Ronquières to Thieu
In keeping with our theme this year of retracing some of our routes, we were up early (six o’clock and still dark) so we could catch the first lift back up the inclined plane. Lisette once again made the call and once we knew our position in the queue, Ian smoothly turned us around and crossed the pound, so we would be in front of the caisson when it was ready for us. After the first commercial of the morning was disgorged, we entered and tied off ready to be lifted back up to the upper pound.
Again, it was a somewhat surreal experience sliding up the plane this time but a fine cool sunny morning made it all the more relaxing.
Once we reached the top, we moored out of the way because the next item on the day’s schedule was a visit to the museum and a climb or whatever to the top of the control tower to the viewing deck. The previous afternoon we had tried unsuccessfully to find out how one could access the museum. Except…
In retrospect, this was clearly an avoidable accident. It was still early in the morning and the decks were wet with dew. Ian was walking along the deck in thongs with almost no grip on the bottom (not the smartest footwear under any conditions) he skidded and slipped onto his backside. On the way down, his left shin and hand cracked against the edge of the hull wall. Just a twinge in one or two fingers on the hand (although in time this would prove to be the more expensive injury) but a bit of bruising and grazing on the shin. The health professional we had on board gave Ian a checkout and pronounced his nose to be still moist, tongue wet and colour good. Fortunately, he did not have his thermometer on hand for a rectal measurement. The trainee vet nurse cleaned and bandaged up the hind leg and the vet pronounced Ian fit enough to go walkies.
The Museum and Visitor Centre
Getting to the museum and viewing deck was a bit of a challenge. The entrance is halfway down the plane, on the level of the road. It seems access is only possible from the road, a 25 min walk (less by bike doubtless) and then only from the bottom of the plane. Instead, we walked back to the lock gates, on the side not in use and used a service way to get down to the actual inclined plane. We then walked down beside the rail tracks, trying to look as if we thought that this was perfectly normal until we made it to another service point halfway down where we could scurry down to the ground level. There was a bit of judicious smiling and shrugging for a workman who drove by checking why we were walking along the service path – and he let us go without further ado.
Unorthodox, and probably unapproved, but we did manage to find our way into what proved to be a fascinating museum-come-information centre with lots of diagrams, pictures and displays that told us about the history of the canal and the construction of the inclined plane.
The displays were only in Dutch and French but with Google Translate on the iPhone and Lisette’s vocabulary which has been sharpened with practice on ‘Fluvial’ the French waterways magazine, we were able to understand pretty much everything.
We then took the lift up to the viewing deck, some 125 m above the upper waiting pound. Way down below we could see a tiny Catharina Elisabeth, on the left, almost at the end of the pound.
A large commercial nearby gives you some idea of how little she is, similar to the size of one of the containers on the commercial’s deck. Later, when the commercial began its descent, filling the caisson, we also got some appreciation of how little of that tub Catharina had occupied on her solo traverses down and up over the last couple of days.
The views around the countryside were spectacular, even through the windows and, in the distance, you could even see the Lion’s Mound Monument at Waterloo about 15 km away.
After a pleasant hour or so learning more about Ronquières and its inclined plane, we headed back down to the entrance foyer and the display entitled ‘Un bateau, une vie‘ (A boat, a life). Wandering from ‘room to room’ wearing infrared headphones we were given a taste of what life was like for commercial barge families. Each room was a scene that came alive as we entered – from the family cabin to the wheelhouse – lifesized mannequins would begin to talk and video footage appeared on the walls showing real, contemporary commercial activities. It was so fascinating, that we didn’t take a single picture (sorry). Highly recommended if you make a visit.
Still, other wondrous experiences beckoned, so after a couple of hours, we left and made a quick dash back to the top and Catharina before we could receive another reprimand from the officials.
The Big Lift
Over the next few hours, we took a relaxing cruise to our next destination – the Funicular Boat Lift of Strépy-Thieu. Ian enjoyed having Jim take the wheel again for an extended run, giving Ian a chance to spend some time in the sunshine on the foredeck.
It was a glorious day, with a bright blue sky and no breeze to speak of. Approaching the waiting pound at the top of Strépy-Thieu, we cruised along a remarkable aqueduct, peering down on the countryside below, steering carefully past the many groups of youths enjoying a swim in the canal on a hot day.
After WWII it was clear the Canal du Centre would have to be modernised to cope with the growth of inland navigation. We have already talked a little about this in earlier blogs. To refresh: a modern 1,350-tonne barge can carry as much as 65 20-tonne trucks (equivalent to an unbroken line of trucks more than 3 km long).
In short, there was a need to open up the waterways to the north of France and the Paris basin, as well as routes to the east towards Liege and eventually the Rhine.
It was not feasible to enlarge the old section of the canal, where the four ancient Ascenseurs are situated because navigation could not be maintained during construction, and the area around the existing canal was already rather densely populated. A new route was the solution because it was only necessary to make a small part of the Canal du Centre more commercial-friendly. The new section, which is only about 20 km long, splits off the canal just after Ascensceur #4 at Thieu, and rejoins the canal just after Ascensceur #1 at La Louvière.
In the upper right of the picture above you can make out the old part of the canal, where the four historic ascenseurs are located.
It was decided to construct a vertical, funicular lift to deal with the 73.15 m difference in height, rather than another inclined plane, such as that we had just used at Ronquières. Begun in 1982 and completed in 2002, there are two independent lock chambers each 112 m long and 12 m wide, suspended by cables and balanced by counterweights. It is now the tallest boat lift in the world. We were very much looking forward to testing our third amazing piece of canal engineering.
As we approached the top pound we contacted the lift operator and were told to wait for the commercial that had arrived just after us to enter the caisson first (the usual practice) and then we should follow him in.
We were all fascinated by the engineering of the lift – and once we had entered the caisson and tied off, we climbed off to have a wander around the amazing structure before we started to descend.
The descent was, again, smooth with almost no sensation of movement and even quieter than Ronquières. It was bizarre watching the grassy, treed hillside appear beside us as we descended. Less than ten than minutes later, and with no particular fanfare, the gates opened in front of us, the commercial exited and we followed.
There was a tense moment when Lisette called out that the commercial appeared to be moving backwards and was getting dangerously close to our bow (might have been more of a frantic yell, than a casual remark). She called out to him, and he ran back to his wheelhouse and quickly addressed the reverse wandering that is possible when you start your engine back up.
Thus ended our three Belgian waterway mechanical marvels for the trip – the ancient Ascenceurs from Thieu to La Louvière, the Ronquières Inclined Plane and the Strépy-Thieu Funicular Boat Lift. All located in the same 50 km region of Belgium. They were impressive, beautiful and informative. Of the three, the highlight for both Ian and Lisette was the first we had tried, the four Ascenceurs. Wondrous examples of historical engineering, still functioning more than 100 years after they were built. Greasy, thick with paint, steel and rivets, made to work by actual people winding and pushing – they had an honest, hardworking, unprepossessing peasant feel.
The Light Show
The usual place to moor after descending Strépy-Thieu in the afternoon is in the waiting pond at the bottom. However, we knew that just around the corner was the entrance to the old Canal du Centre and the pretty bassin at the bottom of Ascenceur #4. Keen to show Jim this third piece of canal engineering, we set off for the lock at Thieu that had presented us a bit of a surprise and a challenge just a few weeks earlier. Armed now with the extra practice, we had little trouble passing up the lock into the pound and we moored up at the foot of the Ascenceur for the night.
We had a nice chat with Austin Roberson, a fellow Australian who was moored in the nearby marina. Austin had spotted our Aussie flag as we came up in the lock, and he and his mate cycled past and stopped to say hello. In the way of international barging that we are coming to understand, we were not really surprised to find that Austin (from Sydney) knows friends of ours, Deb and Peter on Fairhaven (from Melbourne), having cruised with them for a short while the previous season.
We settled down for a relaxing evening and then the light show that was soon to begin (hat tip to Shaun and Lynn on Elle and their blog for alerting us to this additional treat). As night fell, and for several hours afterwards, Ascenceur #4 was illuminated in red, blue, green and white in a constantly changing pattern, highlighting the delicate lacework of the lift structure. A wonderful backdrop for some late drinks and conviviality.
A spectacular end to a memorable Big Day Out on the fabulous canals of Belgium.