Sunday, August 21, 2016

Exploring the canal to Eeklo, a Belgian dream world

We've been at it again - faring, that is. The pull of those unexplored watery corners of Belgium was too strong, and anyway, we still had more than a month's worth of Flemish vignette to use (for those who missed my last explanation, this is a cruising permit valid for a specified period of time - in our case, three months). 

Only three weeks after returning from our trip to France, we packed our Hennie H and set off again towards Ghent on the now familiar sea canal, but instead of going into the city as we did before, we took a different route. The Ringvaart, which is the watery version of a by-pass road, is like a huge moat that goes roughly two thirds of the way around Ghent. We turned right onto it from the sea canal and motored slowly between quaysides lined with working barges until we reached Evergem lock, just before the junction with the Ghent to Bruges canal. 

It's a massive lock, incredibly wide at 27 metres. If they use the whole basin, it is 235 metres long, but when we went in, they only used part of it, still an impressive 92 metres. There were two other cruisers with us and we had oodles of room, so much in fact we almost didn't know where to stop. It was a bit like choosing a place in an empty car park. The rise was only a metre or so, but due to its massive capacity, it took a while to fill and then we were off heading towards Bruges. But not for long.

A sideways look at the Ghent to Bruges Canal

About six kilometres from Evergem, we pulled in to a jetty in front of a beautifully restored lock; Schipdonk lock to be precise. It is part of the Afleidingskanaal der Leie, which crosses the main route to Bruges at this point. Heading south it carries all the big commercial traffic going to France, but from this lock north, it is only for pleasure craft heading to Eeklo.

We started our travels on the thick blue canal (denoting a sea canal)
just north of Zelzate. Travelling south, we turned right onto the
yellow Ringvaart, then headed towards Brugge/Bruges.
Then we followed the small, grey line
heading north to Eeklo, When we came back we carried on round the
yellow Ringvaart south of Ghent/Gent

Entrance to the lock at Schipdonk leading to
the canal to Eeklo


Inside the Schipdonk lock - one of the
prettiest I've ever seen
I have to say the restoration work they have done is perfect and it is the most prettily painted lock I've ever seen with its brightly painted red bollards and vivid yellow ladders.

Towering trees, waving reeds - along the canal to Eeklo

Once out of the lock, we entered a kind of dream world; the canal is too beautiful. Tall poplars towered majestically above and reeds bowed and waved gracefully as we passed. After a couple of kilometres, we decided we'd done enough for the day and we found a handy wall to pull into. At first we threw anchors into the bank to secure ourselves, but then I took our boat hook and converted it into a machete (of course) to clear a small path through the brambles. We then pulled a long rope up and wound it round the nearest tree, securing it to the Hennie H at the other end. This felt much more reliable should a speeding cruiser pass - and a few of them did. We kept the anchor at the stern end, though, and we only tied to two trees when we came back to the same spot on the third day.

Our overnight mooring - very informal and improvised

Evening on the bankside
An increasingly rare sight in Europe - cows in fields

The next morning we went walking to the nearby town of Zomergem, had coffee, and then walked back through lovely rural pastures to the Hennie H. Time to move on again...slowly.

A pleasant canal-side property

One of many bridges along the way
We carried on along the canal enjoying the breeze from its magnificent trees and the charm of the pretty countryside until we came to the end of the nagivation at Balgerhoeke. There is a low railway bridge there that used to be lifting but it rises no more, so we knew we would have to turn round and go back. Still, Koos wanted to reach it and it was just as well he did, for no sooner had we got there than we heard a long toot and a museum steam train crossed the bridge. We couldn't believe how lucky we were. What a moment to have arrived!

A steam train crossing the bridge! Yes, it is!

After turning, we headed back along the canal and spent another night in the reeds before taking the branch canal towards Eeklo. The earlier map (see above) shows the side arm that we followed. If you'd like to see more, then here's a link

At Eeklo, there's a factory where they make the unique Dutch/Flemish biscuits and spread called Speculoos. I took this photo for my friend Stuart, who is totally addicted to the stuff. Stu? See what you missed?

A rather special factory where uniquely Flemish/Dutch biscuits
are made in Eeklo

There were lots of boats moored along the canal, many of which were owned by British people, but we didn't see any on board - British people, that is. There were also a few English narrowboats, much to my surprise. Here's one of them:

The Romany Princess: a narrowboat we saw when we were
on our way to France. Sadly, there was no one at home this time

We spent a second night at our glorious informal mooring (see above re the second rope) and then the last night on the canal at a mooring just before the lock. In the morning, we noticed the lock gates were open so we went in. There were workmen doing very dusty stuff on the other side of the wall, so we retreated again to the entrance to avoid the regular clouds filling the air. In the meantime, Koos called the service number and was told the lock keeper would be there in about 30 minutes. 

However, not long after this a couple arrived in a cruiser. The somewhat agitated woman sitting in the bows screamed at us to move forwards. Koos tried to explain we were waiting for the lockie, but didn't want to go further in because of the dust. Well, she was having none of that and threatened to call the police. We were a bit flummoxed by such an extreme reaction, but Koos, being a conciliatory soul, just motioned to me and we pulled the Hennie H forwards into the lock, so they could come in behind.

The next thing we saw was her husband closing the gates with his own windlass. It seems that if you have a mooring at Eeklo, you can operate this lock yourself as a member of the club. If only she'd told us instead of being so antagonistic. Ah well, such is life. She didn't look very happy, though, so maybe that was her normal condition. Or maybe her other half, who was infinitely more amenable, had whispered sweet nothings in her ear...

Back on the Ringvaart, the main watery by-pass round Ghent

Back on the Ringvaart, we headed towards Ghent again. We were going to keep an appointment to meet long time blogging friends, Anne Marie and Austin, but that was the next day, so in the interim, we decided to spend the rest of the day on the lovely Leie south of the city. It was very tempting to turn left at this point and head for France!

On the real Leie river...turn left for France

We spent a glorious afternoon and evening at a favourite spot in Drongen, where we did odd jobs and swam in the river, greatly encouraged by two charming girls who were enjoying the hot weather on the riverside close to us. I think if it hadn't been for them, I would definitely not have risked the cold water, but it was very refreshing. Koos, on the other hand, took several dips. And he doesn't even like swimming, which (I think) says something for the attractiveness of the sirens, but he denies it all. On Thursday morning, we set off into Ghent and Koos dropped me off at a strategic point to walk to the station to meet our friends. It was wonderful to see them and the years since their last visit melted away in seconds. Once we were back on board, we had a marvellous time cruising round the city, then stopping in a side canal for lunch and lots of catching up before setting them back on the road as close to the trains as possible. A peak day!

One of Koos' wide angle 'unreal' photos this, but it gives an idea of the
lovely afternoon we spent in Ghent with our dear friends, Anne Marie & Austin

Back on the Leie for one last night with just the reassuring sound of trains (no sirens in sight), I noticed this pretty boat. I'd love to get my hands on it!

A nice project for someone? Back on the Leie after
our tour through Ghent
 On Friday (I think), we started out for home. We motored back round the Ringvaart, through the huge Evergem lock again and on until we came onto our home stretch on the Ghent to Terneuzen canal.

Heading back to Holland - in one of the Ghent harbours

We spent our last night of the week on the lovely Moervaart and on Saturday morning, our family joined us for the final leg back to Sas van Gent. I don't know what our total distance was this trip, but I'm guessing that it was around 140 kms altogether. Not so much, but at our pace, that's a pretty good week's faring. Life in the slow lane suits us just fine.

Going home, we went back round the yellow Ringvaart, up the
thick blue sea canal a bit and then turned right into the thin grey
one, which is the Moervaart. To reach home base, we have to go
back again to the sea canal and head north of Zelzate.

The family joined us for the last stages of the journey home
My daughter enjoying the sun

The family gathering on the aft deck

A wise canine companion - sleeping on route

It was a lovely way to end yet another magical trip. I am now having to adjust to a static life all over again, but for now, I'll enjoy the peace and tranquillity of working!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Looking at Locks

Have you ever wondered about locks? I don't suppose many people do unless they have boats themselves and do canal cruising, but even so, I'll bet that even then not many people think about how many types of locks there are.

Sharing a big lock with the commercials
On our recent travels, I experienced a whole series of different locks. They came in a range of sizes from approximately 39 x 5 metres (the old single péniche locks) to a massive 125 x 16 metres (for the big commercial waterways).

A péniche sized lock on the Canal de Roubaix
Some locks are assisted and others, the large commercial ones, are not. In these, the controllers sit in high towers and all you hear of them is a voice through a loudspeaker...usually when you've done something they don't like. It can be quite unnerving to be barked at on full distortion volume, especially as you generally have no clue what they are barking at you for (did I just mention distortion?).

A cheerful lock assistant in Ghent

Locks also come in various heights and with different types of doors. I've been up (or down) everything from about 2,5 metres to 11 metres on this last trip. Most of the locks had two doors each end; some had one that rose up (or down) like a guillotine.

Close to 11 metres deep

Then there is the exciting anticipation of wondering what you will have to tie up to. After waiting sometimes more than half an hour to go in, there is plenty of time for me to worry. Every lock on this trip was an adventure and even though I got used to them, it was always with some nervousness that I peered into the yawning openings looking for what I would have to fasten my rope to. For instance, some locks have handy bollards or cleats in the walls. These are easy (relatively) as it's just a question of slipping your rope noose over the one your skipper wants you to take as you slide slowly in. Mind you, I would probably get the prize for missing the easiest bollards more often than even the newest of novices. I am chronically clumsy when it comes to these things.

Waiting for a commercial lock

Other locks might only have their bollards at the top on the wall. If you happen to enter an empty basin, this could mean climbing up slithery, slimy ladders to be able to fasten your ropes. Now this is okay when the climb is only a few metres, but I quail when it's more. After all, I'm not as young as I was when I started this barging lark but I'm quite proud of the fact I did it when necessary this time round too. I didn't even complain - not vocally, anyway.

The best locks tend to be the very deep ones that have floating bollards that rise up or descend with the water level. They are my favourites because you can tie up and forget about them - more or less. As long as the floaters actually float, everything works fine, but you need to watch that they do. Apparently, they occasionally get stuck, which might not be fun. In locks without floating bollards, you have to keep an eye on your ropes and either loosen or tighten them as you fall or rise, or even move them to other more convenient points. All this is fine as long as you aren't being buffeted around by the onrush of incoming water or by a commercial's propellor. They are supposed to turn their engines off, but often they don't and the power of their props can cause some very uncomfortable bashing around.

Deep locks with floating bollards are my favourites, especially
if we are alone!
Of course, we also had fun with the smaller locks that are operated by a telecommande or remote control. We had these on the Canal de Saint Quentain in France. By English standards, these locks are still quite big, but they are limited to a single péniche (39 metres by 5). The really big commercials cannot follow this canal as a result, and they have to take other routes.  At the first lock in the series, we collected a remote control and at each subsequent lock, we had to point it at the gates and hope it would activate everything, much like changing channels on the TV. It didn't always work first time and much fun was had guessing how close we would have to get to the gates before the system itself got into gear. We then waited for the lock to fill or empty as required, after which the doors opened. Then we entered, tied up and pressed the remote again.

With this system, if you are going up, you cling onto your ropes for dear life as all hell breaks loose when the water rushes in - well that's how it seems to me; Koos is much more relaxed about all the swinging around. Going down is a more gentle affair. Once the process is complete, the gates open and off you go.

Some smaller locks are uncomfortable when the water
rushes in
Lock on the Canal de Saint Quentin operated by remote control

It all worked very well most of the time and we really liked these locks. I say most of the time, because on a couple of occasions, the remote didn't work and we had to wait while a waterways volunteer came and figured out what was wrong. We weren't in a hurry, though, so it didn't really matter. The lack of pressure was very nice when we were in control, and when we weren't, there was no pressure from anyone else, so we had time anyway.

A do-it-yourself remote controlled lock on the Canal de Saint Quentin

So there you have it. A summary of locks I have known. Now I bet that was totally fascinating, wasn't it?

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

From Tournai to Wachtebeke

I promised I'd write a last post about our travels...well, I promised myself I would, although I have already started writing what will be an e-book based on my daily diary about the whole trip. This blog post, though, is about the last leg of our journey through Flanders.

We left Antoing on a day of scudding clouds that successfully obscured the sun for much of the time, so there was little need for the sunbrella and on occasions, we could have done with heavy duty umbrellas.

Within half an hour or so, we were on the outskirts of Tournai (known as Doornik in Flanders), following a huge commercial. Koos wanted to keep up with it so we could follow it through the any bridges that needed to be lifted through the city. For the large barges, they are done in sequence so it was worth going with its flow so to speak.

Approaching Tournai

Tournai Church from the water

Pont des Trous, Tournai

Tournai is impressive from the water and the magnificent Pont des Trous, which dates from the 13th century, remains as a testament to the city's historic importance. It is still more impressive to see modern barges inching their way through its central arch (heightened during reconstruction after WWII). I watched with baited breath as the barge we were tailing manoeuvred its way through with great care and skill. But I then realised the skippers who ply this route probably go through the bridge at least once a week if not more.

When we were out of the city, the tree-lined, Wallonian section of the Schelde continued. We shared the first lock out of Tournai with the same barge we'd been through the city with. The locks on this river are not as big as they might be and there was only room for one large commercial, so we snuk in behind it. Despite our mere fifteen-metre length, I have to say that even this felt too close for comfort.

Over the next few kilometres, we were both drenched and sunburnt by turns as those scudding clouds I mentioned earlier hid some pretty heavy showers. The river was lovely, though, and I enjoyed this stretch of Wallonian scenery very much. As we passed the entrance to the Canal de L'Espierres where we'd been just three weeks before, I almost shouted to Koos to turn left. How I would have loved to start over again.

Wallonia stretch of the Schelde/Scheldt/Escaut

At the next lock, we pulled up to wait our turn, and as we tied up, a smart white van sped along the towpath and stopped next to us. On the sides, I read 'Police de la Navigation'. Here we go, I thought. We'd managed to do the whole trip so far without being inspected, but it seemed our luck was about to run dry even if the weather hadn't (sorry). But, I reasoned, this was the last lock in Wallonia, so it was as likely to happen here as anywhere.

Out of the van stepped two smartly dressed officials.
"Have you been inspected yet?" they asked us.
"No," said Koos.
"Well," they said. "We may as well take advantage of your waiting here to do it."
My wicked side wondered  what they would have said if Koos had answered 'Yes', but it seemed that they would have had the details on the computer in any event, so I suppose the question was just a courtesy.

As it turned out, it was just a courtesy inspection too as all they wanted was our paperwork details and off they went with a smile and a cheerful wave. After all the stories I'd heard about Belgian inspections taking an hour or more, this was a relief.

We were now back on the stretch of the Schelde we'd started on, but instead of continuing to Oudenaarde after the Ecluse d'Hérinnes, we turned left onto the Bossuit to Kortrijk canal. Waiting before the massive door of the lock, I realised it must be a big one, but nothing quite prepared me for the surprise of seeing its cavernous size.

Commercial lock on Bossuit/Kortrijk Canal. Ten metres deep

It was (is) massive, as in very deep and is one of three that replaced eight smaller ones so as to service the industry on the canal. However,  there is little of that left, so pleasure boats are often alone and moorings are few. We went on, hoping to find somewhere to stop for the night, but the environs became busier and ever noisier with highway road bridges creating a roaring sound and wind that was actively unpleasant. Eventually, we came to the first of the last three locks: all small, all hand operated and all subject to prior arrangement. It was time to stop. Koos pushed the Hennie H's nose into the lillies in front of the lock. I climbed off onto the bank and found an old bollard to tie up to. And there in the sunshine, we spent the evening on the outskirts of Kortrijk.

Bossuit/Kortrijk Canal

Where we stopped...
The following day, we were helped through the locks in pouring rain by a friendly Flem. I could and should have enjoyed it much more as it was a very leisurely process and made me think this was what it must be like in the UK as Koos and the lockie both worked the paddles. We even did our bit by sawing off a tree branch that was lying across the canal after the first lock, and it was all good fun - just a bit too wet. And sadly, I have no photos as a result.

Once out of the Bossuit canal, we made a left and then another one and moored up in a side branch of the Leie running through the town of Kortrijk itself where we spent the night alongside another Dutch barge and were treated to electricity and water for a modest fee.

Mooring in Kortrijk

Our next leg of the journey was downstream on the Leie, a busy commercial river, fully canalised with very large locks, but there were only two of these before we turned off onto the old section of the Leie, which wiggles its way through pretty country with very rich riverside homes all the way to Ghent. We spent one night at Astene, the place where fifteen years ago we'd stopped on the way to Lille and learned about the 9/11 WTC attacks. Tragically, this time we heard about the Nice catastrophe while we were there. But it was as beautiful as I remembered; just busier. In fact the whole of the Leie was busier and more populated than I recall. Memory can be deceptive, can't it?

Deinze on the old Leie

Astene on the Leie
Unofficial mooring at Drongen
After a further night at a wonderfully unofficial mooring in Drongen, a suburb of Ghent, we arrived in the city on Saturday morning and enjoyed a sunny meander through its urban waterways. I had a heart-stopping moment when Koos decided he wanted to try and go under an extremely low bridge into the old city and was hugely relieved when he realised it wasn't to be. It was the start of the Gent Festival too, so as we headed out towards the big canal to Terneuzen, we saw friends from our own harbour who'd come for the fun and were visibly delighted to see and hear we'd been so far with the Hennie H.

Ghent - so beautiful from the water
(and land)
That there low bridge? Koos wanted to go under it.
Thankfully, he decided against it.

Not wanting to get back to our own harbour until really necessary, we made a last detour off the grand highway home (the Ghent-Terneuzen canal) by taking the Moervaart, a beautiful meandering twenty seven kilometre waterway that leads to Lokeren. Just seven kilometres along it, we were able to moor up for our last night at Wachtebeke, where the marina's harbour master made us very welcome. It was good to stop as it was very hot; it was also a fitting and lovely close to our fabulous four week adventure.

A perfect last night's mooring at Wachtebeke on
the Moervaart

The Moervaart: the big waterway on the left is
the Ghent to Terneuzen Canal