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The cruising season having finally arrived, we soon we found ourselves waving farewell to our winter companions and setting out along the canals. It felt strange after five months in the port but we were soon in the swing of it, the first week or so in familiar Belgian waters. A long first day of 75km brought us to Oudenaarde where we found a new restaurant right by the canal - delicious asparagus hollandaise with salmon.

Heading into Wallonia we paused for a few days at Antoing before entering France on the Escaut. The canalised river is still wide and deep here, rural and pretty with plenty of big ships for company until we branched off towards Cambrai.

Chateau at Antoing  Church at Antoing
Chateau at Antoing                             Church at Antoing

Suddenly the canal and the locks seemed much smaller and we were given a remote control "zapper". Chris was in his element, just like the telly!  We stopped in Cambrai for Easter weekend, met up with some old friends and made some new ones. It is a pleasant old French town, good shopping and food markets to inspire our cooking from seasonal local produce. The French food is getting to us already!

Notre Dame, Cambrai  The Belfry
Notre Dame, Cambrai                            The Belfry

The Maison de Retraite  Port de Plaisance, Cambrai
The Maison de Retraite                         Port de Plaisance, Cambrai

We met up with Tam and Di of the well-known barge school. They are great foodies and jolly sociable too. We also met Pam and Charles who recently arrived from England, just starting their adventure afloat in France and we're sure to see them again.

Desperate for a pedicure, Pam and I discovered the only one in town, courtesy of Valerie, who will be seeing me again on the way back!  Apparently there are 83 hairdressers in Cambrai and only one place for a pedicure. That's a thought.

Cambrai was a good place to recognise the inevitable truth that our engine batteries, now becoming unreliable, are definitely shot after eight years. The excellent local supplier did us a deal and with the help of our kind neighbour John and his car, Esme was soon back in working order. This barging lark is not all about gin on the back deck - it's continual expense!  Let's hope that's it for a while.

Fields near Cambrai  Rue des Vignes
Fields near Cambrai                            Rue des Vignes

So we set off again through this beautiful countryside in what was 100 years ago the western front. We had arranged with our New Zealand cousins to visit on their behalf a nearby cemetery where their distant relative is buried.   This coincided with Anzac Day which was rather fitting. We made an arduous cycle ride up the steep lanes and undulating hills to the summit where we found the cemetery, high up in front of a big wood with spectacular scenery. We made our entry in the visitors' book; he was only 20 years old. After taking our picnic in the little Portland stone shelter, dark clouds gathered and the wind blew up. We cycled back in the pouring rain freewheeling downhill all the way - that was a good way to spend our Anzac Day.

Road to Villers Outreaux  Bois des Angles Cemetery
Road to Villers Outreaux                       Bois des Angles Cemetery

The big hills of northern France mean that occasionally we have to face some challenging tunnels. They all vary in size, usually have a curved roof and the risks are damage to Esme's wheelhouse and potential injury to us. There is always careful preparation and usually a big sigh of relief at the other end! The Riqueval Tunnel on the St Quentin Canal is an interesting one. The tunnel is 5.6km long and was originally completed in 1810. Originally, six or seven men would tow the cargo barges through, later replaced by horses. When steam propulsion was tried and without ventilation, the fumes were a big problem so the present electrical system was developed. There is an electric towing boat with overhead cables and a chain on the canal bed. A"train" of up to 30 boats is towed through the tunnel at 2.5 km/hr. For us, the trip went surprisingly well and seemed to take ages, one and a half hours and it's very dark down there. The small 1km tunnel at Lesdins is just after this - that was more difficult as we had to drive Esme through - much concentration required. Two tunnels in one day was enough.

Best take a look first  In we go!
Best take a look first                         In we go!

Dark inside, even with lights  The famous Riqueval Bridge
Dark inside, even with lights                  The famous Riqueval Bridge

WW1 battlefields today  Lesdins looking north
WW1 battlefields today                         Lesdins looking north

After a short stop at Lesdins we cruised on down to St Quentin, a beautiful old town with a great food market and the famous basilica.  We stayed long enough to explore the area and spend the "Jour de Travail" (Labour Day, 1st May) weekend there too.

Pont d'Isle, St Quentin  The Mairie, St Quentin
Pont d'Isle, St Quentin                        The Mairie, St Quentin
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