Ath to Mons
After a couple of days at Ath we set off on the pleasant and quiet Blaton-Ath Canal southwards to a stretch of some 19 locks: first nine rising (each about 3 m) and then ten descending. We were about to get a good practice run for our locking skills.
Two éclusiers travelled with us and ran the nine upwards locks, a relatively short run, leaving us at our mooring with the instruction to be ready the next day at 10 am for the ten ‘down’ locks. The locking went smoothly and we began to feel that we were quite comfortable with upward locks at least – and these are generally a bit harder than down locks.
It was a wild mooring at Belœil and this became our first full-on mooring using our stakes, there were no bollards or cleats – not especially demanding as there was no boat traffic once the éclusiers stopped working the locks. We had used stakes a couple of times to hold off waiting for a lock to be ready for us. Ian would bring us as close to shore as he could, then hold her steady while Lisette got off with a heavy stake, an even heavier mallet, and a length of rope.
Forgot to take some rope the first time; forgot to leave it tied to something on board the second time, but after a few ‘stake-outs’, we were getting the hang of it all. Chuck the stake overboard; chuck the mallet overboard (hoping they landed on the ground and not in the canal!); hold onto one end of a rope, and climb off without falling in, or turning an ankle. Easy, once we had a routine.
A short ride into the village took us to the Chateau Belœil. It was an impressive exterior and boasted some broad, well-kept gardens. It is known as Belgium’s Versailles. The inside was a little distressed, but interesting enough with Lisette translating the French commentary for Ian.
The outside gardens were well kept and extensive with some spectacular fountains and expanses of water. This was more reminiscent of Versailles than the interior. A pleasant, inexpensive visit.
The next morning, promptly at 10 am we moved off in a convoy of five – this time we were in the first group with our Dutch cruiser friends, and the three remaining cruisers were in the second group. It was a very smooth operation by the éclusiers who were running two crews so that as the first boats left, they could move them to the next lock while the other crew reset the lock for the second group waiting behind. Sometimes there was only a hundred metres or so between each lock, all of which dropped us up to 3 metres at at time. We dropped off a packet of Tim Tams to the guys as we reached the last lock and thanked them profusely (in French) for the quick and comfortable passage.
Once out of the Blaton-Ath canal, we moved into the main east-west canal in Belgium – the Canal du Centre (there is also a Canal de Centre in France). Wide and relatively featureless it was an easy and short haul to our chosen mooring at the Grand Large at Pommerœul. There was a steady stream of big commercial craft passing us in both directions, but the wide canal meant that we were unaffected other than being impressed at how large some of these vessels were, and how well maintained the canal was.
The mooring at Pommerœul was definitely one of the least picturesque we have come across. The ‘Grand Large’ denotes a big basin – in this case it was a place where commercials could wait for the lock. A long quay stretches out into the middle of the basin, with the canal end covered with seagull droppings. There was nobody around and the few vessels that were tied up to the quay looked semi-derelict. The mooring is, however, popular with bargees because you can do lots of painting and maintenance here without affecting other boats or townsfolk. It is, quite understandably, either forbidden or discouraged to do ‘dirty’ work in most mooring places.
The main feature of this mooring was the absolutely enormous lock that was set at the end. It is more than 120 m long and 13.5 m deep. From the Grand Large it is a down lock, so it sits as an empty vessel. We stared down into this enormous cavern and became a little intimidated by the realization that some locks that we were to tackle the next day were 5 – 10 m deep.
This huge and modern lock is rarely used. It was built as part of a project to allow large commercial barges to travel in and out of France. The Belgians completed their expensive part of the project, but the French never completed theirs and so commercial traffic can’t pass through because the canal on the French side is unfinished. Instead, there is another huge basin of water past the lock that is used by boaters, sailors, water skiers and so forth for recreation. The lock is nominally still operational, but you have to give 48 hours’ notice if you wish to use it, and you can’t really travel anywhere.
The next day was a short cruise to the large town of Mons, well known as the location of the first battle between the English and German armies in WW1. The Battle of Mons took place on the 23 August 1914, with the British having a tactical victory, but had to retreat the next day. Mons was held by the Germans until 1918 when it was liberated by a Canadian army. To this day, Canadians are held in high regard in the town and maple leaf flags are quite common at official events, particularly those commemorating wartime conflict.
Our mooring at Mons was again in a ‘Grand Large’ against a high wall at one end of the basin. The basin itself is used for a whole range of water sports: from kids learning how to sail small boats right through to noisy jet skis. So while navigating the basin as we were coming in to moor did require attention to be paid to the other water users, it was also interesting to see so much activity. While our mooring lacked facilities, it was free and access to the old town (1.5 km away) was a short bicycle ride or a one euro bus ride from a stop nearby.
As we arrived we saw another old barge, belonging to friends we met last year, Silk Purse, was already moored against the high stone wall. Canadians Barry and Carole live aboard and although Carole was in the UK dog-sitting, it was nice to catch up with Barry.
The following day, another set of friends from last year, Andy and Caroline, arrived on their barge Neeltje resulting in a little barge meeting. In between tourist activities, there was time for socialising and exchange of tips for cruising activities.
The town of Mons has an impressive square, which we entered through a striking ‘bird’s nest’ art installation. With the usual collection of convivial brasseries around the square, it is dominated by the mid-15th Century town hall. It was market day, and so we bought some fresh vegetables and stored them in our bike panniers, because our first tourist destination was outside of Mons.
One of the reasons for getting bikes, indeed the electric bikes, was to give us some extended range in visiting tourist attractions. We can use them to reach places beyond our normal walking range (although we are pretty sure we frequently walk several kilometres around towns whether we take the bikes out or not) and we don’t have to rely on public transport. As a sort of test, we wanted to visit the Military Cemetery at Saint Symphorien, about 8 km from our mooring. Off we tootled and about 30 min later, after passing through some pretty suburbs of Mons, we arrived at the entrance.
The setting is peaceful and respectful. Really worth a visit. The cemetery is a First World War Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground, established in 1916.
It contains the graves of 284 Germans and 229 Commonwealth soldiers (all British except for two Canadians) who lost their lives in WWI, principally those killed in the battle of Mons in August 1914. It was established by the German Army on land donated by a local farmer, with the condition that it would include soldiers from both sides, in roughly equal numbers. One of the key features is that it includes the graves of John Parr, believed to be the first British soldier to be killed in WWI, and George Lawrence Price of Canada who, along with George Edwin Ellison of the UK, were the last Commonwealth soldiers to die in the Great War. (In Belgium, WWI is of such importance, they simply call it the Great War.)
In fact, it is understood that Price was killed at 10.58 am, on November 11th – just two minutes before the armistice ended the war. Sadly, there are also graves for some killed after the war had officially ended.
At the entrance a small brass door in the wall reveals a book listing details of every one of the soldiers interred in this cemetery, from the battalion or regiment to which each belonged, to the duties they performed and the circumstances and dates of their deaths.
The graves were all immaculately maintained, with many varieties of flowering plants thriving at the base of each headstone. The setting is surrounded by tall trees, and the graves are arranged in small groups, with grassy stretches taking you from one area to the next.
The headstones in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery are maintained by the War Graves Commission, re-engraved in situ as needed, to reduce the number that need to be replaced. In Western Europe alone, more than 17,000 headstones and memorial panels are re-engraved each year. Teams of more than 400 gardeners manage the grass and the headstone borders at this and other Commonwealth cemeteries.
When Lisette spotted a well-fed, sleek grey cat strolling among the graves, and alerted Ian to its presence, the cat tore across the grass keen for a stroke and a pat. Clearly tame and enjoying the sun, it eventually sauntered off, comfortable in the lovely garden that had been provided for its pleasure.
We cycled back to town, and stopped at the Memorial Museum for another couple of hours of WWI history. This was chock-a-block with detail on WWI – after two hours we were mentally exhausted and frozen solid – it was the coldest museum we have ever been in. When we arrived at the section on WWII, we simply raced through, too cold and over-stimulted to absorb any more information. Still, highly recommended if you have a little more time – and winter woollies – with an enormous amount of detail and fascinating memorabilia. Our WWI knowledge is growing by the day.
The only downer to the stay in Mons is that our generator essentially stopped working. It would just barely turn over, start to run with a desperately slow and laboured chugging. Simple checks of fuel, filters and electrics did not fix it and soon it refused to start at all. This was marginally inconvenient as we need it to use the electric hot plates unless we are on shore power. On the other hand it is not catastrophic as we have the BBQ and a lamp oil stove; and the microwave will work off the battery/inverter system. We are not so dependent on the generator to keep the batteries charged because the solar panels and cruising itself provides enough electricity to keep the main batteries at a safe level of charge – we rarely use the genny to top them up.
The next day was the first of the weekend and one of our most highly anticipated destinations was next on the list.
Off to cruise up the four historic ascenceurs between Thieu and La Louvière.