Sunday, August 27, 2017

Faring home: the end of the journey

When I posted my blog last week, we were still on the Canal de Roubaix at Leers. We eventually left on Sunday afternoon; neither of us really wanted to go at all and if we'd been able to squeeze one more night on the Belgian stretch, we would have done, but let me backtrack a bit first.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny. It was a lovely morning, so we decided to make a bit of a day of it and took the Hennie H back the way we'd come to the first (or last) bridge at Grimonpont. We'd noticed some good moorings there when we were on the way to Leers and we thought it would be fun to go and spend a few hours there. It was only about twenty minutes faring, but we enjoyed the move to this lovely spot.
Mooring at Grimonpoint

Looking towards the bridge at Grimonpoint
I took a walk around and found it an attractive and peaceful place. In fact, it is on the outskirts of both Leers and Wattrelos, so mostly there are just houses there, some of which caught my eye, like these two - one so vivid and colourful and the other so classically serious:

I loved these colours!

Symmetry and classicism  - seriously
We then cycled into Wattrelos, which had some nice architectural features. I quite liked the town altogether even though it wasn't very coherent.

I loved the upper windows on this house
and the pretty balcony

Looking down a side street in Wattrelos

The Wattrelos town hall complete with palm trees
and decorative paving

Wet paving always looks lustrous. This
was just after a shower

When we got back to the Hennie H, we called the Wallonia waterways service to ask if it would be possible to go through the locks beyond Leers. Being Sunday, we weren't sure if they would do it and it was already nearly 4pm. At first, they asked if we could wait till the next morning, but shortly afterwards, they called us back to say we could do it as there were some other boats coming through.
We cast off and headed back to Leers where a crowd was at the lock to watch the action. This is always fun as we know how fascinating it is to watch boats locking through - we do it ourselves all the time.

The Walloon lock keeper was every bit as nice and friendly as our French crew and he took us through the three bridges and two locks with great good humour and friendly banter. In truth, he was too good as we were tempted to stop on the way, but he was ready for us in advance every time so we didn't have the heart to say we didn't want to go further. This eight-kilometre stretch of the system is called the Canal de l'Espierres (the 's' seems to be optional depending on what you're reading) and it is absolutely beautiful as you can see below:

Tree-lined canals like this are just so Belgian. I love them

A lovely sight. This girl stopped her horse to watch us pass

One of the classic lifting bridges on the Canal de l'Espierres

Our delightful lock assistant. What a nice man he was/is

Magnificent barns around a village church
As we left the last lock and waved our friendly Walloon goodbye, I felt a great sense of loss. This was it now. The holiday was over and our return through Oudenaarde and Gent would be all too familiar. After all, we'd done it all last year on the way south. But I hadn't taken into account that everything looks different when going the other way. Added to that, this time the weather was beautiful (it poured with rain last year) so in fact I enjoyed it to the full all over again. The Schelde/Scheldt is a lovely river. It has a sort of majesty in its remote beauty as it winds its way north and down to the huge estuary the other side of Antwerp. It also has some of the industry we enjoy seeing so much, as well as being very busy with commercial barges. Here are a few images.

Waiting at a lock on the Schelde for a big one. The barge
that came out was 110 metres long!

The kind of industry I like seeing

Industrial art in heaps

We spent the night in Oudenaarde, a classical Flemish town on the edge of the Vlaamse Ardennes, so called because it is an area of outstanding beauty with some unusually high hills for this rather flat region. I like Oudenaarde, but for me it's a real sign of being close to home. Everything is familiar and normal, unlike France, which still feels exotic in its different customs and culture. Shops in Belgium open all day, as do restaurants - just like the Netherlands, so in many ways it is more comfortable; I love being in France almost because of its differences. All the same, it was good to be there and the morning light at our mooring was breathtaking.

Morning light in Oudenaarde
On Tuesday we made the final push for home. Once again, it was lovely weather - in fact even lovelier than the day before. I had such mixed feelings heading north. The river was magical, the skies were clear with picture book clouds and the scenery was a perfect mix of rural splendour and industrial loading quays heaped with a variety of sand, coal and cement. There were commercial barges aplenty whose skippers waved cheerfully to us. 

Huge commercial barges waiting to go through the lock
at Asper

Rich reeds and greenery

A lunchtime stop at Gavere

Industrial buildings on the Schelde

In other words, it was a perfect day, but all too soon, we were crossing the Ringvaart round Ghent and winding our way through my favourite of all cities. Again the mixed feelings fought each other: the sorrow of a journey reaching its end, but the joy of being on some of my favourite stretches of water. The lock-keeper at Brusselsepoort lock in Ghent was another lovely chap who cheerfully operated the lock manually (which takes time) and seeing we had trouble getting our umbrella down, he sped off on his bicycle to open a low bridge for us (Yes...his bicycle! All the other lock assistants we've had have driven vans - even to go a couple of hundred metres. I was very impressed with this one :)). 

The lock assistant in Ghent

Approaching the lifting bridge

There's much love for the Hennie H

Our passage here is the middle of a roundabout
 And at last we were back out on the great Ghent to Terneuzen Canal. As always, I loved being on this huge shipping corridor with its docks, cranes and turbulent, choppy waters. It never fails to inspire me and I felt my spirits lift, even as we headed for home.

And back out on the Ghent to Terneuzen Canal
We finally arrived in Sas van Gent at about 6:30pm. It had been a glorious day, both uplifting and poignant, but now we've brought the Hennie H to rest after two months of fantastic faring. What a great little barge our Hennie is! We can really give thanks that she never once let us down. We had a few battery issues but that wasn't her fault and she brought us safely and happily through 930 kilometres of glorious waterways. A big 'hats off' to our Shoe for her faithful service.

So that's it, allemaal. I hope you all have a wonderful week. I will have some other news next week, but for now, our journeys on the Shoe are over for this summer. Many, many thanks to all of you who have been kind enough to read these blog posts. I am so grateful for your kind comments. I've loved writing them for you and it's been a great way of cementing my impressions. Bless you all!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Canal de Roubaix.

Since last Friday evening, we have been on what is officially called the 'Liaison Deûle–Escaut' that consists of the Marque Urbaine, the Canal de Roubaix and the Canal de l'Espierres.  That said, most people simply refer to the whole stretch as the Canal de Roubaix.  The French part of the waterway covers the first two, while the Canal del'Espierres, which is a continuation of the same canal, is in Belgium's Wallonia. The organisation that looks after the French section is ENML, which supervises Lille's metropolitan natural spaces.

Lock at Marcq en Baroeul

I have to say this is really one of my absolute favourite waterways experiences. This is now the second time we have done it and we are loving it just as must as we did last year. From the Deûle end, it starts off on the beautiful canalised river Marque, on which there are just two locks. The first one is VNF controlled as there is a yeast factory used by commercial barges just before the second lock at Marcq-en-Baroeul. It is fascinating to watch these commercial péniches leaving the factory and returning to the river Deûle as they have to reverse all the way. The river is quite narrow, so at forty metres long, there is nowhere for the barges to turn round. However, they reverse out with such consummate ease, you barely notice they aren't going forwards. Since we had to wait for Monday to continue up the ENML locks, we had the opportunity to watch a few of these giants go past.

On Sunday evening, we moved up to the second lock to be ready to continue at 9a.m. We've been having battery trouble for a while now, so it was just as well we decided to make the move as the Hennie H didn't want to start and we had to charge the battery with the generator. Once again, we were thankful for our noisy little machine; it's got us out of trouble more than once on this trip and did so the next day as well. Once we reached the lock, though, the evening sun treated us to a beautiful display of golden light that even made the factory behind us look romantic.

Waiting at lock at the foot of the Canal de Rubaix
 On the following morning, we were joined by a cruiser owned by a couple from New Zealand. We'd seen their boat in Lille, so it was no surprise to meet them here too. The poor souls had been pick-pocketed in Lille, something which seemed to have shocked them deeply; they couldn't imagine that happening in New Zealand. It's not the first time I've heard how safe their country is!

At the lock we were greeted by one of the lock assistants that guide boaters through the whole system. I later found out that his name is Huyghe, an unusual Flemish version of what is probably Hugh in English. In any event, he is a real asset to the ENML. Open, friendly and very helpful, he presented us with a folder of useful information about the canal with maps, brochures and guides for all the places we would pass through. Most of the lock assistants in France only speak French, which is generally fine for us, but Huyghe did his best to speak clear, accurate English too, which must have been a relief for the New Zealanders (who spoke no French), so I complimented him and practised my English on him too... well, I had to, didn't  I? It would have been churlish not to...

Anyhow, we'd decided to stay in Marcq-en-Baroeul for the day, so we arranged with Huyghe to be at the next lock first thing the following morning to be guided up the rest of the system. Then at about 4:30pm, we wound our way to the end of the canalised river Marque section of the waterway. What a magical few kilometres that was. In glorious late afternoon sunshine, we fared gently through banks rich with pleasant homes, sweeping lawns, majestic trees and dense greenery. The moorhens and ducks were out in force too. I sat up in the bows and let the scenery drift silently past me. Walkers on the towpath waved, laughed and gave us a thumbs up. Now I know the Henni H is a charming boat, but I have a feeling the extra smiles had something to do with our garden parasol, which we tend to keep up when faring as long as it's not too windy. I think perhaps it adds a touch of quirky humour to our appearance, don't you?

We moored up below the first lock at the beginning of the Canal de Roubaix using anchors hammered into the bank as there were no bollards. Even so, I found a new use for a boat hook. We needed to make a hole for the anchor to sink into and I used the hook to dig down by screwing it into the ground. People out walking came to look and some were really amazed to see a boat lying there, especially a small liveaboard barge like ours. It seems that not many boats pass this way, or at least not enough for people to be really aware of them.

Leaving the first lock

Duckweed on the canal

 When morning came, we watched in dismay as a huge sausage shaped thunder cloud headed our way spitting forks of lighting from its depths. Within minutes, the rain was bucketing down and the world was an interesting (for that, read alarming) sound and light show as the thunder storm crashed around us. Fortunately, it didn't last more than an hour, so by 9am, we were able to move into the first of the flight of five locks in only light drizzle. By the second lock, the sun was shining again much to my relief.

Huyghe guided us through the flight accompanied by two other lock assistants. The three of them were so kind and friendly, they made the whole day a delight. They helped us with our ropes, checked where we wanted to put them and chatted to us while we moved up the system. The communication was perfect and once we were through the summit level, they advised us on where to stop and tie up while they went off to have lunch. 

The canal itself was everything that speaks to me. I loved the lush tree-lined sections at the beginning interspersed with canal-side houses and old industrial buildings. Then we passed through a more urban setting in Roubaix, which was where we stopped during their lunch hour just beyond two lifting bridges that form part of a roundabout. While there, some children from a nearby travellers' camp came to ask us about the boat. They were genuinely interested, as well as being funny and sweet, but they soon ran off when something else distracted them. Then a local man came by. He'd been wondering what Koos was up to when searching for a signal for his Wifi hotspot contract (more on that later). The two hour French lunch break thus passed very quickly and before we knew it Huyghe and the team were back to see us through the rest of the bridges and locks, which they did with all the friendly and professional efficiency they'd shown before. 

The next few kilometres were mostly through the urban area of Roubaix and it was so rewarding to see how the local people enjoyed seeing the boat. Fathers and kids on bikes followed us along the towpath and at one lock, a woman in muslim dress clapped her hands in delight at the Hennie H and blew us a kiss. Her smile would have melted an iceberg and I blew her a kiss too. It was instant mutual affection.

Beautiful rural scenery on the canal
Approaching Leers Nord
Then suddenly we were out of town and back into the more rural reaches of the canal. The bankside vegetation returned, rich with wild flowers and shrubs. Some fifteen minutes later, we reached the final lifting bridge before the Canal de Roubaix ends at the Belgian border. This was where we called our farewells to our lovely team of ENML lock assistants. They'd been absolute stars and when at the last lock, they asked us to write something about the service in their visitors' book, we had no hesitation in giving them a glowing report. Huyghe smiled as he read what we'd written.
'Thank you,' he said.
'It's a real pleasure,' I replied.
'For us too,' he finished. 'See you soon!'
'Definitely,' we called, and we meant it.
We waved until we couldn't see him anymore and went on with warm hearts to where the towering poplars marked our crossing into Belgium. Within a few minutes we'd reached Leers Nord and tied up to the pontoon where we stopped last year. It had been a wonderful day thanks to Huyghe and his colleagues. They are a credit to the ENML and I only hope more people cruise this lovely cut from the Deûle to the Schelde. We will certainly do it again.

It's now Saturday and we've been here at Leers for three full days. We've done some walking and cycling and enjoyed the relaxation immensely. We've had lovely neighbours in a WOBs* friend, Jude who was here with her husband, and another English couple I'll refer to as Rob and W. Rob is a former delivery skipper who regaled us with some wonderful stories of some of his adventures. They have both left now and we will be leaving tomorrow, so I'll  write about the Belgian experience (which I know will be great too) and our final trip home next week.  Enjoy your weekend allemaal!

*WOBs refers to a Facebook group I belong to called Women on Barges

And here's a photo of our wonderful team: Huyghe on the left and his great colleagues!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

On the way home: From Douai to the Canal de Roubaix

Evening sunshine in Douai
We are now approaching the end of this two month long adventure on the French waterways and are back in one of our favourites, the Canal de Roubaix, moored at Marquette (officially here it's the canalised Marque river with the real canal beginning a few kilometres further on). Anyway, this morning, Koos mentioned how much he loves being here, but then yesterday he loved being in Haubourdin on the Canal de la Deûle too. We agreed that maybe it's because he loves being on the boat and travelling from place to place. It's that special experience I certainly sought from a barge when I first bought the Vereeniging: being able to travel around and take your home with you.

On the way to Courcelles
We wake up in a different place almost every day, but our home is still full of all the familiar things that make life comfortable when travelling. Okay, in our case on the Hennie H, we are camping in comfort as we have few of the basics that we really have at home (no running water, no electricity unless we use our little generator and then it's a maximum of 1200w, no shower or bath) but even so, we have managed very well and it is much cosier than being in a tent, especially when it's raining.

I have done the washing by hand and apart from duvet covers, I've managed everything else; we have had showers in the marina where we stayed for a few days last week and also earlier on in the trip. Then there's the camping shower when the weather is warm enough to heat the water, and a bucket and sponge when it isn't. We use LED lights in the evening and just go to bed early instead of staying up to the wee hours as we are accustomed to doing at home.

Since last Saturday, we have only travelled from Douai to just north of Lille, so there isn't much to tell about the faring. We did this stretch going south too and the only difference is the weather, which is much cooler and rainier now than it was then. All the same, the light is always changing, and we are facing northwards instead, so Koos has taken heaps of photos on the way. This has given me more opportunities to steer, which I've also enjoyed. It's good that we can take turns, although Koos still does more of it and he does all the tricky manoeuvring. Of course, I do lots of practise for that in my head...😁

Morning mist over the marina in Courcelles
We spent several days at the gare d'eau marina in Courcelles where Koos' son visited us on Saturday and we had a visit from our friend David from Cambrai on Sunday. There is a quirky and quaint bar on the bank of the gare d'eau, where we enjoyed chatting to the locals about how things used to be there. Apparently, it used to be used extensively by passing péniches as an overnight stopping place, and it had a working ship yard as well. I chatted to one elderly gentleman who was on a real nostalgia trip about how good things used to be, and I must say, I'd have loved to have seen it in those days.

Looking out over the Gare d'Eau, Courcelles
Boat cats!

We left Courcelles on Thursday morning, as both of us felt ready to move on. What struck me (which I hadn't appreciated before) is that there are only two locks between Douai and Lille. They are both large and fairly deep, but nothing like those on the Canal du Nord. I think that having done all nineteen of those deep caverns in a couple of days, everything else will seem relatively tame by comparison.

Against the quay in Lille

Disused lifting bridge on old Canal arm in Lille

Another lovely bridge on the old canal arm, Lille

A pretty muse behind the quay in `lille

In Lille, we spent an hour walking around the Bois de Boulogne in the sunshine, taking photos of the old canal and its pretty bridges. Then we did the final stretch to the beginning of the Canal de Roubaix, picking up our télécommande from a very friendly lock keeper at Le Grand Carré, where I gave it back last year. This télécommande  is only needed for the first lock operated by the VNF. For the rest of the locks on the system, we will be guided through by the organisation that maintains the Canal de Roubaix (whose name I have forgotten at the moment). For that, we have to wait where we are until Monday, as it seems they don't work at weekends. Never mind. It's a rainy day and we are just relaxing on this lovely tree-lined stretch of river. Next week, we'll work our way slowly through the system to the Schelde/Scheldt at the eastern end and from there, we'll head home. For now, though, have a great weekend everyone.

Lovely Hennie Haha in Lille

Entering the Canal de Roubaix 

Friday, August 04, 2017

Slowing down: From Péronne to Douai

The peaceful beauty of the Somme

Last Sunday I said we'd be heading towards Valenciennes, didn't I? Well, us being us, we've changed our minds again and we have been in Douai for the night on our way to Lille and thereafter to the Canal de Roubaix where we spent some time last year, but to our mind, not enough. What changed our minds was the realisation we have barely stopped moving since we started and the three days we spent at Courcelles on the way down are the longest we have stayed anywhere. But we are going back there again tomorrow, and again, we hope to stay for a few days. A big plus for me is that apart from the peace, there are showers, something that's been rather lacking in our lives for most of this trip. Despite being dry most of the time, the weather hasn't been hot enough for my camping 'douchesack' to produce enough warm water for anything more than a hair wash. But enough of that. It isn't something I really want readers to dwell on...

Gorgeous bankside flowers

A poignant reminder of Sailly-Laurette's
connection with Wilfred Owen's poetry
The Somme in reverse was beautiful, but we didn't linger, except when we had to wait at locks until the lock keeper turned up. Since this involved an hour at Sailly-Laurette, the first lock back from Corbie, I took the opportunity to look around. What serendipity the delay proved to be. When I crossed to the other side of the the lock, I found a notice board describing how it was from this village on the river that hospital barges took the severely wounded to Amiens during the intense battles that took place on the front line in 1916. In fact, the inspiration for Wilfred Owen's poem, Hospital Barge, came from here. It was one of those moments when again, I felt deeply moved to be here, in this region, at this time - 100 years on from that dreadful and tragic waste of human life that was WWI.

Poppies or coquelicots, fitting floral tributes to this area

Waiting for the lock at Sailly-Laurette

 At the next lock, we had to wait again. According to the information, the locks are manned from 9 a.m. 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. The French have to have their food after all. However, what one has to take into account is that for them, they have to be at where they will be having their lunch by 12:30, which means leaving the locks earlier to drive home and arriving back later than 1:30 (because lunch itself only finishes then). The result is that you can count on at least an hour and a half's wait if you arrive just after they have gone, which is what happened to us. As luck would have it, we'd joined a gorgeous former police boat at the lock, whose Belgian owner was very proud to show it to us. The time went quickly and after that, we managed to go through all the subsequent locks and bridges until the last available stopping place before Péronne. Despite the noise from the TGV railway and the motorway, it was a peaceful mooring and we weren't in a great hurry to leave the next morning.

A gorgeous former police boat

Some locks are raging torrents as they fill up

We finally motored out of the Canal de la Somme at about two o'clock and turned right for Péronne to do some shopping. Mooring up near the bridge, we saw a tiny sailing boat with a young couple and a toddler on board. The name of the boat was in Russian lettering, so Koos, who is justifiably proud of being able to read a bit of Russian, called out to them. It transpired they were from Brest in Belarus and they had sailed all the way from Gdansk in Poland, through Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium into France. They were on their way south to Marseille, where they are planning to take to sea and sail back round Italy and Greece to the Black Sea, then up river through the Ukraine and back to Brest. What an amazing journey! I have a feeling they were being sponsored too, judging by the sign-writing on their boat, otherwise I can't imagine how a young family like that could afford to make such a long trip. Hats off to them anyway, especially with such a young child!
After doing our shopping, we spent the night at bollards on the Canal du Nord just north of Péronne. It was a gorgeous evening and one of the most peaceful spots we've ever had. The evening sky was translucent and to my huge delight, I heard an owl hooting. 

A beautiful, peaceful mooring on the Canal du Nord

Ghostly barges creep past us in the Ruyaucourt Tunnel

Koos goes bush bashing in a side arm

Back on the commercial waterway proper. On the way to Douai

On Wednesday morning, we set off up a series of five deep locks in convoy with another Dutch cruiser. Despite the fact these locks are around six to seven metres deep, there are unfortunately no floating bollards, so we had to keep putting our ropes up to the next wall bollard We followed them all the way to the next hurdle for me, the Ruyaucourt Tunnel, a 4.6 kilometre souterrain that had all my 'what if' instincts raging. However, for this one, we didn't need to be towed through and could traverse it under our own steam. What I didn't realise was that we would have to stop half way in a wider section to wait for traffic coming the other way. Oh gulp. As we approached it, there was a roaring sound and a light in the distance. It sounded terrifying and even Koos thought it was another barge coming towards us, but as we crawled along the section, hugging the side, and towards the roar, we realised it was the overhead fan in the tunnel and the light was an illusion. I don't know about Koos, but I felt a bit foolish for being so anxious. We moored up behind our Dutch cruiser companions at the end of the widened section where there was a clear red light forbidding us to go further. Even so, we quickly put on our navigation lights for certainty. The barges, when they did come, were silent as ghosts and they slipped past us. No noise at all. It was a very creepy experience and I was glad to get going again, even if it meant I had to steer while Koos did some filming. I should mention that I lose all sense of direction in the dark, so I don't really like steering in the tunnel, but I managed and it gave me something to think about other than 'what if'?

From then on, it was literally down hill all the way, The Canal du Nord is generally straight, but it runs through some lovely rolling Picardie scenery and we really enjoyed it. Picardie is said to be the bread basket of France and produces 11% of the country's grain. The golden tree-capped hills are beautiful with a lonely kind of majesty.  The canal has the reputation of being a concrete gutter, but we liked it because of the variety of the scenery and the constant passage of commercial barges. Last night was spent after the fifth of the down hill locks when we both felt we'd had enough for one day. We joined our Dutch fellow travellers in mooring up to the quay. Again, it was a lovely, peaceful spot. We walked up to the lock before making supper and watched a commercial barge enter. What practiced ease. One rope, one bollard and then when the gates closed, he took it off and let his barge drift gently forward as the waters rose. By the time he was within talking distance with us, the barge was taking care of itself and we learned he had been to the same skippers' school as Koos. Another moment of Serendipity.

Back in Douai again
Yesterday morning (Thursday) it was raining heavily, but by the time we were ready to set off, the rain had stopped. We joined our Dutch cruiser friends in the first of the last two locks down and shared some friendly banter with them. When we reached the last lock, the sun was shining and after a quick bit of Koos bush bashing into a very pretty old sidearm that had me terrified we'd get stuck in the mud (which we didn't, luckily), we continued on to Douai in clear blue skies and hot sunshine. So here we've been for the night again. Our friends, Lisette and Ian are still here; we are behind some other charming New Zealanders and a Dutch boater who was here last time is also back. It almost feels like coming home! Still, who knows what tomorrow will bring. Will our plans change yet again? Watch this space next week and have a great weekend everyone.