In late November we set off again from Gent down to Dunkerque four hours before the ferry departure time as it was snowing. Approaching the French border Sue queried if I had turned the central heating thermostat down. Several expletives later we were heading back up the motorway towards Gent where the matter was rectified and we still managed to make the ferry in good time.
After several pints of Otter and a good sleep we set off in sub zero temperatures with Chris and Carol the next morning. A warming bowl of soup for lunch at the revitalised Rusty Axe at Stembridge then driving on up to the Brook Bank House Hotel at Bransford in Worcestershire where eight of us had booked Dinner, bed and breakfast including a Fawlty Towers evening
We arrived as it began to snow and the hotel was freezing cold as their heating boiler had failed, or so they said but our rooms were warm so we think they were lying! The bar and public rooms only had night storage heaters which could not cope with the low temperature and they had sent out to buy loads of electric heaters. We all trooped down to dinner in overcoats; quite appropriate for a Fawlty Towers gourmet dinner! Here we all are (except me who was taking the photograph) at our collective birthday dinner with Sybil Fawlty whispering sweet nothings in Chris's ear!
The actors played the parts of Fawlty Towers proprietor Basil Fawlty and his wife Sybil with Manuel (the Spanish waiter). The fun started in the bar when we were informed that Riff Raff and Germans were not welcome, however, Chris announced his name as Horst Schmidt and was not allowed to forget it! When our main courses arrived, Manuel rushed around the tables taking away our meals saying "is a'da wrong one" but they were eventually returned. The food was OK but not exactly gourmet, enlivened by Manuel and Basil trying to move a lady's chair closer to the table ending in Basil astride the lady, plus the inevitable beating to death on the table of Manuels hamster (rat) by Basil.
Meanwhile, Sybil was doing what she always did in the TV series and was hitting the Gin quite hard, appearing towards the end of the evening with her knickers over her dress!
After a good full English breakfast we set off south to Bath where Chris and I left the girls to the shopping, found ourselves a pub and settled down to watch England get beaten by the Springboks. What a difference to the game against the Wallabies when England were dominant.
Chris had a man cold. I told him to ring 999 but he insisted on returning home with the girls so Courtney and me downed a couple more Bath Gem Ales and proceeded to the rec for the 5.30pm KO Bath v Wasps game. It was a full house even with the minus five degrees Celsius temperature which, despite thermal long johns and several layers, made my bum feel as though it was frozen to the seat! Add to that a poor performance by both teams which Wasps won 11 - 6 and it just about completed a miserable Rugby day. Waking the next day to a fine batting performance from England at the Gabba made it easier to forget! As a letter writer to the Times said in response to David Camerons search for what makes the Brits happy, "Happiness is 517 for 1 declared".
Monday was spent Christmas shopping in Taunton and Clarkes Village in Street then it was off down to Portsmouth to deliver presents to daughter Rebecca and family. On then to Worthing where Sally and Les Harper made us comfortable, Desmond Diahatsu was fitted with new brakes, we did even more Christmas shopping and I had a hair cut.
We were snowed in the next day so were forced to stay an extra night with the Harpers but managed to make Dover the next day and a fairly uneventful return to Gent.
In the intervening period, England had skittled out Oz in Adelaide for 240 with Cook making another century and Pietersen well on his way. I arose from my bed at 4-30am to watch Pietersen make his double century and with England already over 300 runs ahead and still with two days to play this looked like our game, mind you, we said that last time we were here when Lord Collingwood scored a double-century and we still lost! However, this time the Aussies have only three major problems. They can't bat, they can't bowl and they can't field. Pure happiness Mr Cameron so now you have the answer; forget FIFA and the overpaid soccer pansies. Sack the councillors who have spent loads of taxpayers dosh (£365,000 alone in Bristol) just trying to get the soccer world cup in 2018 and give the English (and Welsh) cricket players knighthoods if they retain the ashes which will cost us nothing but make us all happy, (except some Scots who are only happy if England loses)! The Belgians can be surprising sometimes. Who in their right minds would go on a canoe safari through the middle of Gent in sub zero temperatures with snow on the ground? And they think we English are eccentric!
I stayed up until 2am to watch the final demolition of the Oz cricket team in Adelaide go down by an innings and 71 runs. Best tweet of the day was from an Aussie; "Ha ha. Joke's on you England! What on earth are you going to do for an entire day in Adelaide?" I expect one or two cleansing ales might be the answer!
As part of the international celebrations for my 70th birthday, we decided to spend a weekend in Rotterdam and at the same time further investigate Harmonies history with a visit to the Rotterdam Maritime Museum. We booked a "Benelux Weekend" on Belgian Railways, two return tickets Gent to Rotterdam for €68 and two nights bed & breakfast in the 4 star Eden Savoy Hotel for a bargain €150.
We changed trains at Antwerp and this was the first time we had seen the finished new Central Station which took 16 years to complete. The original station was a terminus, a little like Paddington but far more grand, completed in 1905. Trains had to shuttle in and out on the same lines with the inevitable delays and wasted transit time. Engineers devised a novel solution to both increase capacity and provide a through route by excavating underneath the original station to provide further platforms, a second level, a through route and two further platforms on a third and bottom level with new tunnels bored under the city. We arrived on the top level and travelled by escalators down to the bottom level to board a high speed Thalys train which sped us to Rotterdam in about half an hour.
That evening we ate at the O'Pazzo Italian Restaurant, just down the road from our hotel and not to be confused with the Prezzo restaurant chain. This was a unique experience from the point of view of the decor if not the gastronomy! It really is worth a visit if you are in Rotterdam and is one of the most quirky places we have ever eaten in. The wood fired pizza oven was a huge octopus with its tentacles flowing up the wall behind and the copper flue arcing around the room.
The Hotel Eden Savoy was very comfortable and "the lovely Anna" Barnsley nee Hossak had called them and arranged a room upgrade and a box of chocolates for my birthday which was most unexpected, much appreciated and typical of the woman! The hotel was situated close to the Old Harbour, full of old historic ships, which is surrounded by a collection of skyscrapers and modernistic architecture including the well known cube houses.
There was a huge market nearby on the Saturday which took ages to walk round where we managed to buy a few things, then on into the main shopping centre where we did some more serious stuff and came across a big military parade to celebrate 365 years since the formation of the Dutch Marine Corps with bands and soldiers marching past the city hall.
We ended up at the Boimans Van Beuningen Museum where we queued with the Rotterdam hoi poloi for ages for the €15 tickets as there was a new exhibition of artist Kees Van Dongen (1877 – 1968) who was one of Rotterdams famous sons. Van Dongen seems to have appreciated women as he painted very few men. He moved in the high society circles of Paris at the turn of the century. There were also exhibitions by Thorn Prikker (1868-1932) who was a so called symbolist painter who neither of us particularly liked, and another by Hella Jongerius who designs everything from tableware and vases to fabrics, chairs and sofas. In the centre of the room was a collection of several hundred pottery vases. Suddenly there was a loud noise of breaking pottery. Some poor lady had fallen into the exhibit and started a domino effect as these vases began to fall over, one after another. The lady sat there with her head in her hands while security men ushered us out of the area!
The museum regular collection was of a high standard with all the Dutch masters, impressionists and surrealists much in evidence with such famous works as Pieter Bruegels "Tower of Babel" exhibited. The next day it was back to Gent and a birthday dinner of spare ribs at Amedeus and a trip round the Christmas market in freezing temperatures with a trad jazz band on the sound stage who had problems keeping their fingers warm enough to play.
Tony and Mary from "Anja" and ourselves volunteered to run the pub quiz on the Monday which was a great success. We tried to ask as many Belgian oriented questions as possible and, being the "boat people" did a picture quiz of famous ships and boat types which the Belgians found very hard. One table even managed to score zero out of twelve! The good thing was we were all provided with free Guiness for organising it!
Clive and Sheila were now back in residence aboard Cedar breasted on to us. Clive found many problems on his return due to the exceptionally cold weather; trouble lighting his diesel stove and getting the ship warm, satellite positioning gismo not working, new cooker not fitting and they were both so fed up they were threatening to go back to the UK. They eventually organised themselves with "Christmas Derek" bringing over a new satellite dish. He is called "Christmas Derek" because he always visits at Christmas! He brought us a "Wand" this time so may be he should be renamed the Christmas Fairy!!
The wand is a USB WiFi booster which is of a rugged all weather construction designed for ships to hang externally which boosts multidirectional WiFi signals so we can use wireless networks up to a kilometre radius distant. It works a treat except that the free networks are of course insecure so we still need our mobile network for secure transactions but we can opt for a cheaper mobile package with limited data download.
The four of us had a wander round the town one evening visiting the Christmas Market again and taking a few photos of the lights which are reproduced here. The one above of the Palais de Justice is one I have admired each time we emerge from the Irish Pub and have finally manged to capture it. To the right hand side is a very atmospheric shot with the tower of St. Baafs Cathedral disappearing up into the mist above the Christmas market. Below is the Grasslei tastefully illuminated with a series of Christmas Trees beautifully reflected in the River Lei.
Sue managed to find something she liked at the Christmas Market but it was a cold and foggy night so we resisted the gluwein stall and soon retreated into our local Pizzaria followed by coffee and brandy at the Cafe des Artes with extra chocolates from the nice waiter!
My time has been taken up with researching and organising the process of getting Harmonie ready for compliance with the Technical Requirements for Inland Waterways Vessels (TRIWV) with which we are required to comply with by the end of 2014. This is a directive from the EU which the UK seems to have largely ignored when it comes to ratification although it has listed more waterways in the regulations than the rest of Europe put together! Belgium (which has currently no elected parliament) has jumped the gun and insists that to navigate its waterways you must be compliant by the end of 2011.
These regulations are complex and cover all vessels over 20 metres in length which include some very large commercial ships in addition to recreational vessels like us. They have had the effect of panicking existing owners and depressing the resale market such that we have had potential buyers decide to buy smaller ships. Indeed we met one Belgian owner who cut off the stem of his ship to get it under 20 metres. It looked terrible!
In reality the regulations are not at all onerous because old ships like ours are exempt all of the expensive requirements unless that item has to be repaired or converted when it must comply. For us it is little more than the UK boat safety certificate would require which for some items are stricter. We do have to have a hull survey which is less than two years old but we are due for another one for our insurance company who will contribute towards the survey cost. We are booked to go up on the slip at Sluiskil, just over the Dutch border from Gent, at the end of March when we will have a Hull and Safety survey. Anything we do not comply with is listed on the certificate which lasts for seven years. Providing the regulations are not changed, renewal would be a formality but we can sell Harmonie confident that new owners would have a compliance certificate for seven years and a safe vessel. Indeed prospective buyers might eventually prefer certified vessels rather than smaller ones that have never been surveyed and new or newly converted vessels will need to fully comply with TRIWV, making them more expensive.
The weather in Gent at the end of January turned very cold, just in time for Gents Light Festival, the highlight of which was the Son et Lumiere at the Korenmarkt.
In February, Tim and Anna Barnsley arrived to celebrate Anna's birthday. England beat Wales in Cardiff which put us all in a good mood then we all went to the Café des Artes for a splendid birthday dinner. The following day saw us in the new Stadsmuseum just upstream from our mooring. They give you paper over-shoes and you glide around the first room on a floor composed of a giant aerial photograph of Gent with a model of the city in the centre. The museum is devoted to the history of Gent and caters for all ages to the extent of providing a giant Lego kit to keep the kids amused in front of models of some of the city's towers. On the day Tim and Anna left, Les and Sally Harper, old boating mates from Worthing, arrived for a few days.
The day after our guests departed we set off back to the UK via Calais and P&O's new ship which impressed Sue no end. It was a special introductory price which did not apply for the return journey so we booked back to Dunkerque with DFDS. Our objective on this trip was to purchase things we needed for the TRIWV survey. We would save so much money it would pay for our trip several times over. For example three fire extinguishers cost us £70 delivered UK compared with £340 ex works Holland! So we bought first aid kit, fire blanket, anchor light, throwing line, lifebuoys, engine oil and even a porta pottie, saving ourselves a small fortune in the process but poor old Desmond Diahatsu was full! UK suppliers should wake up to the opportunities in places like Holland, where there are thousands of boats and open up a chandlery.
The Hockeys had organised dinner at the Devonshire at Long Sutton when we arrived together with the Salways, Cliffords and David Parry so we started well. We sat down to dinner with the Hockeys and the Rices the next day and Carol cooked pancakes which we soused in various alcoholic beverages as is our custom. But she pre cooked them which is just not the same as being chained to the frying pan, trying to keep us fed and they taste so much better freshly cooked! They all jetted off on holiday to Mexico the next morning. It was also a feast of Rugby with England on their way to a grand slam in the six nations beating France and Bath, after beating Northampton at the rec the previous week, managed to just beat Exeter away, so much Otter was drunk at the Brewers! We had a look at the new Cabots Circus Shopping Centre in Bristol and were unimpressed but Whitstones fish supper at Shepton on the way back was still up to scratch where we were joined by the Cliffords. We also managed to see the film "The Kings Speech" which we both enjoyed.
We paid a quick visit down to Fareham to see the family where Henry produced an artistic masterpiece for me reproduced above for posterity! Do I detect the influence of his mother here in the subject, yearning for the country of her birth? We collected our mail and had the usual uneventful journey back to Gent.