Monday, 27 August 2018

Soissons to Reims via Chalons and Vitry le Francois

Well, we've had a funny cruising season so far!  Having been thwarted on our first foray this year, and changing our plan to include the Somme, we moved on with our new route in mind, to pick up Mary and Martin for their four day visit to us near Chauny.  While we were waiting for them to arrive though, we had an entertaining half hour with two walkers on their way to Reims: we gave them tea and cake!

Mark and Marcus enjoying RICCALL hospitality

A short cycle ride took us to the amazing Tergnier Marshalling yards

The weather was poor throughout Mary and Martin's stay with us, but we did a few hours’ cruising each day, with Martin ‘on the ropes’ thus giving Louise’s back a rest. 

We had to choose a cruising plan which would allow Martin to return to pick up the car from wherever we ended up, so we spent a couple of nights on the St Quentin canal, moving gradually downstream and ending up in Compiègne from where it was possible to get back to their car. Then Alex thumbed a lift with them up to Seneffe to collect our own car as we’d need it for our return trip to England, partly for grandson Lucas' christening but also for doctor and dental visits for both of us. Phew!

The likely trio setting off for Seneffe - and OUR car!

Our car was then left in Compiègne until we had managed to get a mooring in Reims alongside an old commercial boat – with the essential electricity connection. Alex headed off to collect the car from Compiègne (3 trains), brought it back to Reims, we loaded up all the stuff we needed to take home, and set off for England.

While we were at home, Alex got stuck into house repair work as only he can and we also had a couple of away days – one to Walmer Castle and another to Sandwich and Richborough Roman fort – when I could drag him away! On the plus side we now have two fully functioning bathrooms.

So, after all that we got back to the boat and set off again from Reims, with a particular route in mind – the Canal de Marne au Rhin Ouest to Toul then the Meuse north back into Belgium.

A beautifully painted Venizel silo  - someone had a good and artistic eye.

The wedding cake-styled tower of Condé church

RICCALL moored under the unusual facade of Chalons cathedral.

Having got well on the way, and suffering from the most horrendous heat – high 30s every day for weeks - we eventually found shade near Vitry where we stayed for 3 nights, draping our shade cloths round the boat during the middle of the day.

RICCALL looking pretty terrible, but was a little cooler at night

We then discovered that the canal we were heading for had been closed until the 20th of the month.  We moored up in the really lovely little 'port' at Orconte with shade and electricity and stayed 10 days! This is very unlike us, but we decided that as the weather was perfect – not too hot, not windy, etc we would tackle a job that had needed doing for years. Unfortunately, it required Alex to remove all the paint from the third section of the roof of the saloon, right down to the steel, before sanding and then painting coats and coats of paint! (we had done the rest two years ago in dry dock). The job required a power tool and created the most horrendous noise and mess which we had to ensure didn't get into the canal – by use of protective sheets and regular hoovering etc. Louise's job was clearance of all the dust and dirt, along with the usual cups of tea, lunches, suppers etc.

Alex hard at work -  not a job for the faint-hearted

But the finished result is worth all that effort we think

While in Orconte we did the usual investigation of the village, which still has a boulangerie, an altogether rare sight these days in French villages. The village church dates back to the 12th century and very sadly looks it – quite desaffecté as the French would say - but charming in its own way with medieval carvings above the door. 

Lovely village street in Orconte
The village has several fully functioning farms, but otherwise has little of note, except many timbered buildings. 

Two arrivals of note to the port were old acquaintances from Garonne and Toul days: first was Judy and Peter Vizzard latterly of ZEE OTTER, now on a cruiser, and Hans-Rudi and Matz of MIZAR, with whom we had evening drinks.  Lovely to see them all again, even if briefly.

MIZAR leaves

We had spotted a campervan parked up when we first arrived, which seemed to stay on and on for days – right out in the full blaze of the sun. It must have been truly impossible inside this little vintage van and as the days wore on, we became acquainted with Gérard (but not unfortunately with his wife who kept a very low profile). He had been born in the area and brought the van down from their home in Reims for several weeks so as to visit relatives in the area. He was a very informative chap and Alex in particular had many a conversation with him – both in perfect English! He gave us useful information regarding the Lac du Der – a man-made lake only 5kms from Orconte. In the event we waited for a cloudy and cooler day and set off only to find the distance was more like 8kms than 5!! However, once arrived, we cycled round some of the lake on the elevated levée on a purpose-built cycle and walking path. The lake is a man-made construction, mainly to provide a flood plain when required for the Marne but for the rest of the time it acts as a pleasure park for visitors with a cycle-able levée all round. There are swimming areas, children's paddling areas, canoes, paddle boards, yachts, with facilities for visitors – cafes, changing rooms etc etc.

Just about to cycle the causeway
On the way we had dropped in to a little village museum in, wait for it – Sainte-Marie-du-Lac-Nuisement at Gerard's suggestion. He told us to go through the museum shop and outside on a wooden table there would be vegetables and tomatoes from the museum gardens for 'sale'. There were indeed, and we chose tomatoes and some grubby little carrots – paying for them by donation. The tomatoes we had for lunch with our Chaource cheese and baguette and they were the BEST tomatoes we had ever eaten, and the carrots, though misshapen, delicious with supper.

As we got back into Orconte we realised that the village brocante (junk shop) would be open and to our amazement found a sewing box which Louise had been looking for for ages on Amazon and Ebay, and a 'brass' mirror. Sold to the lady!

Gérard also suggested, when we said we were getting short of eggs and potatoes, that there was a lady in a house locally who had both and would no doubt sell us some. We found her eventually and made the purchase. A very judicious use of our stocks, particularly of fresh vegetables, meant that we were doing OK but you can't really substitute either eggs or potatoes and they came in very handy. A long stay in one place does put pressure on the food stocks, and as it was 14 kms in either direction to the nearest shop we had decided that was a ride too far and we would just have to make do.

Eventually we decided it was time to see if any of the canals we would need had reopened or not!  If not, a different route north would be required, almost certainly a lot longer, and very likely through Paris (again) or Reims (again). Still, it all makes for an interesting life.

So it's been a funny summer so far, with hardly ANY pleasure boats around at all. We've heard that the VNF has changed its licensing policy and removed the 3 month license which has caused many of the Dutch boaters to stay away. While this is good from the availability-of-moorings point of view, it doesn't bode well for the canals for the rest of us, as it would be quite possible for the waterways' authority to decide that many of the so-called 'pleasure' canals are just not worth the bother and expense and close them altogether.

Add to that the fears and worries over Brexit, and we just don't know how the future is going to look. I can't imagine we boaters will be shown the door though. Some solution will be found I daresay, so that we can continue boating, even if on a reduced network. Belgium and Holland are totally committed to canal and river transport so we can always go and stay north, but France is so lovely, and definitely our favourite destination.

So, thwarted by the only information we had been able to get from lock-keepers (one in particular) who told us a particular tunnel was open when it had been closed for weeks (we later found out) – we decided to try our chance onto the Canal de Marne au Rhin Ouest from Vitry to Toul. This was supposed to have re-opened by this time and had begun to look promising, as the lock keeper at Vitry said it was open. But when, on the first day, when we stopped for lunch we were approached by the VNF who told us we could only go as far as Ligny-en-Barrois - 60 kms and 46 locks - but no further. This made for a difficult decision as we had heard the canal is lovely and rural and it would have been a nice trip, but several factors made for the opposite decision. One was the sheer distance involved; and secondly, our good friends on ANTHONIA, Carol and Jeremy are in the area and we'd have liked to meet up with them.

Bignicourt Chateau . . .

. . . and its barns

So, as I type this, we have spent the night at Bignicourt just 15kms into the canal (wonderful chateau and desperately sad first world war history – TOTAL destruction of the village) have turned tail and are on our way back down the Canal de Marne au Rhin Ouest heading for Vitry, Chalons, Reims and ultimately Belgium.

And they said the canal was short of water!!

After weeks of scorchingly hot weather, temperatures have now cooled down to a more moderate 26C by day and 17C by night – still hot, but supportable, but as yet NO RAIN! We gather this has been much the same in England though maybe by the time you read this things will have changed. 

It just needs the appointment of a 'drought minister' and that should be that, the heavens will open!!

Sunday, 24 June 2018

On The Somme

It’s impossible to separate the words “The Somme” from thoughts of mayhem and slaughter, but now the Somme is a (generally) quiet, leisurely river which makes for a very pleasant cruise.

The Somme meanders in, through and round old peat workings, now reedy pools, such that the whole area is one marshland. The canal is now run and maintained by the ‘county council’ and as such it is thoroughly service-oriented. The lockkeepers are unfailingly polite, helpful and often can manage a smattering of English, which with our smattering of French, goes a long way to ensuring effective communication. It is, however, still necessary to ring to arrange passage through locks and bridges and there is no doubt that operation would be easier, and enjoyment enhanced, if the whole system were made automatic. Of course, many redundancies would result and that is NOT the French way!

Anyway enough! Our trip downstream from the main line the Canal du Nord, was without incident. Moorings were reasonably plentiful and by and large empty at this early stage of the season. There were two notable exceptions: at Cappy, where we needed to moor for the lunchtime ‘fermeture’ from 12.30 to 1.30, the only possible space was taken by a fisherman – not at one end or other of the 30m gap, but bang slap in the middle. He showing no inclination to move along, Louise let fly her best (or worst) French! We managed to tie up to an English-owned, Dutch boat of similar dimensions to RICCALL to save the day.

Onward to our first overnight mooring, which we approached as luck would have it, in the teeth of the worst storm we’d had on the Somme to date, and there had been a few. Louise did her best in the downpour to get a rope onto a bollard already tangled up with the washing line small boats tend to use when mooring, but this was a really bad example of mooring, and by a work boat at that. Eventually we managed to attract the attention of the adjacent council gardener, resolutely strimming through thick and thin, or wet and wetter, and got him to attach our rear line, which we had NO hope of doing, being 2m off the shallow bank.

Louise got wetter and wetter herself, with Alex saying “There’s no point in me getting soaked as well!” which may have been true but . . . anyway, laughter ensued and photos were taken to prove Louise’s magnum opus!

The drowned rat!!

Our friends Mike and Sally, moored up some 50kms away on the St Quentin Canal, drove over for a lovely catch up and overnight stay. They’d been hoping to paint the roof on their boat but had been stopped by the stormy weather, so were happy to drive over for a bit of R & R.

And then we were off again.  Stopping briefly at Chippily, we again cycled the 3 kms uphill to visit the 'Belvedere' overlooking the Valley of the Somme, scene of that most horrendous fighting.  But next to the little car park was a meadow in the old style:

On the way to Corbie and our next mooring, hoping to top up our tanks and have a night’s electricity, Louise heard a bang from somewhere below, as of a door slamming shut, but on investigation she discovered water pouring out of our filter cupboard, fortunately straight into the bath and away. One of our filter housings for our sterilised water system had cracked and come apart. Alex shut off water to that part of the system and on we went, space at the quay in Corbie having just become more urgent. But no! Totally packed! : one boat taking advantage of cheap water and electricity for, as they freely admitted and in the face of a 2 day limit, for 2 weeks. ASLAUG, also moored, offered for us to moor alongside but by that time, we were well past her so we moored a little further on and considered our options!

In the end we discovered from Nick on ONDERNEMING (apologies if that’s not quite the right spelling Nick) that there were now more water points along the canal than had been there in 2013. So, it was decided, we’d move on next morning to the next possibility for topping up the tanks.

LES CHARMES – a 39m hotel barge arrived shortly before we left to use the lock and followed us in the next locking. Once we were safely moored up at Lamotte-Brebiere and taking water, LES CHARMES passed us on its way down to Amiens. Lamotte-Brebiere is a lovely mooring with an invisible railway line alongside on the starboard side and a fast- flowing river on the port side. At the lock there is the strangest set-up. The former lockhouse is now a cafe of sorts, but in its grounds are its other ‘attractions’: a night in a tepee at €50, a night in a gypsy caravan €70, in a yuurt €80, hire a pedallo €10 for half an hour, a canoe €8 etc etc. All of the above were in a precarious state of dereliction. Bizarre!

So, we got our fill of water and Alex replaced the broken filter housing with a spare we happened to have putting us back to a normal situation, and then it was on to Amiens. We had intended mooring not on the quay for the ‘port’ but round the corner above Amiens Lock and we spotted that LES CHARMES was moored on the quay, but with its engine running. Were they going back upstream, or following us downstream? In the event they passed us once again, RICCALL now happily moored up above the lock, and proceeded into the lock. The lock operated as normal until they needed to exit. And then there was a problem. At 1.15pm they hit something underwater on exit from the lock and had to abort. So there they stayed all afternoon,

LES CHARMES in the lock - spot the diver!

till a diver from Paris arrived at 4pm or so. We watched for a short time, while the diver retrieved several stone blocks from the bottom of the lock and then we went into town looking for a post box.

This endeavour failed, but at least we had a nice wine and beer with Amiens Cathedral in full view. 

A cool day but still a  nice apero!

Returning to RICCALL, we discovered LES CHARMES moored on us, above the lock of course! 

39 metres moored on 19, but it worked!

They’d been raised in the lock and had exited it backwards so that the diver could fully investigate the depths and retrieve whatever he could find. The rocks so retrieved had been thrown in no doubt by some malcontents, but it must surely have served as a warning to the lockkeepers that storing blocks of stone just 5 metres from a lock in the centre of a city, was asking for trouble! Eventually at around 7pm all was declared clear and the hotel barge moved cautiously back into the lock and downstream, their intended cruise all the way to St Valery – 60kms west – curtailed. Concerned though we were at their wasted and fraught day, we were glad it had all been sorted before we used the lock. And that was the mission for next day.

Well, the lock was safely negotiated the next morning, and after a further foray for supplies, we set off downstream for Pont Remy, 40kms and 6 locks.

We (sensibly) decided to grab a mooring some distance upstream of the lock at Ailly, as we had doubts as to the likelihood of adequate mooring closer to it, and were glad we’d done so. The pathetic little 3m pontoon at the lock would have been no use to us and then what? However, it was early in the day and needing to send a birthday card, we went into the local village. Card duly posted (yes, we know there are other ways to send cards now via the internet!) we investigated the village of Ailly, and there came across without doubt the WORST church in all of France. Photo follows:

Hugh Mc Knight in his book ‘Cruising the Waterways of France’, says

“Ailly’s church is an unusual modernistic structure, its roof looking like a ship’s sail.” 

That is NOT what it looked like to us: now redundant, it has had but a short life. 

Compared with the thousands of amazing religious buildings in France from earlier centuries, it is an aberration, but has now clearly outlived its usefulness. Thank goodness!

And then at 12am it started! The worst storm either of us has ever seen. We had constant lightning, thunder and then RAIN you wouldn’t believe! All very exciting, yes, but, the downside was evident the following morning.

Once again, uncertain of the moorings available at the next lock, we moored at a former silo quay; still working, but no longer using the canal. This trade ceased long ago. The silo receives grain from local farms and stores it for onward distribution which of course, is effected by lorry.

The rain had made some difference to the current but it was after Breilloire Lock that we were onto a fast flowing stream and once the River Nièvre had joined the Somme, we were in the thrust of a really swollen river. The Nièvre cascaded out from under what would normally be an inconspicuous opening in the bank, but on this occasion a terracotta-brown eruption joined the Somme! Conscious that the écluse at Long was the next obstacle, as it is round a very left hand bend, we were a little concerned but in the event made it safely enough. We’d have liked to moor up at Long, but there was simply no possibility, with the river running as fast as it was.

Long flashes by - no chance to moor up

Apparently, the lock had been originally destined for another site on the river, but the local mayor and chateau owner had it moved to its present position so that he could watch the boats from his chateau! How 39m fully laden barges ever made the turn into the lock with a downstream current drawing them sideways onto the weir beggars belief.

Having been swept along for the next 2 kms, we decided that enough was probably enough, certainly for that day. We moored up with a little difficulty at Cocquerel and heaved sighs of relief. What had been a swift descent would on our return be a slog. With Alex’s family due to arrive in a day or two, we needed to find ourselves a good spot to meet them.

A 4km ride down to Pont Remy convinced us (well Louise at least) that onward progress was pointless. So the decision was made to turn tail in readiness for an early start upstream the next morning. Alex assessed the width of the river at that point, declared it wide enough (just) and the turn went surprisingly well.

The brown river was flashing by as we went off early to bed, small logs, greenery of all kinds and highly topical – plastic drinks bottles – all on their way out to sea at St Valery - and you get the picture! but our mooring was solid and we passed a comfortable enough night.

We’d hoped the river would have calmed down by morning but no, so we spent a long day, for us, of 19kms and 3 locks (travelling upstream at just 5kph) and reached our destination to meet our visitors. With them we aimed to cruise to Amiens, just 15kms and 2 locks, with hopefully a little less flow against us!

All ready for visitors . . .

. . . and the sun out for once

Well the flow was still in evidence, but Amiens soon appeared. The afternoon was spent by Richard in retrieving the car, a little food shopping, an ice cream at the little cafe in Long, a quick peek at Long Chateau (through the railings!) and later a lovely meal prepared by Alice and Richard.

Then it was the morning in Amiens – unfortunately the cathedral tower wasn’t available for climbing until much later in the day, so instead we had a leisurely lunch in one of the many restaurants on the St Leu waterfront. (The St Leu area was once the living area of the working people and is like a mini Venice dissected by many small canals. The small houses are built in terraces, and many are wooden fronted. Looking a little down-trodden now, it is a gem and surely the burghers of Amiens must see its potential!)

It was a pretty cold day so we chose the restaurant which had its terrace heaters on! We generally think that it is madness to heat the great outdoors, but on this occasion . . .!

So off we went after lunch to our final mooring with Alice, Richard and Bea

Bea keeping Grandad right

but were disappointed to find a little boat hogging the middle of 3 mooring platforms and the electricity and water bourne too of course. There are two other quays at this lock, but both were too shallow, so we moved on another 2kms only to find that mooring too was even shallower. Ah well, it was only sand under the boat so it would do: after all, hardly any other boats were around to shuggle us on and off the sand.

Our visitors had to have an early start next day for their ferry, so we waved them off and moved on slowly to Corbie where the éclusier kindly drove up the canal to ensure there was enough space for us on the pontoon and yes! We could have a few hours electricity and fill up with water.

We’ve looked at most of the places of interest on the Somme in the past, so decided just to move on and get out of this still fast flowing river.

But we didn’t expect quite the problem we encountered with weed in the canal though. At several points, our speed was down to 3kph, and our lock keepers had probably been waiting some time for our arrival, but such is the quietness at this time of year – boat-wise- they didn’t seem to mind, mostly.

We’d had unfailingly pleasant, kind and polite éclusiers every day for the previous two weeks and on our penultimate and last days, we got M. Glum! We couldn’t get a smile from him at all and that’s such a shame. We‘d donated a 12 pack of beers and a box of nice biscuits to the éclusiers’ depot in Amiens, but clearly M. Glum hadn’t been invited to the party!

Ah well. All in all it had been another interesting 2 week trip – good and bad in parts!

And so we move eastwards, to our next pick-up of visitors.

We do get gongoozlers - just not usually this many at once!

Perfect unused lock cottage

A sweet little house, but just for fishermen!!

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Charleroi to the Somme

So there were, moored upstream of Marchienne Lock, on the outskirts of Charleroi, all ready for a calm, rural cruise up and down the Sambre before setting off towards the Meuse and France.

Considering our options!

And . . . overnight, our batteries, which we were watching carefully, had reduced to a very worrying 50%. We had assumed that by careful monitoring and usage, we might have managed the summer, but Alex decided, no, it was all too close to the edge. We were really only a short day's cruise from Seneffe, a veritable 'port in a storm' as it were, so we'd return, make extensive checks on the batteries, make phone calls, get quotes for replacements etc etc. So that is what we did and eventually removed the dead and dying batteries, loaded them into the car (not without difficulty as each one weighs more than Alex does himself!) returned to England, bought new batteries and did the whole thing in reverse. Seneffe port was brilliant, letting us plug into their permanent electricity supply, to avoid the coin-in-the-slot method (essential when we weren't going to be present) and happy to let us moor on the quay.

Using block and tackle to lower the 63kg batteries

10 days passed until we were back on board, with new batteries instlled and all looking good. ETTIE had arrived the previous night and KOTARE came in at coffee time so – you've guessed it – a long chat over coffee ensued, but we were all keen to get going, so set off around midday: Richard and Julia for the Sambre and ultimately Holland, and ourselves on our new route to the Somme.

However, during our morning chat with them we discovered that the Historic Centre Canal with its four ancient boat lifts was open! Both boats had come through from downstream so could confirm that the route was in use.

We had assumed, clearly incorrectly, that it was still closed, had been for years, but not now! So we called to book passage and spent the night moored above Ascenseur No 1, with a 10 o'clock start arranged for the next day.

All ready and waiting!

All was ready, ages before our 10am timed descent; the porte de garde raised, green lights showing.

It was a great little trip: seven kilometres, 4 balance-operated lifts and 5 lift or swing bridges and at least three men at each lift or bridge. It was great! And the lifts themselves, while looking antiquated, as indeed they are having been built originally in 1888, and in full use by 1917, operated quietly and efficiently. They are being maintained properly now and the Belgians are very proud of them, as they should be. The idea came from the Englishman Clark Standfield Clark, who had built the Anderton lift in England to provide a link between the Bridgewater Canal and the River Weaver. The operation is purely by balance between 2 tanks: one goes up while the other goes down by the simple expedient of adding more water into the caisson the boat is in for going down. Gravity does the rest!

We were SO pleased to have been able to do the trip at last and of course took hundreds of photos! Here are a few, to give a flavour.

The view from the old route to the new Strepy-Thieu Ascenseur

A quiet night followed on the Quais de Thuin downstream of the Historic Canal and the modern Strepy lift, adjacent to 13, yes 13, campervans and a fisherman who kindly (and somewhat surprisingly) happily removed his 2 lines till we got moored. His radio was tuned into a music station - thankfully on low volume - but it was clear that a very high percentage of the music was British or American, which we've noticed before, in shops particularly. But at least it wasn't rap or Turkish which is very common here!

It was very, very, hot – our temperature gauge read 37C!! so it was a quiet afternoon chilling – if that's not a contradiction in terms.

And then on, for Mons and the usual search for fresh milk and stocks. Amazingly to us and others when we got to the huge Grand Près retail park, the enormous Carrefour supermarket was closed: no one knew why, and this wasn't even Ascension Day. But IKEA was open, and happily still offering Swedish meatballs and chips with all the trimmings!

Friends Louise and Keith (cruiser SALTIRE, currently moored in Sweden) were diverting from their route to meet up with us shortly. Antoing near Tournai seemed a good spot to suggest. Just a brief overnight visit from them, with plenty of chat regarding their intrepid voyage from Holland to Sweden and we were back on our own again in cold, bleak weather: such a change from only a few days earlier. Needing to top up with fuel though, we decided to stay at Antoing until the Neptunia fuel barge was open again on Monday. Antoing has an interesting, if grim industrial history. The area was heavily quarried for chalk and limestone and many redundant quarries dot the landscape with old lime kilns here and there. The manufacturing plant pictured on a tourist information board was enormous, and stayed in production until the early years of the 20th century. The present day town 'Stade' with its several football pitches, tennis courts, floodlighting and so on, was created out of the quarry which had been operated in the very heart of the town. It's an excellent resource, but in a very tired and sad looking town. Antoing's heyday is long past but on the plus side, it has the most amazing castle and a nice little port enclave for we pleasure boaters.

Filled with fuel, time came to move on, and into France. Belgium has its high spots and some areas of charm, but on the whole we do prefer France, though not in the present wintry weather.

The slog through the industrialised area of Denain and Valenciennes had little to recommend it or comment on, just a lot of 80m barges whacking to and fro with cargoes of sand or grain: mostly Belgian or French, some Dutch, but one remarkably from the Czech Republic! the first one we've seen. We were aiming for one of our favourite moorings, the tranquil Bassin Rond, just off the junction between the Escaut and the Dunkerque-Escaut Waterway, a major route. Then it would be the Canal du Nord (again!!) and the Somme, to welcome family visitors.

Well, the Bassin Rond was as usual peaceful and as lovely as ever, until the forty 10 year olds erupted out of a coach, coming for several days' sailing instruction, and nothing was the same again all day! Screams of excitement/fear/exhilaration rather wrecked the day's solitude, though it did provide some interest and merriment watching them flail around, and next day we were off again, intentionally before they could all take to the water!

Our trip up and down the Canal du Nord this time was a record of the not-too-good sort! Last time we had done 7 locks in 2 hours with NO opposition. This time, we had every boat in the whole of France, or so it seemed, against us. The same trip took 4.5 hours. We moored at Lock 7 Graincourt, for those of our readers who might recognise the name – on the summit, but before the tunnel, for an unexpectedly quiet night. Next day it was a quick and easy traverse through the tunnel to another favourite mooring. We call it the Bois de Vaux: it's a turning circle for boats up to 96 metres but it does have bollards along one side. Once upon a time it was clearly a loading quay, complete with weighbridge, but those days have gone. Some of the unladen big boats nudge into the turning circle just to turn round, then they travel down the next 2 or 3 kms backwards before loading up at the silo quay downstream, but even if we are moored up, it doesn't seems to inconvenience them.

We did the next 5 locks in the company of two 10 or 12 metre sailing boats, complete with all their sailing detritus – sails, masts, boat hooks, little wire railings and copious fenders all round the boat like a necklace for protection in the locks, (oh yes, and dogs!). And it was actually a very funny descent, watching these two hapless boats trying to tie up in locks or get themselves off quays into locks ready and waiting for them. 

We weren't in any hurry, so it was quite entertaining to watch the cartoon playing out ahead of us, not to mention hearing each captain yelling instructions in German or Swedish to his crew at high volume (in both cases the wife of said captain!). On approach to the last downward lock, and waiting for this shambles to unfold before us, an 80m commercial emerged from the lock. Alex held up his hands as if to say, 'Bloody Hell, what mayhem!' and the commercial captain answered with a knowing wink, a laugh and a shrug! In both cases the sailing yachts were heading to the Med to spend months or even years freely sailing round the islands: being fettered by lock discipline clearly was not part of their remit!!

So in just two kilometres we were out of the cut and thrust of a commercial waterway and onto the tranquil Somme: details of our time on this lovely river will be in the next blog.

A few further pics from our trip:

Refuelling whilst moving - the fuel barge can just be seen

Camels!!!  Yes, camels on the banks of the Escaut river

No boats for days and then . . . 7 at once!

Our lovely remote mooring - and four quad bikes appear to raise hell!

Ah that's better - a quiet spot at last