Kerr Barging Blogs

We have spent a fair bit of time cruising in the South Pacific aboard our 32 years young 11.1metre yacht, Pastime of Sydney. We are now cruising through the canals and rivers of France on our old barge, "Anja", which was built in the North of the Netherlands in 1903. Anja was 110 years old in May 2013 and we celebrated with good French Champagne- but the boat did not get any! In 2014, for Anja's 111th, we took her back to where she was built in the North of the Netherlands.


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).
IMG 3804Veurne Cathedral (background)IMG 3807Town Square- Veurne
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.
IMG 3821Windmill on the Lo CanalIMG 3826Sometimes the cows were in our way!

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.
IMG 3830The Ijzser River
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.
IMG 3808One of Mme. Curie's portable X-Ray unitsMadame 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.

IMG 3819

IMG 3817
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.
IMG 3832Ypres Courts of JusticeIMG 3833Ypres former Cloth Hall and Belfry- now Museum
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.
IMG 3860Ypres CathedralIMG 3856Ypres Cathedral

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.
IMG 3874Menin Gate- YpresThe 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.
lastpostThe Last PostIMG 3892
at the Menin Gate (every night 8pm)

"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.
IMG 3909And so back to France along those same canals which formed the front lines  100 years ago.

IMG 3911Dixmuide on the Ijzser River (view from the trenches)IMG 3931Dixmuide War Memorial
IMG 3934Dixmuide Gate of PeaceIMG 3937Peace Tower and WW1 Museum

Best Regards,
Penny and Dave

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Photos from Dunkirk

Here are some of the photos from Dunkirk.

IMG 3757Princess Elizabeth- made 4 evacuations from Dunkirk to Britain

IMG 3762Early conveyor used in the Port

IMG 3792View from the Belfry

IMG 37983View from the Belfry

IMG 3794View from the Belfry

IMG 3795View from the Belfry

IMG 3796View from the Belfry

IMG 3797Second Belfry- Town Hall

IMG 3758Huge lifting bridge for entry to Port

IMG 3766Town Hall with Belfry

IMG 3779Engine from crashed Lancaster

IMG 3776Evacuation from Dunkirk


IMG 3784Dunkirk Beaches

IMG 3786Dunkirk Cathedral

IMG 3787Cathedral organ

IMG 3788Bells in the Belfry

IMG 3789Carillion keyboard in the Belfry

IMG 3803WW1 bunker on the canal near Dunkik

IMG 3798Jean Bart- famous privateer

IMG 37743 masted sailing ship- 1903- same age as Anja

IMG 377314th Century Watchtower

IMG 3781Bridge to the Dunkirk Beaches
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Plenty of Photos

Here are some of the photos promised in our last Blog Post. The Dunkirk ones will be in the blog after this.

Unfortunately, it seems notifications are not being delivered to Gmail accounts whether there are photos or not. Gmail is not treating the emails as Spam.

Most of the photos are now in the photo gallery, many annotated. You can see all the photos from 2016 by clicking here.

The maps on our home page have also been updated.

IMG 3701Almost 5km underground- Canal du Nord

IMG 3703The little-travelled Scarpe Superior

IMG 3704Weed cutting on the Scarpe

IMG 3708Scarpe lock gates choked with weeds

IMG 3723Friends, Brian and Charlie

IMG 3716Vauban's Garden in Lille

IMG 3719Old factories being demolished (Deule River, Nth France)

IMG 3725ANZAC war cemetery in Sailly sur Lys

IMG 3728The old church at Sailly

IMG 3729War memorial on the Scarpe

IMG 3734St Venant Church after the war

IMG 3731St Venant Church now

IMG 3739Lifting Bridge on the River Lys

IMG 3743Huge 13metre lift lock on the Grand Gabarit Sensee

IMG 3747The ancient 13metre Boat lift, replaced by the lock shown above. Foreground- old barge pullers

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As North as possible in France

For some reason, the Blog system has not been sending update notifications to subscribed readers with Gmail accounts. We cannot understand why and only blogs with photos are affected. So, if you have not heard from us for a while, have a look at our web site and you may find a new Blog. When there are no photos, there are no problems with Gmail. This problem seems unique to Gmail.

A reminder that you can see the map with our travels on the home page.

From the Somme Valley, we proceeded North along the remainder of the Canal du Nord (Canal of the North). We had a side trip up the hardly-used Scarpe Superior to Arras, which we had thoroughly enjoyed in 2013. The trip was quite slow because four of the seven locks broke down and we had long waiting times for someone to come and fix them. Indeed, on the first day it took us five hours to travel five Kms and four locks! On the way out, only one of the seven locks broke. We had been issued with a remote control for the locks but had to summon someone by telephone every time there was a failure.

From Arras, we proceeded North again, through Douai to Lille, where we picked up visitors Charlie and Brian who had been to World Youth Day in Poland. They had been very sleep deprived and were able to recover during their eight days with us on Anja. We travelled along the Deule River to the River Lys which we had also enjoyed in 2013. We visited Armentiers and other towns along the River. From Sailly sur Lys, Brian and Charlie were able to duplicate our bike ride from 2013 by visiting Fromelles, VC Corner, Pheasant's Wood, Le Trou First Aid Post and other places from WWI.

We had an excellent lunch at Sailly to celebrate our 45th Wedding Anniversary. It was a fantastic restaurant in what is a relatively small town (of 2,000 people). Guests must have come from many other places because the restaurant was large and full. They even provided a Jumping Castle for children to enjoy.

From the Lys River, we rejoined the large, high capacity canal of the Sensee. There, many of the barges are 1,500 to 3,000 tonnes. But, the canal is wide do there was plenty of room for all of us. We were able to stop for one night near the disused Fontinettes Boat lift. We had seen some like it in Belgium. This boat lift replaced a staircase of five locks which took around 7hrs to traverse. The boatlift could pass six barges per hour. It is made up of two "bathtubs" linked together so that when one went down, the other went up. The design is Scottish and the boatlift operated continuously for 80 years from 1886 to 1967. David visited it and saw the film of it working- taken two weeks before the final closure (because it could not handle the newer, bigger barges). It was passing 2,000,000tonnes of produce a year which is very good.

From there, we went to Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French). Highlights of the visit were:

The 12th Century Belfry with magnificient views.
The Port Museum which detailed the history of the town and its commerce.
The Operation Dynamo Museum which illustrated and documented the evacuation of 338,000 allied and French troops from Dunkirk in WW2.
The famous Dunkirk Beaches.
The Cathedral.

We will send photos in a separate Blog (which Gmail might refuse to accept).

We farewelled Charlie and Brian a short while ago. They are going to Frankfurt for a flight to Australia later in the night.

At the moment, we have stopped for the night 2Kms short of the Belgian border, near the old Customs Post and near the town of Bray sur Dunes. There are not many boats along this section of canal. So far, we have travelled almost 1,000Kms and are looking forward to visiting Ypres, after which we will be turning around.

Best Regards,
David and Penelope
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Republic Day

We are close to Lens and Bethune, in the North of France and go to Lille tomorrow where friends will join us for a week or so.

July 14th in France is celebrated in most places as "Republic Day". However, in Paris and New Caledonia it is called (for us, the more familiar) "Bastille Day".

People in France had recovered to some extent (though no-one can forget the horror) from the massacres last year. Many outdoor events, particularly those involving fireworks, were cancelled following those terrible events. Finally, people seemed to be settling down and we sensed there was a desire to celebrate on Republic Day. Penny was very concerned about fireworks because the noises would seem to be a good cover for terrorist events and did not want to attend anything big. So, we selected the small town of Long to celebrate Republic Day. Nothing was publicised, but when we asked the butcher the day before, he checked with someone else and said that something was happening. David saw fireworks being prepared in an area near our barge (well, about 300metres away) on the 13th.

That night, we heard a band playing far away on a hill leading to the town. The band wound its way through the top of town, collecting townsfolk behind it. There were many families and lots of young children carrying lit paper lanterns on sticks. It was like the story of the Pied Piper. The crowd grew bigger and bigger to several hundreds (about the town population) and came down across a bridge where a couple of hundred more people had gathered. There were no gendarmes around and no traffic control. Motorists trying to go down the main street were faced with a big crowd and had no option other than to reverse away. Then there was a short but excellent fireworks display. After that, the band marched away towards the top of town, leading the townsfolk back and the crowd diminished as their homes were reached. What a beautiful night and there was the sound of fireworks from many other towns in the nearby countryside. We were about a third of the way up the Somme Valley and there are over 400 villages and towns, of which 380 were destroyed in WW1. Many of them were also celebrating.

  It was then with great sadness when we and others learned of the terrible events in Nice. These occurred a few hundred metres from where we had stayed a few weeks before and where we frequently walked. Our hearts and prayers go out to all affected- indeed, everyone has been affected.

Now, the terrible events have occurred in Rouen (as well as those in Germany). Here, there have been many marches and religious services held with attendance by Catholics and Moslems who are expressing huge solidarity and condemnation of the violence. If the terrorists want to start a war of religion, it is not working though undoubtedly there will be some xenophobia around.

David and Penelope

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