Éclusier-Vaux – Péronne – Marquion – La Bassée
Our friends Michel and Rebecca had recommended that if we wanted to see an excellent museum dedicated to WWI, then one not to miss was in Péronne. As it was only a short trip south out of the Somme, we had a relaxed cruise passing through the last lock and then back out into the much larger Canal du Nord. We were moored nice and early on the long and pretty much empty quay ready for an exploratory trip into the town.
We decided not to visit the museum but to leave it until the following day when we could devote the day to it. The short cycle took us past a large recreational lake
and some lovely flower arrangements over the bridge which takes the road over the River Somme
which in the past was also used to feed an impressive, now disused mill.
As we cycled around the town we chanced upon a park which was filled with the ruins of an old fort.
Fort Caraby was part of the town’s fortifications from the 16th to the 19th century and was used to protect and manage the water flows. Using barrages and a network of ditches, the fort could flood the entire area with water from the Somme, making offence against the town much more difficult.
Now very overgrown, the park is lush and shady and must be a very popular spot for walks in summer.
Next morning we cycled in early to visit the museum which is housed in Péronne Castle. This castle is largely a reconstruction of the castle that had been first built here in the tenth century but almost completely destroyed in WWI. The only feature of the castle publicly accessible is the courtyard which leads to the ‘Historial de la Grande Guerre‘ museum.
The museum was, as recommended, enthralling and well displayed. Much of the content was explained in English so the information was easily accessible. The main layout feature was that the displays were in shallow recesses in the floor, with explanatory notes beside and extra material on computer displays nearby. Around the walls, were further displays of printed material and artefacts from the period.
We spent a couple of hours there in the morning, paused for lunch,
and with renewed vigour returned for more in the afternoon.
Just outside, in the entrance courtyard was an impressive looking tank. It turns out that this is a faithful reproduction of the second tank produced by the French (only one original tank is left, displayed at another museum). It was made by the local technical school.
The Saint-Chamond tank was only moderately successful as a war machine but was quite unusual in that the motive power was provided by electric motors, driven by the engine coupled to a dynamo.
As we still had a little more of the afternoon left, we popped across the street to the Église Saint Jean-Baptiste. A church like many in this area, that has been serially rebuilt following war. Built in 1525 it had undergone extensive reconstruction in the 1870’s and 1920’s.
However, a mural was discovered during the last restoration, on one of the last walls left standing, hidden under layers of paint, that dates from 1601. This has now been carefully restored and is a link back to that original church.
When we arrived back, the mooring was looking a bit more social – with a peniche that was being converted to an art gallery and a Belgian-flagged cruiser.
We were soon in conversation with Dany and Achiel who were busily setting up a petrol generator on the stern of Vagant because their diesel genny had packed up. They wanted to make sure that we understood that the noisy petrol generator would only be on for a short time. Very neighbourly. We’d soon arranged for a get-together later in the evening.
What a lovely couple, so easy to talk to. They had been cruising for many years and Achiel made an observation that, while we hadn’t thought it as clearly, we agreed with thoroughly. He said, in order of priority, the three things he most enjoyed about cruising was, third – seeing the sights and tourist activities; second – meeting and conversing with locals, and first – talking with other cruising folk.
Achiel has always wanted to work on the waterways, but as an apprentice, his arm was mangled by machinery. This eventually led to the loss of his entire left arm. That meant he was restricted to a desk job during his working life but now, in retirement, he and Dany were catching up with life afloat. We found out that they were also planning to leave the next morning, so we agreed to convoy back up the Canal du Nord together.
Next morning, we awoke to the sounds of Achiel struggling to get the petrol genny working – at the end, to no success, but they waved off the offer of hot water and not long after, we both pulled out, Vagant leading Catharina Elisabeth northwards.
With some trepidation, we once again entered the Ruyaulcourt tunnel, now aware that the suggested speed limit was a minimum. When we stopped in the middle, we very quickly put on both a bow and stern ropes but we were released without any boats passing us (the commercial heading in our direction was also required to tie up, then, for whatever reason, we were allowed to continue first) and cruised, uneventfully, out of the tunnel.
We had another convivial evening with Dany and Achiel then had a restful night despite the unprepossessing environs.
The following morning we started off again in convoy with Vagant, but as we passed through the ‘Garlic town’ of Arleux (waving at Le Séga as we passed)
we bid them farewell as they headed off to starboard to travel to Cambrai while we continued up the Canal du Nord towards Douai (dodging and frightening a commercial barge coming in the opposite direction in an effort to pass port to port – memo to Helm – safety first, regulations second!). There was some yelling in French over the radio, to which Ian replied that he didn’t speak much French. And was smartly told that if he was going to cruise in France, he should probably learn the language. Lisette caught the drift of this as she came into the wheelhouse from the salon where she had been making tea!
A bit later, we passed our familiar mooring at Courchelette Resort and continued on through a couple of large commercial locks and re-entered the Gare de l’eau Lahure where we were booked to stay for the winter.
We planned to just stay for a night, check out that all was OK for the winter, touching base with the resident boats and then travel on towards Dunkirk and Bergues, to return in a couple of weeks ready for the winter. Now, the Lahure is very shallow and it is not recommended to approach the mooring we were to use for winter from the middle of the harbour. Instead, you pull in at a deeper part near the head of the port and cruise down just next to the edge. However, there was a long barge moored diagonally across the edge of the harbour, so we had to try and approach from the middle.
Well, we must have grounded nearly ten times trying to get in, each time as Catharina slowed to a halt, we had to reverse off. After about an hour of fruitless attempts and finding no one who could assist, we gave up. Not only on the visit, but also on the whole wintering idea.
It was simply too risky to have a wintering spot that we could not be confident that we could reach. We might arrive, find it inaccessible but be hamstrung by a deadline to catch a plane back to Australia – just too risky. We’d simply have to find another place for the night and another port for wintering Catharina.
The first was fairly easy – the attractive mooring at La Bassée that we had been told about by Craig (the New Zealander whose cruiser had been with us at Courchelettes) was a few hours cruising away, in the direction we wanted to travel. So off we went.
The second was more problematic. We had already ditched the idea of Toul where we had a booking. It was too far away and the water levels to get there were reputedly marginal. There were no other obvious wintering ports nearby – most we were aware of had restrictions or were otherwise problematic. So, we worried a little as we cruised, but were reasonably confident it would work out in the end.
When we arrived at La Bassée we were pleased to find Vlinder just finishing mooring in front of us on the pontoon (our stern spud pole once again came in handy here) – we had been hoping to catch them sometime during the season. Peter and Ellen are West Australians that we had met briefly during a visit we had made to our home state and at a meeting of their local European waterways group ‘Canal Capers‘. They had guests on board and were only staying the night before heading off to the River Lys. So we didn’t get a chance to catch up. However, we gave them a bit of information about our cruise on the Lys nearly two months earlier.
It was a pretty mooring, sheltered from the small town nearby by dense hedges. It was also very close to the train station. One of Catharina’s crew needed some wool for a project and hatched the idea that another trip to Lille to the wool shop there was in order. So it was to be a two-night stay. We also wanted to pause and start sending out feelers for possible wintering spots for Catharina. While we were concerned, there was no particular panic – we still had three weeks to go and, by now, we had quite a network of resources to draw upon to solve the problem.
So, we slept well that night after a long (55 km and 8.5 hours) and eventful day’s cruising.