6. The Blaton/Ath Canal and on to Bruges Sept 2015

We left Pommeroeul at 9.30 am on 7th September, having telephoned ahead to arrange passage through the locks. In fact a team of three met us at the first lock, rather narrower than we had been used to of late and reminiscent of the Canal du Nivernais in France at the start our first season. The weather had definitely become more autumnal, but the canal was quite pretty and very rural.

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Back to tight squeezes and accompanying lock keepers.

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All done for you.

Most of the lock sides were covered in weeds and some of them rather the worse for wear, which ensured that my black paint pot would be out again once we moored up for the night. This we did just above lock 8 where we had left the car. After touching in the numerous scratches on the port rubbing strake, we decided to drive to Peruwelz and surprise Lynn and Stew who were moored there on ‘Matariki’. We also enjoyed a good lunch in the clubhouse.

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Nicci touching up the paintwork.

The next morning we had arranged to leave at 10 am and as a small barge –‘Mathilde’ rose up in the lock behind us, we set off slowly on our way. Alas we only made it a few km beyond lock 10 when the lock keepers stopped by to tell us there was something happening at the next bridge – to do with cycling I thought!? It turned out to be a cycling race which required the lift bridge to remain down. Having been told that the delay would last several hours and that we should moor up before the bridge, the lock keepers knocked off for the day and we managed to secure a rather odd mooring using an old bridge base. The racers were all through by 1.30pm. So much for communication and service on the canal! The couple on the barge behind had been able to stop on the mooring above lock 10 and cycled along to see what the problem was. Being from the Flemish part of the country they shrugged and said ‘typical of Wallonia!’

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Slightly precarious overnight mooring due to a cycle race.

I took the opportunity to cycle back along the canal to collect our car and then we decided to drive up to Ladeuze to recce the moorings there. We parked opposite the one and only bar in the village – ‘Chez Gina’ – run by an octogenarian sporting a ‘Marilyn Monroe’ wig which had definitely seen better days. With no draught beer, we opted for bottled ‘Troll’ while we looked around the unusual bar. It resembled a small scout hut, with old flags, pennants and football trophies littered about. The strangest part was at one end near the bar where obituaries and photos of the dearly departed adorned a shrine complete with candles …

 

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‘Chez Gina’

Suitably refreshed, we headed back along the canal towards Blaton, having fortunately first double checked which direction to take. A pleasant walk in the late afternoon gave us some welcome exercise.

The next morning we were up and ready in plenty of time to continue our journey and as ‘Mathilde’ approached, the lock keepers sped past, well rested after their labours of the previous day!

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En route to Ladeuze with ‘Mathilde’  following on.

We reached Ladeuze (which was only one lift bridge and four downhill locks away) quite quickly and moored up on the right as ‘Mathilde’ continued on her way. A walk around the town confirmed that it had just one grocery shop.

With no desire to rush anywhere, we spent five days in Ladeuze during which we drove to Ath on market day to check the moorings and also further afield to Geraardsbergen. We also took the opportunity to meet up with Bill and Sandy who live in Ath and work at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe.) We had met them in Dinant back in May during the SEG reunion. Another trip to ‘Chez Gina’ just had to be done and this time we discovered that the only wine she sold was rose – and only by the thimble full!!

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Moored at Ladeuze.

We left Ladeuze on Monday 14th September on a day of sunshine and showers with some strong following and cross winds to make things more interesting. At one lock we hovered precariously for several minutes near the weir stream as the lock was not ready and the lock keepers nowhere in sight (in fact they were finishing their coffee break and rushed out when they heard our bow thruster working hard to keep us in position.)

Some of the old lock gates failed to open fully and we nearly lost a couple of ‘glissoir’ fenders as well as scratching the hull. At one lift-bridge our poor blueboard was demolished for the second time this season as the bridge failed to reach anything close to the vertical! The lock keepers were keen for us to provide details so they could pay for the repairs, but Peter was confident that he could do the necessary with little fuss. To compound our rather battering day further, at a lock in Ath both gates failed to open properly resulting in a biggish knock to the port bow…well we do need some wriggle room you know.

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Tight locks and the offending lift bridge.

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Poor blue board takes a bash and we continue through the ‘narrows’.

A few kilometres north of Ath, we left the Blaton/Ath Canal and entered the River Dendre, just in time to be joined by a new team of lock keepers who had fortunately finished their lunch. We stopped as planned on a grassy mooring just downstream of the lift bridge at Lanquesaint as the wind picked up and the rain fell.

We spent a couple of days on this peaceful mooring and I took the opportunity to cycle back and collect the car, picking up some vittels on the way.

Next stop Geraardsbergen, which we reached after a dull and increasingly wet day’s cruising, leaving Wallonia for its rather different cousin Flandria. We arranged with the helpful lock keeper to moor on the pontoon between the two lift bridges for a couple of days, waiting to meet June and Nigel – friends from Alderney who had been with us in 2012 when we were in Alsace.

With our guests safely aboard and the cars shuffled around, we set off the following afternoon, taking advantage of the passage of two cruisers through Geraardsbergen’s lift bridges. We wondered if there would be any suitable moorings ahead and were pleased to be told by a lock keeper of one at ‘The Black Dog’. So we looked in vain for a boat, a pub or indeed a black dog and eventually stopped alongside a sadly burned out barge above Sluis Pollare. Well it was certainly rather ‘black’ and after chatting to the lock keeper discovered that it was his retirement barge. A fifteen year old youth had set it alight and been ‘punished’ by working a couple of days in the garden at the lock cottage! Renovation would cost a staggering 300000 euro!

We had heard through the DBA forum that there was a problem with a lock gate at Aalst, so were pleased to get through without incident…although passing between two huge moored commercial barges one of which had his engines in forward gear, was rather challenging as I fended off using the stalwart ‘Wilson’.

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Unhelpful prop wash in a narrow gap.

‘Wilson’ (whose namesake was on the film ‘Castaway’) has been with us since the start of our barging adventures. He began life as a rather plump circular fender who lost weight rapidly coming down the Sardy Flight of 16 locks (Canal du Nivernais). In fact that was the making of him, because he now fends superbly without bouncing us back over to the other side as he did in his younger days.

I have to admit to being as distraught as Tom Hanks when my ‘Wilson’ ends up overboard floating off into the distance. Fortunately, so far, I have always retrieved him in time.

With the pleasant smell of freshly baked bread all around from the nearby factory, we moored up on the right opposite the pontoons which were full. A walk into the old centre of town and a couple of Trappiste beers went down very well as we sat outside in the late afternoon sunshine.

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Unwise to have too many of these.

The next day was one of car shuffling, with me taking a train back to get our car from Geraardsbergen and then us all driving to Ghent to drop Nigel’s car off at Merelbeke Lock. Our intended drive into the old town was aborted owing to the profusion of road works which had us going around in circles.

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Chaos in Ghent.

Repairs to the next lift bridge delayed our departure the next day until around 1pm, but once through, the river widened and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon’s cruising to Dendermonde where we arranged with the lock keeper to leave at 10 am the next morning in order to catch the tidal Zeescheldte.

This would be our second trip to Ghent via this route, and we hoped to make it through Merelbeke lock on this occasion, having spent a restless night in the open lock previously at the mercy of the tide.

Fortunately, all went well although there was a sticky moment when Peter temporarily lost the steering and we were heading right at speed towards a high quay with me running to the bow in socks holding ‘Wilson’ at the ready. Checking the hydraulic steering ram would be another winter job to add to the list.

Mooring just beyond the lock was available, but our starboard rail might have sustained damage had we decided to stay owing to an overhang, so we carried on to the VVW Jachthaven where we were fortunate to find a night’s mooring. This enabled me to catch a train back to Aalst for our car and Peter and Nigel to collect his car. A welcome evening walk in the old part of Ghent and a lovely meal were my reward for the rather tiring day.

Having luckily found a night’s mooring without pre-booking, we didn’t want to push our luck and Peter phoned ahead to check out the moorings in Ghent Centrum. Fortunately, two nights were available and with some relief we cruised the short distance into the city. This enabled us to show June and Nigel the sights and enjoy some frites and beers in the autumn sunshine before they left the following lunchtime.

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Dining out in Ghent with Nigel and June.

With a day to further explore the sights, I headed off and climbed the Belfry as well as strolling down ‘Graffiti Alley’- an area which positively encourages street art in an attempt to reduce graffiti in the rest of the city.

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View from the top.

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Bigger than your average music box!

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Modern art.

In fine weather, the best we had seen for at least a week – we headed off to Schipdonk Lock and were pleased to be able to stay there for three days over the weekend.  Being just 20 km from Bruges and our winter mooring in Flandria, we didn’t want to arrive too early. I enjoyed several walks into the surrounding countryside and touched up some of the scratches on the hull.

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Schipdonk.

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A peaceful spot for the weekend.

We left Schipdonk Lock and had another scare with our steering, as we slowed to let a large Commercial barge past. Without warning we found ourselves once again heading into the trees and bushes on the right side of the canal. Fortunately no damage was done.

We stopped at Moerbrugge just before the lift bridge for a couple of nights, and were joined by Nils and Torild (Passe Lagom) who were also heading to Bruges for the winter.

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Moerbrugge.

As we left on 30th September our steering played up again and Peter had to use the bow thruster to get us through the bridge. Fortunately, we didn’t have far to go and the long reversal into Flandria Jachthaven was perfect, which was just as well with so many people watching.

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‘Passe Lagom’ carries on to Coupure as we turn for our reverse into Flandria.

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Lined up…

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Wheel centred, tick-over reverse and then all done on the joystick.

We had finished our sixth season and were looking forward to an enjoyable winter in good company.

Totals:-

647 Kilometres

102 Locks

4 Rivers

4 Canals and the Strepy Lift – descent.

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