Château Thierry (a host of golden clouded yellows)

The weather looked more promising on Friday morning, so we set off for a cruise when Karen returned from her morning run.

Sun about to come up on Friday morning
It was quite windy though and dark clouds kept scudding quickly across the sky but, luckily for us, didn’t drop any rain.  At the first and only lock of the day we tied up once we were in so we could fill our plastic water containers at the tap that is right by the lock.  Unfortunately, the tap wasn’t working, which was the case the last time we were here, but then the éclusier let us use his outside tap on his lock cottage.  Remembering this, Karen knocked on his door and asked if we could fill up with water.  He was more than happy to let us, and we soon filled up our containers.

Us spoiling the éclusier’s view from his cottage
By the time we were back on board the lock had reset itself and wouldn’t respond when we raised the rod that would close the gates and open the paddles.  The éclusier was obviously expecting this as he was already standing by the emergency control box and set things going for us.

After another six kilometres or so we moored up at Jaulgonne for lunch.  We didn’t go into the village, deciding rather to push on to Mont-St-Père.  We marked Jaulgonne as somewhere to stop overnight and explore on our way back up to Châlons-en-Champagne.

Moored for lunch at Jaulgonne
I know it looks like we are precariously moored with just a bit of the back end on the landing stage but there is a dolphin hidden behind the bush and we have the centre line moored to that.  Also, I know we are on a river and facing downstream rather than upstream but a) there is not much flow and b) it was the only way we could moor and still get Buddy off.

We carried on another few kilometres after lunch and moored up just above the next lock at a village called Mont-St-Père.  When we were nearing the mooring, we could see a large VNF work boat already there and from a distance we thought he was taking the whole mooring.  It turned out he wasn’t, and we could get in behind him.

In order to get to the bollard near his back end, we had to get quite tight against him and saw his rudder was moving freely in the current rather dangerously close to our front.  In order to avoid causing any damage we moved down to the last two remaining bollards .  Mind you, it then felt we had moored selfishly by leaving a git gap, but with the lack of boats on the move we didn’t worry too much.

Moored for Friday night
Later on, we went for a walk along the river to gather some walnuts and also cross to the other side of the river to see the village of Mézy-Moulins.  The first thing that struck us was the size of the church for such a small place.  Not only that, but it was outside of the current village and appeared to be in the middle of fields.

The church at Mézy-Moulins
As well as looking strange being stuck out on its own it was unusual in having flying buttresses.  We found out later that it was built in the early 1200s which accounts for its Gothic look.  We couldn’t get inside but next to it was a fantastic sight.  It was a field of some kind of pea plant that was in flower and swarming with clouded yellow butterflies and also the three whites: large, small and green-veined.  We searched for long tailed blues (their larvae feed on some of the plants of the pea family) but didn’t find any.

The field full of butterflies
We also came across a sign with the words of the Wolf & Shepherds fable.  It was then that we realised that we must be back in Jean le Fontaine country. 

The fable
Jean was born and lived in Château Thierry and you may remember that when we came up this way, we visited several villages that were celebrating his works by portraying one of his fables in their lavoir.  This reminded us that we need to do some research to see where the remaining villages are so we can plan further visits.

As for the walnuts, well, we found some and brought them back for drying.

Our haul
The girls on Puddleduck are cruising a day or two behind us at the moment and we had told them about a line of walnut trees at Tours-sur-Marne we passed.  When we said we had found some walnuts today they sent a picture through of the ones they picked at Tours today!

Nikki & Gorete’s haul
The girls have been picking, drying and bottling walnuts for the five years they have been cruising in France and finding so many, the jars of dried walnuts make ideal gifts.  That's a beauty of having a large boat: plenty of room to store pickling jars as well as those crates.

On Friday we cruised 16 kilometres down one lock.

Shepherds’ warning sky on Saturday morning
We set off for Château Thierry at about 10.30 on Saturday.  While I had taken Buddy out for his morning run, I had stopped at the lock down from where we were moored to fill up our plastic water containers at the lockside tap.  I had left the full containers at the side of the lock so we could pick them up on our way through.

Metal stanking planks by the lock (Écluse 5 – Mont-St-Père)
We had realised that we haven’t seen any sweet chestnut trees for what feels like ages, so we kept a special look out during our cruise.  We saw none the whole and only two horse chestnut trees. There were plenty of walnut trees and one other nut tree that we see fairly regularly but can’t find out what it is.

After an hour or so we were coming into Château Thierry, passing all the high quay and the pay-to-use pontoon moorings, to moor a little further down where there is a free-to-use low quay with plenty of rings ideal for a narrowboat.

Coming into town - a bit grey compared with the last visit
Welcome to Château Thierry
After lunch we popped into the tourist information office and picked up some walking leaflets.  We also bought a couple of booklets detailing some of the exhibitions at local villages commemorating Jean de la Fontaine fables.  Each booklet represents a circular tour taking in 17 of the villages and shows pictures of the lavoirs and the exhibitions being put on at each, two of which we have already found by accident at Saulchery and Pavant.  Something for us to do when the days get even shorter and colder in November.

The tourist office is down by the bridge over the river and we couldn't believe that we missed the shaped trees last time we were here.   In a couple of years this will be one of the raised hedges that are the trademark of many French towns

Raised hedge on its way in the centre of town
After a short walk it was back to the boat for the rest of the day to watch the Ireland game on catch up. 

Just as we were about to start watching a French guy knocked on the boat.  He was the owner of one of the large liveaboards down by the bridge.  Last time we were here I was out with Buddy and the guy had asked Karen if he could take pictures of our solar panels as he hadn't seen fixings that allowed lateral as well as side to side tilt.  He had come back to say he had had some supports made up and he was so pleased with the result that he just had to come and tell us.  It's amazing what can be conveyed in a conversation in French when you have to guess at what some of the words mean.

Back to the rugby: what a brilliant game and an unexpected result which, we imagine, makes it a bit worrying for Scotland. 

Moored for the weekend 

We plan on staying here for a couple of days at least as there are a few more places to visit that we missed when we stayed here for a few days earlier in the summer.

Saturday’s cruise took us eight kilometres down one lock.

Dormans (lows and highs)

Wednesday marked six months since we started continuously cruising in France and the highlights have included:
  • Being welcomed by the French everywhere we went
  • Travelling the length and breadth of Champagne & Burgundy
  • Cruising through the centre of Paris on the River Seine
  • Swimming in the River Marne
  • Being rescued by frogmen on the Canal de l’Ourcq
  • Meeting fantastic people including éclusiers & other boaters
  • Enjoying the peace and quiet of beautiful and litter-free countryside & villages
  • Going days without seeing any other boats
  • Mooring in beautiful cities and towns like Paris, Reims, Dijon, Auxerre & Châlons-en-Champagne
  • Marvelling at the size of mairies, especially when compared to the local population
  • Only buying wine produced in the areas we travelled, likewise with cheese
  • Eating pain au chocolate every day

The low lights have been: 
  • Having two plant pots stolen in a Paris suburb
  • Losing power in a staircase lock when a throttle cable broke
  • Scaring ourselves on the River Saône
  • Me fainting three times in one of the canicules (heatwaves)

The six months in numbers:
  • Travelling on 11 different canals and five rivers
  • Covering 1,493 kilometres (933 miles)
  • Going through 553 locks
  • Consuming 664 litres of fuel
  • Trolleying 35 jerry cans to and from petrol stations
  • Using up two 13kg propane gas bottles
  • Seeing 36 species of butterfly
  • Having two holidays
  • Finding 36 lavoirs
  • Largest locks 180 x 11.4 metres
  • Deepest lock 11 metres
  • Longest boat to pass us 170 metres
  • Visiting five of the 12 French mainland regions

Where it all started: being craned in at Migennes on 26th March 2019
For those of you with a like mind to mine, you may find this interesting: Each of the five rivers we have been on in France consist of five letters only and they also all end in the letter e.  [Loire, Marne, Saône, Seine & Yonne]

Before I get onto Wednesday here is a picture of the French WWI cemetery at Port-à-Binson.  I have included this because on the previous blog entry I had mentioned that the different religions or non-religions of the soldiers are shown by the headstone.  Here you can clearly see that some graves are marked with a headstone rather than a cross.  We wish we had looked more closely at the headstones so we could see the differences between the three types: Muslim, Jew and free thinkers.

Some of the graves at Port-à-Binson
Contrary to our expectation, Wednesday wasn’t our first jeans day since April as we were still in shorts & tee-shirts for cruising, but we did have rain off and on as we cruised down to Dormans.  To be honest though, we did change out of our shorts when we went for a walk later in the afternoon before the sun came out.

Miserable looking day for a change
We arrived in Dormans before lunch and found the pontoon by the campsite was empty, so we moored up for the day.  Dormans was another town that we hadn’t stopped at on our way up, so we had lunch before exploring the town.  As is our wont we made for the tourist information office to see if they had any heritage trails we could follow. 

Us on the left (right bank), grain silos in the distance and Dormans to the right (left bank)
We had to get to the other side of town to reach the tourist office.  As we crossed the main street, we were surprised to see one busy with people for once.  The tourist office was based in a château dating from the 13th century and two lovely ladies were in attendance.  There was no sign of the château being used for anything else, but the ladies explained we could rent if we wanted to!  They also said my French was good but that was probably because I kept making them laugh.  

The tourist information office 😉
We do find the information in the tourist offices varies.  This one was fine for people wanting to visit Champagne but not the town itself.  The ladies said it wasn’t worth producing a heritage trail as the only places of interest were the gardens of the château and the WWI war memorial on the hill behind it!

The grounds were impressive, and we had a good walk around them.  There was a marquée in the back garden of the château so we assumed the place could be hired for weddings and other events.  We came across an old watermill that now houses a ‘rural’ museum but was closed on Wednesdays.  We continued out the back of the grounds up the hill and suddenly came across the war memorial.  This was a large structure like the American memorial at Château-Thierry that we visited a while ago.  Unlike the American one, which was 'in your face' and could be seen for miles around, this was discretely hidden in a clearing in the woods on the side of the hill.

The WWI memorial of the battles of the Marne at Dormans
I know it seems we are seeing a lot of these memorials, but we have been in the area of some horrific WWI battles over the last few months.  It’s not that we support wars either, but these memorials do bring home the enormous sacrifices people made in those days.  We see them, not as places celebrating victory, but as a reminder that we should live in peace. 

The cloisters to the side of the building are inscribed inside with the names of the battles along the Marne and associated losses:

This memorial was built with a large chapel which I find incongruous but in those days more people were religious and thanked their God for victories.  When we finished in the memorial and the château grounds we headed back down to the boat, leaving exploring the rest of the town for another time.

Another view of the château
We were moored opposite the church at Dormans which had a clock with rather loud chimes.  Not only were they loud but the chimes rang every quarter of an hour.  As nice as it is hearing the chimes, especially when they are at the correct time, which seems to be rare, we rather hoped they didn’t start too early in the morning 😉

Our mooring opposite the church at Dormans
On Wednesday we cruised 11 kilometres down one lock.

We were saved by the bells as they say, and the first chimes didn’t ring out until a quarter past seven on Thursday morning.  It was drizzling when we awoke and, although it soon stopped for the day, it remained grey with only the odd glimpse of sunshine.  There was a good bricolage just out of town, so we walked down there in the morning as we needed to get some hooks and a new paint roller and a few other items. We passed a well-stocked greengrocer on our way back, so we took advantage to top up our supplies.

As with yesterday, the town was quite busy, and we also noticed there were very few premises closed down.  Remembering that we are in Champagne then I suppose it’s probably a relatively prosperous area for a rural town so maybe that’s one of the reasons we found it like this.

We have been using the internet to watch the rugby and just managed to see the England game before our 100gig/month allowance ran out.  We have never gone over the 100gig before but watching the rugby doesn’t help as it is on ITV which, unlike BBC, doesn’t have the option of different quality streaming.  This means all ITV streaming is high quality and therefore uses a lot more data than watching the equivalent on a BBC channel.  

It was quite windy in the afternoon, so we decided not to move and got on with a lot of those jobs that we put off for days like these.  We plan on getting to Château Thierry for the weekend and will probably have a small cruise tomorrow to get part way there.

Port-à-Binson (almost a sunless day)

Our main task on Monday was to pop down to Épernay to fill up with fuel, replace a gas bottle and get the weekly shop done.  On Saturday morning we had joined the River Marne at Dizy, four kilometres from its navigable, upstream, end at Épernay and moored a little further down at Cumières for the weekend.  This meant we had to turn around and cruise up to Épernay where there is a large Carrefour right next to the riverbank.

It’s not a particularly pleasant spot to moor overnight but there were two motor yachts already there when we turned up.  One was a Belgian guy who had stopped for gas and was hoping to get over to the Black Sea by winter.  He wasn’t aware of the canal closures that would make his journey problematical, but he had a laisse faire attitude and believed all would turn out well in the end.

The other motor yacht had a couple on that we had met before, he’s a Brit and she's a Kiwi.  They were topping up with food and water and were hoping to get over to Strasbourg for winter.  They too, weren’t aware of the canal closures but strangely had the same attitude as the Belgian so were going to push on anyway. 

After buying 80 litres of diesel, replenishing a gas bottle and getting a week’s worth of provisions it was back off to our pontoon morning Cumières for lunch before carrying on downstream.  We were heading for Port-à-Binson as there were a couple of places we wanted to visit nearby, and we hadn’t stopped there on the way up.  The first big village we went through was Damery; we had cycled there on Sunday to investigate the moorings.  The moorings were free on Sunday, but a large Dutch barge had arrived since we visited so we carried straight on.

Boat on the moorings at Damery
As you can see in the picture, the weather has changed, although the sun was out all day, clouds kept threatening to roll over but never quite made it.  There was a restaurant next to the bridge that we will need to investigate on our way back as it had the odd name of ‘Le Bateau Lavoir’.  We haven’t seen a lavoir for ages and rather hope to find some as we explore the Champagne villages.  Maybe this building used to be a boat-wash along the lines of a carwash and not a wash house 😉

Le Bateau Lavoir
Dark clouds over Damery
The first seven locks at this end of the river are operated by a remote-control unit (télécommande) that is given to the boater at the first lock and then deposited when leaving the last one.  On the way up it worked really well apart from one lock where Karen had to go and get the éclusier out of bed because we couldn’t get the gates to open.  The same thing happened today at the same lock but this time it was easier as the éclusier responded to our radio request for help and came straight out to operate the lock manually.

Although we are back on the river, the locks aren’t that much larger than the canals we have been on recently at 45 x 7.5 metres.  It’s not until further down towards Paris that the locks revert to three times that size.

Passing through Reuil
We had stopped overnight at Reuil before and although the mooring was empty, we decided to carry on another few kilometres to our original destination.  It was gone five when we finally moored up, which is late in the day for us to still be cruising.  The mooring is right next to a large island which has a strict one-way system along each side.  This made it a bit tricky turning around to get onto the mooring but, as expected, there were no boats on the move to get in our way.

Moored at Port-à-Binson
I know we have always said we prefer canals to rivers but there is something different about the River Marne; it seems so tranquil and inviting along its entire length that we feel quite at home on it.  Of course, being a river, it flows and is therefore free from any muck and rubbish like leaves and other floating vegetation.  This makes it ideal for swimming in but neither of us felt it was hot enough to have a swim today.

During Monday we covered 22 kilometres down two locks.

With rain likely on Tuesday afternoon we went for a walk in the morning to avoid it.  We wanted to walk up to the village of Châtillon-sur-Marne which has a huge statue dominating the hillside and skyline.  

The statue on the hill
Even though it wasn’t raining it was a grey day and we packed our wet weather gear in a backpack just in case.  As luck would have it, we didn’t need it as the rain kept off until we were just about to get back to the boat.

As we set off, we crossed the river and could just see where we were moored and the island opposite.

Other than a brief stretch on a road to begin with we walked through vineyards until we reached our destination.

The statue
The statue was built in 1887 and is of a pope who died in 1099.  His name was pope Urban II and he was a Frenchman whose family were noblemen from the village.  Karen noticed that he had an aerial sticking out of his right shoulder but we decided this was a modern addition rather the depiction of a strange affliction.

We had some great views from the top even if camera phones can’t do them justice, but I include them for our own memories.

Looking east over the town

Looking west down the Marne valley running between the hills
Another object of the walk was to visit the ruins of an old castle, but when we found it, all that remained of the building was completely covered in scaffolding and access was barred to the public.  The scaffolding had only recently been erected because the castle could be seen quite clearly when we came along in the boat a few weeks ago.  Mind you that was on a cloudless, sunny day which probably made the castle (and the statue) more prominent.

Aborted attempt to visit the castle
We went into the village itself where all was quiet and the only places open were champagne houses and the church.

Walking down the other side of Châtillon-sur-Marne

The church was unusual in that it had no stained-glass windows
The church was also unusual for two other reasons: it smelt of putty and had signs saying domestic animals were forbidden.  If I had had a hedgehog outfit with me I would have put it on Buddy as a disguise.

On our way up through the village we had noticed quite a few plastic bottles, filled with water, laying on the roadside.  It wasn’t until we came across some more on the way down that Karen suddenly realised that they were there for watering plants that looked like they had recently been put in the beds.

One of the old village pumps had a flower bed around its base and also some of these bottles.  The border of modern house bricks seemed a little out of place.

Freshly planted plants around an old pump by a modern hydrant and modern bricks
In keeping with our general walking desire to have circular walks we had devised one that would take us to another landmark that we had noticed when coming up the river.  This was a large building back down in the valley near to a French WWI cemetery.

On our way down with Port- à-Binson in the far distance
We found that the building we had seen was in the grounds of a priory.  I know little about priors and their habits (!) but if the way the English churches provide their ministers with lavish rectories is anything to go by then this could have been where the prior himself lived.  Although we couldn’t pay the priory a visit, we did find out that it was used as a hospital in the first world war.  

Was this the residence of the top man?
Opposite the priory we looked around a French war cemetery that houses the bodies of over 2,500 Frenchmen killed in the area during 1918. A notice by the cemetery indicates that many of the soldiers were from the French colonies.  This would account for the many headstones that were ‘Muslim’.  In line with the French War Graves Commission, crosses are used for Christians, and different types of headstones are used to differentiate between Muslims, Jews and ‘other religions’.  Interestingly (and most enlighteningly), France is the only country that uses a headstone specifically to represent those of no faith or freethinkers.

The priory
As I said, it had started spitting with rain by the time we got back and when we had lunch it started drizzling, and it stayed like that for the rest of the afternoon.  Looking out of the windows the only excitement, other than a heron who kept fishing from the same spot, were two passing boats both of which were hotel boats.

We did venture out again, later in the afternoon, but only for a short walk along the river to let Buddy stretch his legs after being cooped up on the boat since lunch.  The sun did come out in the early evening, but the forecast is for a couple more grey days ahead 

Cumières (autumn is coming)

On Saturday we set off to Cumières to spend the weekend there.  If the forecast is to be believed it was going to be the last weekend with 30-degree temperatures, so we set off early.  Well, it was ten o’clock and we consider that early for a Saturday and we didn’t have far to go anyway.

As we went through Ay, we passed a distillery that processes the waste, or pomace, from the grapes used for champagne making.  We could smell the place long before we reached it. The distillery produces several different spirits including Marc de Champagne, Ratafia, Fine de la Marne and Marc brandy.  Marc is another word for pomace and 90,000 tonnes are collected during the three-week harvest.  Every road we passed seemed to have a truck full of the stuff heading for the distillery. 

One of several piles of pomace
The waste after distillation is processed into animal feed and fertilizer.

We started passing walnut trees overhanging the cut so stopped under a couple to see if the nuts were ready.  The branches have to be shaken and any nuts that are ready fall to the ground, or the water in our case.  Karen was in charge of shaking the branches and fishing out any nuts, but it seemed that none were ready yet.

Having a shake
It wasn’t long before we reached the last lock on the canal that would drop us down to the River Marne.  For once, it wasn’t a smooth transit as, once we were in, we couldn’t get the gates to close. We tried all the tricks we picked up on other canals where we have come across similar methods of operation but to no avail. 

A large sign indicated that VHF radio channel 22 should be used in case of emergencies or problems but I couldn’t raise a response.  We then found a phone number and got through to an éclusier who was with us within ten minutes and we were on our way.

Leaving the Canal latéral à la Marne to join the River Marne
We were hoping the pontoon at Cumières didn’t have any boats on it as we wanted to stay there for a couple of days.  As well as being a lovely spot it has free electricity and water, not that we need electricity with the solar panels working well in this weather.  If we do any washing, then we would plug in as it’s far more pleasant than sitting there with the engine running to drive the washing machine.

Moored on the pontoon at Cumières
The pontoon had a day trip boat on but there was still room for us.  We knew it wouldn’t be there long as they were a trip boat and the guests were in town being shown around a champagne house.

Our view from the front, over the vineyards at Cumières
Although we could see the odd van and tractor in the vineyards, there wasn’t the hive of activity that there would have been over the previous fortnight.  We could see groups of people in a few areas still being picked but it was clearly nearly the end of the harvest here.

After lunch we took a circular walk around Cumières and then through the vineyards up to the top of the hill, taking in the abbey at Hautville. 

Usual large floral displays at the mairie
On our way up – just a few white vans in the distance
Some picking was going on and we saw the occasional tractor or pickup heading down to town full up with crates of grapes.  Of course, there were a similar number coming back up the hill with empty crates. 

Rather precarious looking pickup
The road surface was quite sticky in places from dried grape juice.  In the town we had noticed that the streets outside the wineries were washed clean each evening and had also noticed it in Mareuil-sur-Ay.

As expected, many of the vans were eastern European and mainly Polish:

Polish vans
We were surprised at the volume of grapes that lay discard between the vines but, thinking about it, only the best are used and there is a strict limit to the volume of champagne that can be produced per hectare.

Discarded bunches of grapes
A crate that had met a bitter end
This part of the Marne valley has vineyards on the hills on both sides and we had some fantastic views.

Looking down to Cumières where we are moored
Back in town we looked around some of the champagne house yards and could see more signs that the harvest was nearly at an end.  There were piles of cleaned crates and the metal pallets that they are stacked on for ease of manoeuvring by forklift trucks.

Yellow forklift unloading crates of grapes, and pallets being cleaned  

Crates cleaned ready for next year
On our return we spent the rest of the day at the boat, taking it easy as it was Saturday.  During the morning we had cruised ten miles down two locks.

Sunday morning saw us having a bike ride along the cycle path that runs alongside the River Marne.  We were looking to see how busy the moorings were further downstream.  For example, when we came up this river, Damery, one of the places we wanted to visit, was full up.  Today there were no boats there so it looks like we won't have to worry.

When we got back we washed the boat as it's only been washed once since we've been over here and has therefore got rather dirty.  After lunch it started raining but as we planned on staying in and catching up on some of the rugby matches it didn't matter.  The rain didn't amount to much or last long but it definitely gave us the feeling that autumn is on its way.  This was the first rain we had had since 13th August but clearly not enough to top up the canal system reservoirs.