Tom Fenton and Faith Ressmeyer
Wed 29 Oct 2014 18:20
50 23.459N 3 4.803E

Good progress today, but the morning, wreathed in mist, was through a landscape which was, a hundred years ago, the muddy ravaged scene of the mass slaughter of young men in their millions. Among the fields, and quite unrelated to the ploughed fields and newly sprouting winter wheat around it, there was a small enclosure, bounded by a stone wall not more than a hundred yards square, with a large stone crucifix, and filled with gravestones, in regimented rows, identical except, I suppose, for the names they bore. And all around were the copses, hills and woods which were so bitterly and vainly fought for. 

I am just south of Lille, near Loos, where my great great Uncle Angus led his battalion of the Queens Own Sutherland Highlanders in eleven charges, on the last of which he was killed, and most of his men with him. 

In that copse over there, does the ghost of Siegfried Sassoon still hunt foxes? And does the spirit of Robert Graves ever leave Mallorca and visit these muddy fields, to say Goodbye to All That. Today it was All Quiet in the Western Front, but my eyes were streaming with tears as I passed through this terrible place, and recited to myself what I could remember of the Anthem for Doomed Youth.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?  
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.  
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle  
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;  
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – 
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;  
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?  
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes  
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.  
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;  
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,  
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

I followed a barge, or peniche as I should call them, called El Gringo down the last of the Canal du Nord. This had the advantage that he sorted out the lock ahead of us, but the disadvantage that he was an inconsiderate bastard who did none of the obvious things that would have made my life easier without putting him out at all. When we had to wait for a slow pair of barges to lock through ahead of us, instead of moving up to the waiting area and mooring, and letting me moor and turn my engine off, he would block the waiting area, forcing me to go round in circles until the lock was free for us to enter. The slowest of the slow was a Michael Jackson fan.

By two o'clock I was out of the Canal du Nord and into what I think is called the Liaisons au Grand Gabarit. This is on an even greater scale than the Rhone. Enormous locks that can take boats abreast. Floating bollards (thank heaven). But they have their own perils, and I learned a few lessons. Which I shall spare you.

I am fascinated by the naming of barges. While following El Gringo, we passed Mexico pushing Mexique. Who thought of Ab Ovo (from the egg)? And what does Schmilblick mean? Put it in Google translate and it comes straight back at you untranslated. Which is a shame. It sounds like something Klaus and Christine might have for breakfast on their anniversary.

With a fair wind (that is purely metaphorical, and a bit ironic) I might make Dunkerque by Friday afternoon in time to have the mast put on. Otherwise they won't do it until Monday. So it will be an early start tomorrow. Again. Which brings me back to this morning. The Souterrain, my last tunnel, was amazing. Four and a half kilometres, like the first tunnel I did way back, but in the middle there is a kilometre and a half where the canal widens so that convoys can pass each other. And that is what happened this morning. I couldn't get the camera, and it probably would not have made a good photo, but I followed a barge, and we were passed in the middle section by another pair of barges. And the clever thing was, no one had to reduce their speed at any point. Talking of speed, on the smaller canals I dreaded being held up behind a barge. But here they go far faster than Beowulf is capable of. Five and a half or six knots, even though I think they are supposed to keep to five.

I followed a barge called El Niño pushing Poseidon 2 through the four or five locks we did this afternoon. The skill and seamanship of the barge man and woman amaze me. I took m hat off to him. I hope that is common in cultural terms. The first lock keeper on this canal came down to speak to me, and really to check the boat's name. When I realised what his mission was, I said "Beowulf". Oh yes, he said, snapping his notebook shut without writing anything. Of course. (Well, okay, he used French, but that is clearly what he was saying.) and I remembered the advice from the Cruising Association to be polite, considerate and friendly to all barges and lock keepers. They talk to each other. El Niño passed me about a week ago going in the other direction. I don't seem to have made an enemies, apart from the deplorable El Gringo. I think they rather pity the solo Englishman, whose clothes are covered in mud. I don't quite feel I am a credit to the flag. 

Douai has a belfry with a peal of 68 bells. Now that is almost worth waiting until Saturday morning to hear. But not quite. G'night: as one of the barges is called, "I'm Through."