Saturday, 28 March 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (constructing a dog garden)

Where did that last week go?  Even though we are under lockdown it feels like the days are flying by which, I suppose, is good as it means we're not getting bored.  We are about to enter our third week and last night learnt that the lockdown is being extended, as expected, and the next review will be on April 15.  At the moment we are hoping this will all be over in a few months and then we will be allowed to start cruising later on in the summer.

Like most people faced with this situation, the ten of us stuck on our boats here are quite an enterprising lot.  Some of the girls got together on the pontoons for a pilates class morning that Ardon had offered to run.  Before anyone shouts, I was on gendarme lookout 😊 Seriously though, they kept their distance from each other and it’s logically the same as people exercising in their back gardens.  The first class was a great success and they will be repeating it on a daily basis.

Pilates class.  The boats in view probably won’t even be visited this year 
I may have said before that we have split into two families as it is impossible to keep two metres apart when moored next to another boat.  We are a ‘family’ with Nikki & Gorette, while Guy & Ardon, Sid & Jan and Bill & Jane form the other ‘family’ at the other end of the port.  

The three boats of the 'other family' 
Cycling is no longer allowed as a form of exercise, but keyworkers are allowed to use bikes to get to work.
Bill keeping his distance from our family before the cycling ban was enforced
Guy and Sid in DIY mode
Initially there was some confusion as to whether or not couples were allowed to be out together.  We had erred on the side of caution and Karen and I were going out separately with Buddy.  It has now been confirmed that if they live together then a couple can go out together but limited to one trip a day of no longer than an hour and no further than a kilometre from home.

When the parks and other open spaces were first closed off to the public, some people ignored the warning signs that were posted on trees etc.  During this last week, barricades have been put up around these places and only the odd ‘invincible’ person is now seen in them.

An intruder in the centre of the picture who obviously thinks he's invincible

One of the original warning signs now worded to reflect a ban rather than a request to keep out
Empty playpark
Off for our last walk in a park for a few weeks
One of the barricades
We had noticed there were still piles of barriers left in the park so one evening we took some and erected a further barricade thus providing a safe area between the two barricades, where Buddy and Bailey can roam without escaping onto a road.  It will also make a nice shady area under the horse chestnut trees once it gets too hot in the early summer.

Gorette and me purloining a couple of barriers
Putting the finishing touches to our own barrier
One thing we regret is not getting our summer plants and stocking up on compost before the shops closed down.  Luckily Karen had some seeds left over from last year so she has potted them up in used yogurt pots and hopefully they will germinate soon.  In the meantime, our roof garden is a little bereft and the spring flowers won’t be lasting much longer:

 

With the enforced no-cruising regime we have taken advantage of the laundry facilities in the port and have washed our lines and the rope fenders and also the coverings to the dinette cushioning.

Considering the situation much of the world is in we consider ourselves very fortunate and can sit at our table watching the herons on their nests and a kingfisher that often perches on a tree next to the boat.  We haven’t been lucky enough to see it dive for a fish yet, but we often see the cormorants surfacing with fish that look too large for them to swallow.  The Canada geese are now starting to build their nests and, with no people around, some are building them in areas that they would normally steer clear of.  I suspect that the goslings will be hatched by the time people are allowed back into the parks and open areas.

We did think that the one-kilometre restriction in movement would mean we wouldn’t see many butterflies but, so far, we have seen 11 different species around here this year including our first Orange Tip and Speckled Woods on Friday.  To finish this week's update here are a couple of the butterflies we saw this week:

Male Holly Blue
Male Orange Tip






Saturday, 21 March 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (first week of lockdown)

Having been confined to our homes, other than for exceptional short trips with a dated and appropriate certificate, those of us who live in France are advised to spend time in their gardens to ensure they get fresh air.  Together with Nikki & Gorete next door we have to treat the pontoon as our garden and with the lovely weather we’ve had this week we’ve retired to it whenever taking breaks from the daily grind of the job list.  One of this week's jobs was to buy more compost and plants and get the remaining pots planted up.  With garden centres shut down and non-food sections of supermarkets closed off for the foreseeable future it looks like Karen won't be able to put on our usual display for some months 😞

So, here's a summary of the first week of lockdown:

MONDAY


TUESDAY


WEDNESDAY


THURSDAY

 
FRIDAY


First sightings of butterflies continue notwithstanding: Wednesday - Small White; Thursday -Holly Blue; Friday - Large White.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (laissez-faire attitude bites back)

Almost an upside-down morning on Friday
We saw our first butterfly of the year on Friday, a peacock that had overwintered as an adult.  The early butterflies seen on the wing at the beginning of the year tend to be species that have hibernated as adults and include peacock, small tortoiseshell, red admiral, comma and brimstone.  Generally, it’s not until later on in March or early April that the species that hibernate as eggs, larvae or pupae appear such as holly blue, the whites and speckled wood.

Of course, the big news for us on Friday was the French implementation of the first restrictions following the coronavirus outbreak.  The public were requested to socially distance themselves, self-isolate if aged 70 plus and avoid crowded places.  12 of us in the port were due to go out for our Friday night meal in town but that number slowly dwindled during the day for one reason or another, e.g. four of the boaters are in their 70s.   By late afternoon we were down to four – us and the girls next door.  As they were coming around to us for a curry night on Saturday anyway, we decided to cancel the restaurant.  Ironically all 12 of us got together for drinks in the evening in the wheelhouse of Guy & Ardon’s boat, Vindi, rather ignoring the social distancing ruling.

Saturday was a lazy day and we spent most of it being nosey and seeing how the public reacted to the restrictions.  As it was, we saw very little difference; the parks, squares, bars and restaurants were packed.  The main reaction was the dissembling of the old-fashioned big top in one of the parks.  Each time we’ve passed it lately we’ve heard music and, we assume, some sort of circus act practise going on but never actually saw anything as the doors were always closed.  Because of the ban on gatherings, the big top was taken down over the weekend without a single performance being given

The sides removed
All that remains is the big top top
Further restrictions were announced on Saturday in reaction to the general ignoring of the first set of restrictions.  This time all non-essential outlets would be closed from Sunday, leaving food shops, fuel stations, tabacs and pharmacies the only places that would remain open.  

Sunday turned out to be a fabulous spring day and we saw many brimstones, a couple more peacocks and a small tortoiseshell.  The impact of the latest restrictions was far more apparent because so many outlets were closed in town; however, there were still the usual groups of people sitting and standing around in the squares and parks.  We did notice that people were shaking hands in greeting rather than the customary kissing so maybe the physical closure of bars etc. was having an impact.

We have hardly ever seen any customers in the tabac near the port but on Sunday it was heaving.  This was because it has a small bar and they clearly felt justified in serving alcohol as they hid behind the banner of being a tabac.

Our new mooring after swapping positions with the girls last Thursday
Macron and his government had clearly had enough of people not taking things seriously so introduced yet more measures on Monday.  We are now confined to barracks which is going to make things interesting over the coming months.  We now have to print out and sign a certificate each time we venture away from the boat indicating the reason for travel.  This even includes walking Buddy, which we are allowed to do together, but only because we live together and we both have to have an appropriate certificate.   Dog owners who live in houses are expected to exercise their pets in their gardens, but flat owners are allowed to walk their dogs in public but not in groups and not far from their homes. 

We assume we are treated like flat owners so all we can do for exercise is to have lots of small, short walks.  As each certificate is dated and a different one required for each type of excursion, e.g. dog walking or visiting the local food shop, we are soon going to run out of ink.  We have read on a news site that certificates can be stored on smart phones for people without printers but can find nothing to substantiate that on the official government notices.

With police cars and vans on patrol we very much doubt that people will ignore the new rules and it certainly feels eerily quiet everywhere.  It even looks like the cormorants are included as we’ve noticed them sitting at discrete distances from each other and even the Canada geese seem to be quieter than usual.  Clearly, the herons are not included as they are as raucous as ever while building their nests.  It looks like a few are already incubating eggs as we can just see their heads popping above three of the nests.

No more walks in parks, gardens, squares or play areas
Before the latest rules came into effect, we went for a last walk around town along the remaining streets and alleys we hadn’t visited before.  We were on the search for more decorated manhole covers and were rewarded with a further eight, bringing the new total up to 73.  Coincidentally the last one we found was of a butterfly 😊    

Probably the final decorated manhole cover which happened to be a butterfly
So much for our cruising plans this year, the first notice listing canals that were closing to all but commercial traffic, came through on Monday.  The notice indicated that all pleasure craft are banned from the waterways around Paris, and the situation will be reviewed on 20th April.

Tuesday morning saw us having some serious discussions around the port as we are clearly going to be stuck in Châlons for a few months.  We and the girls next door are moored one end of the port and the other three boats with liveaboards are at the other end.  We decided to split into two family groups so we will mix with Nikki & Gorete on our boats but keep a respectful distance from the other guys.

By the end of Tuesday, we had received notices from all the French waterways announcing their immediate closure to all but commercial traffic.  It’s going to be an interesting time ahead and I must admit that I doubt that even I’ll be able to conjure up enough stories to keep a regular supply of blog updates coming.

I’ll finish this update with the thought that we are both thankful that young children don’t appear to be at risk, so Ellis is hopefully going to be OK 😊

My favourite daughter (middle) with our favourite grandson (youngest) 















Friday, 13 March 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (the lizards are out)

Sun about to rise over our new mooring
After I got out of the shower on Sunday morning, I noticed the water pump hadn’t stopped running and Karen’s immediate reaction was that we had run out of water.  As we had only filled up three days previously, I thought that this wasn’t possible unless there had been a leak.  With no sign of a leak my immediate thought was that a pressure switch had failed.  The simplest solution was to replace the whole unit with the spare we carry.  As I got ready to do this, Karen mentioned the possibility of an empty tank again, so I checked the level and yes, she was right, we were bone dry!

With the paucity of water points on the French waterways we have got used to making a tank last at least a couple of weeks so we couldn’t believe we had used a tankful (150 gallons - 680 litres) in such a short space of time.  When we thought about it, we soon realised why; being moored in the port we have water on tap, so to speak, as we have our hose permanently attached to our own water point so it's very easy to fill up.  This does stop us being frugal – e.g. long showers, plenty of washing up water, running the washing machine and not using water from the cut to flush the loo.  Ironically, we found out later in the morning that the laundry facilities in the port were free so we could have been using their ‘industrial’ washing machine 😉

Although the weather is beginning to warm up, we have had quite a bit of rain this last week so there is little sign of the river levels abating.  Our neighbours keep joking that we seem to have brought the rain back with us from the UK.  Last week Nikki had taken a picture of the mooring at Cumières on the River Marne where we had spent a few days last summer.  Her picture showed the pontoon had risen nearly to the top of the flood dolphins.  In the summer the dolphins had flower baskets at the top and the council workers had to use a ladder to water them.  Nikki’s picture also showed that the ramp that normally leads down to the pontoon was at the same angle but leading up rather than down!

Last September & last week
To be fair we’ve had more sun than rain this week and the outlook is a lot drier.  We feel the change between winter and spring is the most exciting of the seasonal changes and, like many people, love seeing the hawthorn leaves emerging and the white blossom of blackthorn.  In the UK we would probably have seen the first spring butterflies by now, but we haven’t seen any in France yet.  We noticed last year that there doesn’t appear to be the volume of butterflies over here that are back home.  It doesn’t stop us constantly looking though as we go on our regular walks.
 
We have seen lizards that have woken up from winter hibernation, so we know things are changing.  Listening to the dawn chorus in bed is another sign of spring, although the courting Canada geese are rather raucous and not such a pleasant sound especially as the number of pairs are increasing daily around us (they are not our favourite bird 😉).  I mentioned the other day about the heronry being built on the island opposite; the same island is now host to a dozen cormorants that can be seen gathering at the top of two of the trees.  We also came across another harbinger of spring this week, some lovely patches of wild garlic in the woods down by the Marne.

One of our walks takes us through the Jard Anglais which has a grassy dip in the centre where, in good weather, families and groups are seen picnicking and playing games.  The recent rains have filled in the dip and the water is almost up to the bottom of an ornamental wooden bridge that crosses it.

A week ago, this was all grass covered in spring flowers such as crocuses
That particular walk brings us back to the port by crossing the lock at the entrance.  Even with the high water levels its been good to see commercials on the move.  We have even seen a couple of Piper boats coming through.  Pipers are a brand of modern pleasure boats built in the Dutch barge style and the two we saw were off to St Jean de Losne for a gathering of Piper boats at the end of April.

Commercial on its way up the lock in Châlons-en-Champagne
A trip to the fuel station to fill the jerry cans with diesel means that we are nearly ready to leave, all that remains to be done is to change the two diesel filters.  It’s a job I procrastinate about and I’m still finding reasons to put it off, but the time has really come to get the job done in the next few days.  Oh yes, and we may as well take advantage of the port laundry and wash all the ropes and side fenders too.

As we were out in the car getting diesel, we called into a garden centre to pick up some compost and spring flowers then spent a pleasant hour in the afternoon sun potting them up.  Writing this sentence has made me realise that there is one other thing to do before we set off cruising – move the car to a safe place until we pop back to the UK in August.

After finding yet more decorated manhole covers around the town last week, we were surprised to find yet eight more on Wednesday and a further seven on Thursday, bringing the total to 65 (click here).  We really had thought that we had found them all and cannot think of any streets we haven’t walked along in town.  We must have walked past or over many of the recent ones before but somehow not noticed them 😲

While having drinks with the girls on Wednesday evening they suggested we swap our boats around and we immediately agreed.  They have been moored at the end all winter and, as their boat is so tall, it has hidden the view and the morning sun from us.  By swapping positions, we will both get the view and the sun as they don’t really see our boat from their raised living area.  We agreed to move the boats first thing in the morning, but we awoke to wind and rain so decided to delay the move.  We didn’t have to wait too long as the day brightened up by mid-morning so we started the engines, disconnected the water hoses and the electric hook up cabling and set off.

The girls moved away first and waited down near the lock whilst we completed our manoeuvring

I then pulled out and reversed back to the other side of the pontoon

We were soon snugly moored up again
We couldn’t believe what a difference it made; we now have a lovely uninterrupted view across the Grand Jard.  We are also in a much better position to watch the herons flying into the island with their nest building material.

It seems we can't ignore the Corona virus even in our cocoon of a narrowboat.  What with Macron's speech last night and many boaters having already decided to cancel their plans to come over to France to cruise this year, there will be a lot of empty boats and waterways ☹ No doubt it will be mentioned in the next update,

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Châlons-en-Champagne (Yet another Brexit impact)

Wednesday was a lovely spring-like day and we spent most of it around the port catching up with all our boater friends who had overwintered there.  It wasn’t all socialising as we had to intersperse it with getting the boat ready for setting off on our next adventure.

Morning view from our bed across the port on Wednesday
Although we had really enjoyed borrowing a boat to live on when we were back in the UK, we were beginning to relax back into to living on our own boat.  We had noticed Buddy seemed happy to be home again too.  As it wasn’t raining for a change, he was able to adopt his favoured position guarding the boat by laying on the pontoon. 

Buddy in his favourite position
The pontoon is nice and secure so we’re able to leave him outside on his own without worrying he will run off.  Bailey, the girls’ dog next door, is the opposite and they have to force him to stay outside.  Mind you he’s a bit happier staying outside if Buddy’s around.

Jane giving treats to Buddy & Bailey after one of our walks with Gorete
Thursday felt like a total washout: we awoke to rain, it rained all day and it was still raining when we went to bed.  We stayed indoors apart from going out for a couple walks as it was an ideal day to do more of the admin jobs we need to do before leaving Châlons.  One of the things I have been going around in circles about is finding out how to get a boat licence for when we’re cruising in Luxembourg and Germany.  After what felt like a disproportionate number of hours on the web, I finally found that, unlike most other countries, those two don’t require pleasure boaters to buy licences.

We also revisited our cruising plans for the year and decided to keep them the same, at least until we get back into France from Germany.  We will spend the first few weeks getting to Strasbourg and as the route includes a canal that is closed for maintenance for nearly all of March, we won’t be setting out for another two or three weeks. 

Our route to Strasbourg in purple
This will be a journey of 338 kilometre through 167 locks, numerous tunnels and one inclined plane, a device we have never been on before.  We will be travelling on these three canals:

  • Canal latéral à la Marne:  This is the canal where we are currently moored and it’s a day’s journey down to Vitry-le-François where we will branch east onto the Marne au Rhin.
  • Canal de la Marne au Rhin.  As the name implies this canal provides a route from the River Marne over to the Rhine.  This is the canal that is closed for nearly all of March and forms the major bulk of our journey.
  • Canal du Rhône au Rhin.  Again, the name indicates that it joins the two rivers.  We won’t be travelling far on it, just the last hop around Strasbourg.
Another thing we ticked off our list was getting the German phrases required when radioing or phoning the lockkeepers when we’re over there.  These were kindly supplied by our daughter Sophie who will also need to make sure we get the pronunciations correct.

Whilst back in the UK we bought a travel cot that’s assembled like a tent.  This makes it very compact and easy to store on a narrowboat.  As it was an indoors day, we thought we ought to check that it would fit on the floor ready for when Lauren brings Ellis out later in the year.

Yup, it fits
Friday was a much better day and we spent most of it outside including a couple of good walks.  The River Marne continued to be high, so our normal circular walk was still cut off, therefore we found other places to visit.

Water flooding over the weir in Châlons
An old lock that we hadn’t come across before
Buddy & Bailey tussling over a stick
Our mooring in front of the cathedral (we’re the second boat in)
We found yet more decorated manhole covers, bringing our total to 50!  For more information and to see them all, click on 'Manhole Covers' under MISCELLANY on the right hand side of the blog above the photograph of the male chalkhill blue butterfly.

More decorated manhole covers
An island stands in front of our mooring and we noticed several herons flying to it with twigs in their mouths - they were building their nests high up in the trees.  As well as being called a heronry (héronaire in French), a group of herons’ nests is also known as a heron rookery.

In the evening we went to a restaurant in town with six of our neighbours (two Aussies and four Brits).  As expected, part of the time was spent discussing cruising plans for the coming season and also the impending impact on us Brits when the transition period finishes at the end of the year.  From next year we will be treated like non-Europeans and only allowed to spend 90 days a year in France unless (under current rules) we get a long-term visa or, a more permanent solution, a carte de sejour. There is much discussion about it on social media etc., but with no definitive facts yet everything is conjecture.  From what people are saying it seems a lot of Brits will be giving up cruising on the mainland which will probably give rise to a spike in secondhand boats for sale. 

We're assuming long-term visas will still be available so will apply when we’re in the UK at the end of the year; however, we will keep a weather eye open for developments.  This means we can steer clear of all the worrying about what might or might not change.  Much the same as our approach to the media hype around coronavirus.

Saturday was another spring-like day, it was also one of the two days a week the market is on in town, so we popped in to pick up some fruit and veg.  On the way we passed a big top that has been erected in the park next to the port.  It was clearly quite old judging by the wrought ironwork and wooden structure around the top. 

Antique big top
The big top was being used by an acrobatic dance troupe, consisting of many different nationalities who have come together to put on a show and tour it around Europe.

We finished the day watching the England-Wales game – here’s Lauren, Lewis and Ellis making it clear who they support.