To explain, we decided to head towards Calais when we left here last Saturday. We weren't sure how far we'd get but I was excited about seeing the old boat lifts at Les Fontinettes, so we decided to make that our initial goal.
As it happened, it took us three days to get there - and we'd only done about thirty kilometres by the time we arrived. The reason for the delay was that after departing at midday or thereabouts on Saturday, we went down through the lock at Cuinchy and investigated the halte nautique at Beauvry, which we'd been told was lovely. Well, our idea of lovely is obviously different from other people's so we went on to Béthune, where we eventually found the halte nautique at the end of an old arm of a former canal into the town. And were we glad we decided to stop there!
After settling against the pontoon in the wide and sunny basin, we walked along the course of the old canal (now filled in) into the city in search of a supermarket. What we found was a magnificent city centre with an ancient bell tower in the square of place. The whole square was surrounded by beautiful old Flemish style houses, rich in design and colour. It really was lovely, lively and impressive with its terraces and smart shops. We found an épicerie where we bought some delicious cheese and wine that cost more than a whole meal elsewhere, but was worth it for the experience of the shop itself, which was delightfully old-fashioned in its service and style.
After a peaceful night there, we did a walk along the old mining harbour in the morning and then set off to travel further. We ended up another fifteen or so kilometres further at Aire sur la Lys, where we decided to stop for the night again. The mooring was just beyond a working grain processing plant, so there was a constant hum added to the incredibly creaky supports that held the pontoon in place for this halte nautique. Nevertheless, it was a lovely spot and Aire sur la Lys was even more of a delightful surprise than Béthune. I'll need to look up the history of these places when I have better internet access, but Aire definitely saw active service during the war as its huge church still bears the scars of the gunshot, and there are plaques in various places commemorating those who fell during the wars. Touching and vivid real history. The town is gorgeous, but what makes it special is that it is still busy and thriving. There are about three working grain mills there, recognisable by their humming, and it is good to see their industry is still alive.
After a squeaky night (which bothered us not at all) and a slow start, we set off again the next day and reached the lock at Les Fontinettes in the mid afternoon. This was one of the most impressive locks I've been through ever as it is 13.35 metres deep, so nearly equals that of the Belgian locks on the Bossuit-Kortrijk canal. This one is, I think, even longer and thank heavens it has floating bollards as the cavernous depth would be far too deep to manage any of our ropes easily. As soon as we were out of the lock, we steered into a wider basin and there on the right were the historic boat lifts. What an amazing structure! It was designed by Edwin Clarke who designed both the Anderton Lift in England and the four historic boat lifts at Strèpy Thieu in Belgium, both of which I've seen, so it was wonderful to be at Les Fontinettes too. Sadly, it is not being well-maintained, so I can foresee a time when the whole thing will collapse unless money is spent on its restoration.
We thought about going through the next lock, but couldn't raise any response from the keeper, so on impulse, we turned back and moored for the night not far from the lifts. I was glad we did as it gave us a chance to have a lovely walk around and climb to the upper levels too. There we could see the course of the old canal as it approached the lifts. I love this kind of canal history, so it was a big highlight for me.
The next morning, we set off back the way we'd come, having decided we wanted to go down the river La Lys, rather than go on to Calais. We arrived back at Aire sur La Lys, which is close to the river's source, and spent another night there before heading towards the first lock going down La Lys. This beautiful waterway is only used by pleasure craft these days, so use of the locks has to be by arrangement. After waiting quite a while, a charming VNF employee came to help us through. The first lock was manually operated, which is always fun to watch.
La Lys is gorgeous, rural and sleepy as it winds its way through the gentle scenery and it was definitely time to chill and travel at a very relaxed speed of around 6kms per hour. Our VNF helper saw us through a lifting bridge and another lock before we arrived at Haverskerque. We'd decided this would be the limit of our journey down the Lys and moored up to the quay opposite the Port de Plaisance.
Haverskerque is another interesting place that saw action during the wars and oddly enough was the quarters for Portuguese troops in WWI and Welsh in WWII (spelt Welsch on the sign). There is a stunning water mill and a small chateau with beautiful gardens open to the puplic, so we really enjoyed strolling there too.
Yesterday morning, we set off back again and just after we'd got going, the heavens opened. We had to steer through torrential rain, thunder and lightning, all of which was slightly unnerving and very wet (sorry, but remember we have open steering). After the first lock up, we stopped for a while in the entrance to an older and even smaller waterway, the Canal de Nieppe, which is impassable, but that didn't stop us taking a walk along part of it and dreaming of what it must have been like.
Back out on the Canal d'Aire, we headed back towards Béthune, but stopped for the night at Guarbecque, which is on the way. There isn't much to say about the town here except we had some giggles with pronouncing the name like barbecue, and as the next commune was Berguette, it became even more fun. Given that they are both in the municipal area of Isbergues, we had a whole meal to play with.
The mooring was wonderful, however. Incredibly peaceful and with some lovely trees on the bank where we could sit in the shade. This morning we were up very early and took a bike ride to see what else there was. We'd been told that Isbergues was interesting; sadly, we couldn't find anything interesting to see there at all, so headed back to the Hennie Ha. After three hours faring and the Cuinchy lock again, we are back where we started. Where will we go now? I'm not sure exactly, but tomorrow I think we'll be on the Canal de Lens in one of my favourite spots from last year.
Enjoy the weekend everyone and thank you for your patience in reading this shortened (yes, it is!) version of our travels this last week. I don't know when I'll get internet access again, so this might be my only chance to post a blog till next week!
|Béthune main square|
|Mooring at Aire sur la Lys|
|Aire sur la Lys|
|Aire sur la Lys|
|The deep lock Les Fontinettes|
|Leaving the lock|
|The historic boat lifts at Les Fontinettes|
|The aqueduct over the railway at the historic|
|The old course of the canal leading to the lifts|