Merville to Béthune
What a welcome!
Slowly rising in the lock, the scene that met us was as delightful as it was unexpected. The éclusier had said we could tie up at a pontoon on the right, but that we must travel doucement – carefully. Right in front of us – the now familiar red and blue of the jousting boats, complete with a large brass band.
The jousting boats were not using ropes (like the ones we had seen last year in Thuin) so they simply pulled over to the left and we cruised gently past to the floating pontoon further down the river. We have never been serenaded as we cruised before but the band played on as we prepared to moor, people cheered us onwards and pointed out our Aussie flag.
Just before the actual joust, the two boats row hard towards each other aiming to just pass beside as you see here.
The minute we had tied off, we trotted back up the path to the site of the action, thoroughly enjoying the next few hours watching the guys toss each other off their little boats…drum rolls as they used wooden oars to get closer and closer, then squeals of delight as one or more tumbled into the water, and then the band would fill the gap until the next battle was ready to begin. We bought our beers from the tent, just like the locals, and chatted with one of the guys who had called out to us as we cruised to our mooring just before.
The town of Merville
It was almost 6 o’clock before the band and the boats started to pack up, so we then took a stroll on both sides of the river, and found ourselves in the main square, with its Flemish style town hall.
We were thrilled to find a mobile friterie, where we bought frites and beer and the van owner pulled out and set up a table and chairs for us near a carousel that was entertaining the small folk. In the sunshine, we savoured what ended up being our evening meal, reflecting on a memorable day in France.
Merville used to be an important port on the route between France and Belgium before the construction of bigger canals like the Canal du Nord (on which we would be travelling soon). There was a display highlighting the history of the busy peniche port of yesteryear and a bow portion of a barge ‘Le Caou‘.
This refers to the association of the town with cats. In the middle of the sixteenth century, during religious troubles, Protestants put cats in the Catholic church and the ructions with that developed into an association of the town with cats. ‘Caou’ is ‘cat’ in the local French dialect. The local giant/géant/gayant (every region has a different word for it) is, of course, a huge cat.
Merville is also known for its bridges – to get to the centre of town, you have to use one of the seventeen bridges that cross the various waterways.
The war memorial right next to the écluse is also interesting. It was completed in 1897 as a memorial to the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.
It was refurbished in 1929 after damage in WWI but German soldiers almost destroyed it by shooting at it as they entered the town in WWII. The town decided to leave it in its damaged state as a further memorial to the horror and senselessness of war (given the three major wars it has stood through) and so you can see in the modern photos missing pieces and wounds inflicted by the bullets fired at it.
Onwards to Béthune
After a peaceful night, and having been thoroughly told off by a long line of ducks/ geese waddling along the towpath beside us, we continued along the river Lys. At one of the locks, Lisette was given helpful advice by the woman lock-keeper about how to get hold of a water/electricity key from the VNF. And as we passed the boats moored at the little marina outside this lock, a couple on one of the cruisers came out waving and saying they were from Diksmuide and had seen our boat there in the winter.
We encountered plenty of small craft along the way – from little pedal boats to a suite of canoes as we arrived at the next lock.
It was lunchtime and we knew the éclusier would not show up for an hour, so we found a place to tie off just in front of the lock, and with a cuppa in hand, waited for our passage through the lock. In the meantime, 20 or 30 school kids had paddled to the other side of the lock, and with the 3 m height difference, one-by-one they portaged the canoes around the lock and slid them down the side of the canal into the water just in front of and beside us. There is always something to see on the water.
The éclusier arrived on time, took us through and said he would stay with us for a low lifting bridge coming up and take us through the last lock before we left the river.
We had thought to stop for the night at Aire-sur-La-Lys, but the spot we understood was suitable for large boats like ours was occupied by a couple of commercials being loaded, so we pressed on as far as Béthune, which we reached in good time to settle for the night.