Heading north up La Meuse part 1

The waterways comprising La Meuse include the river itself, the Canal de la Meuse, called, prior to 2003, the Canal de l’Est Northern branch. At the same time the southern branch was renamed the Canal des Vosges. Together they formed a 245 mile long canal within the Franco Prussian border.

This part, Part 1, is about our travels on the Canal de la Meuse – the northern branch.

June 19 – June 26 2019

Leaving Void-Vacun under storm skies

It was time to change canals – always interesting to find out what the new waterway will be like.

Propping up the bridge

We left Void, still on the Canal de La Marne au Rhin, first thing, passing under the bridge that was closed the day before, and which clearly still has more work to be done.

After a sort stretch we found ourselves on a short aqueduct over a river (was it La Meuse) before needing to take a share left hand turn onto our new canal. I rather liked the geometric Art Deco style of the aqueduct railings.

And immediately our first lock was upon us, opened by our nice new yellow zapper. We could see close by a huge cement factory that appeared to utilise stone and/or chalk from close by quarries.

When we got to the second lock we were right alongside the said cement factory, listening to the grinding of its huge evolving tubes. Everything, and I mean everything, was covered by varying depths of fine white powder. The whole factory was white, almost ghostly.

Our zapper quickly had the lock doors open, we were in, tied up, and Calliope decended to the bottom …. but the down stream lock doors remained closed.

Luckily I was above the lock, waiting to walk the kilometre to the next one, so could easily go to the ‘Aide’ button and call for help. But poor Stu was down in the depths, and then it began to rain! No matter – within a few minutes the VNF Service van arrived and we were on our way – all the way to lock 3 where the upstream lock doors didn’t open.

Once more I was above the lock, having walked from the previous one, and on the intercom again for Service!

All of these halts gave me a chance to take a look at the lock door make-up on this canal – and we were back to the metal doors that I had not see for some time; great big plates of metal, riveted together.

We did far better from then on, and at lock 4 we enjoyed the shapes and arches of the three bridges after the lock. (Touch to port skipper….)

We arrived at Eaville where we wanted to stop, and after a French family kindly moved their cruiser back a couple of bollards we were able to tie up for lunch and for the night – just before the next lock.

Those morning storm clouds continued to gather and soon after lunch the first of several thunderstorms passed across and we were pleased we’d elected to stay put.

Eaville church

We found time during one of the drier moments to walk the kilometre up to the village of Eaville, looking for fresh milk (no luck). We did find quite a grand church for such a small place, with a bike on display in front, (see bottom left) to promote the fact that the Tour de France would be passing through the village soon.

Next day we set off as soon as the locks opened, but not as early as the three boats already waiting below the lock to ascend once we were out of the way. Where had they come from??

We were moving along between pastures and villages in a distinctly river fashion, rather than canal …

…. and indeed the Meuse river joined and left us as she meandered slowly down hill. The junctions were all different – and as the weather kept changing the light in the photos is all different too.

Stopped off in Commercy long enough to do a quick shop in Aldi, which is right by the quay (no fresh milk there either), and then I walked up into town to look for madeleines as this is the town where they were invented. But would you believe it, unless I wanted to buy a kilo of them I couldn’t have any – except fancy gift wrapped ones!

One woman lavoir – I can’t help but wonder who it was for.

Then on we went downstream, passing at one lock the smallest lavoir I have seen so far – a one person lavoir!

The river/canal had some interesting quirks, like this railway bridge on an S bend, which as you come downstream you can hardly see! It is overhung with foliage, and the railings to the walkway through bear testimony to the number of boats that have bumped along the side on their way through.

I enjoy seeing the differences between canals in all kinds of ways. On this canal the lock houses are more cottage like, but still have an extra floor at the back on the slope down from the canal. They have the name of the lock engraved in stone above the door, a nice touch in this area of quarries.

We do get animal moments along the way! This little collection includes a young fox being seen off by a pair of magpies (the fox seems slightly bemused); a nesting grebe guarding an entrance to La Meuse river; and some inquisitive young cattle that I encountered on a rural bike ride to a supermarket!

Back to the journey! We were heading for St Mihiel, and hopefully a mooring in the town – but that was not to be. At least I caught sight of the local lavoir, unusual with its two slender central columns supporting the roof.

Just beyond St Mihiel we saw a possible mooring, at the edge of a rather run down looking campsite. It looked a bit shallow and the bollards were set back from the edge, so we came in slowly and all was doing well until I dropped a fender in the water, and got stranded on the land, and lost my rope all while the current was gently easing the boat back out into the river. Oops. Second time round was thankfully accomplished with more dignity.

The manager was out playing table tennis 50 yards from the quay, so I asked him if it was ok to moor. “bien sûr” was the reply.

Settling down with a cup of tea we noticed wed were directly opposite a peaceful WW1 cemetery, the white crosses and Islam markers shining against the grass. So many of these in the area – such a waste of young lives.

Before the afternoon was over I jumped on the bike and cycled off to the Intermarché while the skipper did manly things down in the engine room – a 9 minutes cycle ride from the boat according to Google Maps. After 25 minutes, much uphill, and getting lost twice I found it and hooray, they had fresh milk! It was on the way back down tracked between fields that I found the aforementioned cattle.

Next day, and the next lock, held a surprise – we had forgotten that the zapper was to be redundant for a while and we were back to manual lock keeping.

This has disadvantages – progress is slower – and advantages – we get to step off and do some turning of handles to open and close the lock gates.

The scenery along the Meuse is superb, pastoral, open and wide, often with a church spire or two to break up the horizon. There will be more examples to follow!

And we saw strange things like a tractor being ‘storked’ and an old tree that from a distance looked like an olive tree – perhaps someone will put me right as I don’t expect an olive tree in the middle of of a field of cows in north east France.

Lunch time was spent at Ambly-sure-Meuse, a grassy mooring at the edge of a small village recreation ground. Despite its small size Ambly does have a boulangerie so déjeuner requirements were met.

We hadn’t seen a boat since we left St Mihiel, but suddenly after lunch we passed quite a few, all in pairs – maybe on their way to find Noah’s ark (rather a tenuous connection). Many were cruisers, many looking similar and many from Holland, so we began to wonder if they were hire boats. But also a pleasant surprise – another Piper Boat, Tadham Castle.

Calliope passes on down stream

And Tadham Castle took a photo of us too – a passing Piper photo shoot.

Afternoon brought us in Dieue, and luck was with us as there was just space for us to squeeze in in front of an Australian catamaran on the quay. It turns out that Dieue has quite a history, and there were two sign-guided tours, one around the village itself and one around its neighbour Rattentout across the canal. We set off round the Dieue tour.

We saw where the embroiderers lived, the cobbler (now in semi ruins), the miller (now a brewery and bar), and lots of lovely old building with various functions of old. And of course a lavoir.

Later I went for a walk round Rattentout, somehow less quaint, but with a couple of interesting sights.

I followed the signs up a steep lane called Rue de les Carrièrers (quarries) wondering if anything would be at the top. At first all I could see was a path into a wood.

Then I saw a sign half hidden amongst tall nettles. Surging forward bravely I read that there was a statue to the virgin Mary, looking out over the valley. Sure enough as I walked into the wood I suddenly found her, on a mound of rounded stones. And from there, a great view across the Meuse.

Lavoir de Rattentout with raising floor

The second special find was a lavoir the likes of which I have never seen!

The water flows under the lavoir, rather than in front as is normally the case. And because the water level could change frequently depending on the activity of the turbines in a local factory a system of Archimedes screws and cast iron wheels allowed the floor to be raised or lowered. Amazing!

Our day at Dieue was Midsummers Day, the longest day of the year, so at sundown I took a photo to celebrate the solstice.

Next day was Saturday and we were heading to Verdun. The river was lovely along the way, plain easy sailing, and by 11am we arrived at the interesting tunnel through the fortifications built around the city by Vauban in the 17th century. The tunnel leads immediately to the lock down into the town.

It was an interesting manoeuvre for the Captain as we approached the tunnel from a right angle and could not be sure if there was a boat coming towards us, or in the lock. There did not seem to be the usual traffic light system to let us know whether to proceed or not, so we moved forwards cautiously until we could see that the lock gates were open for us – then full steam ahead(ish).

We had hoped to find a space in Verdun but the only spaces on the long pontoon were too short for Calliope. We did note another Piper barge, La Bas, on the pontoon, and they offered for us to raft up against them, but too late for Captain Stu to change course. It did have one good result – Patrice on La Bas took a photo of us as we passed on.

Belleville mooring in the morning sun

We headed on another kilometre to Belleville-sur-Meuse and made fast with ease to a pleasant little pontoon at the edge of a small park. After lunch and a siesta we were ready for a walk back into Verdun.

Gate of Verdun

We walked by the huge gateway to the town and explored some of the old narrow streets.

We walked up to the top of the hill by the huge statue of Charlemagne, looked in a few shops for shirts for the Captain (did you know that French for a short sleeved shirt is chemisette?).

We also found a restaurant that looked worth returning to later.

Then back down to the quay in the hope of finding the crew of La Bas aboard – and they were.

After a good bit of Piper boat, waterways, and general barge conversation we were treated to a glass of absolutely delicious champagne – very special because it is only made with white grapes. We also heard of an imminent heatwave set to sweep across Europe, including France, in a few days time.

The railway bridge at Belleville-sur-Meuse

Stu and I left them in peace and after a beer on the quay and a wonderful traditional meal at the little restaurant we had found we walked back down the river to Belleville, passing one of many beautiful bridges.

(Although it is not easy to see in the photo, this bridge must only be passed under by the right hand arch, which then leads into a 20 km canalised section of the river, whilst the other arches lead towards a long weir.)

It is now Sunday and a morning visit to the boulangerie for a baguette is essential as they all tend to close at noon. With bread safely aboard we carried on our journey on another glorious day, and with countryside stretching to either side. The only sadness in all of this was knowing how this same countryside and surrounding hills were the scene of the Battle of Verdun during WW1.

A hundred years on, and in addition to the military cemeteries there is still some evidence, such as the remains of blown up bridges, decimated villages and memorials.

Our next stop was Consenvoye, a village occupied by the invading army a century ago. It was here we saw an interesting tiny part of the post war reparations. On a walk round the village Stewart and I saw a building at the top of town that we both thought looked like a modern lavoir, but it was impossible to get in or even to see through the windows. I did ask if I could sit on Stu’s shoulders, but he declined!

Later, in the evening, I went for a second walk and this time saw a van pull up by the building so I used my best school girl French to ask about the building. On hearing that it had indeed been a lavoir, built after the war, I asked to see inside. It is now a village store, but it is clear that this was a very modern lavoir compared to many I have seen. And interesting to me that in 1919, when my grandmothers were in their twenties, a lavoir was still considered to be the way to wash ones clothes in rural France.

So enough of war, important though it is to remember.

The mooring at Consenvoye is on a small loop of the river that passes close to the village. The village was in there middle of a major brocante (like a car boot sale) when we arrived. We were surrounded by cheerful stalls on both sides of the narrow channel, so initially not the quiet mooring we had anticipated! But all good fun.

It was a hot day and we needed to fill up with water with the heatwave on its way.

Such a shame that the tap sent a fine spray in all directions from the connector, and that I had to sit and wait until the tank was full!

By early evening the brocante had ended, the stalls packed up, and quiet descended.

There was another interesting find at Consenvoye – a vending machine that apparently baked fresh baguettes 24/7 so for a Euro one could get your daily bread in a village that no longer had a boulangerie. We did not buy one, although I was keen to try the experience.

Next day I walked over to the adjacent lock to see if the éclusier had arrived at 9am as promised; the previous day they were a bit late. Stewart meantime reversed out of our mooring channel and came round to face the lock

We then discovered something that we have not seen since the Yonne river, three years ago. The lock here has sloping sides and a floating pontoon to attach to during the locking process. It all seemed very modern, easy and tidy.

While I am on the subject of ‘les écluses’, or locks, here are a couple of observations from this canal/river.

We have become used to bollards inset into the walls of deep locks so that you can move your ropes up (or down) as you go. On this canal there were a few alternatives to the inset bollard. There have been crosses, half-rings, bars and the good old sliding pole, but much broader than before.

old lock house with current itinerant éclusier’s hut next door

There have also been changes on the lock houses, the later ones being smaller and with gables above the front door.

These seem to be the more rural, remote, locks, with bigger houses attached to locks on towns and cities.

And the names of the locks, originally carved in stone above the door, as mentioned before, are gradually being replaced with blue metal signs, sometimes placed straight on top of the stone one as here at Sep.

Now that the éclusiers travel between locks and no longer live in the lock houses, unless they have bought them, they are provided with a little ‘hut’ instead, where they can make coffee, phone calls and have a loo.

My last bit of lock info for now is two photos of rusty old lock ‘gear’

The first is some kind of pulley system attached to the quay of a lock. We have seen these just a few times and must be linked to pulling laden barges into locks, maybe after horses had disappeared and various narrow gauge railway engines had taken their place on some canals.

The second is a winch at Remilly-Aillicourt lock, where we were moored up for the night – you can just see Calliope framed in the triangle of the winch.

Now back to the journey.

Soon after Consenvoye, in fact 4 locks after at Warinvaux, we moved from manual locks with cheerful éclusiers arriving in vans to do the work, back to ones operated with our yellow zapper.

We stopped briefly at Dan-sur-Meuse, in the lock (a bit naughty that) because I had seen that there was a boulangerie on the lock island. I rushed off and within 10 minutes had the daily bread. As we left the lock there were lovely views of the Dan-sur-Meuse church placed high above the river. No risk of flood up there!

For part of the day’s trip we were buzzed repeatedly by a slinky military helicopter that was virtually on its side as it went round tight corners. We think it was the new Guepard helicopter, maybe on secret trials as it was working above a large flat field with no military installations in sight.

Eventually, after a long day for us – almost 30 kilometres in what was becoming a heat wave – we reached the outskirts of Stenay and were delighted to see that the mooring we hoped for, an old factory mooring opposite a small weir, was free.

Phew! Tied up, parasol up, cool drinks up on the back deck and we were sorted for the evening.

It has to be said that I was ready for all of the above. This is how hot I had got.

Whereas later in the evening, with parasol down, Captain Cool was looking good.

I did take an evening walk round Stenay once it had cooled down to about 28 and there was plenty of shade. There were some interesting buildings, but nothing special until I saw the old mill in the last in the sun’s rays.

Calliope moored against a high old industrial wharf, opposite a weir

We were now onto our last day on the Canal stretch of La Meuse. The day started with me gallantly cycling to the local Intermarché, a mere two kilometres – but Google maps failed to tell me that it was up hill again! I walked up part of the distance, between fields of wheat so no unpleasant.

Once back on board we cast off and were away to the first lock, just round the corner. There were only 5 locks for the day, but 36 kilometres, on another of the heatwave days. No wonder we saw so many cows paddling in the water.

We found a relaxing place to stop for lunch before the voyage went on.

We passed storks circling in the sky (yes there is a stork up there), a church with a definite change of shape at Remilly-Aillicourt, and boys making the most of the hot weather by jumping in from a bridge over the (canalised) river.

Moored for the night above Ramilly-Aillicourt lock

When we moored up just before Ramilly-Aillicourt lock we were once again very hot – about 34 degrees in the wheelhouse even with the windscreen down and a reasonable breeze blowing in.

Stewart had a siesta. I went to find somewhere to swim, but finding a place to get in, or rather get out, of the river was not so easy. Eventually I found I could climb down next to the overflow from above the lock – delicious cool clear water to flump and splash about in!

After supper, when the air had lost its heat, I took off with the camera and took a couple of reflective photos that seemed too work quite well. One was of the railway bridge, where not only did the stone supports reflect well, but also the track of the bridge, looking almost real across the surface of the water.

The other was simply of Calliope, gently swaying in the evening sun.

And then there was the comfy Captain waiting to welcome me back home, with all the paraphernalia .

So just one more thing before we leave the Canal de l’Est Northern Branch, alias the Canal de la Meuse, we have yet another change in the look and feel of the levers used to set the lock operations in motion, caught in its full glory at Remilly-Aillicourt lock

We were 6 kilometres from Sedan where the next day we would enter the official La Meuse river, taking us on to Belgium. A fiery sunset was a reminder of the heat of the day gone by, and the heat of the day to come, destined to be the hottest of the heatwave.

One thought on “Heading north up La Meuse part 1

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