We arrived at our winter mooring in the city of Gent in Belgium on 1st October 2009. We berthed behind a modern barge called Brunel owned by an Irish couple. Over the next few days other barges began to arrive, Ebenhaezer skippered by Peter, another Irishman and his wife Jan plus Tony (English) and his wife Mary (Irish) in Anja. What with an Irish pub just along the quay we began to think the Irish were taking over the place! There are a few others in port for the winter which I will mention later.
The following weekend our friends Murdo and Susan arrived from Scotland which completed the Celtic takeover! We had a late lunch the next day in another Irish pub where a snack turned into a serious meal. A visit to the Amedeus rib house that evening found it full so we walked around the corner and found a Spanish tapas bar which was just what we needed after the heavy lunch. We visited our local Irish pub one night for the pub quiz and managed to come in second but no prizes. We could have won if Murdo's knowledge of fish had been up to scratch on the picture round. We sent them off to Bruges for the night during the week, their first visit, and they returned captivated. They stayed at the romantic Swan hotel in Bruges and endorsed our recommendation, beautifully furnished, good service and perfect breakfast in a pretty conservatory.
Towards the end of the week the weather turned really nice again so we decided to take them on a little cruise up the old river Leie to Sint-Martens-Latem.
This picturesque village became famous after WW1 as a meeting place for the Expressionist painters which became known as the Latem school. Once across the busy Ringvaart the river's character changes, the banks are low and you can see across the lovely countryside which so inspired the artists. There were literally thousands of wildfowl in and around the river, especially huge flocks of Canada geese. A police launch stopped us at one point and asked us to wait for 10 minutes as they were "surveying" the river and wanted clear water. We thought they might be looking for a body as there were more police on the bank.
At the St Martens mooring we tied Harmonie up and wandered around the village. Outside one gallery was a huge red rabbit and of course we could not resist the photo opportunity!
Lunch was taken on the terrace of one of the many cafes, a delicious set meal of onion soup followed by kebabs with a provençal sauce and vegetables, then all aboard for a cruise back downstream to Gent. We finally made it to a rib house in the evening, four different kinds and as many as you could eat. A good finish to a great day out.
We hitched a lift with Murdo and Susan back to the UK where they dropped us off at Dartford station and we trained it back to Yeovil where Chris Hockey met us. Several pints of Otter later we consumed a superlative meal of sausage and mash cooked by Carol and retired to bed. Desmond Diahatsu was retrieved from his summer hideaway in David Parry's garage and we hightailed it down to Helston to collect our six month old mail. Dinner at the Grove just outside the town was a gastronomic delight at a very reasonable price then an early start the next day back to Bath to watch them get beaten by the pink tight pantied bunch of Frog pansies known as Stade Francais. We gifted them a game they didn't deserve to win by a combination of linesmen who should have gone to specsavers and a referee (all Irish) who blew up if you held on for more than half a second but still Bath tried to run the ball out from behind their 22 and continued to concede penalties for holding on at the first breakdown which Dupuy (pansie of the match) kept kicking. Bath played by far the better Rugby scoring two tries and were 21-9 up at one point but Banahan getting sent to the bin for a high tackle on a pansie, which wasn't, loose passes by Abendanon, Nick Little having a brainstorm trying a drop goal that was not needed from almost half way and an injured Maddock letting a pansified Ollie Phillips past for a late try did for us and it probably means we are out of the Heinekin Cup as we lost by two points, 27-29.
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"The French have only negative things to say about everything and everyone."
Eric Cantona 1966 -
The professional game has nurtured big fit bodies but thick Rugby heads it would seem!
On the last day we made a quick trip over to Yarley to see Mike Palmer and Alistair followed by a stock replenishment of all the food we miss at Sainsbury followed by several more pints of Otter back in the Brewers. We returned to Gent by Norfolk Line after a hectic but enjoyable quick visit.
We became grandparents for the fourth time on the birth of Matilda Seren Rose on 24th November which, co-incidentally, was also our 34th wedding anniversary. I have decided that I will call my new granddaughter Seren which is a Welsh name for Star, which of course she already is! We travelled back over to the UK to wet the baby's head and stayed at a lovely B & B near Helston called Tregathenan House. The accomodation was immaculate, the breakfasts huge from local produce and they kept Alpacas which we were allowed to feed! Sue has now decided that when we come ashore again we have to buy a cottage with a paddock as we are going to keep some!
On the way back we stopped at Gunnislake for the night with David and Janet who we met earlier this year in France on their cruiser Rosina then down to Modbury for a pub lunch with Ade and Lorna who we wintered with in Bruges and were wintering in Devon in a caravan.
Next we celebrated Chris Hockeys coming of 60 years of age together with 70 others where a barrel of Otter was demolished in a couple of hours. Chris mentioned that he had a few spare tickets to Bath Rugby's Heinekin Cup game the following weekend with Edinburgh which was enough to tempt me to stay on in the UK for another week so we spent a couple of days with the Palmers in Yarley. We all went out one evening to Whitstones fish and chip restaurant in Shepton Mallet which is a chipper with a difference. Superlative haddock in a beer batter washed down with a nice bottle of white wine. If you opt for the large haddock it is more like a whale and hangs off the plate.
We then drove up to Gloucester where we stayed in a B & B which was almost as bad as Tregathenan had been good for the identical price. The objective of this trip was to look around the area for a place we might like to live when we sell Harmonie. We returned to Somerset having identified the Minchinhampton area on the edge of the Cotswolds as a likely contender for our future residence.
Margaret & Paull Rowbathan entertained us back in Petherton with dinner and then scrambled egg with smoked salmon for breakfast on December 12th, my 69th birthday. My breakfast dinner was another visit to Whitstones when Ann Clifford drove us up to Shepton. We also visited David Parry in a Taunton hospital, our previous host, who was recovering from his first hip operation, the first of two and a knee replacement he still needs.
Much of our time was spent shopping which we did until we dropped! On the 13th December we drove up to Bath where Sue continued shopping (she has a black belt in it) and I enjoyed a rare win by Bath Rugby against Edinburgh at the Rec. The next day we returned to Belgium where we found sub-zero temperatures and our heating having switched on making a nice warm boat to return to. It snowed heavily the next day so we stayed put but the following day we drove down to Calais to do our booze shopping as we had invited people on board the next weekend for pre Christmas mulled wine and mince pies etc. It was a brief weather window as the next day the snow started again and the temperature dropped to minus 10 centigrade, five Eurostar trains met "fluffy snow" in northern France which was ingested into the loco electrics which melted as they traversed the channel tunnel in 20 plus centigrade temperatures and stopped the trains, trapping thousands of travellers in the tunnel for several hours until they were towed out. England suffered its usual road chaos once an inch of snow falls but it was nice to know that the French trains could not handle "fluffy snow"!
We were now fully stocked for the festive season, the base of our Christmas tree was stacked with pressies, the ship was decorated with rope lights from stem to stern and we were looking forward to a quiet, perhaps white Christmas.
Well it rained heavily just before Christmas and all the snow disappeared so we did not get our white Christmas. Our port party was well attended as was the pre Christmas wine and sausage rolls on the Barge Anja, finally, Sue and I celebrated Christmas quietly and gastronomically! Christmas Eve was the Belgian traditional Lobster with a very nice 10 year old Mersault. Christmas Breakfast consisted of wild smoked salmon and scrambled eggs washed down with the inevitable shampoo whilst our Christmas dinner was a roast filet steak with roquefort sauce and all the usual roast veggies. This was enhanced with the aid of a 2001 Volnay which prefaced the 500g Matthew Walker Luxury Christmas pud snatched in Creber's Tavistock deli which was consumed in one go with some Oz pudding wine. We could not manage the cheese course!
On December 30th we were invaded by our friends the Hockeys with Maggie and Ray Rice who came laden with more booze and food. We managed three pre prandial bottles of shampoo then a further three bottle of red with our lamb tagine then a bottle of Montbazillac with our tropical fruit salad laced with triple sec before getting stuck into the malt and dancing to ELO! We had started to celebrate the new year in some style!
After a full English breakfast on new years eve we walked around Gent, pausing for lunch at a bar to sample a few Belgian speciality beers then we began the real celebrations back on Harmonie with another three bottles of fizz before setting off again to the Amadeus Rib House. Here we consumed another bottle of shampoo plus three bottles of red which accompanied a five course meal, Irish coffee and even managed to walk across town by midnight to see the year in at Portus Ghanda fortified by hip flasks of port & brandy for the wimps and Malt for the men! This was a bit like Bridgwater Carnival back in the 50's with a huge official firework display accompanied by a equally huge unofficial display going on around us.
UK 'elfansafety would definitely not have approved! After the fireworks had finished (and the burns had been treated!), we all linked hands to sing auld lang syne which intrigued those around us so much that we had to repeat it several times with more and more people joining in. Trying to translate it into English for the locals was not easy!
New years day was a little subdued by comparison but we still managed to eat and drink well enough so that we then gave our collective livers a well earned rest. After all, Gordon is concerned about geriatric binge drinking!
The new year weather continued bitterly cold, Britain was paralyzed by ice and snow with special programmes on TV about "The Big Freeze" while here we had little snow but tended to huddle up in front of the telly to escape the cold. Watching the England cricket team fighting for another draw against South Africa in temperatures of 35 degrees made you want to hop on a plane for Cape Town!
Every Monday evening we have been participating in a pub quiz just along the Quay which is run by husband and wife team David and Priscilla who live in an apartment overlooking the port. They have introduced us to a game called "Articulate" which involves describing words to the rest of your team over a short timed period which they must guess. Dinner parties on Harmonie and Anja have been much enlivened.
We took dear old Norfolk Line back to the UK early in February in time for a trip to the rec to watch Bath Rugby beat Sale Sharks 40 - 7, a proper try fest and at last we are getting out of the relegation zone and even opening the prospect of joining the final four at the top of the premiership. We then waved goodbye to the Hockeys on holiday to Kenya while we house sat for them. The following weekend we collected 16 year old grandson Will from Taunton station and set off early next morning for the Mendips and the caving trip I had promised him. Bacon sandwiches at Mike Palmers gave us the required energy for our trip then over to Martin Grass who kindly lent us the caving gear, finally up to Priddy Green to meet up with Stuart McManus, also known as Mac or more usually by his surname leaving out the second 'm' or even only using the last two syllables!
After changing in Farmer Maines barn Martin took the obligatory photograph and we processed to Swildons Hole entrance. So we had two of us in our seventieth year, a couple 20 years our junior and a callow youth looking a little nervous, either at the prospect of his first cave or the age of his fellow cavers! I reflected on the last time I descended Swildons some 30 years ago when a return trip to sump one took about an hour. This trip was to be a couple of hours longer, partly due to waiting for other parties at the only ladder pitch but mainly due to my slow rate of progress.
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"There are two things that are more difficult than making an after-dinner speech: climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you."
Winston Churchill 1874 - 1965
Waiting to descend the 20 foot pot we serenaded some youngsters with renditions of the BEC song while on reaching the sump a rather ruder song was sung about some cavers wives!
Apart from my age and fitness there was the problem of the caving gear. In my younger day we wore wet suits which did not inhibit your movement but nowadays they wear a furry one piece suit then a waterproof plastic coverall and wellie boots. I was unable to bend my legs fully in all this clobber which made climbing the many waterfalls in the streamway coming out difficult and exhausting. On reaching the entrance with a couple of cut fingers but in one piece, I had just about enough strength left in my arms to lift myself up out of the entrance! Will, of course, took to caving like a duck to water (which was pretty cold).
Safe behind a beer mug, warm and dry but not fed, we thanked our mates and sped back to the Brewers Arms in Petherton in time to watch Bath Rugby trounce London Irish. The next day, with my body aching at all points, we returned Will to Helston, staying at that nice B & B Tregathenan House where number 2 grandson Henry was allowed to feed the Alpacas. Let's hope he doesn't want a caving trip in a few years!
I am in the process of recording on this web site, all the caving songs I can remember from when I began caving in the early 60's. It is very much work in progress at the moment but if you are interested you can find it here.
For our next adventure we took a trip to Cyprus and if you would like to see an account of that trip it is here. On our return we sped down to Cornwall again to attend the christening of my latest grandaughter Matilda Seren Rose.
Above is a shot of the christening party which was held at RNAS Culrose. It was a service with a difference as the many toddlers present were encouraged to play all round the church while the service continued. There were lit candles along the altar which were in danger of getting grabbed by one of these children. Don't know what 'elfansafety' would say!
Celebrations continued back at the RNAS Culrose Community Hall and Seren was on her best behavour and gurgled her way through the whole day. We said our farewells and scooted back to Somerset, then back up on Mendip the next day for lunch with our caving friends before returning here to Gent to start preparing Harmonie for our 2010 cruise.
Our domestic batteries were five years old and were starting to exhibit signs of exhaustion by not holding their charge for long. I surfed the internet for replacements and found a company called Battery Supplies in Deerlijk who quoted me €180 each back before Christmas.
I rang them to place an order and she said "I'll just check the price". I thought to myself "here's where we go up" but she then quoted €133, this for 12v 230a/h semi traction batteries. I can only assume the price of lead must have dropped hugely but replacing these turned out to be far less that we had budgeted. A seagull shat on my head shortly after so I expect more good news soon! We had a delivery of heating fuel, 900 litres, which set us back a few bob at almost €0.66/litre but hopefully that should keep us going for most of next winter if it is not too cold.
We had a flurry of guests after we arrived back. First Jeremy and Ann Clifford then,
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"My bottom is so big it's got its own gravitational field."
Carol Vorderman 1960 -
A new sculpture had been added since our last visit of the largest female bum I have ever seen!
Spring was here and the start of a new cruising season.