Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Canal de Roubaix.

Since last Friday evening, we have been on what is officially called the 'Liaison Deûle–Escaut' that consists of the Marque Urbaine, the Canal de Roubaix and the Canal de l'Espierres.  That said, most people simply refer to the whole stretch as the Canal de Roubaix.  The French part of the waterway covers the first two, while the Canal del'Espierres, which is a continuation of the same canal, is in Belgium's Wallonia. The organisation that looks after the French section is ENML, which supervises Lille's metropolitan natural spaces.

Lock at Marcq en Baroeul

I have to say this is really one of my absolute favourite waterways experiences. This is now the second time we have done it and we are loving it just as must as we did last year. From the Deûle end, it starts off on the beautiful canalised river Marque, on which there are just two locks. The first one is VNF controlled as there is a yeast factory used by commercial barges just before the second lock at Marcq-en-Baroeul. It is fascinating to watch these commercial péniches leaving the factory and returning to the river Deûle as they have to reverse all the way. The river is quite narrow, so at forty metres long, there is nowhere for the barges to turn round. However, they reverse out with such consummate ease, you barely notice they aren't going forwards. Since we had to wait for Monday to continue up the ENML locks, we had the opportunity to watch a few of these giants go past.

On Sunday evening, we moved up to the second lock to be ready to continue at 9a.m. We've been having battery trouble for a while now, so it was just as well we decided to make the move as the Hennie H didn't want to start and we had to charge the battery with the generator. Once again, we were thankful for our noisy little machine; it's got us out of trouble more than once on this trip and did so the next day as well. Once we reached the lock, though, the evening sun treated us to a beautiful display of golden light that even made the factory behind us look romantic.

Waiting at lock at the foot of the Canal de Rubaix
 On the following morning, we were joined by a cruiser owned by a couple from New Zealand. We'd seen their boat in Lille, so it was no surprise to meet them here too. The poor souls had been pick-pocketed in Lille, something which seemed to have shocked them deeply; they couldn't imagine that happening in New Zealand. It's not the first time I've heard how safe their country is!

At the lock we were greeted by one of the lock assistants that guide boaters through the whole system. I later found out that his name is Huyghe, an unusual Flemish version of what is probably Hugh in English. In any event, he is a real asset to the ENML. Open, friendly and very helpful, he presented us with a folder of useful information about the canal with maps, brochures and guides for all the places we would pass through. Most of the lock assistants in France only speak French, which is generally fine for us, but Huyghe did his best to speak clear, accurate English too, which must have been a relief for the New Zealanders (who spoke no French), so I complimented him and practised my English on him too... well, I had to, didn't  I? It would have been churlish not to...

Anyhow, we'd decided to stay in Marcq-en-Baroeul for the day, so we arranged with Huyghe to be at the next lock first thing the following morning to be guided up the rest of the system. Then at about 4:30pm, we wound our way to the end of the canalised river Marque section of the waterway. What a magical few kilometres that was. In glorious late afternoon sunshine, we fared gently through banks rich with pleasant homes, sweeping lawns, majestic trees and dense greenery. The moorhens and ducks were out in force too. I sat up in the bows and let the scenery drift silently past me. Walkers on the towpath waved, laughed and gave us a thumbs up. Now I know the Henni H is a charming boat, but I have a feeling the extra smiles had something to do with our garden parasol, which we tend to keep up when faring as long as it's not too windy. I think perhaps it adds a touch of quirky humour to our appearance, don't you?

We moored up below the first lock at the beginning of the Canal de Roubaix using anchors hammered into the bank as there were no bollards. Even so, I found a new use for a boat hook. We needed to make a hole for the anchor to sink into and I used the hook to dig down by screwing it into the ground. People out walking came to look and some were really amazed to see a boat lying there, especially a small liveaboard barge like ours. It seems that not many boats pass this way, or at least not enough for people to be really aware of them.

Leaving the first lock

Duckweed on the canal

 When morning came, we watched in dismay as a huge sausage shaped thunder cloud headed our way spitting forks of lighting from its depths. Within minutes, the rain was bucketing down and the world was an interesting (for that, read alarming) sound and light show as the thunder storm crashed around us. Fortunately, it didn't last more than an hour, so by 9am, we were able to move into the first of the flight of five locks in only light drizzle. By the second lock, the sun was shining again much to my relief.

Huyghe guided us through the flight accompanied by two other lock assistants. The three of them were so kind and friendly, they made the whole day a delight. They helped us with our ropes, checked where we wanted to put them and chatted to us while we moved up the system. The communication was perfect and once we were through the summit level, they advised us on where to stop and tie up while they went off to have lunch. 

The canal itself was everything that speaks to me. I loved the lush tree-lined sections at the beginning interspersed with canal-side houses and old industrial buildings. Then we passed through a more urban setting in Roubaix, which was where we stopped during their lunch hour just beyond two lifting bridges that form part of a roundabout. While there, some children from a nearby travellers' camp came to ask us about the boat. They were genuinely interested, as well as being funny and sweet, but they soon ran off when something else distracted them. Then a local man came by. He'd been wondering what Koos was up to when searching for a signal for his Wifi hotspot contract (more on that later). The two hour French lunch break thus passed very quickly and before we knew it Huyghe and the team were back to see us through the rest of the bridges and locks, which they did with all the friendly and professional efficiency they'd shown before. 

The next few kilometres were mostly through the urban area of Roubaix and it was so rewarding to see how the local people enjoyed seeing the boat. Fathers and kids on bikes followed us along the towpath and at one lock, a woman in muslim dress clapped her hands in delight at the Hennie H and blew us a kiss. Her smile would have melted an iceberg and I blew her a kiss too. It was instant mutual affection.

Beautiful rural scenery on the canal
Approaching Leers Nord
Then suddenly we were out of town and back into the more rural reaches of the canal. The bankside vegetation returned, rich with wild flowers and shrubs. Some fifteen minutes later, we reached the final lifting bridge before the Canal de Roubaix ends at the Belgian border. This was where we called our farewells to our lovely team of ENML lock assistants. They'd been absolute stars and when at the last lock, they asked us to write something about the service in their visitors' book, we had no hesitation in giving them a glowing report. Huyghe smiled as he read what we'd written.
'Thank you,' he said.
'It's a real pleasure,' I replied.
'For us too,' he finished. 'See you soon!'
'Definitely,' we called, and we meant it.
We waved until we couldn't see him anymore and went on with warm hearts to where the towering poplars marked our crossing into Belgium. Within a few minutes we'd reached Leers Nord and tied up to the pontoon where we stopped last year. It had been a wonderful day thanks to Huyghe and his colleagues. They are a credit to the ENML and I only hope more people cruise this lovely cut from the Deûle to the Schelde. We will certainly do it again.

It's now Saturday and we've been here at Leers for three full days. We've done some walking and cycling and enjoyed the relaxation immensely. We've had lovely neighbours in a WOBs* friend, Jude who was here with her husband, and another English couple I'll refer to as Rob and W. Rob is a former delivery skipper who regaled us with some wonderful stories of some of his adventures. They have both left now and we will be leaving tomorrow, so I'll  write about the Belgian experience (which I know will be great too) and our final trip home next week.  Enjoy your weekend allemaal!

*WOBs refers to a Facebook group I belong to called Women on Barges

And here's a photo of our wonderful team: Huyghe on the left and his great colleagues!


  1. Hi Val - looks wonderful and I can feel your exuberance in all the experiences you share with us ... just so much fun - so glad it's been a happy time away ... cheers Hilary

    1. Thank you so much, Hilary. We'll be home this week, so I'm looking forward to catching up with your blogs too!

  2. Replies
    1. It has been, Carol! Sadly, we will be home this week, so we'll have to leave this lovely canal.

  3. Once again a really interesting blog, Val. I love the photo of the duck weed covered canal. Faring on the lawn! In the photos of the locks I cannot see the wheels that open and close the gates. How are these locks operated? It's interesting that on railway journeys one sees into people's back gardens. On the canals we get to see the beautiful sweeping front gardens! Happy Faring!

    1. Hi Colin. Mostly, they are operated by electric machines that the lock keepers work. On two of the locks, though, they are manually operated with windlasses that they put in a hole in the ground and turn to open the paddles. Thanks so much for following the journey. We'll be home this week...sigh!

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Val. Thus the locks in your photos must have been electric ones. If you saw my short clip of Myriam working the lock on the Seille you'll see her first closing a gate and then opening the paddles at the other end. All self help and fun!We know the feeling, when we were drawing close to St Jean de Losne she suggested we turn round and continue our faring - it really is a wonderful way to travel and see the other bits of the world!

    1. It is, isn't it? We've just got 'home' to Sas van Gent and I'm missing it already...sigh!

  5. I'm so enjoying being on this trip with you Val. Beautiful photos and vivid descriptions make it a pleasure to read. I'm so pleased you are having such a great trip.

    1. Thanks so much, Rebecca. It's finally over, sadly. We arrived back in the Netherlands last night. I don't quite know what to do with myself now! I'm so glad you've enjoyed the journey with us! The last blog will be about our final days on the way home....sigh! xx

  6. When we went to Shropshire and saw an inclined plane which saved a whole lot of locks! But actually there is something nice about going through locks, so long as there aren't too many, like the flight at Devizes, near Swindon. (Of course I'm talking about narrowboats here.) Your trip sounds wonderful!


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