Monday, 15 July 2019

Trilbardou (I now hate Jospa)

What's going on here then?
The Canal de l’Ourcq is unlike the other French waterways we have been on in that it is administered by the Mairie de Paris rather than the VNF.  This also applies to the two other Parisian canals, St Denis and St Martin.  This became an important point later in the day on Saturday.  Whilst talking about the canal I should mention an incongruity: it has an abundance of moorings bollards.  Every lock, town and village has them and more than enough for several boats. This is incongruous as most canals are not equipped like this but, unlike this one, have plenty of traffic that would demand them.

We were heading for Meaux on Saturday, the town where the famous Brie de Meaux originates.  It was another one of those half cloud/half sun days, so the parasols were up and down and thankfully it wasn’t too hot either.

Interesting vegetation hanging down at our first bridge
Another difference we have noticed is that every bridge has a nameplate together with its associated pk distance from La Villette where the canal starts in Paris.

Something else we haven't come across before are the French road-like village/town start/end signs 
The locks we have encountered so far have all been boater operated with our large Ourcq key but the control mechanisms seem to be different at each lock, so you have to keep your wits about you.

Turn the key in the top keyhole, when the light goes out move to the second, when that light goes out then drive the boat out of the lock. Simple!

Karen laughing as this control panel was different
We saw a few of these – were they seats for resting while watching the boats?
Gongoozlers at every bridge
One thing I forgot to mention when we were coming out through the Paris suburbs was a stretch of a couple of kilometres where a wall had been set aside for taggers.  I’ll try and remember to take a picture on our way back down but there really were some impressive tags.  It was good to see graffiti almost cordoned into an ‘allowed’ area rather than randomly sprayed on anything that would take paint.  We saw several taggers at work on our way up and were surprised that they weren’t all youths – our fault for generalising (or tagging 😉) the age of graffiti artists.

Anyway, one of the taggers went by the name Jospa and, unfortunately, hasn’t just used the authorised wall.  It seems that every bridge hole and other likely spot since we left Paris has been visited by him/her.  Even places a few kilometres from the nearest town or village haven’t gone unscathed – hence the subtitle of this blog entry.

Not a particularly inspiring tag either
We passed several moorhen nests with eggs in, not unusual except these were all on floating islands of vegetation.  Thankfully we didnt knock into any.

One of the moorhen nests
After our first lock we noticed the channel was getting shallower and we made very slow progress for most of the day and it seemed to take all day to reach Meaux.

Shallow waters
Meaux cathedral – must be nearly there
We came to a large basin in what is probably downtown Meaux and moored up on a couple of the dozen or so conveniently sited bollards and went for a walk around the town.  Our first port of call was the River Marne to have a look at the moorings there.  We will be coming through here in a couple of weeks so it’s always good to know what’s available.

Plenty of space on the town moorings on the river
We got chatting to PJ & Dieter on the rather nice blue Dutch barge above and it transpired that Karen & Dieter had been exchanging ideas about places to moor on the Marne.  This was in response to a question Karen posted on a group called Women on Barges.  The members of the group call themselves WOBs and have their own flag which you may have noticed has joined our French courtesy flag at the front of our boat.  Of course, the flags are a great way of breaking the ice when you meet another boat with one on.

We spent a while on board with PJ & Dieter and Dieter insisted we took a selfie, but as you can see we’re not the selfie-skilled generation.

Clearly not the right generation to take selfies
Another view of Meaux
We popped into the tourist office to see if they had leaflets for a self-guided tour.  They didn’t but the guy took ages to explain, via a map, where we should go.  He was very patient because of our French and we started to feel uncomfortable because of the long queue of tourists that built up behind us.

The tourist office with its own Brie de Meaux exhibition and tasting room
When we returned to the boat, we decided to carry on another few kilometres and find a more rural spot and headed for the WWI museum which is based to the west of Meaux.

Leaving Meaux basin with all its bollards
Another odd thing about this canal is the money that must have been spent on tree planting.  It seems that every stretch that wasn’t lined by natural woodland had been planted with avenue type trees.

Moored for Saturday night (we thought) near the WWI museum
After we’d settled down and Karen had started preparing dinner a car pulled up right alongside us and a couple of very animated men jumped out and started speaking rapidly in French at us.  It didn’t help our understanding because they were both so excited that they kept interrupting and speaking over each other.  It was obvious that they were saying the canal was closed because of the low water levels and that we should turn around and go back to Paris.

I wasn’t convinced about them as they weren’t in any recognisable uniform, so I asked to see their id.  It transpired that Christian and Didier both worked for the Mairie de Paris and this was when it dawned on us that VNF weren’t involved.  I explained that we hadn’t received an email about the closure, and they said that wasn’t the way things worked on this canal.  We were a little shocked that there had been no warning or even signage at previous locks.

After the excitement died down, they said that we should proceed to the next lock and spend the night in it as that would be the safest place.  Fortunately, it was only just over a kilometre away but seemed to take forever to get there due to the low water.  In places we had to reverse many times before we could find a clear channel.  At least the water was getting clearer, so Karen kept a look out in front where she also had to use the barge pole numerous times to help get us off the silted up areas.

We have to admit to being very disappointed that we obviously weren’t going to get near the end of the canal but consoled ourselves that we would just make it over halfway along the 108 kilometres.  If conditions were right, we would still love to try another time though.

When we reached the lock, we spun the boat around in front of the weir alongside it, then reversed in and Didier and Christian were there to help us moor up.  Didier was a canal mechanic and lived in the lock house so I asked him if we could use his water supply.  He was more than willing to let us and while we were filling up he arrived with some brie.  His wife worked in a fromagerie where they make three different types of brie and this was the most local and it tasted delicious.

Moored for the night in St-Lazare lock
As it was the night before the French National Day (or Bastille day as the Brits call it) there were two firework displays in Meaux, both starting at 11pm.  The guys told us that if we stood on the boat, we would be able to see both displays.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see a lot as there were too many trees obscuring our view.

During Saturday we cruised 17 kilometres up three locks.

Beautiful morning on Sunday if a rather odd location
We left our overnight mooring in the lock about 10 on Sunday morning and, as expected, there were very few people around.  It sounded like the National Day celebrations had gone on very late into the early hours and no doubt there were some sore heads around.

The pound was noticeably low, it was very slow going and we had a few awkward moments before we got to the bridge that we knew would give us trouble.  The moments were awkward because it’s not so easy to go very slow when heading downstream because of the current.  We needed to go slowly so that we could stop as soon as we felt we were rising up on silt otherwise the back end would soon drift onto the obstruction.

With Karen acting as lookout at the front, we arrived at the road bridge and tried to guide ourselves away from the silted areas, but we finally got caught.  Fortunately, a crowd didn’t turn up as they must have still been in bed but one guy hung around shouting out what we should be doing.  There’s nothing more annoying than someone trying to tell you what to do (whether they know or not) when you are doing exactly what they are suggesting.  I kept my cool and said thank you and he left.

After 15 minutes or so of us rocking and poling at front, back and centre the guy returned saying he had called the pompiers.  In no time at all, three pompiers turned up and we threw them three lines as we felt a sideways and forward motion would free us (that explains the picture at the top).

The guys were more than happy to do this and were just about to start when their boss turned up and immediately stopped proceedings. This really was French bureaucracy at its best as he insisted that we needed frogmen to check the underside of the boat before anything could be done.

That’s the boss leaning into his car on the bridge radioing his base
This was quickly followed by five gendarmes turning up in cars and then two more on bicycles.  One of the gendarmes then started taking details from us ready for their report including our movements for the last four days!

Five gendarmes turning up
I had of course suggested they contact the navigation control centre so that more water could be let down the lock a kilometre away.  Apparently this would normally be the procedure, but as it was 14th July then it wasn’t possible

Two hours later the frogmen turned up and a collapsible ladder was taken out of their dingy.  These two guys were quickly down the ladder and walking over towards us.

It’s only a metre deep at the most!
The two guys then circled the boat, checking all along the sides and then returned to the back where they stood up and pushed it out into the channel.  This was exactly what I was going to do next if it hadn’t all got taken out of our hands – it wasn’t as if the water was cold either 😉

Swimming in less than a metre of water
At the busiest point we had seven gendarmes, two pompier frogmen and five other pompiers - not a bad turnout for July 14th.  They were all jovial and seemed to enjoy the whole exercise and it was certainly a great opportunity to practice our French and we found out that at least two of the guys hadn’t even been to bed after the celebrations of the previous night!

Once we were free, we were off again and had no more problems until we stopped for fuel and lunch at the same place as we had stopped on our way up yesterday.  I took two jerry cans down to the petrol station and was all set for filling them up when the cashier appeared to tell me that their regulations don’t allow them to sell loose fuel at the weekends.  I’ve not come across this before so not sure if it was a rule in Meaux or the fuel company or that I’ve never tried to get fuel at a weekend.

Back on the boat and we were having lunch when Didier and Christian (the Mairie de Paris guys) turned up in a car and said we need to get moving and through the next two locks before we could moor up.  We acceded and off we went.  They stayed with us the whole way, driving extremely slowly along the towpath for about 12 kilometres.  They were very apologetic and operated both the locks for us.  They clearly weren’t going to leave us until they knew we were in a safe pound.

Back in deeper water with with WOBs and French flags proudly flying  
We finally moored back at Trilbardou at the spot where the water was being pumped in from the River Marne down below.  At least we felt safe and now need to work out what we are going to do with all those spare days we now have.  Still, at least we managed to cover just over half the length of the Canal de l’Ourcq which not many people can lay claim to 😊

So we had a few incidents over these last two days but still feel happy and so glad we're having this adventure.  The only real downside was when we put up the homemade mosquito nets over the doors, hatches and windowholes in the evening.  Karen found one was missing and we have no idea where it went as neither of us remember removing it during the morning😕

On Sunday we cruised back another 17 kilometres down two locks.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Charmentray (The Parisian Rochdale nine)

One of the Parisian canal tunnels – the 2km Voûte de la Bastille
The weather on Thursday was forecast to be 29 but overcast, thus ideal for cruising without the heat of the sun.  We pottered around Arsenal and the boat until Matthew left just before lunch and arranged to leave the Arsenal at 1.30.  We were heading up the rest of the Canal St Martin and then onto the Canal de l’Ourcq through the eastern suburbs and beyond.

About to leave our secure mooring for the last three days
We had to cruise down to the other end of the Arsenal basin, away from the Seine, and through some tunnels under the areas called Bastille and République.  The tunnels, even though wide, are operated as one-way because of the larger passenger trip boats and the odd commercial that use them.

Waiting for the lights to change so we can enter the tunnel
It’s amazing that the low wide span of the stone roofs hold up but they seemed OK as we went through.  The tunnels were brightly lit as is usually the French way and it was strange having our shadow travelling with us

Karen's shadow taking a picture of our silhouette
There was a double staircase lock at the far end, and we were immediately reminded of the Rochdale Nine: the nine locks that run under many commercial buildings in the centre of Manchester.  We also had nine locks to go up.

Temple staircase locks – the start of the Paris Nine
One immediate differentiator from the Rochdale Nine was that all the locks were gated and fenced off from the public.  With the tourists watching from afar and on the footbridges, we rather felt like zoo animals.

Gongoozlers at every bridge
With the feisty locks and so many onlookers we were on our best lock ascending performance to make sure we didn’t lose control or move about.  The stretches between the locks reminded us more of Camden than Manchester with all the cafes and bars and people sitting on the sides dangling their feet in the water.

Paris Camden
At one of the locks we had to complete some paperwork to explain where we were headed and also to be given a key.  The locks further up the Ourcq are operated by the boater as so few boats use the canal it doesn’t pay to have lock keepers.  The key seemed enormous, but I suppose there’s less chance of losing it.

The Ourcq lock key
Going into the final lock felt more like the Rochdale flight, with the long road tunnel and a tram passing overhead.

The final lock
After the final lock we found ourselves in a large basin called la Villette which was open to the public on both sides with plenty of water sports, shops and bars, more reminiscent of travelling through Birmingham.

Distance and time sign at the entrance to La Villette
The signboard lists places on the Parisian canals, their distances and approximate travelling time.  Providing we have time we will travel to the farthest extreme, Port aux Perches, 108 km away.  I say have time as, once again, we have a time constraint; we are going back to the UK at the beginning of August for our annual family camping trip to Gordale Scar in the Yorkshire Dales.  Yes, I know we have known about this for ages, but Karen has just found out that our car MoT expires at the back end of July, so this means we now have to go back a little earlier than planned.

La Villette basin – water sports behind the yellow floating pontoons
Although it was a cloudy day it was very warm and muggy, and we passed several crowded makeshift lidos in the side of the canal full of people cooling down.

At the far end of the basin is a footbridge (or passerelle) that lifts up as boats approach.  We don’t quite understand the design as there is also an up and over footbridge above it.

The raised Passerelle de la Crimée
Just after the passerelle is the junction with the Canal St Denis which heads west down to join the Seine at the far side of Paris.  We were now at the end of the Canal St Martin and joining the Canal de l’Ourcq which we shall be on for the next week or so.

St Denis/l’Ourcq junction
The first 11 km of the Ourcq is wide and still used by commercials of which we only saw a couple.  What we did come across were countless motorboats with families and groups of youngsters enjoying an hour or two on the water with picnics etc.  At times they became a bit annoying as they would travel without looking and suddenly cross our path.  Several times Karen had to go to the front to warn them to keep out of our way.

Motorboats buzzing around like flies
The Ourcq was built as a water supply for Paris and, apart from the widened first 11km, is narrow gauged and consequently not accessible for most pleasure boats cruising the French waterways.  The locks are also the narrowest in France, some down to just over three metres wide which is another reason many boats cannot use it.

Because the canal is a water supply, it has a constant flow which, at 1km/hour is quite noticeable.  It rather reminded us of the Llangollen canal in North Wales which is a water supply for the Shropshire Union and also has a constant flow.

A few times the canal was cordoned off for water sports for the local children and the organisers would have to paddle around moving the floating pontoons aside for us to pass through.

Waiting for the floating barrier to be removed
Once on the narrow section it seemed everyone was coming out to see and wave at us making us feel like we were famous.  It was early evening by the time we reached the first lock at Sevray and we decided to moor for the night just below it.  Karen sensibly pointed out that as it was late, we probably wouldn’t be able to call for assistance if anything went wrong with the lock controls.

Sevray is right on the outskirts of Paris where the apartment blocks had given way to houses and it was beginning to feel more like a French village with families walking up and down the canal in the evening sun.  Talking to several people we found that pleasure boats are very rare, but they love to see the boats hence the welcome we were getting.

Thursday night mooring at Sevray - more like a UK canal in its narrowness
The banks also became lined with casual fishermen and every so often their children and/or wives would come out and sit with them for a while.

By the time we moored up on Thursday we had cruised 18 kilometres up eight locks.

As we were only 15 kilometres from the centre of Paris, many people seemed to be using the cycle path next to our mooring to get to work when we awoke on Friday morning.  After Karen and Buddy returned from their morning run, we set off for the day.  Just around the corner was our first lock on this canal for which we needed the big key to operate it.

Moored up in the first lock
Karen followed all the instructions for using the key and when to move it from one position to the next.  All worked perfectly and we were soon up and out.  What we couldn’t work out was why the lock was so long.

Coming up an extra-long lock
There are many low bridges on this canal which is yet another reason why most pleasure boats cannot use it. 

Not the lowest on this canal but lower than we’ve seen for a while
As I started to explain earlier, this canal was built to supply water to Paris.  Originally this was for drinking water but nowadays the water is used for cleaning things like sewers, drains and gutters.  In fact, it supplies half of Paris’s non-drinking water needs.  The canal is 108 kilometres long and is primarily fed from water diverted from the River Ourcq but along the way it is fed by several other small rivers and streams.

On top of that, three pumping stations were built to pump water by steam engine up from the River Marne.  It was the first of those pumping stations that we were heading for today.  The original steam engines have been replaced by electric pumps but at least the facilities are still in use.

We stopped for lunch at the first town outside of Paris, Claye-Souilly, where there were some moorings next to a service point.  We checked to see if there was a water supply but there wasn’t which was a shame as we will be needing some by the time we come back down.  We have also heard that there may not be any other water points on the rest of the canal either.

Moored for lunch

The grand town hall opposite our lunchtime mooring spot

The largest insectivorium we have seen (in the town hall gardens)
The second lock of the day was a lot shorter but still almost wide enough for two narrowboats.  We got chatting with the lady who lives in the old lock cottage as she came out to look at our boat.  She explained that we were only the third pleasure boat to come up the canal this year; the only other traffic being kayaks and the occasional canal maintenance boat.

A more normal sized lock
Not far from the second lock we came across some, what looked like, abandoned barges.  These will probably be the only boats we will see for the next few days as the lady told us that the other two pleasure boats had already gone back to Paris.

We certainly felt the current against us as we made our way along and could also feel that the canal was quite shallow in places.  Saying that though, it was lovely and peaceful, and we rather felt like we were back on a canal in the UK as it was so narrow, apart from the fact there were no other boats moored or moving.

Home from home
We finally arrived at Charmentray and moored up next to where the water was being pumped up from the Marne below us.  We went down to the pumping station to find out when it was open only to find that it is only open four days a year and we won’t be around on those days.  When Mike & Aileen came here, they were lucky enough to see a workman wandering around the grounds and he let them have an unofficial look around.  We will pop down again in the morning to see if we can have the same fortune.  if we're still unlucky we could always try again when we travel up the Marne in a couple of weeks. 

The pumping station at Charmentray
As far as nature is concerned we have both noticed two things peculiar to this canal compared with the other French canals and rivers we have been on.  Firstly, the waterfowl. I have mentioned before that we have seen few ducks, swans and geese even in towns where they are likely to congregate for feeding by humans.  This canal has many and the the duck families are large in that more than one or two ducklings seemed to have survived from the first broods this year.  They are also terrified of our boat but I suppose that's not surprising with the paucity of boat traffic.

Secondly, butterflies.  It almost felt like we saw more butterflies today than we have since we have been here.  I know that's not really true, but the banks really have been alive with them.  Mainly those from the white family as well as those from the blues, brown and vanessid (e.g. peacock, red admiral and comma) families.  We also saw the occasional scarce swallowtail and several large, unidentified in the main, fritillaries.

Our mooring for Friday night
During Friday we cruised 25 kilometres which is a lot for us on a canal and we went up two locks.