Kortrijk to Armentieres
In and out of France
Yes, today we would start our adventures in France, on our own barge. A long-held dream was about to become reality. With sunny skies and a gentle breeze, we set off from Kortrijk. We thought we would go as far as Armentières and with only a few locks along the way we made quite good time. We shared each of the massive locks with several commercials but without any problems. Impressive as always in the company of the big boys.
We did take a silly photo of Lisette holding up a French pennant as we crossed the border into France. But the joke was really on us, as we found ourselves back in Belgium in no time.
In fact, for quite a while, we were calling out to each other and messaging the children back home – in France – nope, back in Belgium – no, France – on the border… as the canal meandered seemingly randomly between the two countries.
Finally, we could say that we were settled in France at the lovely quiet town of Armentières, tied to a clean wooden dock, with more substantial bollards than we would normally find on wooden pontoons.
Wanting to enjoy the shade of the trees, and the lovely warm afternoon, we took our beers onto the foredeck to celebrate finally arriving in France.
We stayed a couple of nights, and did some exploring, cycling through the town itself, with its impressive town hall, a relatively recent construction but in the Flanders style.
There was also a striking monument to WWI in the centre of the town with an imposing main facade and around it on the other three sides bas reliefs of phases of the war. To our eyes, the troops leaving, fighting on the Front and then their return.
We spent most of our time covering, much to our delight, the story behind “Mademoiselle from Armentières”. This song was very popular and became famous during WWI. The tune may have been around for some time and the lyrics are attributed to various people. Indeed, the song is very much like one of those campfire songs that are made up as you go along so it is hard to identify an original. The favoured story refers to an incident where a spirited French waitress, Marie Lecoq, slapped a British General who was questioning her honesty in relation to a money matter. The word of the incident spread rapidly and an English soldier, Edward Red Rowland, composed the lyrics that began:
Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlez-vous?
Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlez-vous?
Mademoiselle from Armèntieres,
She hasn’t been kissed for forty years,
which became a firm favourite and starting point for many additional ribald verses sung by soldiers on the Front. A recent version is available at this link. In 2008 a statue was unveiled in the cemetery in Armentières of Madomselle Lecocq held aloft by an English, a Scottish, a Canadian and an Indian soldier.
The opening was highlighted by the attendance of Mme Line Renaud whose French version of the song had established its popularity with the French.
While shopping at the local hypermarket, Ian spotted an ice machine. He had been talking about getting one for a little while (what’s a gin and tonic without ice?) and thought now was as good a time as any as it appeared the unit was on sale (even Ian cannot resist a sale). Shortly after, he reappeared with said ice machine, beside himself with excitement because the actual cost was 70% off the marked price. Pretty sure Ian had never drunk a gin and tonic in his life before, but he does now! Needless to say, there was a ceremonial testing of the ice maker, complete with videos. It is amazing what one can call entertainment.
Off into France
When we had come through the lock at Armentières we had been given a tele-commander for the next lock. The éclusier was handing it to Ian, who promptly pointed him in Lisette’s direction, muttering something about his femme having more French. The éclusier happily handed the unit and instructions to Lisette, laughing and shaking his head and muttering several times – “Toujours les femmes”.
So with the tiny unit in hand, we set off on the next stage of our journey along the Lys, a pretty little river that meanders for almost 50 km past a series of small villages. We had contacted the authorities to confirm there was sufficient water depth for us to travel, and it was fine.
The first little lock only raised us a few cm, but the tele-commander did what it was supposed to do and, in glorious sunshine, we continued on our way.
Towards mid-day, we arrived at Sailly-sur-La-Lys and decided to tie up and have a look around.
We don’t usually stop during the day, but this is France, and it was warm and sunny, the setting was perfect, so why not? And we were not sure if the next lock would function during the regulation lunch-break, even with a tele-commander.
We strolled away from the river and found ourselves outside a church and cemetery.
Love a good cimetière, so we wandered around for a while. As with all cemeteries in this area, there is a section dedicated to war graves, particularly WWI.
Once we were on our way again it was with some surprise that we saw a peniche (this is a common, specific form of commercial barge, 38 m long and 5.1 m wide) coming up behind us as we wound our peaceful way along the river.
We called him on the radio and asked him if he wanted to pass us as there would be limited opportunities with a continually curving river, and plenty of undergrowth reaching out from the banks. He did, so we tied off briefly to a small floating pontoon at a tiny village, he went slowly past us and we followed. It was a Sunday, so not a working day for commercials, and he was empty, perhaps a Sunday cruise? His wife was sunning herself on a deck chair reading a book. Not half an hour later, he reappeared in front of us, coming towards us now! Once again he did not initiate any radio contact – just appeared without any warning as we rounded a bend. This marked the first time we had to deal with a large barge on a narrow canal.
The trick is to move slowly – but drive steadily directly at the oncoming boat. Just as you are about to pass, the smaller boat just moves over enough to brush past the larger (who hopefully moves over a little also) and avoid being pushed to the shallow shore. As the big boat begins to pass, you steer into his wake, again to make sure that as the water is drawn down, you are not stranded. Not sure if we did all this exactly right but we made it past and the canal was just beginning to get very shallow.
And so we arrived at Merville. However the tele-commander would not start the lock cycle, and we were drawing ever closer to the gates. So with the front spud pole holding us at the bow, and Ian using the engine to keep us centred, Lisette telephoned to ask for help. We were told to wait 20 minutes after he asked the length of our boat, which we knew would easily fit in a Freycinet lock but another boat joined us soon after and the éclusier showed up and put us both through at once. We have no idea why we were given a tele-commander for just one tiny lock and for all the remaining ones on the river we would need an éclusier. But this is France, after all.
As we rose the three metres in the lock, we could hear a band playing on the other side and as we reached the level of the river beyond the lock, a wonderful sight met our eyes…