Monday, August 27, 2018

The not quite final leg

Leaving Ronquières suddenly made me realise we really were on our way home, so my mood was already prepared for nostalgia as we approached Ittre and the stretch of this canal that we'd spent so much time walking and exploring when we had the Ténacité in Brussels. It is also worth noting that Ittre lock is the second deepest in Belgium (if you don't count the huge sea locks in Antwerp), only beaten by a few centimetres at Ternaaien in Limburg. It is 14 metres deep and to go down it in a boat is quite an experience. When entering at the top, it looks like any other lock on the system although the presence of floating bollards is a pretty good indicator that it is deeper than normal. But the true realisation of just how deep it is comes as a surprise when the unsuspecting boater drops further, and further, and still further. I hope these photos give some impression of how truly awe-inspiring it is.

Moving out into the wide basin below Ittre lock brought a wave of memories. We'd come here so often just to walk in this lovely valley, and at one time, we'd planned and even been given permission to bring the Ténacité here. Somewhere on the quay, there may still be the bollards we put in for mooring. We dug the holes and surrounded the bollards with concrete to create a basis strong enough to withstand the pull of the commercials entering and leaving the lock. It was a heap of work. As things happened, we never used them. I sold the Ténacité before we could move there, but the memory of those dreams lives on.

From Ittre, we continued through Clabecq, another spot where we'd spent happy times on the Ténacité, before crossing the language border into Flanders and going down the 7,7 metre Lembeek lock; not nearly as dramatic as Ittre, but still pretty deep. From here on the countryside reflects the cultural difference between Wallonia and Flanders in a special way. Where in Wallonia, verges are deliberately left undisturbed to allow wild flowers and grasses to flourish, in Flanders, they are neatly trimmed and orderly. Both have their own beauty, but the difference is more than a little clear. 

What we hadn't remembered, though, is that it was quinze Août, the 15th of August, and regardless of whether you are in Wallonia or Flanders, everything (and I mean everything) is closed for this very Catholic public holiday celebrating the ascension of the Blessed Virgin. I know it, but always forget as it's not a Dutch holiday; nor is it an English or South African one, so it just doesn't sink in. We stopped in Halle to do some shopping, only to find the supermarket firmly shut, so we continued on to the next village of Lot, where we found a perfect spot to spend the night. It was below the lock and next to some handy picnic tables. Luckily for us, Lot boasted a night shop run by an Asian gentleman who was surely not aware of the holy Mary's ascension to the heavens and for a price, was happy to sell us a few necessaries.

During our walk through the village, we saw a white ringed dove with a nasty wound on its back. It looked as if it had been attacked, perhaps by a hawk or other bird of prey. The poor thing was standing in a doorway and seemed to be seeking a safe shelter. Worried about its fate, we asked the shopkeeper for a box so we could pick it up on our way back. He kindly gave us one, but when we retraced our steps, the bird had gone. I could only hope someone else rescued it and took it home with them.; it was such a pretty creature and it looked so vulnerable.

We enjoyed our evening in Lot very much. Although we knew the place from earlier visits, we'd never stayed there overnight, so in that sense it was new for us. In the morning, we spent some time cleaning the Hennie H before setting off again; our old lady needed a bit of a smoosh up before presenting her to Brussels.

As we neared the city, the memories crowded in. It was all so familiar and I could almost see my younger self walking along the towpath with Sindy, encouraging her into the water at her favourite spots. And then we were there, motoring through the gutter, under the bridge and into the basin where the row of barges lay that still included the Ténacité. Many of the boats seemed neglected and unloved, but times change and people have less energy for maintenance as they get older. It was particularly sad for me to see how much in need of some TLC my old girl looked.

The row of barges that was once our home
In many ways, getting through Brussels was a relief. Once past Molenbeek, it was all new watery territory for me, and I enjoyed the increase of commercial quays and docks. It was good to be out of the city area. The canal remains wide; it is lined with trees in many parts and interspersed with both commercial and residential areas to keep it interesting. Eventually, we stopped for the night on an old quay on what seemed to be the outskirts of Grimbergen, just beyond the bridge in the photo below.

Typical canal lifting bridge

Being such a warm evening, we decided to look for a café to have a beer. Grimbergen is a well known Belgian brew so we were convinced there'd be a hostelry on every corner, but we were much mistaken, not only about the cafés, but about it being Grimbergen too. There was a church and some houses around it although the road was dug up making it largely inaccessible; not that we'd have found anything there. In fact, the real town was some distance away and all we found was the local ladies' football club where they had a bar and welcomed us in with good cheer. 

Commercial quays outside Brussles

We sat outside, chatting to one of the mums and watching a team of teenage girls at practice. Different, but probably more convivial than propping up the counter in a pub. Mum told us that at one time there'd been several cafés round the church, but that was about forty years ago. Dutch by birth, nationality and accent, Mum told us to our surprise she'd grown up in the Grimbergen area. She sounded totally Dutch – until she spoke to another local, that is. Then she was all Belgian. We had a lot of fun being part of the local scene, albeit it very briefly and it is encounters such as these that make travelling so full of rich memories, isn't it?

Another typical Brussels canal bridge
Well, it seems I still haven't reached the end of the journey and I'd better stop here before this blog goes on forever more. I'm so sorry I take so long to get to the point; it's just that there's always so much to tell and I have to cram it all in. Next time, I'll get you all back to Gent with me, but for now, have a great week allemaal.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bank Holiday Weekend special

My Eccentrics are down to 99p/c for UK and US readers until next week. Just in time for the UK August bank holiday :)

Monday, August 20, 2018

Revisiting familiar waters

Our return journey back down the Sambre last week was made with much regret. We'd have loved to go on, but knew we had to return to the Netherlands. Still, our route, which happened to be the quickest way home, was one we hadn't yet done on the Hennie H even though it was through country and waterways we were both very familiar with.

While still on the Sambre, we spent some time exploring a bras mort of the river (dead arm), which was a victim of its canalisation (they tend to chop off the curves when they can). It is now a nature reserve and made a restful walk during our brief stop. We needed lots of rests, of course...this is such a stressful lifestyle.

A dead arm of the Sambre

Tourist information about the arm

A peaceful rest stop

Our first night of the return journey was at Boussières (of the free 'source' water), where we'd been on the way up. As we were tying up, two friendly faces appeared and we realised with surprise it was Dominique and Rachelle, a lovely couple we'd also first met in Thuin. They'd arrived on a very pretty small Dutch barge and we'd had great fun chatting to them, so it was with genuine warmth and pleasure that we invited them on board for a glass of wine. Their home port was Hautmont, just a few kilometres downstream and they were out for a bike ride along the towpath when they saw us mooring up. Meeting fellow boaters as we do, wherever they come from, is such a pleasure and these two will be remembered with great fondness as well. They spent about an hour with us before taking off on their bicycles again. We all parted with smiles and ours lingered for a long time after they left.

Boussières sur Sambre, one of our favourite moorings this trip

The following morning, we set off again but made a quick stop in Hautmont to go to the shops. I needed to stock up on my favourite plonk, the absurdly cheap Aude red wine that only seems to be available at the Carrefour there. At €1.50 a bottle, you can tell how good and exclusive my taste is...

As we'd already spent a night in Erquellines (the last/first town in Belgium depending on your direction) on the way, we decided to make our next stop Jeumont, (the last/first town in France) and only place to stay after we'd returned our télécommande at the final lock. We'd been warned that we shouldn't leave the boat unattended there, but when we reached the halte nautique, we found it a clean peaceful mooring with free electricity and water. It was also next to a kind of pod tree (my name) which provided wonderful shade from the now revived heat.

Contrary to expectations, Jeumont became memorable for two events that had nothing to do with the mooring. The first was the worrying sight and sounds of parents and police looking for a six year old girl that evening. She'd gone missing and the anxious calls and search lights in the water had us concerned for her safety too. However, since everything went quiet around 11p.m., we hoped it meant they'd found her and the search was over. The other was our meeting the following morning with a young couple who invited us into their home so we could take a photo of the ruined chateau from their bedroom window. Not only this, but they also took us on a walking tour of Jeumont's special attractions: a rescue animal sanctuary and a magnificent lake formed from the Wattisart quarry flooded by the Germans in WW1. Stephanie and Bruno's open warmth and generous hospitality were among the most remarkable highlights of the journey. We were amazed, jaw-droppingly so, that they would welcome two total strangers into their home and then disrupt their own plans by giving us a guided tour of their town.


Chateau ruins at Jeumont from our hosts' bedroom

Animal rescue at its best

The flooded quarry of Wattisart

After Jeumont, we meandered our way back along the now familiar Belgian section of the Sambre, enjoying its beauty again and noting how the waterside villages in Belgium are so much more visible than they they are in France. How charming they are too with their mismatched houses and narrow winding lanes criss-crossing the hillsides. We have decided we need to visit Solre-sur-Sambre by car as it's the only one we haven't been to yet. Our last night on this non-commercial upper river was at Lobbes. At first sight, it isn't as attractive as some of the other villages, other than the magnificent collegiate church at the top, but when I took a walk up the hill that evening, I found the village around the church. It was too lovely; a haven of peace, quiet streets and pretty cottage homes. The church itself has a long history, which you can read about here, and is apparently, the oldest of its kind in Belgium. It seems this whole area can boast a number of firsts, oldests, bests etc, but that could also have something to do with local pride... maybe?

Cobbled streets up to the church

The collegiate church of Saint Ursmer

Evening in Lobbes
Steps to cope with the steepest ascent (or descent) from the
upper village

Our final night on the river was back at Marchienne au Pont, where we'd started. Again, although a run down area, we enjoyed the mooring in the evening sunshine after a day of heavy rain and spent a very peaceful night there along with two other pleasure craft: one a small, immaculate Belgian cruiser, whose 'skipperess' came to help us with our ropes when we arrived (always nice) and the other, a large and very luxurious modern Dutch barge that would have challenged the Hilton Hotel for swish fittings.

The following morning, I passed the cruiser on my way to the shop and noticed the couple on board were playing Scrabble. I wish I'd thought to get a couple of board games like that too, but when I think we both took guitars to play and barely touched them, I wonder if we would have played board games either...something to consider next year, perhaps. At the shop, I practised my French again and was rewarded with an encouraging compliment by the woman serving me. One of the best aspects of being in France and Wallonia is how supportive the locals are when you try and speak French. I know my grammar and vocabulary are lousy, but they really help me to keep struggling on and seem to understand my mangling of their beautiful language.

From Marchienne, we ploughed on and reached Ronquiéres on Tuesday evening. I had expressed a wish to spend the night at the top of the great inclined plane just as we'd done 15 years ago when we first brought our old barge, Ténacité (Volharding in Dutch), back from the shipyard on the lower Sambre. This time, the evening was glorious and I was overwhelmed by the peace, as well as the memories the canal was evoking. The evening light was glorious and a whole team of swallows swooped and played aerobatics for us over the water, a prelude to two days of treading old paths and re-living special recollections.

My old barge, Ténacité 

Approaching Ronquières

Moored on the aqueduct
We walked along to the towers where the caissons arrive and watched a boat coming up and then another descending. The whole process takes about 25 minutes and I was looking forward to doing the same descent the next day. The last time, it had been wet and cold (an event I describe in my memoir, Walloon Ways), so I was hoping to be able to see more this time.

It was fantastic. It really was. Despite being cloudy and cool, we were both able to spend the whole descent on the walk way and take photos and film it as we went, so  I hope I can publish that sometime soon. Being able to watch every metre, hear every squeal of the turning wheels and feel every clonk of the caisson's progress over the rails was in many ways more impressive even than the big lift at Strépy. What a way to descend the nearly 68 metres of this canal. And then there was still Ittre to come.

In the caisson at the top of the Inclined Plane

Almost at the bottom. Our big bath (caisson) has trundled all the way down
that hill!

Update: And here's a video put together by Koos:
Our boat Hennie-H in Ronquières from koos fernhout on Vimeo.

But....I think I'd better stop here and write about the rest of the journey next time, or this post will be far too long (again). I hope you've enjoyed the ride so far, and I promise the next post will the the last! Have a great week, allemaal!

Sunday, August 12, 2018


Sometimes, I feel as if we've been away for a year, not a month. Our journey up the Dender and the adventure of going up the Strépy Thieu lift seem like a lifetime ago. Even our stop-over in the Erquellines Port de Plaisance last week seems a distant memory, although I remember the lovely shower very well, and the reception we had from the unofficial Capitaine, a German/American who could speak French better than either of his languages of origin. The Sambre to Erquellines was a delight, punctuated as it is by the pretty waterside villages of Fontaine Valmont (my favourite), La Buissière and Solre sur Sambre, plus the manual locks serviced by helpful Walloon lock keepers. But moving into France at Jeumont felt exciting and like a whole new adventure.

Industrial buildings near Jeumont

Marpent, the first lock in France

Rumour had it we could reach Pont sur Sambre, a village about thirty kilometres along the course, without paying for a French Vignette. This proved to be out of date information as when we reached the first lock and phoned to ask for the remote control to operate it (the télécommande), the VNF man on the other end asked us if we had a vignette. We had to admit we didn't and he told us, apologetically, that we would have to pay for at least a week as a one day permit was not going to be adequate even for the first stretch. We gulped, discussed (read argued) and then Koos decided we would cough up the €90. We clearly weren't going to get the remote control until we'd agreed and as we dearly wanted to explore at least some of the French section of the river, we bit several bullets, swallowed the bitter pill, and accepted.

Industry between Jeumont and Hautmont

As it transpired, it was worth it. Every cent. The Sambre changes character in France. The first stretch through Jeumont, Maubeuge and Hautmont is quite industrial. The three towns are attractive but the wonderful old warehouses and factory sites of its earlier affluent past are marvellous. We already knew them well from visits by car. Koos, too, had been along the river by boat in 1990, but for him, the reaches beyond the three towns seemed fresh and new.
A new winter storage for pleasure craft near Hautmont
One very interesting sight was a brand new storage facility for boats just past Hautmont. It isn't finished yet, but it looks like a new initiative to bring more pleasure boating back to the Sambre. The Port de Plaisance in Hautmont is also new and it had me wondering whether the scheduled re-opening in 2020 of the aqueduct further south has something to so with it. It would certainly be a great place for people to 'park' their boats over winter if they want to have them under cover. With its easy access to Belgium and the Netherlands and the prospect of a through route to France in the offing, it sounds like a promising project.

Boussières sur Sambre with its own electric 'source'

Just a few kilometres past Hautmont, we spotted a lovely shady Halte Nautique  at Boussières sur Sambres. It was still very hot then, so the inviting sight of shade, trees and grass was very welcome. The mooring itself was slightly decrepit with rather old wooden bollards and some seriously dodgy sidings, but once we'd tied up we were very happy with our find. There was also a sort of fountain that claimed to be from the source but as it had an electric pump at the back, we were sceptical about how naturel this eau really was. That said, we were happy to use it as drinking water and tanked up readily. We chatted to some of the locals and enjoyed an evening walk around the area, more for its peace, quiet and sense of solitude than for any particular sights. For all that, it's a beautiful setting and the countryside is a feast of rolling golden grain fields interspersed with green pasture where real cows are out to grass (I say that because in the Netherlands, it's not all that common to see meadows full of cattle). It was also noticeable that the drought has not been as bad in northern France as it's been in the Netherlands. The banks of the river are still lush and green as are many of the fields.

The following day we snaked our way along the meandering curves and oxbows around Pont sur Sambre until we reached Berlaiment lock, where we were received by the VNF officials. At Pont sur Sambre, we'd seen a couple of very cheerful and friendly VNF staff who were not in the least interested in taking our money. However, at Berlaiment, it was all business and the office on the lock had the latest technology where we saw they'd been able to watch us approach every lock on their video surveillance system. There would have been no escape. All the same, the VNF manager there was very nice. He apologised that he had to charge us so much for such a short time and encouraged us to make the best use of it, showing us where we could go and how far. We'd been told that there was a bridge down before Landrecies, but it seems that was misinformation and we could go all the way to Tupigny, a place that's long been on our wish list. If we'd known that, we'd have left Thuin earlier, but as it turned out, we could go further than we'd expected anyway, so there was a silver lining to the cloud.

Sassegnies: wild but wonderful

After doing to some walking and shopping in Berlaiment, we set off again, armed with our new vignette, but we only made it as far as the lock at Sassegnies. Despite being automatic, the locks shut down at six o'clock and we were forced into a 'wild mooring' against the bank. For once, there was no waiting pontoon, but to our good fortune, the man living in the lock keeper's house saw our predicament and kindly fetched a couple of fence poles which he briskly hammered into the bank for us to use. With our bow nestled in the grass and our stern on a rope to an old commercial bollard, we were happily fixed for the night. Sassegnies proved to be one of those special 'nothingness' spots that we will remember forever. We had no facilities at all, but the sheer enchantment of the remote surroundings situated close to a rural road that stretched to nowhere and a level crossing over the railway fringed by woods and sweeping was enough to move any soul, I think.

Sassegnies: wonderful 'nothingness'
On Thursday morning, the skies were grey and rain threatened. We had to call the VNF to open the lock for us and by that time, it was raining steadily. We made our way through to Hachette, where we also had to wait for the lock, so we had a look around. During our wanderings, we found an old steam driven mill wheel in a grey stone building next to the lock. Perhaps it was once used to pump water. Who knows? In any event, it started raining in earnest so we sat out the worst for a while until the lock was opened for us and then carried on through the last lock to Landrecies. We'd made it.

Stormy evening in Landrecies

The town halte nautique seemed like a good place to stop for many reasons. Firstly, the wind had picked up and the rain started to bucket down; secondly, it was a great mooring with free electricity and water and thirdly, this was the end of the canalised Sambre and the beginning of the Canal de la Sambre á l'Oise. How we'd have loved to continue; the canal stretched ahead and the invitation was clear, but I knew at some point I needed to stop and return. Work was calling and it was time to head back.

We really enjoyed our night's stay in Landrecies. Despite the rain (and it rained with immense purpose), we found it a peaceful, pleasant and attractive town and to add to our pleasure, we met our VNF friends from Pont sur Sambre again. They'd told us they came from Landrecies and they'd recommended it, so they too were pleased to see us again. There was also a good Carrefour supermarket with free internet and plenty of fine houses and buildings to see. Although we were sad to have reached the end of our route for this year, we were thrilled we'd got so much further than expected. As for the vignette, well, it was well worth it.

We left Landrecies on Friday morning and today, we are back at Lobbes, near Thuin in Belgium, and there's more to tell about our return nights at Boussières and Jeumont. There's also plenty to write about Lobbes too, but I think that will keep for another post.

Have a great week allemaal and I'll catch up with you soon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Thuin, alive with history and charm

Two weeks in Thuin. Who would ever have thought we would stay in one place so long while faring? We never intended it that way, but plans have a habit of changing in our world and when I agreed to dog-sit for my daughter while she was on holiday, we had a different scheme altogether.

What happened was that we arrived in Thuin on Monday the 23rd of July, planning to stay a couple of nights before heading towards the border with France and Erquellines (which is where we are now). We thought we would spend the week Charlie the spaniel was with us there at the official Port de Plaisance. But Thuin charmed us immediately; of course, it helped that the mooring costs were apparently minimal (we didn't know then how minimal) and that we had free electricity and water. We are Dutch after all and I count myself as well integrated. But that (the free stuff) wasn't the only attraction. The town is a maze of the most wonderful nooks and crannies in which gems of fascinating history can be found. Added to that, it has serious historical sites, convenient shops and best of all an old tourist tram that runs at weekends with a tram museum to boot. With so much to explore, how could we possibly resist? So we didn't.

The batteliers' quarter
Thuin has a wealth of barge building history and at one time was the most important port in Belgium next to Antwerp. It seems hard to believe it now as everything has gone, but the Town was once home to five shipyards where they built the classic Belgian spits barges, one of which was the Michot yard where my former barge, Ténacité was built (Volharding in Dutch). The sign that a barge was built in Thuin was the distinctive fleur-de-lys symbol always present in relief on the bows, and it was oddly poignant to see there were still several of them moored up in town and used as liveaboards or, in one case, a museum. But before I took the train back to the Netherlands to fetch Charlie and my car, we'd discovered the batteliers quarter as well.

Symbols of the barge town's history

During its heyday, the town's bargees lived in the oldest of its neighbourhoods along the waterfront, and to our huge delight, many of them still do. We came upon this quarter during an evening stroll when we were wandering through the mews backstreets. It is visibly old, quaint and none the less charming for being a little shabby. The streets are cobbled and many of the houses have the name boards of the owners' barges above the doors. Some have the fleur-de-lys symbols from their boats too and there are all sorts of other symbols to show these homes belong to former skippers.

Boat names above the doors

Even better, during our wanderings, we were greeted by a senior gentleman, who promptly regaled us with stories from his family's past. His wife's father was a skipper and she was currently the honorary 'mayoress' of the quarter. Apparently, they have a festival every year in which the old batteliers' families vote for a mayor and deputy, whose job is then to organise charitable activities for the residents in need. This tradition was and is still part of the town's history. The old gent also told us that the much loved Belgian singer, Jacques Brel, had his yacht built in Thuin and that he had met him as a child. 

More symbold of the former occupant's former life

Later in the week, I was wandering round the quarter again taking photos when another old boy approached me and told me with great pride that his father and grandfather were the two men shown in a photo on the information board, both of whom had been mayors. I told him how much I loved the neighbourhood with all its reminders of the barges, and I asked him if he too had been a battelier.  'Mais oui, bien sûr,' he said, 'and my house is at the end of the street just round the corner.' Judging by the twinkle in his eye, I felt he was almost inviting me along; plenty of life in this elderly Frenchman, for sure. It made my evening and these encounters gave real life to the town's history. The sadness is that its glory days as a great port and barge building centre are over and there is no commercial water traffic on the Sambre river at all.

Other than these discoveries, we found our way to the upper town too and explored much of this originally wealthier part too. We have been to Thuin before, a visit I described in Walloon Ways, but we have never spent so much time getting to know the place. It has a long and venerable history going back to the middle ages when it was an important seat and defence point for the Bishop of Liège because of its commanding position at the top of a high ridge on the Sambre. In its early development, the town grew down rather than up and its famous hanging gardens, which we saw and are still in use, were created to support the important personages who lived at the top. I imagine that the further down the hill you lived, the less significant you were. Today, there is less obvious difference between the upper and lower towns; all of it is lovely except perhaps the shopping street in the lower town, which is just that.

The hanging gardens 

Koos and Charlie exploring an old posty or passage

An exhausted pup
Well, I could go on and on writing about Thuin, but I do realise this is my blog and I'm not producing a book here, so I'll restrain myself and finish by saying it did us good to stay. We found new delights every day; we met some wonderful people and had a marvellously social time too with other boaters who came and went. Special mentions are for our instant 'best friends', Peter and Jo, and also for the lovely Mike and Rosalee from Ireland, who I really hope we'll meet again. Lastly, there was Oscar from the neighbouring barge, whom we met eighteen years ago on the Moervaart. At that time, his wife was still alive; now, sadly she isn't, but at 83, Oscar is the life and soul of Thuin, and I imagine anywhere else he decides to go in his wanderings. Bless him and bless them all.

Dusk in Thuin
Have a great week allemaal, and I'll fill you all in with the next phase next week.