Turnhout Canal: Schoten - Turnhout - Dessel (65 km)

new type of route marker noticed by Dirk Vande Putte in May 2006
Since the opening of the Albert canal the Turnhout has lost most of its commercial significance, but its recreational potential is fully appreciated. Much work has been done to repair the damage of 120 to 150 years of use, and much more is underway. Most of the route is through farmland, nature preserve or woodland. You will never see many cars on this route, except overhead when you go under bridges. Over 50 km of the total are paved towpath with cars (except for fishermen and maintenance work) prohibited.

In October 2005 two barges ran aground in the canal just east of Turnhout. This was blamed on low water (lower than normal rain in September and October) but also more importantly on silting. NV Schipvaart, the region-owned company that operates the canals in the Flemish region, announced that the whole canal would be dredged in 2006. (In late 2007 it was announced that the work would be done in 2008. Stay tuned.) This is unlikely to cause difficulties for cyclists, except perhaps for having to step over a pipe.

Schoten - St-Lenaarts (18 km)

(Junctions 16 - 20 - 41 - 40 - 69 - 98 - towards 38)

Schoten harbor

lift bridge at north edge of Schoten
A fine ride, so fine that on nice weekends it can be overcrowded. From the Albert Canal take the northwest bank. The bike path is excellent, with a couple of very short sections that need repaving. There is some commercial barge traffic but the banks of the canal are devoted to recreation. There are a few live-aboards, some converted barges and a few entire houses on floats. There are 9 locks in about the first 10 km, each with a rise of 2 m or less. They are all hand operated, as are most of the bridges.

Note: for some pictures from the history of Schoten, see http://www.schotenhof.be/. (From André Maes) The photos in the section "Schoten Vaart" are all of what we now call the Kempen Canal plus a bit of the Albert Canal to the west of Schoten.

a lock full - 420 ton barge
Past the second lock in Schoten is the old harbor, now devoted to pleasure craft. 3 more km bring you to a lift bridge and the end of the town. You enter a lovely section of farms and woodlands with arcades of mature trees most of the way. Unusually, there are several pubs that take advantage of the canal, and one informal operation with tables set up beside the towpath.

sand and gravel port
The next town, in 4 km, is Sint-Job-in-'t-Goor. To join the Antitank Canal (Waterwegenroute) to the Albert Canal at Oelegam. cross the bridge and continue south a short distance before turning right and then left on the hiker/biker trail. Otherwise, continue on the north and west bank, on fine paved towpath. A project to rebuild the walls of the canal was finished in 2006. There are occasional bridges, often with pubs - some of which are named after the bridge. One is "bridge 9." At bridge 10, 7.5 km from Sint-Job, there is another harbor. (Interesting, the bridges count up from Schoten, and the KP and locks count down from Schoten.) In another km you pass under a high bridge and the canal makes its first real curve. Just past the curve is bridge 9 (St Lennarts) and another harbor for sand and gravel. (October 2000, updated July 2004 by Jan Steyaert) (Reviewed 30 Jul 2004 by Karel Roose) (Updated 19 June 2006 by Dirk Vande Putte)

Bridge 8 at St Lennarts
source: Dirk Vande Putte 11 June 2006

St-Lenaarts - Turnhout (18.5 km)

(Junctions 38 - 85 - 71 - then stay on north bank without junction signs to Turnhout and junction 01)

East of Sint-Lenaarts there is occasional industry and some road riding is required. The south bank remains mostly unpaved. There are occasional kilometer posts on the north bank, and the numbers of the bridges are either on the bridge structures or on the houses originally built for bridge keepers.

Less than one km east of St Lenaarts the paved towpath ends and you move to a road with occasional trucks. 1.3 km east of St Lenaarts there is an industrial complex on the south bank that is dumping dark red waste water into the canal. The smell is the sweet one of acid that I associate with paper mills. However the signs indicate that the factory makes terra cotta. Facilities on the north bank include plastic recycling and polyester tank molding.

boundary (blue and red dashed line) between the Schelde (to the south) and Maas watersheds
At bridge 7 (6 km from St Lenaarts) there are some nature signs. At this point you are just about on the dividing line between the drainage area of the Maas (to the north) and Schelde (to the south). According to one sign, the area was the shore of the North Sea some 2,000,000 years ago. It was then that the clay beds now mined in this area were deposited.

Another km brings you to bridge 6 and a lock. Just past the lock the paved towpath ends and you have to move to the parallel road. There is little traffic, but some cars pay no attention to the speed limits. This is the town of Rijevorsel. There are some pubs along the road. Past the town are several commercial and industrial establishments, particularly brick and tile works.

In this area you are also mostly following the Polar Bears Route. The 24 km long route commemorates the men of the 49th British Infantry Division (Polar Bears) who broke through German lines the night of 24 - 25 September 1944 and placed temporary bridges over the canal. The Germans resisted strongly and the area north of the canal was not secured until 23 October. Along the trail are 14 memorial markers with a description from the log of the Polar Bears or a witness. This is not marked as a route, but you can order a map showing the markers from VVV Toerisme Rijkevorsel, Molenstraat 5, 2310 Rijkevorsel; Tel. 03 340 00 12, fax 03 340 00 70; vvv.toerisme@rijkevorsel.be (André Maes 28 August 2005)

Polar Bears route and marker
source: André Maes

The environment barge carries school groups
At bridge 5 (just before KP 34) you have a choice. You can now ride the south bank on a hardpacked towpath, or the north bank on a road. However after a few km the south bank deteriorates - it is probably better to stay on the north. On the north bank you ride a newly widened road the nearly 2 km to bridge 4. There starts a narrow paved towpath - the road is better. Bridge 3 is one km. East of bridge 3 is a refuse transfer station and then sand and gravel operation that generate some truck traffic. However the road is dead end and has no fast traffic. Just past the sand and gravel yard there is a fine paved towpath for the final 2.5 km to bridge 2 at Turnhout. In front of you is the new Turnhout harbor. On the left just past the bridge is a pub (Klaverhof) with a garden. Cross the bridge if you wish to explore the town - which I did not find very interesting. (October 2000) (Reviewed 13 August 2004 by Karel Roose) (Reviewed by Dirk Vande Putte June 2007)


Turnhout - Dessel (Witgoor) (28.5 km)

(Junctions 01 - 04 - 32 - 58 - 59 - 67 - 72 - 12 - 74)

towpath rebuilt 2003 - 2006
source Dirk Vandeputte
This is one of the most pleasant rides in Belgium, mostly through nature preserves and parks with lots of watering holes along the way. And once you climb maybe 2 meters over the remains of an old railway bridge near KP 26, it is absolutely flat to the end. Port activity is limited to a couple of sand and gravel harbors. The north and east bank provides an excellent paved towpath since most of it was reconstructed in 2003 - 6. The south and west bank is variable, mostly poor to horrible.

former line 29 rail bridge
Heading east from bridge 2, in a bit over 1 km you come to the remains of a rail bridge - the former line 29. 100 east of the former bridge is the junction with the Bels Lijntje rail trail. Another 200 m bring you to bridge 1, and the second Turhout harbor. The eastern harbor is called Oud (old) Turnhout, and was presumably the one built around 1850 as the first terminus of the canal. The lift bridge at the west end of this basin is labeled bridge 1, the first on the second stage of the canal begun in the 1860's. From here east you will find another numbering series for bridges, many now gone, counting down from 9 to 1 at the junction with the Kempen canal.
bridge 1 at Turnhout

Continuing east on the north bank: About KP 21 (junction 32) you reach another bridge and a beer garden open in good weather. One km later you reach a safety lock (junction 58) and a ferry to a tavern (the Burcht Hertog Jan) across the way. (1 Oct 2008: André Maes 4 reports that the owner of the tavern and boat has retired and there is no new owner in prospect. The tavern and ferry are closed.) 1/2 km later (400 m past KP 16) you reach bridge 6 by Arendonk.

From here to the end of the route you are mostly in park with some stretches of farm and occasional bridges and villages. You will find pubs near KP 13 and 5. Just past KP 1 you pass another safety lock, and then a bridge.

new bridge 1
source André Maes April 2006
Near KP 4 is a new pedestrian/cyclist bridge.

deer steps
deer steps
source: de Standaard

You will also see increasing numbers (perhaps 50 eventually) of curious cuts in the site of the canal. These are "wildtrappen" - animal steps. The intent is to allow animals and particularly deer who fall in the canal to get out. Note that if you see an animal in the canal, it is best to walk away. Trying to catch a wild animal will panic it. (de Standaard 22 November 2005, noted by Jan Steyaert)

The path in this section has lost all pavement. But it is tolerable, André reported in April 2006.

the pancake boat
KP 0 - the junction with the Kempen canal - provides an unusually pleasant place to stop for refreshments - the Pannenkoekenboot (pancake boat) den Diel. They have an enormous selection (193 to be exact) of great crepes with both sweet and savory toppings. Try the taco (number 720 on the menu) for something different. They have two local brews on tap - Postel abbey and Campina Pils. Postel is now one of my favorites. Open June - August daily 11:00 - 21:00, May and September daily except Friday 11:00 - 21:00, October - April Monday - Thursday 12 - 18, Saturday and Sunday 11 - 21.

To go east on the Kempen, turn that direction from the junction. To go west on the Kempen, cross bridge 1 across the Turnhout. To continue south to Kwaadmechelen, cross the Turnhout and then the Kempen by the nearby lock. (October 2000) (Reviewed 13 August 2004 by Karel Roose) (Reviewed by Dirk Vande Putte June 2007)

Access: For the west leg: E19 north from Brussels to Antwerp and on towards Breda. Take exit 4 and turn right towards St-Job-in-'t-Goor. In a couple of hundred meters you reach the canal. Turn left just before the bridge and park. For Turnhout: take the E34 east from Antwerp, then exit 24 towards Turnhout centrum. At the first traffic light in about 1.5 km, turn right on the ring and follow it as it loops around the eastern side of town. Just after crossing the canal the ring ends. Turn left and you reach the canal at grade in 200 meters or so.

Bels Lijntje rail trail: Turnhout - Tilburg (NL)

(Junctions 01 - 02 - 03 - 05 - 87 - 82)

sign to Bels Lijntje from Turnhout canal
I have only ridden a bit of this trail. It was delightful.

A rail line between Turnhout and Tilburg was opened in 1867. It traverses one of the bits of Belgium which are surrounded by Netherlands territory, Baarle-Hertog. It was nicknamed the Belgium Line or Bels Lijntje by the Dutch. There were high hopes that this would become a major international line, as can be seen with the grand station in Turnhout. And the line did in fact carry express trains (between Utrecht and Brussels) for a few years. The dreams were quashed by a better line north from Antwerp in 1872 and for the rest of its history it was most important for carrying coal to the industries of Tilburg. The last regular passenger train ran in 1934, the last freight in 1973. It was then run as a tourist railroad until 1984. The rails were then lifted and the right-of-way sold (in the Netherlands) or given (in Belgium) to the riparian communes. It was then developed into a hiker-biker trail. Karel Roose reports (October 2004) that it is fine all the way to Tilburg, with the exception of a couple of km near Alphen where you have to take to the road.

Bels Lijntje rail trail north of Turnhout
This part of the Kempen was mined (often for peat) from the middle ages. The result in a mixture of agriculture lands and wetlands and lakes. Much of the area is now nature preserve, with observation benches along the rail trail.

The trail is marked from the Turnhout train station, but if you arrive by car you can better start from the Turnhout canal 200 west of bridge 1. There is a sign to show you the way. About 50 m from the canal you join the rail trail proper. The trail is also marked as LF 35. (October 2000) (Verified by Karel Roose 15 October 2004)

Access: E34 to exit 24, north to Turnhout. At the Turnhout ring turn right and follow the ring until it crosses the canal and then ends at a T junction. Turn left and follow the road to the canal bridge - bridge 1. Cross and park by the road or in the large parking area by the harbor to the left.

Last updated 18 July 2009

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