Saturday, August 12, 2017

On the way home: From Douai to the Canal de Roubaix

Evening sunshine in Douai
We are now approaching the end of this two month long adventure on the French waterways and are back in one of our favourites, the Canal de Roubaix, moored at Marquette (officially here it's the canalised Marque river with the real canal beginning a few kilometres further on). Anyway, this morning, Koos mentioned how much he loves being here, but then yesterday he loved being in Haubourdin on the Canal de la Deûle too. We agreed that maybe it's because he loves being on the boat and travelling from place to place. It's that special experience I certainly sought from a barge when I first bought the Vereeniging: being able to travel around and take your home with you.

On the way to Courcelles
We wake up in a different place almost every day, but our home is still full of all the familiar things that make life comfortable when travelling. Okay, in our case on the Hennie H, we are camping in comfort as we have few of the basics that we really have at home (no running water, no electricity unless we use our little generator and then it's a maximum of 1200w, no shower or bath) but even so, we have managed very well and it is much cosier than being in a tent, especially when it's raining.

I have done the washing by hand and apart from duvet covers, I've managed everything else; we have had showers in the marina where we stayed for a few days last week and also earlier on in the trip. Then there's the camping shower when the weather is warm enough to heat the water, and a bucket and sponge when it isn't. We use LED lights in the evening and just go to bed early instead of staying up to the wee hours as we are accustomed to doing at home.

Since last Saturday, we have only travelled from Douai to just north of Lille, so there isn't much to tell about the faring. We did this stretch going south too and the only difference is the weather, which is much cooler and rainier now than it was then. All the same, the light is always changing, and we are facing northwards instead, so Koos has taken heaps of photos on the way. This has given me more opportunities to steer, which I've also enjoyed. It's good that we can take turns, although Koos still does more of it and he does all the tricky manoeuvring. Of course, I do lots of practise for that in my head...😁

Morning mist over the marina in Courcelles
We spent several days at the gare d'eau marina in Courcelles where Koos' son visited us on Saturday and we had a visit from our friend David from Cambrai on Sunday. There is a quirky and quaint bar on the bank of the gare d'eau, where we enjoyed chatting to the locals about how things used to be there. Apparently, it used to be used extensively by passing péniches as an overnight stopping place, and it had a working ship yard as well. I chatted to one elderly gentleman who was on a real nostalgia trip about how good things used to be, and I must say, I'd have loved to have seen it in those days.

Looking out over the Gare d'Eau, Courcelles
Boat cats!

We left Courcelles on Thursday morning, as both of us felt ready to move on. What struck me (which I hadn't appreciated before) is that there are only two locks between Douai and Lille. They are both large and fairly deep, but nothing like those on the Canal du Nord. I think that having done all nineteen of those deep caverns in a couple of days, everything else will seem relatively tame by comparison.

Against the quay in Lille

Disused lifting bridge on old Canal arm in Lille

Another lovely bridge on the old canal arm, Lille

A pretty muse behind the quay in `lille

In Lille, we spent an hour walking around the Bois de Boulogne in the sunshine, taking photos of the old canal and its pretty bridges. Then we did the final stretch to the beginning of the Canal de Roubaix, picking up our tĂ©lĂ©commande from a very friendly lock keeper at Le Grand CarrĂ©, where I gave it back last year. This tĂ©lĂ©commande  is only needed for the first lock operated by the VNF. For the rest of the locks on the system, we will be guided through by the organisation that maintains the Canal de Roubaix (whose name I have forgotten at the moment). For that, we have to wait where we are until Monday, as it seems they don't work at weekends. Never mind. It's a rainy day and we are just relaxing on this lovely tree-lined stretch of river. Next week, we'll work our way slowly through the system to the Schelde/Scheldt at the eastern end and from there, we'll head home. For now, though, have a great weekend everyone.

Lovely Hennie Haha in Lille

Entering the Canal de Roubaix 

Friday, August 04, 2017

Slowing down: From PĂ©ronne to Douai

The peaceful beauty of the Somme

Last Sunday I said we'd be heading towards Valenciennes, didn't I? Well, us being us, we've changed our minds again and we have been in Douai for the night on our way to Lille and thereafter to the Canal de Roubaix where we spent some time last year, but to our mind, not enough. What changed our minds was the realisation we have barely stopped moving since we started and the three days we spent at Courcelles on the way down are the longest we have stayed anywhere. But we are going back there again tomorrow, and again, we hope to stay for a few days. A big plus for me is that apart from the peace, there are showers, something that's been rather lacking in our lives for most of this trip. Despite being dry most of the time, the weather hasn't been hot enough for my camping 'douchesack' to produce enough warm water for anything more than a hair wash. But enough of that. It isn't something I really want readers to dwell on...

Gorgeous bankside flowers

A poignant reminder of Sailly-Laurette's
connection with Wilfred Owen's poetry
The Somme in reverse was beautiful, but we didn't linger, except when we had to wait at locks until the lock keeper turned up. Since this involved an hour at Sailly-Laurette, the first lock back from Corbie, I took the opportunity to look around. What serendipity the delay proved to be. When I crossed to the other side of the the lock, I found a notice board describing how it was from this village on the river that hospital barges took the severely wounded to Amiens during the intense battles that took place on the front line in 1916. In fact, the inspiration for Wilfred Owen's poem, Hospital Barge, came from here. It was one of those moments when again, I felt deeply moved to be here, in this region, at this time - 100 years on from that dreadful and tragic waste of human life that was WWI.

Poppies or coquelicots, fitting floral tributes to this area

Waiting for the lock at Sailly-Laurette

 At the next lock, we had to wait again. According to the information, the locks are manned from 9 a.m. 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. The French have to have their food after all. However, what one has to take into account is that for them, they have to be at where they will be having their lunch by 12:30, which means leaving the locks earlier to drive home and arriving back later than 1:30 (because lunch itself only finishes then). The result is that you can count on at least an hour and a half's wait if you arrive just after they have gone, which is what happened to us. As luck would have it, we'd joined a gorgeous former police boat at the lock, whose Belgian owner was very proud to show it to us. The time went quickly and after that, we managed to go through all the subsequent locks and bridges until the last available stopping place before PĂ©ronne. Despite the noise from the TGV railway and the motorway, it was a peaceful mooring and we weren't in a great hurry to leave the next morning.

A gorgeous former police boat

Some locks are raging torrents as they fill up

We finally motored out of the Canal de la Somme at about two o'clock and turned right for PĂ©ronne to do some shopping. Mooring up near the bridge, we saw a tiny sailing boat with a young couple and a toddler on board. The name of the boat was in Russian lettering, so Koos, who is justifiably proud of being able to read a bit of Russian, called out to them. It transpired they were from Brest in Belarus and they had sailed all the way from Gdansk in Poland, through Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium into France. They were on their way south to Marseille, where they are planning to take to sea and sail back round Italy and Greece to the Black Sea, then up river through the Ukraine and back to Brest. What an amazing journey! I have a feeling they were being sponsored too, judging by the sign-writing on their boat, otherwise I can't imagine how a young family like that could afford to make such a long trip. Hats off to them anyway, especially with such a young child!
After doing our shopping, we spent the night at bollards on the Canal du Nord just north of PĂ©ronne. It was a gorgeous evening and one of the most peaceful spots we've ever had. The evening sky was translucent and to my huge delight, I heard an owl hooting. 

A beautiful, peaceful mooring on the Canal du Nord

Ghostly barges creep past us in the Ruyaucourt Tunnel

Koos goes bush bashing in a side arm

Back on the commercial waterway proper. On the way to Douai

On Wednesday morning, we set off up a series of five deep locks in convoy with another Dutch cruiser. Despite the fact these locks are around six to seven metres deep, there are unfortunately no floating bollards, so we had to keep putting our ropes up to the next wall bollard We followed them all the way to the next hurdle for me, the Ruyaucourt Tunnel, a 4.6 kilometre souterrain that had all my 'what if' instincts raging. However, for this one, we didn't need to be towed through and could traverse it under our own steam. What I didn't realise was that we would have to stop half way in a wider section to wait for traffic coming the other way. Oh gulp. As we approached it, there was a roaring sound and a light in the distance. It sounded terrifying and even Koos thought it was another barge coming towards us, but as we crawled along the section, hugging the side, and towards the roar, we realised it was the overhead fan in the tunnel and the light was an illusion. I don't know about Koos, but I felt a bit foolish for being so anxious. We moored up behind our Dutch cruiser companions at the end of the widened section where there was a clear red light forbidding us to go further. Even so, we quickly put on our navigation lights for certainty. The barges, when they did come, were silent as ghosts and they slipped past us. No noise at all. It was a very creepy experience and I was glad to get going again, even if it meant I had to steer while Koos did some filming. I should mention that I lose all sense of direction in the dark, so I don't really like steering in the tunnel, but I managed and it gave me something to think about other than 'what if'?

From then on, it was literally down hill all the way, The Canal du Nord is generally straight, but it runs through some lovely rolling Picardie scenery and we really enjoyed it. Picardie is said to be the bread basket of France and produces 11% of the country's grain. The golden tree-capped hills are beautiful with a lonely kind of majesty.  The canal has the reputation of being a concrete gutter, but we liked it because of the variety of the scenery and the constant passage of commercial barges. Last night was spent after the fifth of the down hill locks when we both felt we'd had enough for one day. We joined our Dutch fellow travellers in mooring up to the quay. Again, it was a lovely, peaceful spot. We walked up to the lock before making supper and watched a commercial barge enter. What practiced ease. One rope, one bollard and then when the gates closed, he took it off and let his barge drift gently forward as the waters rose. By the time he was within talking distance with us, the barge was taking care of itself and we learned he had been to the same skippers' school as Koos. Another moment of Serendipity.

Back in Douai again
Yesterday morning (Thursday) it was raining heavily, but by the time we were ready to set off, the rain had stopped. We joined our Dutch cruiser friends in the first of the last two locks down and shared some friendly banter with them. When we reached the last lock, the sun was shining and after a quick bit of Koos bush bashing into a very pretty old sidearm that had me terrified we'd get stuck in the mud (which we didn't, luckily), we continued on to Douai in clear blue skies and hot sunshine. So here we've been for the night again. Our friends, Lisette and Ian are still here; we are behind some other charming New Zealanders and a Dutch boater who was here last time is also back. It almost feels like coming home! Still, who knows what tomorrow will bring. Will our plans change yet again? Watch this space next week and have a great weekend everyone.