Saturday, July 22, 2017

Racing south From Arras to St Quentin

It's hard to know where to begin this week's blog. So much has happened and we've covered so much more ground than last week.

When we left Douai last Sunday, we said our farewells to the lovely folks we'd met there and turned right after the Douai locks to head up the Scarpe towards Arras. We'd managed to acquire the necessary remote control to operate the locks after Koos had been passed from pillar to post on the phone and eventually learned that we had to pick it up at the lock before the turning. The Scarpe proved to be a dream stretch of 24 kilometres to the end of the navigation. We loved it so much we spent two nights going up, a third night at the end and another night returning.

Info board on the lock at Douai

Through the first lock on the scarpe
 Highlights of the trip were a disused and semi -demolished China Clay factory, where Koos persuaded me to face my fear of going down steep ladders by climbing up to the old factory hall with our guitar and mandolin and recording a song there. The acoustics were amazing and it was great fun to do. When we were back on board (yes, I did it without incident) and Koos was taking photos, a security man appeared. Rather severely, he told Koos that photography was not allowed. Koos told him he understood he was doing job, but since the factory was being demolished, it seemed an odd rule to be imposing now. Mr Security relaxed, smiled ruefully, agreed and waved us on our way, for we were not going to make any other waves for him.

Leaving the industrial area at the beginning of the Upper Scarpe
The next highlight was our first and fourth nights' mooring at Brébières above the lock. It was so peaceful and really beautiful. By this time, we'd noticed how clear the water was and we could see right to the bottom. It was very weedy, though, so now and then some strong reverse action was needed to clear the prop, but we had the whole waterway to ourselves. For Koos, another peak moment was sitting in a camping chair in front of a railway bridge and filming TGV trains going past. While he did his train spotting thing (quite a challenge as the TGVs go so fast you've blinked and they're gone), I cycled to the nearby village of Fampoux and visited the WWI war cemetery where British soldiers were buried, all of whom died between 1917 and 1918. It was a very moving experience for me. So many, so young. Most of them were between 19 and 22 years old.

Brebieres lock and mooring where we first noticed
how clear the water was

Our mooring at Brebières

Beatiful, dream like Upper Scarpe

Koos watching and filming TGVs from the comfort
of the bank

At the end of the navigation, we spent the night at St Laurent de Blangy. We couldn't get all the way into Arras as the last two locks are no longer operating and the river has silted up. We moored up next to a children's water adventure centre and were hugely entertained by 'Chaos in Canoes'.  The kids were organised into a sort of rosta of activities, so every hour or so a new wave would arrive and the high jinks and fun would start again. I laughed till I cried at some of the nonsense that was going on. It was wonderfully harmless, cheerful fun and even better, not a smartphone in sight.

Chaos on Canoes at St Laurent Blangy

The end of the navigation at Arras - we couldn't get there by boat,
but I walked to the end on this beautiful summer evening.
After the Scarpe (which we left last just two days ago), we headed south to Arleux where we were going to take the Canal du Nord to the start of the Somme. Don't ask me what impulse got us though. We had to wait for a few commercials and decided instead we'd go via the Canal de St Quentin where we went last year. This time, however, we'd go through the tunnel I'd baulked at last year.  We spent Thursday night in Cambrai and Friday night at the mooring before the tunnel. What a dash through that was. 19 locks in one day was a bit much really, but the canal was as beautiful as ever. Last night we realised how far out of our way we'd come and felt a bit foolish that we hadn't looked at the map first, but heck, making beds and lying on them is something we're good at.

The Hennie H on the Canal de St Quentin (I walked along
the towpath to take this and some film footage too)
This morning then, I gathered up my courage again (remember the ladder) and faced the 5.5 kilometre Riqueval (or Bony) tunnel that we were towed through with two other cruisers. I was very quiet until we were more than half way through, and then life looked a bit brighter. It took an hour and a half, which was faster than I was expecting. It was also very cold, but then it was raining when we went in and when we left the tunnel. As an experience, it was something I am still absorbing, so there may be more on that later. There was another shorter (1km tunnel) after the long one, which seemed like child's play after the biggie.
Waiting to go in the tunnel

Leaving the light behind. Not to be seen again for 5.5kms
Now we are at St Quentin for a couple of hours (or maybe the night). We still have a long way to go to reach the Somme, which we'll be approaching from the south this time, but at least I'll be able to say I've done the whole Canal de St Quentin and all the Canal du Nord by the time we head north again.

More from me as and when I can. For now, enjoy your weekend allemaal!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Faring at a snail's pace: From La Bassée to Douai

We haven't travelled very far this week at all. Talk about pottering, we are taking the idea of snail's pace to new dimensions. The thing is, and it seems crazy to say so when you're on holiday, we needed a rest, so after another night on our island just beyond the junction of the Canal d'Aire with the Canal de la Deûle, we wended our way the short distance to the Canal de Lens, a stop I'd been looking forward to having loved it last year. Well, this time it was sadly disappointing.

You know when you think you've found your dream spot? That was how I'd thought of our mooring at Harnes last year. I even had visions of going there and spending some time writing. I don't know what has happened since then, but as soon as we entered the canal, the smell hit us. The scenery was still just as beautiful, but the water was horrible. Without going into detail, it was like an open sewer, black, stinky and with the obvious remains of things that are normally only found in toilets. Trying not to be daunted, we travelled the canal until the literal fizzing of the water told us we were stirring up unmentionable stuff from the bottom, so we turned round and went back. We spent one night on our last year's mooring (having intended to spend at least two). The upside was that at least we went for some lovely walks through the parkland that borders the canal. We also went into Harnes and had a drink at a café/bar, where I was charmed to find that every new customer that came in shook hands with every other patron of this small, friendly establishment. What a lovely custom, even though I was acutely conscious of being the only woman there!

The next day we moved on to the first of the moorings along the canal at Courrières. We didn't stop there last year, and after walking through what must be a prize-winner of bland and dull towns. That said, it had a central place that was attractive for its new cleanliness and pretty layout. We decided not to stay at this mooring, however. The water was still too smelly. It was such a shame as the locals were very pleased to see us and gave us some many thumbs-ups and warm smiles as we fared slowly past. I can't imagine too many boats will choose to pass along there this year, though.

After a further bit of faring and a brief stop in a side harbour we'd investigated last year, we found the old port de plaisance  at Courcelles. We turned in under the bridge and through a short stretch of canal, then it opened out into a large basin, only part of which has pontoons for boats. Wondering if we could stop there and find a place, we hovered uncertainly until a small lively man on the pontoons called us in, helped us moor and introduced himself as Bob. Everything was free, he said. No one was organising the marina anymore, so we could have electricity and water and stay as long as we liked. There were also showers for 50c a throw. What luxury! In the end, though, my showers cost me a rather precious watch as well. I'd placed it in the pocket of my jacket when I undressed, and it must have dropped out when I was putting the jacket on again. I never noticed until later and by that time it had disappeared, either into the water or into someone else's pocket. It was a leaving gift from the managers of the company I worked for in South Africa, so I will feel its loss for some time, I'm sure – not for the thing itself, although it was pretty and good quality, but for what it meant to me.

We spent three days and four nights at this lovely mooring and sat out some heavy winds and downpours. Koos did some man jobs and I wrote, read and did small chores indoors. We also chatted to the French lovely couple on the Dutch barge moored alongside the pontoon. They were making preparations to move south where they will run an épicerie in the Bourgogne. They even took us to the shops to save us a loaded cycle ride. Finally, on Thursday, we decided we really should make a move. Reluctantly tidying up for the last time, we filled up with water, hoovered inside and set off for Douai. Arriving late morning, we found we had a choice of moorings at the halte nautique right in the town, which was great for us as it filled up with other boats later on. We've met some lovely people here, Karin and Graham on the Tijdrover who have their mooring at Diksmuide and Lisette and Ian McCauley from Australia. Lisette is a member of Women on Barges, the Facebook group I belong to, and recognised my WOB flag, so it was great to see that it works as a signal to members of our roving boating community.

Today is Bastille Day in France, so much is closed or we might not have been on board. So it was luck that they were cycling back to their barge, saw me outside hanging out some washing and called out to me. Two hours and a cup of coffee later, we all realised we should be doing other things, so we waved them goodbye with hopes that we would see each other again.

We'll stay here in Douai one more day to finish filling up with diesel and shopping for supplies and then on Sunday, we'll head for La Scarpe and Arras. More adventures next week everyone. Have a great weekend!

Mooring at Courrières on the Canal de Lens

The oddly attractive place in Courrières

Gentle giant guard at a bar in Courcelle's marina

Duck houses on the marina's basin

Courcelles-les-Lens marina/port de plaisance

The Hennie Ha at the Courcelles mooring

Old barges used as liveaboard boats on the outskirts of Douai

Colour is the name of the game here

Beautiful doors in Douai. I'll be posting more of these later!

Friday, July 07, 2017

Creaky moorings, monumental lifts and romantic rivers

Since last week, we have barely travelled sixty kilometres (although we have had to do that distance in return as well) for now we are back again at La Bassee.

To explain, we decided to head towards Calais when we left here last Saturday. We weren't sure how far we'd get but I was excited about seeing the old boat lifts at Les Fontinettes, so we decided to make that our initial goal.

As it happened, it took us three days to get there - and we'd only done about thirty kilometres by the time we arrived. The reason for the delay was that after departing at midday or thereabouts on Saturday, we went down through the lock at Cuinchy and investigated the halte nautique at Beauvry, which we'd been told was lovely. Well, our idea of lovely is obviously different from other people's so we went on to Béthune, where we eventually found the halte nautique at the end of an old arm of a former canal into the town. And were we glad we decided to stop there!

After settling against the pontoon in the wide and sunny basin, we walked along the course of the old canal (now filled in) into the city in search of a supermarket. What we found was a magnificent city centre with an ancient bell tower in the square of place. The whole square was surrounded by beautiful old Flemish style houses, rich in design and colour. It really was lovely, lively and impressive with its terraces and smart shops. We found an épicerie where we bought some delicious cheese and wine that cost more than a whole meal elsewhere, but was worth it for the experience of the shop itself, which was delightfully old-fashioned in its service and style.

After a peaceful night there, we did a walk along the old mining harbour in the morning and then set off to travel further. We ended up another fifteen or so kilometres further at Aire sur la Lys, where we decided to stop for the night again. The mooring was just beyond a working grain processing plant, so there was a constant hum added to the incredibly creaky supports that held the pontoon in place for this halte nautique. Nevertheless, it was a lovely spot and Aire sur la Lys was even more of a delightful surprise than Béthune. I'll need to look up the history of these places when I have better internet access, but Aire definitely saw active service during the war as its huge church still bears the scars of the gunshot, and there are plaques in various places commemorating those who fell during the wars. Touching and vivid real history. The town is gorgeous, but what makes it special is that it is still busy and thriving. There are about three working grain mills there, recognisable by their humming, and it is good to see their industry is still alive.

After a squeaky night (which bothered us not at all) and a slow start, we set off again the next day and reached the lock at Les Fontinettes in the mid afternoon. This was one of the most impressive locks I've been through ever as it is 13.35 metres deep, so nearly equals that of the Belgian locks on the Bossuit-Kortrijk canal. This one is, I think, even longer and thank heavens it has floating bollards as the cavernous depth would be far too deep to manage any of our ropes easily. As soon as we were out of the lock, we steered into a wider basin and there on the right were the historic boat lifts. What an amazing structure! It was designed by Edwin Clarke who designed both the Anderton Lift in England and the four historic boat lifts at Strèpy Thieu in Belgium, both of which I've seen, so it was wonderful to be at Les Fontinettes too. Sadly, it is not being well-maintained, so I can foresee a time when the whole thing will collapse unless money is spent on its restoration.

We thought about going through the next lock, but couldn't raise any response from the keeper, so on impulse, we turned back and moored for the night not far from the lifts. I was glad we did  as it gave us a chance to have a lovely walk around and climb to the upper levels too. There we could see the course of the old canal as it approached the lifts. I love this kind of canal history, so it was a big highlight for me.

The next morning, we set off back the way we'd come, having decided we wanted to go down the river La Lys, rather than go on to Calais. We arrived back at Aire sur La Lys, which is close to the river's source, and spent another night there before  heading towards the first lock going down La Lys. This beautiful waterway is only used by pleasure craft these days, so use of the locks has to be by arrangement. After waiting quite a while, a charming VNF employee came to help us through. The first lock was manually operated, which is always fun to watch.

La Lys is gorgeous, rural and sleepy as it winds its way through the gentle scenery and it was definitely time to chill and travel at a very relaxed speed of around 6kms per hour. Our VNF helper saw us through a lifting bridge and another lock before we arrived at Haverskerque. We'd decided this would be the limit of our journey down the Lys and moored up to the quay opposite the Port de Plaisance.

Haverskerque is another interesting place that saw action during the wars and oddly enough was the quarters for Portuguese troops in WWI and Welsh in WWII (spelt Welsch on the sign). There is a stunning water mill and a small chateau with beautiful gardens open to the puplic, so we really enjoyed strolling there too.

Yesterday morning, we set off back again and just after we'd got going, the heavens opened. We had to steer through torrential rain, thunder and lightning, all of which was slightly unnerving and very wet (sorry, but remember we have open steering). After the first lock up, we stopped for a while in the entrance to an older and even smaller waterway, the Canal de Nieppe, which is impassable, but that didn't stop us taking a walk along part of it and dreaming of what it must have been like.

Back out on the Canal d'Aire, we headed back towards Béthune, but stopped for the night at Guarbecque, which is on the way. There isn't much to say about the town here except we had some giggles with pronouncing the name like barbecue, and as the next commune was Berguette, it became even more fun. Given that they are both in the municipal area of Isbergues, we had a whole meal to play with.

The mooring was wonderful, however. Incredibly peaceful and with some lovely trees on the bank where we could sit in the shade. This morning we were up very early and took a bike ride to see what else there was. We'd been told that Isbergues was interesting; sadly, we couldn't find anything interesting to see there at all, so headed back to the Hennie Ha. After three hours faring and the Cuinchy lock again, we are back where we started. Where will we go now? I'm not sure exactly, but tomorrow I think we'll be on the Canal de Lens in one of my favourite spots from last year.

Enjoy the weekend everyone and thank you for your patience in reading this shortened (yes, it is!) version of our travels this last week. I don't know when I'll get internet access again, so this might be my only chance to post a blog till next week!

Béthune main square


Mooring at Aire sur la Lys

Aire sur la Lys

Aire sur la Lys

The deep lock Les Fontinettes

Leaving the lock

The historic boat lifts at Les Fontinettes

The aqueduct over the railway at the historic
boat lifts

The old course of the canal leading to the lifts
There are more hotos I should add here, but I'll have to organise them and put them here later. Sorry to leave it here, but I've run out of battery! More soon!

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Faring on a fluid basis

Yesterday was Friday, June 30th. I know that because it was Koos' birthday, but I honestly woudn't have known otherwise. Time seems to have stood still since we left over a week ago, so I need 'hold fast' dates like this to even know what month it is, let alone what day. We are moored at an halte nautique  at La Bassée in a sort of triangular arm parallel to the Canal d'Aire, which eventually leads to Calais.

We've wanted to come here for years, so after leaving Deinze on Monday, we decided to make this place our first goal. The first kilometres between Deinze and Kortrijk were all known to me from last year. We had to wait at Sint Baaf's lock to be able go through with a commercial. Even on the Leie, they are being very careful with water. But when we arrived at Harelbeke, the next lock, the commercial had already turned off to go to Roeselare, so we had to simply wait until another commercial was coming through. In the end, we waited two hours in very hot sunshine. Koos climbed off for a walk around, and here he is on the bridge.

The lock we went through is new, but totally unfriendly to pleasure craft. The mooring bollards in the wall are so far apart we can only use one for both forward and stern mooring. It surprises me as there is a lot of cruiser traffic on this waterway in the summer. Most of the cruisers tie up to the ladders, which is very not done, but they get away with it much of the time.

Looking back to Kortrijk 

We continued on through Kortrijk to Menen, where we moored up in another old side arm which was free for 48 hours. It's a great spot, but we had to put extra ropes on to compensate for the movement caused by the commercial traffic going past. I really enjoyed being at Menen. It's a border town and connects with Comines on the Wallonian side although France is not much further on. Originally  it was a moated town with star-shaped fortifications, but when the Leie was canalised, it was also straightened, so the new canal cut through it. I don't know when this happened yet, but I'll find out when I have better access to the Internet.

Delightful water bird paradise at Menen

We spent a lovely evening there. I'd managed to get some piping hot water in my douchesak, so a hair wash in the sunshine was just what the doctor ordered. To add to my pleasure, there was a lively community of waterfowl: ducks with their tiny babies, geese, a black swan and several coots milled around as I threw bread crumbs for them. An old lady was sitting on a seat at the top of the bank when we arrived. She represented the dual community perfectly, speaking to us in a curious mixture of Flemish and French, although she said she was mainly French speaking. She was taking her dog for a walk in a pushchair. Yes. I know.

Further on from our mooring, there were a few liveaboards. One of them was amazing. It had a veritable conservatory on its roof with marvellous exotic plants and art work. We couldn't help wondering what the owner did when his barge needed a hull inspection, though. There is no way that barge would get through any bridges anywhere in the region.

Guard dogs on the exotic barge

The next morning, we left at about 11:00. At the first lock, the keeper told us we'd have to wait with another cruiser until a commercial came through. They'd been waiting for more than an hour. Eventually, though, the lockie took pity on us and let us through together. We continued on to the Comines lock, which is in Wallonia, so different rules apply. Our Flemish vignette was no longer valid and we had to give our special Wallonian number we'd been given last year. The cruiser we were travelling with got severely ticked off for tying up to the railings and ladder, so Koos and I felt a bit smug that we hadn't. It just goes to show that keeping to the rules is safer in the long run.  A little further and we pulled in to Warneton, or I should say we did a U-turn to go back there. Initially we skipped the turning as it was obvious other boats were getting stuck in shallow water, but Koos, ever one for adventure, wanted to try anyway. As it happened it was a serendipitous decision as we met Fred, a charming Walloon, who lives there on his Groningen Snik. After realising we wouldn't reach the mooring pontoon available due to lack of water, Fred invited us to tie up next to him, and so began a great chat. What a lovely, lively man! He was so helpful and generous, and we were all so excited to discover we both had Sniks. Had he not told us that we needed to get through Douai before 1 July to avoid a month's closure, we'd probably have stayed. As it happened, the lock keeper at Quesnoy, the first lock in France and the first on the Deûle  (which we joined shortly after leaving Warneton), explained that beyond Douai was already closed but would be opened on July 11th, so once through we motored on to moor up at Wambrechies for the night. No further rush needed.

The last time we were in Wambrechies was 2001 when Koos terrified me by steering his 22 metre Luxor through throngs of tightly packed and expensive cruisers. This time we were greeted by a lovely American, Don, who with his wife, Cathy, spend their summers cruising in Europe on their old Dutch barge. He watched us come in and told me kindly that it didn't matter if we nudged (for that, read bashed) their boat. "It's only paint," he said. "And she's old and strong!" We spent a very pleasant hour or two with them in their marvellous wheelhouse, chatting and filling each other in on what we knew.

In the morning, which was Wednesday, we took a long walk in overcast weather to find a hardware shop that turned out to be closed for lunch (we are in France, after all) before returning to the Hennie Ha via the supermarket. All in all, this took so long, we only left at 2:30. But then the weather cleared and the afternoon and early evening sun were beautiful. We eventually reached the second of our locks of the day at Don, so decided to go through and moor up behind an island we stopped briefly at last year. The lock was a bit nerve-wracking as there are no bollards in the walls at all and I had to do the slippery, slimy ladder routine to put a rope on the bollards at the top. My challenge was increased by the building activities they are busy with there, meaning I had to climb through scaffolding to reach the land too. I was very relieved I didn't have to climb down again and just waited till Koos and the Hennie Ha rose up to join me.

Heavenly mooring behind the island on the Deûle

The evening was bliss. We were the only ones using the gorgeous mooring facility offered by the island in the Deule, and it felt like paradise. We took our time leaving the next day and in fact we only spent an hour or so faring to reach La Bassée, where we've spent the last two nights. It's lovely here. Busy and lively during the day as we lie between two bridges that form a one way system in the town. At night, however, it is quiet and the canal is incredibly peaceful. After waking to heavy rain in the night when I had to close the roof window (koekoek) to stop the torrent in as well as outside the Hennie Ha, the water is higher this morning - good news for everyone. We shall probably leave again today, and head towards Calais, but we haven't decided completely yet. Watch this space!

Mooring at La Bassée between two bridges

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The best laid plans

The best laid plans, as I've mentioned before, are made to be altered.

Just to explain, we have started our faring adventures for this year and are going south, not north at all. Why? Well, not actually because I was a wimp about crossing the Westerschelde, but because I was even more of a wimp about the prospect of sharing the waterways with an army of small cruisers all hell-bent on gaining the next vantage point (being the best mooring spots) before they are all taken. Given that this is a national sport during the Dutch summer and we who own old and very slow barges are always at a disadvantage, it all started to sound a bit too stressful for me.

The new plan was then to go through Belgium by way of Bruges/Brugge and then take the canals that follow the coast down past Nieuwpoort and Veurne. We thought we might go to Ypres/Ieper too before slipping into France at Dunkirk and then going to Bergues, a place that's long been on our wish list. After that, we would head for Calais, and then the Somme. I was even developing this idea of writing a travelogue based on WWI history.

Well, the drought has dispensed with that plan. After a lovely day's faring in hot sunshine on Thursday, we spent the night moored below the quay of a factory at Aalter on the canal from Ghent to Bruges. It was a wonderfully peaceful spot and just up our street as we like informal moorings the best. As we were settling in a Belgian liveaboard spits cruised past us. A man waved enthusiastically and called out to us, but we couldn't see who it was or hear what he said. A few other commercials came by and all of them slowed down as they motored past us, which impressed us no end. Such kindness is always appreciated!

 The next day, Friday, we set off under blue skies and intense heat and continued on to Bruges. We were amazed at how quiet it was; in fact there were more commercial barges than cruisers. We had to wait for the bridges into the city and as one opened, the woman on the cruiser that came through called out to me: "Is that Val?" she asked. "Yes," I called back. "It's Margaret!" she waved, smiling broadly. Of course I was thrilled. Margaret is one of the lovely members of the Facebook group, Women on Barges, to which I belong. I kept waving until I couldn't see her anymore. What a special and exhilarating surprise that was. It's funny how uplifting it is to see people you've connected with on the net, even in passing.

The first day in shorts! Can't be bad

When we arrived at the Dampoortsluis, the lock in Bruges that leads into the sea canal to Ostend, we discovered why it was so quiet on the waterways. We couldn't go any further. Apparently, there isn't enough water in the canals for the locks, so they were only operating the one in Bruges for commercial barges and pleasure craft could only go through with them. Even then, we wouldn't have got further than Nieuwpoort as the waterways are much too low beyond there, so we'd have had to come back again anyway. I learnt this last piece of news from Margaret who told me later on Facebook that they'd had to turn back themselves. They'd wanted to do the same route as us. We also discovered from Facebook that the man on the spits who'd called out to us was none other than old friend, Frederic from Bruges. His barge is moored some distance beyond the lock, so we didn't get to see him, which was a real shame.

Resigned to yet another change of plan, we spent the night in Bruges and explored the town in the morning. It is a beautiful place with inner city canals and bridges that would rival any Dutch city. After a few regulation visitor snaps, we headed back to the Hennie Ha and set off back the way we'd come, this time in a chill wind with drizzle most of the way.

After three hours, we stopped again at our first night's mooring, happy to be back and away from the city noise. Again the commercial barges were kind and considerate to our little Shoe. There was even a 110 metre passenger river cruiser that was just as kind. It looked massive on this quiet and not particularly wide waterway.

On Sunday morning, we took it slowly. We've had niggles with a leaky oil cooler and water pump for some time now, and they are still requiring vigilant attention, which Koos is giving them. I did the house mouse thing and cleaned up inside before we cast off again at twelve. It was fresh and windy, but thankfully dry. A few sunny spells kept me from getting too cold as we fared back towards Ghent past calm Flemish scenery with equally calm cows lying on the banks of the canal. Then about twelve kilometres before Ghent, we turned right. South now by means of the Afleidingskanaal van de Leie. Around three o'clock, we arrived at the turning to Deinze and again decided to call it a day. Mooring up in the town centre meant we could easily access shops and cafés with Wifi, something I needed to finish off a course I am still busy teaching. Still, it cost us dearly. Belgium is much more expensive than the Netherlands when it comes to having a cup of coffee on a terrace! The sun came out as we did our necessary communicating and we spent a pleasant evening pottering. Maybe we'll go further on Monday, but maybe not. We'll see. We have time and Flanders is gentle and peaceful. I'll keep you posted!