Sunday, September 23, 2018

Museum pieces of a special kind

It's just over a month now since we arrived back from our summer travels, and today at least, autumn has been showing its hand. Up to this point, though, we've had nothing to complain about weather wise. The rainy days have been few and often confined very conveniently to the night. We've been able to enjoy some lovely spells to help ease us into the shorter days and chillier nights.

During this time, various activities and events have kept us occupied, not least of which has been that I've had to go back to work. I started again on 4 September, just after Monumentendagen, the day when anything of a heritagyl flavour gets brought out, polished up and shown off to eager public eyes like ours.

On one of these days, Saturday it was, the first of the month, we came across this eye-catching collection of very beautiful old cars. Being English, I have a bit of a thing about motor racing, and classic sports cars get me going quite easily. I absolutely loved these, especially the MGA and the Austin Healey. The old Volvos were gorgeous too...well, they were all gorgeous to be honest. And I have a very special affection for old Beetles as well, so look at the photos and admire away.

I can't remember what this was, but it's very oooh worthy

The oooh worthy from its profile

Wonderful old Volvos from the back

And front

Very lust worthy too

And this Austin Healy was just it.

A stunning Cabrio Beetle

And a standard, gorgeous classic
The following day, we decided to visit another open monument at Beernem not far from Brugge/Bruges. We took a very circuitous route, quite accidentally on purpose of course, and stopped to consider our options in this lovely avenue.

Belgium at its best

Lovely barn house converted beautifully

The open monument we were seeking was a fabulous museum on an old barge, the Tordino. It is the brainchild and project of a friend of ours, Frederic Logghe, who felt there was far too little attention paid to barge and inland waterways heritage in Belgium. The result is this magnificent waterways museum on the barge. Here is a link to his Facebook page about the project. What is remarkable is that he has funded this entire enterprise himself and relies purely on voluntary donations to keep it going; he receives no government or authority support at all. Despite what my photos suggest, it was VERY busy and wonderful to see how many people had cycled to the museum. Its location is not, shall we say, prominent.

An entire wheelhouse inside the barge

An incredible array of waterways equipment and old technology

Models, old photos, paintings, barge name-boards. It's all here

Diplomas of female crew

The Tordino has a long term mooring here, just beyond the safety lock
between Beernem and Brugge

The safety lock doors are behind the barge

Local history about the ferry boat community that lived here
And lastly, our own bit of history, the Hennie H is still unwell. I don't want to go into details as it's a problem we have yet to solve, but the photo below shows where she is currently lying in Zelzate until we can get a tow home. The view is great...that much I can say.

Have a good week allemaal and I'll hopefully have some brighter news to tell you soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the autumn if you are in north and the spring if you're in the south. May it rain plenty of sun on you wherever you are.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Gentbrugge, the final final stop

Saturday, 18th August: that was where I left you last week as I continue to spin out this journey. There's a reason for it quite apart from not wanting to write too much for each post. The beauty of this long drawn out account is that I can relive the holiday every time I write about it. Memory is a marvellous mechanism. We think we've forgotten places, people and events, but they're all in one of the many drawers that make up the storage cupboard of our minds. It only needs a gentle tug to pull out the one we need and all the memories come tumbling out.

The afternoon we arrived in Gent, then, we simply pottered around and relaxed into small jobs and chores: a bit of painting, some judicious touching up of scrapes and scars from rubbing against lock walls and so on. While we worked, we noticed a family paddling towards us on their boards; not a particularly unusual sight, but what really captured my attention and my heart was the sight of 'father' standing on his with his Collie between his legs. As they reached the quay, the dog leapt neatly off and bounced around the other family members as they pulled in too. When they left again half an hour later, she took her place on board with practiced ease and off they went. A very smile worthy scene.

Then as Koos had some well earned down time, I took myself off for a walk. As we were in Gentbrugge, I knew we had to be close to the old sea lock that has long since been closed to water traffic. All this is now diverted round the town by way of the Ringvaart at the Merelbeke lock we'd come through the day before. Years ago, I read Roger Pilkington's Small Boat Through Belgium where he writes about the Gentbrugge lock and the excitement of waiting for the tide to be high enough to go out onto the river (everything was a bit boy scoutish to Mr Pilkington), so I wanted to see it for myself.

I've walked this tidal reach with Koos before, but a bit further downstream. I hadn't seen where it actually reaches the lock. At low tide, there is practically no water in the river here. With nothing to feed it when the water is on the ebb, all that's left are the silted up mud banks and a few puddles. The bird life is wonderful, though; they have it all to themselves and the banks have become so thickly overgrown, the shrubs are inpenetrable. The fascinating thing is that on the town side, the lock looks clean and ready for use. The basin is a large one as formerly, it would have held several barges moored abreast, but these days, the water lies still and the gates are closed, only used by cyclists and walkers. But on the other side lies a wilderness. I walked past the lock gates, but couldn't see anything through the dense bushes. The high tide line was still clear though, as the banks were wet round the roots of the tall shrubs.

What I did manage to reach was the other side of the barrage. On my Saturday afternoon walk, I saw just mud with a thin stream scoring a course between a few puddles. I didn't have my camera with me then, so we went back the next morning and took the photos below when the water was higher. As you can see it's full of debris as it's never cleared, but it was good to see the end point; that place where in former times boats and barges would be racing the tide to get through into the city on time. The untamed nature of the sea Schelde appeals to me immensely and I'd love to bring a canoe up this un-navigable section one of these days although it seems there is talk of building a lock somewhere between Gent and Melle, so it could all change. Anyway, here is a link to an article that shows what the river looks like on the other side of the Gentbrugge lock

Behind the barrage: the railway bridge

At the barrage
 During the evening, we took a walk the other way along the quay of the Visserijvaart that connects the Schelde with the other city waterways. We've never been through Gent at night so it was another first and very lovely it was too. The street lights spilled pools of soft yellow over the liveaboard barges along the quay, some of which are quite incredible in their adaptations from commercial vessel to designer houseboat. The only sound was our footfalls on the stone paving slabs; all very romantic.

The following morning we went for yet another walk but this time round the Gentbrugge neighbourhood. From our mooring, we crossed through the Keiser park which makes up this end of a long island in the Schelde, and over the bridge into the neighbourhood beyond. It was a quiet, grey morning with not many people about. I have a feeling it is an area on the up. While many of the backstreets are rather run down, several houses have been renovated and it looks as if young families are moving in and doing them up. Judging by the number of bikes sporting kiddy seats that were parked outside on the racks, the population is growing too. There is also a commercial business district the other side of the railway line that crosses the river. We found this fine old factory building and chimney there.

Factory building in the commercial area 
And even more arresting, we found an enclosed corner of land with these adorable pigs installed. On the fence was a notice asking us to please not feed them, but there was nothing about why they were there. Still, a charming distraction from the strict lines of the business buildings.

Three little piggies
On the way back to the Hennie Ha, this unusual house caught my eye. I liked its decorative tile work and windows and it seems the owners do too as it was very nicely maintained. Note the regulation bikes out front.
I rather liked this stylish building with its decorative tile work

By midday, we felt we'd explored enough and decided this was it; we'd make the move to get on our way. We thought about stopping somewhere on route to Sas van Gent, but in the end, shelved the plan. The weather matched our going home mood, which was more than a bit grey. I still feel it now – the sadness of realising it was all over for the year. For two pins, I'd have thrown all commitments to the wind and just carried on, but life isn't like that.

We untied, cast off and turned our nose to the north.  As always, it was a pleasure to be on the great sea canal to Terneuzen, and in fact the sun came out to cheer us on our way. Three hours later, we were back in our home mooring, at the end of another wonderful summer of adventures.

Now, though, we have to cross our fingers that the Hennie H will carry us forwards again another year. I won't say more now, but our lovely barge is a bit sick at the moment. Tomorrow we will know just how sick, so keep your fingers crossed for a speedy recovery and have a great week allemaal.

A favourite spot now in Gentbrugge

Monday, September 10, 2018

Dendermonde to Gent (or Ghent): The almost end of the journey

The feeling of being close to the end of our journey was quite a powerful emotion when we got up on Saturday. It was August the 18th and I'd committed to being back on home turf by the 20th. I don't think either of us wanted to go home; we'd have liked to sneakily by-pass Gent and creep off up the canalised Schelde and into France again by the back door. But it wasn't to be and we had to return. We'd planned on leaving around 9:00 so as to run with the tide all the way and be there before it turned, but once we were up and outside, we saw other boats and barges steaming past us, so we thought maybe we should get a move on.

Letting a barge go past

Once we'd checked all moving and leaking parts and added to their life support systems, we untied and got underway. We turned round without even trying (the current did that for us) and off we went, thinking we were the last in the queue. How wrong we were. As we fared quietly along, not one, but two barges appeared behind us. They were also taking advantage of the current, but weren't going as fast as the barge that had snuck on us the evening before and given us quite a shock. We hadn't seen it coming at all and Koos had to dive out of the way to let it pass. We let these two pass as well, but in a calm and orderly fashion.

A ferry point I'd not noticed before

The incoming tide was slowing down the further upstream we went, so our advantage was not as much as it was when we went down to Dendermonde at the beginning of our trip. The river was more intimate and less wild too, but there were still mudbanks to be aware of and Koos hugged the outer bends out of caution. Being grounded on this tidal stretch wasn't something we wanted to even think of. The scenery looked different too, which is odd as we'd passed all these places before. I saw buildings and sights I'd never noticed on the way down. It just proves that the opposite direction is a new journey, and another point of view is a different perspective. It didn't matter anyway. I was already smitten by the Schelde.

Wetteren church from the water, another sight I missed first time round

I definitely didn't see this when we were going downstream!
Eventually, though, it had to end, and once we'd seen the split where the old, now no longer navigable, course of the river leads into Gent, we knew it was over. Within a kilometre, we saw the great Merelbeke lock. The trip from our overnight spot at Dendermonde had taken us three hours, so we were still well within the tidal window and to our amusement, we'd caught up with all the barges that had passed us at the mooring and those that had overtaken us. They were all waiting for the lock, which just happened to be opening as we arrived. As luck would have it.

This time there was no waiting and no damaged impeller to hold us up. Throughout our travels, we'd been pouring litres of water into the cooling system, but that was still our leaky oil cooler and we were used to it (we have a new one now...woohoo!); at least it was no longer overheating and throwing up black gunk (a good sign your impeller is bust, by the way). The upside of having Koos's amazing man-made (DIY in other parlance) expansion vessel on deck was that we were intimately acquainted with the cooling system's behaviour. I watched it like a worried nurse, taking its temperature, topping up its reservoir, you know...generally being paranoid. I'm good at that.

Anyway, back to the lock, we were out of it in double quick time. Shortly afterwards, we were on the canalised section of the Schelde that winds through the city from the forever closed Gentbrugge lock where the old tidal reach meets its end. Not far into this stretch, we had to stop and wait while the fire brigade chopped up and removed a tree that had fallen in the water – a fun five minutes of viewing while they conducted the surgery from an inflatable boat with a swimmer guiding the process. Once they'd got suitable ropes in place around the fallen bole of the tree, a crane on land lifted it out and we were able to continue. Thumbs up for the Gent fire services; they are men of many parts, it seems.

By this time we were being followed by the cruiser that left Dendermonde before us, and two other small craft, so we shared the Brusselsepoort lock with them. We've never had it so cosy there before, but luckily we all managed to squeeze in. A few minutes later, we were back at the pontoon mooring where we'd spent the very first night of our travels. We'd arrived and it was good to be there. The following day would be our last, so we planned to spend it exploring the area, but that's for one more blog post. For now, this, like Gent, feels like a good place to stop.

Have a great week, allemaal!

Monday, September 03, 2018

The Tidal Scheldt / Schelde

I left you last week at Grimbergen where we spent our last night on the Brussels to Antwerp Sea Canal. It seemed to us a good place to stop as well as we knew the next day we would need to be at the tidal or sea lock at Wintam before 3:30 in the afternoon. We'd calculated that low tide on the Schelde would be 4:30, and that we could start going upstream at slack tide, which we hoped would be around an hour before then. It seems funny to think of a sea lock so far inland, but the Schelde is a fast running, very winding and fairly narrow river so the water rushing in from the estuary gets squeezed tight the further inland it travels creating fast currents and huge differences between high and low water. I believe at the mouth of the Durme, which is where the Schelde narrows substantially, the rise/fall is around seven metres, which is quite something. As a result, there are sea locks at both Wintam and Dendermonde, which is around forty kilometres upstream of Antwerp.

Anyway, to get back to our travels, we left Grimbergen (or what we thought was Grimbergen) shortly after 10:00 the next morning. We wanted to take it easy and make sure we were through the lock in good time. As we fared towards the end of the canal, signs of industry were increasing again. After the lock at Zemst, there are only lifting bridges to worry about all the way to the end, so we started seeing much larger vessels and the kind of sea ships we pass on our own Gent–Terneuzen Canal.

Lifting bridge on the canal

A railway bridge opening for us
Wintam was a bit of a surprise when we finally arrived. The lock is at the end of a wide section of canal bordered not by industry but peaceful farmland. It was incredibly quiet and in the heat of the early afternoon, it seemed as if everything was asleep. As we approached the lock, Koos called the control tower on the VHF to ask if we could enter. A rather terse voice told him that if had eyes to see, he'd notice that the lock gates were closed. Well, we saw why a few seconds later when we were a bit closer. The doors had a huge white circle on them that we hadn't seen because of the angle of approach. Anyway, Mr Lockie told us we'd have to wait about twenty minutes, so we pulled over to the sidings. Unfortunately, there was nothing handy to tie up to; the only bollards were on top of the wall and set quite far back, which made it very difficult to throw a rope over them. In the end, and after several attempts from both of us, Koos succeeded, only to have to untie again almost immediately when the lock doors started opening. We'd taken up all the waiting time in our efforts to moor up. What a way to kill time!

Wintam sea lock is huge. Really. I've never seen anything like it. It is 250 metres long and 25 wide and we were the only ones in it. No wonder it took so long to prepare it! All that water just for us.

Wintam lock- and we were about half way along it
Spot the white circle on the doors

Leaving the lock. I still cannot get over how huge it is

As you can see from the photo above, we didn't drop all that far, but I suppose it was about two metres. When the lock is so big everything else is relative. Once we were out on the river, though, we realised the tide was not slack in the slightest and we would need to wait a while. The current was still running fast downstream, so any progress we might make towards our intended night stop at Dendermonde would be slow, tedious and very fuel inefficient, so we pottered along until we found a commercial pontoon where we could wait for the tide to turn.

Shipyard on the Schelde. Note the mudbanks and the end of the
slip rails. No going on or off the slipway at low water!

Just before 4 o'clock,  a dredger called Koos over the VHF and told him he would need to moor up where we were in about twenty minutes. Fair enough, we thought. We shouldn't really have been there anyway, so it was nice of him to warn us. Just after 4, we untied and started on our way upstream. The current was still flowing against us, but it had slowed noticeably and by the time we reached Temse, it had stopped. This was around 5 o'clock, so we'd miscalculated a bit, but it didn't matter. With the slack tide, we made better progress and it wasn't long before we had the current with us.

The Schelde is wide and untamed at Wintam

Approaching Temse

Temse at low tide

The turning to the Durme, the point where the difference between
high and low tide is at its greatest

As we wound our way along the river, I realised how impressive it is. The Schelde has an untamed rather mysterious beauty emphasised by its mudflats and many tiny inlets. You could imagine taking a small boat into them when the water is high and then staying there to sit on the mud when the tide runs out. The course is also meandering, so there are necessary buoys to ensure the commercial barges keep to the deeper channels. In places it is so shallow, the waders simply stand up and walk on the bottom. As for the bird life, it is quite different from the canalised rivers. There are few ducks and I didn't see any coots at all, but there were all manner of divers and waders, as well as flocks of seagulls. We might have been forty kilometres from the estuary, but we were still very much in touch with the sea.

Riverside moorings

One of many ferries across the river
I forget what time it was that we reached Dendermonde, but it was early evening as the light was turning gold. We'd passed several riverside marinas on the way. However, most of them were full, it having been such a beautiful day. We were therefore very glad to see two empty pontoons next to the bank just before the turning into the Dendermonde sea lock, the point at which we'd started our journey so many weeks ago. Koos turned so that we would be facing into the flow and we used four ropes to tie up. The current was running fast upstream by this time and we didn't want any nasty surprises.

Safe and sound at a mooring near Dendermonde
Commercials like this can create a big pull on the ropes

Another commercial speeding past and taking advantage of the upstream current

After making sure everything was really secure, we took a walk into town. Dendermonde was quite a surprise. I'm sure I've been there before, but it's much prettier and more typically Flemish than I remember. It has a lovely square and what used to be the river is now a closed canal that divides the city, complete with lifting bridges. Sadly, there is no way into it by boat as it is blocked off at both ends and must have been for years. Here is a website about the town's historic buildings. I was quite surprised by the number of judicial buildings, which would suggest it has some kind of legal importance, but so far, I haven't found anything particular to confirm that. I'm afraid I didn't manage any decent photos of Dendermonde because the light was bad and I didn't take my camera, but I did take one with my phone.

The approach to the main square in Dendermonde
By the time we got back to the Hennie Ha, it was almost completely dark. We sat on the back deck and watched the current flowing past us at a crazy speed. I don't think I've ever seen it racing as much anywhere. What a river!

Well I think that's enough for this week, don't you?  I'll leave the final two days for now (nothing like spinning out the story) and wish you all a marvellous week to come. Next time, I'll get us to Gent, I promise...Have a good one, allemaal!