Monday, September 25, 2023

A flying visit to France plus other (in)consequential happenings

Just a pretty scene as a header for the blog and to show
my happy place

I've been lax again – well, no, not really. It's more that things have been pretty busy and exciting lately while life in general is a bit more taxing.

Before I get into the visit to France, the taxing part is that our road has been dug up yet again. Some of you may remember that two years ago, we were unable to park next to the Crumbly Cottage or drive past it for several months owing to work on the drains. Well, when they finally finished, they just relaid the brick surface (we don't have tar here) on a temporary basis. Last year, a large section of the road was re-surfaced over the course of several more months resulting in our access being cut off again. But, they didn't reach our section, so this year, they are doing the part in front of the cottage and for a couple of hundred metres on either side of us. Sigh. 

2021, 2022 and now again in 2023, the dyke near us is dug up
for months on end

It feels as if we'll never see the end of it, but they predict it will be finished in November. The main problem for us is we cannot access ou house with any kind of vehicle, which has consequences for our wood supply this winter and also for delivering parcels. I won't bore you with an extended moan, but suffice to say it's getting to be a bit of a burden, especially with the wet weather we've had recently. The mud, and if not mud, the sandy dust. Trudging through puddles ... with a spaniel. And then coming into a house with carpet, where every surface is covered with a layer of sand. Need I say more? 

Okay, that's the taxing part. The busy part is that I've started work again, there's still painting on the boats to do, and we're trying to keep up with engine maintenance as well. I'm honestly not moaning about any of that as I enjoy my work as well as all the boaty jobs.

The exciting part is the new French connection. A close relative has finalised the purchase of a fixer-upper house at the southern end of the Champagne region. Just a few kilometres from the Marne river and its sidekick the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne (The canal between Champagne and Burgundy), it's in the incredibly beautiful Haute-Marne department, the department where Charles De Gaulle had his home at Colombey-Les-Deux-Églises. The transfer took place on the 15th of September, so Koos and I went along for moral support. And of course we were very curious to see the house in the flesh, so to speak.

It was a six-hour plus drive including stops for breaks for the dogs as much as for us. We left at sparrow's whotsit (6.15 a.m.) and arrived sometime after 12.00, although  don't remember exactly what time it was. Our first stop was at the house, so we headed for the village and were completely captivated by how beautiful the area was. Rolling hills, wooded copses, fields full of sunflowers (past their prime, sadly) and picturesque stone villages. When we arrived at the house, we were amazed by its size and the extent of its buildings. It's a fine, well-proportioned home that would be called a villa here and I can well imagine it will look beautiful with window boxes of geraniums and freshly painted shutters, which we found in the garage.

After a walk around and some entertaining but time-consuming wrangling with the pop-up toilet tent she carries for emergencies but which refused to un-pop, it was time to meet the estate agent for an interior check. I'd seen plenty of photos, but it was still impressive to see it for real. Luckily, the former owner had left some basic furnishings, which made the house look more homely and also gave us something to sit on and at in the evening. The tour of inspection over, we drove another twelve kilometres to Doulevant le Chateau to the notary. Koos and I were in charge of the dogs for the two-hour appointment and since by this time it was quite hot, I volunteered to take them (Zoe and Mack) for a walk while Koos had a snooze in the car.

We made our way along a path out of the village and into gorgeous countryside. It reminded me  of England's West Country and the area around Maastricht and I realised she'd chosen a delightful place to make her home if she chose to move there full-time in the future.

When I returned, the deed was done, we were all invited to the sellers' home for a celebratory drink– all being the three of us, the estate agent and an interpreter. For me, this was the highlight of the trip. We were welcomed into Michel and Jeanne's spacious dining room, champagne was poured and a wonderfully multi-lingual conversation ensued. Michel and Jeanne were such warm, friendly, spontaneous people and the estate agent was so bubbly, we were all laughing and chatting together in no time, despite the limitation my French. The interpreter, Marjon, spoke Dutch when needed, so we had that to fall back on, but it was a wonderful welcome to the area and I'm sure more good friendships will be made in due course.

A village street in the morning (courtesy Koos Fernhout)

Back at the house, we set to wiping tops, sweeping up cobwebs and generally making a few areas  fit for camping out that evening. Of course, we were pretty tired, so after a salad supper we'd brought with us, and a walk through the starlit evening village, we retired to bed: Koos and I on an airbed upstairs and our relative on a sofa. The upside was the tranquillity and stillness of the night; the downside was the bells from the church almost opposite. I heard them ring on the hour, every hour throughout the night. I suppose you get used to them eventually...?

On Saturday morning, we were up early to walk the dogs and I marvelled again at the peace–apart from the regular rings from the spire above. We were planning to leave around 9 a.m. for the long haul back, which gave us a couple of hours to do something useful. We cleaned the front windows and I weeded the steps and the area in front of the house. What a difference even these two jobs made!

"It already looks loved again," wrote my daughter, when I sent her a photo.

The return journey took a little longer as we made more stops. We arrived home mid-afternoon, although for the new home owner, it took a lot longer. The car broke down on her way home, so she had to call the Dutch version of the AA. They managed to fix the issue temporarily, but now she has to have the problem investigated and repaired. All the same, it was a great trip and a wonderful adventure into a part of France I didn't know. I have a feeling we'll be going back in the not-too-distant future.

That's all for this time, allemaal. Enjoy the rest of your week, and I'll catch up with the rest of our doings in the next post.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Open Monuments Day

 I don't know if I've mentioned it on my blog before, but every year in the Netherlands we have an 'open monuments day' when the public get the chance to either go into historic buildings that might otherwise be closed, or get into old cars, machinery and, in our case, boats. 

Our harbour in festive mode

In our area, the focus is different every year. This time, it was on the historic boats in our harbour at Sas van Gent. As permanent 'liers' (liggers in Dutch), we were asked if we'd be willing to participate and be on board to receive visitors to tell them about Vereeniging and her history. At first we weren't sure if we'd be here, but once we knew we would, I set to and made an information board to explain about the history of the barge. Below is an image of what I used, although the main board was in Dutch. The English text was taped to the electricity box in case there were any non-Dutch/Flemish visitors. :)

I must admit I hadn't expected much interest, so when I saw the other boats with their bunting, I was a little sorry I hadn't thought of doing more. As it happened, it didn't matter because the organisation by the local society was very good.

It was a scorcher of a day, so they set up a table with an umbrella on the quay and directed visitors to the boats. We had several sets of people coming to see us and it was really lovely to be able to tell them more about Vereeniging's past life. The interest was genuine and the contact was very rewarding. One woman told me she frequently walked around the harbour and had often wondered about the boats, so she was especially pleased to have the chance to see them and ask questions.

Of course, the men amongst the visitors wanted to know more about the engine, so we started it and Koos entertained the eager diesel fans with stories about oily bits past and present. In her 125 years of life, Vereeniging has only had three engines: a horizontally placed paraffin engine (installed in 1898 when she was built), a single-cylinder hot bulb engine (installed in 1921) and her current two-cylinder 1950s Samofa (installed in 2006). Her current engine is still a classic and the reason for much attention for those in the know about pistons, valves and all the other associated parts. Cooling systems are always of interest, as are exhausts. I am not immune myself, as I'm quite fond of our old engine and very well acquainted with its innards.

The Current engine: a Samofa 2S108

The Historic Harbour, Sas van Gent

Anyway, by lunchtime, we were fairly well roasted and the number of visitors had dwindled. I couldn't blame them; it was over 32C in the shade and we were in the full sun. Given the situation and the fact we'd got a little dog parked under an umbrella, we decided to call it a day and retreat to cooler climes. All in all, though, it had been a great day and well worth the effort. 

Have a good week allemaal and hoping the weather gods smile kindly on you all wherever you are.

Friday, September 01, 2023

Wrapping August up in style: away days to remember

Over the past weeks of August, we've had a few really very nice away days, so although we haven't been on holiday, these trips have punctuated what has otherwise been a somewhat unadventurous summer for us. The odd thing is that we could have gone faring but we lost the impetus after the soaking weather in July and August. When we did get the chance, we didn't manage to gather ourselves together to do so. 

As a result, it's been a quiet time and one I've spent mostly doing DIY jobs at the Crumbly Cottage and on Vereeniging. So when we made trips to Leiden to visit Koos's son and Bruges to see a WOB (Women on Barges) friend, we felt quite bold by leaving our shire. We also had an afternoon out in the abandoned village of Doel, near Antwerp. Then last week I ventured even further and went to London for the day to spend time with my sister who was having a significant birthday. And to top it all, a couple of days ago, we started the Hennie H and went for a spuddle. Grand excitement all round, especially as it's inspired us to try and head for Gent (Ghent) tomorrow.

Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos of Leiden because we didn't go into the city itself. Koos's son has bought a very nice house in the suburbs and we went directly there. What made the visit even more enjoyable was the arrival of his brother, who also lives in Leiden just a short bike ride away. The drive to see him was something of a wake-up call for us rural types, however. 

We live in possibly the least populated area of the country and we were driving through the most densely inhabited part. The Randstad includes everything from Rotterdam, the Hague, Leiden, Amsterdam and Utrecht and is the industrial and commercial heart of the Netherlands. Even on a Saturday morning, the traffic jams on the Rotterdam ring road were as bad as any rush-hour. It took us three hours to do the 170 km (105 miles), which the heat of that particular day made a bit punishing. Still, it was good to see how the rest of the country's folk live—in one endless traffic queue. It served to remind me how blessed I am to have escaped it all.

Our trip to Bruges was also quite a slow one. Google told me it would take 45 minutes by car. Well, that's only possible if you run all the red traffic lights that seem to crop up every couple of kilometres along the main road. In theory, the E34 is a highway; in practice, it's a dual carriageway on which you can rarely sustain the speed limit of 90kph for more than a few minutes. Nevertheless, a visit to Bruges (or Brugge as the Flemish call it) is always lovely and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with the delightful Mandy and her equally charming husband, Guy. Zoe was as good as gold and settled down under the table, snoozing as we ate and chatted. 

Again, we didn't go into the city; it hums with tourists at this time of year and we've been many times before, but I love the canal that rings most of the town (ringvaart) with its drawbridges and historic gates. Our friends were moored in the Coupure, a canal that extends into the heart of the city and links to other canals that weave their way through the quaint old streets.

Boats and barges line the Coupure

Conzett Bridge over the Coupure is a special
rolling bridge that is lifted up by the cables you
can see. A Google Maps view is here

Another pleasure was an unexpected meeting with another WOB friend, Becky. She and her partner, David, were temporarily moored opposite Mandy while on their way south. I couldn't leave without saying hello, and as luck would have it Becky was on board. She and her beautiful dog, Gig, walked to the next bridge with us on our return to the car, making the day doubly special. To meet fellow boaters I've only chatted to on Facebook is just so rewarding.

As for Doel, our decision to go was something of an impulse. We've been several times over the years and it never ceases to fascinate us. I won't go into detail about its history here but suffice to say it was one of several villages intended to be sacrificed to Antwerp's need for more harbours and docks. Owing to a downturn in the economy, the planned developments didn't happen, and anyway, some of the villagers refused to leave. As a result, while most of the buildings and houses are empty and derelict, a few are still inhabited. There are still vestiges of life in this strangely appealing place on the shores of the Schelde (Scheldt) estuary, and we never fail to enjoy being there; as do many others who visit at weekends too.

Doel has a marina too, accessed from the tidal river

The sea dyke with its old windmill against the backdrop of
the nuclear power plant. Old vs new.

All the empty houses are boarded up, a magnet for graffiti lovers

Nature's art seeking to disguise man's 

Once upon a time there was a petrol pump

Another example of nature getting its own back

My trip to London was the last, and possibly most impulsive of all these away days. I'd hoped to travel on the Eurostar to London and back but only booking a week in advance, it proved too expensive at such short notice and I'd have had too little time in London as well, so I took the train there from Brussels and the overnight coach from Victoria back to Gent. Anyway, long story short, I met my sister at St Pancras and we spent the day in St John's Wood where our family lived between 1955 and 1967. 

It was a day of walking, talking and reminiscing, with the extra joy of having our brother and his wife join us for lunch. For me, time with my siblings is precious as it happens rarely, so this was a day to treasure and a perfect way to celebrate my sister's birthday.

The underground station just as I remember it

Our road: its name was apt as our
house suffered badly from rising damp

I remember coming here with my brother when he was
going through a train spotting phase.

The house we lived in until I was 12. When the lease
expired, the rents became unaffordable and we had
to leave.

When I was a child, this was a Blue Star garage. It's a listed
building now.

I love this skew telephone box. The pub on the
corner was where my eldest brother had
his first drink

My last photos for August are of our first trip out on our Hennie H a couple of days ago. We went all of four kilometres to 'visit' Vereeniging, but it didn't matter. It was Zoe's first cruise out of the marina too, so a landmark (or canalmark) event. I don't think they need any explanation, but I do love the ones of Zoe in her lifejacket. She seems totally unfazed by it.

Pondering on snacks she could have

Crossing the canal in the wake of the big boys

Hennie H and Vereeniging look lovely next
to each other

Luckily, they're about the same height

But Hennie H is visibly shorter

And off we went again, back to HH's mooring

She can stir up quite a wash

Ain't she sweet?

It can get chilly on the water

So that's my wrap up for August, allemaal. I hope September will be kind to you all. There are definite signs of Autumn on the way here, but I believe the coming week will be hot again, so here's hoping for a bit of Indian summer. Till next time and have a good weekend.