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Steady Eddie, our Havenmeester, lifted the bridge at the entrance to the coupure and we set off from Bruges on April 1st in glorious spring weather in convoy with barges Cedar and Nancy May towards Oostende. Passing numerous remotely controlled swinging and lifting bridges, we eventually arrived at Plassendale lock, the junction of the Plassendale - Niewpoort canal, where the two lock keepers serenaded Sheila with Happy Birthday as it was her birthday the next day. We moored up about 2km past the lock on the outskirts of Oudenburg and I cycled back to our singing lock keepers to purchase our €50 Flanders cruising permit. We all of us watched the sun go down in Nancy Mays wheelhouse making a rather large dent in her bar stocks!
Next day, after a chorus on the pontoon of Happy Birthday to Sheila who was still in bed getting her present from Clive, we continued along the canal to the St Joris lock, dropping down onto the river Ijzer and cruising sedately upstream to Diksmuide. Jeremy Clifford and I then legged it to the station and caught the train back to Bruges to collect his car which we used the following day for a trip to Ypres and Tyne Cot cemetery. More of that town later but it was time to kick the Cliffords onshore as they had been with us a week which is a long time with Jeremy!
I watched Bath Rugby get well beaten by a gritty Quins side then Leicester managed to put one over Sale with only 14 men after White was sent off for punching. Rugby will become just like soccer if we are not careful!
Weather turned a bit cold and grey after we arrived in Diksmuide but on our final day the sun came out again and we cycled up to the tower of Peace. The Flemish people in Belgium were supposed to have equal rights but in the late 19th and 20th centuries they were discriminated against by the French speaking Walloon who held all the high offices of state and controlled industry. In the Belgian army the officer class were all French speaking and gave all orders in that language which the Flemish conscripts did not understand and made for chaos in wartime.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914 the Belgian army retreated to the western bank of the river Ijzer and the king, who was the commander-in-chief, gave orders for the sluices at Niewpoort to be opened, flooding the Ijzer valley east of the river and effectively halting the German advance.
This allowed the French and Brits to mobilise and kept the ports of Dunkirk and Calais open for supply of the allied armies. In the north the occupying German forces encouraged Flemish separatism, sort of divide and rule, whilst in the Belgian army even speaking the language was positively discouraged. In 1928 a 50 metre high tower was built to commemorate the Flemish soldiers killed in the war then in 1945 it was skillfully blown up, it is thought by the Belgian army. The Gateway of Peace was built from the rubble of the first tower in 1950 and a second tower completed in 1965, this one 84 metres high. You travel to the top in a lift where you get a birds eye view of Diksmuide and the surrounding countryside, then you walk down 22 floors which is a museum telling the story of the Flemish at war and to the present day.
On then, up the river Ijzer to the limit of navigation at Fintele. This is where the Lo Canal will take us to Veurne but we decide to stop here for a couple of days. The mooring is a wooden pontoon with no facilities apart from two up market restaurants and a friendly lock keeper. Its a lovely warm sunny day as we arrive so we hop on our bikes and cycle into the pretty little town of Lo. It is a place you would never think of visiting but, as usual, Belgium is full of pleasant surprises and Lo is no exception. It has a long history and beside the old gateway is a tree they call the Caesar Tree where the great man was supposed to have sheltered on his way to conquer Britain. On a house front door nearby was an Easter Wreath made from eggs and bird feathers. We had never seen that before.
Lo has the remains of an abbey which was destroyed during the French revolution but the pigeon loft remains as does the abbey church. A walk around town gave us a thirst which was slaked in a pub on the main square then back to Fintele against a headwind.
This was the day I developed what I think is cystisis, rare in a man but I have had it twice in my own lifetime so I know the symptoms. The following day it was blowing a gale and raining so we decided to stay put but the weather eased the next day and we cruised up to Veurne.
We called the Veurne tourist office who gave us the telephone number of a Doctor close by the harbour and after another phone call to him obtained an appointment that afternoon. Samples taken, tested and then sent off for further laboratory tests back in a few days, prescription written for course of antibiotics and vitamin C pills, charge €45, out in 10 minutes. You present your European Health Insurance Card and you get a special receipt to claim the cost back from the NHS. Same process with the Pharmacist for the drugs, cost €32. This is the first time we have ever used a foreign health service and my experience may be useful to others in a similar position.
Veurne looks to be a another delightful Belgian town. The mooring is in a basin and is free but we must pay for electricity using cards purchased from the lock keeper who looks after the port. On Good Friday we welcomed the Lovely Anna and Tim Barnsley for their third visit and yet another one where we will not move out of port!
About 6km from Veurne are the Bray Dunes, a nature reserve. Tim and Anna had arrived in a new Mazda sports car which only had two seats so the girls had to cycle there. This presented another problem in that the girls, being unable to navigate and talking continuously, had to be shepherded to the destination! We then walked several Km and found a sheltered spot beneath a dune for a picnic which I had thoughtfully carried for miles on my back!
On Easter Monday, Tim and Anna returned to the UK via Norfolk Line just in time as the next day the French fishermen blockaded the channel ports protesting about EU quotas! I called the doctor for the laboratory tests and was told that it was an e coli infection so nothing organically wrong which was good news. Back then to Fintele where Cedar and Nancy May were moored on a lovely warm spring day so we BBQ'd on Cedar and enjoyed the day. In the evening Sue and I were introduced to a new game (to us) called Perudo which is a Peruvian fishermans game. You all have 5 dice in a beaker which you invert over the dice and then lie through your teeth about what you have and try to guess what the others have. If you are challenged and loose you forfeit one dice and drop out once you have lost the lot. Sheila had the reputation of being deadly at it but we managed to eliminate her twice during the evening!
The hot weather continued during a leisurely sail up to Ypres where we found a full harbour so tied on to the wall opposite and managed to fill with water and connect to the electricity. Its not a really nice harbour being right next to a busy road and quite a hike to the centre but we stayed for a few days until Cedar and Nancy May arrived. Sue and Sally did complain to the tourist office about the state of the harbour and suggested that it should be improved in view of the number of tourists that might visit by boat. On Saturday Bath Rugby fought back from 14 nil down to beat Newcastle at Kingston Park so we just have to beat Saracens at home next week to get to the knockout stages of the Premiership.
Later we all walked up to the Menen Gate to see the last post at 8pm. Anzac Day is on April 25th so the ceremony was mainly dedicated to those nations. A marching band from South Australia and a youth band provided the music and many wreaths were laid in addition to the usual last post by the Ypres buglers.
The Menen Gate is a memorial to some 65,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought in the Ypres Salient who were never found. A salient is, in military terms, a bulge in a defensive line that can be attacked from each side and hundreds of thousands died in its defence during WW1. In the process Ypres was almost totally flattened but was rebuilt after the war to an extent that when you now see it you can not believe it is not original.
A visit to the Flanders Fields Museum is a must first visit to understand the history of the place, then a walk to the Menen Gate followed perhaps by a walk along the ramparts, another masterpiece by Vauban. If you have a car you should visit Tyne Cot Cemetery a few miles out of town but you can take an organised tour of the surrounding places of interest if you do not have your own transport.
We left Ypres and returned to Oudenburg for a few days with Cedar then Jabecke, where there is an interesting lift bridge which swings up like a pendulum, and finally a last couple of days in Bruges.
Bath Rugby did the business beating Sarries 33-18 so we meet Leicester for the premiership semi-final at Welford Road in a couple of weeks. Would be nice to knock them out after they knocked us out of the European Cup! We waved goodbye to Cedar just outside Gent as they were heading south to Kortrijk and we will see them again at the Thieu rally later in May. Then it was new territory as we approached Gent along the busy Ringvaart and upstream along the River Leie to the centre of Gent city. Not strictly new territory as we had visited a couple of times before by car but this was our first visit by boat and we moored up at the excellent Passanthaven in the city center.
On each side of the river a naked couple were in the process of diving from high up on balconies towards each other! Just along the quay was an Irish pub whilst a few steps further, an English bookshop offered to buy your paperbacks and would sell you others you had not read so bookworm Sue was in her element.
We are still waiting to get confirmation of our winter mooring in Carcassonne but if we can not get in there then one option is to return to Belgium and Gent might be a good place to winter as it has all the facilities a big city can offer with a nice mooring. It is the same outfit that runs the Bruges port, the prices are the same, and it does not flood or freeze over according to the Harbourmaster.
About 15 minutes walk upstream from the port you arrive at the historic centre of Gent. It was a hot and sunny May Day with tourist and locals sunning themselves along the river banks and all the local taverns and restaurants doing a roaring trade. On the left bank is the Graslei and the most wonderful row of buildings with ornate facades you are ever likely to see in one place. We wandered around the Patershol district, now a desirable area in which to live, teeming with little medieval alleys and an eclectic mix of restaurants. Just across the river is the Vrijdag-markt (the Friday market) which was teeming and after a light alfresco lunch in the Boter markt we discovered the Werrengratenstraatje, known as the Graffitti street and you can see why!
You must keep looking up from the narrow streets to appreciate the medieval architecture of the abundance of old buildings which are easy to miss with so much else to see at ground level. Gent was bigger than London in medieval times and second only to Paris in Europe. Today, whereas Bruges has been taken over almost completely by tourism, you get the feeling that Gent still belongs to its inhabitants and tourists, though welcome, come second. This is reflected in the restaurant prices which are considerably cheaper. Mooring charges in the cruising season are at a premium so after a couple of nights we set off again back to the Ringvaart and the lock at Merelbeke down onto the tidal Zeeschelde.
There is a 5 metre tide difference on the river Schelde so you need to consult the tide tables to take advantage of the ebb and flow. We were bound for Dendemonde about 30km downstream. High tide there was over two hours before Merelbeke so we started about an hour before high tide at the lock when the tide had already started to ebb at Dendermonde and, once a few miles downstream, were soon whizzing along at 15km/hr arriving at the Dendermonde lock in about 2.5 hours and up into the river Dender.
We spent a night in Aalst, a nice town we had visited before, then on to Ninove. The scenery improves as you progress upstream but it is after Ninove that it gets really picturesque. The river winds along through water meadows and real hills begin to appear as you are entering the Flemish Ardennes, a welcome change after so long in the flat Polders.
We pass the odd lock and lift bridge but the waterways staff are really efficient here and the bridges open as we approach and the locks are all set for us in advance. On our arrival at Geraardsbergen we take on fresh water in the lock rather than pay for it at the yacht harbour but they get us for electricity which is an astronomical €0.50 per kwh!! Its a great place to stop though and we decide to stay for 4 days.
We did try to eat out here but each time we found the selected restaurant closed. It would seem that, at this time of year, a lot of the restaurants only open at the weekend; either that or the recession? On our last day here we wandered up the hill above the town. A cobbled road leads to the top and it is famous for a cyclist hill climb held each year. It seemed to be a sort of cyclist Mecca judging from the fit lycra clothed people struggling to the top on their bikes. A church stands on the top, perhaps for the successful fietsers to give thanks, but, more importantly, a pub is also adjacent to the church where we sampled the local beer and another Geraardsbergen speciality, Mattentarten, a sort of Bakewell tart without the jam; a bit dry and crumbly for our tastes.
The other thing that Geraardsbergen is famous for is the Mannekin Pis in the main square which they claim is the oldest in Belgium, older even than the famous one in Brussels.
We continued upstream into Wallonia province with our mobile lock keepers setting all the locks for us and opening all the lift bridges. At our chosen mooring just before the Tenre lift bridge they even helped us moor up and we arranged a time to continue up to the town of Ath the next morning. This was a lovely rural mooring with a restaurant and a bottle shop adjacent where we replenish our beer stock with the local bottle fermented brew; "Gouyasse" from the Brasserie des Géants. For some reason Ath is famous for Géants (Giants) and has a museum with over 2000 of them displayed.
When we arrived in Ath the following day the lock keeper put is though the lock and asked us if we would like some electricity, went off in his van, returned with a long cable and plugged us in from his office. Now that really is service!
In perfect weather we strolled into town and discovered they were celebrating mothers day with a fete. The florists were doing a roaring trade and the Grand Place was animated with many restaurants and the locals enjoying the sunshine with a few cold beers. We spotted Colin and Yvonne sitting outside one pub, bargees we had met in Joinville last year and more recently in Geraardsbergen, who were partaking of the amber nectar so we joined them while a giant and an oompah band paraded around the Place.
The following day we set off with our mobile team of four lock keepers in two vans who insisted we shared the locks with Colin & Yvonne in "Kopemonswelvaren V", a little 15 metre luxemotor with a big name. As our combined total length was 40 metres and the length of the locks were only 42 metres it was not without difficulty and progress was slow. We averaged only 2km/hr for the whole day, not helped by our laid back mobile team who even drove their vans from one end of the locks to the other to avoid walking! That night we moored at Beloeil next to a lift bridge with a wooden deck which made a thunderous sound each time traffic past over providing a troubled sleep which was finally ended when the road works plant started at 7am!
Apart from that the mooring was a pleasant one with much wildlife in evidence, particularly Mrs Duck and her 13 ducklings but by the morning were reduced to at least half that number. We noticed a large Coypu swimming around so perhaps he was partial to a few? We have been told that a heron will often take a duckling and even a large gosling on occasions.
It rained all day for our descent down to Blaton but our mobile lockies were more efficient on this occasion as we were locked down separately and then sped along the Grand Gaberit to Péruwelz where we spent a couple of days in the Port du Plaisance catching up with our washing.
At Péronnes we dropped down two big locks into the river Schelde then headed upstream to the bunker boat at Antoing where we topped up our white diesel tank, changed a gas bottle and purchased such rare items as 24v bulbs. In the little harbour just downstream we breasted on to "Florence", once again abandoned by her owners, and passed the time of day with John & Judith on "Treshnish", both barges, coincidentally, our winter neighbours in Bruges. Antoing Chateau is an impressive structure but unfortunately can not be visited so all you can see is its watchtower extending out over the trees.
Our next port of call was Thieu which was 53km distant and up though five big locks. We started at 9-30am and experienced a few delays with commercials at locks so just made the final lock into the historic canal 10 minutes before it closed.
Clive and Sheila in "Cedar" were already here helping "Admiral" Robert prepare the harbour to receive 120 boats for the big rally. He wanted us here early as we have spud poles and could provide a stable platform on which he could breast up other boats where there was no quayside mooring. We were moored on a bend in the basin up against a bank of water lilies with a splendid view of the first of the historic ship lifts with the modern Strepy lift behind.
I wrote extensively on these ship lifts on our last visit here in 2006 and described how the old top lift was damaged and under repair. This boat rally was organised to celebrate the re-opening of the lift but unfortunately this has been delayed yet again. The new prediction is that it will re-open in September - maybe!!
The rally still goes ahead but we might have another next year? The green field you can see beyond Harmonie was a huge cement works up until a few months ago and its demolition has opened up a new view of the ancient and modern lifts. This port is now a splendid quiet rural location, off the main line away from commercials wash, full of interest for the canal enthusiast, plenty of good moorings for big barges and a friendly yacht club with a nice bar and restaurant in the old lock house.
Here you can see the number two old lift at Strepy underneath one of the tanks. The tank sits on a huge piston rod which is the height of the lift, around 20 metres plus, which passes through a gland to a cylinder extending at least 20 metres vertically underground to accommodate this huge piston rod. The cylinder is full of water and is connected via an isolating valve to the cylinder of the second tank at the bottom. Once the lift is required to operate the top tank is filled with about 75 tonnes of extra water to make it heavier than the bottom tank so that when the isolating valve is opened the heavier tank forces water out of its cylinder into the other cylinder so the two tanks change positions. Considering these ship lifts were designed in the late 19th century (by a Brit) it was quite an engineering feat considering the hydraulic pressures involved (50kg/cm2) and the huge piston rods that had to be machined accurately at a time when machine tools were not exactly the precision tools that are in use today.
We took the train over to Tournai one day. Belgian railways are good news for pensioners as they only charge €5 return to anywhere in Belgium. We had been to Tournai before by car on a cold rainy day with everything closed so we thought we should see it in a better light. We walked around in circles trying to find the tourist office and finally located it next to the belfry, the oldest one in Belgium.
We had lunch in the Grand Place then wandered around the old historic centre. The cathedral is unique with its four towers but they were in the middle of major repairs so it was covered in scaffolding and access was very restricted. The city has always been prosperous and its products were exported by way of the River Schelde which flows thought the centre. The river is narrow at this point as can be seen in this picture of a large barge passing through so navigation is controlled by a one way system of lights. We found a coffee shop which roasted its own beans and so added to our stocks before returning to Thieu.
Back at the port Colin and Yvonne had set out to go to Mons, caught a train the wrong way so ended up in Waterloo, then on the way back they caught a train which didn't stop at Thieu so sped past at 70mph to Mons!! It is one big misadventure with this pair!
The port had filled up some more in our absence with other British barges arriving including Michael and Pippa in their 1930 Steilsteven sailing barge Sterna plus Jane and John in their 1902 sailing Klipper Vrouwe Antje. We already had Beryl and Ray in Vrouwe Catharina, a venerable old 1890 Tjalk, berthed alongside then a big Belgian motor cruiser joined the crowd so we had about 200 tonnes of steel hanging off poor old Harmonie with more to come! The next day Andy and Caroline Soper arrived in their barge Neeltje. Andy is the chairman of the DBA (The Barge Association) so all members present were invited aboard for pre prandial drinks.
The official rally proceedings began with speeches from various dignitaries followed by the presentation of plaques and pennants to all the boats taking part. These long drawn out procedures required large amounts of alcoholic refreshment with the result that by the time we were fed, the congregation were pretty well oiled. At some point the DJ played a song which we understood to be from Normandy and everyone began to wave their napkins, pieces of the paper tablecloths or even hankies over their heads as if Bath Rugby had won the premiership! Naturally we Brits all joined in the merriment which was thoughtfully filmed by Jane so here it is if there is no player below left. I can confirm that the shrieks and whoops towards the end of the clip are from Jane and the conductor was Michael!
The excesses of that night rather affected our collective performance on the following evening when John and Jane were declared the winners of the best dressed boat in the harbour to great cheers from the assembled DBA contingent. The photo shows L to R: John, Andy (standing), Robert (Harbourmaster and organiser) and Jane.
The proceedings were rounded off with a fireworks display.
Sunday was declared a day of rest and recuperation and Monday the day of the "Port Party" like a street party to celebrate the end of the event and the departure of everyone to continue their cruise. Everyone made a contribution to the feast which was laid out on a makeshift table constructed from Cedar's gangway and I brought my electric piano to the proceedings hoping to get a sing song going. Nobody sang but Beryl did manage a tap dance after the second whisky!
That night we were awoken by a violent storm with torrential rain and high winds. Most of the Brit barges set off the next day in frequent heavy rain but we decided to stay until Friday before moving as did Vrouwe Catharina and Vrouwe Antje. Then it was onwards and upwards.