Willebroek Canal (33 or 36 km)

The original 16th century canal north from Brussels ran straight from Willebroek north to the Rupel, where the village of Klein Willebroek was built on wetlands reclaimed by spoil from the canal. The canal was authorized in 1547, construction started officially on 16 June 1550 and the canal opened in 1561. At the Brussels end it ran slightly east of the present route, terminating in several basins within the pentagon (area within former city walls) of Brussels, including St Catherine's. The basins were later filled in, St Catherine's in 1870. Probably at that time the last few hundred meters of the canal were relocated to the west to eliminate the sharp turns required at Sainctelette and Ijzer when the Charleroi canal was originally built. Port activity transferred to the north and to the new alignment.

In 1878, the canal apparently contained a curious tow boat. Robert Louis Stevenson in An Inland Voyage - description of a canoe trip made in 1878 - says that "The canal was busy enough. Every now and then we met or overtook a long string of boats, with great green tillers; high sterns with a window on either side of the rudder, and perhaps a jug or a flower– pot in one of the windows; a dinghy following behind; a woman busied about the day’s dinner, and a handful of children. These barges were all tied one behind the other with tow ropes, to the number of twenty–five or thirty; and the line was headed and kept in motion by a steamer of strange construction. It had neither paddle–wheel nor screw; but by some gear not rightly comprehensible to the unmechanical mind, it fetched up over its bow a small bright chain which lay along the bottom of the canal, and paying it out again over the stern, dragged itself forward, link by link, with its whole retinue of loaded skows. Until one had found out the key to the enigma, there was something solemn and uncomfortable in the progress of one of these trains, as it moved gently along the water with nothing to mark its advance but an eddy alongside dying away into the wake."

Southern Willebroek Canal
Early in the 20th century (official inauguration 12 November 1922 by King Albert I) the canal was expanded and extended about 4 km to the NW from Klein Willebroek, parallel to the Rupel. A new, larger lock was built to connect to the Rupel, and the lock at the end of the original branch blocked. This created an island, reached in the east by an old bridge at the north end of the original channel and a new (2000) bridge near the south end, and a few hundred meters to the west by bridges across the Rupel and the middle channel. The canal was again widened to its present dimensions in the 1960's. To the Brussels harbor the canal now has a minimum depth of 6.5 m over a channel 20 m wide, and bridge clearances of 9 m. This is adequate for substantial ships, making Brussels a true sea port. Then in the 1990's another extension was dug, leaving the first about 1 km before its lock and running 3.5 km to the point where the Rupel joins the Schelde. Another island was formed. This one can be reached across the lock gates of the middle channel (by pedestrians and bicycles only), or across one of the gates of the new Wintam lock (by any sort of vehicle - the gates are massive). After a period of decline, use of the canal is increasing.

Brussels Sainctelette - Burnt Bridge (12.6 km)

Sainctelette Square is chosen as the starting point. To the north of the bridge is the Willebroek (now technically the Brussels - Schelde) canal, while to the south is the Brussels - Charleroi canal (19th century).

This was and is a major industrial zone, with various factories and commercial activities on one or both sides until north of Vilvoorde (about 11 km), and then in the Willebroek area. On this section there are no quiet country paths but mostly riding along or on roads. What you see varies from a 19th century transportation center (Turn & Taxis) now being redeveloped, to a Renault car factory closed unexpectedly in 1997, to one of the country's largest power plants, to various marinas for pleasure craft. While many of the industries no longer use the canal, some do. And you don't see just barges but also (north of Laken) ships of up to 10,000 tons, and wonderful lift bridges. The Port of Brussels reports about 15,000 ship and barge movements a year. 7.7 million tons of freight were reportedly carried on the canal in 1997. (By comparison: Belgian railways handle about 60 million tons a year.) (On 5 Jul 2003 De Morgen reported that the canal handled over 10 million tons in 2002.)

The primary cargoes are petroleum products and construction materials, with lesser tonnages of chemicals and fertilizers, grains and ore. On 1 January 2000, the toll was cut to BEF .01/ton/km. At Sainctelette and Vilvoorde just south of the Zemst lock there are stops for a planned rush hour water bus service.

From Sainctelette, go east one block on the bike path on the north side of the boulevard to Ijzer. The 1950s Citroen showroom is now a listed building. Turn left (north) on the bike path (I prefer the left - west - side, despite the signs) on the sidewalk along the road, which is named Willebroek Quai/Kaai. The road was the original route of the canal, and the green space on the east side the site of the the first passenger railway station in continental Europe, on the 1835 Brussels - Mechelen line. (The terminus was moved a few blocks east to Pl. Rogier - then Place des Nations - in a project starting in 1841. The name of the new terminus was Station du Nord. Its final form in that location was a grand Victorian station on the north side of Pl. Rogier where there is now a post-war skyscraper. The station looks wonderful in old photos. The station was again relocated a couple of blocks to the north - its present site - in the 1920's as part of the junction tunnel project.)

At the second light (first gas station), cross over to the right (east) side and follow the service road (Allée Verte - green street) to the third light (tram line, Midas shop) where there is a bridge across the canal. Cross the bridge on the south sidewalk (or using the north roadway) and then turn right (north) where you pick up a bike path on the right sidewalk. This is a major road, with bike paths on the sidewalks on both sides. In 300 m you pass under a rail bridge, with a small station. The station was built for the palace, whose wall is now on your left.

This section ends in another km at Laken bridge (another tram line), the last fixed bridge on the canal. Cross the street and tram line and continue north on the bike lane. By the canal is a marina. The very large structure on the east bank appears to be an incinerator. Follow the path for about 600 m until you have passed the Esso station and then cross the road on the marked crossing to the west side and follow the bike path north.

From Laken bridge north the canal is accessible to sea-going vessels. This is the Port of Brussels, a commercial/industrial area. The main users of water transportation are on the east bank, but there are some on the west. For the first km or so you are separated from the canal by warehouses and fuel tanks. Some industrial sites are now abandoned, and two of those (including a coke works) have recently been cleared and are for sale. There are also two rowing clubs about a half km before the Buda Bridge.
Buda Bridge, originally road and rail but now just road

North of Buda bridge it appears that nobody feels responsible for maintaining or even cleaning the sidewalk and bike path. They deteriorate as you proceed north. If traffic is not too heavy you might prefer riding in the road, particularly when you reach the section used as an informal dump.

One km north of Buda Bridge you reach the boundary between the Brussels and Flemish Regions, and the end of the port. Just past that point the bike path switches to the right side of the road and you enter a more rural - or at least green - area. After you pass under the Vilvoorde Viaduct of the Great Ring there are parks and a football field. This green space lasts for about one km before you enter another urban area. The next major landmark is the Vilvoorde lift bridge.
Vilvoorde bridge
 (January 2001)

If you feel like taking a break or wish to sightsee, cross the bridge to Vilvoorde. The most interesting building is the Church of Our Lady. It is the one in front of you as you cross the bridge. Parts date back to 1200. Also of note is the 17th century Chapel of Our Lady - follow the main shopping street (Stationlei, recently repaved) to the right of the church. At the first street turn right. The chapel is about 200 m on your left. (October 2000)

Back on the west bank of the canal, past the Vilvoorde bridge the path ends and you ride on the road. Traffic is generally fairly light. You pass a power plant and then a branch harbor on the east bank. The west bank is mostly commercial, but not activities that use the canal.

The next major landmark is Burnt Bridge (Verbrande Brug). According to Gids voor Vlaanderen, the name is over 400 years old. When the canal was opened in 1561, a bridge was built here. Spanish forces burnt the bridge in 1577 during the first phase of the Protestant (Dutch) revolt against Philip II's religious persecution. Interestingly, the first time I stopped at one of the pubs here to ask about the name nobody knew. The second time, one person said it resulted from the action on 15 September 1914 when a few Belgian troops tried to deny the bridge to the advancing Germans. A Corporal Tresignies was killed in the effort. His name is found on a monument by the west end of the bridge, on the street on the east end of the bridge, and on a pub. Two other old-timers said it dated from a similar attempt in WW2. The present lift bridge probably dates from the 1960's. The Sea Canal authority is presently studying building a high level bridge to eliminate traffic disruption due to ship movements. There are two pubs by the east end of the bridge. (January 2001)

The Humbeek (here) and Burnt bridges appear to be identical

Burnt Bridge - Vredesbrug Willebroek (14 k)

Note 27 April 2004: The towpath on the west side of the canal between Burned Bridge and Humbeek bridge is blocked due to construction activities on the embankment. On the east bank most of the route is on narrow road with at times a bumpy bike path alongside.

Tisselt bridge with Willebroek Ring bridge in the background
At Humbeek switch back to the west bank. From the north edge of Humbeek (note the Lourdes copy-grotto to the left - in an unfortunate site with a strong sewage smell) there is fine new asphalt pavement for half a km. Then you have a old cement path along a minor road for 1.8 km. You pass the Humbeek lock. Notice the spare lock gate on the east bank at the south end. Most locks have an extra gate, to be used to repair things as quickly as possible in case there is an accident.

As you approach Kapelle-op-den-Bos you are forced to turn off the embankment by the Eternit factory. Follow the street 400 m to an intersection, then right for 800 m until you pass under a rail line. Just past the rail line is a traffic light. Go straight across the street and turn right on the sidewalk and follow the street back beside the bridge ramp to the canal - 300 m. A short distance north on the canal side road is a pub, and there is another a short distance further. There used to be many more public establishments on the canal, but they were demolished when the canal was widened in the 1960's. The current bridges (one road, one rail) were built at that time, replacing a lift bridge that was at ground level when closed. (October 2000)

Tisselt Bridge with temporary ferry
source Karel Roose
From Kapelle north the east bank is blocked in two places. Stay on the west. For the first 400 m, through the town, you have a choice of riding the road (very little traffic) or sidewalk. Then a cement bike path starts on the inland side of the road. This lasts for a bit over 5 km, through woodlands with a few commercial establishments. Along the way you pass the tower bridges at Tisselt and Willebroek Ring. They normally open to a fairly low level for barges (see picture of Brielen bridge), but the deck can be raised much higher for sea-going ships.
Vredesbrug, Willebroek
(Note from Karel Roose 24 April 2004: The Tisselt Bridge is closed for maintenance. There is a pedestrian/cylist ferry.) (Summer 2005: in the area south of the Vredesbrug the canal is being widened. The first step is driving sheet metal panels into the ground about 10 m inland from the canal bank. When they have formed a wall the old embankment will be taken out and replaced. The work is being done by Rogiers/Depret, which has pictures of the work on its web site.

As you enter the town of Willebroek the bike path ends. You have half a km on a one-way street, against traffic, to the Vredesbrug bridge and a nice pub, den Arend. They serve Moortgat Bel pils on tap, and Maredsous abbey beer.

Sint Niklaas, Willebroek. Tower and transcept about 1250

You now face the Willebroek hydra - the three heads of the canal. You have two main choices for proceeding north.

Willebroek to Schelde or Rupel (9 or 3.5 km)

If you want to follow the Schelde to the west continue north on the west bank of the canal. About 400 m north of the Vredesbrug you see down a side street a most unusual church tower. This is St Niklaas church. The tower and transcept were constructed 1225 - 1250. The rest of the church was rebuilt in Gothic style in the early 17th century, and the side isles were added in the 18th.

Continuing north on the road along the canal you quickly reach the Ijzerenbrug - a rotating rail bridge.


Another 300 m and the paved road ends. Turn left (on Vaartstraat) for 300 m to a main road (Boomsesteenweg) with a bike lane. Turn right (north) on the bike lane. It is 1.4 km, mostly through an industrial area and away from the canal, to the next bridge.

At this bridge you can cross and turn immediate north (left) by the recycling companyon the Schelde Right Bank route. Otherwise continue straight. Industry still keeps you away from the canal, but there are bike lanes along the road and traffic is probably never very heavy. In 800 m you pass under a railway bridge and the bike lane becomes a separate paved bike path. One km brings you to a large commercial building labeled Lambrechts. Turn right just past that building. In 500 m you reach the canal towpath. Turn left (north) and after about 300 m you reach new (2000) asphalt pavement on a service road. 4.4 km of fine but boring riding (newly planted grass along this new canal embankment) brings you to the Wintam lock. From the lock follow the pink path north to (500 m) the Schelde. At this point you connect with the Schelde right bank route towards Temse.

To connect to the Rupel River to the east or west, cross the Willebroek Vredesbrug and continue north on the east bank road for 600 m. The pavement then ends. Follow the bike route signs (Broekroute) to the right on the road for 600 m. (The direction marker for cars is for Klein Willebroek.) After passing under a railway (the line which crosses the Ijzenerbrug) you come to a road junction. Turn left onto the bike lane. The car direction sign is again Klein Willebroek, with the direction sign for the opposite direction Willebroek. Another 700 m brings you to a junction with a wide paved bike path coming from the left. Turn onto that path. 700 m of riding through woods brings you to the canal again, by the RYAC building. This is the original channel just north of where the second channel branches to the west. To your left is a new (2000) bridge. The old canal is now a yacht marina. Turning north along the canal, there is paved towpath for 400 m and then you join a quite street for 300 me to Het Bruggeske bridge. This is the village of Klein Willebroek, built in the 16th century after spoil from the construction of the canal filled in some wetlands.

Sherman tank, remainder of the Widow Van Enschodt toll bridge
For the Zenne River and Leuven Canal route , stay on the east side of the canal and bump along the cobbles for a short distance to the Rupel River embankment and a Sherman tank. The tank commemorates the liberation of Willebroek on 4 September 1944. According to a sign at the end of the bit of old bridge, the 11th Armoured Division, 30th Corps, 2nd British Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Robert Vekemens, advanced up the east bank of the canal and crossed the river here. Their surprise action kept the German forces from destroying the A12 bridge across the Rupel. The bridge used by Vekemens and company was the Widow Van Enschodt toll bridge, of which a small part is preserved here. The bridge, built in 1852 with a grant from Widow Van Enschodt, was demolished in 1946. The sign says that the tank was installed here in 1992 as part of the commemoration of Robert Vekemens, for whom a bike route that passes here is named.

The old canal was cut off from the Rupel for many years, but then the lock was rebuilt and reopened for small boats.

For the Nete River/canal route or Sea Schelde north towards Antwerp, cross Het Bruggeske and follow the road to the right. The building on the right is a lock house built in 1608. It now contains a museum about the canal. Just past the house climb the embankment to a ferry landing. (The pedestrian ferry seems to run mostly in rush hours.) Turn left on the fine bike path along the embankment to (500 m) Boom bridge. Cross the bridge for the Schelde and Nete routes. (January 2001)

Access: by Metro, line 2 Ijzer/Yser. By car: E19 exit 12 towards Vilvoorde and then R4 around Vilvoorde and to Verbrande Brug. OR A12 Willebroek exit, right through town to canal. Turn right at canal for parking. OR A12 north to Willebroek exit, towards Boom. After crossing canal turn left immediately and park by the recycling company.

Last update 25 October 2005
by Karel Roose; 2 September 2009 to add reopening of lock at Klein Willebroek

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