Thursday, August 28, 2014

Only in Wallonia

Today, I decided to have an away day. Owing to all the commitments and deadlines I have this summer, there's been no time for a holiday as such, so I felt that having drafted several sections of my dissertation and done a heap of boat work, I deserved some hours off. So, with Koos in Poland and too much rain for painting, I went south to seek the company of those wonderful Wandering Snails of note, Anne and Oll.

Their narrowboat, generally referred to simply as Snail, was moored at Pommeroeul which is a lovely village in the far south of Belgium. However, as is often the case, the canal is a good stretch from the village itself and the Snail was moored at the junction between the busy and much used Canal Nimy Blaton-Peronnes and the Canal Hensies-Pommeroeul, which is no longer accessible to boaters owing to serious silting at the French border through which it passes (a long story for perhaps another post). As a result, there is a large lock at the junction with the canal from Blaton to Peronnes that is no longer in use.

Canal junction with the lock being the thin blue line between
the two basins

It is a lovely spot, even when the weather is bad (as it was today). I have been there a couple of times before but hadn't matched the name to the place until I arrived. There is a wide basin just before the lock and the sense of space and even solitude is marvellous (see aerial photo here). I'd had what might be called an 'interesting' drive down given that I got lost three times on route; endured Sindy shouting at me every time I slowed down to find out where I was; it poured with rain for most of the journey; and I was an hour and a half later than I said I'd be. As a result, my sense of humour had taken quite a hammering by the time I pulled up next to the jetty. Even so, it was lovely to step out of the car (in the drizzle) and breathe in the fresh (damp) air and take in the space and tranquillity of the place again. It was also wonderful to see Anne and Oll again and we spent some good catch-up hours together.

But there is one thing about the lock at Pommeroeul makes it particularly special. In fact, it empitomises what makes Belgium, and particularly Wallonia, such a fascinating country. This ├ęcluse hasn't been used for twenty years, yet it is still manned and the lock keeper is there in his office on a daily basis. About the only work he has to do as far as operating the lock itself goes is to open the gates occasionally to let a boat in so the crew can fill up with water; other than this, he has no other locking duties to perform. Twenty years. To have a job that is no job. Almost unbelievable isn't it?

The rather grand and business-like lock keepers office

The lock from the end closest to the Blaton-Peronnes Canal

When I heard this I could only shake my head in wonder and laugh. Belgium is always full of surprises. It is the home of surrealism and somehow this disused, but permanently manned lock sums it up for me.

There is something very gallic about it too - and it reminds me in a way of the automated locks in France that don't operate at lunchtime (true). A quirk that fits in well with the French reputation for their love of lunch.

But this is even more mystifying. Perhaps it is because the Belgians take the quirks just one step further, and the Wallonians, (being French-speaking) go another step beyond that too. So what can I say except what my title says? Where else could this happen? Nowhere else of course. Only in Wallonia.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The heart of the matter

My post before last was about the history of the Vereeniging, and one of my long standing blog friends, Mel of The Heron's View fame, asked about the engine, an at once sore and dear subject. The sore part is that I had to have the lovely old Industrie engine as shown in that post removed, so I thought I would take this opportunity to explain why.

The Vereeniging was 'born' in 1898 with a Van Rennes parrafin engine  like this:

Thanks to for this image

This served the Mur family until 1921 when it was replaced by the single cylinder semi-diesel hot bulb engine I described in my earlier post. When I bought the Vereeniging, this lovely old beast had been lovingly restored by the previous owner. In actual fact, I think the barge itself was merely the housing for the engine as far as he was concerned. I was very proud of my Industrie motor for many years, but the truth of the matter was that it did rather dictate what we did with the barge. It was very difficult to start - needing large quantities of compressed air and a good technique for 'bursting' the air into the cylinder -  not to mention gas bottles to fuel the burner for pre-heating it. The process of getting it going took a good half hour but if you counted in the time it took to fill the air bottles, this was more like an hour and a half.

Then, when we were on the way, I had to constantly re-fill its little oil pots that were positioned around its bulk because all the wonderful, but largely mechanical moving parts had to be kept lubricated. This meant diving down into the engine room at regular intervals and risking losing limbs in my attempt to avoid the spinning (and massive) fly wheel as I topped up each of these small receptacles.

Nevertheless, I was happy to put up with this as long as the engine remained reliable. In the end, though, it wasn't. It let us down on three separate occasions, the worst of which was when it just died in the middle of the Hollandsch Diep - a huge open stretch of water between two of Holland's southern peninsulars. In many ways, this was the deciding event for me and I realised with a mixture of sadness and resignation that much as I loved the Industrie, I wanted to 'fare' safely even more. The engine had to go. Here is the film of when it was removed with dear friend Philip (of Watery Ways fame), who bought it, looking on.

However, I still wasn't prepared to sacrifice authenticity completely and as a replacement, I found a 1955 Samofa two cylinder engine - another classic, but easier to both turn over by hand and also to convert to electric start. It took a massive amount of work to install it and adjust it for the Vereeniging, but in the end, with its push button starter, I was delighted with my 'new' old motor. And best of all, it still made the same wonderful clapping sound as the Industrie did. Here below is the film I made of it being installed.

So there we are. That is the story of the Vereeniging's engine. The Samofa is still going well and so far, has never let us down. We don't fare far these days (my work is too busy), but when we do, we can at least just start and go… and keep going...and we still have a wonderful old classic to show for it.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Decking the sail

So I have a new decksail, otherwise described as a raincoat for my barge. And I'm very happy with it. It looks so much neater, cleaner and just simply better than the older, but very expensive canvas one I mistakenly bought two years ago, thinking it would look more authentic. In the end, it just looked a mess. And leaked.

I really need a decksail at the moment because my hatch boards are not sealed and I have no steel roof under them. However, I have to say it's been quite an adventure getting the new one in place - what with my limited transport means on one hand and the torrential rain we've recently had on the other.

I ordered the decksail a few weeks back from a company based in the north of Holland (the province, not the country). It arrived at our boat yard in the Oude Haven in a big box last week, so I went to the post room and looked at it in some perplexity. Trying to lift it proved beyond me - it was not only heavy, but very bulky, so I came up with another solution. I have one of these shopping trolleys that lots of elderly people use. I barely used it for ages, but I now know why they are so useful.

They are brilliant (both the people and the trolleys) because they can carry all sorts of stuff quite apart from shopping - a real boon if you have to move of things around without the help of motorised wheels. In most cases, this includes things like the weekly washing and materials for the re-cycling bins. In my case, I decided mine could carry my decksail from the yard to the barge. Luckily, one of my neighbours, the benevolent Bas, was there while I was wrestling this loosely rolled length of brown pvc out of the packing box. Given that it was rather like manhandling a drunk and out-of-control snake, I was really grateful he was there and he very obligingly helped me control the beast and get it into the shopping trolley ready to transport to the Vereeniging.

This is what it looked like:

So then I wheeled it down to the Vereeniging and managed to load it on to the gangplank. To my delight, both wheels fitted neatly between the sides of the plank and I could push it carefully down to the end. Then I lay it on its back, nipped back up to the quay and went down my neighbour's plank so that I could lift it onto the deck from its recumbent position on my own plank. I know none of this is all that interesting in itself, but it goes to show how patient you have to be with some of these things - especially when you're on your own (Koos was busy with other things in another part of the country). Getting it inside would have challenged me just too much if my daughter hadn't turned up and helped me heave it through the hatch and down the stairs. It stayed in a corner until this last Thursday, which I dedicated to the day of the decksail.

The first step was to remove the old one - another exercise in problem solving. I had to get the mast out of the way and move everything off the hatch boards before I could take it off. As I'm not all that strong, moving the mast proved interesting. It involved a five pound hammer and a good deal of grunting peppered with wild expletives. Removing the chimney from my stove was much the same except I avoided the hammer for this stage of the proceedings. The risk of polluting the whole harbour with carbon from its rather encrusted lining was enough to incur a several thousand euro fine. Lastly, I took off the roof window, which needs some repairing anyway. This required the help of a large screwdriver which I used as a mini crowbar because all the screws holding it in place had rusted solid.

Eventually I managed to clear everything and clean the underlay ready for the new decksail, which I heaved out of the hold and spread out. But then the Dutch weather decided to play its usual summer card. Up to this point it had been sunny and warm as the men on the news had predicted, but as if from nowhere, a huge black cloud sneaked over the buildings behind us and deposited its load directly onto my barge. Leaving the decksail untied and unfixed, I threw everything vulnerable inside, grabbed Sindy, who'd been snoozing on deck, and rushed for shelter. We spent the next half hour in the yard post box chatting with a charming old gentleman who'd also taken cover there while we watched the deluge going on outside.

So much for the forecast of a dry day.

When I made it back to the barge, I was much relieved to find nothing had blown away, so I continued fitting and fixing my wonderful clean, shiny, neat and very brown new (but wet) decksail into place. It took two more downpours before it was done, but this time I stuck them out getting totally soaked in the process. As a result, its arrival on the my barge's scene feels like something of an achievement.

So, in honour of the first day on show, here are a couple of photos. You might not notice much difference yourselves, but to me, it's quite magnificent. And at least it won't shrink or fade (much). Or get mouldy. Or be difficult to clean. Altogether now…a huge sigh of relief!

Note the still wet decks. In fact we had three downpours
during the afternoon.

"This is my good side"

A beautiful pair of historic barges