In the palmy days before the abolition of duty free sales for intra-EU journeys, you could take a car across the Channel for a mere handful of good English pounds. The faithful Espace became a regular visitor to Dover, Calais and points east while I concentrated on the Low Countries.
Set out from WD's house [near Canterbury, and the home of a man calm enough not to be bothered by his guests crashing about downstairs in the small hours] at 0440, arriving at Cheriton at 0505. The Shuttles were loading 'now' and at 0600 do the duty free shop was passed up in favour of a sharp exit from the UK. The Shuttle journey was flawless (apart from being parked by the toilet door) and I was on the A26 by 0710 French time, 1 1/2 hours from WD's house. First stop was Moeskroen/Mouscron where the kindly English speaking booking clerk was totally bemused by requests for a ticket to Tourcoing and a Belgian timetable - he politely explained that Tourcoing was in France!
This sorted, 1212 was photographed propelling the 0919 to Antwerpen, then I took the 0923 to Tourcoing behind 1202. This short cross border trip seems expensive at BEF100 each way. The tram terminus in Tourcoing was located a few minutes walk from the station (there is a bus if you really can't be bothered) and a ticket for Lille obtained for FFR 7.50. The tram terminus is a simple two road affair with buffer stops and a slightly raised island platform (not much over 300 mm). There is a street section leaving Tourcoing then a long section on mainly reserved track beside what is presumably the main road to Lille. Clemenceau Hippodrome 'station' is in a short tunnel. The whole operation is quite similar to the Manchester Metrolink (apart from not using railway alignment) but the dark green and silver livery is much more attractive than Metrolink's hideous turquoise. [With hindsight, I see no resemblance! I still prefer the Lille livery though] Sadly the high cab prevents short persons such as me from getting a good forward view. St Maur station is also in tunnel. The tramway dives below the TGV line into Lille Europe station which is a Circle/District style station below ground level and then continues underground into Lille Flandres, the terminus which is (if my sense of direction is right) under the Eurolille centre.
Having realised that the Roubaix route (ligne R) could be done on the return, taking SNCF from Roubaix to Tourcoing, the delights of Les Brasseurs [an estimable home brew pub across the road from Lille Flandres station] were passed up in favour of a late breakfast and a hasty departure on the 1048 tram to Roubaix. The Roubaix and Tourcoing lines diverge at Croise Laroche where there is a turning loop to be done between the two lines. Are there short workings to CL? There is also a branch southwards adjacent to the SNCF bridge between Buisson and Brossolette, presumably to the depot. The Roubaix line is basically similar, running beside the main road on reserved alignment. At Roubaix the terminus is a single long platform with bufferstops. Track half buried beyond suggests that the line used to go further. [It did]. The fine central square in Roubaix is suffering a lot of construction work presumably as part of the building of Lille Metro line 2 - a splendid looking avenue leads to the impressive station frontage but sadly the avenue gets seedier as the station gets closer, as is so often the case.
The 1208 to Moeskroen/Mouscron turned up right on time propelled by Belgian 1211 and passing a southbound TGV in the other platform. There was another TGV set in Tourcoing yard but a more surprising occupant was Eurostar set 3101 complete with match wagon. Presumably this had failed at Lille and been dragged away. Back in the car it became apparent that I would need to stop to make sure of finding a bank or bureau de change open so a visit was made to Mons where a local b.d.c. provided 45 BEF to one GBP with no commission as opposed to 43 plus commission in the UK. Considering this was attached to a travel agent and probably not the best value in town it shows what a poor deal you get in the UK. [Pause for a quick rant here. It's hard to think what you do get a good deal on in the UK - but foreign currency in particular has been a racket for decades. All inexperienced British travellers think that they're going to get ripped off abroad - little do they realise that their friendly high street bank or travel agent is infinitely worse. It's got better since these notes were written in 1995 - but not a lot. Sign of the times: writing this in 2001 you get about 63 BEF for your GBP!] There is an attractive main square in Mons with many cafes round it [this is Belgium, did I know nothing then?] all densely populated with people sitting in the sun drinking beer. The decision not to join them was agonising, if sensible!
On, therefore, to Ronquieres to see the inclined plane. This turns out to have a very well organised exhibition in the tower. There are viewing platforms (enclosed) on the 9th and 11th floors (150 metres/490 ft). A short film explains why an inclined plane and blows the trumpet for Belgium. Speed and water consumption were problems for locks, apparently, and a lift would have required shafts which would have been too deep.
The original plan was to spend the night at Flemalle but this turned out to be an industrial town with, seemingly, no hotels so I returned to Huy, futher up the Meuse, where the Hotel de Fort obliged for BEF 1250. Having left the car I walked up to the station to see how long it took (20 minutes). On arrival I found a trad jazz band, which had just arrived from the jazz festival, giving an impromptu but much appreciated 'concert' in the booking hall. They then moved to the pub across the road while I went back to the Grand Place for a well earned (I thought) steak in La Brasserie, plus a cool Duvel. During my meal the jazz band (small man playing euphonium, drummer's straw hat slightly too big) arrived and provided further entertainment. Meal done, I retired across the square to the Big Ben which although not in the 60s decor referred to by the GBG, still has the 80 beers. Westmalle Tripel and Gulden Draak were much enjoyed before a fruitless attempt to phone home, followed by an early but noisy night.
Up betimes (before breakfast unfortunately) for the 0733 to Liege, formed of EMU 420, which arrived at the same time as 2224 with a sleeper. A two minute late arrival at Liege with a 7 minute connection made for a hasty visit to the booking office for a single to Welkenraedt. The 0800 to Köln was on time [was this a first?] and hauled by 1605 - the reason for the inclusion of OBB coaches in an Oostende-Köln service escapes me. I changed at Verviers Central into a Pepinster-Eupen local to get to Welkenraedt for the start of the ADL tour.
The tour, in railcar 4603, started by running up the threatened line to Montzen yard, then reversed and took the freight line to Aachen West, passing over the spectacular Moresnet Viaduct. Returning via the same route to Montzen we continued to Vise where we reversed on the bridge over the [Liege-Maastricht] main line, taking the west curve on to the short line connecting the Montzen-Tongeren-Hasselt line to the Maastricht-Liege line.
Continuing towards Liege we stopped at the motorail terminal at Bressoux where the tour reversed to take the line across the Meuse to the Cockerill works at Chertal. Reversing again we headed towards Kinkempois, passing a train of molten steel en route to Chertal. At Y Val St Lambert we turned right towards Flemalle Haute then right again to take the branch to Flemalle Esperance. We returned via Y Val St Lambert to reverse at Seraing before taking the branch up the south bank of the Meuse for 5 km towards Engis. On the return from Engis the train reversed at Seraing to gain access to the line towards Flemalle Esperance. This time we crossed over between Leman and Flemalle Grande to take the passenger route into Liege Guillemins on the line from Namur. The railcar managed to struggle up the bank out of Guillemins without assistance and we reversed at Ans to do a short stub of the former line to Liers (only 300 metres or so, to a stopblock). We then returned to Ans station and reversed again down the even shorter stub of line 210 which curves away from the main line just enough to count! We continued along the slow lines to Fexhe le Haute Clocher, diverting through Voroux yard en route.
On our return we took the slow passenger line as far as Y Voroux where we took the freight only line 36A direct to Kinkempois, continuing to the end of the tour at Liege Guillemins, Unit 410 provided a very slightly cooler ride back to Huy to conclude the day's rail activity. A further visit to the Big Ben (Duvel and Gulden Draak) preceded by a visit to the chippie, concluded all the day's activity.
Breakfast at 0730 (charged extra, and in French style, and with warm water masquerading as tea) followed by a trip down E42 to Anderlues where the tramline to Lobbes looked unused. [Back on the subject of tea - I detest coffee but have now learned that from the moment I leave the shores of England I must drink only coffee, the tea being infinitely worse!] Much following of tramlines got me to Anderlues depot where there was no-one to be found. Decided to drive down to Lobbes - track and wires still in situ but by no stretch of the imagination did it look well used. Half way between Anderlues and Lobbes a roundabout was being built - the track was excavated but still in situ. On foot inspection revealed that it seemed to have been relaid. Onwards to Lobbes where the SNCB man said you caught the tram at the Pont du Nord (over the Sambre). He showed a timetable purporting to show that the first tram worked through from Anderlues. Yet more investigation at the tourist office when it opened at 10 revealed good news - the first and last trams do run from and to Anderlues Jonction - and bad news - the trams weren't running today because of the road works. At this point it was time to retire hurt!
After reviewing 'Retrorail' and considering Monday's plans the best bet seemed to be Eeklo-Maldegem. Fast cars to Eeklo therefore, where the Gambrinus, a cheap entry in the hotel guide, turned out to be closing. The barperson recommended me to the Rembrandt opposite the station which provided suitable accommodation for BEF 1220. The next stage was to find the train - NMBS man said it didn't come into the station but stopped 200m away. There being no physical evidence of this, e.g. a poster or a platform, I enquired at the hotel. 'Ask at the station' quoth she, reasonably enough. After looking at the street map which implied that there might be another station, but more than 200m away, I decided to walk up the track. 200m from the NMBS station I found 4620, sister of yesterday's conveyance, with persons lying underneath wielding spanners etc. All was well though, and we set off across the 16 level crossings to Maldegem. The crew (and associated English colleague) could not have been more obliging. [How often this is the case on mainland European preserved lines. I hope we Brits treat foreign visitors with similar courtesy].
There is a 15 minute stop half way at which I availed myself of a Duvel in the local hostelry. On mentioning that I would take my bag with me because my camera was in it and I wanted to photograph the unit, they arranged for me to photograph the unit going over the nearby bridge, and to pick me up on the other side. The shot was well worth while - hope it comes out.
At Maldegem there is a mixed gauge shed containing two standard gauge steam locos (details not recorded). There is a 60 cm gauge line continuing some 2 km mostly on the former NMBS alignment, to the East/West Flanders border near Donk. Power for the 1 closed and 2 open coaches on this was provided by Orenstein & Koppel 0-4-0WT 'Marie', works no 4854, built 1911. The 'main line' train was hauled by Avonside Loco co 0-4-0ST 'Fred', works 1908 built 1925, which carries a 'Buxton Lime Firms' plate on one end. All in all a confusing loco in Maldegem! I baled out at Balgerhoeke(the half way point) where the steam loco is run round using a siding just east of the road crossing - a diesel shunter follows behind to shunt the coaches. This enabled me to photograph Fred going chimney first across the bridge back to Maldegem and (just - I'm writing this hopefully while waiting) catch the 1634 bus to Eeklo. Watch this space...
It turned up. Back to Eeklo for a wash and brush up then off to Brugge by bus for an excellent mini-crawl of Die Schaere (Brugse Tarwebier, very pleasant, super beer list, bit off the beaten track), Oude Vlissinghe (draught Hoegaarden, bit disappointing), de Garre (house tripel and cheese), and t'Brugse Beertje (Rochefort 8).
A decent night's sleep for once at Eeklo, and a proper breakfast! The day's beer hunting started successfully enough at Yves [in Roeselare] where Kwak, Brugse Tarwebier, Kwak glass and Duvel glasses were obtained. Then round to Delicia - shock, horror, now closed Monday and Tuesday. Nopri also being shut I retired to tourist office who provided me with directions to various supermarkets including a Delhaize. Tried this last which had a good choice, so I decided to fit in a round trip from Lichtervelde to Deinze to fill in a gap, then return to Roeselare to collect the beer from Delhaize. Engineering work at Lichtervelde required the use of platform 5 - rare stuff, and overlap guaranteed as you cross the whole layout! The train worked wrong line to Tielt. The physical connection used by De Panne trains is east of Deinze station but the actual junction with the slow lines to Kortrijk is west of the station, so no real problem. [In other words there was - but it took me a year or two to sort it out!]. On the return journey there were several sudden stops, at least one with discussion among the train crew so possibly the loco was giving problems. Arrival at Lichtervelde, this time in platform 2 as booked, was a few minutes late. Locos were 6264 out and 6206 back.
A slow trip back to Roeselare following a tractor was followed by a visit to Delhaize who relieved me of 93 bottles and supplied a further 48. Once again I went wrong on the way to Westvleteren and had to go through Ieper, then found the road from N8 to the abbey closed. The signs for the diversion petered out after the first one [a practice very prevalent in Belgium] and I ended up in Woesten with no petrol. This situation corrected, I decided to go via Oostvleteren and Westvleteren. This route was also closed but had a properly signposted diversion. On arrival both 6 and 12 were off so I had to be satisfied with 8 [this is a fairly frequent occurrence. These fabulous beers are just too popular]. Return to Calais (the road was not closed, it turned out) took 1 hr 20 minutes, inclusive of a 5 minute research stop in Veurne. Arriving at Coquelles at 1720 I was offered the 1806 as the next service, which just allowed time to visit the duty free. Loading was delayed and slow, and the Shuttle left at 1818, arriving at Cheriton at 1751 BST, propelled by 9032 (front end haulage unknown).
Low Countries track bashing being in full swing by now I was back to Belgium, by rail this time, after another two months.
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