Juvigny (autumn has arrived)

Tuesday at Billy-le-Grand
If the weather forecast is correct, we are in for some very strong winds for a few days from Friday.  On the back of this knowledge we decided to move on Tuesday even though it was looking quite grey.  That way we had a good chance of reaching Châlons-en-Champagne before the winds arrive. 

Grey skies at Sillery on Tuesday morning
There were quite a few boats we know who were overwintering at the port in Sillery; most of which looked like they were left until next year.  There were a few with people on still including a lovely French lady, on the boat with the bike on the back in the picture above, who we met last time we were here.  She didn’t know a word of English but loved talking so much that she was really helpful and patient with our French.  She came out of her boat to say goodbye as we left and helped me by indicating how close the front of the boat was to the other boats and the ends of the pontoons.

Looking back at the port with the promise of blue skies on the way
Just outside Sillery we passed a factory that rather reminded us of the fume-belching Tata, chemical factories near Northwich up on the Trent & Mersey canal where our boat was fitted out.  Not sure what they were doing at the Sillery plant but it looked like small lumps of limestone were being cleaned.

Reminiscent of Northwich
We only had three locks to go up on our way to Billy-le-Grand where we planned on stopping for lunch.  Today we had no problems and they all worked smoothly; just as well as there was a commercial a couple of kilometres behind us.

After the last lock we were at the summit and could see the first vineyards along the hills heading down to the Marne valley.  They had lost their green colour over the last couple of weeks and were well on their way to their distinctive golden colour of autumn.

Vineyards turning golden in the distance
We were soon approaching Billy tunnel, where we had planned to have lunch before going through.  As we got closer, we had obviously been spotted by the guy at the other end of the tunnel as the lights turned green.  He sits up in a tower with a closed-circuit TV overlooking the portal at the blind end where we were approaching from.  As he had changed the lights we decided to go through anyway, hoping we could moor on the far side.

Passing through the well-lit 2.3-kilometre-long Billy tunnel
Work on digging the tunnel was started in 1841 and it didn’t open until 1856.  I think I mentioned before that most of this canal was rebuilt after WWI because it was so badly bombarded.  What I hadn’t mentioned was that the tunnel was used as a place of storage during the war; artillery being kept on boats in the tunnel.

Moored for lunch after emerging from the tunnel
It had turned into such a lovely day that we decided to stay put and go for a walk in the afternoon instead of continuing.  There was no clear towpath either side, but the grass had been mown so it was easy to walk along.  We found a few trees that had come down in the past and had been roughly logged.  As the logs had clearly been laying there a long time and hadn’t been collected, we made a couple of piles that we would pick up on our way through on Wednesday.

The black spots in the distance are two of our log piles
It had turned out to be really warm and we regretted bringing our coats as we had to carry them the whole way.  This sort of walk is ideal for Buddy as, with no houses around nor any walkers or cyclists he could be off the lead.

More autumnal colours
On Tuesday we cruised 15 kilometres up three locks.

We all set off at the same time in the morning, Karen & Buddy for their run and me heading for the locks.  On the way we stopped to pick up the logs we had piled up on the side of the cut yesterday.  

As we were going downhill it’s quite easy to single hand the locks.  I still haven’t worked out how to single hand going uphill in a French lock though.  Saying that it’s easy, the locks on the flight down to Condé-sur-Marne were a bit tricky as they had railings really close to the edge making it hard to walk along with a line in one hand.  The larger boats have walkways along either side, so crew don’t have to get off to throw a line over a bollard or operate the controls but it’s not so easy on a narrowboat.

On the way down - not a lot of room to walk along the side
I passed one commercial and a hotel boat on their way up and then met up with Karen at the fourth lock down.  The commercial was one we have seen several times before and the couple on board always seem pleased to recognise us.  The hotel boat was on its last cruise of the season and on its way to Sillery where it moors for winter.  It took us little over two hours to cover nine kilometres and drop down the eight locks and as there was a bollard and a convenient lamppost at the bottom at Condé-sur-Marne we moored up for an early lunch.

There is a small port at Condé with a couple of dozen boats moored up for winter including a narrowboat called Temujin.  Mike & June live on the narrowboat but they appeared to be out, so we didn’t stop.  They have been cruising in mainland Europe for 19 years so have a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Temujin in the port at Condé-sur-Marne
We then turned left onto the Canal latéral à la Marne which is the canal that will take us up to Châlons-en-Champagne.  Having got down the eight locks in the morning without any issues we had a little difficulty at the first lock of the afternoon.  The operating pole thingy wasn’t long enough for us to reach and neither of us could turn it properly so the lock lights stayed on red.  Another issue is that we have got complacent and only slow down a bit expecting it to be easy to twist the pole.  Of course, as we hadn’t slowed down, we were soon way past the pole and so had to reverse back and try again.

I made a right pig’s ear of getting back and ended up nearly turning the boat around in a semi-circle.  I decided that it didn’t matter as it would be a simple matter to spin around again.  Anyway, Karen stood up on the back locker and just managed to twist the pole before I had spun right around.

Got it this time
Strange angle to be going forwards
We moored up just after the second lock near a place called Juvigny and stayed in for the rest of the day.

Wednesday night mooring by the lock at Juvigny
Now the clocks have gone back we have noticed more commercials on the move in the dark but then working hours don't change just because the clocks change.

Just leaving the lock where we are moored
On Wednesday we cruised 18 kilometres down eight eight locks and then up two more.  It remained dry but was feeling quite chilly - definitely warm coats weather.

Sillery (Karen down a hole)

It was raining when we got up on Sunday and it was still raining once the Wales – South Africa match had finished so it was on with our wet weather gear for a walk.  We walked out of Reims along the canal and, although Sunday is traditional Sunday family walk day, only committed runners and dog walkers had ventured out.

What is Karen doing here?
At the third lock Karen said she was going to check something and disappeared through a gate.  The locks through the town are gated and fenced off from the general public but she had gone through the gate and was on the other side of the lock before I realised she was gone.

Yes, that’s Karen laying on the ground in the picture above.  She had gone to check that the water tap was working in the lock, so we knew whether or not to stop on our way through.  The tap wasn’t working so she had gone into a manhole and turned a stopcock on.

Just to prove it was her
She checked the tap again and it was now working so it was back into the manhole to turn the stopcock off again.

At one point we turned away from the canal and found the River Vesle.  After walking along its banks for a while we came across a sign leading us to the old baths of the three rivers.

Thousands of Remoises learnt to swim here
It turned out that these were public baths closed down in 1965 on the banks of an island in the river.  As there is water each side of the island and also along the cut a short distance away, we assume that was the derivation of the name.

The bathing pool today
The sluices at the far end would have been closed to create water deep enough for swimming in.

A picture of the baths from 1960
Although the rain held off for much of the afternoon it felt cold and damp on the boat, so we lit the stove for the first time this winter.  Buddy soon remembered that he could get really hot if he stood in front of it.  The trouble is he prefers to lie down to sleep so he ends up dragging himself to his bed.  Don’t worry, his bed is only a metre or so from the stove anyway!

View of the runners and a new sign inviting Reims residents to join the rowing club
Monday was a lovely bright and sunny day but had a definite autumnal feel to it; perfect for cruising.  After Karen returned from her morning run, we popped into town for a few things and then got ready to leave.  Once we were ready, we checked for boats and could see there was a commercial in the distance coming our way.  As he had priority, we decided to change plans and have an early lunch and set off afterwards.

Our weekend mooring in Reims

As we were moored just below the bottom of the three locks in Reims, we had to get the boat straight over to the other side of the cut to twist the pole.  With no wind this was an easy operation but things didn’t go so well in the lock.  It was one of those locks that has a really strong overspill that you have to judge carefully so you don’t end up hitting the lock side.  We got into the lock OK but no amount of pushing the operating rod would set the gates closing.  There was nothing for it but to ring the canal control centre and I was told an éclusier would be with us soon. 

When this has happened before we have never waited for long before help arrived.  After 20 minutes nobody had turned up, so I rang again.  After another 15 minutes we decided to reverse out of the lock and go back to the mooring we had just left.  As we came out of the lock, we saw the light was still on green so it probably hadn’t recognised us as we had gone in.  We went back in again with Karen dancing and waving her arms about at the front and me doing likewise on the back.  This seemed to have triggered the sensor as when we pushed the operating rod this time, the gates started closing.

While the gates were closing an éclusier popped his head over the edge and asked if we were OK now so I explained that we had reversed out and come back in again.  He seemed to understand me and off he went.  It always makes us laugh that as soon as things look like they’re working then they are off.  We rather imagined that they would prefer to wait until we were safely through before leaving.

Following Karen's check of the water situation at the one of the locks yesterday, we stopped to fill up on the way through.  As we used the wide bore hose supplied by VNF and there was also a good pressure it took no time to fill up and we were soon on our way again.

We were heading for the port at Sillery for the night as there were no other places to moor unless we went a lot further.  Although the port was completely full of winter moorers, we knew there was a Chalkhill Blue sized spot that we could get on, in front of a boat owned by a French couple that we got talking with last time we were there. 

Approaching Sillery it seemed that everyone was out walking along the towpath.  They were probably making up for not being able to go out for their Sunday walk because of the rain.  It did make us think that everyone in Sillery must be retired as there were so many people out enjoying the bright sunny weather.

Squeezed in behind the first line of boats at the port in Sillery
We had to tie the back end of the boat to a boulder but as the cut was so wide at the port we felt safe from the wake of passing commercials.  Coupled with that they would be travelling slowly as we were near a lock.  In fact, one came through just after we moored and we hardly felt it at all.

On Monday we cruised ten kilometres up four locks.

Reims (eavesdropping on the radio)

The dragon ladies of Reims
When Karen & Buddy were on their morning run on Friday Karen rang me to suggest I could leave and meet her a few kilometres upstream at the first lock of the day.  This was a good idea, indeed one we both rejected earlier for a reason neither of us could remember, as it would save some time on the longish journey we had planned for the day.  There was a hitch, a commercial was just coming out of the lock where we were moored and as he was laden, he would hinder our progress.  So, I said no and we left when she returned 30 minutes later.

Friday was another one of those days where the forecast promised much, full sun all day and temperatures 20+.  The sun hardly made an appearance and I doubt the temperatures reached more than 16 so it was on with a coat for much of the journey.

After a few kilometres we were at the first lock.  This was one of four in a chain meaning that once you get in the chain, the following locks set themselves ready for you. 

Flowers beginning to go over on the lock bridges
As I approached the lock, I could just see the commercial leaving it and ended up following him to the outskirts of Reims leaving about a kilometre gap between us.  One of his mates was obviously on a boat in front of him but out of sight as they were having a good old radio conversation on the ship to ship channel.  It’s always funny listening in to these conversations; they tend to speak really fast so consequently only about a tenth of the words are recognisable, so you don’t get much of an idea what they’re chatting about. 

I just about made out that they were planning on meeting up on Sunday, but I couldn’t work out where or at what time.  At least I didn’t hear them mention the péniche Anglais or the bateau saucisson 😉   

We pulled in at Port Colbert for lunch and tucked ourselves right at the end of the quay, so we were out of the way of the long line of commercials that were in various stages of loading and unloading.
After lunch we carried on and stopped at a supermarket the other side of Port Colbert.  I know we normally do a food shop on a Monday but as we could moor right next to this one it was ideal to stock up on bulky items.

Next stop was practically in the centre of town where a couple of bollards are provided by a fuel station.  I just did the two trips with the trolley and jerry cans and put 80 litres into the tank.  I could have got more but with such a busy road to cross and walk along decided to leave the rest until we are in Châlons-en-Champagne next weekend.

Moored for diesel
The next stop would be the last of the day back at some bollards on the far side of the port at Reims. We have stayed on them before as it's handy for walking into town and also close to the stadium for tomorrow night’s match.  Karen & Buddy walked this last stretch as Buddy had been cooped up on the back of the boat most of the day.

Just before reaching the port at Reims there is a narrow section which is not wide enough for two large boats to pass but fine for us to pass one OK of course.

On the narrow stretch through Reims
On Friday we cruised 18 kilometres up four locks.

My first breakfast on Saturday contained a surprise; a birthday candle 😊

My daily pain au chocolate with an embellishment
The path opposite the boat had plenty of runners going up and down before the sun was up and, as it was Saturday, the rowers were setting off on their practice runs from about eight o’clock. 

Even the local dragon boat ladies were up early
Give them their due they were keeping perfect rhythm as they went off down the cut accompanied by the beat of a drum from the front.  They must have been fit too as they were gone for a good 40 minutes.

Following a long leisurely breakfast, we settled down to watch the England – New Zealand game and this was the first we have managed to watch live as opposed to on catch up which, for an unaccountable reason, added to the trepidation excitement.

As one of our Southampton supporting sons said after the match, ‘At least Saints didn’t lose by as many as New Zealand’.

After lunch we went for a walk up the cut and then out to the north east of Reims to find the large Parc de Champagne.  Considering Reims markets itself on being the capital of Champagne (other towns have the same claim), we have seen very few champagne houses here; however, on the way we passed Veuve Cliquot which seemed to have a few visiting tourists even this late in the season.

Looking across Reims from one of the Veuve Cliquot show vineyards 
It was a lovely warm day and we were surprised that when we entered the park it seemed practically empty.

Just a few people sitting on the benches
As we went further in, we could hear a loudspeaker and soon found that a cycling competition was deep in progress.  It was a sort of obstacle race through the woods, paths and grassy areas as the circuit contained steps where the competitors had to dismount and run carrying their bikes.  Anyway, it was exceedingly popular, and it seemed that everyone who would normally be promenading or picnicking in the park were spectating instead.  We watched for a while and then continued our walk.

After an early dinner we joined the crowds walking to the stadium to see our first French football game.  Rather ironically Reims are third in Ligue 1 (the French top league) whereas our UK team is third from bottom of the premiership.  Although there were no goals we 're still glad we went and fortunately Reims are red & white like Southampton so we could wear our supporter's scarves.

Sunday will probably be a stay at home day, at least for the rugby, as we're expecting rain.

Cauroy-lès-Hermonville (another Chalkhill Blue?)

Back on a canal and on the nice new moorings for lunch on Wednesday
After Karen returned from her run on Wednesday morning, we set off for Cys-la-Commune where we reckoned we could have a good walk around a couple of remote villages.   I may have already mentioned that as this is a busy commercial canal there are very few places to moor.  On our way down a few days ago we had noticed that some new bollards had been installed below the lock at Cys-la-Commune making it an ideal stopping place for our walk.

The weather wasn’t wall to wall sun as we were expecting but it was pleasant enough and the clouds became fewer and fewer during the day.  At least it was back to temperatures that keep the butterflies on the wing.  I forgot to mention that yesterday was probably the first day we saw none on the wing since early spring, but it was foggy most of the day and didn’t warm up enough when the fog cleared.  Today it was still the usual late summer suspects plus a painted lady.  This quite surprised me as I had thought they would be well on their way back south to North Africa by now.

Passing through Vailly-sur-Aisne soon after setting off
Our walk was really peaceful with only the odd car and tractor on the roads and we saw nobody out in the villages.  Well, that’s not quite true as a couple of dogs and a goose were barking/squawking madly at us as we walked past a house.  A woman came out to calm the animals down and apologise to us, but we said it was OK.  We then realised that we were practically at the end of the village and needed to turn around which meant it would be a bit embarrassing as we would set them off again.

The main street in Rhû
The three villages we visited were little more than farming settlements but were all very well kept and felt quite wealthy like the Champagne villages.  We also found a lavoir in Rhû:

More pictures of the lavoir can be found by clicking here
The lavoir had a sign saying that it is prohibited to play in the water in the basin and (according to my translation) that the plants would be deposited in the gendarmerie!

Large church for the size of the community at Saint-Mard
Looking along the Aisne valley from Saint-Mard
As much as we had a lovely mooring, we both felt that we should carry on cruising after lunch.  We still had 50 kilometres to go to get to Reims by the end of Friday so it would be good to make some inroads into the distance left to travel.

Autumn is on its way
When we reached the last lock of the day, the lights weren’t working so it meant a call to VNF.  I was glad we weren’t back at the lock at Cys-la-Commune as that is lock number five and called écluse Cys which is pronounced the same as the French six.  We have noticed that the éclusiers and control centres refer to the locks by their names and not thier numbers.  It could have been a confusing conversation trying explain which lock was at fault 😉 Fortunately we were at écluse la Cendrière which was number four.  The call-out service has been really reliable on this canal and a guy arrived in his van within ten minutes and set the lock for us from his control post.

Once through the lock we turned onto the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne to moor on the pontoon that we stayed at when we came through.  Stupidly we forgot there was a really strong flow here and it took us ages to bring the back in when mooring.  We should have spun the boat around first to face the flow, secured the front and then brought the back in as we would on a river.  

The flow was so strong, that we both thought it was stronger than any of the rivers we have been on over here.  It seems a terrible waste of water of which there is very little this year.  Selfishly, we have been wondering how our cruising plans for next year will be affected if there isn't an appreciable amount of rain this winter.

Moored for Wednesday night at Bourg-et-Comin
We knew the water wasn't working at this mooring as we checked last time but we didn't check if the electricity was working.  Out of interest I checked both this time and the water was still off but the electricity was on.  We didn't really need electricity as we had done all our washing in Soissons but connected up anyway to keep the batteries topped up.  It was a bit ironic really because if it had been cold we could have used the fan heater too.  We did try it a couple of times during the evening but turned it off pretty quickly as it really wasn't needed.

On Wednesday we cruised 13 kilometres up three locks.

Karen caught this just before sunrise on Thursday morning
As the sun came up, we were watching a kingfisher hovering over the water and then flying to a perch opposite the boat and then off to hover again.  It did this many times and is the first time we have seen a kingfisher hovering. In fact, we haven’t even seen one dive into the water although we have seen a few perched on branches with their catch, small fish or dragonflies, in their beaks.  Considering the number of kingfishers we see it’s surprising we haven’t seen one going in the water.

I was reading Ian & Helen’s blog (nb Leo) over coffee and was intrigued to see they had spotted another Chalkhill Blue and, no, it wasn’t our first boat either.

Another Chalkhill Blue at the bottom of Foxton locks
The colour reflected the main wing colour of the male butterfly and, judging by the CRT number the boat was relatively new.

Our aim for Thursday was to eat up a good chunk of the 44 kilometres we had left to get to Reims by Friday evening so we can have a weekend without moving.  It promised to be a gorgeous day and it turned out that way too other than a few dark clouds rolling in when we were having lunch at Berry-au-Bac.

Lovely blue skies
Plenty of butterflies were flying and flitting around and we had many passing visitors to the boat flowers including small tortoiseshell, comma, red admiral and speckled wood.  Along the towpath we saw the usual whites and a few peacocks, but the most plentiful yet again were clouded yellows.  I called today ‘Clouded yellow & kingfisher day’ after the number of kingfishers and clouded yellows we saw.  Other water-based birds of note during our cruise were cormorants and grey herons.  

Karen spent a while indoors during the first part of the cruise baking yet more things with our walnut haul.  This is a walnut pie which was delicious with cream after lunch…

…and for dinner we had leek, goats’ cheese, walnut & lemon tart, which we both agreed was well worth repeating.  

We moored for lunch at Berry-au-Bac where I discovered why there was such a flow of water at last night’s mooring.  Berry is at the upstream end of a 20-kilometre pound that runs down to Bourg-et-Comin and over the River Aisne on an aqueduct.  As the pound is so long it is at the same height as the Aisne at the upstream end, so a cut from the river was built to supply water to the canal.

The water is flowing in fast down the cut from the river on the right
While we were having lunch a commercial moored up in front of us and as we left for the lock, we saw the couple on board unloading their car.

She held onto a line to steady the crane that he was operating with a remote control from the bank.  The whole operation only took a couple of minutes but then I suppose they have been doing it for years.

Once we were up the top of the lock, we took on water as there was a tap and hose by the lock cottage.  We handed in our télécommande to the éclusier on duty as were about to join the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne where we will be back to operating the locks by using the twisty poles positioned 100 metres before the locks.

About to leave the Canal latéral à l'Aisne and onto the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne
Although this canal has some long straight stretches like the previous one down to the River Aisne, it does have quite a few bends to break up the long straights.  Mind you we haven’t found the long straights of these northern French canals tedious, as we thought we might, mainly because the views of the countryside are so beautiful. 

A bendy bit
The first few locks on this canal had clearly been rebuilt recently and the new bollards and operating rods were at the ends of the locks which is really awkward for a narrowboat.  They are ideal for commercials as they fill the complete lock and will have someone at either end.  We’re not complaining as we appreciate the canals are commercial, but it’s just something extra to be aware of when we’re locking.

Lock cottage needing love and attention at one of the refurbished locks
At several of the locks, not only did Karen have to be on the roof to get a line over a bollard as they were deep, she then had to get up the ladder and walk down to one end to pull on the operating rod. 

Another of the refurbished locks – Karen pulling on the rod
Karen and Buddy walked for the last few kilometres and we met up just before the last lock of the day.

Cruising through Cormicy
We moored up for the night in a lovely quiet spot just above the lock with the nearest village, Cauroy-lès-Hermonville, about two kilometres away.

Moored for Thursday night
On Thursday we covered 26 kilometres up six locks passing many commercials but once again there were no pleasure boats on the move.