© (c) D & P Kerr, 2010-2017
© (c) D & P Kerr, 2010-2017
This will likely be our last Blog of the cruising year.
We have been busy cleaning and tidying Anja for her winter sojourn in Laroche-Migennes, France.
Tomorrow morning, we will be off to the Channel Islands for a week before coming back to Paris and departing for Australia.
It is very peaceful on the Yonne River at the moment. Nothing like the raging and unseasonal floods of June. These resulted in the worst annual French grain harvest for 40 years and repairs are continuing on damaged infrastructure. Most of the sunken boats have now been recovered.
We had pleasant stays at Pont-sur-Yonne, Sens, Villeneuve, Joigny and Laroche St Cydroin. The weather has been very agreeable. They were harvesting the grapes at Cotes St Jacques in Joigny. This winery is over 400 years old and the grapes are hand-picked. We had some of the wine (a somewhat earlier vintage) for David's birthday.
Our trip down from Dunkirk was relaxed, although there was a very large amount of commercial barge traffic as the harvest was in full swing (Northern crops were much less affected than elsewhere) and the usual Parisien thirst for sand, gravel and concrete continues unabated. Despite the heavy commercial barges, we have hardly had to wait for any lock the whole distance. A lot of the annual 40 million tonnes of grain comes from the North and the silos hold huge quantities. At one of them, there were four barges loading grain (total 10,000 tonnes) but they looked tiny next to the silo. At another location, there were four smaller barges (total 1,500 tonnes) unloading grain to a cereal factory. Farmers have been rolling up to the silos (which operate long hours) in their tractors pulling trailers laden with grain.
There was an interesting sight on the Seine. What looked like a full-immersion baptism in the river with a large crowd looking on and applauding from the land.
The washing machine has been going strongly and this is much easier than having to find a laundromat. There is a Frenchman on a boat behind us- he is also packing up and just left dragging a trolley of laundry to the laundromat which is about 2Km away.
This year, we stopped at fewer places with electricity than ever before. Thus we were fully self-sufficient nearly the whole time. This also meant that we used the generator-welder more than in any previous year. Pleasing to say, an inspection has revealed that the earlier modifications have been totally successful and the operating temperatures have been way below previously with absolutely no sign of any issues.
We will welcome you to our final episode of Anja's Blog in 2017 which will be our final year of owning Anja and cruising on her.
Dave and Penny
We have been making good progress in a Southerly direction.
The Canal du Nord went smoothly and we took the opportunity of visiting the town of Noyon. We had seen it several times, particularly the striking double towers of the Cathedral where Charlemagne was crowned King, but never visited. It was a very interesting town which experienced a difficult time in the wars, like many towns. The Cathedral was very old, with vestiges dating back almost 1,500 years. There was a stone listing every Bishop from 557AD until the present day, including five saints and one Pope. John Calvin was born in this town, his placed of birth now a museum.
We also visited the barging museum at the town of Longeuil Annel which used to be a major barging town. The museum was very interesting with lots of historical film footage and photographs. Penny quizzed the custodian and discovered more information about the new Canal of the North, Europe. This will run from near Cambrai in the North to near Longeuil-Annel in the South and will more than double France's annual tonnage of water-carried freight. There will be far fewer locks and much greater dimensions allowed compared with the saturated Canal du Nord.
We are now just South of Paris, on the River Seine, a few kilometres South of its junction with the River Marne. We are doing some reprovisioning here.
The trip through Paris itself was smooth. We always have some heightened anxiety as there is a lot of traffic- particularly the sightseeing Bateau Mouches and large transport barges. Unlike a couple of months ago (when the river was in flood), this time we had the current against us, though it is not very great. It was a good trip and being a Saturday there were large numbers of canoes, kayaks and rowing sculls as well as quite a few yachts. However, sailing on the Seine in Paris looks rather dangerous which is perhaps why participants were wearing crash helmets as well as life jackets.
When we left Pontoise sur Oise on Thursday, a body had just been discovered at the lock and there were Sapeur-Pompiers (fire, rescue and first response) plus Police and Medico-Legal people there. The lock-keeper was very professional but did sound a little shaken. There was a lot of construction work at the lock and we thought that maybe a worker had died. However, it turned out to be a depressed man who apparently drowned himself. Very sad, particularly for those directly involved.
On a more positive note (with regard to falling in the water), when we were at Lille one day, three motorcycle policemen came racing down the tow path on the other side and came to the canal behind us and another boat. One of them jumped into the water. There was a man in the water and they rescued him. The Sapeur-Pompiers were also there to give medical attention and take him to hospital. The boat behind had thrown him a life-ring. So, all was well. However we did not find out how he fell or jumped in. Perhaps he was one of the hundreds of people we saw there who were besotted with Pokomon-Go which had just been released in France? Huge numbers of people were wandering around glued to mobile phones and not looking where they were going, totally immersed.
The only other incident to report is that of "The Battery".
One morning, the starter battery died. Not unexpected as it has lasted about nine years and had not been starting the engine quite as enthusiastically for a couple of weeks. Not a problem, we just flicked a switch to the main battery bank.
We ordered a new one from a place we have used before. Although there is no rush, we thought it would be simple to get a new one while we are moving along without too much else to do. These batteries are rather expensive but do last a long time. Anyway, things have not worked out and it has all been a big waste of time and potentially money. The battery is now seven days overdue:
Day 1. The courier company reported "could not deliver, please select a new address". So, we contacted the tourist office and they happily agreed to accept the battery.
Day 2. The courier ran out of time- too many parcels- and took it back to the depot.
Day 3. No delivery. No status on the web site. Then at 8pm..."Delivered".
Day 4. Battery NOT at tourist office? Where is it? It is at the original delivery address. Went there, sign on door: "Sorry, due to health we are closed down and not taking or sending parcels".
After some hours, found the owner. No parcel could have been delivered because the door had always been locked.
Day 5. Where is the parcel? The parcel has been delivered to the tourist office. But it is/was not there.
By the weekend, there were still no updates and nothing possible now until Monday.
This is very frustrating and the battery company (which has been good) will not do anything until the courier company comes up with another or more credible story.
Perhaps it has been stolen or mislaid?
Dave and Penny
We had a very smooth trip back from Belgium into France and stopped as before just over the border at the Customs Post. We had not previously mentioned that the border area is crammed with shops selling tobacco and alcohol- probably due to lower duties in Belgium
In general we were retracing our steps, but we had a couple of items to tick off.
The first was to visit Zuydcoote, a beach a little north of Dunkirk where low tide exposes the remains of several vessels wrecked during the Dunkirk Evacuation. We were able to examine the skeleton of the HMS Crested Eagle, a Thames paddle wheel steamer, part of the evacuation fleet, which had embarked 600 soldiers at Dunkirk but was bombed by German Stuka dive-bombers after it had left the wharf. It burst into flames and the Captain ran it onto the beach, at Zuydcoote. There were 300 fatalities. What was left after the Germans broke it up for their own use remains today, a popular spot for collectors of the shellfish growing on it, as well as those like us interested in its history.
The next item on our to do list was a visit to the Louvre- in Northern France. The Museum of Louvre-Lens opened in 2012 as a satellite of the Louvre and a chance to bring a sample of its rich collection to people outside Paris. Since 1792, the city of Lens had been a coal mining town, but when the last of the mines closed in 1986 it experienced a severe downturn. At the same time the closure of the mines left a great deal of land unused. It is well placed geographically to meet the needs of people in Northern France easily accessible from the main population centres such as Lille, Arras and Dunkirk, and convenient also for those coming from Britain through the Channel Tunnel to Calais. And so the decision was made to locate the Louvre satellite in Lens and a modern gallery was designed and built.
There is a canal leading to Lens, previously used to transport coal. We had frequently used a pontoon near the Canal entrance but the water was very shallow just past that point. This year the channel was deeper, presumably following some dredging of the waterway, so this was our chance to visit Lens and the Louvre there. The Canal now stops short of Lens but there is a good mooring about 4 kilometres out of town. We had thought of cycling the extra distance but faced with an expected temperature of 35 degrees plus busy city streets, we decided to travel by bus instead. The Museum occupies a huge area on the outskirts of the city, previously a mine site. The main gallery is open plan with over 200 works from the main Louvre collection displayed chronologically, starting at 3500BC and ending in the 19th Century, including art and artefacts from many cultures. We were also able to enjoy a temporary exhibition of the works of Charles le Brun, Louis XIV's painter and chief of decoration for over 30 years. It was a very different experience from a visit to the Louvre in Paris, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. The Brun exhibition was particularly good and had attracted his works from the Louvre and also other collections.
Anja continues to attract attention. On the Lens Canal we were moored near a large park and many families came for a closer look at the "Bateau". At the next stop, we were next to a Mairie, venue for a Saturday afternoon wedding. Our boat provided the back drop for a photo of the flower girls.
Over the past few days we had become aware of extra vibration and could not go as fast as usual, so when we stopped next, in the Scarpe River, David donned his swimming gear to check out the propeller. He found the shaft wrapped around with black plastic, nylon fishing net and several pieces of thick fabric. No wonder it vibrated! In all he filled a large bucket with what he removed. We believe we probably started picking this up in Ypres where the Port was at the end of the Canal and seemed to be the final destination of a great deal of rubbish. Getting it off has made a great difference to our engine efficiency and smooth progress.
Penny and Dave
Dunkirk is about 15Kms from the Belgian border and the canal travels not far behind the sand dunes and beaches of this part of the "Opal Coast". We spent an evening just 2Kms from the border in order to try out various phone SIMs, find our Belgian Flag plus a variety of books and charts for Belgium. This was time well spent. The spot we chose for our overnight stop was also a favourite of the Gendarmes, Customs and heavily armed Army personnel who were often there for spot checks of cars and trucks. They did not bother us and we certainly kept a low profile. Every now and then, some of them would come over to the canal and look at us (or at least, at Anja).
The next day, we crossed the border and experienced a most rewarding week in "Westhoek", the West Corner or quarter of Belgian Flanders. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. This part of Belgium is very rural so we saw plenty of cattle, several black sheep and lots of tractors carrying crops to the silos as this is harvest time. The harvest is probably a little later than in France because it is cooler. It is also possible that the harvest is better because France has had the worst wheat harvest for over 30 years due to the very bad floods.
We had been concerned about reaching Ypres due to reports of low water depth within the canal. Fortunately, because our water draft is well under one metre, we had no problems. We had also read that parts of the Lo Canal were very narrow, at less than six metres. As we are 4.4 metres, this could be a tight squeeze. We did meet some other boats but were always able to find a spot where we could pass one another without drama.
One of the towns where we spent a night was called "Fintele", population 30 with three restaurants! During a public holiday, there were hundreds of people there. The restaurants and nearby park were full of people, many of whom had cycled. One of the restaurants had a full sized children's' playground next to the terrace. Food prices were much higher than in France, probably because people were paying tourist prices.
Because it is so flat there are few locks, though lifting bridges dot the canal, very well managed by the travelling attendants. Cycling is very popular with all ages. There are 2,000 kilometres of bike paths in Westhoek and we saw many groups of people, including families and others our age enjoying the countryside on their bikes. Sometimes the bridge lifting for us held them up and gave us an audience. One of these bridges was particularly narrow with the deck remaining at quite an angle so that we were not sure we would get through. This dilemma must have been apparent to the onlookers as well because a great cheer went up when we passed through successfully. We think that is the first acclamation we have ever had and is typical of the friendliness we met with in Flanders. To follow through this welcoming approach, most of the historic markers on buildings and all the museums in this area present their information in four languages, Flemish, French, English and German.
As we travelled through these areas so central to World War 1 history we became aware of aspects new to us. We had not realised that this small part of Belgium remained free during the First World War. The town of Veurne (Flemish) or Furnes (in French and English), population now 11,000 was the capital of the area known as "Vrij Vaderland" or Free Fatherland, and was virtually undamaged so we could admire its beautiful town square and impressive Belfry and Church. King Albert and Queen Elisabeth spent much of their time around Veurne and were very active in every day support of their people. It was King Albert's decision to open the sluices at the sea port of Nieuwpoort to flood the area near the German line, so creating a barrier which the Germans could not breach. Queen Elisabeth spent her time setting up and visiting hospitals and in organising schools to ensure continuing education for the many children who were taking refuge in this part of Belgium.
Madame Curie was a frequent visitor bringing with her portable X-ray equipment so that injured soldiers could be diagnosed and treated close to where they were injured, saving many lives. Madam Curie also brought her daughter Irene, then 17 years old, to teach technicians how to interpret the films.
Each year (just before our visit), Veurne has an anual procession of "penitents". The people dress up in sackcloth and ashes and march, carrying crosses.
Ypres and Diksmuide which we later visited were both on the German line and virtually destroyed between 1914 and 1918 while the towns behind that line remained free, though very affected by the conflict.
The name of Ypres is well known and has thousands of visitors. It was completely devastated during the War but afterwards was reconstructed as before. Its museum includes poignant and graphic portrayals of life during those long years. It has a beautiful town square and magnificent views from the Belfry. There are approximately 120 military cemeteries in the vicinity.
We attended the Last Post ceremony which has been held every night at 8pm since 1928 to remember those Commonwealth soldiers who died and lie in unknown graves. Last year, they celebrated their 30,000th Last Post. There were at least 2,500 people at the Last Post that night, just an ordinary week night, and this is the normal figure. There was a Scottish honour guard and a Royal Navy flag bearer. Various people presented wreaths. It is as well that we were there almost an hour early because there was no room left when the ceremony started. The three buglers played very, very impressively and everyone seemed moved by the experience.
The walls of the memorial, the Menin Gate, are filled with the names of almost 55,000 Commonwealth fatalities with unknown graves who fell before August 15th 1917. We were overwhelmed at the huge numbers of Australian names there. One reads the figures but seeing them listed makes it so much more concrete. More than 43,000 Australian soldiers fell on the Ypres battlefields though not all of them are in unknown graves.
"The Trench of Death" was the name given during WW1 to our final destination, a bunker complex two kilometres north of Diksmuide. Diksmuide was in German hands and entirely destroyed. The trench was constructed along the Belgian front line facing the German posts and was successfully held by the Belgians from 1914 to 1918. The trench has been fully restored so we could walk along its entire length of approximately seven hundred metres, examining the observation posts and lookout platforms, with an excellent museum displaying some of the equipment and describing the experiences of the men who occupied it.
And so back to France along those same canals which formed the front lines 100 years ago.
Penny and Dave