Saturday, 21 September 2019

Mareuil-sur-Ay (vendanges, what vendanges?)

Cruising back through the vines
We went for a bike ride around Châlons-en-Champagne on Thursday morning which is rather a lazy way of giving Buddy a run.  While we were out my front brake stopped working so when we returned I looked at sorting out the problem while Karen popped into town to get a few bits and bobs.  Things have changed from the good old days of brake blocks; bikes nowadays seem to have disc brakes and are therefore more complicated.  It took a while but after loosening and tightening a few things with many different sized Allen keys I seem to have got the problem sorted.

I was just putting the bikes away on the boat bike rack when Nikki turned up.  She and a couple of other boats in the port were expecting a delivery of diesel and she wondered if we wanted to piggyback when the tanker arrived.  I had to laugh as their boat and the others would each be taking on around €1,500 worth of diesel whereas it costs less than €200 to fill ours up!  I said we were happy relying on the jerry can and trolley method.

We were moored next to an apple tree and as Nikki left, she and Karen went scrumping.  We had some blackberries in the freezer so Karen made a blackberry and apple crumble which I sampled later to confirm it was perfectly made ðŸ˜Š

Just down from our mooring we saw a heron standing in a tree; they always look so out of place when they perch like this:


After lunch we popped up to the port to see some of the people we had met when we moored up there a couple of weeks ago.  Guy & Arden were in, well they were outside busily scraping off varnish from their wheelhouse and getting ready to re-varnish before winter.  Guy is one of those people who seem to have every tool and every spare part you could ever need.  The outflow from our sink had started leaking recently and I needed a couple of ‘O’ rings to make sure the repair was effective.  Of course, I didn’t have either of the sizes I needed but, luckily, we were moored next to them at the time and Guy had what seemed like a suitcase full of ‘O’ rings, all sorted according to size.

We also went into the port office to confirm which pontoon we would be overwintering on.  Damian confirmed we would be on the one where we had hoped to be, the farthest finger pontoon overlooking the park and the river.  When we got back, we decided to go for a little cruise without any specific destination in mind.

Leaving town, we went over an aqueduct that crossed the now unused Canal St Martin which ran from the north of the town down to the River Marne.

Old canal cottage by the aqueduct
In keeping with our grand plan of stopping at new places on our way back down this canal we ended up mooring just after a lock at a small village called Vraux.  This was the lock that had a particularly fierce by-wash on our way up and made it difficult to get into the lock.  What it meant on Thursday night was that it made it sound like we were sleeping next to a waterfall all night which we both find really soothing.

Our waterfall (not so impressive in the picture!)
As we were approaching the bank, we could see lots of butterflies darting around.  Within five minutes of mooring up we had seen several common blues including a mating pair.  There were also a few clouded yellows and a couple of red admirals and small heaths as well as plenty of large, small and green veined whites.

Clouded yellows are one of those butterflies that are rarely seen with their wings open.  This is a shame as their upperwings are as stunning as the undersides.  Also, seeing the upper forewings is the best way to tell males and females apart.  There is a broad dark band along the leading edge on both genders, but females have yellow spots in the band.

You can see the start of the dark band as the wings are slightly open
Just after mooring up we received a phone call from Ken & Analise confirming we can borrow their narrowboat during January & February next year.  We were coming back to the UK for December anyway to rent the house in Harley Wintney that we have been lucky enough to rent for the family for the last four Christmas/New Years.  With a grandchild on the way we rather wanted to be around for longer over the winter period, so Karen had made enquiries about boat swaps and the like.

This lovely couple got in contact with her and are happy for us to live on their boat during those months as they are moving off for a while for guess what? Grandparenting duties as their daughter has gone back to work.  It is ideal as we can continuously cruise around the Newbury/Reading area, river levels and ice permitting, and be very close to many of the family.

Our Thursday night mooring
Buddy and I had a little walk along the towpath before dinner.  As we crossed the bridge over the tail of the lock, I saw rail lines showing through the tarmac.  As the gradient was fairly steep and the curves quite tight, I assumed they were probably an old tramway for small trucks operating in an out of a canal wharf.

Tracks on the road bridge
During Thursday we cruised 12 kilometres down two locks.

Friday was a run day for Karen and when she got back, we set of for our eight successive day of cruising.  It’s not quite as strenuous as it sounds as we have only been doing about ten kilometres and a lock or two a day.  While Karen was out the hotel boat, Hirondelle, came through and up the lock.  It turned out that this and hotel boat, C’est la Vie, were the only boats we saw on the move all day.

Wrapped up on Friday morning
As you can see, the guests on the front deck had hats and coats on.  We have noticed over the last few days, that even though the days are still very warm, the mornings can have a chill in them; we didn’t dispense with our fleeces until about 10 o’clock.

It wasn’t long before we were in Condé-sur-Marne where we had turned onto the Canal l’Aisne à la Marne and went to Reims for a few days a month or so ago.  The port at the junction looked like it was already full of winter moorers already.

Looking pretty full at the port
With canals closing through lack of water many people, like us, have been unable to get to their winter moorings.  They are all having to search out alternatives and we are still coming across people who haven’t been fortunate enough to find places with spaces.  It seems that some people are now heading for Belgium and the Netherlands instead.

We have noticed that there are many walnut trees in this area and have seen people bagging up the fallen nuts as we have cruised past.  It was rather reminiscent of watching the locals in Tuscany harvesting the sweet chestnuts on our road trip last year.  Nikki & Gorete have been drying and storing walnuts for a few years and have explained to us how to do it when we get around to harvesting some.

Young walnut trees on the way into Tours-sur-Marne
Passing through Tours-sur-Marne
The other thing we noticed as we cruised along were an unusual number of jays and also red squirrels.  Oh, and a VNF work boat – not a sight seen as often as you would expect.

VNF work boat
There’s a swing bridge in Bisseuil that’s operated like the locks; we twist a pole hanging over the water that sets the traffic lights, drops the barriers across the road and opens the bridge.  For some reason the bridge controls weren’t responding to the turn of the pole so we looked for somewhere to pull up, so we could call VNF.  Just as we found a bollard a VNF van turned up and the guy opened a control box and soon saw us through.

The swing bridge at Bisseuil
We moored up for lunch at the other side of the bridge on some new looking moorings opposite the mairie.

Moored for lunch opposite the church and mairie
We checked our internet over lunch, and it was only 3G so not good enough for watching this weekend’s big sports events.  We therefore decided to carry on to Mareuil-sur-Ay where we knew we could get 4G and thus good internet signal for live games.

Soon after lunch we were back in vineyard country but saw no sign of grape picking which should now be in full swing.  The vendanges started on 9th September this year and lasts for about three weeks.  The three different grape varieties used to make champagne are sometimes harvested at different times so maybe the vineyards we saw were from the variety picked last.  After mooring up for the day I checked the picking dates for the commune we are in (there are 319 Champagne communes) and all three varieties are allowed to be picked from 12th September this year.

We remembered that when we were camping around here last year we were warned to pitch our tent away from the grape pickers as they get up really early in the morning.  It was then that we realised that the picking would have finished for the day as it is done in the coolest part of the day.

Vineyards behind a lock cottage
We were soon approaching Mareuil-sur-Ay and hoped we could moor where we had moored on our way up.  That time we just slotted into a spot by the bandstand where a jazz set played during the evening so we got to listen for free 😉

Coming into Mareuil-sur-Ay
Rather nice house on the edge of town
Karen and Buddy had walked from the last lock and had come across a skip full of grape skins (or pomace).

The smell was quite overpowering and was almost vinegary
We were lucky and could see ‘our’ spot was free alongside the bandstand between a small cruiser and a Dutch barge lived on by a Dutchman, Philippe, who we met last time. The spot was about a metre longer than us so nice and cosy. I put the nose in first and Karen caught the bowline around a bollard so I could bring the back in.  It was just at that point a strong gust of wind started taking the back out across the cut and we were nearly at right angles before I could start bringing it back in.  All was well in the end and we were soon moored up.  The couple on the cruiser kindly moved forwards a couple of metres to give us some wiggle room too.

They turned out to be Czechs and we had a very stilted conversation.  They could only speak Czech and passable German but no French or English.  One of our sons went to university in the Czech Republic, or Czechia as it is now called, to study medicine.  Our eldest daughter studied German at university before going on to do a masters and her pHd in German related matters and now lectures in such topics.  Despite this we have no Czech and very little German so had to give up our attempted conversation with the Czech couple with a few hand waves.

Moored for Friday night at Mareuil-sur-Ay
Yes, I know we’re in a line of boats but somehow it seems quite secluded here.  We went for an obligatory evening walk around town and noticed all the champagne houses had shut for the day.  The streets outside them had been hosed down to remove the grape detritus and that same smell lingered everywhere.

On our return we bumped into Philippe and got chatting.  He told us that he has been moored in his spot for over a year and VNF have only just got in touch with him.  He wants to stay where he is if he can and it seems VNF will only charge him €50 a month to moor there.  The large white boat is in a similar situation but already pays €50 a month.  The people on the white boat also tap into the electricity in the streetlight which is something we have come across before. 

All the boats beyond the large white boat are a mixture of permanent boats and visitors but all have access to paid for water and electricity.  It got us thinking that we could have just left our boat here for the winter, especially moored next to Philippe; we both felt it was a very safe place.

The other thing we found out was that the skips of pomace are collected each day and taken to a village further down the canal to a plant that makes Ratafia, a liqueur that is slightly stronger than wine, more the strength of port.  Apparently, in the past, it was so heavily taxed that it was made for the vintners consumption only.

On Friday we covered 15 kilometres passing down two locks.

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