Sunday, October 30, 2022

Woodn't it be nice?

In the past weeks, since we've been home from our travels, I've been much occupied with wood in various shapes and forms. It started with the old blanket chest we've used as a coffee table for some years. I bought it about twelve years ago, always planning to strip it and either oil or polish it depending on what it looked like. But, as usual, life got in the way and I never got round to it – until a few weeks back, that is. 

After returning from the shipyard, I was looking for projects to keep up my momentum and decided on an impulse to clear out the chest (or kist as we call it here) and get going. It took a bit of work involving paint stripper, a scraper and lots of sanding, but Koos and I are pretty pleased with the result. The wood is oak, so it has quite a fine, dense grain, which made stripping it of all the old dark varnish quite time-consuming. We haven't got all of it out, but we don't mind as it gives the wood a bit of character. Anyway, it's so much classier than it used to be.

Then, I saw another old pine kist advertised locally for €20, which I felt we simply had to have. It's a traditional Dutch Zeeland design and ideal for storing my spare duvets and blankets. I wish I'd taken a 'before' photo because it was painted a hideous red-brown colour with fake grain over the top. 

I remember 'paint, grain and varnish' being a popular technique when I was a child and I think this chest was the result of someone's amateur attempt at it. Unfortunately, it's been even more challenging to strip than the other chest and has taken considerably more paint stripper, as well as a sturdy belt sander (which sadly died from its efforts). The photo below is how it looks so far. There's still some work to do on the moulded edges and lots more sanding, but I'm looking forward to finishing it with wax polish. It weighs a ton (well, maybe 60kgs), so getting it into place upstairs at the crumbly cottage is going to be another challenge. Wish us luck with that one. Woodn't it be nice if it turned out to be easy?

Another woody job I've embarked on is the stripping and refurbishing of the teak doors to my entrance hatch on Vereeniging. I'm ashamed to say I've neglected to maintain them properly over the last few years, so despite some interim cosmetic revarnishing, the weathering has left patches where the varnish has peeled off over time and the wood has become grey and stained. Last Friday, I spent the day scraping and sanding. 

As you can see, the grey patches still mar the wood, so I'll need to treat them with a fluid we call ontweringswater here. I have no idea what this is called in English as the translation says it's decontamination water, but I'm sure that's not right. What it does is reverse the effects of weathering and the grey returns to the wood's original colour. Maybe one of my readers here knows what the correct name is?

Anyway, these photos show what I've managed to do so far. I'm hoping to finish in the coming week and get some protective varnish on before the cold weather comes. It's been incredibly mild this October, so I'm counting my blessings that I'm still able to do this kind of outdoor work. Woodn't it be nice if I could keep going all winter?

Lastly, and on another subject entirely but which sort of falls into the category of 'wouldn't it be nice?', we've been cat sitting this week. My daughter has been away and we had the great pleasure of taking care of her two purry friends. The adorable little black and white cat, Mini, is (hopefully) recovering from what is normally a fatal disease, FIP, so it's been a joy to see her gaining strength day by day. However, there's no guarantee that the improvement is permanent, but wouldn't it be nice if it were? We're keeping everything firmly crossed and more.

Ready to pounce from the landing

Seeing sheep for the first time; her eyes were like

And this below is Sumo, an old lady who has stayed with us many times. She came with my daughter from South Africa and is a real street cat toughie, albeit it very sweet and loving. I should also say that her name is no accident. She's fifteen now and still has mad half hours around the house, bless her. Wouldn't it be nice if she were still like that in a few years to come? Sadly, she and Mini don't get on so the week was punctuated by occasional snarling matches when the two of them met in doorways or on the stairs. Luckily, no blood was drawn, but flick knives claws were constantly at the ready. In fact, it would be really nice if they were to call a truce and just be friends.

Actually, the cats went home today and the cottage seems very empty without them. I'm glad my other daughter's cat still comes visiting – sort of. He lives next door and considers my garden part of his territory, but he's quite nervous and has kept his distance more than usual since Sumo gave him his marching orders in no uncertain terms. Wouldn't it be nice if all our feline furries were friends too?

Well, enough of the woody word play...wishing you all a great week allemaal and I hope to have some more DIY progress to recount for you next week.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The greatest impressionist

It's close to the end of October now, and I'm still wallowing in recollections of our summer travels. In fact, they ended more than six weeks ago, but I'm not quite done with them yet, as you will see. Having written about the year's special places, people and peak experiences, this week I'm going to waffle on about the sights and sounds of our watery journey that made the greatest impression on me.

The title of this post does, of course, refer to nature. When we fare gently along Belgium's stately rivers and France's quiet waterways and canals, we are very open to the natural world around us. We have no wheelhouse to protect us from the elements, but at the same time, we are not shielded or distanced from them either. I love being out on deck, and even when Koos gives me the freedom to go inside out of the wind or rain, I never do – except to make our coffee and snacks. And so we can smell and feel so much, whether it is the ripe odours of manure wafting across our bows mingling with the scent of jasmine, or the bite and burn of wind and heat on our skin. And there are the glorious sights too.

It's almost a cliché to wax lyrical about reflections, I know, but I am time and again struck by the perfection of the mirrored view we see in the water. I regret, always, having to disturb it as we did when we broke up the lovely eye-shaped image made by this new bridge in Thuin when we passed under it.

Then, how magical is this row of trees reflected so perfectly in the calm waters of the Schelde on a cloudless September morning? No impressionist painter could give us greater, more vivid art than what we see every day on the water.

And there are the secret corners and hidden beauty of places boaters and tourists rarely stop. Below is the entrance to an old water mill and its surrounding buildings; a tiny self-contained hamlet of run-down cottages, barns and, central to the collection, the dilapidated but charming mill: its workings gone, its bridge broken but exuding a confidential peace that drew us in. The trees and undergrowth had encircled it, emphasising its magical secrecy. What we spend fortunes creating, nature does naturally, silently and with infinitely more grace.

Or the isolated locks we pass through but, with nowhere to stop, we can only look back in regret at the inviting scene. There are dozens of these, each with a lock house standing forlorn and empty; the sad victims of a bureacracy that won't allow the sale of houses without public road access. So, with no lock keepers to live in them, they are falling into disrepair. If only...

A lonely lock, its only visitor the VNF lock attendants who 
follow us to each lock and operate the gates for us: men in small
white vans who work on the waterways but don't live on them

And just off the waterways, there are other delights, especially for Koos. Train lines often run parallel to rivers and canals. In the photo above, Koos is in his personal heaven because not only does the railway run alongside the Sambre, but we found a wild mooring where, after a very short walk, we came to a level crossing. To cap the delight completely, a train obligingly came past just as we arrived at the track.

But back to our natural world again, another magical aspect of the waterways for me is the animal life. We occasionally see water rats or voles, but most of the animals we encounter either next to, or on the water, are cattle. I missed an opportunity to capture a couple of cows taking a cooling dip one day, but we saw many other beauteous beasts as we fared along.

Mostly, however, our wildlife is birdlife. This year, there were more herons than I have ever seen before – even after realising that some of them were the same birds, constantly taking off and flying ahead of us before landing on low lying branches and standing stock still (as they do) as if they'd been there for hours. When I realised, it made me laugh. I could even imagine they were deliberately teasing us. There were also more coots, those stroppy, feisty, territorial little birds that can terrorise geese and other waterfowl three times their size. I love them. One of my favourite pastimes is watching the banks and looking for the secret activities of the life amongst the reeds or beneath the spreading branches of the trees. There are nearly always coots busily bossing their families about in the shallows.

But while we're on the subject of nature's glories, I mustn't forget the skies. We had spectacular weather  while we were away and day after day of sizzling sunshine with barely a drop of rain. Nevertheless, the sky still put on a majestic show, time after time. Below are just some of the fabulous cloudscapes we were treated to.

But there were also hazy, streaky tranquil skies, which I loved as well. The one below was a special example. I took it on the day we left France, and it strikes me that it carries a hint of the melancholy I felt in its blue haze.

There were inevitably numerous other sights and sightings that left their imprint on my memory. I could never put them all in a blog, but my photos help to remind me and I can spend endless hours looking at them, picturing where we were, reliving the moment. Just one example is this snap I grabbed of a rowing boat with an upside down chair in it. We were on the Sambre where numerous fishermen take their ease and often fish from small boats, but clearly this one had a story behind it. Any ideas in the comments below, please :)

Or the station at Obourg, near which we'd tied up against an old quay wall and taken a walk just to see where it went. In a chance encounter, we met a local man who told us the station was home to a war memorial commemorating an unknown British soldier. The information board told us the hero had held off a German advance single-handedly by sniping at them from a rooftop, thereby allowing his fellow countrymen to escape. Sadly, he didn't make an escape himself and for me, seeing this tribute to an Englishman's courage in such an obscure and out of reach spot was a moving experience.

So that's it for my summer travel blogs. I hope you've enjoyed seeing where we went, who we met and what we enjoyed so much this last summer. It was a wonderful, if short, trip, and one I won't forget in a hurry. We achieved our dream to reach the aqueduct on the Canal de la Sambre à l'Oise, we spent time at our personal mecca, Tupigny, and we went through the historic boat lifts at La Louvière. That's a pretty good score of 'firsts' for a one-month trip away, isn't it?

Enjoy the coming week, allemaal, and I'll be back with more current doings next week.


Saturday, October 15, 2022

A passage through history

As promised to Don and Cathy Jo, fellow boaters and bloggers, this post is about our trip through and down the historic barge lifts from Houdeng/La Louvière to Strépy Thieu (in Belgium), a distance of some seven kilometres from one end to the other along an old section of the original Canal du Centre. Over its length, there is an overall fall (or rise) of just over 62 metres (217 feet).

To give you some background, I've previously mentioned going up the huge 73-metre lift at Strépy Thieu, a phenomenal engineering feat we experienced on our journey to the Sambre. However, this great lift and its wider cutting replaced four smaller lifts (which I've also mentioned before) that were built between 1888 and 1917, and were designed by Edwin Clark, the engineer who was responsible for the Anderton Lift in the UK. Despite earlier wishes and attempts, we'd never managed to go through these historic lifts on the Hennie H, so when the opportunity arose on our way back to the Netherlands this summer, we simply had to take it. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

I was quite absurdly excited as we approached Ascenseur 1 (Lift 1). Even though we've often travelled to the canal here by car and walked much of its length, I'd never been to this first lift on the system. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't the smart waiting area and new pontoon that we tied up to while we received instructions from the pleasant lock-keeping team member.

Looking at the lift, I was puzzled by its simpler appearance than that of the other lifts on the canal. However, this one had to be repaired and revised some years ago after an accident in which a barge was crushed and stuck in the caisson (the tank that the barges sit in) when the lift started rising while the barge was still exiting. This accident happened in 2002 and during the repairs that began in 2005, a major restoration was performed, probably explaining its somewhat newer appearance.

Approaching Ascenseur/ Lift 1

Entering the caisson

Looking back up after we'd descended

Leaving lift 1

It was very special for us to be living this history on our own Hennie H. Lift 1 has a drop of just under 16 metres, which is deeper than any of the locks we'd been through. Even more impressive is the fact the mechanisms operating this and all the lifts are original. They work on a hydraulic counterbalancing system in that while one caisson rises, the other descends. What surprised us, though, was how they adjust the balance. If the descending caisson is not heavy enough to lower steadily, water is released from its rising partner. In addition, more water is poured into the descending caisson from the canal above. I have to say this was something of a shock as they didn't warn us, so to see two waterfalls suddenly gushing into our caisson from a dizzy height was not what we were expecting. Nevertheless, it was a simple and highly effective solution, because down we went at a much improved pace.

Increasing the weight of our caisson. This
was later, but the system was the same.

Because it was quite late in the day, we opted to stay the night on the canal and do the other three lifts the following morning. Our obliging lock-keeping team arranged to be ready for us at 10 a.m. and we found ourselves a pleasant spot to spend the night close to the bridge at Houdeng. Our descent of the lift had been in cloudy and slightly rainy weather, but it soon cleared up and we had a lovely evening of golden sunshine, helped by a bottle of plonk from the nearby Aldi supermarket!

The following morning, we set off in good time and headed towards Lift 2, which was around two kilometres further along the canal. What we hadn't taken into account when we booked our passage was the low swing bridge (also a historic monument) about halfway along where we had to wait for the dream team to reach us. They'd probably thought we'd only arrive there at 10 o'clock, so we caught them on the hop a bit.

The historic swing bridge at Houdeng Goegnies

Lifts 2 and 3 are very close together and both just under 17 metres deep. It was a beautiful morning and I loved being able to see the next lift as we descended Lift 2 in our green duckweed tank. The whole canal surface was covered in weed for long stretches, but it was very thin, so gave us no problems.

Descending lift 2

In the Lift 3 caisson

At the bottom of Lift 3

And on our way to cover the final few kilometres to Lift 4

The canal to the last lift at Thieu is also quite a stretch. I don't remember exactly how long it is but it must be over three kilometres. There's another pretty historic bridge, this time a lifting one, and our attendant looked on anxiously as we passed through it in case we caught our umbrella on the steel. All was well, though, and we were through for the final leg.

Our umbrella gave the attendant an anxious moment

Another highlight as we made our way towards Lift 4 was looking through the trees and spotting the great Strépy Thieu lift dominating the scenery as it does for miles around. It was a lovely moment of relativity to see it there from our own passage through its historic predecessors. 

The final lift in the stretch was a fitting end to the experience. The view from the caisson is quite breathtaking, looking out as it does over the wide basin at its foot and then further over the golden Wallonian hills on the other side of the new Canal du Centre. What many don't realise is that there is still a further six-metre lock to descend before reaching main waterway, meaning that we were still at quite a height. As a grand finale, the panoramic vista was hard to beat and I was so pleased we'd been able to take this time to 'do' these lifts.

The resident geese. They've been there for years.

From the old canal to the new. What a sight!

A stunning view across the basin to the hills beyond

Leaving Lift 4 and waiting to go down the final lock.

So, Don and Cathy Jo, I hope you (and everyone else) have enjoyed the trip. It was one of the highlights of our travels this year and we were fortunate to be blessed with both the weather and the time to do it. For anyone visiting, there are passenger boats that do tours of all the lifts, as well as two visitors' centres where information about the construction and mechanics of these hydraulic marvels is readily available. We've been to this old stretch of canal by road many times, but nothing can beat experiencing the living history of this waterway by faring through it ourselves.

Have a great weekend allemaal, and I hope the world is kind to you in the coming week.

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

To Helling and gone

This is something of an interim post between my blogs about our holiday. As those of you who are Facebook and Twitter friends already know, we have recently been to the slipway, or helling as we call it here, with my Vereeniging. It was inspection time again. Yes. That nerve-wracking moment when the surveyor comes with his hammer and starts bashing the bottom of the hull as hard as he can to find weak or thin spots. My blogging friends who have known me for many years, or those who've read my Watery Ways/Harbour Ways books will know how alarming this can be. The first inspection I had cost me more than just sleepless nights. It was a day I'll never forget. Since then, I've calculated Vereeniging has had four more inspections, none of which have brought such bad news, thank heavens, but it's always a tense time.


Luckily, this time, my lovely barge passed muster although the inspector had some advice for us regarding other things that need attention above the waterline, one of which was to attend to some play in the steering bearings, which will need some thought. Anyway, it was a relief to see that her bottom is a good thickness almost everywhere and above the minimum requirements in the one area where it is a little on the thin side. No need for further action at this stage, but something to keep an eye on. 

I must say he was very thorough and precise, which is reassuring, although I find it strange that over the years some of the numbers don't seem to make sense. I suppose it depends on precisely which spots they measure, as this can vary within quite a small area. Whatever the case, Vereeniging has been pronounced fit to fare, at least for another year. I believe that these days, the validity of the report is limited to one year. In the past, the only proviso was the date given for the next inspection.

Anyway, below is a kind of picture story of our trip to the helling (all of 6.5 kilometres), the work we did and our trip home again (a bit longer as we did a slight detour). Despite the patches of blue sky, we got throughly soaked going to the yard. Conversely, the return trip looked very threatening but remained dry the whole way. Needless to say, we loved every minute in both directions. The in-between days at the yard were, fortunately, beautiful and we had wall-to-wall sunshine for the painting. I've added a couple of brief videos as well to animate the story slightly. 

Leaving Oudenbosh

Out on the lovely Dintel river

A nearby factory on the water

There are large areas of lovely rural scenery, though

Heading towards another factory

Arriving at the yard, a lovely evening sun makes a lovely scene

8a.m. the next morning, ready to start.

Going up the helling

A short video of her ladyship rising 

A safe 'landing' and ready for spraying

One blessng: we didn't have to do the spraying ourselves
this year

The inspector's verdict. All good news!

Most of these numbers are the guesstimated length in metres. 
She's still 19.8, and thankfully hasn't grown!

After days of back-aching painting, one very shiny bottom

And again

A proud prow!

Time to go home: early Saturday morning, a misty start
but so still

The river was mirror smooth

The only ripples were made by Vereeniging

Almost home

Back on the Mark into Oudenbosch

And yesterday, basking in the sunshine

And lastly, a short video of our return trip for
the sound of the engine and the atmosphere :)

Thank you reading and watching, allemaal. If you have any questions about what the inspection or work involves, feel free to ask! The next post will be about the fabulous historic boat lifts in Belgium.