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.

1 comment:

Ian said...

A cliffhanger! Hope you make it 😥