Monday, March 29, 2021

Serious surgery of an arborial kind

My poor lime tree at the crumbly cottage has been surgically scythed, seriously sectioned and significantly sawn. Why? And was it really necessary? Well, given its proximity to the back of the house, and the fact it had grown substantially since we've been here, I felt it was time it had a trim. However, I didn't expect the cut to be quite so dramatic. 

In actual fact, it's taken more than a year to arrange it. I first made the enquiry to the tree surgeon in November 2019. The company concerned is Belgian and I think they work with quite a small team, so at first it was pretty difficult for them to find time to come and give me advice. We had a number of storms over the winter of 2019/2020 and they were very busy dealing with the (literal) fallout and then, of course, the pandemic threw everything for a loop. Eventually, we managed a visit in May last year in between lockdowns and a very nice man, one of the partners of the business, came and discussed the trimming with us. 

He said the tree was healthy and not likely to fall down, but he understood my concerns and agreed to come back in the autumn to do the job. We discussed methods and he drew us a diagram which gave us the idea that the tree would retain quite an elegant candelabra shape. He also told us it probably wouldn't flower for a couple of years, which would be sad for the bees as they love the blossom on the tree. I almost hesitated at that, but I hope I can provide them with more flowers in the garden instead. We talked about building them a bee hotel, but as the man said "it's not a hotel they need, it's a restaurant!" which made us laugh. In any event, they enjoyed a prolonged feast last May, for which I am thankful.

Anyway, the autumn came and went and we saw no sign of our tree man, so eventually I wrote and asked when they might come. Well, it seemed they were busy with storm damage again (we have a lot of those – storms, that is), so the job was once more put off until this year. Then, yes, you've guessed it, lockdown hit again, so I'd more or less resigned myself to having to wait another year when much to my surprise an email came.  Our man asked if they could come on March the 9th, and did we also want them to bring a shredder (hakselaar in Dutch) to chop up all the pieces? Yes and yes, I said, with some alacrity.

Well, they came, but it was two different men and they made short work of lopping all the branches off the tree to a much more severe extent than I was expecting. I even wondered if they knew about the candelabra plan, but by that time it was too late. Be that as it may, it was fascinating to watch. The tools the two men brought were scarily sharp and 90% of the cutting was done with small hand saws, which seemed to go through quite thick limbs like butter. The main man only used a chain saw to cut the top off where it was thickest, and even that was just a small, battery operated machine. Professional tools are deceptively and jaw-droppingly good.


While the one chap was up the tree, chucking the sawn-off branches into the garden, the other was carting them off to the shredder, another astonishingly powerful piece of equipment. It actually made wood chips of everything, which it spat out to form a huge pile in our passage. We still haven't managed to distribute them all yet, but quite a lot of them are now filling in a dip in front of the garden fence at the bottom of the dyke. I have a feeling the rest will find their way into the flower beds, but at the moment, they're tidied away in one of those big white bags.

And that's about half of them.

The tree now looks awful, but I know it will come back and I fully expect it to have at least some leaves on it by the middle of the summer. It is a prolific shooter so I'm not too worried about it, but I keep apologising to it as well as to the pigeons that have used it for their nests for the past several years.

As you can see from the photos above, the day was overcast and gloomy, so below are some sunnier photos of one of my walks last week.

Have a good week allemaal and keep well! 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

A ripple in my routine

This last week has been a bit different from the usual routines that we've fallen into since lockdown and curfew have become part of our lives. Two events occurred to disrupt the pattern I've personally fallen into of work, walk, work and write. The first of these was a national event of some importance and a great occasion for me personally. 

We had an election on March the 17th, a day more commonly known for being St Patrick's Day. Mind you, there wasn't much of St Patricke's favourite colour about the voting results because the Green party here (Groenlinks) didn't do so well. That said, the Animal Rights party (Partij voor de Dieren), which is also focused on environmental issues, had a better showing and managed to gain two seats. However, the outcome was very much as predicted and Prime Minister Rutte is set to serve another term as head of the government, albeit with a different mix of parties in the coalition (probably).

So why was it an occasion for me, you might ask. Well, it's the first time I've ever been able to vote in a national election here and is actually my first vote since 1994 in South Africa – that momentous year when Nelson Mandela became president. So yes, 27 years (the same number as Mandela spent on Robben Island) since I've been entitled to cast my ballot. I even got a red pencil to mark the occasion – okay, everyone did, but I'm keeping mine as a souvenir! And yes again, it felt pretty good to walk to the voting station and have my say. The right to vote is one I value, given that it's been so long since I've had that right.

The other change in my routine was the start of a new course in what is today's face-to-face mode: Zoom. It's been a few months since I've sat in front of my computer screen and talked to students in real time. So far this year, all my courses have been asynchronous although they've been pretty intense and a lot of work. As a result, it was both refreshing as well as slightly nerve-wracking to be on the spot again and explaining things verbally. My students are lovely, though, and it all went well so I am looking forward to the coming weeks with them.

All that aside, I'm still doing my best to continue my daily walks. Sunshine hasn't been too plentiful of late, but when it comes out, I'm out there marching through mud and mire to maintain my minimum of 4kms a day.  The photos below are of my tramp through the puddles on the nature reserve near our canal on Friday.

Then yesterday, Koos and I discovered a lovely new wooded area to the east of the crumbly cottage. It lies on the Belgian border and is in what is called a water collection and extraction area. In Dutch this is called waterwinning. What this means is that the acres on which the woods stand are designated for 'winning' drinking water and irrigation from the ground. Throughout the woods there are deep channels that look like moats and it is from these and the water table below that our potable water is drawn. The woods and the water are protected but the locals are still allowed to enjoy the forest paths and walk there with their families and dogs. It was a beautiful discovery and I'm pretty sure we'll be going there again.

Belgian border post
Remember No. 1 in last week's post?

Koos with his personal prosthesis :)
A dry channel in the waterwin area

One of the water collection channels in the waterwin area

Looking into Belgium from the Dutch side of the woods
Note the Belgian border post seen in close-up above.

I'm itching to get going with painting on the Vereeniging and the Hennie H again, but despite the sunshiny photos, it's still pretty cold and so not good for paintwork. I know to my cost in both effort and money it's not worth trying to paint when the overnight temperatures are under 10C. Before it is properly dried and set, the paint can be badly damaged by the cold, which is what happened when I pushed my luck last autumn. I know. I'll just have to be patient.

Anyway, for now I'm busy enough. Have a good week allemaal and I'll catch up with you all again soon.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

A weekend of superlatives: from the highest hill to the deepest lock in the Netherlands.

 Last weekend, we went away. I know. It seems almost unbelievably adventurous after having been confined to my weekly commute between Rotterdam and Zeeland for an entire year. Given that we are in lockdown, you might well wonder why we went at all. Well, there were three reasons: the first was that I'm doing research for a project I’m busy with and needed to go to there; the second was that my daughters had extolled the beauties of the area I needed to go to, this being south Limburg, and thirdly, I knew it would be very quiet and empty of people. The town we stayed in was Valkenburg, which most of the time exists for tourists. However, there are no tourists now so we could be assured of a peaceful time with virtually no one about.

South Limburg is the southernmost province of the Netherlands and is distinguished by having real hills of the rolling, gorgeous and unexpectedly scenic variety. I have to say this was a complete surprise to me because although I've been to Maastricht a few times, I've never explored the countryside to the east of the Maas river there. Mostly, when you speak to Dutch people, they will tell you the Netherlands is completely flat except for 'a couple of hills' in Limburg. I took them at their word and had no idea I would be driving through rural scenery that would equal the prettiness of England's Devon or Belgium's Wallonia. What a delight it was, and worth every metre of the additional 130 kms each way that we had  to drive so as to avoid going through Belgium. 

The black line is the obvious route; the blue
line is (more or less) what we had to do

From the crumbly cottage in Zeeland's southernmost point, the direct route to Limburg is straight across Belgium from Antwerp. However, Belgium is currently off-limits, so we had to drive north to Breda and then east to Eindhoven before going south to Maastricht. Valkenburg is to the east of Maastricht. This meant that instead of a 140 km drive, it was 270 kms – each way. We took it gently, though, and shared the driving. The weather was beautiful too, which was a blessing, and the whole trip was just the tonic I needed.

The Wilhelminatoren

Valkenburg from the Wilhelminatoren

Valkenburg was originally the stronghold of a family of the same name. It is the only castle in the Netherlands built on a hill (now there's a surprise, I hear you say), and even then is only on the foothill of the real thing, the top of which is where I took the photos above. The castle began life in the 12th century and went through several stages of building in the following centuries, mostly due to being sacked by marauding invaders and then rebuilt. However, its final demise as a complete fortification occurred in 1672, when the French King Louis the 14th conducted a long and devastating siege of Maastricht, using Valkenburg Castle as an outpost for fighting. Eventually William III of the Netherlands retaliated by destroying the castle to such a degree it would never be rebuilt. For the next few hundred years, the castle ruins were neglected, until in the early 20th century a foundation was set up to preserve them and keep them safe for future generations.  I must admit I found it really impressive to look up at it from the city and to walk around its perimeter walls, but from the top of Heunsberg Hill, it looks positively small. The Wilhelminatoren, however, which you can see in the first photo, looks impressive from any angle. It is a much later addition. You can read about it here with Google Translate's help :)

The castle looks impressive from the town

Beautiful, but not Dutch as we know it

The river Geul

Valkenburg is a very pretty town, completely unlike anything you would expect in the Netherlands and with none of the influences that grace Amsterdam, Utrecht and all the other beautiful Dutch cities. It is very much its own place, as is Maastricht, and I had a powerful feeling of being in another country completely. What with the hills, the panoramic vistas, the limestone buildings and more Belgian or even French architecture, it was hard to believe we were still in the Netherlands.

Our visit was a short one, but one thing we both wanted to do while we were there was visit the 'Drielandenpunt' some 22kms away. It's the point where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands all come together at the top of the Vaalseberg, the highest point in the Netherlands and a hefty 322.5 metres above sea level. At this one point, you can straddle three countries without moving.

Drielandenpunt. B is for Belgium. At the back it's Germany
and to the left is the Netherlands.

A German barrel organist

And as if to underscore its international flavour, the barrel organist above was German. I think he was actually standing in the Netherlands although I'm not completely sure, but that's the beauty of this place. It doesn't matter.

And for those who remember a post I did a while back about Belgium's border markers, this is number 1 that Koos is leaning against, the first in the series of 369 that were placed over a border length of 458kms. In fact, Koos marks the spot.

While I'm on the subject of superlatives, I'm sure readers here know by now that we cannot stay away from the water and boats for long, so on our way home we stopped at Maasbracht to look at the Netherland's deepest lock, which is found on the Juliana Canal that runs parallel to the Maas. I should say that most locks in the country reflect the flatness of the landscape and are rarely more than a couple of metres deep. The fall on this one is almost 12 metres, which is impressive by anyone's standards. We just struck lucky when we saw this container barge coming in and had to watch the whole process, of course.

The container barge arriving

At the bottom

Starting her exit

Squeaking out under the road bridge

And off she goes, south into Belgium

Back home again, it's been a stormy week. The weather broke on Tuesday and by Thursday, the winds were howling. We had to go to Terneuzen, so we took a walk along the estuary of the Westerschelde. It's hard to tell from the photos below, but the wind was so strong I had trouble keeping to my feet. I think you can just see the white caps on the water.

The boats below were in the safety of the harbours. The blue one was dredging, which was interesting to watch. It doesn't matter what the weather's doing, work must go on!

It is odd to think we are now at the opposite end of the Nethelands. In fact, the last Belgian border marker (No. 369) isn't all too far from where we are now, and yet the country we are so close to is so far away at the moment. I do so hope we can cross that border again before too long. Belgium is very much a second home to me and I miss it. 

Have a good weekend, allemaal. 

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Tankers, ships, barges and tugs

These last twelve months have been incredibly difficult for us all and it's not over yet, it seems. As readers of this blog will know, though, my sanity (such as it is) has been saved by being able to spend time on my barge and also on our Hennie H. We haven't been anywhere by boat since 2018 due to the Hennie H's engine problems and we're still going through plenty of ups and downs where that's concerned. However, being able to be on board the Vereeniging, do jobs on both boats and make plans has been a blessing.

The other thing that's kept me going is my daily walk. I always take a camera with me, even if it's just my (not very good) phone, and I often walk along the sea canal, always in the hopes I'll see some of the big boys going past. Well, yesterday I hit the jackpot. I was just walking over the bridge when I noticed a queue of six vessels waiting for it to open for them. I have never seen so many, and the odd thing was that they were all lying still, hovering (if ships can do that). There must have been some kind of glitch with the opening mechanisms as they are rarely required to wait. But when I was halfway across the bridge, the bell rang and the booms came down. I'd have loved to get a better full on view of the ships from the centre of the span but I had to hotfoot it to the other side. Even then, I had to climb under the boom to escape, so I ran down to the water side to take these photos. 

Aren't they a fantastic sight? I feel so privileged to see these huge craft come past so often. It's soul-stirring stuff.

I love these muscular tugboats

What a sight to see. These ships are massive

When the sun catches their superstructure: beautiful

The last two of the group approaching the bridge

I love this vivid colour

Heading for Ghent

On a smaller scale, one of the harbours adjacent to the canal is home to these historic barges. I know I've taken and shown photos of them before, but I never tire of seeing them.

The historic harbour, known here as the Nostalgic Harbour

Such beautiful examples of old Dutch barges

And then, these are some pretty views from the town next to the canal, Sas van Gent. At one time it was fortified as many of these border towns were, and there are still many places where the fortifications have been preserved. Hulst is one of the prettiest examples, but it is further to the east. The fortifications at Sas van Gent were demolished when the canal was increased in size as it cut a swathe through the built-up area. In fact, the historic barges are in what remains of the second version of the canal, while this little bridge below is over a harbour that was the original canal to Ghent. 

Classic Dutch design

Sas van Gent is so named because it was where the 'sas' (an old word for a lock) into Belgium and Ghent was situated. There is now no lock here as the huge sea locks in Terneuzen have replaced it, but you can still see the former sas at the end of the historic harbour. I find it a pity that the constant widening of the canal has meant that Sas van Gent has lost much of its charm, but it still has some pretty parts. The bridge above (and below) and the quayside are lovely.

The old charm of Sas van Gent on the quayside

That bridge again

 As you can see, I have no shortage of beautiful walks and there's plenty of eye candy for a boat lover like me. The huge ships on the canal are breathtaking, but there are so many other boats, barges and tugs to look at too. In that sense I know we are very fortunate and I value these sights, as well as the open spaces we have around us with our extensive nature reserves.

Lockdown is tiresome and tedious; I miss the contact and interaction I used to have with my students terribly, but at least I have work and we have all this too. Many people have neither and I really feel desperately sorry for them. When I look at it this way and see how rich my surroundings are, my life could be a lot worse, couldn't it? 

Enjoy the rest of your week, allemaal.