Seen from the towpath of the old Canal du Centre, the Strépy-Thieu boat lift on the new Canal du Centre is an extraordinary sight. A monumental engineering feat that towers over the surrounding countryside and the nearby village of Strépy-Bracquegnies. This monolithic structure is 150 metres tall and consists of two water-tubs that carry barges vertically up and down a 73 meter gap between the upper and lower portions of the canal.
Along this stretch, the 19th century Canal du Centre runs in parallel to the 20th century Canal du Centre. While the former is home to four hydraulic boat lifts built between 1888 and 1917 and now UNESCO World Heritage sites, its modern counterpart boasts some unbelievably ambitious 20th century engineering projects. Not just the Strépy-Thieu boat lift, but the Ronquières inclined plane.
The mist was still rising off the water as I approached the now unused Lift No. 4 on the old Canal du Centre on a clear, crisp late winter’s morning. Standing at the top of the lift the views down to the canal below, to the new Canal du Centre, and the Wallonian countryside beyond, were magnificent. The metal frame of the lift almost glowed in the early morning sun, and I descended to the lower level.
Boats only rarely ply their trade on the old canal, but that does not take away from the majesty of these relics of the Industrial Revolution. At the foot of Lift No. 4, you’re only a few dozen metres from the banks of the new canal, and as I approached a couple of large French-registered barges were sailing west away from the Strépy-Thieu boat lift. I set off along the canal in that direction.
I didn’t realise it at the time, I had seen the Strépy-Thieu boat lift from the train several kilometres away. It’s that big. In many ways it is a 20th century upgrade on its smaller 19th century forebears, designed to take the much larger barges demanded by modern trade. I was lucky to see the lift in action, a boat descending to continue its journey west. It’s remarkable quick and very quiet.
I wandered through the village of Strépy-Bracquegnies to take the view from the old canal over the rooftops – a dramatic sight that really gives a sense of the size of the thing – before continuing along the new canal towards the Sart Canal Bridge. This extraordinary €248 million aqueduct flowing over the top of busy roads below, is almost as beguiling as the lift, especially when a barge is crossing it.
Leaving the new canal behind, I cut through the countryside to rejoin the old canal at the village of Houdeng-Aimeries. Here a tranquil five hundred metre stretch of canal boasts Lift No. 3 and Lift No. 2. Apart from the occasional dog walker, I was alone for much of my time on the canal bank. It was gloriously peaceful. At the foot of Lift No. 3 is the old red brick engine room that powered the lifts.
I should have stayed on the old canal. Instead, I headed for the area’s other UNESCO World Heritage site, the Mining Site Bois-du-Luc, only to discover it was closed. It was a detour of several kilometres, but I made it back to the canal and headed for Lift No. 1 on the outskirts of La Louvière. By this point, if I’d been an early 20th century barge, I’d have overcome an elevation difference of more than 66.2 metres in just 7 kilometres.
This was journey’s end for me, but on the other side of La Louvière the old canal joins the new canal heading north-east to the Sloping Lock of Ronquières and then onwards to Brussels, passing in front of my apartment before reaching its own journey’s end at the River Scheldt close to Antwerp. It is a short but epic journey that includes some of the finest remnants of Belgium’s Industrial Revolution