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