La Bassée – (Lille) – Bethune – Watten – Bergues
Next morning, we started by sending off some emails (a chore because the internet connectivity was rubbish) and making some exploratory phone calls to try and find a wintering spot. Once that train was in motion we walked the short distance to the train station and thence to Lille. We stopped for a light lunch near the railway station. The Gare de Lille Flandres is notable because the front of the station is that of the old Gare du Nord of Paris. At the end of the 19th century, as the Paris station was being remodelled, the old facade was moved, brick by brick, to Lille.
Familiar with the route to the city centre we had a relaxed walk to our chosen tourist activity for the day – the Palais des Beaux Arts. This houses a large collection of sculpture, painting, pottery and other diverse arts. Just a small sampling of the works:
An impressive sculpture of one of France’s heroes – Napoleon
There was an abundance of splendid paintings – but Ian recognised his favourite painter from across the room
but easily the most impressive display was a room in the basement where there were over a dozen huge, three-dimensional relief maps of French and Belgian towns.
Constructed in exquisite detail and dating from the 17th century, these maps were built as exact replicas of the various town so that military planners could determine how to attack and defend them. Originally these had been preserved in Paris but have been moved to Lille. In 2019 a special exhibit will be opened that exposes them in their full glory. The photos below don’t do them justice as the lighting was very poor (this is to protect them from damage – you have to click a button to get a few minutes light for each display) and they were shot hand-held.
Click on the photos to bring them to full size, then zoom in to get some idea of the incredible detail.
Lisette’s hips and knees were pretty uncomfortable at that point from the walking and standing so we beat a retreat back to the station, via the wool shop and returned to Catharina Elisabeth. As we prepared dinner, we heard a familiar sound. A loudspeaker on a truck hailing “spectacle, les animaux…”. The back of the truck was a cage and inside, two lionesses paced back and forth. The circus was, again, in town. Clearly a different troupe to the one we had met in Le Crotoy, but equally keen to proclaim the attractions. So for the next hour or so, we could hear the entreaties both in the background and louder as they moved around the town and crossed over the bridges on either side of the mooring.
Béthune and Plan D
In order to get better internet and to top up with power and water, we decided to make the short run to Béthune the next day. It had been one of our longer stretches of mooring without facilities, eight days since Amiens. With a full tank (2,000 L) of water, we can go about three weeks comfortably even with the occasional use of the clothes washer. Power is not a particular problem because of the generator and the solar panels and we had been cruising – but every so often we like to get shore power so that the batteries can get a really full charge, which isn’t possible from the onboard sources.
The other advantage of Béthune was that we knew there was really good internet as our search for a winter mooring continued. After a short cruise of only a little over an hour, we were moored on the nice pontoon, hooked up to power and decided to top up the water. We spent the rest of the day doing chores. Ian was also slaved to the computer (and good internet) preparing the next DBA newsletter. Meanwhile we continued our search for a winter mooring.
This rolled over to the next day and what emerged from several days of effort was that we would be able to take a winter mooring at Veurne again. In the end, this suited us nicely. We knew the town and the region well having wintered in Veurne in 2015/16 and Diksmuide in 2016/17. While not secure, moorings are in a public spot and near to the offices of the Belgian waterways staff; the port was reasonably well managed – a bit light on attention and some facilities needed improving, but it was attended frequently; the cost was competitive with the other options we’d seen other than being double that of the VNF at Douai. (No point in crying over that though, as we were not in a position to take advantage of cheap rates – since we couldn’t get close enough to the wall to tie off anyway.) The other benefit was that meant the cruise to our wintering spot was only three days from where we were currently, so we had a good two weeks of spare time for touristing and maintenance.
So that was now Plan D. We would include a short trip up to Diksmuide to collect fuel and probably stop at Fintele to do some maintenance. Our cruise this season was basically one big loop.
While researching our moorings we found out that two fellow DBA barges were on their way to Bethune and, sure enough, by the end of the day we had a mini-DBA rally going with Catharina joined by Alan and Marianne’s Dea Latis (who had only recently crossed the Channel) and Peter and Caroline on Lumacoma. There was the usual combination of hosting and visiting on all barges which helped pass the time as the weather deteriorated a little.
After we had finished evening meals, we gathered on board Dea Latis for another evening of conviviality and sharing information of what was happening up and down the waterways. With no particular need to stay in Béthune, our plan was now to press on to one of our original ‘must visit’ towns, Bergues.
In the morning, Dea Latis cast off so they could take our place on the pontoon and we headed off to the main canal. We had a quiet run down to the deep Fontinettes lock which we had to ourselves as we descended the 13 m to the bottom. Soon after we left, we could see off to the right, the old Ascenseur des Fontinettes. This boat lift is very similar to the four lifts we travelled through last year on the Ancienne Canal du Centre in Belgium. But is no longer operational.
All shared the design of the Anderton boat lift in the UK whereby two cassions are linked hydraulically and as one descends (with a 30 m, 300-tonne barge floating in it) the other rises. This lift was commissioned in 1888 to replace five conventional locks and operated until 1967 when replaced by the much larger lock we had just used. It is open for tourists and we would have loved to stop and have a look but we were on a bit of mission for the day. We did take careful note of some moorings that might be useful for a future visit.
We cruised through the centre of Watten, discounting a couple of moorings on our DBA guide and eventually moored against a long concrete quay just before the next lock. The considerable width of the canal and the fact that the lock was right nearby meant passing commercials were not travelling fast and we never noticed any wash.
Across the canal, in the town, we could see a church, a windmill and a tower beckoning in the distance. It looked interesting, so off came the bikes for a cycle in the pleasant afternoon sun.
Up the hill, we went to the tower which, it turned out, was the abbey ‘Notre Dame du Mont de Watten’ – what would almost anywhere else only warrant the description ‘hill’, in this lowland region of French Flanders is regarded as a ‘mountain’.
Founded in the 11th century and destroyed frequently during wars, the tower dates to 1440. At various times it was fortified because of its strategic position but the abbey has been a private residence since the French Revolution. The tower is a historic monument but if and when it is open to the public was not clear. Certainly not accessible when we visited.
Slightly downhill we pulled off to visit the windmill, which dates from 1731 and, occasionally, is still used to grind wheat.
This was located on the edge of the hill, overlooking the valley – you could see Catharina in the distance. This natural ‘belvedere’ again was highlighted in the information posters as representing a strategic location and, exposed as it is, a good spot to capture the wind. The windmill was not open for a tour of course.
Last we headed back down to the town of Watten and visited the church – which was open! And very nice inside indeed, so worth the visit. The church of St Gilles was founded in the 13th century. The stained glass windows over the altar were striking
and there was a window dedicated to WW1
but the most spectacular item was a three-dimensional faux grotto. We have seen a few of these now and they are quite remarkable.
The next part of our cruise would take us to one of our most anticipated destinations – the one we thought we would be visiting at the start of the season – Bergues.
So after only one night in Watten, we set up for leaving and part way through the routine of dropping the mast and warming up the engine, the lights on the nearby lock changed from red to green. We were obviously being observed. We had the 100m long lock to ourselves and after the cycle completed, the exit light remained red and the éclusier came down and began to chat with Lisette.
It soon transpired he had a range of comestibles to offer – very soon we were laden with a huge bag of french beans, tomatoes and fresh eggs. Five euros the lot, very welcome. He then changed the light to green and we were allowed to move out – we weren’t sure what would have happened if we hadn’t wanted the groceries!
In nice sunny weather, we cruised towards Dunkirk and then through the southern edge of the town. There was a very sharp turn to starboard that took us onto the Canal de Bergues. This is one of the oldest canals in Flanders, dating from the ninth century. Linking Bergues and Dunkirk, it was in commercial use until the 1970’s. We passed some sort of watersports area – perhaps set up for canoe racing and continued up the short but pleasant canal.
In about an hour we came to the port of Bergues where, after turning around, we moored to a small concrete quay right under the town walls.
We had barely finished the mooring tasks when we were hailed from above – it was Alan, Sarah and their dog Looby Lou. Jungle drums had been beating since Béthune and we knew that they were in Dunkirk, fresh from a Channel crossing on their barge Rotterdam Diena and they knew we were heading to Bergues. Having a car, they had been reconnoitering the area. Over a cuppa, we encouraged them to join us in Bergues for their first French cruise and made the arrangements to see them in a couple of days.
Well, in Plan A, this had been our first stop of the cruising season and now it was one of the last. However, it was still one of the most highly anticipated events of the season, only slightly less than the Somme, so we snuggled down in the now rainy evening, planning a few days of exploring.