(60) Into Belgium with Paul, April 2014.

We left Cambrai on 6th April, a little later than we normally do as Peter is usually champing at the bit to get moving after the winter.  Peter’s brother Paul, joined us for the start of the 2014 cruising season.

With a complete set of new ropes at the ready, I hoped I wouldn’t make too many mistakes. Fortunately the ropes, although thicker and a little stiff to handle, soon loosened up and were a great improvement on our old ones. I managed to adapt well to the new weight, but have to admit to needing four attempts to get the ‘eye’ over a bollard only a metre away on one occasion……well if you are going to cock things up you may as well do so in style!

Back with the big locks and barges, Paul on the stern.

We were soon on the strangely named ‘Liaison de Grand Gabarits’ among the big girls, stopping a night at Denain and another near the lock at Fresnes. I cycled back against the wind to retrieve the car from Valenciennes and then the chaps drove back to collect Paul’s car from Cambrai.

The following day after a quick recce of Mons by car, Paul drove ahead to check out moorings and we headed into Belgium. After the last French lock at Conde-sur-L’Escaut, we cruised for around three hours before finally passing the small disused Customs Office on the border, swapping our French courtesy flag for a Belgian one.

Peronnes lock, on our way up to have the papers checked.

The first Belgian lock at Peronnes required us to report with ship’s papers to the lock keeper. After about ten minutes we were on our way again, crossing a large basin and heading into an even deeper lock complete with floating bollards (Peronnes 1.)

I was pleased when we finally moored up (after some nifty reversing by Peter) in the small port at Peruwelz.

Spotted this little mooring place but had to reverse in.

The Capitaine arrived at 7pm and after enjoying a beer, relieved us of 15 euros and switched the water and electrics on………..heat, TV and no noisy generator – bliss.

Our next stop was in the Grand Large (lock basin) at Pommeroeul. It sits at the end of the proposed Conde-Pommeroeul Canal outside a newish lock and is popular with fishermen. Unfortunately, the French end at Conde –sur-L’Escaut was never even started and so it is something of a ‘white elephant’ which seems a shame after all the work on the Belgian side.

 The unused Lock moorings at Pommeroeul.

Huge modern Lock, built but never used.

Sun or embarrassment ?

We spent a couple of days at Pommeroeul in almost splendid isolation and popped into Mons mainly to find a bar with wifi, which we did eventually in spite of the huge number of diversions and road works encountered. We had cancelled our French broadband contract before leaving France and now have a new one which is quite expensive but not affected by crossing national borders.

Whilst in Mons we visited the small memorial by the Nimy railway bridge over the canal where two British soldiers bravely held off the German advance by manning a machine gun. They were awarded the first two Victoria Crosses of the First World War.

Nimy railway bridge, WW1 British defending on the right.

Underneath, a memorial to the first two soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross in WW1. One killed here and one survived.

http://www.caparkinson.com/2014/01/battle-of-nimy-august-1914/

Worth a read.

A drive up to the Strepy Lift where we left the Micra, was interesting, although we saved the tour for another day. Finding our way back to the barge once again proved difficult as the sat nav was intent on sending us over a bridge which was being replaced.

While the chaps fished I had a couple of lovely walks, one of which took me 6km along the canal and past the second Belgian lock to the very rural and unfinished French section.

The French half, bit of a nature reserve now.

Lovely as the Grand Large was, we decided to move on and by cutting the corner too sharply managed to hit a sand bank. No damage fortunately, but rather a weird feeling as the barge almost stopped.

We were soon passing through the Grand Large at Mons where the landscape became more industrialised. We were getting used to sharing the big locks with commercial barges by now, although the messages from the lock keepers were not always very clear.

Mid afternoon we arrived at a quay we had spotted earlier on our return from the Strepy Lift and which I thought was the one that Louise and Alex (Riccall) hoped to meet us at the next day. Peter and I decided to walk to the lift to collect our car and en route came across a nice little quay set back from the canal at Thieu. This was obviously the right one. He went back to get the barge while I walked on to get the car.

Thieu, with the Strepy lift in the distance.

The following morning, with fog delaying Louise and Alex from leaving Seneffe, we drove to the interesting Military Cemetery at St Symphorien, which was actually close to Pommeroeul had we but known. The land had been given to the Germans in 1915 by a local Belgian to use as a burial ground as long as they also buried Allied soldiers there. There were graves of several different nationalities in separate plots on an attractively laid out hillside. Here we found the gravestones of the first British soldier to have been killed and also the last.

Military Cemetery at St Symphorien, some interesting graves lie within.

Centre, M.J. Dease VC, the first Victoria Cross awarded in WW1 for his heroism at at Nimy Railway Bridge.

The wreath on the right, the first casualty of WW1. Private J. Parr. The one on the left, the last to die in the conflict, G.E. Ellison.

A very unusual graveyard with soldiers from both sides.

Eager to upload recent photos we drove into Mons and found a McDonalds. Annoyingly, the internet was not working but we had already ordered our meals before we found out.

Back in Thieu we were soon joined by our friends Alex and Louise and enjoyed two days catching up with each other’s news. The surrounding area provided interesting walks with the old ‘historic’ canal and lift systems to explore.

One of the four old lifts, still being used for sightseeing trips.

Monday came and we reluctantly said our ‘au revoirs’ before heading our separate ways. The chaps dropped our car up to the Inclined Plane at Ronquieres and then we drove up to ‘do’ the tour of the Strepy on Louise’s recommendation.

 ‘au revoirs’

At 6 euros each it was good value but on reaching the 8th floor we were surprised to find that we should first see the presentation about famous Belgian people. Well how long could that take?

Each display was in a separate room and covered different walks of life. The sound system was poor and the whole thing rather amateurish. Only when each presentation was over did a green light come on over the door permitting our escape into the next room. The ‘lowlight’ had to be the animated artworks- Monty Python fashion and virtually unintelligible.

Paul presses frantically on the answer button to try and facilitate an earlier escape !

But the teacher is having none of it.

It lasted about 20 minutes and we were so pleased to finally get out, view the workings of the lift and enjoy the panoramic view from on high. There was also an informative film which showed how it had been constructed.

We returned to the barge, lunched and then set off for our ascent in the Strepy Lift. It was certainly a great experience as we rose vertically 73 metres in a huge tank of water and had a great view of the surrounding countryside. The ride took 7 minutes. At the top we dropped Paul off so he could collect his car and meet us somewhere on the approaches to Charleroi.

The rather imposing Strepy lift, highest in the world at 73 metres.

Our ride, 112 metres x 12 x 4.

Going up, need a parachute not a life ring !

And off we go.

Having made such a late start, we knew it would be quite a long day and with dredging opposite our proposed stop by the Carrefour supermarket at Luttre, we were right. We ended up stopping just north of Charleroi above the closed lock at Marchienne au Pont and Paul managed to find us ok.

The following morning we arose bright and early but had to wait for four lock fills until we could go as the commercial traffic was heavy. Once again Paul drove ahead while we cruised through the industrialised canal section of Charleroi and onto the River Sambre.

The Charleroi end of the Sambre, not much to recommend it !

We had a fairly long wait at the first lock which was a huge double one, but the lock keeper was a jolly fellow who told us the scenery would improve as we headed west. He was right. It did and we were soon passing through pretty locks and lift bridges.

Pretty river, the Sambre.

Locks are a bit snug though !

We stopped above the lock at the Abbey de L’Aune which was a pretty, tranquil spot scented by the nearby fields of rapeseed. A drive to recce the town of Thuin was useful as we spoke to the chap in charge of moorings and at 4 euros per night decided to head there the next morning.

Back on the barge I had a pleasant walk along the canal while the fishing competition resumed in earnest.

With glorious sunny weather the next morning we cruised onto Thuin, three locks away. The mooring was good and after an initial problem with electrics we were soon connected.

We stayed at Thuin several days as the Easter weekend was approaching and we knew the locks would be closed on Easter Sunday.

Whilst there we drove to Erquilinnes a couple of times and met Lorna (‘Waterdog’) for afternoon tea and a chat about a possible winter mooring in the port. We also continued our search for free wifi so Peter could download/upload our photos. This necessitated another Mcdonalds meal across the border in France and enabled Paul and I to do some much needed shopping while Peter sorted out the photos.

Thuin is an interesting town set on two levels with ramparts around parts of it; the lower ‘batellerie’ by the canal was originally connected to all things ‘barging’ and an important centre for barge building (second only to Anvers); the ‘Hautville’ above with its prominent Belfry which chimes on the hour. It has two rivers flowing through and on the far side some ‘hanging’ gardens.

I had the pleasure of walking around the town after climbing the Belfry one lovely sunny afternoon. As I approached the Belfry I was surprised to hear the bells chiming out the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’, particularly as it was approaching Easter.

Jingle Bells !

Peter celebrated his birthday on Easter Sunday, with a couple of Trappist beers (9.6%), roast lamb dinner and a homemade chocolate cake plus a walk to Lobbes, the highlights of the Chinese Grand Prix and more fishing.

Rude not to sample the local beer really.

On Easter Monday the locks reopened and after turning around we set off back along the River Sambre to continue our travels towards Brussels.

We had another unexpectedly long day and weren’t sure that Paul would be able to find us, especially when we reached the top of the Inclined Plane at Ronquieres as it closed for the night. ‘Madame’ in the control room told us that we would be first down at 6.45 am the next day, but when a huge commercial barge called ‘Johnny’ turned up we assumed it would take priority. Paul who had parked below managed to charm his way past the receptionist at the bottom and made his way up in the lift to join us for his final night.

Bright and early the next day, we were called up on the radio and told to prepare the barge for the first descent. With ‘Johnny’ pulling out behind us, we expected to go in the second tank and were surprised when ‘Madame’ came on the radio again to tell us that we were first and ‘Johnny’ was most definitely second.

Result!

Early start but well worth it.

The drop.

The slide.

An interesting experience.

We enjoyed our 40 minute descent in the crisp early morning air and found a super mooring on the left bank near to where Peter had left the Micra.

The escape.

Paul left us here to commence the first stage of his return journey to Alderney while we chilled out for a couple of days watching all the barges negotiating the lift.

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