Canal Historique du Centre …….

……. and the Keystone Cops!

Monday 17th Sept we left Marcienne au Pont by 9.30am because the local gardener was about to pressure the pontoon beside us…….. We had a little convoy – Piedaleau, Auroa (Nils) and a Swedish yatch! Worked well with the 3 big locks we had to negotiate. Nils and the Swedes took the quickest route via the Thieu-Strepy Ascenseur but we had already decided to take the Canal Historique with its 4 old ascenceurs on our return trip to Thieu. The Thieu-Strepy lift is clearly visible from the old canal!

We had quite a laugh! There were 3 teams of 2 guys to work the 4 ascenseurs & various lifting & turning bridges. There was much kicking of equipment, lifting & dropping of gates, and shouting between the guys. Not exactly good communication between the teams – we were left waiting for a turning bridge to be opened – one team said they had misplaced the key, another said we had to wait whilst they prepared the ascenseurs for us! And then one guy wanted us to hurry up because he wanted to finish his shift……. And we had a satisfaction survey to complete at the end! How do you rate the Keystone Cops????

The stretch of  the Canal du Centre called ‘Historique’ was the original canal which tackled the 68m (223 ft) rise in the land with locks and 4 hydraulic boat lifts between Thieu and Houdeng-Goegnies. The few kms past Thieu, where the locks were, is now closed so the we just had the ascenseurs and the bridges to negotiate.

The lifts each have a pair of counterbalanced containers. The water in the container is equalised and then more pumped in to bring boats up / down. We were asked to moor well forward to avoid Adrian having an early shower from the cascade behind!

 

 

Each ascenseur has a machinery room housed in rather grand red brick buildings.

The canal was twinned with the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1988. This stretch of canal and the lifts are now a UNESCO site and are only used for pleasure boats between April and October. One guy told us that they get around 300 boats a year – and thanked us profusely for using it!

Near the top of the canal (just after Ascenseur 1 coming down) there is a place called the Cantina des Italiens. It is a small complex of barrack-type huts built after the Second World War by the steel industry to accommodate Italian workers brought over to work in the factories. A deal was done between the Belgian and Italian governments, exchanging coal for ‘man hours’ / workers. Thousands of young men came to the region to work in the mines and the steel industry and many were housed here. 32 rooms each housing 8 single men with a refrectory and shop. For the time the conditions were not too bad – fares paid, jobs for a year & accommodation. The Marcinelle mining disaster, 8th September 1956, where 270 miners died, brought this immigration of workers to an end. The site went into disrepair but was restored in 1984 and is now well known locally as an Italian restaurant. It has recently changed hands and has rather mixed Trip Advisor reviews but we decided to see for ourselves.

 

Wednesday evening we went for dinner with Nils (Auroa). It really was an ‘interesting’ experience. Unusual place, nice terrace surrounded by the barrack like buildings from yesteryear, young waiters with little finesse or customer care! The food was actually rather good in a basic Italian way. I won’t go into details but, suffice to say, Adrian and I felt it would not warrant a return visit next year.

 

Sunset at Thieu

The Sambre

After our sortie to Halle and Brussels we returned to Seneffe for a couple of days before heading off up the Sambre towards France. Our aim is to cruise along as many of the Belgian waterways as we can. We had heard that the Sambre is picturesque although the part through Charleroi is very industrial and not suitable for stopping. We decided to see for ourselves.

About 25 kms and 3 x 7m locks took us along the Canal Bruxelles-Charleroi to where it joins the River Sambre. The area here is surrealistic. Huge, many derelict, industrial constructions. Like something out of War of the Worlds – just needed Richard Taylor’s voice over….. inspired me to go black and white but the contrast with a clear blue sky was interesting to say the least!

This area would have been at the heart of the coal and steel industries, but now no longer in use.

Unsurprisingly the graffiti artists have been creative …….

We pulled into Marcienne-au-Pont for the night and met Jean Pierre & his wife – he’s the Capitaine at Beez Yatch Club where we left the boat last summer. His wife warned me that the area is not very salubrious, certainly one of the poorest we have seen, & not to leave the boat at night even though it looked to be a mooring in a park beside a ‘chateau’.  Jean Pierre gave us lots of information about the Sambre and the moorings – all seem to be free and most have free water and electric as well!

We stayed the night and then headed off to our next stop at Thuin. We left the industrial area and headed up the  increasingly rural Sambre. The locks are smaller and worked manually by lock keepers who alerted each other of our passage! They even live in the lock houses!!! Like being back on some of the older french canals!

 

Thuin is a nice little town, with really good mooring, shops and a Friday market – what more could we ask? Except, perhaps, to meet up with some good friends. We were excited to see Pavot moored at the end of the quay – we’d met Sally and Martin (+ dogs) at Leers Nord – we jumped off and went to say hello! We had a great evening together sharing supper and quite a few glasses.

As ever for us, pride comes before the fall …….. as we were leaving Pavot Adrian couldn’t find his manbag! Those of you who know us well will be familiar with Adrian’s tendency to misplace / lose items. In fact Sally’s first comment was ‘not the lost wallet again!’ To cut a long and painful story short (included cancelling some cards and a sleepless night) we were about to go and report the loss / theft of said bag to the police, when I looked down between the pontoon and wall (again & Adrian had already virtually dredged along here) to see a bag type corner floating ……. Adrian retrieved his bag after a night in the drink – everything there but decidedly soggy! What we think happened is that he put the bag on the wall whilst sorting the electric cable and must have flicked it off into the drink. There was a young couple sitting nearby so we were concerned that they may have been opportunistic thieves. Our apologies to them! We managed to dry everything out bit by bit but Adrian’s passport was decidedly washed out! Found a local photographer’s so had a pickie done and he completed an online application for a new one. Disaster averted but it cost him over £120!

We continued up the Belgian Sambre enjoying the rural scenery and quiet waterway, all the way to, & just across into, France at Jeumont. We had hoped that we would be able to replace our empty gas bottle (we have French bottles / connections) but Adrian was unable to locate a local supplier – we will take a trip by car when we are back in Bruges. The French Sambre is currently shut, undergoing major renovations so we couldn’t go much further and we didn’t want to pay for a French vignette for a few kms, so we turned around. We made our way back along the Sambre, stopping at Lobbe where we met up with Nils on Auroa, Norwegian guy we know from Bruges. We cruised together for a couple of days and we learnt a new phrase ‘a mooring beer’ when he came on board suitably equipped after quite a long day!

We really enjoyed the Sambre, pretty, mostly rural but with some industry, not at all busy, nice lock keepers, with pride in their locks. And we had beautiful weather – able to sit out for dinner until the sun went down.

After just a couple of days we noticed that autumn was fast approaching with the trees just beginning to change colour.

 

 

 

Brussels

After our somewhat hilarious (even if I couldn’t keep up with all the jokes and innuendos in drunken french – Adrian, of course, could, and laughed a lot but then couldn’t remember in order to relay to me later!) and boozy evening at Ittre Yatchclub, (recovering from the fan belt incident) we continued our way towards Brussels on 6th Sept. The Brussels-Charleoi canal is pretty busy with commercial traffic. The lock at Ittre is deep, 14m, and we had to time our passage in between the commercials. When I called into the lock we were told to ‘depechez vous’ to take the lock down before the next commercial arrived in the other direction. We hadn’t far to go, only about 10 kms, as we had spotted that there is a halte nautique at a place called Halle on the trainline to Brussels.

We arrived at Halle to find a fairly crappy wall beside a bus stop with unhelpfully spaced bollards. We couldn’t moor at the ‘best’ end because it was reserved for passenger boat usage. Eventually we moored up and set off to the station for the 20 mins train ride to the centre of Brussels. Being old folks (65+) we get a 6.50 euro day ticket which we thoroughly enjoy using whenever possible!

The mooring turned out to be fine except that the commercials coming to & from Brussels seemed to pass exceptionally close to us! The canal narrows on its approach through Brussels. Most captains waved to us but a couple suggested that we should move back as they needed the manoeuvring space, but we couldn’t because of the passenger boat mooring. We were there 2 nights without incident although we were pleased to leave. But we did find there is an excellent fish restaurant across the road from the mooring, very welcome after a hard day at the museums!

We spent 2 days touristing in Brussels but hardly scratched the surface! Certainly a city to return to in the future. We visited the Grand Place (Grote Markt) which is stunning. Ornate 17th century Belgian architecture. Open air markets have been held here since 11th century but the French destroyed all but the Town Hall in 1695. The Guilds rebuilt in the Flemish baroque style with much decoration and gilding on the buildings which has obviously been fairly recently restored. We sat with a beer to admire the architecture and watch the world go by. A beer festival was in preparation throughout the Grand Place so it was rather busy – unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) it wasn’t due to start until the next day.

 

We visited the Hotel de Ville, Town Hall, which acts as a museum for the history of the town. Somewhat bizarrely the top floor is dedicated to the Manneken-Pis. The 2 foot high statue of a little boy relieving himself into a small pool is a Brussels attraction. It has a very long history, been broken and stolen and then found in the canal. There is a tradition of visiting heads of state presenting Brussels with miniature versions of their national costume.

 

Unfortunately we weren’t able to visit the Royal Palace – it is only open to the public at certain times of the year – but we walked around and watched the changing of the guard.

 

I did enjoy the  19th century Galéries St-Hubert, the first shopping arcade in Europe; very elegant with superb shops and a soaring glass domed roof.

 

The Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique are superb – we went to the Old Masters’ museum, the Musée Magritte and the Musée Fin de Siecle. All this and no café open in order to refresh our weary selves! The highlights for us were the Bruegels (including an interactive ‘Unseen Masterpieces’ exhibition) and an Art Nouveau display. Brussels has some fine Art Nouveau architecture but this will require a future visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plan Incliné de Ronquières

On the Bruxelles-Charleroi canal the the Inclined Plain at Ronquieres is an impressive feat of engineering. Completed in 1968 it reduced the time it took barges to travel between Brussels and Charleroi by approx 7 hours.

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Basically it takes boats up / down 68m (221 ft) in one operation by using a transporter-lock – you go into one of the two huge bains  (‘bath tubs’) and the whole thing then moves up or down the 1.5 km long sloping boat lift.  The water level in the bath tub is equalised once the boat(s) is in & well secured – they don’t want boats bouncing about as the lift operates – the tubs are pulled over rollers and the speed of ascent / descent has been carefully calculated to avoid any sloshing about! It takes approx 40 mins to go from top to bottom – quite a slide!

Only one bain is currently in use, the other side is undergoing renovation. The day we arrived to go down we literally went straight in, no waiting at all, 45 mins in total, top to bottom. On our return trip a few days later we had to wait about 45 mins for the tub to come down to us – just time for lunch!

They obviously wanted to make the most of this construction and it is a major local attraction. There is a huge tower at the top which houses a museum of the waterways, explaining how & why this sloping lock was designed and constructed, and showing something of the history of the life & work of the bargees. The tower seems to have no other function than to house this museum – rather expensive to say the least. It seems that the sloping lock is not exactly busy either – 10 return trips a day, less than 20 boats a day!

On our return trip the whole place was hopping! A real family day out – lots of visitors, bouncy castles, boats to hire by the hour and even a zip wire! As we arrived at the top the assembled gongoozlers gave us a round of applause!

So we have seen Le Plan Incliné de Ronquières from both sides now; from up and down ……

We met a man living beside the canal just downstream from Ronquières who told us that it is seen as a very expensive and unnecessary edifice by the Belgians.

We met him soon after we exited the lift on the way down, our fan belt broke causing the engine to overheat and the alarm to sound. Once again an example of pride coming before the fall …… we were congratulating ourselves on our speedy transit. We had to stop to see what had gone wrong and then replace the fan belt. Nowhere very good to stop – sloping or rocky canal sides – but we had to stop.

This gentleman was cutting his grass and came to help us secure the boat & prevent it going onto the rocks at the side when commercials came past! Although we asked them to slow down and most did so, we were still affected by the wash they cause. One commercial even offered to take us to safer place, but by then Adrian had almost finished replacing the offending fan belt! He managed despite having to keep stopping to help fend the boat off the rocks!

After this incident we changed our destination to the local yatch club at Ittre, where we received an extremely warm and pretty boozy welcome. Just what we needed!

 

Return to Piedaleau

We returned to the boat in the little port at Seneffe on 29th August. We had intended to divert via Rye to visit my dear old friend Pat (about to be 98 yrs), as he has been under the weather over the past year or so and is now living close to his daughter. However, I suddenly developed vertigo and found sudden movements really debilitating so we decided to delay our trip until I could go to he doctor. I did some research on the web and discovered it was probably ‘benign positional paroxysmal vertigo’ and is treated by means of the Epley manoeuvre (involves having your head moved into and held in various positions and then following some guidelines). The point of this is to tell you that my GP carried out said procedure and it was unbelievable! Next day I was completely back to normal. Amazing! So back to the boat we came…

WC update: while we were home we bought new internals for our infamous orchestral toilet. We were certain this would sort the problem and Adrian got straight down to fitting the new gubins as soon as we got back. Suffice it to say it made no difference (except to our bank balance) – within a few flushes it was whining like mad again! And mad is exactly what we were feeling. We tried taking more bits off, cleaning them, replacing them, but all to no avail. Then eureka!!!!! We discovered an air vent at the top of the pipe system, that has a little one way valve in it ……. poked it with a wooden kebab stick, took it off and cleaned it out ………. and bingo …….. fixed …….. no more whining!!!! I cannot describe what a small job it actually was once we found the culprit. It cost us several hundreds of £ and goodness knows how many hours ……….. but all that was needed was a kebab stick!!!!

Flushed with our success, we decided to stay around this area and find out more about it.

Musée Royal de Mariemont – we actually stumbled across this beautiful place while looking for the supermarket. A large park with an arboretum, which once formed the estate of a chateau built by Mary of Hungary, surrounds the museum. We particularly enjoyed the temporary exhibition of Galen medicine. Aurelius Galen (130 – 210 AD) contributed a substantial amount to the Hippocratic understanding of pathology. Under Hippocrates’ bodily humors theory, differences in human moods come as a consequence of imbalances in one of the four bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.

Chateau de Seneffe: built in the 1760s as a grand residence for a wealthy entrepreneur. Internally the rooms house elegant settings – superb parquet floors, (we had to walk on with special overshoes), clocks, silver and gold ware. As we finished our walk through the rooms an a capella trio of young men (Les Garcons s’il vous Plait) went from room to room providing a delightful musical interlude with a comic twist. Loved it.

The grounds were beautiful and there were a series of sculptures by  Félix Roulin  displayed through the gardens.

 

Bois-du-Luc: Mining museum

This area is very industrial and was a significant mining area for more than two centuries. At Bois-du-Luc a mining village has been preserved in its entirety –  industrial buildings, school, hospice, bandstand, workers’ houses and church. A very paternalistic approach to the workforce.

There are over 200 terraced houses built in a grid formation – many still occupied but now several are boarded up. The museum is run as a community project & we talked to one of the directors. Unfortunately they are now in financial difficulties – the houses require renovation and modernisation but there are no funds to do this. The aim is to sell off a proportion of the houses in order to fund the work for the rest. Unfortunately the asking prices are out of kilter with local price so it is not expected to be successful. Many of the existing residents are descendants of the Italian miners who came to the area 2 generations ago to work in the mines – there is little other work in the area – we saw signs for social workers’ surgeries. Rather a sad place.

Summer at home

We arrived in Seneffe on 11th July, with another boat which had been intending to go towards Bruxelles but discovered there were problems on that waterway so came in beside us and then decided to return to Thieu (where they had started from that morning) so that the lady could return to work on time! We were given a good mooring away from the visitors’ pontoon as we had booked the boat in for the 6 weeks whilst we returned home for various family commitments. We were told there is a Michelin starred restaurant nearby, and so Adrian booked a table for the following night, my birthday! Amazing – moored in a funny little place, fairly small town nearby and yet within 20 minutes walk of Au Gréz du Vent, a fabulous restaurant on the outskirts of the village. We had the tasting menu with the suggested wines and it really was superb! Just as well we were walking back to the boat!

The next day saw us up and at ’em early to head home, complete with the knackered internals of the ‘orchestral toilet’! We will get a new internals whilst home and replace it on our return – I use the royal ‘we(e)’, you understand….

We have had a busy time at home……

Martin & Jacqui (NZ boaty friends from France) and Elaine & Bradley (Canadians – met on Royal Clipper in January) all came to visit for a couple of days soon after we got home – we had a really fun time all together.

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Adrian had parental duties to fulfil – Liam went off on a World Challenge trip to Sri Lanka mixing some touristing, hiking and voluntary work in a local school. Seemed to have really enjoyed the experience apart from the fact that he, and some others, became ill towards the end of the trip. In fact Liam had to go to his GP to get antibiotics for a particularly nasty strain of salmonella; not nice at all but he is much improved now.

We managed to spend some time with Lisa and Freddie and took Fred to visit The Deep, a huge aquarium place in Hull. Very good place but it was too hot to walk anywhere when we came out – bought an ice cream and headed back to Lincoln. Last weekend we went to Tolethorpe Hall, amateur Shakespeare company, to see The Merchant of Venice – Christmas present from Alex & Lisa. We all (Alex’s mum and partner too) picnicked in the grounds of the Hall before the performance, the weather was superb, we had good seats and it was an excellent performance. A really lovely evening.

It was incredibly hot here (same as everywhere) for quite some time but has now reverted to a normal British summer!  I have not used my awnings over the deck as much in the entire 18 years as I have these last 5 weeks. I think we were probably able to keep cooler in the house than we would have on the boat and I was able to go swimming almost daily at the marina beside us. Warnings of food price rises are coming out because the hot weather has adversely affected crops – carrots 74% more expensive!

 

Cruising on the Shannon with Tony & Sue Crang

 

Tony and Sue were spending a month in Ireland before returning to NZ and were hiring a boat on the Shannon for a week – so we all had a bit of a busman’s holiday! And thoroughly enjoyed it!

Different from France and Belgium in many ways …… the first bridge we came to was interesting – it is only opened at particular times so you have to wait and then there’s a bit of a free for all as all the boats want to get through while its open! Tony made sure we were first in line……

We tried to stop in as many different places as we could in our rather short week and the weather only let us down in the last couple of days. Crossing Laugh Dern was more like being at sea than on a river, especially on the Thursday when we had about 3 hours to get to Ferryglass and the wind got up! Tony’s sailing experience came in very handy for spotting buoys and steering in the high seas! At one point Adrian went below decks to lay all the bottles and glasses down to avoid breakages as we were tossed around. I sat still and held on tight!

Our first stop, Portumna, was particularly interesting. The castle, which has undergone quite extensive renovation, and continues to be improved, was fascinating. The church in the grounds was also interesting and the whole was completed by an excellent tea shop with cakes!

 

Portumna Workhouse: built 1852 for 600 people.

By the end of 18th century poverty was widespread in Ireland and over 2 million people were at, or near, starvation. In 1838 the Poor Law Act divided the country into 130 unions, later further 33 added, and each had to set up a workhouse via taxation of the landlords. 163 workhouses were built between 1840 – 1853. George Wilkinson, 24 years old, was appointed in charge & most were built to a set design. Designed to cater for 80,000 people but many more were crammed in as the the situation deteriorated. Whole families entered the workhouse to avoid death by starvation. They were separated on entry and may never see each other again. Only children under 2 years were allowed to stay with their mothers. Many opted to be sent to emigrate – many didn’t survive the sea journey and women were sent to ‘marry’ and produce children.

 

St Cronan’s Church, Tuamgraney:

Church founded on site in 6th Century by St Cronan, Vikings plundered it in AD 886 – 949. Dates back to time of Brian, High King of Ireland 1002 – 1014

 

 

Holy Island and a castle beside the water’s edge – when we got back to Banagher we heard that one poor hirer had gone over to Holy Island by dinghy and got stuck when his outboard motor failed! Not sure how long he had to wait to be rescued!

 

Some of the little ports we went to were picturesque but there was little in the villages – just pubs, hairdressers and the occasional little shop.

On Thursday when we crossed the Laugh in the wind the little port of Ferryglass filled up rapidly as boats came in for shelter – interesting to see how boats were being thrown about – everyone lent a hand to get everyone safely moored for the night.

 

Thieu & the Ascenseurs

We left Mons, crossing the Grand Large, in amongst the dingy sailing races! Bit of a challenge working out when to go exactly so as not to interrupt this important event.

Onwards to Thieu, to moor for a couple of nights before tackling the Acenseur Funiculaire de Strépy-Thieu and arriving at our final port of call at Seneffe where we are to leave the boat whilst we return home for various reasons.

The mooring at Thieu – Yatch Club des Deux Ascenseurs (YCDA) is delightful and is managed by Jon, a good friend of Chris. You come through a lock off the main canal so there is no wash from the big boyos which hammer along the Canal du Centre. 3 small speed boats came through the lock with us – kids lying on the back of the boats without life jackets – one boat tied onto us, the other 2 just floated about whilst the 6m lock filled and we hung on for dear life so that 30 ton Piedaleau didn’t try to squash them! YCDA is at the end of the Canal Historique which has the 4 old ascenseurs, still operational, but the old canal past the Yatch Club is no longer in use – only for walkers, fishermen etc. Again lots of wildlife to see – including another Osprey! Jon confirmed there are a pair hereabouts and that he often sees aerial fights.

The Canal du Centre was built between 1882 and 1917 & was used to transport raw materials and goods to the North Sea, France and Germany. The original canal tackled the 223ft rise in the land with locks & 4 hydraulic boat lifts between Thieu and Houdeng-Goegnies. Boats – one going up, one going down – enter a pair of metal counterbalanced containers. As water is pumped one goes up and the other goes down. These lifts are still in operation for pleasure craft on the Canal Historique – we will come down that way in a few weeks.

 

After nearly  century a more efficient system was devised for a new cut of the canal to take boats of the modern era. The Strépy Ascenseur deals with the 73m rise with a single, huge lift. Built between 19982-2002 the Ascenseur Funiculaire de Strépy-Thieu is an amazing sight, dominating the surrounding countryside, canal & villages.

Two independent water filled basinettes raise and lower boats the full 73 metres. We walked over to have a look before taking Piedaleau to play on this towering edifice! It is amazing!!

And all under the control of one man pressing the buttons!

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So, Tuesday 10th July saw us up and ready to get going early. We struck quite lucky, arriving at the waiting area for the Ascenseur by 9.30am along with another 3 private boats. We had to wait for the lift to take one load up and then return with another before we were ready to enter the basin – took well over an hour! Then our little convoy of 4 pleasure boats went in …… the water in the basin gets equalised (so you have to watch your ropes) …. and then up, up, up and away!  Ascent takes about 15 minutes and is really smooth; you get some good views….. and it looks just as imposing from the other direction!

 

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