Sunday, August 12, 2018

ONE WEEK IN FRANCE

Sometimes, I feel as if we've been away for a year, not a month. Our journey up the Dender and the adventure of going up the Strépy Thieu lift seem like a lifetime ago. Even our stop-over in the Erquellines Port de Plaisance last week seems a distant memory, although I remember the lovely shower very well, and the reception we had from the unofficial Capitaine, a German/American who could speak French better than either of his languages of origin. The Sambre to Erquellines was a delight, punctuated as it is by the pretty waterside villages of Fontaine Valmont (my favourite), La Buissière and Solre sur Sambre, plus the manual locks serviced by helpful Walloon lock keepers. But moving into France at Jeumont felt exciting and like a whole new adventure.

Industrial buildings near Jeumont

Marpent, the first lock in France

Rumour had it we could reach Pont sur Sambre, a village about thirty kilometres along the course, without paying for a French Vignette. This proved to be out of date information as when we reached the first lock and phoned to ask for the remote control to operate it (the télécommande), the VNF man on the other end asked us if we had a vignette. We had to admit we didn't and he told us, apologetically, that we would have to pay for at least a week as a one day permit was not going to be adequate even for the first stretch. We gulped, discussed and then Koos decided we would cough up the €90. We clearly weren't going to get the remote control until we'd agreed and as we dearly wanted to explore at least some of the French section of the river, we bit several bullets, swallowed the bitter pill and accepted.

Industry between Jeumont and Hautmont


As it transpired, it was worth it. Every cent. The Sambre changes character in France. The first stretch through Jeumont, Maubeuge and Hautmont is quite industrial. The three towns are attractive but the wonderful old warehouses and factory sites of its earlier affluent past are marvellous. We already knew them well from visits by car. Koos, too, had been along it by boat in 1990, but for him, the reaches beyond Hautmont seemed fresh and new.
A new winter storage for pleasure craft near Hautmont
One very interesting sight was a brand new storage facility for boats just past Hautmont. It isn't finished yet, but it looks like a new initiative to bring more pleasure boating back to the Sambre. The Port de Plaisance in Hautmont is also new and it had me wondering whether the scheduled re-opening in 2020 of the aqueduct further south has something to so with it. Hautmont would be a great place for people to 'park' their boats over winter if they want to have them under cover. With its easy access to Belgium and the Netherlands and the prospect of a through route to France in the offing, it sounds like a promising project.


Just a few kilometres past Hautmont, we spotted a lovely shady Halte Nautique  at Boussières sur Sambres. It was still very hot then, so the inviting sight of shade, trees and grass was very welcome. The mooring itself was slightly decrepit with rather old wooden bollards and some seriously dodgy sidings, but once we'd tied up we were very happy with our find. There was also a sort of fountain that claimed to be from the source but as it had an electric pump at the back, we were happy to use it as drinking water. We chatted to some of the locals and enjoyed an evening walk around the area, more for its peace, quiet and sense of solitude than for any particular sights. For all that, it's a beautiful setting and the countryside is a feast of rolling golden grain fields interspersed with green pasture where real cows are out to grass (I say that because in the Netherlands, it's not all that common to see meadows full of cattle). It was also noticeable that the drought has not been as bad in northern France as it's been in the Netherlands. The banks of the river are still lush and green as are many of the fields.

Nose to the bank at Sassegnies

The following day we snaked our way along the meandering curves and oxbows around Pont sur Sambre until we reached Berlaiment lock, where we were received by the VNF officials. At Pont sur Sambre, we'd seen a couple of very cheerful and friendly VNF staff who were not in the least interested in taking our money. However, at Berlaiment, it was all business and the office on the lock had the latest technology where we saw they'd been able to watch us approach every lock on their video surveillance system. There would have been no escape. All the same, the VNF manager there was very nice. He apologised that he had to charge us so much for such a short time and encouraged us to make the best use of it, showing us where we could go and how far. We'd been told that there was a bridge down before Landrecies, but it seems that was misinformation and we could go all the way to Tupigny, a place that's long been on our wish list. If we'd known that, we'd have left Thuin earlier, but as it turned out, we could go further than we'd expected anyway, so there was a silver lining to the cloud.

After doing to some walking and shopping in Berlaiment, we set off again, armed with our new vignette, but we only made it as far as the lock at Sassegnies. Despite being automatic, the locks shut down at six o'clock and we were forced into a 'wild mooring' against the bank. For once, there was no waiting pontoon, but to our good fortune, the man living in the lock keeper's house saw our predicament and kindly fetched a couple of fence poles which he briskly hammered into the bank for us to use. With our bow nestled in the bank and our stern on a rope to an old commercial bollard, we were happily fixed for the night. Sassegnies proved to be one of those special 'nothingness' spots that we will remember forever. We had no facilities at all, but the sheer enchantment of the remote surroundings situated close to a rural road that stretched to nowhere and a level crossing over the railway fringed by woods and sweeping fields...well...it was enough to move any soul, I think.

Stormy evening in Landrecies
On Thursday morning, the skies were grey and rain threatened. We had to call the VNF to open the lock for us and by that time, it was raining steadily. We made our way through to Hachette, where we also had to wait for the lock, so we had a look around. During our wanderings, we found an old steam driven mill wheel in a grey stone building next to the lock. Perhaps it was once used to pump water. Who knows? In any event, it started raining in earnest so we sat out the worst for a while until the lock was opened for us and then carried on through the last lock to Landrecies. We'd made it.

Landrecies seemed like a good place to stop for many reasons. Firstly, the wind had picked up and the rain started to bucket down; secondly, there was a great mooring with free electricity and water and thirdly, this was the end of the canalised Sambre and the beginning of the Canal de la Sambre á l'Oise. How we'd have loved to continue; the canal stretched ahead and the invitation was clear, but I knew at some point I needed to stop and return. Work was calling and it was time to head back.

We really enjoyed our night's stay in Landrecies. Despite the rain (and it rained with immense purpose), we found it a peaceful, pleasant and attractive town and to add to our pleasure, we met our VNF friends from Pont sur Sambre again. They'd told us they came from Landrecies and they'd recommended it, so they too were pleased to see us again. There was also a good Carrefour supermarket with free internet and plenty of fine houses and buildings to see. Although we were sad to have reached the end of our route for this year, we were thrilled we'd got so much further than expected. As for the vignette, well, it was well worth it.

We left Landrecies on Friday morning and today, we are back at Lobbes, near Thuin in Belgium, and there's more to tell about our return nights at Boussières and Jeumont. There's also plenty to write about Lobbes too, but I think that will keep for another post.


Have a great week allemaal and I'll catch up with you soon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Thuin, alive with history and charm



Two weeks in Thuin. Who would ever have thought we would stay in one place so long while faring? We never intended it that way, but plans have a habit of changing in our world and when I agreed to dog-sit for my daughter while she was on holiday, we had a different scheme altogether.

What happened was that we arrived in Thuin on Monday the 23rd of July, planning to stay a couple of nights before heading towards the border with France and Erquellines (which is where we are now). We thought we would spend the week Charlie the spaniel was with us there at the official Port de Plaisance. But Thuin charmed us immediately; of course, it helped that the mooring costs were apparently minimal (we didn't know then how minimal) and that we had free electricity and water. We are Dutch after all and I count myself as well integrated. But that (the free stuff) wasn't the only attraction. The town is a maze of the most wonderful nooks and crannies in which gems of fascinating history can be found. Added to that, it has serious historical sites, convenient shops and best of all an old tourist tram that runs at weekends with a tram museum to boot. With so much to explore, how could we possibly resist? So we didn't.

The batteliers' quarter
Thuin has a wealth of barge building history and at one time was the most important port in Belgium next to Antwerp. It seems hard to believe it now as everything has gone, but the Town was once home to five shipyards where they built the classic Belgian spits barges, one of which was the Michot yard where my former barge, Ténacité was built (Volharding in Dutch). The sign that a barge was built in Thuin was the distinctive fleur-de-lys symbol always present in relief on the bows, and it was oddly poignant to see there were still several of them moored up in town and used as liveaboards or, in one case, a museum. But before I took the train back to the Netherlands to fetch Charlie and my car, we'd discovered the batteliers quarter as well.

Symbols of the barge town's history

During its heyday, the town's bargees lived in the oldest of its neighbourhoods along the waterfront, and to our huge delight, many of them still do. We came upon this quarter during an evening stroll when we were wandering through the mews backstreets. It is visibly old, quaint and none the less charming for being a little shabby. The streets are cobbled and many of the houses have the name boards of the owners' barges above the doors. Some have the fleur-de-lys symbols from their boats too and there are all sorts of other symbols to show these homes belong to former skippers.

Boat names above the doors

Even better, during our wanderings, we were greeted by a senior gentleman, who promptly regaled us with stories from his family's past. His wife's father was a skipper and she was currently the honorary 'mayoress' of the quarter. Apparently, they have a festival every year in which the old batteliers' families vote for a mayor and deputy, whose job is then to organise charitable activities for the residents in need. This tradition was and is still part of the town's history. The old gent also told us that the much loved Belgian singer, Jacques Brel, had his yacht built in Thuin and that he had met him as a child. 

More symbold of the former occupant's former life

Later in the week, I was wandering round the quarter again taking photos when another old boy approached me and told me with great pride that his father and grandfather were the two men shown in a photo on the information board, both of whom had been mayors. I told him how much I loved the neighbourhood with all its reminders of the barges, and I asked him if he too had been a battelier.  'Mais oui, bien sûr,' he said, 'and my house is at the end of the street just round the corner.' Judging by the twinkle in his eye, I felt he was almost inviting me along; plenty of life in this elderly Frenchman, for sure. It made my evening and these encounters gave real life to the town's history. The sadness is that its glory days as a great port and barge building centre are over and there is no commercial water traffic on the Sambre river at all.




Other than these discoveries, we found our way to the upper town too and explored much of this originally wealthier part too. We have been to Thuin before, a visit I described in Walloon Ways, but we have never spent so much time getting to know the place. It has a long and venerable history going back to the middle ages when it was an important seat and defence point for the Bishop of Liège because of its commanding position at the top of a high ridge on the Sambre. In its early development, the town grew down rather than up and its famous hanging gardens, which we saw and are still in use, were created to support the important personages who lived at the top. I imagine that the further down the hill you lived, the less significant you were. Today, there is less obvious difference between the upper and lower towns; all of it is lovely except perhaps the shopping street in the lower town, which is just that.

The hanging gardens 

Koos and Charlie exploring an old posty or passage

An exhausted pup
Well, I could go on and on writing about Thuin, but I do realise this is my blog and I'm not producing a book here, so I'll restrain myself and finish by saying it did us good to stay. We found new delights every day; we met some wonderful people and had a marvellously social time too with other boaters who came and went. Special mentions are for our instant 'best friends', Peter and Jo, and also for the lovely Mike and Rosalee from Ireland, who I really hope we'll meet again. Lastly, there was Oscar from the neighbouring barge, whom we met eighteen years ago on the Moervaart. At that time, his wife was still alive; now, sadly she isn't, but at 83, Oscar is the life and soul of Thuin, and I imagine anywhere else he decides to go in his wanderings. Bless him and bless them all.

Dusk in Thuin
Have a great week allemaal, and I'll fill you all in with the next phase next week.











Sunday, July 29, 2018

Toasting in Thuin

To follow on from my last post, we spent two very pleasant nights in the Thieu Port de Plaisance, a relaxing stay that was much needed on my part. Unlike many boaters who like to pile on the kilometres, I find it quite tiring and love spending a few days in one place. That way we can explore the area too and find many hidden gems we wouldn't otherwise have discovered. However, with Thieu, it was more a case of taking trips down memory lane and I found it quite an emotional stay as well as enjoying it thoroughly. The last time we were here was when our dog, Sindy, was still alive and all my memories of this beautiful area are bound up with walks we did with her.

On Saturday, the 21st, however, we decided the marina costs were a bit high to spend a third night, so we left Thieu with a last look at the old lifts at 09:30 and made our way down the lock and out onto the big Canal du Centre. Going down was much smoother than going up, I have to say. There were no problems or frayed nerves as this time we knew what to expect. Within minutes, we were in sight of the great Strépy Thieu lift, and with a green light ahead of us, we could go straight in to the left caisson. This was the moment I'd been waiting for and I felt like a child going to the fair for the first time. Much to our surprise, we recognised one of the other occupants of the caisson (there were only three of us). The Dawn Marie was a cruiser we'd met on the Canal de Roubaix last year and her New Zealander owners greeted us warmly. They told us they were heading for the other great engineering marvel, the Inclined Plane at Ronquières, but I'm afraid they probably didn't make it as we'd heard it was closed for repairs to a leaking caisson. It sounded from what we'd been told that there'd been quite a nasty accident, but nothing we've read since has confirmed this.




Anyway, back to the lift, it was all over in record time and we had risen the full 73,1 metres in what seemed like a few minutes. It was an amazing sensation to be rising so fast and so high and I took as many photos as I could as well as a short film clip, so I'll have to see if I can publish that when we get back to civilisation again. To see the doors opening at the top and to motor out at such a high level over the aqueduct that connects the lift to the main canal again was such an experience. The view is breathtaking and of course, the weather was perfect.

On that note, (as I've mentioned before) it has been incredibly hot for most of this trip and this past week has topped everything and seen us wilting in temperatures of between 35 and 38 degrees. I love the heat, but when there is no shade to be had at the moorings, it can be tough to cope with being in a steel box with no air conditioning.



By Saturday night, we were on the southern side of Charleroi at a free mooring in Marchienne au Pont. The pontoon was good and we had no trouble or interference, but it's a sorry area; very run down and dilapidated with a sad air of hopelessness. I was afraid we'd be stuck in Charleroi itself, which has no good reputation, but we managed to get through all the locks and make it to this spot on the Sambre. We shared the mooring with another family on a cruiser. I don't think they even left their boat, such was the lack of appeal in the environs.



On Sunday, we started off up the Sambre and after the first lock, the only commercial sized one on this section, we found what we'd been looking for. The Sambre is absolutely stunning. It winds its way through steep banks of the most beautiful woodland trees and scenery and every kilometre was a feast for the eyes.  We spent a very hot night in the attractive town of Landelies, but fortunately the Port there had a lovely shady picnic area beneath some tall trees. The following day, we continued along this truly magical river to marvellous, historic Thuin, where we have been ever since; the reason being I made a quick dash back to the Netherlands to fetch a visitor of the four-footed variety, but more on that next time. I think Thuin deserves a post all of its own; it's such a special place.



I'd love to post more photos, but that will have to wait until WiFi connections are possible. I'm especially sorry there are no photos of the lift yet. I don't exactly know where they are on my camera, but I'll post some soon. For now, from a very warm and sultry Sambre, have a great week allemaal!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Hit by the heat on the Hennie H

Firstly, my apologies for not keeping up with comments or answering questions. This holiday, we decided we would avoid the internet as much as possible as we wasted so much time last year looking for hotspots. I must say it’s been much more relaxed in that sense. We’ve both been reading a lot and Koos has been practising his guitar. I keep meaning to start learning my Ukulele chords, but haven’t got round to it yet; nor have I done any writing, which I promised myself I would do. I have one excuse... the heat. It really has been blistering and much of the time we have been moored up, we have been trying to find ways of keeping cool. One solution has been to buy a heap of old white cotton sheets from a local charity shop and cover all our windows with them. It helps a bit, especially when we spray them with cold water. The temperature inside is just under 30 degrees instead of the 34 that it is outside!

Anyhow, since last Sunday (that means ten days ago, not three), we have completed our trip up the Dender and the Blaton-Ath Canal. What a lovely waterway it is. Imtimate and very pretty. What amazed us, however, was the difference when we crossed the language border into Wallonia. On the one hand, the service stepped up a couple of notches: we had a whole team of lock assistants helping us through, all with uniform T shirts although the French being thus, they each had their own style. On the other, we had the waterway virtually to ourselves. Gone was the struggle to find a mooring and we had perfect spots in both Chièvres (Lock 15) and Ath, complete with electricity and water, and at the former there was even a shower. We paid just €5 for the night there and nothing at Ath as the Capitainerie was not open, so our lock keeper, whom I dubbed Gerard (he was a shoe-in for Gerard Depardieu if ever I saw one) shrugged and smiled and that was that. On the subject of Gerard, he really was a character and told us with great pride about his beautiful Russian wife who could speak 5 languages and was a complete Francophile. When he first met her, he was bowled over to find she knew more about his history and culture than he did. A lock keeper with a difference for sure. One of the other lock keepers on the Blaton-Ath section sported a ponytail and blue-lensed mirror glasses, while his colleague wore a straw Fedora and had a cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips as he zoomed between the locks on a moped. As I said, their own style. We spent the last night on the canal in the penultimate lock, whose gate refused to close. By 8:15 the next morning, it was fixed by the official electrician who probably just flicked a switch, officially of course, and off we went down the last two locks. I must say, the locks on the whole canal were easy for us. Very regular and not too tumultuous. I liked that.





After leaving the Blaton-Ath, we moved out onto the big highway canal, the grand gabarit as the French call it, but not for long. For years, I’ve wanted to go by boat to Pommeroeul, to the disused lock that I wrote about here. It only took us thirty minutes or so to reach it, and there we stopped for a couple of precious hours. It was largely deserted and we walked around in the hot sunshine enjoying the space, the open vistas and the peace. We chatted to the security man/lock keeper who watches over the lock and serves any commercials who want water. His was a sad story. He suffers from glaucoma and can no longer do the more responsible security jobs, so he works here. We found him collecting up litter. He was bemoaning the lack of rain; everything was so dry, he said, that not even the bees could get nectar from the flowers. A lock keeper with an environmental soul. He was right, though. The ground is parched, the grass is simply brown and the wild flowers are shrivelled. We walked to the other side of the lock and I was astonished to see how deep the drop is on that side. I’d never noticed it before, but it must be at least 10 metres.

The next leg of our journey took us through two big locks to our destination for the night. In fact, it was the destination of the whole trip for me because we finally arrived at Strépy Thieu, at the great boat lift that I’ve been longing to go through for years. But I think I’ll write about that in my next blog or this one will go on forever. Needless to say it was with a big smile that we approached the final lock of the day into the marina. However, the grins were short-lived as we couldn’t figure out how to go through it. The automatic rod that operates the system is so far from the entrance we didn’t see it. I’d been up through the brambles, scratched myself silly and watched the last official driving away from the office before going back and finding that a camper on the quay had shown Koos where to find it. Then we managed to push it the wrong way, so by the time we got into the lock, our tempers were collectively frayed. Of course, the lock held its own challenges. It was deep, there were only bollards on the ladders and they were too far apart, or at least that’s what we thought. At last we were up and through and found our way into the marina. We were greeted with shouts that there was no room, but the harbour master, a kindly Englishman, directed us to what has always been our dream spot. We had to moor up alongside a rather neglected looking empty barge, but it was at the back of the marina where we had always wanted to be. He was relieved that we were happy, so it was with revived smiles that we tied up, settled down and finished what had probably been our longest day so far.





More soon allemaal. I’ll catch up with you all when I can but forgive my absence these weeks. We really have no internet on board at all. Bliss!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Faring in Belgium again!

The faring has begun and today we’ve arrived in Geraardsbergen on the Dender river in Belgium. It’s the last town in Flanders and tomorrow we will be in Wallonia, the French speaking area of Belgium so I will be able to stop struggling with the Flemish accent and switch to struggling with French...haha. It’s been a lovely trip so far. We had a bit of excitement when we left Gent. We’d noticed the cooling system on the Hennie Ha had been acting up, so when we were in the first lock taking us onto the tidal Schelde river on Friday morning, Koos decided to investigate the water pump impeller, a part with a known limited life. Luckily we had a spare, because it transpired the old one was in a bad way, a VERY bad way. Still replacing it in the lock was a bit nerve wracking and he didn’t finish in time, so we had to pull ourselves out of the lock and tie up to the wall until The job was done. That also meant we missed much of our advantage on the ebb tide. We’d wanted to leave at 7:30, but the lock in Gent didn’t open until 8:30 (owing to the Gent festival) and then we had to sit in the big lock onto the river until 10:30 while a huge passenger boat filled with water; hence Koos’ decision to change the impeller. High tide was at 8:30 and we only got going at 11:00. Luckily, the current helped us do the 33kms to Dendermonde in 2,5 hours (normally, it would take us about 4hours to do that on a canal) and we arrived at the lowest of low water). I was fascinated to see the mud flats and banks. They looked as if they’s been sculpted into shape by a huge pallet knife. It was also interesting to see there were no ducks or coots on this tidal section; only seagulls. How do they know? I shall have to look this up!




Geraardsbergen Square, where I’m drinking coffee as I post this blog


The first lock on the Dender is massive. It’s 168m long and very wide. We were the only ones going through. I expected to see huge 2000 tonne barges on the other side, but there was nothing — not a thing anywhere. It was also interesting to see the different water lines on the lock wall. If the tide is very high, the farer will go down to the Dender on the other side; there is a distinct high water mark on the lock wall, but it was quite dry. Normal tide is visibly at the normal level of the river and then there is the low tide mark. Because of the dry weather, we did not rise very high even though we were there at low water, but at high tide on the Schelde, we would probably have gone down to the Dender a bit, even though we were heading upstream. We spent our first night at Aalst at a gorgeous free mooring that announced ‘For a chat and a smile, you can stay for a while’. It was lovely and very peaceful. The river is too beautiful, and is picturesque in a typically Flemish pastoral way. There are reeds, bushes, wild flowers and trees along the banks, and the coots and ducks were back. The baby coots were just adorable scooting along after their mums. They haven’t yet got the hang of walking on water, so seeing them hurry after their mothers was both funny and sweet. The next day, we headed further upstream through Aalst to Ninove. We did all the locks and several low bridges with an English couple and a German couple on their cruisers. It wasn’t very comfortable in the locks as it was a tight fit for the three of us. The German man was a really boys’ own type and while he was cheerfully yelling commands to his long suffering wife, Koos was yelling at me too. What with the noise from the lock gates, the pouring water and the general cacophony, neither of us could really hear what our respective skippers were saying, so we just turned to each other and shrugged. A nice bit of cross cultural connection.


At Ninove, there was nowhere for Koos and I to moor up, so we had to find a shady bank with some trees to fasten our lines to. There really was nothing else to be done. Sadly this also meant there was nowhere to go. Ninove is not the most appealing place in Belgium, so we stayed on board. I read while Koos played his guitar with his brand new birthday amp. On reflection, it was probably as well that we weren’t at a real mooring. This morning, we started late. The cooling still leaks and there are another few leaks that are niggling, but even after trying to fix those, we still left before anyone else. We suspected they might have been nursing hangovers celebrating or commiserating over the football. I’m sad England lost the game, but happy for Belgium that they won. 


The river to Geraardsbergen is, if anything, even more beautiful. It winds its way theough stunning scenery and we saw real hills for the first time too. What a gorgeous stretch of country this is. We’ve done three locks and a bridge with delightful lockkeepers to help us and are now moored up at an informal spot...once again, no room for us at the inn. Still we are in the shade of some trees; there is a path nearby; we are comfortable and at rest. Have a great week, allemaal!




Our informal mooring today in Geraardsbergen

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Interim musings

What a strange week this has been with all the furore over the World Cup. Then there's Wimbledon and the Formula 1 as well. I don't know about you but I am not much of a sports fan although I've always enjoyed motor racing and I just love cricket (of course). Despite this, I haven't been able to avoid being caught up in the tension over the football and also the F1 championships which I used to follow quite closely, but less so these days.

The thing I don't get is how so many people are critics first. People can be so mean about their own sides and the sportsmen and women they follow. If they could do better, why aren't they out there doing it themselves? How about being an encourager and not a destroyer?

I was so pleased for Belgium that they got to the WC semi-finals. What a great achievement for a small country. They played so bravely, and it's such a shame they lost to big brother next door, France, but they did an amazing job. And as for England, I am listening to the match now and it doesn't sound hopeful for the land of my birth, but heck, they made it this far which is further than they've done in close on thirty years. Well done guys!! I, like thousands of others, am thrilled for what you have done even if you don't make it any further.

All the same, the whole competition has seen some major upsets, which has made it quite interesting for a non football fan like me.

Then when it comes to motor racing, it seems that the top drivers can never do anything right. Lewis Hamilton is either 'too nice to be real' or a 'bad loser'; the press have a go at him whatever he does. The same goes for Max Verstappen, the young Dutch driver. He's a real go-getter for sure, but isn't that what you're supposed to be at that level? The media never seem to give him a break and I find that a real shame.

Lastly, there's Wimbledon, which has been a bit submerged by all this World Cup fever, but even there I hear some upsets have occurred and Roger Federer lost to a South African player I've never heard of before. Who would have expected that? Still, Mr Federer's had an amazingly good innings (sorry for mixing my sporting metaphors) and it's great to see someone else coming up.

Well it will all be over soon and we can get back to normal life again; in other words, I can go back to my boats and my cricket again, but I'm going to hold on to that 'encouragement' idea. I think there's far too little of it about these days. Whatever makes people smile and gives them a lift is surely more rewarding for all concerned, isn't it?

On a more local note, we've had quite a busy week socially too. Last weekend was my elder daughter's birthday celebration. We had a great family gathering at her house and a delicious vegan meal. Of course, the 'boys' had to watch the football.

Here they are watching whatever match it was on a smart
phone...modern life!
Meanwhile, we girls made our own fun. My younger daughter took photos of the birthday girl and me making silly faces....well, what else can you do when everyone else is glued to a tiny screen?









I might be a bit more rare in my blogging appearances than usual in the coming weeks; it's fair weather, so it's faring weather, but whatever you all are doing, have a great summer/winter allemaal. I will be here, but just a little more sporadically.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Oily bits are best and I now officially have an OM


My view from the crumbly cottage. I'm missing it1
It's been a strange seven days. Yes, I know that's a week, but I always think of a week as being Monday to Sunday. You'll notice, though, that this post is a bit late and my seven days have run from Wednesday to Wednesday...oh dear, why am I rabbiting on about this? Well, the thing is, our routine is all upside down. Normally, I spend the week days in Rotterdam on the Vereeniging and the weekends in the crumbly cottage, but last week, Koos was also in Rotterdam and we stayed for the weekend as it was his birthday...the big seven oh.

A happy Koos with his birthday gift
A small amplifier for making a big noise!
Rock on Koos!

But to back track, while he was here, we did a very good deed that turned out to be a very dirty job. I don't know if I've mentioned before that the Vereeniging had the dreaded diesel bug? Well, for anyone who doesn't know what this is, it's a bacterial infection that the modern bio-diesels get if they've been sitting a long time and condensation has occurred in the tank. It seems this creates an ideal breeding ground for the most horrible fungal growth and it gets into the systems and ultimately stops the engine from running. It can be quite catastrophic.

Well having solved this problem and had the engine running again, we still noticed that it smoked too much, so I'd asked our favourite diesel man to look at it. His first suggestion was that we take it out, get it to his workshop and let him overhaul it. As you might imagine, I was not so eager, mentally seeing the euros skyrocketing at just the process of removing and replacing the motor, let alone the costs of overhauling it. He must have heard my alarm bells clanging (or else saw the look of frozen horror on my face) because he then relented and suggested we first change the oil and use V-Power diesel (a sort of super fuel that apparently burns more cleanly) and just go faring to see what happened.


A not very clear photo, but you can get an idea

Now, owing to the fact we haven't really been anywhere in the Vereeniging since this engine was installed, I confess we've never changed the oil. I know, I know, but with only a few hours running time, why should it have needed it? But oh my! Was it ever necessary! For those not interested in oily bits, you might want to skip this bit; I actually found it fascinating.

My engine doesn't have a sump plug for draining the oil; it has its own hand pump which unfortunately wasn't working as the rubber gasket that creates the suction had perished. After spending a morning trying to find one, we ended up making our own, and that was the first major achievement. A real thumbs up woohoo feeling that we'd creatively overcome such an obstacle.

With the oil out, Koos then opened up the side cover on the engine to remove the filter. That was our second shock. The gauze of the filter was completely blocked with muck and the only reason it had worked at all was down to the holes in it. Awful. There was also a thick layer of black sludge at the bottom of the block. What a horrible mess! I was amazed the motor had run at all and very glad we hadn't tried faring anywhere. No wonder it smoked so much.

Koos, bless him, cleaned out all the ghastly gunk from the bottom while I cleaned the filter with turps. We then bought some new steel gauze to replace the old and put everything back in place. With about six litres of fresh new oil, we got the engine running again, and were delighted to see the amount of smoke was massively reduced. Now we just have to try the super V-Power diesel on a trip out and see if that eliminates it altogether. Go us...or something like that! We are at least significantly closer to that dream trip to Utrecht.

Anyway, that was before the weekend, and then on Saturday, we celebrated Koos' other achievement (that of reaching 70, which is quite something) with family and friends at our favourite Rotterdam pub. I can now officially call him my old man, or OM as social media would have it. It was a lovely, cheerful and happy occasion.

Some guests found it all too tiring
Our intention was to head down to the crumbly cottage on Sunday, but when we arrived home after the party, the car refused to start. On Sunday morning, it still refused, so we called the ANWB (the Dutch road rescue service) who obligingly came and diagnosed a fuel pump problem. They towed the poor old Opel to the garage for us, but of course it meant we couldn't leave and we've been in Rotterdam since. I must admit, it feels like ages, even though it's only Wednesday. I'm so used to my weekends in the country, this has upset my body clock as effectively as jet lag. What's more, this coming Saturday is my daughter's birthday celebration, so we will be here another weekend to compound the strangeness.

Missing my garden too


Never mind, it will all get back to normal again soon, I suppose, but then of course, we'll be off faring to France...

Here we are on the Vereeniging, though. From the inside looking out

Have a good week allemaal. Enjoy this glorious weather we're having...long may it last!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Time out

I find life is so hectic these days I really need to take just a little special down time now and then; not the usual sitting on the sofa with a book down time, but getting away from everything routine and doing something indulgent just for the love of it. For me, it's 'boat watching', but of a different sort from our normal harbour comings and goings.

I took the photos below on Saturday when we were on the way from Rotterdam to the crumbly cottage, We went by way of Antwerp docks; not an unusual route for us by any means, but not one we follow as a rule. It was a beautiful bright day, which made it even more appealing, so first we stopped by the Schelde river at the start of the estuary and on the Belgian border. If you look at the first photo below, you'll see a typical Belgian border 'post'. You'll notice it has a number on it. These border markers are at intervals all along the grens as they call it and it's fun to come across them (and even stumble into them) when out walking. I believe someone has even taken a photo of every single post and published a book of them, but so far I haven't found it.


The post marking the Belgian border. Note the number!
After sitting on the bank and gazing a while, we moved on into the dockland area. At one of the huge locks into the inner harbours, we saw they were preparing for this massive container ship (below) to come in, so we decided we had to just sit and watch it. Now I don't know about you, but I find this one of the most absorbing and peaceful pastimes I can think of. To sit on the wall and just watch these giants proceed at a very gentle and smooth snail's pace is a positively meditative experience.

This one took a good ten minutes to reach the lock and then even longer to inch its way in and moor up. When it finally reached the spot where we were sitting, we noticed the tugboat behind it, guiding it in and keeping it straight. Behind these two, we saw other ships leaving other harbours along the river at what seemed like a much greater speed; they were going downstream with the tide, so comparatively, at quite a lick!

Slowly does it

Closer and closer

And finally past us into lock

....which was when we saw the tug boat guiding it from the rear

For the record

Nearly moored up

And there goes another biggy

...heading out to sea...spot the tiny yacht next to it...talk about scale!

Fare forth and fare well!
We must have spent an hour sitting there just soaking up the peace of seeing these behemoths navigating their way in and out of the huge Antwerp harbours. For me, it is soul food and nothing gives me more peace and tranquillity. I love it, and it was with almost a sigh of regret that we decided it was time to move on. What a way to waste time – although for me, it was very well wasted.

What does that for you? What is your way of taking time to 'stop and smell the roses'?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Chasing my own tail

It's been pretty hectic this week in the Flatlands. Being the end of the academic year, there are exams to mark and courses to finish up before everyone knocks off, or goes down for the summer. To be truthful, I feel as if I'm racing to the finish of far too many deadlines and am in danger of overshooting all of them.

I've also been wearing my Cambridge speaking examiner hat quite intensively this week. The British Council, the largest of the organisations that runs these English as a Second Language exams, was a bit short of examiners for this round and sent out a plea to anyone examining for the other centres to see if we could help. I am attached to a centre in Rotterdam and do the job for them three times a year. They have first call on my time and I am committed to examining for them when required. However, as a freelancer, I can do sessions for other people if need be, so I offered my services to the urgently seeking British Council and found myself at a school in Goes, Zeeland bright and early on Monday morning.

The harbour in central Goes 2016


Goes is a lovely place although I didn't see much of it. I spent the whole day working at the school, which was pretty intense. It was great experience, though, and I met some other examiners who gave me some useful tips from their much longer experience. After that it was put foot to the pedal (as we used to say in South Africa) back to Rotterdam as I was adjudicating a university speaking exam on Tuesday for a group of staff. Wednesday was a normal work day, but I had more Cambridge examining on Thursday in Rotterdam and all day on Friday at a school in the suburbs. It got to the point that I couldn't remember who I'd been with, where or when, or even where I was supposed to be. Predictably, I was totally shattered by the time I arrived back at the crumbly cottage on Friday evening.

One of the classic Goes houses

Meanwhile, I still had all my academic writing assignments to mark for the Amsterdam students I teach. Thus...no peace until today, when I managed to get out and paint a wall. You have no idea how therapeutic and rewarding that was! A plain, white, simple wall.

Next week, things will begin to wind down again. I still have some Cambridge work, but just for one day; otherwise, life reverts to normal and at the end of the month, it will all be over for the students...and largely speaking for me too! Maybe, just maybe, I'll have time to write again. I've been looking at the outline of my WIP longingly, so I'm keeping everything crossed. But with boat maintenance calling...well...we shall see!

On a sad note, I have lost my little Panasonic compact camera that I have taken everywhere with me for the last few years. I cannot believe I've left it somewhere, but it seems that's what I must have done...it's just vanished. I am quite bereft because I was really fond of it. What's worse is I've lost the photos that were on it too; not that many, but there were some pictures of the poppies around here which have been quite spectacular this year. I'll just have to rootle around in my archives to see if I've got any older poppy pics to relieve the empty spaces in this post.

A few years ago, friends of ours taking poppy pics

The delicate vividness of the poppies. I've always loved them
but this year, they've been phenomenal

Well, that's me done for blogdom this week. If the WC is your bag, enjoy the games and if not, I guess there's tennis or athletics or even just enjoying summer days outside.

I'll the the one wielding a paintbrush and sander...ooh, and yes! I've got a diesel man coming to service the Vereeniging's engine this week. Woohoo! I can hardly wait!

Have a great week allemaal.