Belgium & Holland in Spring 2010.
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We left Gent on April 6th leaving behind Anja who was to depart the following day. We arrived at Merelbeke lock in good time to catch high tide and rode the ebb down to Dendermonde in under three hours. Up into the river Dender and up to the second lock called Denderbelle where we turned and moored above the lock with the permission of the keeper. 24 degrees centigrade in the wheelhouse and we enjoyed a lovely sunny evening. The next day we left the mooring at noon to catch the high tide at Dendermonde and, once again, sped down the Schelde to the conjunction of the river Rupel in under three hours. We then battled the 24 km up the Rupel and river Nete against the outgoing tide for over three hours to arrive at the Duffel lock at 6.45pm where the lock keeper announced he used to live in Essex and allowed us to moor up above his lock.
The next morning was cold and wet as we cruised a couple of kilometres up to the Lier pontoon where a very helpful lady harbour master welcomed us. Shortly after arriving we received a call from Jeremy and Pauline Rawles who were setting out on a journey to Italy in their motor home. They were passing Antwerp and thought they might visit us. It took a couple of hours, several phone calls and me riding out on my bike to rescue them. Then they got stuck in the soft ground by the towpath and had to unhook the van they tow behind the motor home to tow the motor home back onto the tarmac! Then Pauline drove the van off in the wrong direction and we thought we had lost her for good!
We finally managed to get them parked and set off to sample the local beer. Every pub we went in did not sell Lier (pronounced Leerrrch) beer but we eventually found one that sold Caves (pronounced Ca-vess) and even found the owner of the brewery who was drinking Stella and insisted on buying us De Koenicks beer! An animated discussion began with the whole pub joining in on every subject known to man until hunger forced a retreat to a restaurant for dinner!
Lier is a charming town known as "Bruges in miniature" with a population of around 32,000 who exhibited civic pride and made us feel very welcome. It has quite a cultural heritage being the home of painters Opsomer and Timmermans who was also a famous writer, particularly of childrens books. Lier's most famous son was one Louis Zimmer (1888 - 1970) who was a clockmaker and amateur astronomer. On the centenary of the Belgian State in 1930 his centenary clock was installed in the Cornelius Tower, part of the old city walls dating from the 13th century. The Belgian King also commissioned him to construct an astronomical clock with 90 dials showing various planetary data, one of which takes over 28,000 years to make one rotation. Considering all these dials are mechanically driven, the calculation and manufacture of the gear trains involved would have been a monumental task. You can see an exhibition of his clocks including the so called "wonder clock" and the internals of the centenary clock inside the tower with audio descriptions in four languages.
We entertained J and P to dinner on board before they set off the next day towards Germany while we sailed north, out onto the dreaded Albert Canal which was very quiet, in fact there seems to be very little commercial shipping movement compared to last year, perhaps an indication of the continuing reduced level of economic activity. At Schoten we turned off the Albert onto the Kanaal Dessel - Turnhout - Schoten which, being Saturday, closed at 3pm so we just had time to go up two locks and through a lift bridge where the keeper showed us a good mooring just across from the centre of town. He informed us that a 600 tonne barge was coming up at 9am on Monday so advised us to be ready to move on at 8am unless we wanted a very slow day. We were at the next lock at 7-50am and the lock keeper turned up at 8-30, then the next lock was closed with a commercial in it so we were stationary for a further half hour. We eventually made it to Turnhout and moored against a quay, starting the next morning quite late. A commercial was coming towards us as we set off so we waited for him to come through a narrow section. As he passed our stern was sucked across the canal into the path of a second big commercial coming through the narrows with us beam on across the canal! Our Bow Thruster brough us round quickly and we slammed against the other side of the canal just in time to avoid a collision.
Harmonies previous owner, Koh, arrived and volunteered to assist in installing the new Hydrophore ("I fix, I fix", you can't stop him!). While I sweated to remove the old one, he fabricated aluminium bearers and fitted them. I visited the lovely Luyckx (the local hardware store pronounced louwks) for plumbing fittings etc., in fact I did ask for a bed there in the end, I visited them so many times! Finally installed, each time it was switched on it blew a fuse. I called the manufaturer in Holland who suggested several things to try but all failed. I then suggested that the thing might be wired incorrectly (no wiring diagram supplied) so they emailed me a diagram and, low and behold, it was, wrongly wired by them! Rewired to their diagram and switched on to discover the switch on our wheelhouse instrument panel had failed. Koh rewired it to a spare switch, lying on his back under the panel, torch in mouth saying, "this is not a job for old men"!!! Finally we switched it on and it worked.
Off the next day towards Maastricht as far as Maasmechelen, then up to the Maastricht bunker boat where a gas bottle, new life jackets, ropes and ANWB maps for Holland contributed further to their profits! There to meet us were Jan and Peter Harris with their clipper Ebenhaezer who wintered with us in Gent.
This where we meet the River Waal which is really the mighty River Rhine. It has a fast current, usually between 5 and 7 km/hr so even after nearly a month without rain it looked fearsome. In WW2 the American army succeeded in capturing the Bridge here more or less intact and Operation Market Garden was launched by the British Parachute Regiment to capture the bridge at Arnhem which was unsuccessful with the result that Nijmegen became the front line for many more months.
With all the river traffic there were some quite large waves but we made it safely to the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal, through the lock and into calmer water, then left turn into the river Lek meandering slowly through typical Dutch countryside with only the odd commercial to disturb the peace.
Safely off the busy canal at Nigtevecht the evening was warm enough for us to sit out on the focsle for pre prndial drinkie poo's and nibbles. We were now on the river Vecht which was very pretty and will probably explore in more detail on our return south.
Up until 1976 this was part of the Ijsselmeer which in turn was the Zuiderzee. A dyke was built acros the entrance to the Zuiderzee which was completed in 1932 to create the Ijsselmeer which progressively became fresh water. Then they built dykes aound huge areas of the Ijsslmeer and pumped out the water they contained to reclaim land called polders. Finally in 1976 a dyke was completed across the most southerly part of the Ijsslmeer creating the Markermeer which it is eventually intended to drain and reclaim another polder. Our route was to take us north through the Randmeren, the lakes between the dykes of the Flevoland polders and the original coast of the Zuiderzee.
Our first night was spent on a good quiet free mooring a little way up the River Eem then on up to Elburg which was a lovely town where we would have stayed longer but for the extortionate charge for mooring of €20 a night plus coin in the slot electricity and we lied about our length!!
It was still blowing hard when we left Urk and dropped down six metres in the lock to the Urkervaart canal. Urk was originally an island in the middle of the Zuiderzee and became attached to the land with the draining of the Noordoost Polder completed in 1942. A small cruiser travelling with us had come down the Ijsselmeer that day from Lemmer but was travelling back by canal. The skipper said he thought they were going to turn over at one point while his wife declared they were never going on the Ijsselmeer again! Urk has a memorial to hundreds lost at sea from the port dating from the seventeen hundreds, the most recent being only last year.
Sloten dates from the 15th century and is a picture postcard place complete with stone bridges and thatched windmill. Canals go round and through it but, unfortunately, someone decided to build a huge milk processing plant right next to it which rather spoils the ambiance.
The wind and rain started with a vengeance, increasing to gale force as the evening wore on. It continued to howl all night and we were being blown onto the quay so no problems with ropes although we were continually moving. The temperature dropped down to five degrees Centigrade and we had to put the heating on as Peter and myself watched Munster getting knocked out of the Heinekin Cup by Biaritz, fortified by Belgian beer and chips from the Friture next to the milk factory!
Gale force winds and driving rain continued the next day so we stayed put as the weather was forecast to improve the next day. I am reminded of that well known Scottish proverb "Ne'er cast a clout till May is out" and that is certainly proving the case this year.
Holland has four bank holidays this month so people take extended holidays and the waterways are busy with wet and bedraggled people, all trying to enjoy themselves!
The weather did improve to the extent that there was the occasional gap in the clouds and the wind dropped to about force seven as we battled our way across the Slotermeer to Woudsend then on up to Heeg (pronounced haykhh) where we moored by prior arrangement and where Pete and Jan were to leave Ebenhaezer for an extended trip back to the UK. Pete caught the train back to Gent to retrieve his car which was used for excursions to various towns around for several days.
Saturday the 8th of May was the day that Bath Rugby beat the Leeds Tykes 39-3 and confirmed their fourth place in the premiership, up from 11th and potential relegation at the start of the year. They now face top of the table Leicester at Welford Road in the semi final play offs. Carn Barf!
On one of our car trips we encountered a vintage tugboat rally at Woudsend. The little town was buzzing with stalls selling food and various crafts while groups of singers entertained with Shanty songs, many of which were familiar and were English or Scottish. Took me back to my folk singing days in Edinburgh with the Gillies. One of the local windmills was open to visitors which was still a working sawmill. Dating from around 1710 the wind power was transmitted through two sets of wooden crown and pinion gears to a horizontal iron crankshaft driving three vertical wooden rods. At the end of each rod was a rectangular frame into which could be inserted various saw blades.
Here you can see a sectional drawing of the windmill together with a square section of timber in the process of being cut by two blades, possibly for a ships mast. Three different pieces of timber could be sawn at the same time with three separate configurations of saw blades.
Pete and Jan set off south by car to the UK while we hired a car from nearby Sneek and made another trip to Exalto near Rotterdam to collect more spares for our Rheinstrom Y10 toilet. Since we bought Harmonie in 2005 we have had intermittent problems with starting the electric motor of our toilet. We first changed the relay to no effect, then the brushes which seemed to cure the problem but we had to have a new set of brushes each year. The problem became worse and worse. I fitted new brushes and brush holders once again but this time the problem persisted so I stripped the unit down completely to discover the motor commutator was worn right down and large areas of copper had disintegrated so that if the motor stopped with the brushes in one of these positions it would not start. It also explained the excessive wear of the brushes over the last few years. So a new motor was ordered and while it was stripped, new impeller, seals etc. plus the expense of the hire car left us another €500 poorer but we have virtually a new WC. Considering it is probably 20 years old it has done well but I was surprised that nobody at Rheinstrom or Exalto could identify what the problem might be. Technical assistance on this sort of kit is virtually non existent and getting information is like getting blood out of a stone. Companies like Rheinstrom could easily set up web sites with FAQ technical questions and a help line number for the ones that are not there.
The 11th of May 2010 was therefore a tumultuous day for Britain. Gordon Brown finally resigned, David Cameron became PM with Cleggie as his deputy, while the crew of Harmonie could now poo with confidence!
Our journey continued through the Hegemer Mar to Stavoren on the Ijsselmeer. This is "yottie" country and the port filled that evening with the genre! Stavoren, like Urk, was a thriving fishing port until the creation of the Ijsselmeer but now makes it's living from tourism. The sun came out at last as we travelled back and found our way into the Aldergeaster Brekken, around whose shores are many moorings. We found one next to a cycle track and cycled in to Oudega, yet another pretty little village and we are beginning to get feelings of deja vu!
We stayed on the mooring for three days and I have to record the sad news that Leicester beat Bath Rugby in the premiership semi final, however, some consolation was that England became 20/20 cricket world champions for the first time by beating Australia - always a satisfying feeling!
Some of the first land to be reclaimed from the sea (polders) was in this area. The way it was done was to build a dyke around the area to be reclaimed, then a windmill to drive a pump which over the years gradually drained the land of water. Our cycle track followed the dyke around the polder and edge of the lake, passing one of these little wind pumps.
Apart from windmills and pretty villages, another thing you notice about Friesland are their famous beautiful black horses. At Workum we moored next to a mare and her foal before walking into town to buy provisions, then on to Makkum, another Ijsselmeer port but this one renowned for its ceramics. There are many lift bridges along the canals and most seem to charge a €1.50 or €2.00 toll. We passed through five on our way to Makkum so it starts to make a hole in your loose change. The bridge keeper lowers a wooden clog on the end of a fishing line for your money as you sail through.
We berthed on the quay right next to the ceramic factory (by appointment to the Queen) and visited the factory shop. Starting with tiles (from €26 each) they displayed an amazing range of products including stoves, wall decorations and clocks in addition to the usual pottery. Our only problem was the price; way out of our range!
Walking around Makkum, Sue noticed a sign over an accountants office which made us laugh. If you are looking for financial advice in Friesland you should possibly steer clear of this firm!
Makkum is the most northerly of the Ijsselmeer port towns. We were not charged for the mooring or the last lift bridge so we sailed on the next day to Bolsward with money in our pockets to face the highest mooring charges yet at €1.35 per metre. You are, however, provided with a lovely mooring under the lime trees, electricity and water plus a laundrette and WiFi all included in the price. The nice Harbourmaster only charged us for 20 metres after we told him how much we liked his town which is a specially nice place.
The first nice thing about it is its town hall. Built between 1614 and 1617 it is reckoned to be the greatest in Friesland and the rococo steps in front date from 1768. There is a small museum inside and you can wonder around freely with a printed guide in English. The town hall is the centrepiece of the main street down which runs the inevitable canal and when we arrived the market was in full swing down each side of the canal. We contributed to the local economy by purchasing two huge lumps of local cheese, one cumin flavored and a strong one matured for longer and reminiscent of Old Amsterdam. We also bought some plants for our boxes and I spent the afternoon pulling out the winter pansies and replanting.
Bolsward is the home of the Sonnema distillery where they produce the Berenburg jenever made with 71 different herbs. I remember visiting this part of the world regularly on business and being introduced to the drink as an aperitif. You drank it with cheese and washed it down with beer to take the taste away!! The distillery was building a new visitor centre so there were no tours but we purchased a bottle for old times sake.
The town has some gracious old houses and with a population of under 10,000 must be a very nice place to live as you can walk or cycle everywhere quite easily.
The weather was now clear and sunny but still with a biting northerly wind so you dare not cast a clout. We sailed south on De Wymarts and found a splendid mooring on Easthimmer Mar, a small lake just north of Ijlst.
We cycled into Ijlst which has the usual canal as the main street but was a little different in that the houses had the road in front which the occupants had to cross to get to their gardens on the canal bank.
We decided that, as the next weekend was a holiday, we would grab a mooring in Sneek (pronounced Snake) before the rush and were glad we did. We found a prime spot right in front of the Waterpoort (water gate), an ornate fortification built in 1613 as part of the city walls. This is the sailing capital of Friesland and we anticipated the mooring fees would be high but were pleasantly surprised to only pay €0.70 per metre which included 16 amp electricity and WiFi. The Harbourmaster recommended an Indonesian restaurant where we enjoyed the rice table the following night after catching up with the annual painting chores, the weather having improved. In fact we were able to sit outside on deck with a gin and tonic for only the second time this year! We were astonished at the continual procession of boats of all description which continued all day Saturday but this was nothing compared to the canal traffic when we left on Sunday afternoon, literally thousands of boats, mostly under sail, it seemed to be the nautical equivalent of a busy motorway on a bank holiday! We cruised back down towards Heeg then turned north again towards Sneek up the Prinses Margriet Kanaal and into Swarte Brekken where we found a Marrekrite mooring. This is a voluntary organisation which provides and maintains countryside moorings and most boats purchase their pennant to fly as a contribution to funds. The lady who sold us ours gave us some good tips for some of their moorings further north.
A cold northerly wind continued to blow but the sun shone as we sat out on the pontoon, sheltering from the wind in the lee of the wheelhouse. The last Dutch bank holiday in May over, the water traffic settled down and we headed off to Langweer where we just about managed to navigate into the harbour. This was very much a 'yottie' place, full of restaurants so we pressed on the next day to Joure (pronounced Jowrer). We had passed through here before by car during our search for a barge in 2004 and there is a strong smell of coffee, it being the home of Douwe Egberts where the firms founder was born in 1723. We cycled into town to purchase some paint then continued our journey heading south to another Marrekrite mooring just north of Tsjûkermeer where we admired a Hen Harrier looking for his dinner.
Our journey continued across the Tsjûkermeer and onto De Kunder of De Tsjonger which meanders through old peat cutting country until we turned north again onto Engelen Feart, a very narrow canal through pleasantly wooded countryside leading to the city of Heerenveen.
Much wealth was created here from cutting peat in the 16th century and some of the mansion houses remain, but the city is largely a new town and you cycle into the city from the harbour on dedicated cycle paths through modern housing developments and landscaped parks to a huge shopping centre.
Heading north on the It Deel we encountered a huge commercial fully loaded barge travelling in the same direction at about 4km per hour. He was well over to the port side of the canal so I spoke to him on the VHF and said I proposed to overtake him on his starboard side to which I received a load of Dutch, nothing of which I understood. A smaller boat ahead of us decided to do the same thing so we followed but we needed almost full power to get past before the next bend. We then turned off to the east along the Meinesleat to Akkrum.
It was from here in 1866 that one F H Kuipers emigrated to the USA and made his fortune. During his regular returns home, dismayed at the poverty amongst the elderly population, he built Coopersburg to provide homes and care for them.
The canals through Akkrum are very narrow and windy with lots of plastic tied up in awkward places. The railway bridge was 3.5 metres in height so with our mast stepped we could navigate, however, I completely forgot about the blue board which came into contact with the bridge at the precise moment a train went over causing a noise the sound of thunder in the wheelhouse and raising heartbeats somewhat!
Along the pretty winding De Boarn waterway we arrived at Aldeboarn and halted for the weekend. Here is a free mooring on the canal side with coin in the slot electricity and water. Three old cast iron bridges span the very narrow canal through this, one of the oldest villages in Friesland. The bridges are all turning bridges operated by a lady who, unusually for Friesland, makes no charge. The church tower has a three level wooden lantern on top which is not exactly vertical, either due to subsidence or maybe the prevailing northerly wind?
Much to Sues delight Aldeboarn was full of pussy cats, one of which found a good place to escape the wind! We cycled back into Akkrum from here and did some shopping, then back in a big circle battling the wind. Finally after three weeks without rain the weather broke and we had some heavy stuff. We watched Leicester beat Saracens by the skin of their teeth to claim the premiership cup for the eighth time and witnessed Baths new flanker, Lewis Moody, kiss Geordan Murphy after the result. Sue said her Dad would turn in his grave if he could see the way Rugby footballers hug each other after a try these days let alone kiss each other!!! What is the world coming to, the All-Blacks would never countenance such behavour?!
We now travel along the Opsterlandse Compagnonsvaart, more commonly known as the Turfroute whose waterways were dug to transport peat in the early 19th century.