Sliding down the Canal: 22/08 – 24/08

Thuin to Ronquières and Waterloo

Back to Abbaye d’Aulne

Today was the last day the lock at Abbaye d’Aulne was to be open and our sights were set on the Ronquières inclined plane so we left Thuin at a reasonably early hour. After yet another relaxing cruise along the river and a couple of locks, we entered the stretch just before the Abbaye. Along the side of the river, we could see temporary seating and stages being set up. It transpired that the reason for the closure was that this part of the canal was going to be used for floating stages upon which a music festival was to be held.

As we had plenty of time, our aim was to tie up at the visitor’s quay on the upstream side of the lock and have a look around the abbey and perhaps a beer (pretty certain there would be a beer). However, the hotel barge was occupying most of the quay and despite some heroic attempts by Ian to moor behind her, with Lisette trying different ways of getting a suitable rope onto the only available bollard, and the éclusier also trying his best to help, there was just too little space. When we made the decision to stop trying, the éclusier, satisfied that we planned only a short visit, said that if we went through the lock we could tie up on the downstream side of the lock. One would not normally be allowed to moor here, but with his endorsement, we did just that, in a delightful spot under the shade of some leafy trees.

We sauntered back and spent the next couple of hours walking slowly around the ruins. We described earlier that the Abbaye and its library had been destroyed during the wars with the French. That so much remains is a testament to the size and solidity of the Abbaye before the destruction.

Legend has it that the Aulne Abbey was founded in 637, and became Cistercian in 1147. Over the centuries various buildings were built, rebuilt and modernised, with later strengthening and restoration work continuing late into the 19th Century.

In the 18th Century, travellers described three separate refectories:  the lean refectory was for ordinary days; the fat refectory was for days when meat was permitted (Cistercian monks only acquired the right to eat meat in 1485 – but they were often expected to brew beer to help support themselves – go figure!); and the colloquium refectory was the only one where speaking was permitted.

After the obligatory beer with Jim at a lock-side pub, where we saw Oscar making his way through the lock, with a small party on board, we headed back to Catharina Elisabeth. There was a chap fishing nearby. He was quite concerned that we were moored at this spot, as he explained, in French of course, that recently, on several occasions, the trees had dropped large branches – at one time nearly crushing a boat moored just where we were. He was relieved that we were leaving. As were we, truth be told.

A short cruise later we again tied up at Marchienne-au-Pont, for a quiet, relaxing evening. We cycled into town for groceries, much to Jim’s delight, who, as a keen cyclist, was eager to experience this aspect of the cruising lifestyle.

Onwards to Ronquières

Today’s destination was to be the Plan Incline de Ronquière – a moderate trip retracing our route of a couple of weeks ago along the Canal du Centre. After leaving Marchienne-au-Pont, we travelled a short way down the Sambre and turned to port into the Canal du Centre.

We had thoroughly enjoyed all our travels on the Sambre as we hope you have appreciated! Absolutely highly recommended to anyone and we hope that sometime we will return, taking the full route from France after the repairs at Vadencourt are completed. The only sorrow will be that once that happens, the Haute Sambre will be much busier – so anyone with an interest should be encouraged to try the Sambre now.

One of the guillotine gates characteristic of inclined planes and lifts. Sited before the plane, it is dropped at night or in an emergency if something fails at the inclined plane. If it was not there and there was a failure of the gates at the inclined plane, the entire canal, 28 km of water, would empty itself down the incline destroying everything beneath it.

The route to Ronquières was straightforward: the canal is wide (because it is a commercial route) with few locks, and we had a lovely quiet run. In the late afternoon, we ran up the long straight stretch of the canal into the 290 x 59 m holding dock at the top of the inclined plane and moored out of the way of the two large commercials that were already waiting.

At the top of the 150 m tall control tower, there is a viewing deck – part of the museum housed in the building.

The inclined plane at Ronquières is an impressive and fascinating piece of canal machinery. The Charleroi-Brussels canal is one of Belgium’s oldest inland waterways. As early as the mid-17th Century, it was clear there was a need for an inland route from the southern coalfields. Roads were scarce and in a dreadful state, hampering commercial expansion. More than a century later, the idea of building a canal was again discussed, but enthusiasm for digging a trench, with vastly different water levels already an issue and plans were again shelved. In 1803, an Imperial decree ordered the construction of a canal, but … Napoléon had a war on his hands and the cost of building a canal was prohibitive, not to mention the availability of labour.

Work finally commenced in 1827, and after some stop-go issues, the canal was opened in 1832. Even then it could not accommodate larger commercial vessels, (passage limited to 220 tonnes) and so between 1854 and 1914, it was widened to allow barges up to 300 tonnes.

The original barges that used the canal. Based on English narrowboats they were 19.5 m long, 2.7 m beam and could carry 70 tonnes loaded.

Following the end of WWI, work started again, ultimately making it possible for barges of 1,350 tonnes to travel the entire length of the canal.

So now, large commercial barges could travel from Seneffe (and on to Charleroi) on the Canal du Centre to Brussels but the number of locks needed to accommodate the geography of the region made travel very slow. Work on the Ronquières inclined plane, which is essentially a large sloping lock, commenced in 1962 and it was eventually opened in 1968.

This image gives some idea of how many locks are saved by the inclined plane. It replaced 14 of them.

Two parallel tracks slope down the hill and along each of them runs a huge metal tub (caisson) that is 91 m long and 12 m wide.

The two caissons operate independently, the tubs are drawn up or down by relatively small motors because each one has a huge concrete counterweight attached that slides in the opposite direction to the caisson as is moves on 236 rollers. It is quite remarkable to realise that a simple metal tub that looks to all intents and purposes like a rusty corrugated iron bathtub, is capable of moving 1,350 tonnes of vessel smoothly, and almost silently 68 m over the 1.43 km track in a little over 20 minutes.

Another commercial arrived soon after we had moored up and our discussion with the control tower had us “troisième”, third in line. With only one of the two caissons operating – it takes about 90 minutes for a whole cycle – as you wait for the caisson to go down and come back up again. Regardless of whether or not there is a barge being moved. By the time the second commercial was going down, we decided that we would stay the night at the top and offered our position to another commercial that had arrived, much to his delight, and we settled down.

Next morning, we woke at 6.00 am so we could make our arrangements and get into the queue early and cruised into the caisson at about 7.30 after the first commercial of the day had arrived at our level. Catharina was alone, so we had plenty of space to pick to moor up. A short while later, almost imperceptibly we began moving down. The clink, clank – clink, clank of the wheels was the only noise as we gently descended. There was barely a ripple to be seen in the massive bathtub that carried us down the slope. Twenty minutes later we calmly settled to a stop, the downstream gate rose up and we cruised out. We had already asked if we could moor at the far end of the dock, so we tied up on the side with the non-operating caisson.

The Quest: Part III

As members of DBA – The Barge Association, we had availed ourselves of their supplier’s guide to search for an outlet specialising in gas fittings. This exercise had indicated that someone with those qualifications was in Ronquières. So Ian and Jim dashed out first thing to see if they could get an adapter that would connect the French regulator to the Dutch BBQ. We located a service station/mechanic shop which was the only vaguely likely spot for such a specialist and, sure enough, he took us to a big box of derelict and superfluous spare parts. Looking at our French regulator, he was very much of the “Non, non,” and sad shaking of the head disposition. Genuinely disappointed, he offered us some gaskets and fittings, refused to take any payment and we left, charmed with his politeness. Some reevaluation of the problem was clearly required.

To Waterloo

We sped down the hill, back to Catharina because there was no time to waste as we had planned to take a trip by public transport to nearby Waterloo to view some of the battlefields. Our go-to route planning app, Rome2rio, had given us the times for the bus/train trip to the town and off we set.

It was quite a long walk from the station at Waterloo to the tourist office and when we arrived and discussed plans with the helpful lady there, it was clear that we would only have time for the battlefield museum before we could catch the train that would connect us with the last bus that would take us back to Catharina.

Another bus took us to the battlefield and a short walk to the ‘Memorial 1815’, a modern education and tourist oriented museum. There is really too much to cover here and we clearly could have easily spent another day around Waterloo to at least visit all the important sites.

The Memorial 1815 was detailed, filled with large numbers of mannequins dressed in the style of the soldiers of the day, placed in sequence describing the development of the battle. An immersion ‘experience’ of sound, video and shaking floors described the actual battle and then further displays of the aftermath. We could easily have spent much more time here, guided by the English speaking dongle we each carried.

Napoleon pondering the situation while his generals plan the battle to take place at Waterloo.

The modern museum is built underground and as we left it, we came up to the much older Panorama monument, designed in 1911 and completed soon after.

The Panorama and The Lion’s Mound.

This circular building was most impressive – inside, around the 360º of the wall was a diorama of the battle painted in 1912 by Louis Dumoulin. Somehow this seemed a more ‘genuine’ experience as it was both a museum and a monument itself.

The painting inside the Panorama is continued all around the circular museum’s wall, depicting the battle.

The gap between the stage and the wall is also decorated with authentic representations of the actual battlefield.

Next stop was the Lion’s Mound monument. A 43 m high pyramid built in between 1823-1826 by the Dutch to commemorate the battle and the involvement of Willian Prince of Orange who was wounded during the battle at this spot. Topped by a fearsome lion, staring in the direction of France to symbolise the watchfulness that was now to be directed to this enemy in the future. Some 225 steps take you to the top and of course, we had to climb to the summit on what was quite a hot day. Still, we made it and enjoyed the commanding views of the battlefield around us.

It’s a pretty significant climb – especially if you have to dash up first to take the photo of the other poor soul (Lisette) coming up!

Time was pressing to catch the last bus that would connect us with the last train that would connect us with the last No 63 bus that would take us back to Catharina. We arrived at the bus stop in plenty of time, so Ian went to get some drinks to quench our mountaineering-engendered thirst. Jim and Lisette were distracted and did not notice the bus arriving five minutes early and so we missed it. (Jim and Lisette strenuously deny the bus came by at all – anyway, Ian would have missed it as he was still in the servo buying water.) After an hour’s wait for the next bus, then the train ride, we ended up with a taxi back to Catharina as we had definitely missed the last bus back to Ronquières.

It was a memorable visit and proved we had the tools available for visits to places like Waterloo that, while not on the canals, warrant the effort to travel to there by public transport.

Next on the cruise plan, not one, not two, but three waterway engineering marvels in one day along with a bit of questing, an accident and a museum visit.

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