Canal de Sambre à l’Oise

A wonderful week on country waters

30th August – 5th September 2021

Robert Louis Stevenson was still with us as we moved onto the canal built in the 1800s to link the Sambre at Landrecies with the Oise at La Fère – both places mentioned by RLS in his book ‘An Inland Voyage’. To write in his marvellous style is far beyond my reach, but I will attempt to use a slightly more lyrical style to describe the people and events on this magically empty stretch of water.

(I am doomed to failure, but let’s give it a go).

We left Landrecies with replenished stores – enough to see us through our week away from commerce, apart from the ubiquitous baguettes that we hoped to find from time to time. Luckily there is a fair size Carrefour just up the road – and they were selling off LOTS of wine before they changed to their new lines; Dame Fortune smiled our way.

I had noticed the WW1 cemetery in Landrecies and then read how close we were to where the war poet Wilfred Owen died. He was probably killed crossing the canal on a raft when the allied forces were pushing back the enemy.

He is buried in Ors cemetery, close to Ors lock. Here is where his prophetic words came true:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. “

Soon after Ors we were at Catillon-sur-Sambre, trying in vain to use our zapper (remote control) only to see a helpful, seemingly happy, member of the French state waiting to lift the bridge for us.

Long may this last. I have tried to find out how many jobs on the waterways have been lost to automation, and how many lock keepers losing their lock side homes, but cannot find a source for that information.

In days gone by, now long ago, the bridge keeper would have worked from the brick hut on the right, and open and closed the roads and bridge by manual labour. Now he has a dull grey metal cabin in which to press his operating buttons.

We always hope to reach our next night’s mooring by lunch time, giving us the afternoon to explore the area. Such was the case at Bois L’Abbaye, the last lock on the Canal de la Sambre before it becomes the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise. We knew that the mooring was by the lock, but were surprised by just how adjacent the quay was to the lock gates!

We came out of the lock, and with magnificent skill from the Captain, and of course some adept rope throwing from the crew, we moved sideways into moor. Engine switched off and absolute peace descended over us and Calliope.

Time now to enjoy the French rural life; lunch, siesta, and then a walk around the long fishing lake that we doisciver4d behind the trees, and which runs, hidden, along side the canal for two kilometres.

Bois L’Abbaye was also the place to say goodbye to our friendly zapper – the first we have seen that allows you to choose your language and then receive merry little messages to make your voyage easier. But good-bye it was, and into its little letterbox it was posted.

Next morning, ‘zapperless’, we continued on our way; next stop somewhere down a flight of 17 locks. The first 14 locks are within the space of 8 kilometres – and first we had to reach Étreux, the start of our rapid descent!

The cruise along to Étreux was smooth and uneventful, and we arrived full of interest and mild apprehension about what the next few hours would bring. The flags were out waiting for us, including the Union Jack, which has been removed from some flagpoles since Brexit.

It’s easy to see the long chain of locks on the map, some closer than a few hundred yards apart, but until you understand how it is all going to operate, and whether bollards are easily accessible, there is a feeling of ‘wait and see’ in the air. In this lock, number 2 I think, the ‘bollards’ in the wall to let ourselves down were cross shaped and not always easy to throw a line over, but as everything was slow and gentle it wasn’t a problem.

In fact it all turned out to be simple and straightforward. We were accompanied by a series of èclusiers who, like kingfishers, have their own stretch of the canal and will stay with you until the end of their territory – whereupon another takes over.

The VNF van with its accompanying éclusier was usually ahead of us at the locks, but on this occasion he arrived just as we were closing in on raising the operating rod.

And for those who are not familiar with these ‘operating rods’, here is a close up from an other lock.

(We did once, a long time ago, manage to pull the red alarm rod once trying to get balance and purchase on the green rod! Not a good idea – to brings all sorts of people running)

Our thought had been to moor up after lock 8 but we were speeding along so successfully that we decided to continue to lock 14. And just as that decision was made, and the canalised river took snake like turn under Vénérolles bridge, the water became very shallow on the inside of both bends! Captain Stu coped as always and we did not run aground.

By midday we were appropriately at lock 12, Hannapes. We enjoyed going through Hannapés, first of all with its lift bridge just before the lock, stopping the local traffic in its tracks for a few minutes – but not inconveniencing many! Someone has taken the time to create a nice garden be tween the bridge and the lock, and in fact around the lock itself. These little touches add to the enjoyment and variation of our travels all the time.

The second lock at Hannapés have me a chance to collect a little more lock nurdiness. The lock gates here are true natural moss gardens; I would love to spend time studying the various flora gathered on these gates! And the water levels along this stretch mean that almost as soon as the lock gates close behind you a waterfall starts to fall into the empty lock, sometimes threatening to drench the Captain who always has the stern rope!

Finally we came through into Tupigny, where the young éclusier was reminded of the manual effort that went into the locks in the days of Robert Louis Stevenson! One vantelle (panel that lifts within the lock gate to let water in/out) had a problem with its automation and he was compelled to use the winding method of old – something with which that many boaters in the UK will be very familiar.

It was an hour past our usual lunch time, but we could see our mooring 100 yards in front of us, so all well.

I neglected to say that this day was the anniversary of the day we met, long ago at a folk club. So we were pleased to find an excellent solitary, legal, even romantic, mooring at Tupigny.

In the afternoon we walked round the village, slightly in hope of a bar where we could start our anniversary celebrations, But although a very well kept village there was no bar that looked to be open that day.

So we returned to the boat and had a wonderful home made tapas style supper on the back deck. And a gentle sunset to match the rosé. What could be better?

As we left Tupigny next morning we saw some of the work that is still going on on this re-opened river/canal to modernise it.

Here a swing bridge is being replaced. Looks like it will be completed soon.

Out of Tupigny and back out into the country, with a straight run down towards the second Grand Verly lock. These wide open spaces, with the pastoral hills beginning to rise around us, never cease to fill us both with natural wellbeing – our form of mindfulness I guess.

The main reason for the 14 year closure of the Sambre mentioned earlier was the failure of two viaducts at Vadencourt and Macquigny, shown by the two red ‘no entry’ marks on our map, and both now rebuilt thanks to a €30m investment shared by the French government and various local authorities.

So here we are arriving at the first of the two new pont canals; very smart! And over one of many many loops of the Oise we go.

Of course the locks along this stretch were out of use for years. They all seem to have had a new coat of paint in VNF blue and green. And the house Lock 21, Proix Noyales, has been turned into a lovely home and garden. I wonder how they feel after all the very quiet years to suddenly have boats full of people coming by.

The local wildlife are also having to get used to boats appearing from round the bend! A branch rather awkwardly placed for barges has been a good fishing spot for this heron until we arrived.

Towards lunchtime we were approaching Origny-Ste-Benoite – our mooring for the night. The initial view looked somewhat industrial, and turned to to be a major sugar factory, utilising sugar beet from a huge surrounding area.

Even as we came to and through Oriogny lock we were wondering why we had chosen Origny – the one;y place we could see to moor being ‘underneath some HUGE silos – but we tied up, had lunch, and looked around!

We were on one side of a huge empty basin on a quay unused apart from the grain-watching pigeon collection! Lorries came occasionally at the other en d of the quay to deposit their load, and a tractor passed us by even less often – so amazingly peaceful given the setting. And when they all went home for tea, even better.

Moy-de-l’Aisne

The next day’s morning sun lit up the saloon and galley magically, getting me up and going.

I returned to both the previous day’s boulangeries, hoping to find quiches in one of them . (I have now learned that am more likely to find a quiche in a butcher than a baker … so expect sweet things plus bread in a boulangerie and savoury ready to eat delicious meals, plus raw meat, in a boucherie.

Anyway I did find bread for lunch and a huge pain au chocolat which seemed to be a perfect breakfast.

But there are chances to live on these lock houses. Usually you cannot buy them, but at a peppercorn rent you can enter into an agreement to do it up at your own cost.

As we moved on down to our next halt I was reminded again of RLS who, apparently, almost got sucked into a ‘siphon’ under this pont canal. He was on the river underneath where it flows through a series of holes in the structure, rather than a full river.

He was alerted by someone on the bank and avoided getting jammed, with his canoe, under water!

Another sense of wonder along the way was the cappuccino style froth in some of the locks. I am sure that the brown foam is somewhat dirty, but the overvall effect is very stylish!

We arrived, stopping just below Hamégicourt lock, to just what we had hoped for – and even an empty picnic bench waiting for us to have al fresco lunch. Happy Captain.

We had our customary walk – this time a kilometre into Moy-de-l’Aisne – and found that RLS had got there first! He had enjoyed watching people going in and out of the moated chateau – unfortunately destroyed during the First World War. And he stayed at the Mouton D’Or – also no more! There was evidence of confident building after the war; many houses had towers, steeples, and echos of chateau style decoration.

As we came through Hamégicourt lock the man who now lives in the lock house(a retired lock keeper we later discovered) emerged to say hello and watch Calliope descend.

I used my best French to say how lucky I thought he was to live in a lock house, and he replied that he thought I was lucky to live on a boat! He invited us back to see his little secret garden later.

So we did – and discovered that we were in the presence of a sculptor of some renown. His stable is now a workshop, and full of dustcover cloaked pieces of his art. He is a very private man, so I am not showing his work or his name, but here is his barbecue – sculpted out of various old objects and built to the right height for him to cook.

And he was delightfully kind in giving me a present from the wonderful collection of dusty antiquities he had stored in his workshop.

This little tin ‘bath’ is now mine and will for ever remind me of our stop at Moy.

That evening the quietness, the light, the sound of birds – all combined to make it one of the gentlest evenings of the summer.

But that was before we travelled a full 2 kms to Vendeuil, even deeper into the country, even more peaceful. Even now, writing this, I shake my head in wonder at the perfection of the place.

Vendeuil – here we are, moored tip on a hot day in the shade of trees next to a field of rambling cows, moving together in synchronised grazing. I think a very few cyclists went past, and one boat gong in the opposite direction – a real shock as we saw so few other craft on this canal.

There was the scheduled walk in the afternoon. A long lake runs alongside the canal at this point – no doubt a stretch of the troublesome run-away Oise. We had hoped to get down to it, but it was a private fishing lake so we just enjoyed the view. We were surprised to see a lot of wild hops growing – normally hops are grown in Alsace.

We had a wonderfully dark and peaceful night, expecting it to be or last on a tranquil mooring for some time.

On Saturday 4th September, two weeks and two days after entering the Sambre at Charleroi, we were leaving this scenic waterway, heading for Beautor and within three and a half kilometres of this canal meeting the Canal de St Quentin – another story!

Our three hour trip included a complete change of lock style for the two locks at Travecy, with these recessed blue bollards – very smart and easy to work with. There was also nice green growth on the second lock wall – hanging gardens of Travecy!

We waved goodbye to our new friends at Travecy, and also to our last Canal de Sambre à l’Oise lock – a sense of the end of a journey – the end of our heading South.

Time to veer slightly West before heading back north for the winter.

The mooring in Beautor – along a huge empty 100m+ quay, was much nicer than we had expected. And nicer than this photo suggests.

It was very quiet – some traffic across the bridge behind us, but not close enough to be troublesome. Otherwise a quay that rarely had people or cars on it, with a bank opposite that was an isthmus between the canal and the ever wandering Oise.

Nice enough to attract a few cyclists and dog walkers.

So nice that we stayed two nights.

That afternoon we needed to do a quick shop at the LeClerq supermarket, a convenient 500 yards away.

It was hot, but had to be done that day as the shops were shut on the following day, Sunday.

When we returned, fully laden, the locked up wheelhouse had clocked up a magnificent 40 degrees C!

But all cooled down with doors open and a sun setting earlier now that we were into September, and a change in the weather!

The route to Le Clerq took us past the church – an art deco building that couldn’t help but grab our attention.

I wish now that I had gone inside too – I wonder what it is like. Google will help me!

The heat caused billowing clouds to gather, thunder to roll, and eventually rain to fall; a sweet half-rainbow appeared too.

The following day we had a good walk round La Fere, the historic military town across the other side of the canal. It is another of the places where RLS washed up and has quite a bit to say about the number of soldiers and reservists in town. Now it seems to be entirely civilian.

But there are huge remnants of the military presence – magnificent in their grandeur and might!

and parts of the old town, although tired, are still fascinating.

Streams and tributaries of the Oise find their way between streets all over the place!

The two towns of Beautor and La Fere have gone to great effort to be Ville de Fleurs. Everywhere possible are huge and colourful beds of flowers and grasses. Boxes adorn every surface and most lamp posts have their own min-garden! I bet it wasn’t like this for Robert Louis.

And more! I took even more photos so I am treating to you to just a few of the many.

The walk to La Fere also resulted in bread for lunch. We were ready to eat to when we got back from our exploration.

I was still keen to have a better understanding of the wiggles of the l’Oise, so took a walk along to the next bridge, over, and back along the other bank – where I found the Oise curling round just a few feet away.

RLS gives wonderful descriptions old the tortuous meanderings of the river, always rushing in haste to the sea, so it is nice to get a sense of his experience.

That evening the effects of the sunset were spectacular. Our last night on this totally stunning, completely absorbing, very relaxing and tranquil waterway – La Sambre and the Sambre à l’Oise Canal.

Carry on up the Sambre!

The French Sambre

26th to 29th August 2021

This is a nice short blog, especially in comparison to some of my recent ramblings. We had three nights and the best part of four days on this stretch of the 2021 voyage. Bienvenue en France!

We left Erquelinnes on a blue and sunny morning, crossing the border into France almost immediately at the Belgian 0 kilometre post. A squat reminder of the border crossing.

We were passing through Jeumont and its Haute Nautique a few minutes later, wondering whether the water and electricity borne now worked – others boaters had reported them as out of service.

This is where we had walked to the day before to find fresh milk. All these cows we keep passing, and the only milk in most supermarkets is homogenised on the shelf stuff.

A kilometre on we met the first lock on the French section of the Sambre, mooring up below the lock on the waiting pontoon to find out how these locks will operate.

It keeps us on our toes moving from one water way to another and one country to another at the same time. At least the language didn’t change – Wallonia to France.

Mounting a somewhat underused staircase to the lock we could see that we must collect a remote control from the hut, and do to that we must use the intercom – or filling that phone the command office further along the river. The intercom failed, so a call was made, and after a few translation difficulties we were delivered remote control number 18 through a reverse ‘letter box’.

We were off – and in charge of our own lock operation. We have met this system before in France, and rather like it, although on some waterways the lock operating systems are out of order as often as they work. Fingers crossed!

We were heading for Hautmont and its modern port. That meant another two locks and 18 kms – a good morning’s journey. The lock at Hautmont has an interesting approach, round a bend, under a bridge, and with a weir stream kicking Calliope to one side! All was managed perfectly by the Captain at the helm.

The port is immediately after the lock, large and newly appointed, and deigned for smaller boats within, plus a long pontoon outside, on the river, for larger vessels like us.

All of our moorings so far this year have been free, but we were happy to pay the €20 (€1 per meter) for a night here. We were able to fill up with water, get rid of all our rubbish, and have an easy place to tie up to.

A short walk into town to find a boulangerie for lunch time bread revealed the church and fountain of the main square.

A later, longer, walk took us past again as we went in search of a radiator cap. We did find the Norauto store, but they had nothing as old fashioned as a radiator cap!

However we found another store that sold us a new clock for the galley wall, a new lamp for the back cabin, and some transparent hose that the Captain had a use for.

I will leave that to your imagination!

The view up river from our Hautmont mooring was industrial, but also dramatic as clouds rolled in that evening.

By morning the black skies were blue, and being enjoyed by a young heron on the quay until it saw me and took fright – and flight! I was more excited by the prospect of fresh French croissants on our first morning in France, and returned to yesterday’s boulangerie to buy some – a real treat!

We had read that the new port included a ‘pump out’ to empty black water tanks (the poo tank to the uninitiated) and a diesel pump operated 24/7 by credit card. We couldn’t see either of these facilities, and on asking the Captiaine we were told they were ‘la bas’ with a casual wave of the arm upstream, but not working.

We set off on a short 9 kms cruise to find a country mooring for the next night, and just round the first bend found the pump out and diesel quay – smart and new, but awaiting repair! Maybe next year …..

Our view from the Quartes mooring

At Quartes, below the small town of Pont-sun-Sambre, we spied the waiting pontoon for the lock – ideal! We stopped for lunch to try it out, and with no other traffic on the river needing to use the pontoon I phoned the local VNF office to ask if we could stay there for the night. Bien sur! No problemo!

It was a wonderfully relaxed day, with this vista all around us while we were on the boat. We walked up into the town and found the boulangerie ready for use the next morning. It is a fascinating little place in some ways, causing me to look it up on the internet and discover that Robert Louis Stevenson had written an excellent chapter in his book ‘An Inland Voyage’, about his travels in a canoe through Belgium and Northern France.

It is very well worth reading – far better than my paltry way with words! Here’s a link

http://www.online-literature.com/stevenson/inland-voyage/6/

Despite the charms of Quartes we were wary of overstaying or welcome on a lock mooring and were ready to leave next day. We had realised, looking at the map, that a four mile trip round a loop in the Sambre would place us closer to the boulangerie than walking from the Quartes mooring so this is what we did.

We moored at the ‘official’ Pont-sun-Sambre mooring and I walked a few hundred yards into town – to the most popular boulangerie I have even seen! I joined 8th in the queue and before I got into the shop there were fourteen behind me! We were across the road from the post office, which I was delighted to see had been the post office since 1932.

Captain Stu and I were surprised to find a traffic light system in operation at the next lock, and to see it with a double red light – which means ‘en panne’, or out of order! And as we drove towards it we could also see a fire engine, another emergency vehicle, and lots of pompiers (firemen) looking onto the lock. Had there been an accident?

But almost immediately the lights turned to green and red – lock in preparation – and the gates opened for us to go in.

We had a cheerful ‘Franglaise’ conversation with the pompiers and it seemed they were simply ‘looking at’ the lock, maybe to understand how it now operated with its new traffic lights.

They waved us cheerfully on our way.

Three kilometres on from that excitement, and along some narrow waters with startling skies above, we found the slightly muddy pontoon at Bras Mort de Leval.

The ‘dead arm’ mentioned (Bras Mort) refers to a tight twist of the Sambre that was nipped off in 1836 to make a more navigable canal for the barges working up and down the river. Leval refers to the nearby village which was served by the river traffic almost 200 years ago.

But the evening was perfect – sundown on the back deck and total peace and quiet apart from distant trains. This is what we cruise for!

(Oh, and for the croissants, cheeses, beers, waffles, wines ……….. )

And then in the morning the best bit of nature watching! A stork following the cows and egrets across the field opposite.

Apologies for the lack of clarity – only had my phone to hand!

But the black and white of the cows complementing the black and white of the stork was something a bit special!

And here we are already on our last day on the actual river Sambre. We joined it at Charleroi 10 days ago to come upstream fore the first time. We went the other way last year, down stream to Namur where it joins the mighty Meuse.

Lets enjoy a little more of the lovely River scenery.

Amongst the fields and woods we had locks 3, 2 and 1 to go through . At Number 2, Hashette, the lock keepers house stands empty and deserted because of the automation along the French Sambre.

The big VNF notice on the right tells us that it is available as a ‘project’, which essentially means you pay them a tiny rent in return for doing the house up to a standard agreed with them.

It’s in a lovely remote place. Any takers?

We continued through number 3, Les Étoquies, where we chatted with a retired lock keeper living by the lock with his three dogs, goats and chickens.

Then, as we reached Landecies where the river meets the canal head on, we confusingly meet another lock number 3. This is the start of the locks for Canal Sambre à l’Oise. The first 3 continue going upwards, numbered 3, 2 and 1!

I noticed a very different type of paddle on this lock. (This is the part of the lock that lifts to allow water to pour in from above.)

This is probably a bit geeky of me! But I love locks and all their differences. This one has 8 rounded ‘shutters’ in the gates that gradually lift, allowing more and more water in. Maybe both the other two rising locks on this section will be the same ……

Tomorrow we will move directly onto the Canal de Sambre à l’Oise, and it will probably will seem very similar – except that after the next two locks going upwards we will find ourselves descending.

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.

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.

Late start to 2019 – Sillery to Vitry

(Skipper’s note: Loose plans for this year had seen us heading further north towards the Lille/Cambrai area for next winter. However with two of the three canal choices we had to get up there currently closed half way through, we decided to go Route Four – and turn south – About Face . . . . )

So eventually – after moving house, a full service and eight new solid solar panels on the roof (well done Skips) we are off, heading south on the Canal L’Aisne à La Marne – and within 10 minutes and under grey skies we met our first lock – my first for 8 ½ months!  Luckily I remembered what to do, and had good French instructions to aid me..

We had half a plan to go all the way to to Condé-sur-Marne that day, but after two hours, 3 locks, and the threat of an ‘orage’ (thunderstorm) with 98kph winds we decided to moor up on an old industrial wharf in a basin at Sept-Saulx.

The wharf edge was decorated by poppies, my favourite flower, so we took this to be a good omen and tied up. Sitting back and planning next steps it occurred to us that we did not have canal guides for the two canals we were aiming for, and it is not easy to have post delivered along the canal ….. however a call to Damien, the Capitaine we got to know so well during our 5 week sojourn at Chalons-en-Champagne last year, and somewhere we would be passing in two days time, resulted in agreement for the new guides to be delivered there.

Skipper’s aside: I have, for as long as I am still a European, furled my Red Duster and raised a defaced European Union flag – nailing my colours to the mast as it were.

I find this photo of Lesley’s poppies doubly poignant, being a symbol of the utter futility of the millions of young European lives destroyed in the First World War by the machinations of a small number of power crazed autocrats determined to reorganise obsolete frontiers for their own benefit.

At the time of writing, my simple flag is a big plea to my countryfolk not to put those frontiers back in place.

Clouds gathering at Sept-Saulx

 We managed a walk round the village before holing up as dark clouds gathered and sure enough it did begin to rain – big fat drops that splattered the calm surface of the canal. Later thunder lightning and a strong wind joined in as forecast, although not anywhere near 98kph.

Panels still looking good though . . . .

Waiting for the Billy Tunnel green light

The next day it was still raining so we hung on until about 10am before setting off to Condé– a trip of  only 14.5 kms, but including a 2.3km tunnel and 8 locks. 

The Billy tunnel is described in the Du Breil canal guide as ‘attractive‘ – an odd word for a tunnel. But it is in a lovely area with a delightful mooring place to wait your turn, and runs in a good straight line so that you can see light at both ends of the tunnel all through your journey. We waited for a full sized commercial barge to emerge before it was our turn.

Captain Stu also noticed this time (it was Calliope’s 3rdvoyage through) that the commercial barge leaving was hugging the towpath side. On closer inspection in the half light, the wooden rail just above the water line that we previously thought was a crash barrier turns out to be a rubbing rail, and if you allow yourself to get ‘sucked’ onto it (Stu’s words) you slide through ‘like a rocket slid on rails (Stu’s words).

Truly marvelous’, Stu

We ate lunch during the wonderfully simple ‘chained’ set of 8 locks down, ie the next one prepared and opened for us as we approached.  And at 2.30 we arrived and moored up at Condé-sur-Marne; day 2 of our 2019 odyssey successfully completed.

Moored at Conde-sur-Marne with lock number 8 behind us

“So far so good,” says Captain Stu.

While the Captain became galley slave I took myself off to find what the maps called an aqueduct. And this is what I discovered – a c19 way to take water from the river below up into the hills. The tower is/was a pumping house. I later met a school teacher from the village who told me that the water is for the canal, nit for agriculture as I first thought.

I returned to the French equivalent of sausage and mash with onion gravy – mmmmm – and a quiet evening aboard reading more of my latest Ian Rankin.

The only disturbance was watching another storm moving in and waiting for the heavy rain and thunder. Still, there’s nothing finer than been tucked up in the wheelhouse in a good old proper storm is there?

Next morning was far better – grey skies, but no rain – so we slipped the ropes and set off back down the Canal Lateral de la Marne towards Chalons en Champagne, our home for 5 weeks last Autumn and where we planned to collect our maps.

We were accompanied along the way by a casual stow away with an orange head.

As we came into Chalons we were amazed to see a tall tall crane above the cathedral, with a group of people seemingly clinging on at the top! I watched with a certain degree of shock, wondering what they were doing – maybe protesting about something, as the French often do. And then I saw them begin to slide down one at a time! They look like flies in these photos, but zoom in!

It was only later when we had moored up that I discovered this was part of some elaborate preparations for a huge sound and light show occurring at the cathedral in two days time, sadly after we expected to have left Châlons.

The Furies festival, taking place in the park adjacent to the mooring

Ah well, Châlons still saw to it that we were entertained. We had managed to arrive one day onto the famous Furies festival. This is a 5 day free festival held mainly at outside venues around the city, with links (I think) to the Circus school here. It focuses on the bizarre and surreal, a mixture of street theatre, circus and music.

Stewart and I had an early evening wander round, and I found plenty to intrigue; their festival currency of ‘the furie’, the airstream crepe cafe, the music of Babil Sabir 2 (google them!), the strange play illustrating the aftermath of a car crash, and the very unusual tightrope strip and sex-act-on-the-wire show (luckily rather blurred on account of my shock)!

And you know you are in the Champagne region when only alcohol that the relaxed pop-up bar by the lake serves is 2 types of champagne, ratafia and rosé wine!

The plan was to carry on next day, with our new maps to guide us. However they were not delivered by 2pm, Captain’s cut-off time for slipping away on what turned out to be another wet and windy afternoon. Well at least we are near Stewart’s favourite boulangerie, so I got some of their quiche for a comforting supper.

And in the end we were waiting another two days for our new map books to arrive. In fact it was so windy most of those 48 hours that we were quite pleased to be tied up in such a nice town.

It also have me two more days of the Furies festival! Friday was fun with the crazy ‘A Good Place’ team, where their snaking waiting crowd was encouraged to join in dance routines and other entertainment; an incomprehensible (it was in French) promenade in the Jardin d’Anglaise with the two male performers running and shouting amongst the audience and round the park; and a bit of trapeze mastery when the wind died down.

Sally, Tin Tin, Morphios and Stu

Being in Châlons on Saturday also gave me the opportunity to go to the market and buy some delicious fruit, veg and bread. We took a stroll down to the River Marne in the afternoon and returned to find our lovely neighbours on Pavot suggesting champagne in the ‘Cosy Bar’ by the lake with their dogs. How could we possibly refuse?

The evening developed into a festival before I went into the centre of town to watch a great tightrope performer in the square, with a backdrop of some of Chalon’s beautiful old buildings.

Then a rapid march back to the Cathedral for one of the most dramatic and astonishing spectacles of my life. It began with an angel appearing on the roof of the Cathedral.

Then other angels appeared, in ones, twos and threes, seemingly from the night sky. As they ‘flew’ towards earth they began to scatter white feathers which gently drifted down on us mortals below.

The angels became ever more daring, and with ever more feathers

Until finally we were showered with feathers from every direction. The delight that swept the crowd was infectious and people behaved as if in a snowstorm, throwing feathers in the sir, dancing to the music, and laughing.

I am so glad that I didn’t miss this!

My boat is covered in feathers. Did I miss something?

Next day we were up on time and raring to go. There was a quick run to the boulangerie for fresh bread, and then we set off south down the Canal Lateral de La Marne watching Châlons fade away in the distance.

Before too long we were at the first lock, pleased to see the green and red lights that told us the lock was being made ready for us

And on we went down past the villages and silos, the winding holes for big barges to turn round, locks and countryside.

Occasionally we saw wildlife, usually herons. There are plenty of young herons trying out their fishing skills at this time of year.

He’ll not catch much sat on that bollard . . .

He’s not sitting. He’s standing! Look closer.

Our lunch time stop at La Chaussee sur Marne

We carried on until we reached Soulange, knowing it to be a peaceful rural mooring and just right following city dwelling in Châlons. I have to admit that we were a little disappointed when another small cruiser squeezed onto the jetty behind us – notwithstanding that it is important always to welcome and help others to moor – even if they are rather noisy.

I took a walk over to the river Marne and along the bank for a while. There was a lovely view back to Soulange church through the undergrowth, and tranquil scenes of the river.

It seemed to be the first day of the dragonflies – they were everywhere, flitting about just out of range of my camera most of the time, but I did get a few ‘on film’.

Then back to our mooring to discover that old friends Matthew and Helen on a sister Piper barge Havelock had arrived – we shared a jetty with them at the T&K marina on the Thames when we were first in the water. A rare treat, although as Stewart was a bit under the weather it was just me who was able to enjoy their company.

Soulanges sunset

The day finished with one of the most beautiful canal sunsets I have seen, ah La Belle France.

Next day was destined to see us down to Vitry-en-Francois, and the end of our known waterways. We would be launching into a new canal by afternoon, so we enjoyed the last of the Canal lateral de la Marne.

I think that the most memorable ‘look back’ was to the quarry mooring where we stayed last year and our ropes were covered with blue butterflies.

Then at last, the junction at Vitry, and we turned left onto the Canal de La Marne au Rhin, and new vistas opened before us.

Juillet sur le Midi and la mer

I planned not to do a blog for a while,  but the temptation to share some of the things we have seen and done proves too great.

To be precise, 25 days were spent on the Midi, 1 on the Hérault, and 5 on the Canal du Rhône à Sète, which connects to the Mediterannean all over the place, so is sort of the sea. Also crossing the Étang de Thau is definitely a sea crossing, even if only two hours!

We have moved on from  Castelnaudary, where I had rejoined Stewart after my week in the UK. The simple way to show it is with a copy of our calendar as I enter our mooring place for each night.

 

 

Although I realise you only see part of the longer named locations! Ah well, sorry. I’ll explain.

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We left Castelnaudary on 30 June and after a relatively calm descent through various locks and a very shady lunch time stop we came to St-Sernin where we stayed the night. Despite my desire to desist from taking photos, the light and the shapes drew me in, so here are a few.

 

 

 

 

 

We  travelled 5 kilometres and 5 locks next day in order to spend a night near Villepinte,

59EDBAB8-A565-49DE-B0E6-BC3CAC792AB1then on for a night at Villeséquelande ….. well it was supposed to be there, but when some (pleasant) local youths came to fish, drink, listen to music, and then collect wood for a bonfire we decided to just move a kilometre to a more peaceful night time mooring for old folk!

BBE0DBD3-2A9C-4BD9-B83C-4827D2789CEDnext morning, bright and sunny, we moved on to Carcassonne. The heavens smiled on us and a rare free mooring above the lock, long enough for a 20m barge, appeared to port.

64DA5402-F69F-42AE-8A80-322E134491BFWhat happened next is a minor happy blur of barbecued lamb, rosé, melon, salad and bonhomie. Somehow within minutes we had been invited aboard Escapade for lunch, taken food and drink contributions, helped in the kitchen, and sat around on the top deck making merry. Thank you David and Evelyn.

225DA1BE-81BF-4C7E-B153-668D75421CBEThat evening we still managed to get to the Irish Bar to watch England in the quarter finals of the World Cup v Columbia, and, even more unlikely,  managed to get going again next day – but only after Evelyn sold me her bike for a bargain price. More thanks due.

it was a week of lucky moorings. After leaving Carcassonne we initially made slow progress, queuing with other boats over the lunch hour for the double+single locks at Fresquel. The consequence of this was that we arrived at one of our favourite places, Villedubert lock, at a convenient time to stop.

5FB4D313-9A56-4624-B8AC-083EB62C3012The lock keeper said we could moor up below the lock, just beyond the waiting pontoon for boats going up. Ah, peace. Just so lovely all evening ……

5267163A-5485-45EF-939F-A95209A08E9E….. until first one holiday boat arrived to spend the night – then a hotel barge came in for the night – then a second holiday boat ……. and in the morning, before we had even had breakfast a further two  boats arrived to join the queue ‘going up’.

We made a quick escape and still in travelling mode we went for another one night stand, this time at Marseillett. Lo and behold, the wooden pontoon mooring we had hoped for was free.

0FD75DAD-2D32-49D1-955F-2D890D361A00This mooring is next to a canal-side gite and it was not long until we had made friends with the English couple staying there.

BE3BE8B9-2C8B-48CA-B263-0D63B00E6B42Their recommendation for the local vignonier led firstly to us making a trip to buy a case of rosé, secondly to sharing some of said rosé with our new friends, and thirdly to them coming aboard for a cruise down the canal next morning!

B248EDCF-E610-4B70-9FE5-AB89639B2AC1So after another beautiful evening on the canal, we were off, with the addition of Arabella, Ian and Charley the dog for the first few kilometres.

I don’t know which god we had pleased but s/he was smiling on us again. We came round the final bend into La Redorte to see the end of the wooden quay free and waiting for us. DA393C45-C6C3-4FAA-BB6E-7D02706956B1This meant a happy two days, encompassing the France quarter-final in the bar and the England quarter-final on the boat, utilising a Heath Robinson-esque  assembly of wires, electronics and books to get sufficient reception for the best part of the match – we won!

Our social life continued to be busy with the arrival of Tesserae and an invitation to celebrate the victory with them. Thank you – lovely evening.

Carrying on downstream on 8th July we planned a stop in the countryside just below Ognon lock and ‘garden’, preferably in the shade because of the extreme heat (which continued for the rest of the month!).

 

 

We had something of a wait at both Ognon, and the previous lock, Homps, due to a large number of holiday ‘bumper boats’, many of whose helmsmen (and women) were very much learning the ropes! Éclusier’s lunch hour intervened, holding up six or seven boats at each lock – but the young éclusier at the double Ognon lock was keen to get down to ‘no waiting boats’ and had us passing one on its way up in between the two locks as we went down! Good man!

 

 

 

There is an artist based at the lock who has many of his vibrantly coloured sculptures watching from vantage points around the lock!  It makes for a slightly bizarre but interesting experience.

 

 

Our mooring was in the shade, and allowed me one of my canal-dips. I cannot resist when it is so hot!

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And afterwards a pre-dinner drink on the deck, watching the passing boats negotiate each other with varying degrees of chaos!

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Stewart meanwhile was irritated by flies; I discovered on the internet that various herbs keep them at bay, so a small defensive wall of basil and rosemary was built, and seemed to work!

 

Next days cruise included going round the hairpin bend of the Pont-canal de Répudre, one of Riquet’s earliest and bravest pieces of canal architecture.

(Check out Paul Riquet on the internet – astonishing engineering 150 years before Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born>)

 

 

On then to Le Somail – we like this little hamlet. This time the ‘fig tree’ mooring was taken, but we had been told we could just squeeze in beyond the hotel barge mooring – told by a boat that is a few foot shorter than Calliope.  We hung over into the ‘no parking zone by a metre and waited to see what happened.

B963B5FD-B5A5-453C-A400-6A399C143198

What happened was Algeria! Luckily the captain was gracious and said that a metre here or there was no problem. Phew!

 

 

We spent two nights at le Somail, both with startling colours in the sky and on the boat – I’d vowed to take on more photos here, but these colours just draw me in.

 

 

The following morning lit up another palette of colours, this time reflected n the water. After a quick photoshoot including a view of the ‘other side’ of the famous le Somail bridge, we left for a dalliance on Canal de Jonction for reasons that will become apparent. We turned off the Midi and went down through 5 locks to Salleles d’Aude, mooring up as before near ……… the Domaine de 7 écluse cave!

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Before long we had completed a re-stock of our favourite red and rosé wine boxes, plus a few bottles!

This photo is just part of the special purchase.

 

 

That evening was the hour of England’s finest football hour for many a year – reading the semi-final of the World Cup. We invited friends Carol and Martin to a quick early supper, then down to the bar to cheer our team on – sadly not to victory.

 

 

This was definitely only to be a one night side-stop so next morning Stewart, with great skill, turned the 20m that is Calliope around in the winding hole at Salleles. I was proud! Then back up the straight 3 kilometres and 5 locks that is the Canal de Jonction.

 

 

Just below the Midi, there was another shady mooring waiting for us for a night. (It doesn’t look so shady in the photo, but it shaded over beautifully.) A few natural moments here – a cicada, hardly visible on a tree trunk (one among many thousands that were ‘singing’); part of a fir cone; the fruit of an unknown tree; a sunset.

3591A8F8-B268-496F-BAF0-2B71A768CF94Moving on on Friday we re-joined the Midi, turning east this time.  Once more we sought a shady rural spot to hide from the blazing sun (temperatures in the mid to high thirties every day), but the hoped for spots were either taken, or not shady.  We ended up in full sun near Pont Malvies in amongst quite a row of live-aboards.

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There was quite a breeze, and with our various covers over windows and hatches we were fine. A walk in the cooler evening air resulted in watching the sunset through the reeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But next day, with even higher temperatures predicted, we decided to find a cooler spot. First we cycled to Capestang for stores –  sounds simple enough – a 12 minute ride according to Google maps. But we decided to go along the (extremely bendy) canal bank, rather than down the straight road! After an hour cycling, much in full sun and on hard baked bumpy tracks, we found Intermarché, but lacked the will of the energy to cycle back!

We bought Coke and sandwiches, found a shady spot, and took a rest. Then, fortified, we began the ride back, still on the canal bank because Stewart had a plan!  We had passed a super shady spot on our way and by cycling back to that point Stewart could leave me and the shopping while he went to fetch the boat!

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Great plan – worked a treat, especially for me with an hour to sit in the shade with my toes in the water!  And nice for Stu too, who found two Azure-winged  Magpie feathers on his ride.

 

 

 

 

And when he arrived back with Calliope and we had an afternoon, evening and 2 nights there. Our only disturbances were ‘bumper boats’ that chose not to slow down past moored boats and threatened to pull out mooring pins out.  However nothing amiss occurred.

 

 

 

Now came time to pass under Capestang bridge. For those who do not know, this is often referred to as the lowest bridge on Canal du Midi – it is true in part. It has particularly low shoulders, making the edges of wheelhouse roofs vulnerable.

 

 

Stewart was keen to know just how much space we had, so armed with tape measure and camera I attempted to take photos as we passed through! We had had ideas of mooring in Capestang, but no room at the port so we continued to second choice Poilhés – and I am glad we had that choice forced upon us!