This Blog posting coves our trip from Gent south through Belgium and over the border to the little town of Wambrechies just to the north of Lille. As much of the trip was on waterways we had travelled in past years; the River Leie, the Canal de la Deule, and the Kanaal Bossuit, we had expected there wouldn’t be too many surprises. How wrong we were!!
The journey was to end with a cruise through Roubaix on its newly reopened waterway. We knew we had to be there ready to begin by October 11th as its season, the first for 26 years, finished on the 15th. So we said our goodbyes to Gent on October 4th and headed off the long way out-of-town to top up our fuel tanks at a certain shipyard.
However we later discovered there seemed to be some kind of a “problem” with the calibration on their pump. When we checked the paperwork after leaving, we saw somehow 23 litres of diesel had been “squeezed” into each of our two 20 litre jerry cans and our engine must have suddenly become even less economical despite all those kilometres with the tide behind us. We won’t be going back there for more fuel if we can avoid it!
We rank the upper part of the Leie as the cutest and curviest waterway we’ve travelled so far. Two years on from our first visit the turns seemed even tighter, the gardens even grander and the houses more splendid. Sydney suburbs like St Ives and Double Bay are pale imitations!
After hours of exclaiming “wow!” and “look at that!” we arrived at the narrow open lock and little lift bride to go on to Deinze. Moored in the open lock, we phoned to ask for the bridge to be raised.. Our guide-book had indicated it would be open by arrangement including weekends. “Sorry, the season is over, you’ll have to wait until Monday,” we were told. This was Saturday morning, so not at all what we had wanted to hear! Finally, after a little pleading the story changed and the bridge-keeper who we well-remembered from two years ago arrived in his suit and tie to manually wind up his bridge. With a “merci monsieur!” and a little pack of chocolates handed over, we waved goodbye. He beamed, waved back and we were off again and soon on the straight, busy and very commercial Leie and back in Kortrijk for our third visit.
Kortrijk is a very smart city with lots of major water-works, mostly new and stylish bridges, continually underway and with a colourful history and despite being so ancient their streets are all very good for people driving wheelchairs and the like. However after all these years of our pleading, still nothing had been done to make the two marinas wheelchair accessible. We were again therefore forced to moor on commercial boat dolphins about a kilometre from town and use our ramps to get on and off.
One night a giant barge 10 times Endellion’s size nudged up and moored right against us, actually touching our port side and squeezing us against the bank. There was no boat movement at all that night as we were held between it and the concrete jetty below the bank. A very odd feeling but we survived, and by 6.00am he was on his way again but it certainly prompted us to send another letter off to the mayor urging him to fix his marinas.
From Kortrijk we crossed up and over to the Schelde/Escaut via the short and pleasant Bossuit canal to be ready to make the trip down Belgium’s l’Espierres which becomes the Roubaix Canal in France.
For well over a hundred years Roubaix was known as France’s Wool City with lots of massive spinning and weaving mills and the canal to carry the coal which powered them. As in northern England, three decades ago all the Roubaix woollen mills closed. Not long after, so too did the canal.
After years of lobbying and then another ten of dredging and building massive hydraulic bridges, the Roubaix was reopened amid great celebrations in 2008. But it took Belgium a couple more years to complete work on its section; called the Espierres. So, as we had found in August 2010, when we took the Metro from nearby Lille up to Roubaix to investigate, the France section had been officially opened but could not be used until Belgium was ready.
As mentioned, the canal links the Deûle in France to the Escaut in Belgium and is made up of three distinct sections: the canalised river Marque from the Deûle down-stream of Lille to Wasquehal (7.6 km and 2 locks), the Roubaix Canal proper from the Marque to the Belgian border (12.4 km and 10 locks), and the Canal de l’Espierres between the border and the Escaut upstream of Tournai (8 km and 3 locks).Finally in June the French and Belgium sections were opened to welcome pleasure boaters. We, it turned out, were to be the last of nearly 50 boats to go through for 2011. Though when told this we did not really know what it might entail.
We’d spent many hours organising our journey along this short stretch of canal. The Belgium and French sections don’t communicate with each other and it wasn’t easy to find who to contact to make sure all locks and bridges would be operated for us. We didn’t want to be left stranded with only a few days before the whole canal closed for the winter! Thanks to detailed and very helpful information from the DBA (Barge Association) members’ forum we had it all organised with the first lock/bridge operator in the Belgium section meeting us at his lock at 10.00am. At 9.30 we floated slowly down the beautiful canal from our overnight mooring just off the Escaut and happily the gates were open and ready with a friendly and helpful lock-keeper who guided us through his Belgium section.
These locks and some of the bridges are just 5.1 metres wide, so it had to be steady and careful as you go from then on! We’d been used to much wider and longer locks lately so it was strange to be back in north of England-type canal territory again.
After only a few hours we tied up on a wooden jetty, with free electricity and water, at Lees Nord near the end of the Belgium section. Our excellent mooring was also free and we were right outside the charming Maison du Canal restaurant with excellent WiFi plus inexpensive drinks and food. Perfect!
We were now in Wallonian Belgium, so all the customers were speaking French rather than Dutch. We were made very welcome by Madame who, with her two teenage children, ran the place and we felt part of the local community who poured in and out throughout the afternoon spending time chatting and joking with us in a mix of broken English and French.
Early the following morning, just before we were due to leave for the French section of the canal and a new team of lock-keepers, there was a knock on the wheelhouse window. It was the local bread delivery man who handed us a bag with fresh croissants indicating they were from the landlady at the Maison du Canal. That was typical of Madame and her lovely teenage family who ran this delightful business.
Soon we were in France and there at the first bridge waiting to meet us was Mademoiselle Camille Longueval who is charged with attracting boaters to the canal. She was accompanied by a team of similarly friendly lock-keepers, Toufek and Samuel who spoke excellent English.
As we pottered along the canal people waved, cyclists tinged their bells and walkers took photos – even the fishermen, who normally just ignore us or shake their fists as we pass by, smiled and took a snap or two! When we finally, gently pulled into Roubaix we found journalists and a TV camera-person waiting to come on board to interview us. Nearly 50 boats for the short season was considered a great success and as we were the last one through we were news. Even more so when they discovered we were Australians, I was a wheelchair skipper and a person with MS.
The next day, people who had read about us or seen us on TV did more waving and snapping. All simply amazing!
For that afternoon and evening the totally charming Camille had suggested we visit the excellent museum (La Piscine, the old swimming pool) and attend a concert and then helped us book our seats.
The concert was held at a huge nearby theatre and featured the brilliant Latin jazz of Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and his band. A fantastic museum and a great night out .. and exhausted we returned to Endellion to find it the quietest mooring we’d come across in many months. It turned out we were in fact right next to the very large cemetery – that explained it!
The following morning we were to be guided through the heart of the city under four or five lifting bridges, with two of them either side of a huge and very busy roundabout. These two huge bridges took us almost an hour to negotiate partly because of a technical problem with their boom gates but mostly because they had to coordinate the precise time to stop all traffic by agreement with the bus services. This was the final day of the canal’s operation before closing for the winter and as we waited for a change of lock-keepers at our lunch stop once again we were treated like celebrities.
The President of the national parks service for the Nord Department, the initiator and driving force behind the reopening of the canal, arrived and presented us with a gift basket of local produce. More photos were taken, speeches made and after signing their visitors’ book – the Livre d’Or, we finally moved on, both totally flabbergasted with what had happened!
We will certainly be going back one day and like everyone else who has made the trip can highly recommend it.
Here is a link to the story made for Grand Lille TV:
And here is the link to one of the news reports:
What a wonderful adventure the Roubaix canal was. We’re now in Cornwall in the final days of our stay for nephew Ben’s wedding to Nic. It was a fabulous event and made even more special having been held at ‘our’ church of St Endellion (where we were also married). We made the trip from Wambrechies (near Lille), where Endellion is now moored, via the super-fast Eurostar train to London and hiring a wheelchair accessible van for the drive west.
It won’t be long and we’ll be back in Paris for the winter and hopefully listening to many a story from our boating friends who mostly headed south for the summer.
Meanwhile we have a bit more boating to do .. and a few more blogs to write.