Wednesday 31 October 2018

Priest Holme (winter’s on its way – waking up to ice on the windows)

Gardening on our Tuesday night mooring on Priest Holme aqueduct

Neither of us like to sleep in a warm bedroom so, when the stove is on, we keep the door through to the rest of the boat closed during the night.  We also like to have air circulating so have a door open to the cratch.  All this means that on frosty nights we wake up to ice on the inside of the windows like when we were younger before houses generally had central heating; Monday morning was one of those mornings.  Of course, this means that Buddy, who sleeps next to the stove, gets an extra cosy night’s sleep with our door shut.

Sun’s up on Monday morning and the frost has gone on our mooring at Skipton junction
Our first task on Monday was to walk to the vets and get Buddy checked out following our recent trip abroad.  We also needed to discuss the options for a no deal Brexit as, if that happens, then he will need some tests done three months before we leave.  We left it that we will pay another visit in December when we come back up north for a couple of days to see my parents.

The next big job was to get a few bags of compost and some winter plants as we want to get the boat pots potted up ready for winter cruising.  As we had the car we paid a trip to a garden centre and then managed to find a spot in the car park next to our mooring to get the car unloaded.   

After visiting both my parents during the day, the final main task was to leave the car at their house in Gargrave and walk back to the boat.  The sun was still out and, even though there was a chill wind, it was a pleasant five mile walk along the towpath. We are now free to cruise without having to worry about the logistics involved in having a vehicle when you’re a continuous cruiser, such as where to moor that is handy to leave a car for a few days. 

Tuesday was a cruising day and we set off just after eight.  The locks at Gargrave and several other flights on the Leeds & Liverpool are still subject to water restrictions and are padlocked from 4.00 pm until 10.00am.  That left us two hours to travel the four miles or so to the bottom lock at Gargrave.  Sounds like loads of time, but there are five swing bridges to negotiate and we weren’t in a hurry, so we didn’t arrive until about 10.15.

Leaving Skipton under grey skies

Looking back at the junction having just passed restored ‘short boat’, Kennet
The first swing bridge is in the town centre and we expected it to be busy with commuters coming into town.  Karen didn’t set the lights and bring the barriers down until the road was clear.  When I went through there were just a couple of cars waiting but by the time Karen had got the barriers lowered and the bridge swung back into place she reckoned there were about two dozen cars waiting to come through.  As she remarked, “No one gave her hassle and they probably all know that it’s a short cut that may end up not being so”. 

The second swing bridge, by Airedale Park, is always problematic to operate and Karen has always had to get help on each of the six occasions we have been through.  You may ask why I don’t get off and help but it’s really difficult to moor on the side where the bridge swings – a scourge of the single-handers.

Karen getting help at Gawflat swing bridge
Even though it was grey, the rain kept away but I was really feeling the cold.  It’ll only take a day or two before I get used to wearing the right gear for standing still on the back of an open boat in cold wind and rain.  As long as we’re not bitterly cold we love winter cruising and are really looking forward to the next few weeks getting down to Aylesbury. 

Just before Niffany swing bridge we passed a hire boat just casting off and, as they were heading in our direction, we invited them to join us up the locks when we got there.  They were really pleased as it was their first hire boat holiday and they were feeling very nervous.

Niffany swing bridge (a different hire boat on the left rather selfishly moored overnight on the bridge landing) 
Karen had been walking with Buddy from Skipton but got on at Thorlby swing bridge as she wanted to get the evening meal set in the slow cooker (pulled pork 😊).

Waiting for Karen to get aboard
She seemed to disappear for a while and then I realised she had popped into the farm to buy some eggs.  When we were moored at Thorlby over the summer we always got our eggs from the farm there.

One of the jobs we had done on the boat whilst we were away on holiday was to get a bracket mounted on the tiller, so we could fly the Red Ensign.

Not tied properly yet, but it proves it works
We won’t be flying it over here, but it is a must in France where all boats, inland or coastal have to fly the flag of their country of origin.

Another job we had done was to have a plate attached to each of the rear dollies; these are a pre-requisite for using lines in the generally deeper French locks.

Rear dolly extension with a neat hole for fuel tank breather
We also had double dollies bolted to the gunwales in the cratch.  These are needed for the same reasons but two are recommended because of the way narrowboats have to be held in gear in the locks.

 New front dollies
They look like real obstacles but it’s surprising how quickly you get used to avoiding them

We arrived at the bottom lock of the Gargrave flight (Holme Bridge lock) at 10.15 with the hire boat family.  A girl that I knew was waiting at the lock landing and it transpired that she had just got a job with the hire boat company and helped the hirers up the first couple of locks.

Successfully ascended their first lock
We did the next two locks together and then left them in the middle of Gargrave as their central heating wasn’t working properly and an engineer was coming out to fix it.  Karen had asked one of the children if they moaned because it was cold and she told her that they love the outside as they are scouts and camp in all weathers, but it’s the parents who complain.

We knew there were no other boats on the way so went up the last three locks on our own.  Karen found what she called, ’blog material’ at Anchor lock.  My sister, who had been visiting my parents last week, had been for a walk along the cut and saw rather a lot of water escaping through the lock sides so she and Nigel reported it to CRT.

The workmen seemed to be spending their time staring at the ground:


They had injected polyfoam into some of the holes during the week and that hadn’t cured it.  We had seen that being used successfully on the Curly Wurlies above Bank Newton in the summer but this was the first time these guys had used it.  You can’t see in the pictures but mounds were rising on the lock side where the foam was expanding upwards rather than downwards.

When we went through they were back to the old fashioned method of pouring in practically pure cement:

After the last lock we reached Priest Holme aqueduct where we planned to moor for the night.  There are a couple of mooring spots on the offside that always seem to have boats there, so we never managed to moor there in the summer.  We were lucky today and one of the spots was free. Offside mooring is always good as, generally, there is no footpath and consequently there are no passers-by.  

Karen had put a picture of our mooring up on Facebook and, David, one of our boater friends immediately recognised it and said it was one of the best spots on the system.

The River Aire from the aqueduct with the sun setting on the distant hills

Not easy to get a picture with the aqueduct in because of the trees
Wednesday will see us heading off through the Bank Newton and Barrowford flights of locks with the beautiful Curly Wurlys between them.

Monday 29 October 2018

Skipton (cruised a whole 80 yards)

Getting tanked up on Sunday
We were up and leaving Soissons at about nine on Thursday morning.  We were about 15 miles from the A26 motorway which is also known as l’Autoroute d’Anglais as it runs all the way to Calais and the majority of cars seem to be Brits.  It was an easy 150 miles to the tunnel so it didn’t take too long to get there.

There is a counter in the pet reception area that counts the number of animals to pass through the tunnel from France to England starting at midnight each day.  We couldn’t believe that Buddy was the 197th pet through and it wasn’t even midday.  Mind you there was a constant stream of dogs when we were in the reception area even though the car park was practically empty when we first arrived.

The newly renovated pet reception area at Calais

Who is this sign aimed at?
After Buddy had his chip and passport checked we were soon on our way again.  We had booked an open return as we didn’t know when we would be coming back so that meant we were able to get complimentary food and drinks etc. in the lounge.  One of the trolley dollies (I’ve no idea what channel tunnel stewardesses are called 😊) took a shine to Buddy and I had to stop her giving him biscuits.

Buddy being good for Nathalie
After coming out of the tunnel we headed cross-country to visit friends in Canterbury.  After only 10 minutes we passed a post box, and automatically we both turned to each other and said ‘GR’.  We had both naturally fallen back into Victorian post boxes even though we had been away over two months 😊  [GR stands for King George (George Rex to be precise) and was the cypher used for George V]

Ironically, before we got to Trevor and Brigitte’s house we actually saw a VR box, just 30 minutes after arriving in the country!  We had a pleasant catch up with Trevor and Brigitte; Brigitte is French so they were particularly keen to understand our plans for travelling around France from next year.

Next stop was Reading as we were stopping over with Lauren (my middle daughter) and Lewis.  My other daughters, Sophie & Polly came around for dinner with their partners (Yanos & Lochlann).

As it was the day before my birthday they had prepared a special cake for me.  A dinner plate with artistically arranged squares of chocolate, jam tarts, caramel tarts, raspberries and clotted cream – my sort of cake 😊

My find of cake 😊
On Friday morning Catherine (Karen’s eldest girl) joined us and after lunch all the girls set off for a country house they, and 14 others, had hired in Herefordshire for Lauren’s hen weekend.  We set off for Wendover to spend a night with Karen’s mum, Ann.  We took a back roads route and each found a new VR box on the way.

Poor Ann gets all our mail and there was rather a lot as we hadn’t picked any up for three months and we had ordered quite a few things, including stuff for going to France next year. 

Of course, by now, we were getting excited to be nearly home and we set off on Saturday morning on our last leg, 200 miles up the M1.

We got back to the boat soon after lunch and were pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t in too bad a state.  The plants were in full bloom when we left back in August and so we knew they would be dead when we returned with no one looking after them but we rather thought they would be strewn all over the roof.

Back at our mooring for the last couple of months on the Springs branch in Skipton
The afternoon was spent in warming up the boat and unloading the car.  In the evening we met up with my youngest brother and my sister to catch up on the latest with my parents.  We went to the Beer Engine which was only about a minute’s walk away, so we didn’t have to worry about driving 😉

It was so good to be back in our own bed again after so long and we did sleep rather well on Saturday night.  Buddy was also really pleased to be home.  For a while he was spinning around on his bed, then running up to us to tell us how happy he was to be home, then going back to his bed and so on backwards and forwards.  Even with the extra hour in bed I still had to wake him up at 9.30 in the morning!

On Sunday morning Karen went off to run some errands around Skipton and I took the boat for a cruise to the boatyard.  This was all of about four boat lengths so not one of our longer cruises.  Mind you, it did involve a bit of manoeuvring to get over the other side of the cut to moor once we had been serviced.

Off on the first cruise for 77 days (to the other side of the bridge)!
I filled up with diesel and water and bought some more coal – it’s that time of year where we’ll probably have the fire on constantly for the next four months or so.  Talking about having the fire on constantly, reminds me that I also had to buy a new chimney; it had split when we lit the fire on our return on Saturday.  It’s not surprising as it braves all the elements whilst being constantly hot for four or five months a year.  The replacement one is better quality than the previous so hopefully will last a good deal longer.

In the afternoon, we visited my parents and I must say that it was good to see that they both looked better than they did when we last saw them back in August.

Now we’ve been back for 24 hours we’re nicely relaxed and looking forward to cruising down to the south from Tuesday.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Soissons (last stop in France)

The river Aisne in the middle of Soissons (looking downstream)
We left Thurins on Tuesday morning for Soissons, near Reims; our penultimate leg in France, a journey of about 350 miles.  I know it’s possible to drive from the south of France or the Alpine ski resorts back to the UK without stopovers, but we’re taking our time.  We remember hiring large MPVs and doing the non-stop journeys down to the south or skiing with six or seven children with us – we’re not sure how we managed now 😉

The journey itself was pretty uneventful and we found our Airbnb, practically inside a large church, by about three in the afternoon.  We were both surprised that we had booked a place in the middle of a city – most unlike us.

Our quirky but cheapest ever Airbnb and the clock/church/cathedral bells don’t start chiming until eight in the morning fortunately
We have used Airbnb for three years now and have stayed in some wonderful places, from studio flats just for us, to large country houses for the extended family. We have stayed at over 20 different houses over the three years in ten different countries and haven’t had any issues so would recommend it for holidaying or short stops to anyone who is a bit nervous about trying it. Not so for their website, it is the most user-unfriendly site we have come across and we get frustrated every time we use it, but it doesn’t seem to deter us.

After settling in we went for a walk around Soissons.  At first, we thought it wasn’t up to much but we found the river and the old town and started to change our minds.  As Karen said, “It’s not Auxerre, but then it’s not Migennes either”.  The best way to describe what she meant is to use the analogy that Mike & Aileen use where they describe places in terms of the football leagues: Auxerre would be in the premiership and Migennes in League 3.

We mention those places as Migennes is where we are having the boat dropped into the river Yonne next March and Auxerre is likely to be our first stop when we start cruising.

Looking upstream in Soissons - no boats on any of the moorings
The canalised river Aisne together with the Canal latéral à l'Aisne joins the Ardennes with the Parisian waterways.  It was used to bring a lot of the building stone into Paris but there is little commercial traffic nowadays, unlike many of the waterways in northern France.  The journey from the Belgian end down to Paris is about 350km and, as there are very few locks, it sounds an easy and pleasant rural cruise.  However, reading up on it, it seems there are very few services on the route and consequently very little leisure traffic.

They have clearly tried to improve things in Soissons, with relatively new service points for water and electricity but, as can be seen in the pictures above, all the moorings were empty and there were no boats in sight. 

One of the several newish service points along the portside of Soissons
Aileen had mentioned that there had been a breach on a canal section this year and also some troubles with water shortages so that may also be a contributing factor to there being no boats.

An autumnal avenue of plane trees by the river
Our walk back to the house was through the older part of town and we will have a better look around on Wednesday.

The Abbaye Saint Leger, parts of which date back over a thousand years

Town hall – as ostentatious as they always seem to be in France (relative to the size of the town)
Karen had mentioned that it sounded like I was having a bit of a moan in the blog entry for when we travelled from Italy to France.  She was referring to my comments about the cost of the Mont Blanc tunnel and the cost of getting Buddy “UK ready”.  I didn’t mean to moan as that isn’t my general way, but our conversation did trigger something.  I had said the tunnel toll was 44.40 euros and Karen thought that was wrong.  She found the receipt today and saw that it was actually 45.20 euros!  Strangely it costs more to travel from Italy to France than the other way around - I had mentioned the France to Italy cost!

Karen went for a run along the river first thing on Wednesday and came back happy for two reasons.  Firstly, she ran along the towpath and consequently had no hills and, secondly, she saw a commercial boat heading for the lock.  If she hadn’t been on a run, she would have stopped to watch it go through the lock.

The Alamo approaching the lock at Soissons
The boat was what is called a péniche which can carry 220 tonnes.  These barges were built to fit Belgian and northern French locks built in the late 1800s and is 38.5 metres long and 5.1 metres wide.  To put it in perspective it is more than twice the length of our boat and 2 ½ times as wide.

The French use a gauge called the Freycinet gauge to dictate the size of inland waterway barge that can be accommodated in locks.  The standard size (class 1) relates to the péniche we have been talking about and is often just simply referred to as the Freycinet.  There are other classes up to class 5 representing barges 95 metres in length – the locks on the Rhone are double this length, 190 metres.

The lock at Soissons
The lock at Soissons, as with the other six locks on the canalised river Aisne, are slightly larger than the Freycinet standard at 46 metres long by 8 metres wide. 

The control tower where the éclusier sits to operate the lock
Wednesday was market day in Soissons, so we had a visit to top up with fruit and veg.  It was a damp grey day, but it hadn’t deterred the tourists and we suddenly realised that it must be half term in the UK judging by the number of English-speaking families we saw.

We also bought a holiday present for ourselves, a tagine.  It was a bit ironic as we always like to buy something local but hadn’t really found anything in Tuscany nor during any of our time in France on our way to or back from Italy.  So, in the end we have ended up with something Moroccan – I suppose France has the highest population of Moroccan immigrants (c2m!) and many immigrants in Italy are Moroccan so it’s probably politically correct to say we almost got something local.

Oh, and we bought a bag of turmeric as we knew we were running out on the boat and that wasn’t local either 😉

After our shopping trip we did some sightseeing.  Firstly, we went to see the remains of the Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes.  The part that is still standing can be seen from miles around as it is on a slight hill in the town.

The impressive remains of the church part of the abbey with two sides of the cloisters left on the left
The abbey was mainly destroyed during the dechristianization of France following the French Revolution and the stone sold off for construction of other buildings.  I’d never realised this happened during the French Revolution but thinking about it, the drivers of the revolution like removing power and wealth from the few to distribute amongst the masses would naturally attack the wealthy land-owning powers like the church.

We also popped into the cathedral which is alongside the house we are staying in.  This is still complete, but we were asked to leave because we had Buddy with us, strange considering how dogs are allowed into many shops and restaurants unlike in the UK.  By the way we have never been asked to leave historical churches when sightseeing in the UK because we had a dog with us

Inside Saint Protais cathedral before we were asked to leave
The outside
Thursday sees us heading back across the channel for a couple more stops in the south before getting back to Yorkshire.

Our journey since leaving the house in Italy – not far to go now 😊

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Thurins (back in France for a few days)

Mont Blanc in its summer clothes
We were sad to leave Lago d’Orta as it was such a beautiful place, a smashing campsite too and the weather was glorious.  Anyway, we still have other places to visit on our way home and after a leisurely two hours packing (it normally takes an hour max.) we set off for a place called Thurins, a village about 30 minutes to the south west of Lyon.  We also have an appointment on Monday with the vet at Saint-Martin-en-Haut for the treatment Buddy needs before he’s allowed back in the UK so that’s another good reason to get on the road again.

Our route took us past Turin and then into the Alps and through the Mont Blanc tunnel into France.  It wasn’t as far as our journey to the lakes earlier in the week but it was still 300 miles.  We found the road up to the tunnel surprisingly quiet and when we paid for the toll we realised why – it’s 44.40 euros to go through!

Heading to the famous ski resort of Courmayeur on the Italian side of Mont Blanc

A couplke of miles before the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel we could see the Brenva glacier which, like all the glaciers on Mont Blanc and the Alps is steadily retreating a few metres every year.

The Brenva glacier
After passing through the 7 ¼ mile tunnel we stopped in a lay-by for our picnic lunch and to take in the spectacular views of the alpine mountains.  They are just as stunning as they are in the skiing season, but in a different way. We were surprised at the high toll charge especially when you consider how many dozens of tunnels there are on the Italian and French roads (and several we went through approaching three miles in length) where there is no charge other than a toll charge where they are on a toll road.

About 30 miles into France we came out of a tunnel into fog (brouillade) and the temperature dropped by ten degrees. It stayed like that until the outskirts of Lyon when it suddenly lifted and we were back in sunshine and in the mid 20s.  The roads were really busy in Lyon, as they always seem to be, and we had to keep our wits about us to get through. All went well and we were soon back in the country heading for a farm a few miles outside of Thurins. We have taken an Airbnb in a converted barn for a couple days and, other than going to the vets, hope to get some good Lyonaisse country walks in.

Looking towards Thurins from our bedroom – note the polytunnels (clearly not just the scourge of Kent)
The unusual entrance to our Airbnb
When I checked my emails in the evening I found that the document (just four sheets of A4) I had sent one of my brothers on 3rd October had arrived on the 19th.  He had made the wry comment that it had travelled at an average of 2.6 mph.  This rather substantiated the notoriety that the Italian postal has had and still has.

To keep up with my desire to only drink local wines I had bought a bottle of red Piemonte Barbara before we left the lakes and I must say that I really enjoyed on Sunday evening and it was only just over 5 euros.

We had our appointment with the vet at nine on Monday morning in Saint-Martin-en-Haut, about 20 minutes away, so it was an early start for us.  This was to get the treatment necessary before Buddy is allowed back in the UK.  Having had the treatment, we now have to be back in the UK anytime in the next 24 to 120 hours.  We have to time it right and be thankful that the French aren’t on strike or that we are not hit by delays at Brexit time.  We were a bit shocked by the 50 euro bill for two tiny tapeworm tablets, a cursory examination and a couple of stamps in a passport.  Karen raised the cost in a Life in France forum and from the responses she has received so far it seems a little on the high side but not far off the norm.  Something else to add to the budget for each time we return to the UK when living over here

When we had been to the vets we had a wander around the town and bought some bits and pieces from a couple of shops and a fruit and veg stall in the market.  We both felt quite at home, language-wise, and were quite happy to use our poor French and still be understood by the shopkeepers.  We never really felt happy having to converse with Italians I’m afraid

When we got back, Karen went for a run and I laid out the tent and other things that needed drying.  Unfortunately, when we packed up in the Italian lakes there had been a heavy overnight dew so we had to put the tent and its innards away in a rather wet state.

After lunch we went for a good circular walk to take in Lac de Thurins. A man-made lake in the hills providing water to the local area.

Heading off to the lake which is the other side of the hills in the distance
We walked up through the woods on the right following a track the whole way.  The return route took in a couple of miles of road but it was so small and unused that we only saw one vehicle so we were quite safe walking along the road.

Once in the woods, the surface of the track changed from dirt track to rock and we noticed dry stone walling on the side.

Change in track surface
After about a mile we came upon a house that was all locked up but, because of the track surface, could only be reached by a tractor.  There was also a road traffic sign outside the house which was pretty strange.

Couldn’t understand why there was a road traffic sign in such an inaccessible place
The walk was uphill practically all the way, and quite steep at that.  We soon realised that the area we were walking through used to be terraced as there was evidence of dry stone walls running parallel to us.  The terracing is all but gone now and covered by the trees but at least a path has been maintained on one of the levels.

The lake – looking like the reservoirs in the UK this summer
Buddy and sheep showing some interest in each other
On our walk back, we could see over to the woods we had walked through and at one point we saw the inaccessible house.

The white square is the inaccessible house

With yet another glorious day there were plenty of butterflies around with clouded yellows, red admirals and speckled woods being the most numerous.  We also saw several fresh small coppers as well as other species including pale clouded yellow, large, small and green veined whites and a couple of commas.

We will be leaving Thurins on Tuesday and heading for a village outside Reims for our last few days.