2017 Barging France

Our First Bastille Day: 11/7 – 16/7

Béthune – Douai – Courchelettes


We knew that we could purchase a power/water key from the VNF (Voies Navigables de France) in the town, and decided that would be our first business in the morning. There was a steep metal ladder up from the pontoon to the road, so once the bikes were up there, they stayed up there for the few days we remained at Béthune. We found the VNF office and after some rather embarrassing failures to actually get the door open to enter the building (and exit it again afterwards) – no obvious handle, pass cards, reception desk controlling the second door – it’s just an office, not a bank vault – we bought our key, and charged it with enough Euros for electricity and water to keep us going this season. The office is situated in what was once a hospital – a very beautiful building.

It looks as though the key is meant to be used across France, because you can recharge it at any major VNF office, but it appears to be limited to the Nord Pas de Calais region at present. And, since this is France, it may never extend beyond this area.

The next few days were a little rainy, so we alternated between some more painting, sanding and cleaning. It was a good mooring for that sort of work, no polished and chromed cruisers nearby and no residences adjacent.

There was, however, an abandoned cruiser nearby, half sunk. Sad really.

But it is also a growing problem. A number of people simply discard boats when they become old or damaged, leaving them to rot and rust until some municipal agency clears them out.

We took a guided tour around the town, visiting various sites mostly associated with WWI.

The main war memorial in Béthune.

The church had a plaque honouring the contribution of the Commonwealth casualties and also a nice statue of Jeanne d’Arc.


We had to give this beffroi a miss, as there was some damage to the higher part of the tower, and visitors are not currently allowed in.

However we enjoyed a beer in the square and the fascinating architecture around it. During WWI, the centre of town was almost totally destroyed – only the Belfry escaped demolition, protected by some houses that surrounded it. So, all the buildings were rebuild in the inter-war period.

There was the expected war cemetery – always a must in our touring calendar.


Leaving Béthune we headed for Douai. Tomorrow would be Bastille Day and we were very keen to experience our first of these in France. So, after an easy cruise along the commercial Canal D’Aire and the Canal de la Deûle we turned off under the bridge at the junction with La Scarpe. We knew we would not be able to go too far down this old canal as it soon narrows and would not be possible to turn Catharina Elisabeth around, but we were guided to a spot by some English people and were soon settled. We used the old gangplank to get off as there were many nettles growing tall and strong at the edge of the path, although Ian did trim them ever so neatly with a small pair of scissors on our return later that afternoon.

Once moored, the bikes were quickly taken off and we cycled in a desperate hurry to reach the chantier Despinoy (shipyard) about 5 km down the old canal – we needed to be there before they downed tools for the long weekend so we could ask about the possibility of getting Catharina’s bottom looked at.

We were experiencing some engine cooling problems and we had friends (we had yet to meet, as is not uncommon in the cruising world) who were currently at the yard having their barge repaired. This yard is the only one in the region capable of lifting Catharina out of the water. While the yard’s main business is peniche-sized vessels that are worked on in a basin dry-dock, we understood they might lift us on a floating pontoon to have a look at our keel cooling pipes – perhaps as early as next Wednesday and get everything fixed within a week. In fact it took four weeks – more on that later.

Anyhow, we made contact with Don and Cathy-Jo on Oldtimer whose excellent blog we had been following closely and had a good chat with them about how the yard worked. We also watched as as a peniche entered the basin ready for whatever repairs it needed. We then set off on the return leg of the journey to Douai. This 10 km roundtrip was soon to become really familiar to us.

The Scarpe canal (La Scarpe Moyenne) is just to the left – quite a pretty ride into town although it began to pale after 20 trips.

We can talk at more length about the exchange of peniches in the shipyard basin at another time, because that too, was to become a familiar sight for us.

On our return however, the gangplank was nowhere to be seen. It must have bounced off and into the canal when another boat passed. Ho hum. Not to be beaten, Ian decided to trim off the old wooden bedhead that had been removed last winter, when we had some cupboards built behind the bed (and in the salon). So over the weekend, while Lisette kept on with oiling the repaired hatch, Ian used his jigsaw to create a replacement gangplank. Thank goodness we hadn’t yet found a way of discarding the unwanted bedhead. It seems a good boating mantra is “don’t throw it out until you are certain it can’t be used for something else…”

Our mooring was only a short cycle from the Centre Ville, so we visited the Tourist Bureau and got sufficient information to plan a few things to do and see over the weekend.

Bastille Day

First up, was the Presentation of Armes at Place Charles de Gaulle (naturellement).

Presentation of medals.

This was great – a band played, medals were presented, wreaths were laid (pour les morts).

Parade starting off.


Laying of wreaths at the memorial.

Everyone followed the band and the army from spot to spot through the town for each part of the ceremony and we were very happy with that.

Finished with a couple of rousing tunes in the centre square.

In the afternoon, there was a free jazz concert in a little square. Neither of us is particularly enamoured of jazz, but it was a concert, in a French town, on Bastille Day – so it immediately held enough appeal to be worth another cycle into town. There were little tables and chairs set up under the trees on the edge of the square, and, not surprisingly, once you sat on the chairs, a girl from the local pub showed up asking what beer you wanted to drink. There was also a van selling burgers and frites – dinner was sorted!

We had read that after the jazz concert there would be a hypnotist, for which we were not going to stay. But before we could beat a safe retreat, he was on stage and asked the audience to stand and hold out their hands, eyes closed. There couldn’t have been more than 100 people at most, but they all joined in. The guy and his assistant seemed to use this to select likely candidates for the next part of the show, inviting a dozen people up onto the stage. While there were one or two that simply could not be put to sleep, the others did soon appear to be under Christophe’s control.

This was the initial set of ‘susceptibles’ all of whom collapsed to the floor on command.

While the entire performance was, of course, conducted in fast-spoken French, it wasn’t hard to follow, and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. It was rather clever, and really did look as though a number of people were easily influenced to follow instructions. At no time did the hypnotist step over the line, it was just entertaining.

Back on board, we were now waiting for the fireworks, which we knew would take place in the park opposite our mooring. Don and Cathy Jo arrived on their bikes just as it was going dark, (night falls really late this far north, and so events like fireworks don’t commence until 10.30 or 11.00 pm) and we enjoyed a good old display before they returned to their barge. Sorry, no photos, we dashed out without cameras.

The next day we spent familiarising ourselves with the route into town, only a few minutes from the Douai basin mooring. Also we introduced ourselves to some of the British on the several largish barges that were also moored in the basin. On one of our cycles back and forth, we met Val and Koos on their delightful boat Hennie-Ha, (on the stretch of La Scarpe that is too narrow for us to turn).

This was timely, as Ian had just downloaded Val’s latest book (Faring to France on a Shoe) covering their first cruising trip into France on Hennie-Ha around this region of France, and we were both reading the enchanting tale. We had a lovely long chat inside their delightfully converted Groningen ‘snik’.

Next day, off on the short, cruise to Courchelettes and the shipyard. Two locks and less than seven kilometres and we moored up behind Oldtimer to begin our sojourn in Chantier Naval Despinoy.

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    2 Responses

  1. What a lovely blog! I’ve really enjoyed reading this and enjoyed your take on places we too visited this year. I really liked Bethune and your photos are wonderful. It was so good to meet you both in Douai. I am keeping everything crossed that we’ll meet again next year. Safe journey home!

    1. We have enjoyed cruising in places where friends have also recently been. We might not all stop at the same places, but to me it feels like we are sharing the experience. I’m so glad you liked reading the blog. And I do very much hope we will meet up again.

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