Flecknoe (missing being on board)

Before we left France at the end of November last year, we’d already decided to spend more time in the UK during 2024 than we've done in recent years.  This meant we would be leaving Chalkhill Blue for longer than normal during the winter period.  It doesn’t take long to winterise a narrowboat, unlike larger boats and barges; it takes less than 15 minutes to make sure all the batteries are isolated and charging from the solars, the water and gas are off and all water outlets are opened in case of freezing conditions.  Before setting off for the Eurotunnel, or LeShuttle as it’s now been rebranded, we had a final day in the port spending the time with our neighbours, Alistair and Sabine.     

During the morning, Alistair and I wandered up to the lock above our mooring to watch a passing commercial start its ascent up the flight of eight locks as it headed north towards Reims.  The boat was called Feeling and since we first saw it five years ago it has remained one of my favourite names for a péniche.  As Feeling entered the lock the lady on board climbed up the ladder at the side of the lock and disappeared into the village leaving her partner to bring the boat up.  He made short and effortless work of it on his own, having obviously done it countless times before.

Feeling looking like it won’t fit

The locks on the canals in this part of France are the smallest used by commercial craft and are built to the Freycinet standard introduced in 1879 to cater for 38.50m x 5.05m péniches.  The standard dictates that the Freycinet locks must be a minimum of 39.0 metres long and 5.20m wide to accommodate these barges.  It’s always amazing to us to see these boats skilfully brought into the locks without touching the sides.

As the lady went up the ladder the guy left his cabin and walked to the front to get a line over a bollard as the boat slowly made its way forward.

Getting his line on

He then kept the line taught as the boat neared the far gates under its own momentum:

Nearly in

The boat came to a halt inches from the cill and the guy went back to his cabin while the gates closed behind him, the lock started filling and the boat rose.

Just enough room

The lady’s timing was impeccable, returning as the boat started leaving the lock through the now opened top lock gates.  It then became clear where she'd been as she had an armful of baguettes.  As we said our farewells, I noticed the guy was wearing slip-ons and I had to admit I was surprised as I certainly wouldn’t feel safe walking along the gunwales in that type of shoe.

It was also the end of November so not exactly sock-free weather!

A few days after returning to the UK I received an alert from the French rivers and canal authority (VNF) that a lock on the Rhine was out of action as a boat had crashed into the top gates.  The control of the driver here was clearly totally in contrast to that of the guy on Feeling that we'd watched a few days previously.  Researching a little further I found out that the boat was the 110m long La Primavera that we'd encountered a couple of times on the Moselle in the past.

What happens when it goes wrong…
…and from another angle

Fortunately, the locks on the Rhine are in pairs so at least traffic could continue whilst the gates were repaired, albeit with some hold ups while boats had to wait their turn in the backlog caused by only having one lock in operation.  Amazingly, La Premavera was practically undamaged and was able to continue its journey.  What was also amazing was the speed that stop gates were put in so that the damaged gates could be removed awaiting replacement.

Stop gate installed on the same day

Later I found out that the lady driving the boat was intoxicated and, as the German police reported, she had clearly had more than a bottle of beer.  How true it is I don’t know but an article in a German paper suggested that the gates would cost  around €1.5M to repair.

Soon after returning home we were off again, this time to spend Christmas in Norway for the wedding of Matthew, Karen’s oldest son, to his Norwegian partner, Veronika.  It was a traditional Norwegian affair which, although being quite different to weddings we’re used to, was a wonderful occasion and we were warmly accepted by Vero’s family whom we were meeting for the first time. 

One of the reasons we’d decided to spend longer in the UK during 2024 is because we’d moved to Flecknoe in Warwickshire at the beginning of last year and had spent very little time there.  In the short time we were there we realised that we’d made the right choice buying a house in the village as we’ve been made to feel most welcome and love the variety of country walks available to us from our doorstep.  We’ve also got involved in various village activities including being members of our pub’s ladies and men’s skittle teams.  Our teams are in the local league which has three divisions for the ladies and the same for the men.  Currently we men are at the bottom of the lowest division and the ladies are doing well in the first division.

Karen practising at our local
Action shot from a match at The Friendly at Frankton

Karen is a better player than I am and to put the difference in context, in addition to our teams being at opposite ends of their respective leagues, she plays every week whereas I sometimes get dropped.  A skittle table has come up for sale in a pub in Braunston, the teams that currently use it are transferring to another pub there that already has a table hence this one becoming available.  In the interests of retaining some fascinating history (as well as improving my game 😉) I’ve bought it and will be picking it up at the end of the season.

Another reason for wanting to spend more time in the UK is because of our ever-expanding number of grandchildren.  In February our sixth, Emmy, was born to Polly and Lochlann who’d recently moved to the Welsh valleys.  With our seventh grandchild due in June, a family holiday in August and a further one in October celebrating my 70th it looks like being a busy family year. 

Although we’re going to be busy at home this year, we have booked some time in Malta at the beginning of May and hope to spend a couple of weeks or so in July visiting Matthew and Vero in Norway.  As for France, we’ll have a couple of trips this year; going out in May for five weeks or so and then again in September.  The first trip will be to move the boat up to the German border near Saarbrücken, where we’ve hired a dry dock so we can black the underside of the boat during our second trip to France.  We haven’t yet worked out what we’ll do once we’ve blacked the boat but that doesn’t matter as it’s six months away yet.

As for butterflies, it’s been a slow start to the year and at the time of writing we’ve only seen brimstones, small tortoiseshells and a peacock on the wing.  Brimstones were first on 17th March when we saw a couple of dozen on an unusually warm day compared with the dismally wet start we’ve had to 2024.

The next update should be heading its way to the blog next month, hopefully from sunny France.

Condé-sur-Marne (avoiding Ciarán)


Looking across the ‘teeth’ of Montserrat in Catalonia

After just over a week in Spain it felt like our few nights in Avignon on the way down were an age ago.  We stayed in a villa at a place called Corbera de Llobregat which is in the hills to the east of Barcelona about an hour’s drive from the city centre.  Other than one obligatory trip into the city we spent the time relaxing and walking in the hills.  Catherine, our daughter who lives in Barcelona, was able to take some time off work and joined us for a few days too.  The weather, compared to that we left behind at the boat, was generally sunny and warm and even I spent time in the pool.  

A church we stumbled across on a hill during another walk
A view of Montserrat mountain during one of our hill walks

There were plenty of butterflies on the wing and it was good to see large numbers of clouded yellows.  These butterflies are usually abundant in France, but we’d see very few this year and were quite concerned about the apparent drop off in numbers.  We also saw some European species we hadn’t managed to see this year including the stunning cleopatra.  The cleaopatra is the same shape and colour as the brimstone, one of the harbingers of spring in the UK, but has a deep orange flush across its upper forewings making it very distinctive.  Lang’s short-tailed blues, another non-UK species, were also plentiful during our walks in the hills and we also saw a couple of bath whites, a species that is an extremely rare migrant to the UK.  

Lang’s short-tailed blue

One day we visited the Montserrat mountain which was an hour’s drive further inland from the villa.  The day we’d planned to make the trip dawned overcast and wet, the only day we saw any rain whilst we’d been away, so we delayed the trip to the following day and had some great views on our way up.  The mountain had a most peculiar shape unlike any of the other mountains around and at a little short of 1,300 metres was almost as high as Ben Nevis.  The shape was reminiscent of a set of teeth hence the derivation of its name: serrated mountain.  We drove part way up and parked at a monastery, a popular tourist attraction claiming over two million visitors a year.  A funicular railway took us even further up, so we cheated a bit by starting our climb at around 600 metres although we took a circular walk avoiding the funicular on the descent. 

On our way up

Considering the number of tourists at the monastery level the mountain walk was surprisingly quiet; we’d been expecting a procession as we’ve found on the popular walks like Snowdon, Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike in the UK.

Still happy at the 1,000-metre mark

As can be seen in the next picture, the rock formation was a conglomerate and looked very much like lumps of limestone and other types of rocks had been mixed together in concrete.

At the summit

We left Spain on Sunday and drove to the hilltop town of Duras in south-west France where we were staying for a few nights before returning to the boat.  With just a few hours of rain on one morning since we started our little holiday-tour 11 days previously we realised how fortunate we’ve been to have avoided the effects of storm Ciarán which seems to have affected much of the UK and northern Europe.  Mind you, the forecast for our stay in Duras was for cooler weather and rain so maybe our luck was running out.   

We stayed in a bastide on the edge of Duras with wonderful views across the Garonne valley.  As well as some sightseeing walks we met up with good boating friends Mike and Aileen who now live a few kilometres away from Duras.  They’d taken their narrowboat to France three years before us so were able to provide a lot of practical input when we started planning our adventure.  It was great to spend time with them and see the beautiful home they’ve made in France.  It was also the only day we ended up having rain but we managed to have a dry window to have a good walk with them.

Duras château dating from the 12th century
Duras mairie
All that remains of the town’s fortifications – the porte de l’Horloge
Duras war memorial

Wednesday was back to boat day and after ten hours on the road, we arrived in Condé-sur-Marne to find Chalkhill Blue safe and sound moored alongside Alistair and Sabine on their narrowboat Vector.  My first job was to get the stove lit while Karen took Buddy for a short walk.  When they returned, Buddy was soaked through; he’d been drinking water at his favourite watering hole between the boat and the lock when, uncharacteristically, he’d slipped and fallen completely in.  Other than standing in shallow water to cool down he really doesn’t like getting wet, let alone swim, but fortunately Karen had him on his lead and she was able to drag him out.

After warming the boat up and sorting Buddy out we emptied the car during which time I noticed that we’d driven 2,900km (1,800 miles) during our two-week holiday.  Once we’d settled in, it felt good to be back on board and we were able to reflect on what a fabulous time we’d had away.  With a week to go before returning to the UK for a few months it’s going to be a busy few days doing all the chores that always need to be done before leaving the boat for a while.  On top of that we really have to sort out what we’re going to do during 2024 in terms of splitting our time between France and the UK.

As I mentioned above, we’re moored up with another narrowboat, so it feels almost as if we’re on a canal in the UK, especially with our stoves going:

Chalkhill Blue and Vector

We toyed with the idea of having a little cruise for a few days but the weather really wasn’t conducive for it so we stayed in Condé for the rest of the week.  It wasn’t all chores as we socialised with our neighbours and still had cricket world cup matches to listen to.  One or two commercials came past each day, but we saw no pleasure boats on the move.

A laden Dahna passing early on Friday morning