Thursday 29 August 2019

Sept-Saulx (no champagne for Karen)

Jet engines in the Tunnel de Mont-de-Billy
Having been able to moor in the shade on Monday afternoon the boat was nice and cool by the time we went to bed.  Of course, it did mean we were in full sun as soon as dawn broke.  We left for Mareuil-sur-Ay straight after breakfast, Karen walking alongside with Buddy whilst I was driving the boat.  This is a big advantage that canals have over rivers for us.  On a river it is usually difficult to just pull in and pick people up, whereas on a canal then it can be done almost anywhere.

They got on just before the first lock, after which we cruised through Ay and then, in what seemed a very short space of time, we were arriving in Mareuil-sur-Ay.  The last lock we had been through the previous day was number 15 so we were expecting to go through lock 14 next but for some reason the cast metal plate on the lock cottage announced we were at lock 13.  The guidebook and a more modern sign both indicated that we were at lock 14, so there must have been a lock added and/or some renumbering done at some point.

Confusing lock numbering
It wasn’t a long trip to Mureil-sur-Ay and were soon moored up and having lunch.  The moorings were one of those that are shared with campervans and it looked incredibly popular, with vans over spilling into the town carpark. We moored next to a bandstand which turned out to be rather fortuitous.  While we were having lunch workmen and vans turned up and started unloading barricades and outdoor seating.

Moored next to the bandstand
After lunch we went in search of Philippe Bénard, a small champagne house that had been recommended to us by Mike & Aileen.  On the way we saw posters were being put up around the town and realised that a jazz set were to be playing in the evening next to us.  We soon found the champagne house and Philippe, he was sitting in what looked like his dining room.  

There were four people sitting with him and they were all drinking champagne from unlabelled bottles.  He invited us and Buddy to sit down and join them which we duly did.  The Belgians (from campervans) and Philippe only spoke French which made our conversations somewhat fun.  The ice was broken very quickly as the Belgians recognised us; they had seen us arriving on the boat earlier in the day.  Plus, it seemed like they had been drinking champagne for a while too!

Incongruously, Philippe was wearing a tee-shirt with Champagne Lanson branding.  He was in no hurry to sell us any champagne and was happy chatting away and plying us with champagne while he seemed to smoke a continuous stream of cigars.

As many of you will know Karen hasn’t drunk alcohol for a number of years as she started to have severe headaches that lasted a few days.  Since we have been in France, she has had the odd small glass of wine without any ill effects, but when she had champagne at our first tasting the headache returned for three days.  So, sadly, no champagne for Karen

Every time I said we wanted to buy some champagne and leave, my glass was refilled.  After a lot of laughter and interesting conversation, Philippe took us down to his cellars to make our purchases.  His prices were incredibly good compared with those in UK supermarkets and we left feeling really pleased we had been.

The preparations for the jazz band were in full swing when we returned, all the seating had been erected and there were also tables full of champagne flutes, what else?  The occasion was one of many nights the band were doing on a tour of Champagne, each one preceded by a guided trip around the town/village.

It was a most civilised affair with the band playing for a couple of hours until it got dark soon after nine and then the audience were treated to champagne. 

Perfect vantage point from the back deck
It was very easy listening, instrumental-only, jazz of the type popular in the 60s and 70s hence the predominant age of the audience.  This type of music is where Karen and my musical tastes meet.  I’m from the prog/space/heavy rock era and Karen more from Motown.  Saying that we both enjoy listening to many types of jazz, southern rock and also Northern Soul.

On Tuesday we cruised seven kilometres up one lock.

Karen went for her run early on Wednesday morning before it got too hot.  We had decided to have a cruise when she returned rather than staying put for a rest day as we had changed our plans somewhat.  Lauren, my middle daughter, is coming over to spend a weekend with us in a couple of weeks and we have arranged to pick her up at Chalons-en-Champagne.

As we are less than 30 kilometres from Chalons we have some time on our hands.  After looking at alternatives we have decided to visit Reims before going to Chalons.  This means turning north onto the Canal l’Aisne à la Marne at Condè-sur-Marne. Reims is 35 kilometres through 15 locks from the junction so we will have plenty of time to get there and back and then carry on down to Chalons before Lauren arrives.

Even though it was another hot day, there was a thin covering of cloud which, although it masked the direct heat of the sun, it made it feel very close and humid.

Leaving Mareuil-sur-Marne on Wednesday morning
We had two locks to go up before turning off and, at the first, we took advantage of the water point whilst still in the lock.

Karen ready to get the water and Muscovy ducks at the lock at Mareuil
Coming into Bisseuil we passed a mairie right on the waterfront and then our first swing bridge for some weeks.  The swing bridge was operated by poles overhanging the waterway, so we didn’t even have to get off the boat to set the traffic lights and open and close the bridge.

The mairie at Bisseuil
Leaving the swing bridge to close itself up
Three kilometres after ascending the second lock of the day, which was in the town of Tours-sur-Marne, we were at the junction and turning up the Canal l’Aisne à la Marne.  This canal runs for 58 kilometres up to the Canal latéral à l’Aisne which in turn joins the River Aisne and also other waterways which can be used to reach Belgium and Luxembourg amongst other countries.

Turning left at the junction
Signpost has seen better times
If anyone reading this is interested in water levels on the two canals for their own cruising plans, then we can report that water was overflowing the top gates of many locks so neither appear to have issues at present.

We had a series of eight locks to ascend before reaching a longish tunnel at Billy-le-Grand.  We got ourselves in a right pickle at the first lock as we had completely forgotten what to do when going up locks without sliding poles or floating bollards to attach the front line to  We have been rather spoilt on the River Marne and the Canal latéral à la Marne over the last few weeks as the locks have all had sliding poles built into the side of the locks.  Although they are not the norm, they were easy and so we had become complacent to the extent we had forgotten the more common types existed!

Karen trying to remember what to do at this sort of lock
It was all a bit of a comedy as we were up and down ladders and changing ends on the boat.  In the end we ended up doing it in the way many people do on rivers in the UK and, indeed as some do on canals there.  I had a line around a bollard at the back which then looped back for me to hold as we went up.  Karen set up the same arrangement at the front.  All went well of course but it was all a bit long winded getting there.

By the time we got to the next lock it had all come back to us, Karen would use the dock-a-reni to loop a front line over a bollard.  At the deeper locks this necessitates her climbing onto the roof, but most were such that she could do it standing on the front gunwales. This way we only need one line attached to the boat and the driver just holds the rear against the lockside with the engine in gear.  

Some of the locksides were badly crumbling so there was a danger of catching the boat on overhanging stonework  This meant easing off on the throttle at these points and letting the back drift away from the wall until the danger was over.

All sussed by the second lock with the dock-a-reni at the ready
The locks on this canal are all boater operated and ascended in what are called chains.  Once in a chain you have to complete it and not moor in the middle.  As soon as you are going through a lock, the next automatically starts getting set for you and so on.  Of course, the locks have to recognise when boats are going in both directions.  The eight locks we had to go up formed one chain about five kilometres in length.

All the locks had control boxes, empty as the locks were all automatic, but I suppose were used by éclusiers once upon a time.  Most locks also had lock cottages ranging from well looked after to decrepit and in need of a total rebuild.

Lock cottage and  control box, both uninhabited
We were just saying that the only boat we had seen on the move all day was a hotel boat passing us during breakfast, when a commercial came around the corner.  We were quite shocked as we hadn’t seen one for a couple of weeks.  In the end we saw four commercials on the shortish stretch we covered so we can only assume that this canal offers a viable route for them compared to the previous canal we were on.  At least the locks limit them to a maximum size of 39 x 5 metres, so they are not too large.

A surprise around the corner
Another surprise was a sight we don’t often see, four herons standing on the bank together.  

After the eight locks we were at the summit of the canal and heading for the tunnel at Billy-le-Grand.  This canal, being lined with trees, meant we couldn't see the vineyards either side and we felt like we were back on a UK canal.

The Tunnel de Mont-de-Billy and feeling we were back in the UK
The tunnel is just over 2.3 kilometres long and, like nearly all the tunnels we have been through over here, is brightly lit.  It is one-way only and, as the lights were on red, we had to wait for a boat to come through first.  We moored up and walked down to the tunnel entrance and realised another commercial was on its way.  Being nearly as wide as the tunnel and deep draughted it took an age to emerge but as soon as it did the lights turned green and we were on our way.

Waiting for a boat to clear the tunnel
The mooring bollards at the tunnel entrances were rather quaint and set into the stone walls.

A quaint bollard
The tunnel didn’t have air vents, but it did have what looked like aircraft jet engines blowing air through.  It was really quite refreshing having cool air blown over us after the stifling heat on the canal.

A narrow-gauge rail track runs alongside the canal all the way through the tunnel and we wondered if it had been used for a small locomotive to tow boats through.  Apparently, the towage system operated until 1970.  When we reached the other end, we saw a small flatbed truck so maybe we were wrong and the track is used for maintenance purposes.

The truck at the end of the tunnel
When we came out, we decided to moor for the day.  After all it had been a long day for us for a change - 23 kilometres up ten locks 😉

Moored for Wednesday night outside the tunnel
The mooring was only accessible by boat, even the grass mower would have to be offloaded from a workboat.  So it meant we had a completely peaceful evening with no one else around.

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