2015 Barging Belgium

Entering the War Zone: 13/9-17/09


Timing was looking OK, we needed to leave Veurne early on the 22nd to catch our plane late on the 23rd in Amsterdam – breaking the journey to have an overnight visit with some friends on the way. As it was now the 13th and we wanted to actually be in Veurne by the 18th to give us three days to pack up and winterise, that left us about five more days to cruise. We decided to head for Diksmuide and perhaps Ieper (known better to the English as Ypres) to start to see some of the territory that was heavily involved in Word War I.

Brugge to Diksmuide
Brugge to Diksmuide

The Great War

Since last year, there has been a heightened interest in the events and locations associated with WW1 as, of course, it’s 100 years since the events took place. The maximum extent of the German advance in Belgium resulted in the front line being located in Western Flanders – in Flanders Fields of course.

Only the tiny piece of Belgium near Veurne escaped German occupation in WW1
Only the tiny piece of Belgium near Veurne escaped German occupation in WW1

Of the three towns, Ieper and Diksmuide were part of the front line for the entire war, the former held by the Allies, the latter by the Germans. Veurne was just behind the Allied lines. Both Ieper and Diksmuide were virtually levelled by the end of the war – every building in ruins. Veurne was virtually untouched. Such a different outcome for a distance of only ten to twenty kilometres.

The canal system played a major role in preserving this final enclave in Belgium. Just as the Belgian, French and British troops were beginning to fall back in October 1914, the Belgians decided to reverse the drainage and flood controls and open the sea lock at Nieuwpoort to allow the flooding of the polders (flat land) around the IJser. This wasn’t simply a matter of opening locks to the sea but involved precise timing and planning with careful consideration of many aspects of hydro engineering. It was successful and the flooding inundated the land around the IJser. This prevented the Germans from advancing and the lines of trenches along each side of the IJser became, for the next four years, the site for one of the many long and bitter episodes of trench warfare.

This year and next year, we are intending to visit a number of the memorials that commemorate the hideous slaughter of the ‘war to end all wars’.

Brugge to Diksmuide

Up and off at 9am to catch the first bridge opening, one of several as we passed through Brugge. The canal is a major transport route, although the commercials were absent as we cruised along. The first challenge was a peculiar oval lock, one we had been warned to take care in as it could be hard to get a good mooring if a big commercial was also sharing the lock. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case, and we tied off comfortably. Another small boat in the lock had lots of trouble finding a solid place to moor – so whether it was luck, or we are getting better at this stuff – we’re not sure. Take it when we can get it.

Not long after that, we passed under the wonderful bit of engineering that is the Scheepsdalebrug tilt bridge. The whole road level slides up on massive rollers. Quite fantastic to watch. Certainly one of the most impressive bridges we have seen since we started cruising.

Scheepsdalebrug near Brugge just after we had passed under it.
Scheepsdalebrug near Brugge just after we had cruised under it.
Another type of bridge, the two top beams swing and the road lifts and sides up and away from the canal. This is where we passed Kabooter - moored on the right hand side.
Another type of bridge, the two top beams swing and the road lifts and slides up and away from the canal. This is where we first spotted ‘Kabouter’ – moored on the right-hand side.

We had a long quiet haul through the day along the Brugge-Ostend canal. The commercial spur heads straight ahead to the coast at Ostend, while we turned south/left/port to run parallel to the coast down the Plassendale – Nieuwpoort canal. This is a very quiet and quite narrow canal. So much so that there is a long stretch that only allows travel in one direction at a time. So there are fixed times you can start the journey each day (8 am, 12 pm and 4 pm one way – and 10 am and 2 pm heading in the other direction) and must travel in a convoy of like-minded vessels.

We had discussed our plans with the lock keeper at the Plassendale Lock to take the 4 o’clock convoy. The idea is that you lie in wait just before the first bridge at the appointed hour, and whoever is on duty that day will drive by on the towpath, ready to start opening the bridges. Much of what we know when planning a route, is invariably supplemented by the people we meet along the way: a lock keeper, a kind soul moored nearby or someone just walking their dog past your boat. The friendliness of the people we meet on the waterways is without question one of the highlights of cruising life. Hein, who we met at Deinze had told us about the round lock near Brugge and the convoy. He told us about the final stretch on the way to Brugge where you need to be tuned to the right VHF channel so you know where the commercials are because there is not enough room for everyone, and you might have to hug the bank as they pass.

Although we arrived in time for the 4 pm convoy, the weather was looking pretty grim, so we watched the storm’s progress from the waiting point on the free mooring at Oudenburg. The mooring also offers free power and water, which we didn’t need. A local chap often drops by with eggs and rhubarb or whatever is in season in his garden to sell to you as you wait. While we didn’t catch him this year, we will make sure to buy something from him when we pass through next season.

A UK barge Kabouter that had been following us pulled in behind us and Peter and Winny popped across to say hello. They had recently brought Kabouter across the channel and were gradually heading for the Netherlands where Winny was born. Coincidentally they were also heading for Dikskmuide and were going to stay on board over winter in Veurne! So there would be more opportunities to chat over coffee and wine. While we were exchanging tales the storm broke and a fierce rain began pelting the boats.

We contacted the bridge controller and told him we had decided to wait until the following day, so the next morning saw us up and off for the 8 am convoy. Peter and Winny were taking a more relaxed attitude to travelling and stayed behind. Our only company was a Dutch cruiser that had also spent the night at Oudenburg. Walter and his wife came from Irnsum where we had recently spent a night hanging off the short pontoon. They were also heading to Diksmuide where he was Captain of the local yacht club. As he was familiar with the territory, he was travelling relatively fast – and promised to alert the folks at Diksmuide to watch out for us.

The canal was pretty, moving past a mixture of small villages and flat farms and emerged into the big Plassendale lock at Nieuwpoort which took us up about 10 cm. Here Walter called across to us and told us he would call ahead to the havenmeister at Diksmuide and tell them to expect us. Passing through rows of boats tied up just outside the lock, we turned up the river IJser towards Diksmuide and cruised along the wide and pleasant river, arriving at the town in the early afternoon. Walter had been true to his word, and as we approached the bridge, a chap called out to us and showed us where to tie up, helping take the ropes.

Moored at the very well organised Portus Dixmuda
Moored at the very well organised Portus Dixmuda

We moored against a lovely wide wooden quay, with power available if we needed it and fuel just a little distance behind us, which we would be wanting before we left so we could top up for the winter.

Meeting and making friends in Diksmuide

Over the next few days we cycled through Diksmuide a few times, and while it was a nice, well-resourced town, we did not find much exciting in the actual town itself. But it was a little cold and rainy, so we probably did not really do it justice. The town was neat, clean and the buildings well tended – but, as we came to understand, there were of course none of the old structures we were used to in every other town we had visited. They had been destroyed by the shelling of the town by the Allies as they tried to dislodge the Germans for four long years. Everything had been built after 1918 when it was decided to rebuild the ruined town. Even our home town in Sunbury has older buildings now.

We also had a nice long chat with the guys running the port – basically a private yacht club. They seemed to have a very secure setup and very reasonable costs – two-thirds of what we were paying at Veurne. As we also knew of others in our barge association who were intending to winter there, we booked up for next winter – so all set for the end of 2016 into 2017.

As we were settling in, a lovely English woman came by to say hello, and tell us the port had a free lending library with lots of English books if we were interested. She invited us over for coffee the following morning on their tjalk Vrouwe Johanna. Jo and Jan had been living and cruising on their barge for the past seven years or so. Jo has published several books about their experiences, but they had decided this was their last season and were planning to sell and return to be UK landlubbers.

Jo and Jan May's tjalk 'Vrouwe Johanna'
Jo and Jan May’s tjalk ‘Vrouwe Johanna’

Peter and Winny, who had taken the mid-day convoy arrived in Kabouter and tied up behind us.

As Aussies, we think Catharina is too small to live on continuously - but Peter and Winny have no qualms living all year on Kabouter!
We Aussies think ‘Catharina’ is too small to live on continuously – but Peter and Winny have no qualms about living all year on ‘Kabouter’!

We decided to head across the bridge over the river IJser to the IJser Tower (IJzertoren) to spend the afternoon steeped in WW1 history.


The Dutch ‘IJ’ is pronounced as a strong ‘I’, so for our purposes, you can just drop the ‘J’ when pronouncing these words.

The IJzertoren from Catharina's window
The IJzertoren from Catharina’s window

This is an incredible monument and museum. Rich in history and culture. First and foremost, the 84 m high tower is a WW1 museum. There are 22 floors, each one covering a different aspect of the war. The idea is you take a lift to the top, where you can access the roof and look around for a full 360 degrees. You then walk down all 22 floors, one at a time, circling a central stairwell, and absorbing the amazing tales of fortitude and bravery. It begins with the pre-war conditions on the top floor and continues towards the post-war period as you descend. It is modern and well laid out with plenty of English. Very informative.

As the stairs take you down (a lift takes you up) the significant events of the war are listed down through the 22 floors
As the stairs take you down (a lift takes you up) the significant events of the war are listed down through the 22 floors

The top of the tower offers wide panoramic views over ‘Flanders Fields’, Diksmuide and the port. There are many plaques show you what you are looking towards in the distance. On each plaque is inscribed the number of people buried in each of the towns, who lost their lives fighting for their freedom.

Flanders Fields from the top of the tower
Flanders Fields from the top of the tower
Diksmuide and the port
The old tower ruins, the Pax gate, the port and town of Diksmuide
'Catharina' and "Kabouter'
‘Catharina’ and ‘Kabouter’

Less obviously it is a monument to the Flemish culture. A bit of background:

As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, Belgium is really two quite separate cultures, the Flemish (Dutch) in the north, and the Walloons (French) in the south. They have been in considerable tension in the past and there is still a significant separation of the two cultures. The Walloons have traditionally had most of the power and influence in the country. During WW1 this was the case. So much so that the Flemish area under the occupation by Germany seceded from Belgium in 1917 to become part of Germany. They were reunited after the end of the war.

One aspect of the war especially rankled with the Flemish. All the dead, regardless of origin, were buried according to the Walloon tradition. After the war, there was a lot of agitation to mark their graves in the Flemish tradition with the Flemish cross and the abbreviation AVV-VVK (Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus; All for Flanders-Flanders for Christ). As a symbol of their angst, a tower was built in Diksmuide. This tower remained a focus of Flemish nationalism until it was destroyed by a saboteur’s bomb in 1946.

Ruins of the first tower
Ruins of the first tower
PAX gate and memorial crosses in the wall for fallen Flandrian soldiers
PAX gate and memorial crosses in the wall for fallen Flemish soldiers

Feelings were still strong and a new Ijser tower was built on the same site and completed in 1965. The rubble from the original tower was used to build the PAX gate. Over the years, there has been an annual gathering of Flemish peoples each year at the site, initially as a focus of nationalism, more recently as a milder celebration of their culture.

So the IJzertoren has much to commend it as a significant tourist attraction, it is the tallest peace monument in Europe, and while we spent half a day there, we could easily have spent more.

Arriving back at Catharina, we found a note from Shaun and Lynn – two South Africans we knew only via blogs and emails and were very keen to meet in person. They had just returned to Diksmuide, and their cruiser Elle. We finished off the day with Ian and Lisette’s evil twin sister (the one that likes a drink) spending a memorable evening hosted by Shaun and Lynn on board Elle.

Memorable end to a memorable day
Memorable end to a memorable day

Next day was a catch-up on chores day so we thought we would have our first cheese fondue of the trip. We invited the crews of Elle and Vrouwe Johanna (Kabouter having left early in the morning) and that evening relaxed, ate and drank aboard Catharina in great company.

Après Fondue
Après Fondue

Rather than rush and because the weather was average, we had decided not to strike out for Ieper, but to leave it for next year – either at the start or the end of the season. So the next day’s cruising would be our last for 2015.

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