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 This proved to be out of date information as when we reached the first lock and phoned to ask for the remote control to operate it (the télécommande), the VNF man on the other end asked us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|
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.