French Canals 2009

Yonne, Canal du Loing, Canal de Briare, Canal Lateral à la Loire, Canal du Nivernais - a round trip.

We arrived in France on Tuesday, 19th May, staying overnight in our favourite little town of Bergues. This is the third time we have stayed in this lovely old walled town, fortified by Vauban, and it will not be the last. We stay with Madame Wolnik in a charming old Flemish house overlooking the canal where it enters the town. She does not have a car park but there is plenty of room outside and our room overlooks where the car is parked which is just as well as it is loaded to the roof with all our worldly goods including an inflatable dinghy, outboard motor, 2 folding bikes, bedding, curtains etc. Bergues has probably grown up around St. Winoc abbey, founded in 1022. Most of the buildings are 17th century. The town square is dominated by a lovely belfry which was dynamited in 1944 and re-built in the original style. The carillon of 50 (incredible) bells rings a very melodious chime every fifteen minutes.

After eating a meal in the town square we took a stroll around the walls of the town in the evening sunshine. It was good to stretch our legs after travelling all day. We had left home at 07h00 and drove to Dover where we caught the 14h00 ferry, arriving in Dunkirk at 15h00 French time. Bergues is about half an hour away from Dunkirk. So we have been on the road (and the water) for eight and a half hours.

We are delighted to be back in France, the people are so friendly and helpful, the countryside is spacious and unspoiled (mostly) and the food and drink wonderful.

Thursday, 21st May, 09, Auxerre

The sunshine stayed with us throughout our journey yesterday. We arrived at Auxerre at 14h00 and found our boat on the slip waiting to be launched. We had booked ourselves into the Ibis hotel for the night as we did not relish a night spent at an angle inside the boat whilst she was in the hoist. We went across to the Ibis for a cool shower and a belated siesta. We returned to the boat later to unpack. We had a meal on board, and were very excited to stick the new name onto the front of the boat - La Vie en Rose. We lost the old name when the hull was repainted and decided this was a good time to choose a more original name than Liberty. Otherwise we were too exhausted after our travelling to tackle more unpacking and cleaning and it was very difficult moving about inside the boat, tilted as she was at a crazy angle.

We were back at the boat at 08h00 the next morning. It was cooler and rain threatened. We ate a lop-sided breakfast on board and Paul arrived at 09h00 to talk to us about the 'paint job' they have done. We had found some blisters in the antifouling and had also noticed that they had not antifouled the bottom half of the bathing ladder. They promised to rectify that and the launch was postponed until 10h00. The hull was looking beautiful and the new doors very smart.

Once we were in the water and level again, we were able to make the boat habitable. By bedtime we had clean dry berths, a working toilet, a full water tank, electricity and curtains at the main windows. We fell into bed exhausted shortly after 21h00.

Friday, 22nd May, 2009, Auxerre

Getting the boat ready at the beginning of each season is rather like moving house.

Where does this go ...

Have you seen ...

I'm sure I had ... etc., etc.

We were surrounded by opened cases and containers, their contents spilling out over the benches and needing a home. Inevitably some vital piece of equipment has been left behind. Things get sorted out eventually but every year it seems to get harder, probably as we get older.

Every day we have fallen into bed shortly after 21h00 and slept the sleep of the dead.

Today the weather has been gorgeous. The temperature this afternoon reached about 34 deg. C, and there is a pleasant breeze.

Sunday 24th May, 2009, Auxerre

We have been in France for five days, working hard, so I persuaded John to take a day off. It has been so warm I don't think we would have got much done anyway. We went for a walk across the river and along the towpath to a very pleasant, wooded park. We sat under the trees and admired the flowers. There is a huge outdoor swimming pool in the park as well as a children's play area, tennis courts and so on. The pool has an outdoor and an indoor area but it did not look as though it was open yet. We walked back over a bridge that had once housed a railway line - Dr. Beeching must have been in France too. When we got back from our walk we put the sunshade up on the back deck and ate our lunch there.

In the afternoon we stayed on the back deck, reading and dozing with cool beers and elderflower cordial to hand. Eventually it got too hot to be out and I retreated in doors where I put the electric fan on.

The boat is still a mess. We have an oil leak which John has not been able to fix yet. That means that the wheelhouse floor is up and I cannot move around the boat to put things away.

Paul has not painted the top of the boat as we are still hoping to do this ourselves. However they have painted it with brown Owatrol to keep the rust at bay. We will need to get a coat of white undercoat on that otherwise the boat will be far too hot. As it is the temperature is steadily climbing. We had left the sunshade up on the back deck - a mistake, at midnight we were disturbed by a violent gust of wind. The boat began to surge at her moorings, our flags were streaming in the wind and a flurry of rain was blown through the open hatch. We leapt up and rushed out to rescue the sunshade. We must have looked a strange sight, me in my shortie pyjamas, and John in his bed-shorts.

There has been no hope of painting anything today as the rain continued on and off all day, being particularly heavy this afternoon. John has found the source of the oil leak after two days of working on it. The problem appears to have been a mis-aligned gasket. So once he has re-connected the water hoses we should have a working engine and the floor can go back in place.

Thursday, 28th May, 2009, Auxerre

The weather has been very unsettled and the work has not progressed. I have however managed to varnish two strips of wood at the bottom of the doors. John has put the floor back down in the wheelhouse and is laying new carpet tiles. He is edging each hatch with T-piece stainless steel to make access to the engine easier.

Saturday, 30th May, 2009, Auxerre

On Friday the rain stopped and I managed to progress the painting of the cabin top. Beautiful breeze today which is mitigating the heat. I cycled over the old railway bridge to an organic grocery shop. It was huge and had everything I could want in the way of organic produce, but because I was on my bike I could not carry too much. I settled for some muesli, honey, lettuce, broccoli and olive oil spread. I did not realise that I had to weigh my muesli and broccoli and held up the next customer in the queue whilst I rectified this. She was very nice and practised some of her English on me. Outside the shop she chatted some more before I cycled off.

Next week-end there will be a festival here to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the marina. Paul has offered me a table in the marquee where I can display and hopefully sell some of my books.

John and Anne Thorpe of Heb Ken have just arrived and I invited them for drinks and nibbles on the quayside (the wheelhouse floor is not finished so we cannot get inside). John Thorpe is commodore of the Manchester Cruising Association this year and has invited me to speak at one of their meetings in the autumn.

Tuesday, 2nd June, 2009, Auxerre

The wheelhouse floor is looking very professional. The carpet tiles in dark green were a good choice and the stainless steel edging is well done.

On Sunday we had a day off and drove to Massangis for a run on the ancient railway. This had once been a commercial railway for transporting stone from the quarry, wood from the forest, and Chablis from the vineyards. We had a trip lasting 50 minutes, there and back, mostly though woodland so rather boring, but a stop for a look at old railway stock and a talk about the railway made it more interesting.

On Tuesday there was a welcome event hosted by the port. It was €5 for a drink and a plate of sausage, salad and pâté. There were not a lot of people there. We sat with a French couple from a boat called My Way d'O who have quite a menagerie on board - a dog, a cat and a tortoise which lives in its own habitat in a paddling pool (dry) on the back deck of their boat. We were also joined by some Americans from a Dutch tjalk called Phoedra. They seem to be using their boat as a holiday cottage and go off for trips in their car.

On Friday the celebrations began for the anniversary. We dressed the boat with bunting and I went and sat at my table in the marquee but most of the visitors were French so I rather wasted my time.

Wednesday, 10th June, 2009, Moneteau

We have finally set off. The festivities were all over by Tuesday and I had managed to sell two books.

John has been pottering about finding places to put the left-over carpet tiles. He has put some on top of the step-locker in the starboard doorway. He is getting so enthusiastic I had to persuade him to stop and keep some for replacements when the existing ones get oily.

We paid our bill and filled the water tank. We were not in a great hurry as we were only planning to go to Gurgy about 3.5 hours away, and 4 or 5 locks.

We left about 10h15 and tried to radio the lock but he did not hear us. We waited outside the lock being blown about by a strong wind which had sprung up. Eventually the lock opened and we went in. At the next lock the keeper commented on our name, "Nice name" he said. But after that things deteriorated. When we got to the next lock a small boat was in there, going in our direction, but the lock was already closed and in operation. We had to wait for 20 minutes circling in the river whilst the lock went through its operation again. The whole process took half an hour. At the next lock it was the same with the added disadvantage that a hire boat was coming the other way. The process took 35 minutes this time and by then it was 12h00. The lady lock keeper recommended that we tie up for lunch as we would not reach the next lock by 12h30 - the magic hour for their lunch.

We tied up at a small quay by a children's playground that we had used before. The wind was now very strong and we decided that we could do worse than stay there overnight. The wind continued until early evening with intermittent rain. But it was very beautiful on the mooring. We enjoyed the peace of the river and watched ducklings with their mother trying out their skills on the river. I sat in the open doorway watching the seeds from some nearby plant being scattered across the river like dandelion seeds.

About 18h00 the rain became very heavy and we were glad to be snug and warm indoors. I love the feeling of being somewhere peaceful and remote like that mooring. We were cocooned in our floating home, reliant upon ourselves and sheltered from the world.

Thursday, 11th Jun, 09, Joigny

Today the wind and rain have dropped. Perhaps we will get to Joigny rather than stopping at Gurgy. When we woke up the seeds I had so admired yesterday had covered the entire boat like bits of raw cotton and were quite difficult to sweep off. We radioed to the first lock but had no response and the gates were firmly closed with no sign of a lock-keeper. There was nowhere to tie up except one solitary bollard just outside and to the left of the gates between the gates and the river as it rushed towards the barrage. I had to get a line onto this bollard and if I had missed we would have been swept towards the barrage. Not necessarily a dangerous situation but one that would require a lot of manoeuvring to extricate ourselves from or we would be pinned against the barrage. With a rope in my hand and my heart in my mouth I positioned myself at the front of the boat as John edged us in. Success, my rope snaked around the bollard and I tied the rope firmly. I now had the tricky exercise of climbing ashore and getting into the lock around a fence designed to deter intruders and then across the lock gate.

The keeper's cottage was guarded by two barking dogs, wagging their tails but otherwise not looking very friendly. A woman appeared at an upstairs window and told me that the keeper had gone to the next lock and would be back at 09h00. It was then 08h45. In fact it was after 09h00 when he arrived and began the business of filling the lock. As the water began to flow into the lock we found that the current was pulling the stern of the boat towards the gates. We had to unhitch from our single bollard and back away.

 Once we exited the lock we passed Tethis, a boat whose owners we had met in Auxerre which had been broken down on the Burgundy canal for a few days earlier in the year. They seem to be repaired again.

On our approach to the final lock we saw a huge tree trunk in the water, almost blocking the gates. We approached slowly and I wielded our stoutest boat hook, giving it a push which enabled us to inch past - just.

The rest of the journey had been uneventful. It was wind free and there was only a spattering of rain which held off until we reached Joigny where we were able to moor at the hire boat base. Then the heavens opened about 15h00 and we were glad to be inside. We had decided to stay two nights, and will then probably try to reach Sens in one journey. It will depend on the locks which are usually slow in operation and rarely ready for us even when the lock keepers know we are on our way. To add to the fun all the locks will be sloping-sided.

Friday, 12th June, 09, Joigny

We spent yesterday doing all those housekeeping (or should that be boat-keeping) jobs which are necessary from time to time. I did some washing and although rain threatened it held off and I was able to dry everything. Then a walk into the old town to a small supermarket and after lunch some cleaning and tidying.

An English narrow boat Occatheus was on our pontoon and they are travelling in our direction. The name of the boat is an anagram but I am not sure what of. There is also an Irish boat, Kevelle, on the next pontoon. The owners (Kevin and Eleanor) were very chatty and we swapped some books. That evening we had a pleasant meal out at the Pomme d'Argent on the Rue Gambetta on our side of the river.

Monday, 15th June, 09, Montéreau

We did not make it all the way to Sens and stopped at Villeneuve. We had had a lovely journey in sunny warm weather along the tree-lined river, having the company of swans, herons, cormorants and coots. At one of the locks we joined a boat called Jesse-Elizabeth and travelled with them to Villeneuve where we got to know Pete and Jackie a little better. Peter had been a professional fisherman around the Isle of Wight, later crewing for others before buying his own ketch which he sailed in the Med. That was where he had met Jackie, in Spain, where she had a villa. They now live permanently on the French canals and fly to Goa for the winter.

At Villeneuve there was still no water or electricity for boats. In frustration Peter went to the Mairie to ask if it could be repaired but nothing happened whilst we were there.

Another English boat, Snow Goose joined us, together with a French boat whose name when translated meant Sparrowhawk Owl. The following morning we were all preparing to head for the lock which is very close to the mooring when two hire boats appeared as if from nowhere and went into the lock. Fearing to be left out and having to wait for the next lock operation we all quickly cast off our lines and followed them into the sloping sided lock. There was one small floating pontoon to which the hire boats had tied. We ourselves tied to the hire boats. But Jesse-Elizabeth and Snow Goose just hovered in the lock, using bow thrusters, long lines and boat hooks to keep them off the sides as we descended. We used this method through all the remaining locks until we reached Sens. This made our progress faster except at one lock where we waited over half an hour because the lock keeper was at another lock. Each lock keeper usually tends two or three locks. We did not mind the wait. It was a pleasant day and the river was wide. Jesse-Elizabeth even dropped her anchor, and I contemplated going over the side for a swim but the lock opened before I managed it.

We chatted to the skippers of the hire boats. They were retired chaps from Switzerland who were hoping to reach Paris by Monday. They were travelling each day until the locks closed and did not stop at Sens, neither did Snow Goose who were heading for Simon Evans' yard for repairs.

We only stayed one night in Sens and travelled on to Montéreau on a very hot and humid day. We travelled alone down a long 'cut' and just as we exited the lock at Blagny we found Anne-Marie with Bryan and Ruth waiting to enter. There was no opportunity to do more than say Hello and promise to talk on the phone before they swept into the lock. They did phone that evening and told us they were on their way to Vermenton where they planned to leave the boat for August and maybe go back to Pont-à-Bar for the winter.

At Montéreau we were glad to find room and once tied up we opened all the windows and put up our sun blinds and chilled out. It was extremely warm, but the next morning we woke to pouring rain. There is a huge statue of Napoleon at Montéreau, pointing the way down the River Yonne where it branches off the Seine.

Thursday, 18th June 09, Montéreau

We left Montéreau after two nights and travelled to Moret-sur-Loing. The weather was good after the rain of Monday which had cooled things down.

On the Seine we were in the company with huge barges loaded with grain, sand, gravel etc. It is good to see the waterways in commercial use, but there are still empty barges lying idle along the sides. Some are live-aboards, but many are rusting away.

At Moret we shared a pontoon with a small French barge which looked as though it was there for the summer. The family aboard had taken over the pontoon, and furnished it with a picnic table and chairs, two bikes and a barbecue. They ate on the pontoon each evening.

Whilst we were in Moret John was not very well. We know he has prostate cancer and this made us wonder if it was advancing. We realised we needed to be in a place where we could get home quickly if he was ill again and decided to turn around and go back to Auxerre where we have left our car.

Saturday, 20th June 09, Sens

We travelled to Sens from Montéreau on a long and tiring day. We had left Moret at 08h45 but did not arrive in Sens until 16h00. The locks averaged 40 mins. each and we covered a distance of 40 km.

We had had to wait whilst the lock keeper had his lunch just as we reached Pont-sur-Yonne and moored to bollards at the end of the lock cut.

Arriving at Sens we found a couple of familiar boats, Tethys and Kevelle plus a few other boats. There was plenty of room and after a short chat to Dave of Tethys we soon had the kettle on.

The next morning was market day in Sens. The market is housed in a permanent covered building where there were stalls selling bread and pastries, fresh veg and fruit, meat, cheese, dairy produce and dried goods. We were able to stock up with fresh veg, cheese, pâté. etc. as well as some crusty country bread.

There was no water directly on the quay at Sens at that time, the only water was available from underneath a grid at the top of the sloping lawns of the riverside gardens from where water is available to water the grass and flowers. John was able to use a spanner to turn it on and joined two hoses to reach the boat. We later lent our hoses to Kevin so that they too could fill up.

John has been a little better it appears that he has had an infection. I always carry antibiotic with me and I administered this to him.

Kevin and Eleanor cycled yesterday to the botanical gardens which they recommended strongly. We are expecting visitors, Maureen and Steve, and were planning to stay here to receive them. The gardens would be a good place to visit with them.

Saturday, 27th June, 09, Joigny

Steve and Maureen arrived on Tuesday and we went to the botanical gardens on Wednesday morning, calling on the supermarket on the way. The extensive gardens are spread around an old water mill and we had a lovely walk along the river where there were some interesting water birds. Then we walked through a rose garden and past an animal enclosure where there were goats, sheep and mules. We also noted exercise equipment at various points. The trees were glorious. Back at the boat we filled the water tank again and this time John was given a fitting for the difficult water point by a chap on the barge ahead of us who had bought several from the bricolage. In the evening we walked into the town and had crêpes at a brasserie in the square in front of the imposing cathedral.

We left Sens on Thursday. Steve left his car in the large car park close to the quay. We travelled in company with Zizz an ex-hire boat belonging to an Australian who had a French lady with him. We went as far as Villeneuve where we took Maureen and Steve on the town walk - round the route of the old ramparts and then into the town, finishing back on the quay. The evening we spent on the back deck in lovely summer sunshine.

Leaving Villeneuve we travelled to Joigny in uncertain weather which turned to rain shortly before we arrived. We could not find room in the hire base and moored to a little stone quay down river. Zizz pulled up behind us. We had a rather wet walk around the town and visited the Museum of the Resistance which seems to have been put together by volunteers but it was fascinating.

Thursday, 2nd July 09, Vermenton

Since Saturday the weather has become hot, hot, HOT. The temperature reached 30 deg C.

We travelled from Joigny to Auxerre, from where on Sunday we ran Steve back to Sens to collect his car. We then took the car to Vermenton, leaving it on the quay, but it turned out that Steve was very worried about it and got very anxious. But the crime rate in France is very low and we are usually confident about leaving our car in public places. We spent two nights in Auxerre where it was too hot to do very much. Maureen and I wandered around the town and on Monday evening Maureen and Steve took us out for a meal at a traditional restaurant. Because it was Monday a lot of places were closed and we walked right into the town before we found La Grand Gousier where we had an excellent meal We had goat's cheese and beetroot salad, followed by civet de port and then apricot tart. It was all excellent.

We travelled down the Canal du Nivernais on Tuesday which was new territory to us. There were several attractive villages fronting the canal. The locks were all manual and Steve enjoyed jumping off and helping the lock keepers but by the time we reached Accolay he was exhausted. I thought there was somewhere to swim at Accolay as I had noticed a beach. We tied up at an old sloping quay. Sadly the river proved too shallow for swimming which was a great disappointment. Steve and Maureen walked down to Vermenton to collect their car and reported that the port was full. We decided we would move down there the next day and hope someone might be leaving and making space. Maureen and Steve decided that they would start their drive home the next day as they wanted to take two days over their journey. So we had a farewell barbecue but it was not a huge success. John hates barbecues so it was up to me to get our portable gas barbecue out from its under-bed locker. John (reluctantly) and Steve set it up and Maureen cooked the kebabs whilst I provided salad and baguettes. The sun was still very hot and there was no shade, save under our parasol. It could have been better. The sun was still strong when I was cleaning the barbecue later that evening.

Maureen and Steve left next morning around 10h00 and shortly afterwards we were passed in the canal by a boat leaving Vermenton. Knowing that there was now space in the port John and I untied our lines and although we had a long wait for the intervening lock we were tied up by 11h30.

John started to be ill again. Fortunately I had another antibiotic which I gave to him. But we have decided it would be as well to go home. We began preparations for departure.

It remained hot and we know there is a swimming place in the river so we lowered our dinghy and set off to find it. John decided to row rather than using the outboard and it proved further than we thought. We turned round to get the outboard motor but by that time it was 17h00 so we gave up. We thought we might try again the next day.

Whilst I was pegging washing out the next morning I saw a parasol go sailing by, upside down, in the water. John hooked it with a boathook and we hauled it aboard. It was a nice blue and white striped one which had obviously come off one of the boats, but we did not see anyone searching for it. We put it on the quay alongside the boat and hoped that no-one would claim it as we could use a new parasol. However when the occupants of the barge behind us returned from a visit ashore they claimed the parasol. They are Australians from Sydney.

From Vermenton we went back to Auxerre in one day. At Auxerre we packed up the boat and set off home by car. Whilst we were home John was started on hormone therapy and had a course of radiotherapy. We were hoping that all will be well now and we can go back to France next year.