Saturday, 30 May 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (where to next?)

It’s practically three weeks since the last blog update and that must be a record gap between updates if we ignore breaks for holidays!  Mind you, the routine has been pretty much the same every day with no real news: boat work first thing, a walk by the river, lunch, another walk then relaxing on the pontoon having drinks with the girls.  At least that means it’s only a quick update 😉

Morning view across the port

The highlight was on 18th May when a lone swallowtail butterfly flew through the port.  After saying that we didn’t expect to see many more species of butterfly here this year, that was a most unexpected visitor.  It got us thinking about the pros and cons of remaining in one place for so long and we suddenly realised that this is the longest Buddy has lived in one place since we rescued him when he was a year old. 

Like the UK, we’ve been having brilliant weather, but with such little rainfall this year the river levels are getting very low.  The Marne through the town is now so shallow that bathers are seen wading across between the banks which would have been unimaginable a few months ago.  

Sunbathing platforms standing proud yesterday

The same platforms almost covered at the beginning of March

Other than enjoying watching the juvenile herons learning to fish in groups the only other non virus related item of news relates to the decorated drain covers in town.  Having previously thought there were only 100 we believed we’d found all but a dozen or so.  It now transpires that there are 360 of these covers and even with our latest finds it only brings us up to finding a third of them!

With the lockdown in France beginning to be eased (déconfinement as it is called in French) the inland waterways are gradually opening to pleasure boaters.  Unfortunately, a date for opening the canal we are currently on hasn’t been announced yet, but it is expected to be next week according to the VNF (the French equivalent of the Canal & River Trust).  The people on the other four boats that are lived on in the port are all making plans to start cruising next week.  Ironically, the same cannot be said for us.

When we were living on our friends’ narrowboat (Ceilidh) over winter back on the Kennet & Avon in the UK we decided we ought to buy a flat in Reading.  We have got fed up with living like land gypsies on our trips back, staying with different people and constantly moving.  I know many people think we live as water gypsies but that’s different as our home remains the same, if not the surroundings.  Reading is the most central place to be near most of the children and it will also provide a good base for them especially those that live abroad when they return for UK trips. 

Anyway, we looked at several flats and soon after arriving back in France decided to take the plunge and put an offer on one.  This was accepted but nothing much could happen because of the lockdown.  We exchanged contracts yesterday and will complete next Friday and will return to the UK on the Sunday to settle in.  The plan is then to return to France to carry on cruising later on in the summer.  Watch this space as they say!  

The Porte Ste Croix Рone of the many buildings that will forever remind us of our happy times living in Ch̢lons en Champagne

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (uncovering the manholes)

Getting ready for VE Day celebrations
It feels like those two weeks have flown by since the last blog update but thinking about it, it would probably have felt the same if it had been two days, two weeks or even two months ago.

At least we now know how the first phase of deconfinement is planned to work in our area of France.  We are in the Marne départment which is designated as a red area based on the rate of infection and hospital capacity.  Although there have been very few cases in our town, our départment is red because its hospitals are being used for patients from the hard hit areas of Paris and Strasbourg, the two cities that we are between. This means that, although we don’t need a signed form to go out anymore, we still have more restrictions than those in the green areas.  We can now go out more than once a day and some shops are allowed to reopen but parks and public places are still closed.  

From a selfish point of view, the canals in the red areas are remaining closed to non-commercial traffic to at least the end of June even though the current plan is that those in green areas will reopen at the end of May.  The next review is at the beginning of June, so we will stay put to see what happens next.

Marne is départment 51 in the middle of the red area in the north east
While on lockdown I’ll mention some welcome and generous news we received from Eurotunnel this week.  We hold an annual frequent traveller account and had four single trips remaining before the current year runs out in June.  We obviously couldn’t use these trips and thought we may well lose them, but Eurotunnel have decided to extend all frequent traveller accounts by 12 months, so we have a year to use those four trips. Clearly, we are pleased with this result and think it’s a brilliant offer.

I went shopping for the first time as we needed to replace an empty gas bottle and we didn’t want to approach the point where the second gas bottle started running out.   As in the UK, many fuel stations sell gas, but only unmanned fuel stations are open at the moment.  This means that gas is only available at fuel stations where the safety cages are set up for self-operation by use of a credit card.  With none of these available locally I set off for the garden centre down the road.  For some reason, this outlet has been able to remain open during the lockdown, maybe because it also sells gas?  Anyway, the point of the story is that I felt most apprehensive about the whole experience and now understand why Karen feels anxious before she goes food shopping every ten days.

Amongst getting with our other jobs, Karen has continued to make face masks and I have carried on with painting when the metalwork isn’t too hot.  Unbeknownst to me Karen took a photo when I was painting the gunwales and it turned out to be a sort of upside-down picture. 

By the way, the steps in the background are nearly complete and are now ready to be opened when lockdown finally finishes.  The project to build the steps was started just before we arrived here at the end of October and they were due to be opened by now but this has been delayed because of the lockdown.  As the steps lead down into the park they are closed off at the top until parks are reopened and we are going to find it a bit strange when that happens as people start using them to sit on.   

Mentioning face masks, daughter Jo, who gives on line sewing classes, is now making face masks to order - please visit her site for more information.  

Our daily walk has continued and one of the tasks on the route is to check on the swans nesting at the far side of the port.  Even though ducklings and goslings have been around for some time now, it seems that the cygnets have taken forever to hatch from their eggs.  We were finally rewarded yesterday, and three cygnets were in evidence leaving three eggs unhatched.  To be fair, Gorete had seen the first cygnet arrive two days previously but it was under the incubating parent whenever we checked on it.

We haven’t seen any further new species of butterfly for the year and there really hasn’t been much to report on the natural history front other than finding a single orchid down by the River Marne that we believe is a common spotted orchid.  The reason we are not 100% sure is because the leaves, that are normally covered in black spots, are completely devoid of them..

Our lone common spotted orchid?
The clear nights have meant the views of the much talked about full flower moon have been spectacular.  Of course, smartphone pictures won’t do it justice, but they will serve to remind us of those early May evenings stuck in the port at Châlons en Champagne.

Two years ago, we had a petunia that threw both pink and purple flowers.  We particularly remember this because some people (e.g. Yanos 😉) wouldn’t believe us and swore we had photoshopped the picture.  To our surprise one of this year’s plants is doing exactly the same thing:

Our non-photoshopped, two-coloured bloomed petunia
VE Day is an annual public holiday in France but is generally a subdued occasion, especially in the north where the French remember the occupation rather than the celebration of the victory.  Nikki & Gorete had some suitable red, white and blue bunting so we put that up around our end of the pontoon.  Karen baked some scones and we celebrated in British style with jam and cream although, rather than pots of tea, we opened the rosé.

Celebrating in style

As with many people, not much excitement has happened over the last few weeks but Gorete gave us a lovely surprise one day.  We have managed to continue life as a family doing all the usual stuff like morning coffee, afternoon tea and homemade cake, evening drinks on the pontoon or trips to each other’s boat for dinner etc.  Fortunately (so far 😉) we have all coped admirably with each other’s company and living so close together – just as well really when you think about it.  Anyway, having talked to the girls one evening about our quest to find the decorated manhole covers in town, Gorete did some research and got further than we did – she found an old article in the local paper explaining how and why they appeared.  If you open it in a browser with an inbuilt translator like Chrome then you can read it in English – click here for the article.

As our boat pictures are always taken from our end of the port, here is one taken from the other end.

Daily video calls with Lauren & Lewis have continued so we can keep up to date with Ellis who gives us plenty to smile about.

Hopefully, it will only be a few weeks before we can work out whether or not we’ll be cruising this year (and start having more varied blog content 😉).

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (the lost ring)

We awoke to rain on the Tuesday of the seventh week of the French lockdown; apart from a spattering one night over the previous weekend this was the first rain for almost seven weeks.  This made us think of the irony of being allowed to start cruising in June when the lockdown restrictions commence easing, only to find out that if the dry weather continues there would be the danger of not being able to cruise because of low water levels 😆

Even though the weather has been glorious there has been a breeze most days, so we have had very few upside-down days since returning to Châlons at the beginning of March.  As it has been so warm we are able to leave the hatches open until nightfall and take advantage of the views during the evening.  Last Sunday was one of the stiller days and Karen managed to capture this from the open hatch:

Upside-down on Sunday evening
Sunday evening also saw the arrival of three terns that we believe were Common Terns although we’re not proficient enough birders to be sure.  We watched them diving for fish in a manner that Karen described as being akin to a plane crash landing.  For a bird that is so sleek and graceful, their entry into the water is completely the opposite; however, they seem to always come up with a fish, so the method seems to work.  The herons are still to be seen fishing but only a handful at a time at most.  Gorete managed to see the heads of young in one of the nests through her binoculars, but we haven’t been so lucky.  The rapid covering of leaves on the tree canopy hasn’t helped.

Heron fishing at the end of one of the ‘coronavirus’ barriers
Ardon has been spending some of her spare time painting one of the bollards outside her & Guy’s boat.  The bollard now looks like a large toadstool and she has also painted the names of the five boats and their owners who are currently locked down in the port with us.

Three of the boats: Sid & Jane on Sherborne, Nikki & Gorete on Puddleduck and us
Our daily walk takes us past a house with a pretty garden and this week the owners have been cutting their blooms and placing different ones outside each day for passers-by to take.  Karen has taken orange blossom and lilac sprays for table decorations on the pontoon.

Blooms for the taking and a poem
The essence of the poem is that without joy in your life you will lose strength and a house without flowers is a sad house so please help yourself.

Boat painting has had to continue as I have been finding it harder to have excuses not to do it.  I have now repainted the two roof panels at the front and started preparing the middle two panels.

Putting the first topcoat on the front two panels
The next areas to finish are the sides under the gunwales which have been prepped up to the last coat of undercoat.  As with the roof, I have had to use masking tape which wasn’t the easiest task to do considering it had to be done in the kayak.  

Applying masking tape along the gunwales
Believe it or not the crap in the water is an accumulation of pollen and tree blossom that we disperse every day or so by running the engine in gear.

Having the kayak out proved to be useful as a large (dead) deer was slowly drifting towards the boat.  We first noticed it a couple of weeks ago about a kilometre further upstream and it has been gradually moving down towards us.  Each time a commercial goes through the town lock enough water is used to cause a slight flow for a while.  The prevailing wind has been from the east lately and that has also helped to keep things moving.

So, I hopped into the kayak ready to move the deer past the moored boats quickly and hence avoid the stench permeating throughout the boat.  Of course, I had forgotten it had rained during the previous night and into the morning – my bottom half was immediately soaked!  I quickly jumped out and, as Gorete had been watching the antics, she helped me turn it upside down to remove the water.  As with all the dead animals with have had to deal with and help on their way downstream, I was loathe to prod it in case it exploded.  I found the best way to move it was to gently nudge it with the nose of the kayak.  I soon had it on its way towards the lock and paddled back to make the kayak fast beside our boat.

Jane from Lazybones at the other end of the port is keen on embroidery and has been keeping herself busy making things.  She gave us a lovely present of napkins during the week:

One of the Chalkhill Blue napkins ðŸ˜Š
One evening we were sitting outside having pre-dinner rosé with the girls when we heard Karen scream, she had popped into the boat to check on the dinner in the oven.  It sounded like she shouted that she had dropped her engagement ring down the sink.  As the sink doesn’t have a u-bend we thought it would be an easy job to flush it out.  Quick thinking Nikki suggested getting a pop sock which I held over the outlet while Karen ran water through but to no avail.  While we were trying to flush it out it transpired that it was an earring not her engagement ring that Karen had dropped so the panic level dropped somewhat.

The next step was to dismantle the outlet pipe which wasn’t as easy as it sounds as whoever put it together had used mastic to seal the joints.  With only one pair of water pump pliers I was getting nowhere so Nikki joined in with hers and we realised that we wouldn’t get it completely apart without damaging the outlet.  As I didn’t have a spare we left the sink out of action until the next day when I decided to clean everything up, apply silicone, tighten the joints back up and wait until I got replacement parts before finishing the job.  As is always the case, both types of silicone had dried up and were unusable.  Nikki lent us hers and that was OK, but the nozzle leaked so I got into far more mess than I usually do.  Anyway, in the end I got everything back together but, of course, when we tried it out later there was a leak so I’m back to square one. 

What I didn’t mention was that as far as Karen was concerned it wasn’t a disaster because when I was cleaning the joints before tightening them up, I found the missing earring!  The moral of this story is that jobs not on the job list invariably take longer than those on the list.

To sign off for this week, here are the latest windmills the girls have added to the pontoon garden.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (French, what French?)

The sunny weather has continued for another week and, with no rain, we are watering the plants daily.  This is a welcome chore as it gives us one more thing to do each day during our lockdown which is now in its sixth week.  Ironically we do find that time seems to fly by and, although we are up by 7.30 at the latest each day, it seems we have only just finished breakfast and mid-morning coffee break before we realise it is practically lunchtime. In a similar vein, it is often nine at night before we sit down and relax for the evening.

There are plenty of butterflies around including what seems like more Holly Blues than usual.  One took an unusual liking to Buddy the other day.  He had just finished cooling down by standing in the River Marne when one was attracted to the drying mud on Buddy’s back.  This behaviour by butterflies is often seen as they imbibe moisture/minerals from the edges of puddles and, less attractively, from fox poo.

Buddy’ s Holly Blue
Whenever Karen returns from her walk, she always has something to report.  I suppose that with each day being the same, anything away from the norm tends to stick out.  For example, Wednesday’s highlight was seeing a breakdown truck with a car on its flatbed.  Nothing unusual in that she thought, until she noticed the car driver who, rather than being seated next to the truck driver, was still sitting in his car on the back.

The next day she was stopped by a gendarme and had to show her attestation and ID.  She was told she was in a forbidden area and was asked to leave it.  She knew it was forbidden as it was a public park but had only gone a dozen feet or so into it to dispose of a poo bag in the requisite receptacle.  As she was stopped after making the deposit, she found it difficult to describe what she had been doing as we have never learnt the French to describe what she had just done! 

Buddy cooling down one morning
I know there has been a lot of talk about the increased use of group video calls for family and friends during the lockdowns and we have been doing exactly that with our children.  During the week we had our first ‘friends’ session which turned out to be good fun – talking with fellow boaters, Chris & Sue Hutchins and Mike & Lesley Fielding in the UK.  One of the questions that came up for us was, ‘How is your French coming on?’. This brought home to us that we are not talking French at all this year as we are not able to meet people.  At the most, we do supermarket French: ‘No we don’t have a store card’ and ‘Yes, we will pay by card’.  This is almost less than tourist French when all you need to know is how to order drinks in a bar 😉

It seems likely that the general public will have to wear face masks when the restrictions start being lifted over here so Karen took an hour or so out to make a couple of masks.  The other reason for making them is that we would want to wear a mask if we catch the virus.

Our homemade face masks
The good weather has meant that I have had no excuse but to carry on with the boat paintwork prep, although I haven’t found it too strenuous as it has to stop before lunch as the steel boat becomes too hot to touch on the outside by then.  A new excuse has arisen over the last couple of days though: the wind.  It really has been too breezy to risk paint specks appearing on the girls’ boat next door.  We remember someone painting next to us on the towpath in the UK a few years ago and realised a few days later that we had specks over our boat which could only have come from our neighbours.

I mentioned last week that we had been watching up to ten herons fishing at once along the waterfront next to our mooring.  This only lasted for three days and we are now lucky to see more than three or four at a time.  We have no idea why the numbers have gone down, is it the wind direction, the clarity or otherwise of the water or what?  What we have seen though, are two more dead deer, one on the towpath and one in the cut itself.  They were both too far gone to see if they had been shot or not.

When anyone in the port goes shopping, they always ask on the port WhatsUp group if anyone else needs anything.  This is very useful if you suddenly realise that, due to a miscalculation, you have run short of something as it saves risking meeting people during an unwanted trip to a shop.  When Jan asked the group on one day, Karen responded saying she wanted some epinard (spinach) but something went wrong in the message delivery as Jan came back with blettes (chard):

It did allow Karen to keep to her, ‘One new recipe a week’ notion she is following during the lockdown.  That evening we had a delicious chard, lemon and cheese pie:

Another thing mentioned last week was that we had both found an Orange Tip butterfly egg apiece.  We have been checking them every day but, sadly, on Sunday they had both disappeared.  They seemed to have completely gone as we couldn’t even find caterpillars that may have hatched.  As a sort of compensation, whilst continuing the search, Karen found a batch of Large White eggs on a nearby plant.

Eggs of the Large White butterfly
Our plants have started flowering, especially the petunias, and Gorete has made the pots even more colourful with the addition of some windmills.  The nasturtium and sweet pea seedlings are coming on well and we are getting close to having to pot them on. 

Our colourful pontoon
We celebrated the end of another week of lockdown by sharing a meal with the girls on Monday evening, during which we realised that our weekends have extended to include Mondays ðŸ˜Š

Now it’s time say goodbye until the same time next week.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (herons - a welcome replacement for anglers)

What’s going on here then?

As we entered our fifth week of lockdown, we learnt last night that the next extension is for a further four weeks until 11th May.  No doubt there will be a gradual relaxing of restrictions at some point, but it is looking increasingly unlikely we will be allowed to cruise for a few months yet 

Like most other countries, the French salute their key workers every night at 8.00pm with hand clapping, horn tooting, flag waving etc.  We join in on our boats by tooting the horns and waving flags with the residents in the cottages on the other side of the port.

Gorete & me flag waving while Nikki & Karen were horn tooting
A recent drawback of the lockdown is that recycling collections have been stopped and all recycling has to go into the general waste.  Although we believe we avoid buying products with excess packaging, it never ceases to amaze us the amount of recycling that still builds up while living on a narrowboat.   

One more thing to mention about the lockdown: we had another visit from the police this week.  As with a previous week it was while the girls were doing pontoon pilates.  Once again, they gave the girls a thumbs up and let them carry on.  Either someone had reported the activity or the policemen just wanted to watch them 😉  People walking past the port on the other side of the wall can see over and, we imagine, are probably quite jealous that we have a secluded area to sit out in compared with those that live in flats in the town.  They tend to acknowledge us with a ‘bonjour’ and a wave, but we have noticed a couple of people taking pictures. 

We were still getting some people walking illegally through the park each day so spent some time this week making the council barriers more robust.  This seems to have helped and only two or three people manage to get through each day now.

Encouraged by the lack of human activity the waterline next to us has become a haven for the herons in our heronry.  For the last couple of days we have been watching them vie for fishing places and line up along the bank.  Most of the day we can count eight of them, although this morning we could see nine while having breakfast - a far more pleasing sight than the fishermen that used to sit along this stretch.

Karen pretending to be on heron-watch
Looking at the picture above, the heronry is in the trees on the island to the right and the herons line up to fish along the waterfront of the park on the left right along to the edge of our pontoon.  Karen has threatened, when she finds the time, to get the camera out and hopefully get some good shots of the herons.

Whilst on wildlife, Karen has also been taking a keen interest on a pair of swans nest building just up from the river lock when going for her early morning walk.  They have now finished building and are taking turns to incubate the eggs.  Swans are unusual in sharing this activity as it falls to the female for most waterfowl.

The resident port swans
It’s lovely to see all the spring butterflies on the wing but a little sad that we probably won’t see more than a dozen or so further species this year unless restrictions are lifted and we’re allowed to travel further than a kilometre from the boat.  We have found our first Orange Tip eggs of the season so will watch them daily as they change colour to bright orange before the caterpillars emerge.  Assuming they escape becoming tasty bird morsels, we can then track them until they turn into chrysalises.  Of course, we hope we can escape Châlons in the boat before they emerge as butterflies next spring 😉  

Orange Tip egg on the underside of a garlic mustard (aka hedge mustard) leaf
If you look for Orange Tip eggs, you will rarely find more than one per plant as the caterpillars are (unusually) cannibalistic.  As well as searching for them on garlic mustard plants they can also be found on cuckoo flower (aka lady's smock), their other food plant.

Garlic mustard in flower
Orange Tips belong to the pieridae or white family of butterflies to which the infamous ‘cabbage whites’ belong.  Actually, there is no such butterfly as a cabbage white; it is a term used for the few butterflies whose caterpillars feed on cabbage type plants (brassica).  In the UK and northern France these are the Small White and the Large White.  Unfortunately, there are several other whites that do not feed on these plants, but they still get killed by over-zealous gardeners and allotment holders.  This is a male Green Veined White taken by our lock yesterday showing the distinctive green veins on its underwings.

Male Green Veined White
I know the pedants and purists among you may well be cringing about my capitalization of the butterfly names above.  It is something that I don’t usually do but I feel that it makes it easier to read and understand, especially when talking about small and large whites.

On Saturday evening Guy dropped off a basket of easter eggs on all the occupied boats that Ardon had kindly made up.

Our easter eggs from Guy & Ardon
I must admit that I have now run out of excuses to not get on with touching up the boat paintwork.  This week I have prepped a couple of sections of the roof (there are six altogether) and managed to get as far as applying the first undercoat.  The spell of fine weather over the last three weeks that finally spurred me on has also encouraged our seeds to germinate.  We now have sweet pea and nasturtium seedlings but are still waiting for the chillies to emerge.

The girls came back from their daily walk one day full of excitement.  They believed they had found some undiscovered painted manhole covers to add to our collection.  After a quick check we found that three of them were new bringing our total to 82, no wonder they were excited!

One of the newly discovered covers
Back to the picture at the top asking what was going on.  We get the occasional dead animal floating slowly past us and, with a little nudging using a barge pole or boat hook, we manage to help them on their way towards the lock and therefore out of smelling range.  Not only do they smell badly but we worry the dogs will show an interest so that’s another reason for getting rid of them.  We call them bombs as they swell up and we have to be very careful not to poke them too hard and make them explode This week our visiting bomb was a hedgehog which stubbornly hung around for a couple of days.  In the end Gorete and I fished it out and took it into the park to bury it out of harms way:

To finish this week’s update, here is a picture of Ellis now he is four months old.