2016 Barging Belgium

Trees and weed: 5/09 – 8/09

Tournai – Leers-Nord – Zwevegem – Kortrijk

To Leers-Nord

The day started with a call to the Tournai waterway control to get a slot through the town. From where we were moored to the other side of town, passage is one way only and you have to have permission. That went smoothly and the red light turned to green and we were off with the shops, churches and bridges around and above us as we cruised leisurely along. We passed through the middle arch of the Pont des Trous bridge which dates from the 13th century – but whose arches are under threat because of the upgrading of the waterway to handle even larger commercial barges. The arches are not high or wide enough. One shudders to think what the solution might be!

We were soon in the wide part of the canalised Escaut with a steady stream of commercials coming past us, both ways. We shared a couple of locks with them or waited for them to exit the locks as we cruised along. Actually, the first of these locks, while not particularly deep, quickly became busy. Lisette had been on the radio to check when they wanted us in. And was pretty sure the instruction included the information that we were the première bateau. So we tied off outside the lock, waiting for the commercial that was coming through towards us. But while we waited, not one, but two large commercials showed up behind us. Back on the radio, Lisette was now told we would be the troisième bateau.  Not keen to get on the radio again to ask if that meant with or after (avec ou après) the other boats had used the lock, we waited to see if the lights remained green after the big boys entered. They did, so we untied and approached slowly, to find as we entered that the barges had taken opposite sides of the lock, and a guy from the one on our side, came down towards us to take Lisette’s rope and drop it over a bollard. Nice.

Not especially scenic but away from the industrial bits the landscape was pleasantly rural, dotted with farms and small villages. We kept a close eye on our navigation program as we came up to the turn off to the Canal de l’Espierre as we had been told the entrance was narrow and shrouded with trees and bushes. Even so, we managed to overshoot by few metres.

Just as well as it turned out because a cruiser was passing out of the canal entrance right as we arrived (in fact it was the only other boat we saw in motion for the entire time we were on the Espierres canal). The two girls on board waved and yelled excitedly. In fact, they paid so much attention to greetings that they drove right across the main canal (it was still a wide commercial grade size) and managed to run their bow into the bank. As we turned to enter the Espierres, the cruiser was belching gouts of exhaust as they reversed off the bank. They were probably pleased we were heading in different directions.

Canal de l’Espierres

Reports were accurate – the entrance was well hidden and looked terribly narrow. It is actually a disused lock, now heavily overgrown with the gates removed. At least that meant it should be 5.5 m wide, giving us about half a metre clearance each side. Just one slight touch as we came through and we were in clear water. It was like gently entering a leafy labyrinth – while there is something nice about travelling a route we have travelled before, there is something extra special about the discovery of an unknown stretch of water, craning your neck to see what will appear around the next bend. This well-disguised entrance was magical.


Immediately the narrow canal gave us a sense of relaxation and it was easy to throttle down to a languid 6 km/h pace and take in the lovely countryside.

As we travelled there was a mixture of farms, rural countryside and grazing cattle, sheep and horses. All of this glimpsed through a curtain of trees stretching along both sides of the canal – echoing the famous plane trees of the Canal du Midi in France. The five small locks and couple of bridges along the canal were operated by an éclusier who drove along with us as we travelled. It was a truly meditative cruise, which, even at our pedestrian pace was over too soon.

We approached the small border town of Leers-Nord which had been highly recommended to us as a place to moor. On the approach to the much talked about Estaimpuis, all the mooring spots were taken.

But the éclusier had assured us there was room for us to moor for the night, through the lock. As we were rising in the lock, Lisette was engaged in a lengthy conversation with a chap who chattered away in French.  As we came out of the lock, it was just possible to squeeze into a spot between two boats but only by taking down our stern flag. Ian was happy to practice precision mooring and carefully but without drama we squeezed in.

1) Always look at your feet; 2) Wave to every boat that passes; 3) Hasten slowly; 4) Keep your barge in good condition; 5) Care for the animals; 6) Respect the lock keeper and assistants; 7) Beware of landlubbers; 8) Do not die away from the river

We visited the little pub (La Maison du Canal) and had a beer and looked at the displays that described the history of the canal which was once an important commercial link between Belgium and France. The beautiful Pèniche in front of us belongs to a chap who lives for most of the year in the old disused canal at Ronquières, and every summer cruises to Leers Nord. What a pretty place to spend time.

We would need to retrace our cruise of the day before but to do this we had to cruise across the border into France where there was a turning basin large enough to accommodate Catharina Elisabeth. We had arranged the day before with the waterways people in Lille to open the bridge that stood between us and the turning basin.

We left Leers-Nord and almost immediately crossed the border into France. The difference in the waterway was striking – on the Belgian side, it was well tended and rural with clear water. On the French side, more urban, scruffy and the canal was very weedy.

We cleared the bridge and left them waiting for our return in a few minutes after we made the turn only a kilometre or so down the canal. However, we were pushing through a lot of weed and sure enough, when we came to the turning basin, instead of being able to stop and turn, Catharina shook as we put her into reverse and she did not slow down. Instead, we ended up drifting to a halt, not far from the shore.

Selecting forward and reverse did not help and so we tried dislodging the weed with a boat hook, the penultimate option before someone having to go for a swim. Fortunately, that worked, we began to get traction in reverse and in a short time had made the turn and returned towards the bridge and then back into Belgium. We soon passed our overnight mooring, met our éclusier who then took us back through the bridges and locks we passed yesterday.

Again, it was a lovely rural cruise. It would have been lovely to spend more time there, but we were on a bit of a schedule.

We negotiated the narrow exit to the Escaut and turned to port, heading towards our next destination, the city of Kortrijk. To get there, we had to use the most schizophrenic canal we have yet come across. The Canal Bossuit-Courtrai (Kortrijk) joins the canalised Escaut (Scheldt) with the canalised Lys (Lei) which are two very commercial routes that run parallel into France from Belgium. At the Bossuit end of this connecting canal, it has locks and dimensions to hold the large 1,350-tonne barges (27 Catharina’s) typical of these big commercial canals. Half way along, the canal changes to the old Freycinet gauge, where only 300-tonne barges can move. And the canal is only 15 km long.

We were at the start of the big end of the canal. The big Bossuit lock facing us, closed. We decided to moor up, not merely loiter in front of the lock. Good thing too. When the sluices opened up to let the water out, a tsunami-like flood of water rushed towards us and Catharina strained and bucked against the ropes – we dread to think what it would have been like if we had been free in the water. Once the big commercial left we entered, just us, one little barge. The whole lock filled with heaven knows how much water and we rose up 14 metres on nice floating bollards.

At the top, the VHF chirped into life with a question (in English) about our vignette (a paid canal pass). First, the English alerted us to the fact that somewhere along the last section we had crossed back into Flanders. Lisette wiped a tear from her eyes at leaving the French-speaking region after such a wonderful six weeks.

We misunderstood the request for the vignette, thinking they were asking us if we had a pass for France, and said “No”. This required us to go up to the control tower where we realised he was asking us if we had a Flanders vignette, which we did and showed him the receipt. Still, it was fascinating to go into the control room of one of these big locks. There were racks of equipment all around, loads of monitors and consoles with buttons, sliders, knobs and such like all over them. Looked like the nuclear power station control rooms you see in the movies.

Back on board we cast off and quickly had to call up a huge commercial that was reversing towards the lock! We had heard about such but not yet witnessed a reverse entry. We asked if we could duck around his stern (so we wouldn’t have to wait for him to pass into the lock) to which he agreed, and we were able to set off. This was probably the biggest barge we saw on the entire trip 12.5 m beam and 105  m long and she was moving backwards! Pretty impressive.

We then had a quiet cruise along the canal, took one lock, and cruised to the last commercial scale lock at Zwevegem which took us down some 10 m. We had to stop at the waiting quay outside the bottom of the lock because to traverse the next section of the canal – the smaller locks – you had to organise for a team to operate the locks and we had already been advised that we would have to wait until the following day.

We had made contact with a carpenter who had been recommended to us and were able to arrange for him to meet us that evening where we would spend the night outside the lock. Two of our double-glazed windows had allowed water in and we needed to find a way to repair them. So Gina and Geoff strolled off to explore and we waited on board for him to show up. He left, having taken a number of measurements, with a promise to touch base with us in a couple of days.

On to Kortrijk

Next morning we left in time to get to our appointment at first of the smaller locks. The canal was now smaller and seemed more rural. The fact that a fisherman was floating in the middle of the waterway spoke to the absence of serious commercial traffic.

Up close and personal with the fish.

Three pretty, small Freycinet locks took us down through the outskirts of Kortrijk, assisted by a shy chap who gradually relaxed and became quite chatty by the end of the canal. As he was working on his own, he had to go ahead to set each lock for us, once we were safely in the one before. It was a little easier to just wait inside the lock each time as the canal appeared to have no convenient place to tie off between locks. But with pretty trees hanging low over the lock basin, and little bridges across where the locals would sometimes stop and wave, there was time for a cuppa as we waited for the next lock to be ready.

Having a cuppa while they set the next lock up for us.

We turned to port, heading in the direction of France, but just cruised through the outskirts of Kortrijk on the wide commercial canalised Lys. We had picked a mooring spot that was on the northern part of the old town, along a side canal that was now blocked off but used to be the main canal through town. We had to reverse into it, so took a close look at our AIS to make sure no commercials were anywhere near and were delighted to find the little stretch of floating pontoon was not occupied.

Power and water were available and both free nor was there any mooring charge. It was a quiet location and right next to town. Just past the little bridge at the end of our pontoon were the two Broel Towers. These 14th-century edifices are the last remnants of the fortification of the medieval castle in Kortrijk, the scene of a momentous battle – but more on that later.

The Speytorre (1385 – L) and Inghelburghtorre (1415 -R)

A great mooring.

We had a pleasant lunch on the aft deck, during which a massive wave shot into the little canal in which we were moored, and slapped a Mexican wave from one end of the pontoon to the other. Some re-tying of the ropes followed and we felt a little more secure. Even in this quiet offshoot though, there was always something going on. There was a brief period of concern when a huge commercial appeared to be reversing into our tiny canal!  It would be an exquisitely tight fit for him to moor with us, but it turns out he was just executing a clever turn and allowing another large commercial to pass him on the main canal.

No room in here for you!

Then there was the little floating pontoon that drew up opposite us, so two guys could slap a coat of clear gloss on the brick wall opposite. Never a dull moment.

It was Gina and Frank’s last day and they took off to pick up their car to bring it back so they could leave the next day for the ferry back to England. In the meantime, we took a stroll through the historic part of town. We walked past and listened to the carillon in the belfry. Unusually for the belfries we’ve visited, this one is not open to visitors.

We discovered a tea shop full of teapots of diverse form and design along with many varieties of teas. Mostly, we did the rounds of the churches.

Sint Maartenskirk is a gothic cathedral just behind the market square in the centre of the old town. It has the tallest steeple in town and easily seen from most parts of the town.Inside, one of the features was an intricate sacrament tower and some more recent but striking wall murals.

Sacraments Tower (1585) - 6.5 metres tall
Sculpture Suffering Christ on the cold Stone' by Karel Delbaere - 1894
Murals by J. Van Der Plaetsen (1885-1887) and E. Messeyne (1889)
'Triptych of the Holy Spirit' by Bernard de Rijckere from 1587: a Pentecostal scene featuring the baptism of Jesus and the creation of Adam.
Sacraments Tower (1585) - 6.5 metres tall

Next, we visited the equally impressive Church of Our Lady.

Apart from the opulent interior, there was also a chapel off to one side built in the late 14th century dedicated to the Counts of Flanders. Around the walls are paintings that feature each of the Counts. The House of Flanders was a powerful dynasty that ruled this region from the 8th to 17th century and one of the daughters, Matilda, was the wife of William the Conqueror and so perhaps, the first queen of modern England. There was also a statue of St Catharine – holding her wheel. If you check out her association with the wheel, you’ll never be comfortable again watching the Catherine Wheel firework.

About 25% of the panels - every Count and Countess of Flanders
Margaret II Countess of Flanders and William Dampierre (ruled 1244-79); Guy (ruled 1278-1305)
Saint Catherine and her wheel.
Sun through the stained glass windows.
About 25% of the panels - every Count and Countess of Flanders

We caught up with Gina and Geoff to take the opportunity presented by the brasseries around the market square that were well supplied with moules and so finally had our big feast of this typically Belgian meal.

THAT’S what I wanted!

The next morning, Gina and Geoff left to catch the ferry back to England. Amongst all the tourist activities, Ian and Gina spent some time (but not nearly enough) catching up on some family history. We’ll certainly do this again, either on Catharina, in the UK or back in New Zealand.

We then spent the morning doing more painting and some toilet cistern repairs but the warm sunny afternoon drew us back into town.

Of course, the old town and the Groot Markt are glorious and serve to remind us of what the city must have looked like in its day. Much of the surrounding streets have been rebuilt in the aftermath of war, but everywhere that we walked was clean and tidy (and no dog poo!). A proud town.

First stop was a return to the Church of Our Lady. In something of a rushed visit last time we had looked for the part of the church that commemorates the Battle of the Golden Spurs – but had not been able to find it. This battle has become a symbol of Flemish national pride and its anniversary is a regional holiday.

It took place 11 July 1302 next to Kortrijk and pitted a well-trained militia formed of townsfolk from around Flanders against a numerically superior French army which relied on a large cavalry contingent of mounted noblemen. The Flemish carefully picked and prepared their position where the ground was rough, rutted and boggy. When the noblemen on horseback attempted to charge the townsfolk of Flanders, the horses were unable to give the cavalry the speed and concentrated attack that made them fearsome. Eventually, the charges failed and a slaughter of the cavalry ensued and the French army routed. This was the first large battle where foot soldiers defeated cavalry and the tactics there formed the basis of some famous later battles such as Crécy and Agincourt where the failure of heavy cavalry to overcome well-situated foot soldiers resulted in big defeats.

There are about 35 spurs on this part of the ceiling. Imagine when there were 500!

After the battle, some 500 sets of golden spurs were taken from the battlefield and hung in the Church of Our Lady as trophies. They were removed some time afterwards when the French returned and defeated the Flemish, but years later, replicas were made and hung again in the church. We found them this time behind one of the altars, hung from fishing wire looking as though they were suspended in space high above the stone floor.

Detail of one of the spurs.

We then moved on to one of Kortrijk’s most visited sites, the Béguinage of St Elisabeth.

Dating from the 13th Century, and not unusually, destroyed several times, this 17th Century rebuild is a wonderfully preserved example of how these unmarried women lived, in voluntary poverty, taking care of the poor and sick, and practising religious devotion. Each of the 40 small Baroque houses has an enclosed front garden, and the entire UNESCO listed site is flanked by the castle of the Counts of Flanders, the city walls and the St. Martin’s Church Cemetery. The beguines were not nuns as they did not take formal religious vows but lived in semi-monastic communities from which they were free to leave at any time. The very last beguine in the world was Marcella Pattyn (1920 – 2013) who lived in the Kortrijk Béguinage for 45 years. The white-painted houses are all meticulously maintained (and lived in) reached via narrow winding cobbled streets. In the late afternoon with the sun gleaming off the red-tiled roofs, we agreed it was a beautiful place.

Statue of Joan of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders - Béguinage
The white walls of the houses and the doors into the little houses
The courtyard buildings with the St Maartenskirk behind.
End of 800 years of tradition.
A lovely angel sculpture.
Statue of Joan of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders - Béguinage

There was plenty more to see in Kortrijk and plenty more painting to do – but more guests beckoned so, regretfully, we had to leave this fascinating town.


Ian’s favourite canal photo – l’Espierres in Autumn. Courtesy of Shaun and Lynn on Elle:

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    3 Responses

    1. For ‘ontzie’ Google gives me ‘despise’. That leads to something a bit confronting.

      1. Looks like you were absolutely right Shaun. My query on the DBA Facebook site had suggestions like ‘respect’, ‘relieve/help’, ‘spare/don’t stress’.

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