Crossing the Highlands
Charleroi Canal: Brussels Sainctelette - Seneffe junction - Charleroi (Sambre river) (75 km)
Old Charleroi Canal: Ronquières - Seneffe (16 km)
A History of the Charleroi Canal
Charleroi Bypass - L119 Rail Trail (14 km)
Canal du Centre: Seneffe junction - Mons north/Nimy (27 km)
La Haine river/canal: Nimy/Mons - French border (25 km)
Nimy - Blaton - Péronnes Canal: Nimy (Mons north) - Hollain (Escaut River) (42 or 44 km)
Pommeroeul branch (7 km)
Dender River and Blaton - Ath Canal: Dendermonde - Blaton (92 km)
Building canals in northern and western Belgium is fairly easy. Throughout Flanders there are only a couple of hills that reach more than a few meters above sea level. At the French border the Schelde is a slight 16 m above mean sea level (MSL). In the port of Brussels the water is only about 13.3 m above MSL. The Kempen is more of a challenge, with the canals climbing to 60 m at Maastricht, but the slope from the west is very gentle.
The center of the country is another matter. A ridge stretching from Mons to Liège separates Flanders and the Schelde/Escaut basin from the valley of the Meuse/Maas and Sambre. While the hills are not very high as mountains go (the crest is at about 160 m at the big cut south of Seneffe), for canal builders they are significant. Conquering these heights had to await the industrial revolution.
The first proposal to build a canal across the hills to connect Brussels with the Charleroi area, for the transport of coal, was made at least as early as 1570. 16 April 1656 saw the first (and last) turning of the spade in another attempt. In 1802 there was another study and authorization, but nothing further. It was finally under the great canal builder, King Willem I of the Netherlands, that real construction started. It lasted from 1827 to 1832.
The first canal was 74.5 km long, with 55 locks and a capacity of 70 tons maximum barge weight. At Seneffe the canal reached an altitude of about 125 m and then passed under the ridge through a tunnel 1,282 m long. Until 1883 (or 1836 according to another source), all barges were hauled by people - usually the wife and children of the barge operator.
The capacity of the canal was increased to 300 tons in a project that lasted from 1872 to 1920. Early in that process the tunnel was replaced by a deep cut, and in 1883 haulage by horses was authorized. Another modernization project was carried out in the 1930's. In 1957 another enlargement was launched, culminating in 1968 with the inauguration of the Ronquières incline. (For a more complete history of the canal click here.)
Brussels Sainctelette - Seneffe junction (45 km)
Once you are out of Brussels, this route offers some fine countryside, substantial cuts through hills, the unique canal incline at Ronquières, and major industrial archaeology including the closed steel mill at Clabecq. You climb about 110 m (the canal level along the top of the ridge is at 121 m above Mean Sea Level), but except at Ronquières the climb is spread into short segments.
Sainctelette on the north edge of the
Brussels pentagon (old town) is the official starting point for this canal. From
Sainctelette south there is little provision for bicycles except for a path on
the sidewalk on the east side for several blocks. (The press reports plans to improve the situation.) Going south, the better route is the street on the west side - there is not much traffic except during the rush hours. It is one way for the first km.
1.2 km south of Sainctelette you pass the former Belle Vue brewery, now a bottling plant. It is open for tours and samples on some summer weekends. Another 2.3 km and the road turns away from the canal. Stay by the canal, cross under the road bridge and follow the red asphalt bike path through a port area. Then you enter a park area on a service road, and finally towpath.
After 5.5 km of city riding, you reach lock 10 (Anderlecht) by the Café du Pont. (You can reach the Bizet metro station from here by heading west - uphill - to the tram line. Follow the tram track to the right. It is about 800 m from the bridge to the station.) From here to Halle, the path on the east side is superior. (The towpath on the west is often cobblestones or other rough going.) The east bank towpath is fairly new cement, although the joints are not the smoothest. The landscape is mostly industrial, with the a green strip along the canal. Fishermen like this section of the canal. In 1.2 km you pass under the ring, and in 3.5 km you reach the Ruisbroek bridge and lock 9. On this stretch you may in the morning and afternoon see Luigi Constanza and his flock of sheep. He keeps them as a hobby, using the milk to make ricotta cheese. He lives in Anderlecht, near the canal.
Halle is a very pleasant town to visit. Most of the center has been pedestrianized. There are a great variety of building styles. One house on the market is marked 1440, although the style looks more 1640. The main church, Sint Martinusbasiliek, was constructed 1341 - 1467, with parts of the tower from an earlier church. Halle was reportedly one of the early Christian missionary sites in the region, from about 600. (June 2000)
South of Halle you are best off on the east bank. You are mostly in the country, including some old cuttings with nice woods. About 5 km south of the Halle station you pass, mainly on the west side of the canal, a rundown steel mill - Les Forges of Clabecq. The mill went bankrupt and closed. It was reopened in early 1998 after a lot of negotiating and with substantial government aid and then closed again in 2002. In that area the towpath was being reconstructed in July 2003, but it was passable. (Karel Roose)
The tower at the top of the incline includes an information center and museum of barge life. It is well worth a visit. These facilities and the observation room at the top of the tower are open daily from Easter until the end of October.
From the bridge to top of the incline is about 2 km, and then there is an additional 400 m of canal on bridge before you reach a ridge. If you are feeling energetic, there is a steep unpaved footpath up the embankment at the end of the canal bridge to the west side of the canal. Once you gain the towpath, it is nicely paved. About 2 km after you regain the towpath there is a bow bridge. Further along the towpath on the west side is blocked, so take the bow bridge across and continue south on the east bank.
Safer is to continue straight on the road below the west side of the canal for 500 m to a tunnel under the canal. Go through the tunnel and then right on the road. Be careful - it is narrow and there is some high-speed traffic. In slight over 1 km there is a paved pull-off section (shoulder) on the right (west) side of the road. From that point there is a well-worn path up the embankment to the towpath.
At first good, the towpath paving deteriorates as you head south. It will slow you down a bit. In 4.3 km, after passing a guard lock and a Fina chemical research center on the west bank, you reach a bridge just before the E19 bridge - by exit 20, Feluy. If you plan to turn west on the Canal du Centre at Seneffe junction, cross the bridge and continue south on the west side of the canal. (That side is also smoother.) Otherwise continue on south for a bit over 2 km on the east side to Seneffe junction. (July 2000) (Brussels - Seneffe reviewed by Karel Roose 31 July 2003) (Huizingen - Halle updated July 2006 by Richard Blow)
Seneffe junction - Charleroi (Sambre river) (30 km)
From Seneffe to Luttre (14 km), pleasant but dull with slightly rough pavement half the way. You can ride on either side, but the east/north is probably a bit better (cement which has aged) until you reach the footbridge at Pont-a-Celles. (It is half a km before a railroad bridge.) Cross the canal by the footbridge and continue on the south side - much better asphalt.
Going south from Seneffe junction you pass in quick order three bridges that do not provide a reasonable way to cross the canal. The fourth bridge (1.3 km south of the junction) provides an easy crossing. 600 m further is the junction with the old Charleroi canal. This is about KP 24.2 on the markers that have started appearing on the west side of the canal.
500 m later you reach on the west/south bank a side canal at Godene. At the junction is a water recreation facility run by the Walloon region - you occasionally see children learning to sail or row. There is then mooring for pleasure boats. This branch runs about 1,200 m before stopping abruptly. It looks like perhaps an early aborted attempt to cross the highlands.
There is a bridge near the south end of the highest part of the cut, but no access is provided to the towpath. The first reasonable crossing is 8 km south of Seneffe junction at La Flèchère/Gouy-lez-Piéton. The bridge is just past KP 19.(May 2000) Thereafter you are mostly in farm country, with a railway paralleling the canal on the south/west side. The pavement is fair to good on both sides of the canal, with the east/north side perhaps a bit better.
Luttre, 6 km further south, has four bridges in a short stretch, from north to south pedestrian, road, pedestrian and rail. The second pedestrian bridge is at KP 13. There is a Champion super market by the canal, and by the road bridge a pub. From Luttre south you can ride either side on mostly fair to good pavement. The east side is a bit prettier and quieter since you are away from the railway that parallels the canal. The west side has the KP markers, making it easier to keep track of your location.
From this point south the east bank has the best pavement. As you near KP 7 you approach the Gosselies bridge and lock. A km later is a former rail bridge which is the west end of the Charleroi bypass.
If you plan to turn west - upstream on the Sambre, a better route is to cross to the west side at the bridge by the lock near Charleroi canal KP 3. Turn south. In 600 meters you pass under a rail bridge. Turn off the towpath onto the road and climb to the highway above. (Note that if you continue on the towpath you soon reach a fence - the Marcinelle steel mill works of Cockerill Sambre, which is now owned by French group Usinor.) Turn right along the highway (bike lane of moderate quality) and follow the highway to the first traffic light. (Hint for rail fans: this road passes over a number of rail lines, and just to the north is a very large rail yard. Great place to watch trains.) At the light, turn left and through the town of Monceau-sur-Sambre to the bridge across the Sambre river at Marchienne-au-pont.
If you follow that route to the Sambre, you can get a good idea of why canals are still being built. Cross the bridge and turn east along the Sambre. You will see more freight activity - scrap metal, ore, stone, etc. - than I have seen anyplace else in Belgium. The Port of Charleroi reported handling 5.4 million tons of water-borne freight in 2000, with nearly 2.2 million barge movements on the Sambre and Charleroi canal. (Le Soir 10 February 2001) Usinor is the largest single client, and items related to steel the largest single category of loads - nearly a third. Construction materials are in second place. Usinor, which is a French corporation, is campaigning vigorously for the completion of the Strepy-Thieu barge lift, so that material can be moved to and from the port of Dunkerque by water rather than rail.(February 1998) (Seneffe - Charleroi reviewed by Karel Roose 2 Aug 2003)
For a wonderful photo essay of the steel works and slag heaps around Charleroi, visit the StahlArt (steel art) Cockerill Sambre steel works site.
Access: E19 exit 20 (Feluy). Park by the canal just after the exit ramp. Or then turn left. At Seneffe junction there is an area where you can park. Or turn right and drive north roughly along the canal for 4.6 miles (7.4 km) to the Tour de Glacée Café by Ronquière bridge and park there. For Halle, E19 exit 21, for Ruisbroek E19 exit 18. The metro stations Ijzer/Yser and Comte de Flandre are by the canal, and the Bizet station less than 1 km from it. Also: Exit 21 (Luttre) from the A54, right to Luttre. Cross the bridge over the canal and park in the lot of the Champion market.
Old Charleroi Canal: Ronquières - Seneffe junction (16 km)
One of the the prettiest (but not smoothest) rides near Brussels: nature preserves, ancient farms, 15 locks. Not recommended for children.
When the Brussels - Charleroi canal was built in 1827 - 1832, it followed the Zenne/Senne river valley from southern Brussels to Tubize, the branch Sennette to Ronquières, and its branch the Samme to the ridge in the Seneffe area. After a passing through a tunnel under the crest, the canal followed the Pieton down to the Sambre by Charleroi.
After 1945 it was decided to expand the capacity of the canal to 1,350 tons. Studies showed that it would be cheaper to built an entirely new canal between Ronquières and Seneffe rather than widening the existing canal and building new locks. The new canal, opened in 1968, was not only 5 km shorter than the old, but replaced 16 locks with an incline to move barges up/down 68 m (223 feet). Further south, another 12 locks were replaced by three. The result is said to have reduced transit time between Brussels and Charleroi by seven hours.
The old canal was then decommissioned. Only the lower two locks (numbers 28 and 27) were left operational. The gates were removed from the rest, and walls and cascades installed to maintain water level in the various sections. Part of the area was declared a nature preserve. The result is a wonderful cycling area, even if the paths are often a bit rough.
The old canal leaves the new at Le Chenu, a village across the new canal from Ronquières. At the south end of the bridge across the old canal (by the Café Tour de Glacée) turn east on the right side of the old canal and along lock 27. (The first lock is actually 28, below the Ronquières bridge.) You will stay on this (generally west) side of the old canal the entire distance.
A couple of km south of Seneffe, just past former lock 13, the canal turns to the right. The original canal goes straight ahead at this point to the tunnel. After the right turn you reach a lift bridge, with a marina on the other side, and then the new canal. If you want to continue south toward Charleroi, cross the lift bridge and then go right on the path to the new canal and then south. To make a loop back to the starting point at Ronquières (about 13 km), stay on the right (north side) of the lift bridge and continue on the path back north. (Returning that way, after about 13 km you reach a guard lock - a single gate that can be dropped down into the canal. About 3 km later the canal goes on an ever-higher embankment and then a bridge to the top of the incline - with no safe way down. To get down safely, watch until you start seeing street lights along the canal ahead. When you can see 5 lights, you will reach a rusty trash bin. From there is a path down to the road.) (July 2000)
Access: take exit 19 (Nivelles south) from the E19 and head towards Arquennes. In about 3 km you cross the canal. Turn left immediately after the bridge and park on the left. You are now a little south of the mid-point of the old canal loop. Or E19 exit 20 (Feluy). There is parking on the highway along the canal.
Charleroi Bypass (L119 Rail Trail): Roux - Chatelet (14 km)
If your route includes the Sambre River and Brussels - Charleroi Canal, you can avoid Charleroi with this pleasant rail trail. It is nicely paved, and signposted.
From this point to the Sambre (about 12.5 km) you are on rail trail except for 3 short, clearly marked detours. The industries and mines which the railroad used to serve are long gone, the sites cleared or overgrown. Much of the time you are not aware that you are riding through a large city. Some sections have lovely selections of wild flowers, others blackberries. Occasionally there are level road crossings, some with pubs nearby.
The rail trail ends at the rail line along the Sambre near the Chatelet station. Follow the bike lanes (signposted) across the railway to the station. As you approach the station building turn right to the river. (June 1999) (entire L119 reviewed by Karel Roose 9 August 2003)
The rail trail extends to the west of the canal, but for only 500 meters - to a road by the railroad. A sign says this is the temporary end of this section of the RAVeL.
Access: A54 exit 24, then turn right (south) on the N5. In about 1 km, at the first traffic light, is the Prince Albert pub. You can either turn right and then park by the Champion Market (rail trail runs along the south side of the parking lot) or left and park at the traffic circle (rail trail cuts across circle).
Last updated 25 July 2006
Copyright Dan Gamber, 1998 - 2009
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