The other side of the tracks - A country hidden by a large dog - CycleBlaze

August 26, 2019

The other side of the tracks

Rivière to Charleroi

Who knows why?
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ONCE in rural America, I was asked if Britain really was like Downton Abbey. I smiled and said that, no, it wasn't. There'd also been smoking factories and children in the mines and poverty of a level that today would bring revolution.

There once was a time when the Quality lived in giant houses with servants they rarely met but who cooked their meals and cleaned their house and lit the fires before winter dawns. One side rarely saw the other. But they were the minority, the fortunate. The rest laboured to keep them in ease.

We had that feeling today as we rode into Charleroi. It's never high in Belgian attractions and the ride along the river from the east showed why. We started the day Above Stairs with the posh houses and coffee stops and now we were Below Stairs where the work was done and grime dealt with.

For the first hour, life and scenery were reminiscent of old British railway posters for places like Scarborough.

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There was always a man in a sports jacket or a dinner jacket and bow tie, one hand in his pocket in the suave manner of the 1930s. He would have a well-creamed parting in his flattened hair. And a thin moustache. By his side was a dreamy woman dressed not quite as a flapper but going that way, to show that this is where both the sophisticated and the trendsetting chose to take the train.

That was the first part of the ride. And then we reached Namur and turned on to the Sambre and we were among the undermaids. This was where the work was done. As we rode on one bank, industry crackled grubbily on the other. Often we couldn't quite see what was happening except that now and then big shiny pipes disgorged chemicals or who knows what into river barges flying Belgian or Dutch flags.

Life Above Stairs
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Other barges slithered silvery and peacefully in each direction, one carrying rivets, the next concrete posts and yet another an anonymous load protected by firm, sliding covers. Each also carried a car, its smallness illustrating just how large these barges were.

Some people like riding through vineyards. I don't. I wouldn't choose to ride through either but, if there was nothing else, I'd choose industry.  I'm fascinated by countries at work and the variety of that work.

Here was where scrap metal was squashed into cubes. Here was where rubbish was sorted and sent on its way. Here was the Below Stairs of life, the part you know must be there but rarely choose to see.

This is our last night in Belgium and the last night of our ride. As always, we are torn between disappointment and the bitter pleasure of knowing it's finished, that we're going home.

We have celebrated with a Vietnamese meal and a night in a hotel. Our Vietnamese restaurant man told us the Tour de France had passed through the city and that he had joined the local cycling club when he'd come to Belgium and Charleroi.

"I was used to riding for ten minutes and stopping," he said. "They used to set off and not stop until they got back again."

He blew out his cheeks and shook his head.

"'I still ride my bike, though."

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