Lille to Erquelinnes

Benlove

At the first lock ‘le Grand Carre', a 95m commercial barge ‘Benlove' follows us in and shows, with its stove in bows, that commercial skippers can get things wrong as well as amateurs.

Pony & trap

Just into Belgium and we spotted an unusual train of 10 or so horse drawn carriages.

What started out as a painful trip that we didn't feel we wanted to do, turned into quite an interesting journey through a new country. Belgium seemed interesting just in its incongruities between different regions and from France. As we went North into the Flemish region (only about 10km from Lille) the language changed to Dutch, the towns looked quite different and we had to pay €50 for a 6 month license. There were moorings for pleasure boats with free electricity and water at most stops. The small town centres seemed very well kept with new shops and an affluent feel.

We planned our route with options through France or Belgium from Lille to Erquelinnes. We checked all the stoppages and rules and then set off on 27 th October into Belgium. We stopped the first day in Menen with a nice plaisance quayside, just into a disused arm off the Lys. We met an English couple here who confirmed what we had just found out by downloading new stoppages, that the ‘Canal Bossuit-Kortrijk' that we had planned to use was closed for maintenance and we were faced with an 85km detour! Bloody hell! We were gritting our teeth to do this 6 day cruise and now it had become an 8 day slog.

We planned again with the new stoppages and instead of a day off in Menen we left early and headed towards Gent along the Leie. This was wide and straight as far as ‘Dienze' and then we entered an arm of the Leie that is not used for commercial barges and it became narrow, shallow and very winding!

This slowed our progress so much that we very nearly ran out of daylight while trying to reach a mooring. As this had become a touristy canal the banks were lined with very large posh houses (mansions) with manicured lawns and sculpted gardens, many with huge sculptures (apparently the area has historically been a bit of a commune for artists). They also had private frontage to the canal bank with small boat moorings. There were no public stopping places for miles so as Tilly got more desperate to be off the boat and the sun sank we looked for a place to stop. The DBA mooring guides came to our rescue and as dusk set in we came across the passenger quay at ‘St-Martens-Latem', luckily not in use in the winter. We tied up and set off to walk around the town before complete darkness. This place was very up market with posh boutiques, restaurant and bars. What a shame we couldn't stay longer to take a better look around.

Lift bridge

The hand wound lift bridge near Dienze and the start of the narrow and windy Leie.

Ringvaart

Early on 29 th October we walked Tilly in the mist and then set off towards the Gent ‘Ringvaart' (ring canal).

We had an hour of twisting and turning before we could increase speed again on the wider canal. The mist slowly got thicker and it became very unnerving to see large barge bows looming out of the fog and passing us by very closely. We turned off the ‘Ringvaart' to go south again on the ‘Bovenschelde' and then the fog got really bad. A very large bow (couldn't see his wheelhouse) was following us at slow speed and we couldn't see far enough ahead to feel safe or to let him overtake. We looked for a quay to stop at as we got more and more concerned. Luckily Lorna spotted a cut out to our right with a quay and we turned towards it, the barge behind spoke up on the VHF about shallow water ahead of us in the old turning circle, but we didn't need to go very far in to get off the route. Phew, we were off the main canal by about 2m and tied to a concrete quay, the large commercial barge crept past (without radar! Another commercial without had stopped just ahead of us) and we set off for a walk in the fog. We thought we would be stopped for the day and could settle to an afternoon film but after only an hour the fog blew away and the commercial barges, moored and waiting, moved out. We quickly let go the ropes and moved off too to try to catch up with our day's planned route.

As we went south, back into the French speaking region, we noticed the towns get scruffier and poorer with huge areas of industrial quayside. The industry isn't a bad thing as areas need the jobs and money but it doesn't all seem to be very active. The lock keepers confided that canal traffic is very quiet as the economic crisis bites hard. The news on the TV might be saying that Europe is coming out of recession but there isn't a lot of evidence of this for the working barges. It might be nice to find huge locks waiting just for us, but they won't continue to be available unless business picks up.

The next stop was Oudenaarde where we stopped on the town quay with the commercial barges. This was a really nice town with an old town centre but clean and with new shops and plenty of people using it. Early morning fog struck again here but quickly cleared with a breeze starting at 9am.

Lawrence and Tilly

Lawrence and Tilly taking it easy during a long day's motoring.

Small Waterdog

Waterdog (in Oudenaarde) is the small red object in front of the big blue barge of around 95m length and 1500 tonnes cargo as the fog is blown away.