Seracourt-le-Grand (our very own island)

"Are we really going down there?" said Karen

Our current cruising schedule is set by a lock further up the Canal de St Quentin that’s closing for maintenance for a month from 15th September. We plan to get past it by the 12th and we’re still on track to do that.  Saturday’s target was to reach a place called St-Simon with a probable lunch stop at Jussy.

Leaving Quessy on Saturday morning

We had three locks to ascend before reaching Jussy and only the left-hand lock of each pair was in service.

No entry sign on right-hand lock

Unless commercials are loading or unloading somewhere on the Canal de St Quentin itself then, since its opening in 1960, they use the Canal du Nord instead.  Because this means greatly reduced traffic, we assume VNF tend to only keep one of each pair of locks in operation.

Karen and Buddy got off as we came up the third lock intending to walk the rest of the way to Jussy.  Even though there had been a good service road alongside ever since we started on the Canal de St Quentin, it ran out after they passed the first village. The further they went the more overgrown any remaining path became and, as walking through brambles and nettles isn’t a good idea when wearing shorts, we decided I should try and get the boat alongside to pick them up.

Buddy leading the way

As can be seen, the bank had become quite high and steep and I couldn’t find anywhere to pick them up.  The only place was where there was a pipe outlet.  I just got the back in against the bank when the pipe started spewing water and soaked my feet.  It still wasn’t possible to get them, so they soldiered on.

Getting away from the spewing pipe

To make matters worse it started raining but as we neared Jussy the bank had been cut and the going was easier until they were able to meet me at a silo quay where we moored for lunch.

Of course, it stopped raining as soon as we had tied up

After lunch we had a look around Jussy

Typically quiet main street

The church, mairie and war memorial were all designed along lines we hadn’t come across before:

Flowerless mairie

Uncharacteristic looking war memorial

The massive statue looks like she’s putting the shot

When we got back to the boat we ummed and aaahed about whether to stay at Jussy or get to the island as originally planned.  We were prevaricating because, although it was bright and sunny there were some dark clouds on the way.  In the end we decided to leave as we fancied having our own island to explore.

The banks were still cut so Karen & Buddy walked again but it started raining after half an hour or so.  It wasn’t cool enough for Karen to wear wet weather gear so, as the rain started getting heavier, I pulled up to get them on.  By the time we put the parasol up it was a bit late, so it was on with the coats as well.

At least we could laugh about it

The island is at the junction with the Canal de la Somme and acts as a triangular roundabout.  I should say acted as the 16 km at this end of the canal down to the Canal du Nord closed in 2006.  The remaining 150km continues west out to the English Channel as the canalised River Somme and, French reconfinement permitting, we hope to get down there in a few weeks after we’ve been down the Canal du Nord.  

We are obviously keeping a close eye on the situation in France as restrictions are put in place at a département level. We are currently in Aisne (02) which is green and has no restrictions.  We will have to think very carefully about going into somewhere that is blue, orange or red as we don’t want to be in a position where we’re stuck somewhere because we're not allowed to move.

We rounded a corner and could just make out the junction and island ahead.  It looked to me as if a boat was already moored on the island but Karen wasn’t convinced.  It was difficult to tell, even with the binoculars, as mist was rising up from the water from the rain.  As we were by a grain silo with bollards that weren’t too far apart for us, we decided to moor up and walk down to have a look.  If the island wasn’t free, then we could always stay at the silo overnight.

Hopefully a temporary mooring

At least it had stopped raining so we could have a little explore as well as check on the mooring situation.  Karen was right about the boat; it was moored on the far side of the junction on the bank facing the rear of the island.

Karen’s supposition was correct - boat against far bank on the left

The unused part of the junction was heavily weeded as you can see.  While we’ve been cruising on the St Quentin, we’ve noticed how weedy the canal is but as it is quite wide, we’ve been following a channel down the centre. I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of not many commercials, if any, using this route as they usually help to keep the weed growth down.

Confirmation that the first 16km is now closed

The first lock on the now abandoned section of the Canal de la Somme

As the island was indeed free, we went back to the boat and moved on down.

Moored on our private island

There were picnic tables and a barbecue area in a cleared area in the middle

On Saturday we cruised nine miles up three locks and saw one boat on the move, a lovely yellow Dutch barge that passed us as we set off from Quessy first thing.

We left as soon as we finished breakfast on Sunday as the best part of the day was meant to be in the morning.  We were heading for Seraucourt-le-Grand to find a mooring down a dead-end that Pam & Charles stopped at when they came over six years ago and looked idyllic in their photos.  We had heard that it’s now all overgrown with weed and so no one has been down there this year.  If that turned out to be the case then our back up plan was to continue on to the town of St Quentin.  Just before we left, a Canadian couple came by on a pleasure cruiser, so we let them get ahead before setting off.

Looking back at the island and the permanent boats at the start of the Canal de la Somme

This part of the canal now follows the valley of the River Somme right up to the summit level north of St Quentin.

Enjoying the unexpected sun during our Sunday cruise

Our télécommande wasn’t working at the first lock, or rather the lock wasn’t registering our request to go up. As we got closer Karen spotted an éclusier in the control room and then the red and green lights came on to indicate the lock was being set for us.  When we got into the lock the young guy explained that this and the next few locks weren’t working properly so he would be taking us through them as far as St Quentin and then a colleague would take over.  He was a lovely and helpful guy, as they all are, but had such a broad accent that it was embarrassingly difficult to understand what he was saying.  When I thanked him for helping us through, I just managed to work out that he said it was no problem as it was all part of his job.

When we got to the next lock, he couldn’t get the bottom gates to close once we were in.  This is when it got really difficult to understand what he was saying especially as he was getting excited and speaking even faster.  In the end we cottoned on that there was so much weed behind the gates that they wouldn’t fully open and therefore the sensors thought they were closed and prevented any attempt to actually close them.

Éclusier removing the weed

With the bottom gates still open he opened all the paddles in the top gates to try and flush the weed out.

Flushing water through

The paddles were open a good 15 minutes so it was lucky the pound above wasn’t a short one otherwise it would have started going down quickly.  He got most of the weed out in the end and the gates started closing.

Weed released from behind the gate

We had both been thinking that none of the locks had looked well cared for along this canal and even the lock cottage gardens weren’t particularly attractive.  Karen described everything as 'functional', which I thought was a good description.  It has got us wondering whether VNF are letting the canal run into the ground now the commercials use the larger and more modern Canal du Nord that runs parallel to it.  We do hope not as it is quite picturesque, especially for northern France, and it would be a shame to see a part of French heritage disappear.  

We soon arrived at Seraucourt-le-Grand and found the four pipes that Guy & Ardon said they had moored to overnight on their way down last week.  There was a fisherman in front of us but he soon packed his kit into his car and left once we moored up.  We found that a bit strange as fishermen seem to like fishing by moored boats.

Moored to pipes

After lunch we walked to the arm that wasn’t meant to be navigable, just to see what we thought.  Although it was choked right across in places there were parts of the 500-metre-long arm that looked like there was a narrow channel.  The mooring at the end was peaceful too, so we thought we may as well go for it.  If we found we couldn’t get into the entrance then we could always reverse out and it wasn’t as if we were in danger of getting hurt.  To be honest we just fancied the adventure and a chance to be intrepid.

Getting ready to turn right

Karen sat in the front and used a barge pole to move weed off to the side as it built up against the bows.

It was slow going but we made it and the basin at the end was pretty clear of weed so it really was a pleasant spot to stay for the rest of the day.  A happy family had come out of their house as we made our way down and were waving madly as if to cheer us on.  The fisherman who’d moved away from us earlier had set up in the basin and as we moored up starting packing up again – a sort of counterbalance to the happy family.

Our basin mooring

As the expected rain hadn’t arrived, we decided to set straight off for a walk, in case it came later.  We crossed the River Somme at the entrance to the village of Seraucourt-le-Grand and then walked up the hill behind it to find a British WWI cemetery.

Only needed one picture to get the church and mairie in!

The cemetery was relatively small, containing the remains of just under 1,400 British and two Canadian soldiers.  As usual it was really well maintained under the auspices of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  No doubt we will be banned from using the word Commonwealth if the current madness of hiding from world history continues.

On the way back we tried to walk around one of the many lakes that can be found in the area but had to turn back when we came to a dead end.  The clouds started rolling in when we were nearly home, and we didn’t quite escape the rain when it arrived.  At least we managed to see some butterflies before the sun disappeared including an unusual dwarf form of a speckled wood.

Speckled wood but no scale to show its dwarfism

In rained on and off for the rest of the evening so we spent it indoors, much of the time watching a couple and three children happily fishing and eating in the rain.

On Sunday we cruised four miles up two locks and the only boat we saw was the Canadian cruiser that passed us first thing in the morning.

Quessy (we did it our way)

Sunrise on Thursday at Guny

Guy & Ardon were leaving early on Thursday morning and popped around to say goodbye as we were having breakfast.  We were going to get on the move too but wanted to have a look at the village of Guny first; having stayed there overnight it felt almost rude not to pay a visit.  Like so many villages, the boulangerie was closed down and replaced by a baguette machine in the square.  It seemed to be doing a roaring trade, but we thought that probably because we were out a lot earlier than we would be normally.  It was mainly a collection of farm buildings and, other than the mairie and church, there wasn’t much else to the village, so we went back to get ready to leave.

We were heading to the northern end of the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne where, for some reason I had it fixed in my mind, the canal crossed the River Oise on a stunning aqueduct.  So that was our target for the lunchtime stop. As we neared the end, the forest of the last few days started thinning out and we could begin to see open countryside again.

End of the forest

By the time we arrived at the aqueduct the sun had burnt through the cloud cover and we found an ideal spot to moor. Ideal for us is somewhere where nothing can come past whether walkers, cyclists or vehicles.  This means Buddy can be left outside the boat without us worrying if he is bothering anyone or getting in the way of traffic.

'Ideal' mooring for lunch by the aqueduct over the Oise

As it was a bit early for lunch we had a walk first to take in the aqueduct and the junction with the next canal, the Canal latéral à l’Oise which, as its name implies, runs parallel with the River Oise.  As the aqueduct was the first thing we came to we looked for a way down from the canal to the river below.  We tried both sides, but the undergrowth was so thick there was no way down.  As it was, the aqueduct wasn’t the amazing sight of many arches stretching over 100 metres or so that I had in my mind, just a trough on concrete pillars.

Not the aqueduct of my imagination

We then carried onto the junction and found an interesting railway bridge in that we couldn’t find out (not even on the internet later) what was carried on it.

Bridge at the junction at the end of the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne

What was carried over the canal here? 

After lunch we carried on to Chauny, our final destination for the day, but first we had to drop down the final lock.  Its lock cottage had been demolished but the information plate that would have been set above the front door was proudly displayed in a plinth beside the lock.

Information plate from the demolished lock cottage

Going down the last lock on the Canal de l’Oise à ‘Aisne

We turned right at the junction to travel the last three kilometres of the latéral de l’Oise to the port at Chauny where it joins the Canal de St Quentin.

Arriving at the port in Chauny

Opposite the port was a 300-metre-long concrete quay with plenty of sensibly spaced bollards.  There were only two other boats and a sightseeing boat moored there so there was plenty of room for us.

Moored on the concrete quay

As it was a concrete quay, in the middle of a town and no grass around it wasn’t particularly suitable for Buddy so will probably move on tomorrow.  We checked out the town later and it turned out to be busier than other places we have visited of late with people shopping in a long high street that stretched from the canal towards a large park at the far end.

Floral display on bridge over canal

After crossing the railway line, we arrived at a roundabout that had three large monkeys in the middle.  The monkey is the emblem of Chauny and reading up on it later we found that there are at least three different legends as to the reason the monkey is the chosen emblem.  We like the one that says that when they wanted to populate the many waterways in Chauny with swans that they asked Paris to send some.  In those days monkey was spelt ‘cynge’ in French (nowadays it is ‘singe’); this was either misspelt or mistaken for ‘cygne’, the French word for swan!

Three monkey swans in front of the Notre Dame

Dogs weren’t allowed in either the large park at the top end of town nor another one we found so we continued walking the streets.  The market hall was an attractive building as was the mairie or hôtel de ville as they are called in towns. The current hôtel de ville was built in 1931 to replace the earlier one that had been completely destroyed in the earlier war.  Many of the buildings in the town were rebuilt in a similar style too.

Hôtel de ville

Chauny has two churches, this was the other one, that was also had to be extensively rebuilt.

Église St Martin

After exploring the town, we headed along the Canal de St Quentin in search of an abandoned waterway.  The St Quentin canal originally joined the River Oise in Chauny but when the latéral à l’Oise canal was built the river became unnavigable and so the link to the river fell into disuse.

Walking up to the first (or final) lock on the St Quentin

Above the locks we branched right towards the Oise and eventually found what we were looking for.

Abandoned lock on the canal that used to link the St Quentin with the River Oise

Later in the day we were contacted by Helen; she and Peter are friends from the village where we used to live in Kent.  They have a house in the south of France and always try and pop in to see us on their way down there.  Helen had been reading the last blog update where we recounted our visit to Coucy-le-Château.  It had taken her back to the 1960s when their annual family holidays were taken in Switzerland.  They used to drive down and every year they would stay at the Bellevue hotel in the upper town of Coucy on the way down and also on the way back.  She said it brought back such happy memories and sent us some pictures of a few items left from those times.

The hotel’s business card from the 1960s 

On Thursday we cruised nine miles down one lock and saw a day boat and a commercial on the move.

Friday dawned bright and sunny as we started on our journey to travel the length of the Canal de St Quentin.  The 93km long canal was opened in 1810 and runs from Chauny at the southern end up to Cambrai where it joins the River Escaut.  It is a Freycinet gauge canal which means it takes boats with a maximum length of 39 metres.  Until the larger, intermediate gauge Canal du Nord was opened in 1960 the St Quentin was the only route to the extensive canal network of northern France.   Strangely the Canal du Nord wasn’t built to the largest gauge so is limited to boats up to 90 metres in length, because of this it too is being replaced.  Its replacement, the Seine – Nord Europe canal is currently due to open at the end of this decade and will take boats up to 185 metres in length as found on the Seine and other large rivers of Europe.

As with some canals in the UK, such as stretches of the Trent & Mersey and Grand Union, the locks on the St Quentin were doubled up in the early 1900s to cope with the volume of traffic.  There are 35 locks on the canal, all paired, and two tunnels including the longest surviving canal tunnel in France where, incidentally, boats have to be towed through.

By the time we actually set off the clouds had rolled in and the sun had gone although it was appearing again by lunch time.  We were reminded of Chris & Sue who nearly always get rained on when they cruise during the summer months, although we didn’t get rained on so not really à la Hutchins.  As we left the port we passed the point where the latéral à l’Oise joins the St Quentin.  It was marked by a kilometre stone that also confirmed the length of the canal as 92.542 kilometres.

The start (or end) of the St Quentin

A little further on we saw where the original canal used to drop down to the River Oise via the abandoned lock we found yesterday.

Original canal a lot narrower than when it was widened when the locks were doubled up

Unusually the locks had lock landings, but the bollards were massive and 40 metres apart so not suitable for pleasure boats.

Lock landing with commercial sized bollards

The télécommande we used on the last canal also works on the locks up to the summit of the St Quentin where it has to be handed back.  The only difference being that as the locks were in pairs we had to wait for the appropriate lights to indicate which lock to approach.  The idea is that the right hand locks are for going upstream but it wasn't always the case.  After going up the fourth lock we reached a junction where a branch of the St Quentin goes off right to join the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise.

Turning left into a lock to continue up the St Quentin

The locks generally had two lock cottages; the second ones were added when the locks were doubled up.  Most of the original cottages still have their information plates showing the name and number of the lock as well as the distances to the next lock and major town in each direction.

Information plate at écluse 29, ‘Fargniers I’Add caption

After three more locks we started looking for somewhere to moor.  The banks had far more bollards than we’ve seen before, but they were at least 40 metres apart so no use for us.  In the end we found two that were 20 metres apart at a place called Quessy which was just outside the towns of Tergnier and Fargniers that were divided by the canal.  We decided to go for it and moored up for the rest of the day.

Moored on the only pair of bollards close enough

After lunch we did a bit of research to find out where we should walk for the afternoon.  We knew we weren’t far from a big railway yard and also a model village built for the 1,500 or so railway workers.  There were also the expected memorials to the world wars but for some reason we couldn’t find out the locations.  For example, there would be an explanation in great detail about the Veltin school being bombed and how the clock on the tower survived but stopped working.  The account then went on to describe how the clock was incorporated into a new building and still shows the time of the raid but no description of where the school could be found.  In the end we decided to investigate on our own.

It wasn’t long before we came across a fishing lake in Quessy, but as there were quite a few fishermen there we had to keep Buddy on a lead as we walked around.

Half the fishing lake

We then came back to the canal and crossed it to find the railway goods yard.  In the end we couldn’t miss it and it looked fully operational with shunters moving wagons around. 

Goods yard

We then read an information board on the bridge over the tracks which gave information about an air raid in 1944 when 50 lines were blocked, and 16 locomotives destroyed.  The Germans were using the yard as a hub for supplying arms etc. to their forces occupying northern France.  On the night of 10th August, 789 British bombers raided four railway hubs in France and one in Belgium; 19 planes didn’t return.

We then carried on and found the model village that was built for the railway workers and learnt the sad fact that on that same night, ¾ of the houses were also destroyed by the British planes.   

Some of the model village houses…
…and a few more

Just around the corner we found the Veltin clock.  It was at the top of a tower on a building that houses a dance school. 

A plaque outside reiterated that the clock stopped on the night of 10th August when ¾ of the “railway workers’ wonderful homes” were destroyed.   

Apart from having a delightful evening in the sun together (Karen does read this sometimes) the only other thing of note was three ladies coming over to the boat to take pictures.  They brought a small table with them and used it to display meringues and tarts they had made.  For some reason they wanted the Chalkhill Blue butterfly on the side of the boat as the backdrop to their pictures.

On Friday we cruised six miles up seven locks and saw four boats on the move, all commercials.