June on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin – weedy in parts; ultimately glorious

June 10 – 18 2019

Monday 10th June – we had left Soulanges on the Canal de L’Aisne á la Marne in the morning and by lunchtime we had turned to port at the T junction at Vitry-en François and were heading up the Oest (West) section of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin.

Leaving industrial Vitry

We had 111 kilometres to travel uphill to Void, with 70 locks to help us. We had been warned by other boaters that the canal was full of weed, growing and floating, and indeed the VNF issued a warning to battle.

Before long the blue skies turned to grey and the rain that was to be with us for several days, on and off, began to fall. With locks to negotiate every kilometre this is not as much fun as it might seem.

We were following a commercial barge that was making particularly slow progress; however slowly we tried to go we kept catching her up, and then had to hang around at a lock waiting for our turn, but that’s what sharing canal space is all about.

And it is good to see he canals still being used for commercial purposes – taking freight of the road.

It was not too long before we reached the very pleasant mooring we had picked out on the map – Bignicourt-sur-Saulx. It is a delightfully peaceful place to stay the night, and a walk round the village elucidated some history from World War 1, when the village tried desperately to hold back a German advance across the river and canal, but were overcome and many lives were lost.

The village includes a chateau that is a small hotel, and opens its gardens to the public on a Saturday.

This was Sunday!

This bridge over the Saulx was a focal point of the fighting.

This beautiful snail was my other major find of the evening.

The next morning seemed drier so we drew in our ropes and went on our way. There was a need to find a baguette for lunch if possible. Google maps located one in the next village, where there was also a good long jetty so we felt our luck was in. However every space was taken apart from a short length at the far end, quite close to the next lock.

A plan was hatched – Stewart would put the bow into the small space, I would (somehow) jump off and rush to the boulangerie and back while he hung about mid stream waiting for me and the lock.

It worked! I arrived back with baguette in the wet weather baguette bag just in time to watch the lock gates open and Calliope glide in.

When will the sun shine again?

We continued in the rain, eating lunch along the way. By the tenth lock of the day we were wondering if it would every stop – and still 5 more to go to the night’s mooring.

It got so chilly that we thanked Piper for the heater that blows warm air up from the engine room!

This kept the Captain warm – I meantime was out in the elements. Lucky I like water.

Things got interesting around Sermaize-les-Bains, where a lock is followed in short succession by two bridges, a sharp S shape bend under a third, followed by a basin leading into the next lock, out of which was reversing a large commercial barge!

Astern astern

Uo until now sensors either side of the canal had detected our approach to a lock and begun to prepare it for us, but as we reached lock 55 the system changed.

Now we could put to use the telecommander, or zapper as we preferred to call it, pointing it at each lock when we reached the command sign on the edge of the canal.

On up through another three locks and we reached Revigny-sur-Ornaine where we hoped to stop for the night. We had been warned that the wooden jetty was taped off, but still usable, so headed towards it. But the owner of the Belgian cruiser already tied up there, came gingerly towards us to want us off – most planks of the jetty had rotted through – so Plan B came into operation.

Plan B – moor up against the VNF ice breaker, Asterix

Plan B came to be the best plan! At about 8pm, in great agitation, our Belgian friend came to our boat to point out that the water level in the bief was rapidly dropping and they were already aground! He phoned the pompiers (fire service) and gendarmes, the latter of whom duly arrived looking very perplexed. Raising the water in a canal had not been in their training.

ut they were trained in making phone calls to useful people and after another 20 minutes two VNF cars sped up. By then we had discovered that several of the ‘vantelles’ which allow water into and out of the adjacent lock had remained open and water was simply pouring out of our stretch of the canal (bief). The VNF cavalry got to work once more, partly opening up three next locks up the canal and over night the level gradually rose.

And us? Well moored to Asterix we were further out into the channel in deeper water, and unharmed by the experience.

I like to note the different style of lock-keeper houses on the different canals. On this canal the houses are built on 3 levels at the back, and two at the front – reflecting the fact that the canal is built up on a levée

Some are no longer occupied and left in varying degrees of decay and neglect.

This one has almost been captured by nature – it’s glazed entrance porch scarcely visible.

We had been told that the pont-levée (lift bridge) at Mussey would not be lifted between 11am and 2pm, so although only 6 kms away we set off at 8am in case there were problems at any of the 4 locks between us and the bridge.

And as luck would have it, we got stuck in the first lock!

Stewart tried to clear the masses of weeds that were stuck around the sensors on the lower lock gate; the lock was not filling with water and our best idea was that the system did not know that the lock gates had shut – but to no avail.

So Lesley’s ‘lock French’ to the rescue, phoning the éclusier’s office to explain where we were and what the problem was.

It worked, and we were soon free and on our way, enjoying an artistic array of canal weed as we left the lock.

The art of floating weeds
Mussey Pont-Levée

We reached Mussey pont-levée in time to get through and onward before lunch. And then two further lift bridges to arrive at Bar Le Duc.

We moored up on the quay alongside the camper van park – all very civilised. It was possible to see the old town in the distance on top of a hill so once rested from our cruising exertions we started walking towards it.

We went over the river Ornain, and began to go upwards – steps and roads – onto a rampart style walk with stunning views of the roofs of the newer, but still old, town below.

The ‘higher’ town, dating from medieval times hosts so many interesting buildings, so here are a few – the Chateau, now a museum, the church (where we had a private tour from an enthusiastic guide in his eighties, and pretending did to understand),and the c13 covered market, the clock tower.

My favourite weird story from Bar de Luc is about the wife of a Prince of Orange who, when he was killed in the siege of St Dizier asked for a sculpture to be made of what he would look like 3 years after he died (if dug up!)

Here is the strange (full size) result!

So weird to my mind.

We strolled and rolled back down the steep roads to the newer town below and found a pavement bar to revive us before and relaxation before returning to the barge for the remainder of the evening.

Next day was mainly a boat day – filling with water, cleaning winter green from window edges, and re-stocking with provisions.

Then we went out to walk round another part of town before beer and pizza.

This took us over the lovely Notre Dame bridge over the Ornaine river, with old houses flanking the banks.

Michaux, inventor of the bicycle

We discovered another of Bar de Luc’s famous son’s – Michaux – though I am sure he did not look like this!

We found a second bar with Stewart’s favourite game! And he came up against a mini pinball wizard; they enjoyed what was apparently a good pinball game.

The pizza itself was interesting on three levels/Police outside pizza place, and lovely old church. First, it was delicious, and cooked by a Tunisian, not an Italian. Second, whilst eating a table on the pavement we were suddenly disturbed by two police cars, sirens screeching, once of which drove onto the pavement. The police jumped out and arrested a young lad who looked quite innocent, but unsurprised.

And then there was this lovely old church – a complete mish-mash of styles.

Easterly leaving of Bar de Luc

We continued our journey on Friday, following a yacht at first, under a pont levée. We soon lost sight of them, being surprised by a big barge after an S bend under a bridge!

Bye bye Bar de Luc, as the bridge comes down

Later that day we had another lock that would not open – leading to an hour’s wait in a peaceful spot – then the same again 3 locks later!

On this one I had to scramble ashore from the bow into who knows what undergrowth, in order to reach the lock and use their phone.

It was too remote for us to have reception on the mobiles!

We were unable to tie up, even to a tree trunk, and with the engine off we drifted pleasantly and quietly from side to side.

But all good fun!

Once we were on our way again we passed by many moss laden lock doors, water lilies, and pieces of old lock keeper’s equipment, (I think these structures were to hold the long barge poles). Ah, this is the life!

Reached Tonville-en Barrois and found a delightful mooring just at the edge of the village, but out of sound of any road. Just birds, and later rain drops, to soothe us.

We took a walk round the village and were pleased to find a boulangeries for the morning, plus an amazing old fortified church, going back to the c12. And, more exciting for me, the first lavoir of the season.

The singing of the rain

Overnight it poured and poured with rain, hammering down on the roof of the boat – we love that sound – but it had consequences for the weediness of the canal next day, as you will see.

I made a quick trip to the boulangerie before we left Tronville, with a plan for the day of 17 locks – but we fell at the first hurdle. The first lock was chock-a-block with weed, and once full the doors would not open to let us out.

Captain Stu had a go at clearing the sensors with a boathook to no avail, so on the phone to the VNF and then settle down to enjoy the enforced break, plus wash down the side of the barge following the previous days spattering from the guy cutting and strimming the grass next to our mooring.

That was lock 27. Subsequently we were held up at locks 20, 19 and 17 – in every case waiting outside the lock because the doors would not open and the ‘deux feus rouges’ appeared, meaning ‘en panne’ again.

At least we were not as unfortunate as this Norwegian yacht, which ran aground and was truly stuck for quite some time.

They did get free, and caught us up later.

We heard that another yacht had had its keel snapped off in the low water and had to be craned out of the canal – I hope that is not true.

We ate lunch on the go, enjoyed the sunshine and lockside flowers, and had a visiting dragonfly on the deck (sorry the desk is so dirty!)

At one of the ‘stop-locks’ I had time to study and photograph the system of pulley wheels that must have been used to haul barges under the bridges, while then patient horses walked round.

All of this had a good outcome – we stopped short of our planned mooring and found a countryside idyll at Naix-en Forges, with a grassy bankside and woods of birdsong above.  

Naix-aux-Forges also possesses quite an unusual lavoir, with steps down from a front doorway, arched windows, and an oval shape wash basin, still with fresh water running in, presumably from a stream.

And what is more, by then we appeared to have left behind the thick carpets of weed. Hooray!

All clear for tomorrow we hope.

Next morning before we left, and in the interests of my new resolve to lose weight (go, I forgot to tell you that didn’t I?) I then took a walk up to the road bridge and down the canal path to the next lock, while Stewart got under way and met me at the écluse.

We were now out in the weed-free glorious cow studded countryside, with blue skies, billowing clouds, and scarcely ever a boat to be seen.

We passed pastures full of flowers, little villages in the distance, and big hunting birds – mostly red kites, soaring above us.

The locks all worked perfectly, ready and open for us as we approached.

This was definitely one of the most enjoyable days on this canal – one of those days when you want to shout “this is why we did it!”

It is only with photos that I can do justice to the colours, the clarity of the water, the natural surroundings. Sorry not to wax more lyrical, but a picture paints a thousand words after all.

This day took us up to the top of the canal – next task the 5km tunnel to the other side. So we moored up just before Lock 1 at Demange-aux-Eaux, attached in a relatively precarious non-maritime way; each rope across the pontoon and round a signpost on the bank! But there were no bollards or cleats on the pontoon so little choice.

From the lock bridge at Demange

Luckily there is only a long distance view of this outrage.

We went for our customary walk around the village – a village with no shops, cafés, bars or restaurants. But they have a lovely bridge over the (much narrower than Bar De Luc) Ornaine river, and a church visible across the fields that has its entry over a tributary. Yes, that’s me posing on the church bridge.

Naix-aux Forges lavoir

As we crossed a smaller bridge we noticed what must have been in the past a lovely long, sunlit lavoir, and now seemingly used to store village bits and pieces. It was all locked up, netting across the washing area and the beautiful wood sides left to perish.

I managed a photo from yet another bridge. I can almost see and hear the chatter and splashing of the women as they washed their clothes; quite pleasant on a sunny summers day, but far from attractive to have that chore in the winter.

Maybe some day the villagers will decide it is a nice idea to restore it all.

I had a bit of ‘really-me’ time sitting on the pontoon, my feet in the water, and with a perfect mini world of nature below me. In the clear waters were tadpoles and little blue and yellow fish. Flying above were several types of dragonfly, bee and butterfly, darting from flower to flower, or water weed to water weed. All of course moving too fast for me, apart from these two feeble attempts, plus the dragonfly sex scene on our geraniums.

Stu and Boris swap canal and wine stories

That evening we made the enjoyable ‘mistake’ of inviting our neighbours, Boris and Marsha, across from their cruiser African Queen to swap notes on canals, locks and moorings.

They are lovely friendly people and we got to know them very well over some wine, breadsticks, and a remarkably good rum – from St Nicholas Abbey, Barbados.

With the knowledge of the tunnel in front of us, we called an end to the fun before it got too late – but definitely up for it next time!

Off to bed with a full moon shining – and is that Venus just to the right?

And so it was Mauvage tunnel day. I make it sound more frightening than it is of course. It’s just that I know Stewart doesn’t like the narrowness of the tunnels and the way they suck Calliope into the side.

Still we started off brightly, through lock 1, and heading for the left hand turn towards the tunnel. Seemed a shame to be going underground on such a beautiful June day, but only for an hour.

The arm up to the tunnel entrance passes the old ‘Towing Service’ building. Until quite recently all boats and barges were towed through the tunnel and some of the service boats were moored up outside.

Then into and out of the tunnel – all 4.785kms of it, well lit and with a path running alongside the water where our éclusier friend rode his bike to keep us company. It took almost an hour of Stewart’s undivided attention to make sure we kept a straight path, and we emerged into the sunshine undamaged and undaunted.

There are 12 locks down into the next town, Void-Vacun. That felt good after the 70 upward locks of the previous week! We took on the first 7 and then stopped for lunch, allowing nature girl a few more photos!

An hour later and we arrived in Void, to find all the official moorings full, the bridge about to be closed for work next day, and the shops closed – it is Monday in France after all!

But all worked out fine. We were permitted to moor up on an old industrial wharf where goods from huge silos (we are not sure what) were once moved by barge, and now by lorry. It was surprisingly peaceful, the occasional lorry on the weighbridge gone by 4pm, the gates locked, and the space left to us and dozens of house martins.

Evening view across to Void-Vacun

After a tranquil evening and night we were up in the morning to watch the VNF tug do its mighty work pushing an iron barge topped with a massive girder for the bridge repairs. We watched as we walked over the passerelle to the town for food shopping.

The town was far more interesting than we had expected, with another old covered market place, with 44 columns to reflect the Roman buildings of nearby Nasium. For some bizarre reason, 4 are rectangular and the best are circular, in no particular pattern that I could detect.

A small river runs through the back of the town, the river Vidus, right by the little Proxi supermarket. We also found a good boulangerie and a great boucherie, with typical slightly raucous butcher’s chat!

As we walked back to the boat we cut through under Les Halles, the old market place, and found ourselves on front of a mighty fortified gateway, through which are the church, the chateau …

… and a characterful, part fortified, pigeon house. So much more to Void than immediately catches the eye.

The old Void bridges and lavoir

And in case you thought I had forgotten the lavoirs, Void’s lavoir has now gone, but a photo including women doing their washing is next to the canal bridge where it used to stand.

And then I went for a walk round the back of town and found another lavoir, on a branch of the River Vidus, next to a pretty tumbling area of the river.

Back to Calliope for the evening and a quiet time on the back deck waiting for sundown – rather late at this time of year, with the summer solstice only 3 days away!

Tomorrow morning it will be good bye to Void, and good bye to the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, Oest.

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