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Belgium-Germany-Luxembourg day 6 (1 June 2024)

Friday 14 June
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Rain again in the morning, and back along the side of the Meuse before switching to another adapted railway line, now RAVeL L150A, which climbs gradually to Mettet through some ghost stations and a red-illuminated tunnel, before descending to rejoin Eurovelo Route 3 alongside the river Sambre at Tamines. Most of the rest of the tour then used canal or canalised river towpaths, but these are not as we know them in the UK: the canals are very wide and the towpath is tarmac or concrete service road. These are also working industrial canals with large barges moving heavy materials such as stone/gravel and periodically there are loading docks where the cycle path is briefly routed around. At Châtelet there were construction works blocking the route and a few vague signs zip-tied to lampposts to take you away from the towpath. I had hoped to cross the river to visit Maison Magritte, childhood home of surrealist painter René Magritte, but the small bridge was also blocked.

Anyway, onwards and towards Charleroi. A few odd conical hills could be seen through the mist on the approach to the city: these are mounds of geological spoil resulting from coal mining activity, but have gradually become covered in trees and other vegetation. Fourteen former coal mines surround Charleroi, and the many artificial hills have been described somewhat imaginatively as “Like beads of a necklace, the terrils delicately encircle the city” (The Architectural Review, 2018). Extraordinarily, there is a website, www.destinationterrils.eu, dedicated to these industrial remains. The website includes a “find a slag heap” feature (isn’t this just “the internet”?), although it does sound better as “trouver un terril” in the region’s language. Into the centre of Charleroi at Quai Arthur Rimbaud and across Pont Roi Baudouin with its two bronze statues by Constantin Meunier (Mineur accroupi and Forgeron au repos). Stopped at the Central railway station for coffee and food and some shelter from the rain.

Leaving Charleroi and departing from Eurovelo Route 3 onto RAVeL W4, the route headed north alongside the wide Brussels-Charleroi canal where the towpath runs between the canal and the railway sidings and is quite isolated but felt perfectly safe. Discretionary valour: I opted not to explore the feature that appears on the cycle.travel map as “creepy tunnel” – a narrow unlit tunnel that goes under the railway line just south of Roux station.

At Seneffe I switched to the Canal de Centre, but I found that there was some work underway to construct a new loading dock (Quai public de Manage): no signs, just the towpath abruptly sliced and had to pick my way over building site mud to get to the next bridge. Ah well, the bike was going to need a clean anyway. North of La Louvière the Canal du Centre splits: the old canal is to the south, while the wider new (2002) canal is a little further north. Following the Canal du Centre Historique for three kilometres took me to the first of the historic canal lifts (Ascenseur № 1) at Houdeng-Gœgnies, a 15.4 metre double tank lift built in 1888 by the British company Stansfield & Clark, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Doubling back, and continuing along the new canal brought me to the towering 73.15 metre Strépy-Thieu boat lift which can raise barges of up to 1350 tonnes – I watched it lifting one small cruise boat, the machinery operating remarkable quietly. The building itself is a tourist attraction (www.canalducentre.be).

Continuing westwards from there, I took a detour to visit the Saint Symphorien WW1 cemetery – unusual in having graves of both British and German soldiers – I am told that there is a particularly poignant memorial service each 11 November with representatives of both German and Commonwealth armed forces. Among the gravestones is that of the first British soldier killed in the conflict: John Parr (aged only 17). He was a bicycle scout sent to Obourg to locate German forces in this early mobile phase before the conflict became entrenched. Another grave is that of George Lawrence Price (from Nova Scotia and later Saskatchewan) who is believed to be the last Commonwealth soldier to be killed (at 10:58 on 11/11/1918). Other memorials are for recipients of the first WW1 Victoria Cross (Maurice Dease) and Iron Cross (Oskar Niemeyer). After the cemetery, the route took me along a lane with the most ancient and vicious cobbles I have yet encountered, impossible to ride, and quite difficult to walk. Finished in Mons, a place I must revisit (ideally for the Ducasse de Mons festivities), its Grand Place really buzzing on the early Saturday evening. Distance 132 km, elevation 356 m (cycle.travel estimate 280 m).