lock-keepers and one small piece where Mr Mur helped to break the ice on a canal with the Vereeniging's sharp bows. Other than that, I think its history is very mundane. It was not designed to sail, so never crossed the wider waters; it was not requisitioned during the war, so no excitement there. As I've said before, I expect the only drama in its life was the odd argument with  other tradespeople and bargees. My barge has a very strong and substantial berghout or rubbing rail, so in any argument with other barges, it would probably come off best. Maybe a cause for contention! Since pakschuiten with these big rubbing rails were very common at one time, they probably gave more than a bit of credence to the whole idea of people just 'barging in'!

A substantial berghout  or rubbing rail

When it stopped being in service in the 1960s, it was used for a time as a holiday boat and some changes were made to the superstructure. The family Mur kept it until 1997, when it was bought in a very sorry and neglected state by an engine enthusiast. He restored much of the superstructure to its former configuration, as well as repairing the very holey roef.  However, he spent most of his time and energy on the engine room, rebuilding and restoring the old Industrie. 

Some people have not forgiven me yet for replacing that with another, later classic engine, but that's another story for another blog. Maybe the next one…

So that's about it - the story of my barge. It's not a very exciting history, but the fact that it's still floating in a very authentic state is, I think, pretty special. I still need to have a proper loading mast and derrick made, but that's an expensive undertaking, so it's had to wait. However, it is as original as I can practically keep it and has the honour of being a class A monument with the FONV, the Dutch Federation of old working barges. And finally, I have the honour of being its carer and custodian!

For information in Dutch, here is a link to the Museumschepen Rotterdam website.