Châlons-en-Champagne (here we go again)

Châlons lock - our last before reconfinement

We set off as soon as we felt safe enough to travel on Thursday morning; we didn’t want to risk a commercial not seeing us even with navigation lights on.  It was dry and mild so good cruising weather even if we didn’t see much sun. 

A VNF van appeared at the first lock and an éclusier came over to talk with us as VNF wanted to be sure that we knew about the reconfinement and that we wouldn’t be allowed to cruise.  He also needed to check where we were heading and that we could get there in time.  After ascending the lock, Karen and Buddy walked alongside on the towpath for a while.

It was a sad feeling knowing that this was probably our last cruise of 2020 but at least we knew we were going to reach a place of safety and not be stuck somewhere without easy access to food and water.  The sun was rising as we went under the A26, or the Autoroute des Anglais as the 222-mile-long motorway from Calais to Troyes is known.  A bit ironic this year as there will have been far fewer Brits using it than usual.

Autoroute des Anglais

Karen and Buddy got back on for the final stretch into Châlons which, if an office block hadn’t been built in front of the cathedral, would’ve afforded one of the better views coming into a town from a boat in France.  The last straight into town, coming from the north, is about three kilometres long and the cathedral sits dead centre in front of the boat,   Well, the office block sits dead centre with the spires and top of the roof of the cathedral poking over the top.  

Buddy watching probably our last cruise of 2020

The lock in Châlons also acts as a control centre for issues on the local waterways.  Consequently, it is permanently manned (or womanned as it was today) and details are taken of each boat, its recent journey and where it is going. The port we were heading for was on an old stretch of the river just to the left after going through the lock.  We could see that the port was full and that the only spare space was the one we’d reserved right on the end overlooking the Grand Jard.  This was the spot we occupied during confinement and had wonderful views across the park.  During those months the park had been closed and we were able to see the wildlife taking over; this time, the parks are still open so it may be a little different.   

Guy & Ardon on Vindi, Bill & Jane on Lazybones and Paul & Sue on Flubs had been moored up for winter for a good few weeks now and looked very settled.  There were also two motor yachts with French couples on board but otherwise all the other boats were empty and locked away for winter and who knows how long that will last or when any of us will be able to cruise again.

As soon as Buddy saw Lazybones and Flubs, he was beside himself with joy as he knew he would start getting treats again.  He was a bit perturbed to find that Puddleduck with Nikki & Gorete (and Bailey) weren’t moored next to us though.  They are safely moored in Bruges for the winter and we hope to be able to see them on a return trip from the UK.

Buddy was straight back to his favourite spot on the pontoon

The reconfinement is very similar to last time other than the parks being open still but it’s not clear yet how long that will last.  We now have new forms to complete for any travel away from the home which, in our case, can only be for food shopping or exercise.  Once again, exercise is limited to one hour a day and within a one-kilometre radius.

The immediate impact on us is that we have had to postpone going down to Barcelona to see Cat and also the stopover we were having with Mike & Aileen in Lot-et-Garonne on our way down.  Being a different time of the year will also have an impact.  We were lucky in the spring as we were able to sit out on the pontoon with the girls most afternoons sharing stories and bottles of rosé.  It became quite a habit as we did boat and life chores during the mornings and relaxed in the afternoons and evenings and we also made a pact that rosé isn’t really alcoholic.

As travel was being banned from Friday, in the evening I caught a train to Épernay to fetch the car.  The train was packed with lots of people and their suitcases, but I was able to find somewhere on my own to keep a safe distance and it was only a 15-minute journey anyway.  Since then we’ve read about the record traffic jams in Paris and other cities like Lyon as people were escaping to their second homes or to relatives living in the country.  This was made worse by many other city dwellers returning after their annual two-week October holidays, hence my packed train which was bound for Paris.

Bernard and his wife had looked after our car and were glad we had made it back in time.  They were sorry we hadn’t managed to get to them on the boat this time but there’s always next year.

The car’s daily view of the pretentious tower of the Castellane champagne house

Karen had gone food shopping while I fetched the car and, although there weren’t many people in the supermarket, she was amazed at the queues outside all the hairdressers in town.  People were getting their final cuts before the salons all closed down on Friday.

On Thursday we covered eight miles up two locks bringing our total French cruising since the end of the first confinement to 838 miles through 257 locks and five tunnels.

France 2020 – starting and ending in Châlons-en-Champagne (the yellow star)

When we awoke on Friday we were reminded how fortunate we are to have such a pleasant mooring; we love our views across to the park.  The sights and sounds will be different no doubt as we head into winter compared to our sojourn here earlier in the year.

Our pre-sunrise view from the side hatch on Friday morning

As Friday was our first day under the new regime the first thing we did was to check the new rules.  We have to complete an attestation each time we go outside whether to go to the supermarket or to have our once-a-day one hour walk with Buddy.  I prefer to complete an online version on my phone while Karen prefers a printed form.  We have printed some forms out with Karen’s details on, so she just needs to tick the reason for travel and then add a date and time stamp before she goes out.   

Back in springtime when Karen’s back was still playing up, we weren’t walking so fast and therefore couldn’t do our favourite circular walk within the allowed hour.  This walk followed the River Marne upstream, crossed a field to the canal latéral à la Marne which we then followed back to the port.  We were pleased today that now Karen’s back has returned to normal we were able to complete it in just under an hour so it can become part of the daily ritual even though it breaks the one kilometre radius rule.

We noticed that the dozen or so people we passed on our walk were all wearing masks even though we were out in the countryside.  Previously we hardly ever saw walkers wearing masks and mask wearers were generally only seen outside when in town centres.  Whatever your views are on the wearing of masks I imagine it would feel most uncomfortable or impolite choosing not to wear one when out walking now.

With 23 hours a day on the boat it seems to be the ideal time to be getting on with those jobs that always get put off.  Of course, it’s much easier to create job lists that to actually work through them so most of the morning was spent doing that.  A replacement PCB that I’d ordered for the washing machine had arrived in the port so I spent some time replacing the old one.  Sadly, it was to no avail so we will have to take the machine back with us to the UK and get it fixed under its guarantee which is only valid there.

While I was doing some outside jobs I could hear a lot of banging going on inside the boat.  When I came inside I found the reason for the noise, Karen had started opening the walnuts that have been through the drying process over the last few weeks.

One of the first jars from this year's crop

In case you were wondering, we don't just have a lot of coffee and walnut cake, there are many recipes out there that call for walnuts.  For example, we had a delicious leek, walnut and goat cheese tart for dinner.  

Vraux (reconfinement looms)

As it was my birthday on Monday, my morning pain au chocolate came complete with a candle on top.  Karen hadn’t realised she had bought the ‘magic’ type, so it was as much a surprise to her as it was to me when I blew it out only for it to relight again.  She had also been really sweet and made a string of bunting from paper she’d cut out and coloured in and then hung around the dinette.  If I didn’t know otherwise, I would’ve jumped to the conclusion that she used to work in marketing as her cutting and pasting was so good.

We had a few phone calls and other admin things to do after breakfast but with a lovely sunny day ahead we set off once we’d completed our tasks.  We weren’t sure where we were going to get to by the end of the day but knew we would like to get at least as far as the tunnel at Billy-le-Grand on the summit.

Karen and Buddy started off by walking alongside and we were soon at the final lock on the northern side of the summit.  After I twisted the pole to set the lock operation in motion it emptied very quickly but the gates refused to open.  Karen was up at the lock side and could hear the mechanism trying to open the gates but with no success, so she tried a trick we’ve come across before.  She stood on each gate in turn and jumped up and down.  It seemed to do the trick at the second attempt, and they started opening.

I waited for the gates to open fully and for the green light to appear before going in but something seemed to be stuck behind one of the gates as it wasn’t opening fully.  In the end I went in so we could tie up and call VNF.  As soon as the front of the boat started going past the sensors, two red lights came on to indicate that the lock was out of service as we'd gone in when the green light wasn't on, but we weren’t worried as we knew this would happen.  Karen was just about to take a line from me when she saw an éclusier come out of the lock cottage and walk to his van.  She called him and explained the situation and he popped into the control room to sort things out for us by overriding the automatic controls. 

We stopped for lunch alongside some silos at a place called Sept-Saulx.

Buddy enjoying the sun while we had lunch

Mooring at Sept-Saulx meant we have now stopped at all but one of the 20 recognised spots for pleasure boats on this 35-mile-long canal.  The only spot we haven’t stopped at is on the other side of the tunnel at Vaudemange and that’s because it is full of abandoned and permanent boats.

Over lunch we decided to continue on to the waiting quay at the tunnel and, if the phone signal was OK, we would stop there for the night.  We had some more calls to make and needed to be sure of getting a good signal; we seemed to remember that when we stopped there before that the signal wasn’t that good.  Once the tunnel portal came into view, we could see the light was on red and we got ready to moor up as the phone signal appeared to be good enough.  As we started to pull in, the light went green and I waved to indicate we weren’t coming through and the light reverted to red.

We had a little chuckle thinking about the person who sits in the control tower all day at the other end of the one-way tunnel.  There is a CCTV link so they can see boats coming from our direction and they control the passage through by switching the red and green lights at each end, on and off accordingly.  A commercial had passed us early in the morning so the tunnel operator had had nothing to do from when he went through until later in the afternoon when we appeared and even then he didn’t have to see us through.

A remote and quiet mooring at the tunnel

After afternoon tea and cake, we went off for a walk.  This was much to Buddy’s disgust as he had been waiting for his food from just before three o’clock. 

Confused boy

He had done the same thing on Sunday, clearly confused about the clocks going back.  What we couldn’t understand was why he was ready for his food two hours earlier rather than just the one.  We aren’t going to be cruel so we are slowly getting his mealtime back to the real five rather than making him wait.

Sadly, we opened our last bottle of decent Burgundy in the evening but at least it was most enjoyable.  We clearly hadn’t quite planned our requirements correctly when we were visiting vineyards in Bourgogne last year!

The last decent bottle😒
On Monday we cruised five miles up one lock.

When we got up on Tuesday morning the tunnel light was set to green in our direction so they either knew there was a boat on the way behind us or they had set it for us knowing there were no boats on their way up the eight locks on the other side of the tunnel.  It was still on green an hour later and, as no boat had come past us, we realised it was set for us so off we went which, at nine o’clock, was an early start for us.

When the 1½ mile long tunnel was first opened, horses used to tow boats through using the towpath built on one side of the tunnel.  Sometime later a steam engine was set up at one end that powered a continuous cable that ran the length of the tunnel and back above the towpath.  Boats were attached to the cable and were then pulled through.  In 1940 a rail track was laid along the towpath and a small engine used to tow boats through the tunnel and the steam engine method was dispensed with.  This method was seen as preferable to allowing boats to go through under their own power as there were no ventilation shafts in the tunnel and there was thus a danger of exhaust inhalation.

The rail track on the towing path

Large ventilation fans were installed in 1970 so since then boats can go through under their own power without danger of suffocation.  The towing train was then taken out of service, but the tracks are still used today during maintenance works.

Soon after the tunnel we passed the mooring I mentioned earlier, that we have never been able to use because of the permanent boats. 

Today was no different - still no room

Next, we had the flight of eight locks to go down which would take us onto the Canal latéral à la Marne at Condé-sur-Marne.  As they only cover a few kilometres they operate as a chain so once you’re in the system each subsequent lock sets itself automatically. 

We stopped in the bottom lock to take on water from a tap outside the lock cottage.  When we’d come up the flight just over 11 weeks ago, an old lady had come out of the cottage and told Karen that if we needed water we could use the tap by the cottage.  Karen had thanked her but declined as we’d recently taken on water but had marked up our guidebook to show that water was available.

The small gauge engine that used to pull the boats through Billy tunnel was on display at the lock.

At the bottom lock

Emerging from the lock,we turned right onto latéral canal that would take us down to join the River Marne at Épernay.  After turning onto the canal we could see the Marne running alongside every so often and found it hard to believe that three months ago we were swimming in the river; today felt quite bitter in contrast.

After a few more kilometres we pulled up at Tours-sur-Marne to stay for the rest of the day.

Moored at Tours-sur-Marne
Yes, that’s a line of walnut trees next to the boat and, even though she tried not to, Karen couldn’t help herself but have a look.  She’s made a pact though, to only collect super-large nuts but, unfortunately one of the trees was a ‘super-nutter’.

On Tuesday we cruised ten miles through nine locks and one tunnel.

With a potential French reconfinement on the cards from Thursday we’re having to rethink our plans.  We don’t want to suddenly find that we’re not allowed to move so feel we ought to get to Châlons-en-Champagne by the weekend.  We’re booked in at the port so we can leave the boat there when we go back to the UK over Christmas, if we’re allowed to travel of course.  We also need to pick up the car which we left in Épernay while we’ve been cruising this year.  With all this in mind we set off from Tours-sur-Marne for Épernay at around nine on Wednesday morning.

The Champagne village of Tours-sur-Marne
There was a lock to go down soon after we set off but as it was out of sight around a corner we couldn’t see if twisting the twisty pole had worked.  When the lock lights came into view the expected orange light wasn’t flashing; this is the light that says our request has been received.  To make it worse there wasn’t a red and a green light on either; these together indicate the lock is being got ready for us.  I was just considering reversing back and twisting the pole again when it occurred to us that with no lights on at all it probably meant the lock had been taken out of service.  If it was in service but not working for some reason, then two red lights would show.

No lights on view
We pulled up at the lock landing which also doubles as a mooring and made our way down to the lock to find out what the situation was. The control centre number was shown on a notice board, so I rang to find out was going on. We were surprised to find that a bridge further down was having some emergency work carried out on it and it would be closed until 15th November. They said they would come out and let us down the lock if we needed to get down, but we wouldn’t be allowed much further along the canal. We said it was OK and would just turn around now and head back to Châlons earlier than we’d planned.

Looking at the lock landing from the lock
Back on board I checked our closure emails and the VNF site and could find no mention of the stoppage so it can only just have happened. It was just as well it hadn’t been a day or so later, after we’d gone through. That would have meant we would have been stuck the other side until 15th November. Not that we would have minded as we wanted to go back on the Marne, and it was a shame we couldn’t, but we actually have things to do back in Châlons before then.  Not only that, but if the reconfinement is as severe as earlier in the year, we wouldn't be able to move and would be stuck on the river.

We turned around to head in the direction of Châlons and stopped for the day by a lock at a place called Vraux. We’ve moored there before but this time, rather than mooring below the lock, we decided to try a spot above it.

Moored at Vraux for the rest of Wednesday
We lit our first fire of the winter later in the evening as a sort of preparation for what might be announced later in the evening with regards to a possible French reconfinement. I’m rather taken with the French words confinement, deconfinement and reconfinement; they’re more succinct and descriptive than our equivalent of lockdown, end of lockdown and second lockdown.

STOP PRESS: It is full reconfinement so Thursday will be an early start and mad dash to safety. 

On Wednesday we cruised six miles up one lock.

Beaumont-sur-Vesle (not the Elgin marbles)

 We left Reims after breakfast on Friday and were soon going up the three locks that took us through the outskirts of the city where the canal is lined with mature trees on either side.  The horse chestnuts on one side were in full autumnal colours whereas the sycamores on the other were still relatively green.

Contrasting colours as we left Reims

Water was available at the third lock so, providing no commercials were waiting to use the lock, we were going to stop and fill up.  We could see to the end of the three-kilometre-long straight that runs through Reims so knew there wasn’t one following us when we cast off.  Karen got ready to get off as soon as it was safe to do so as we rose up the lock.  She was aiming to save time by getting the hose ready but unfortunately could see a commercial approaching the lock a few hundred metres away. 

This called for a quick decision, so she took four empty 20 litre water containers and filled them while I brought the boat up and moored at some handy bollards just outside the lock.  It meant we had several trips back and forth between the water point and the boat but we soon had the tank full and from the thumbs up we got from the guy and his wife on the commercial it seemed they appreciated what we were doing.  

We stopped for lunch at the lock landing below the lock at Sillery and then went for a walk.  Karen remembered there was an automatic launderette outside the supermarket in Sillery and we took our washing with us so we could leave it going while we continued our walk. 

On the way to the supermarket we passed a French national cemetery containing the remains of over 11,000 WWI soldiers.  Unusually, for a war cemetery it was sited within the town boundaries. 

The French WWI cemetery at Sillery

There were more contrasting colours behind the cemetery: the light green fields of the Reims arable plain, the orange of the Champagne vines and the dark green of the beech trees on the Montagne de Reims.

Things didn’t go very well at the laverie I’m afraid.  We only needed to use the smaller of the two washing machines, but it was out of order.  As we’d walked all the way there with our dirty clothes, we decided to pay the extra and use the large machine.  The machine took our card payment but resolutely refused to start.  After a long and tortuous phone call to the help line, we think we’re getting the debit card credited.  The final straw would have been if the machine had locked the door, so we were unable to retrieve our clothes.  Fortunately, that hadn’t happened, and we now await the return of funds; it was just as well we hadn’t used cash!

Walking back across the supermarket car park I noticed a Dutch plated car which reminded us that, for obvious reasons, we have seen very few ‘foreign’ plated cars this year.  As far as UK plated cars are concerned, they are normally quite common in France, but we have only seen three since we came back at the end of February.  We saw the third one a couple of weeks ago and I forgot to mention it at the time, but the occupants must have thought we were mad as we both waved madly away at them as they passed us.  Goodness knows what they thought!

Cruising through the Vesle valley

We moored for the day at a place called Beaumont-sur-Vesle on a large quay that is no longer used commercially.

Moored for the rest of Friday

Walking around Beaumont-sur-Vesle later, it was obviously a Champagne village judging by the perfectly manicured gardens and well-kept houses.  The other giveaway were the street names like Rue de Pressoir and Rue des Vignes.  

On Friday we cruised nine miles up six locks.

Saturday was walk day and we set out to take in the three villages of Wez, Courmelois and Thuisy which are in an area called Val-de-Vesle.  We are currently travelling along the valley of the River Vesle whose source is up near Châlons-en-Champagne and it runs for the best part of 100 miles down to the River Aisne at Soissons where we were a couple of weeks ago.  We were only a couple of kilometres away from Wez, the first village, and our hopes were raised when we saw this street sign.

It was a cart track rather than a street and we followed it all the way down to the River Vesle but there was no sign of the lavoir, not even a line of washing stones on the banks of the river.  Thuisy was the next village and here we did strike lucky and found a lavoir hidden away on the side of a tributary to the Vesle.

As we came into Courmelois we saw these charred wooden statues:

They were standing outside the studio/workshop of Christian Lapie, a French sculptor, who, after living in the Amazon for a period changed his style to these large figures.  They are installed in many places across Europe; the one in the picture below is known as “In the interval” and can be found outside the Champagne TGV station in Reims.

In the interval (photo by Par Garitan)

While on the theme of art, the church in Courmelois has been converted to an art and exhibition centre, a great use for these vaulted buildings that also ensures they are maintained.

Courmelois church dating back to the 13th century

Our walk brought us back onto the canal a couple of kilometres up from where we were moored.  Although it had been cloudy all morning, we escaped any rain and were glad to get back aboard as the wind had got up.

Our mooring hidden away in the far corner 

As we are in area that is covered by the new French curfew affecting about three quarters of the population we were unable to go out in the evening.  Under the curfew, people have to be indoors by 9pm unless they have a signed attestation.  We would be allowed to take Buddy out for exercise but, ironically, he would protest if we tried to wake him up and drag him out at that time of night.  The not going out statement was tongue in cheek as we haven't been out in the evening since the original confinement so the curfew won't affect us directly.

Sunday was quite a different day; it was raining when we got up and it felt like it was raining whenever we looked outside.  We seemed to pick the best part of the day to go for a walk as the rain eased off to a drizzle for most of the two hours or so we were out.

We walked to a village called Prunay-en-Champagne which, as Karen described it, was uninspiring and especially so on a wet day.  It did sport a mairie that had the traditional extensions either side for the boys’ school and the girls’ school.

The only other photo we took in the village was of the railway station but I’m not sure why as it really didn’t have anything going for it.

We did find out though that an iron age vase, decorated in La Tène style, was discovered in the village but is now exhibited in the British museum!  A famous French archaeologist, Léon Morel, who worked primarily in north eastern France found the vase in the late 1800s in an iron age burial site in the village.  The British museum purchased over 7,000 items from his collection, including this vase, in 1901.

The 30cm tall vase in the British museum 

Walking back along the canal towards the end of our walk we could, once again, look across to the Montagne de Reims.

Another picture of the three contrasting colours

We spent the rest of the day indoors again and, as we had a good internet signal, we were able to watch our team beat the top of the table side.

With a sunny dry day forecast for Monday we will probably move on and head down the other side of the summit of this canal to its end at the Canal latéral à la Marne.

Reims (summer’s returned)

We were rudely awoken by a commercial going past at four o’clock on Tuesday morning followed by another about 30 minutes later.  It rather confirmed to us that the opening hours published for each canal apply to pleasure boaters like us and that commercials can make their own arrangements which makes sense as they’re running a business.

Red sky warning at Courcy on Tuesday morning

Having planned to move on towards Reims after lunch, we had a walk back down towards Loivre during the morning.  The adage, “red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning” rang true as it started raining while we were having lunch and continued on for the rest of the afternoon, so we ended up staying put and not cruising. 

Rain all afternoon on Tuesday

We needed another walk later so braved the elements to follow a circular walk.  We started off by crossing over the canal to walk along the towpath on the other side.  After a few kilometres we came to the bridge where we were going to cross in order to continue our walk through some woods.  We soon realised that there was no way we would get across with a dog, so we had to retrace our steps and give up on having a circular walk.

Circular walk thwarter

With a dry day forecast for Wednesday and temperatures back in the 70s we were more than happy to spend the rest of the day inside and leave cruising until the weather was better. 

A funny thing happened to Karen on Wednesday morning when she took Buddy out for his pre-breakfast walk.  She went back down a couple of locks to where the ‘super-large’ walnut tree was, in the hope that the overnight wind had brought some down.  I know we weren’t going to mention walnuts anymore, but this is an anecdote so doesn't really count.  She was in luck and there were some of the super-large walnuts on the ground but there was already a French guy collecting them.  They exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then each carried on their search.

When the guy came to leave, he spoke with Karen again, some of which she didn’t quite understand but the upshot was that he gave her his haul and explained that he already had enough at home.  Karen was a couple of kilometres from our home and now had two large bags of walnuts to carry and a dog to contend with.  She tried ringing me to come and help but for some reason I wasn’t picking up.

While she’d been gone, a steel motor yacht had slowed as it passed us, the first non-commercial boat we’ve seen for what felt like weeks.  The guy driving was obviously attempting to get my attention and it turned out that he wanted to know where the next supermarket was, so I told him to pull up so I could help.  He was a Brit called Gary and he’d been cruising France for a few years but without any guidebooks; he just had a foldout map of France!  Now that’s what we would call a laid-back approach.  He was now on his way up north to go through Belgium and then into Holland.

Unfortunately, unless he turned around and went back five or six miles to Reims, he was three or four days away from a supermarket unless he took a detour into Soissons.  I’d only popped out of the boat for a chat so didn’t have my phone with me which is why I didn’t hear Karen calling.  Gary and I were having a good natter when Buddy suddenly appeared and then I saw Karen struggling up the towpath.  I went off to help her and when we got back, we all continued chatting for a while before Gary left and we went back indoors.

Although the forecast turned out to be correct it was much windier than expected, so much so, that we thought we may just stay put again.  Anyway, after coffee and cake we decided to set off for Reims as we needed to stock up with food and diesel.  Over here we don’t have the same issue cruising in the wind as we would in the UK as the canals are wide and there aren’t moored boats to negotiate.  When we reached the outskirts of Reims we stopped at a handy canalside supermarket.  We had lunch before setting off again and while we were eating a commercial pulled up in front of us for a shopping stop too.

Supermarket stop

With the wind blowing across the cut we knew it wouldn’t be easy to get away, especially with the bows of a large boat in front of us.  It was a case of reversing back and getting our stern out into the cut before putting the power on to pull the front out to clear the other boat.  It only took two attempts, so we felt pretty good that we hadn’t embarrassed ourselves too much.  What I hadn’t noticed was that by the time we had the second attempt, several Reims rowing club boats were waiting for us to complete our manoeuvres. 

We stopped after another few hundred metres at a fuel station where I made four trips to purchase 140 litres of diesel.  With the exceptionally mild weather it was very hot work, and I was glad when we moored up for the day after another kilometre or so at a spot in town we’ve been to several times before.  We knew it had good internet reception which was ideal as we had our weekly bridge session on Thursday.

Autumnal evening in Reims

On Wednesday we cruised five miles through no locks.

We had no desire to go into Reims on Thursday as we’ve explored it before and there was no point exposing ourselves to unnecessary risk.  We had a walk up the canal out of town before the bridge session and then another walk in the opposite direction during the afternoon.  There wasn't much excitement to report but we did come across an unusual contraption by one bridge: 

We couldn’t work out what it was at first until it dawned on us that it was a bike repair point.  The bike would be hung by the saddle post between the two horizontal poles.  All the equipment that would then be needed including Allen keys, screwdrivers, tyre levers etc. were all available on retractable, extendable chains.  There was even a hand pump with several different valve attachments.

We’d forgotten how exercise conscious some people are in towns. Not only were we moored opposite the rowing club which seemed to have a constant stream of boats in and out of the water, but also the towpath was popular with running clubs as well as casual runners and, of course, cyclists.  The runners were at it before it was light and they were still at it after darkness fell.

We'll probably move on tomorrow as it's a Friday.

Courcy (Buddy’s blog)

One of Paulbot’s poulbots (see further down)

It’s nearly three years ago to the day since I was last allowed to write a blog entry and that was before we came over to France.  Things aren’t really any different for me over here other than I consider my home to be in Châlons-en-Champagne.  I lived there for several months during that strange period that Neil & Karen (N&K) referred to as confinement or lockdown, when people weren’t allowed out unless they had a good reason and a signed form.  As I have lived on a boat for over six years, nearly my whole life, I haven’t stayed anywhere for very long so that’s why Châlons is my home and I’m really glad we’re going back there soon.

Sunday was a long cruise day which meant I would just sit on the back deck looking down the side of the boat for hour after hour.  I don’t know why we were leaving Bour-et-Comin as there was a kitten living in a campervan that was parked up near us.  N & K thought I hadn’t seen it, but I was just pretending so I could take advantage if I could just convince them to let me off the pontoon on my own.

Leaving on Sunday. Left: latéral à l’Aisne.  Centre: Our pontoon: Right: l’Oise á l’Aisne

Thinking about it there are actually a few things that are different about living in France.  Although there are very few pleasure boats over here, there are lots of commercials and they make a horrible sound that I just cannot get used to and I have to have a stroke as they always wake me up (I’m nearly always asleep when indoors).  Then there's the fact that Neil seems to want me to learn French and give commands in that language; he obviously doesn’t realise how daft he sounds.  There is one good thing though and that is I get to stay on proper big boats when N & K go on holiday. People like Nikki & Gorete, Paul & Sue and Bill & Jane know how to treat me properly and keep my tummy full but I don’t understand why I’m made to go on a diet when the holidays are over.

I’ve heard they’re driving down to Barcelona in a few weeks and will leave me with Paul & Sue, so I’ll be in paradise while they’re down there visiting their daughter Catherine.  It won’t be a tourist holiday for them for obvious reasons, but at least they'll be safe travelling in a car and not mixing with other people.  The main thing is that they will have time with Catherine as it doesn’t look like she’ll be able to come back to England for Christmas because of the quarantine rules.  I know they’re stopping with Mike & Aileen in their house in Lot for a socially distanced sleepover on the way down which is probably why I’m not going to Spain – Mike doesn’t like dogs, just cats and chickens.

We passed a few woodpiles during today's cruise where there were probably cats lurking

Talking about food just now has made me think about a few things:

  • Why do N&K try to make me drink horrible clean water from the tap rather than let me drink canal or river water?
  • What difference would it really make if they let me have dinner two hours earlier rather than when I’m ready for bed at five o’clock?
  • Neil seems to be eating all day long so why can’t I?

At least when they’re back from Spain we’re going back to the UK for a while. Paul & Sue (or Flubs as they get called) are coming in the car with us so hopefully I will be able to stay with them in their house and get fed properly.  Flubs also know that sleeping from five in the evening until nine in the morning isn’t long enough for me as I need at least two more hours after breakfast before going out again.

As there was nowhere to moor for lunch on the journey today, N&K had lunch on the move, BLT sandwiches which shed great crumbs.  It did remind me of Mike & Lesley who seem to have bacon butties every day when they’re cruising.  I’m getting braver when we cruise; I’ve never liked standing on the engine bay cover as it has horrible vibrations.  I now realise that if I stand there, I get lots of strokes so I’m getting braver every day.  We stopped and moored up at a long commercial quay below the lock at Berry-au-Bac, but we were the only boat there.  Although by later in the evening three commercials had moored up ready to go up the lock when it opened first thing in the morning.  We are at the end of a 13 mile long pound which means the boats could continue travelling for a couple of hours after the locks closed for the day. 

Moored on our lonesome at Berry-au-Bac

We went for a walk during the afternoon and one part was past the grain silos where we moored on our way here a couple of months ago.  We couldn’t have moored there today as there were three empty commercials there obviously waiting to get loaded with grain on Monday morning.

Two of the commercials – Poulbot and Poulbote

N&K said they recognised the boats, particularly the one called Poulbot which was moored next to its sister Poulbote.  I think they were probably named after the French artist Francisque Poulbot who painted the poor children of Paris, especially Montmartre, in his famous style which you will probably recognise from the picture at the top of my blog.  Poulbot became the term used to describe these poor children.  

I don’t want you to think I’m moaning all the time as I have a great life living outside and having lots of walks and I do like it when they make me wear my coat as it keeps me warm; however, I do have some questions for N&K:

  • I keep thinking you’ve got rid of the car which makes me very happy but why does it keep appearing every six months or so?
  • What is this obsession with walnutting?  At least with VR boxing or lavoir-ing we are walking.  I’d rather be walking in the pouring rain than hanging around while you’re looking for walnuts.
  • Why do you sometimes walk in different directions to each other?  It just confuses me; I don’t want to show my true loyalty just because one of you is off shopping and the other just out for a walk.
  • Why do you put my bed on its side every day to air – sometimes I have to stare at it for 45 minutes before you notice I want you to put it down

On Sunday we cruised 13 miles through no locks, and I was on the boat the whole time as there wasn’t a path to walk along.

We didn’t set off straight away on Monday morning because N&K said it was foggy.  I’m not sure what that means but it doesn’t seem to stop the commercials coming through from early in the morning to wake me up.  When we did leave, I walked with Karen while Neil took the boat up the first six locks.  We met him at each lock, so he didn’t have to climb up the ladders to set the lock operation in motion.  We were straight into a lock as soon as we left, and I saw Neil hand back the télécommande to the éclusiere as soon as the boat rose up to the top.  He then left the lock and turned right onto the 33-mile long Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne where all the locks are operated by a twisty pole hanging over the cut a hundred metres or so before each lock, rather than using the remote control télécommande.

Turning off the Canal latéral à l’Aisne

Opening hours and days of closure on the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne

It was good to be back on this canal as it means when we get to the end we will be in the Marne valley which is where my ‘home town’ of Châlons-en-Champagne is.  As we walked past the bottom of the third lock of the day, I recognised it as somewhere we were going to moor when we were on our way down.  It was perfect for me as I would have had a great view of things to chase across the fields for miles around.  N&K had said it was too hot and that there would be no shelter from the heat, so we had to carry on to find some shade.

Where we were going to moor below lock 3 back in August

Now I’m getting a bit older I don’t always want to walk too far every day, so every so often I stood and stared at Neil as he went past imploring him to pick me up but no such luck.

Please pick me up

I suddenly realised we were back on the Reims Champagne plain and thought it’s not going to be long before N&K start boring everyone by raving about the autumnal colours of the Champagne vineyards.

The first vineyards can be seen just below the woods of the Montagne de Reims

Although all three of us have walked up through the vineyards on the steep hillsides of the Montagne de Reims we’ve always stopped short of visiting the woods themselves.  N&K keep saying they want to go as the site is world renowned for its stunted beech trees with twisted trunks and branches.  Experts are still undecided as to the origin of these strange trees.

We stopped for lunch at a place called Loivre (I still don’t understand why I can’t have lunch too) and I sat outside as it was so sunny and warm.  Loivre marked the change from the Aisne département to the Marne département, another sign we were nearing Châlons.  Last year we visited a WWI cemetery for German soldiers near Loivre, and I remember we had a good walk that day.

Me laying in the sun while they have their lunch at Loivre

We only had a couple of miles and four locks to go after lunch, so Karen and I continued walking.  It was between the last two locks that Karen had found super-large walnuts last year and Neil was banking on the same happening this year.  Unfortunately, the only nuts to be found there today were normal sized which was very disappointing.  I heard Karen say to Neil, ‘see, it was worth me picking up all those other nuts over the last two weeks!’.  There were quite a few people out searching and we realised that it was the French two-week autumnal holiday, so they’d probably cleaned up before we arrived.

The little and large from this year's harvest

We got on the boat at the last lock and then moored at Courcy for the rest of the day.  I had noticed that there were still quite a few butterflies flying around during my walk but I still don't understand the fascination N&K hold for them and why they chase after them with their phones.

Monday night mooring at Courcy

On Monday we cruised eight miles up ten locks and I walked all the way except for the last ½ mile.

If you’re interested, you can click below to see my previous blog entries: