Châlons-en-Champagne (butterfly & mating seasons have started)

As we've had to keep ourselves to ourselves for the first week back, we haven’t been socialising, just going out to get some exercise by walking Buddy.  The lovely spring weather has been a boon though with plenty of butterflies on the wing.  Karen had the first sightings when she was out with Buddy on Sunday and saw four male brimstones.  These overwinter as adults, hibernating in places like trunks of trees, and are usually the first to be seen in the spring.  As they are bright yellow, they are also very noticeable which probably adds to the chance that they are often the first species to be seen.  Although we have seen many more during the week, we only came across a couple of females: these are a lot lighter, more a pale green lemony colour.  During the week we have also seen other species that have emerged from hibernation as adults: small tortoiseshell, comma, peacock and red admiral.

Comma on the right bank of the river Marne

Red Admiral in the Grand Jard

It’s amazing how fresh the butterflies have looked considering they hatched from their chrysalises last summer before overwintering as butterflies.  We also saw a holly blue around the boat which was very early for that species.  Holly blues overwinter as chrysalises rather than adults and the warm sun must have encouraged our specimen to emerge early.

In order to keep our distance from other people, we have been walking through the Grand Jard, the park next to our mooring, crossing the canal latéral à la Marne by a footbridge (passerelle) and then through the Jard Anglais, a smaller park, to join the river Marne and walk away from the town.  Very few people venture along here so we are happy letting Buddy off to have a good run along the riverside.  He seems to love sand, although when he rolls in it having been in the water, he needs a good brush down before getting back on the boat.  After a while we branch off across the fields of the flood plain over to the canal which we follow back to the parks and the boat.  This time last year the flood plain was still covered in water but this year the water has already receded leaving just a few pools in the hollows.

Looking back to Châlons-en-Champagne – this time last year this was still a lake

Sometimes we cut across the Grand Jard to the Petit Jard on the banks of the canal de Nau, one of the three canals in Châlons-en-Champagne.  At the far end the canal disappears into a tunnel running under the marketplace.  The portal is quite impressive as it was originally one of the fortified town gates but is now known as the château du Marché due to its location by the marketplace.

Château du Marché at the far end of the Petit Jard

The passerelle crossing the canal that links the Grand Jard with the Jard Anglais has been in need of renovation for some time.  We have often remarked to each other how it would improve the area if it was restored and were pleased to see renovation works started this week.  It does mean the passerelle cannot be used during the works which aren’t due for completion until the end of May at a cost of €320,000.  There had been some wrangling between the town council and VNF as the council wanted to close the canal for a week or so during the works.  VNF, understandably, were against this as the canal is used commercially and the council have now agreed to crane the bridge out while it is restored.

Restoration works have begun

Looking under the passerelle, the Grand Jard lies to the right with the cathedral in the distance and our port below.  In the summer the banks are turned into the Châlons-en-Champagne plage with all the usual accoutrements of pop-up bars and restaurants for parents to relax in while they watch their children in canoes and pedalos or playing on the temporarily imported beach.  

The gothic cathedral of Saint-Étienne with the port to the left

Last year steps were built from the park up to the cathedral and watching the construction work kept us amused during confinement.  From the distance they now look very white and upon closer inspection the white area is actually a dedication to Léon Bourgeois who was granted the Nobel peace prize a hundred years ago in 1920.  He has several links with the town including the fact that his wife was born there.

The dedication to Léon Bourgeois

Not so obvious when not face on

The approach to containing Covid in France is different to that taken in England.  A third lockdown or reconfinement has so far been avoided by the instigation of a 6pm to 6am curfew.  With the lighter evenings and being an hour ahead the evenings are rather uncanny.  The parks are bustling with people all day, exercising, having picnics etc. but then at six on the dot everyone miraculously disappears.  Unlike in England, nearly everybody wears masks outside but what we hadn’t realised is that people are actively encouraged to wear surgical masks.  Consequently, very few homemade masks are seen, and we felt most conspicuous wearing ours when we first got back.

When the curfew comes in we are reminded of last year when the parks were closed for three months and the wildlife had free rein.  The ducks, geese and swans built their nests along the banks in places they would normally avoid due to the closeness of people.  The young herons from the heronry on the island opposite us were also taught to fish along the same banks without fear of being disturbed by humans. 

The safe island opposite our mooring

When we arrived on Saturday, we counted eight pairs of Canada geese searching out and laying claim to their nesting sites.  Each day more have flown in and by Thursday, there were 14 pairs.  Swans seem to have cottoned on to the fact they won’t be so safe on the public banks either and have already started nest building on the island; there is one pair right in front of the boat giving us a great view of progress.     

Buddy seems to be extremely happy to be back on board and spends most of the day laying on the pontoon.  He does wander down the other end every once in a while, on the hopeful hunt for food from other boaters.  They all know not to feed him titbits, but it doesn’t deter him, and he is ever hopeful.

Buddy in his happy spot

Of course, Buddy doesn’t have to keep his eye on the Covid situation, which is not looking on improving at the moment in France, probably because of the reluctance to have another reconfinement.  We need to keep a weather eye on what is happening as it seems increasingly likely that local lockdowns will be used.  Although, typically French, the ones already in place in the south have started as weekend lockdowns only 😉

We have also decided that we will probably get moving once we have replaced the washing machine which you may remember seems to be irreparably broken.  On this and our previous boat we had slimline appliances at only 50cm wide.  Unfortunately, fewer and fewer manufacturers make these and, like all things non-standard, they are more expensive.  When I first looked at replacing it before we came back to England for Christmas, they were about €380; the cheapest supplier I can find now is charging €180 more than that.  I tried to order one online, but neither of the suppliers (Darty & Cdiscount) would take online payments as our cards are not registered to our French address.  This means a trip to the local Darty when we come out of isolation but hopefully a new one will delivered to us a few days later and then we can set sail!

Before I sign off, I’ll include a few pictures of the spectacle we caught on Thursday evening whilst taking Buddy for his final walk of the day.  We were walking towards the passerelle when we spied a crane lined up over it…

…we assumed it was being positioned ready for lifting the span out the next day.  All of a sudden, we realised it was being lifted there and then:

It was soon winging its way across the canal…

…and then down into its resting place where it will be restored.




Châlons-en-Champagne (back on board at last)

Home sweet home on Saturday morning

It felt really good to get back home to the boat on Saturday morning and as there’s currently no restrictions on travel within France we’re already looking forward to set off on our next adventure.  As our original plans for 2020 were scuppered by lack of water we’ll tentatively plan the same route for this year; with so much precipitation this winter, water levels shouldn’t be an issue.  I say tentatively because the plan involves travelling through parts of Germany and Luxembourg which, depending upon the coronavirus situation, may or may not be out of bounds.

We’ll start by heading south down the length of the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne to meet the River Saône south of Dijon.  This will be our third attempt at completing this canal, both previous ones were thwarted by low water levels on the northern side of the summit. We’ll then travel up the Saône and join the Canal des Vosges to head north up towards Nancy where we’ll take the Canal du Marne au Rhin heading east to Strasbourg.  Having said the water resources should be OK it is touch and go whether the Vosges will be open. Alsace and Bourgogne haven’t had so much rain this winter and the upper levels of the Vosges are closed as the reservoirs are still less than 50% of their usual winter levels.  VNF are currently hoping the Vosges will reopen at the end of March, so we are rather banking on that happening.

There’s an inclined plane to negotiate before we reach Strasbourg which is on our list of waterway places to visit.  It’ll be summertime when we get there and hopefully, by then, we’ll know whether we can head north into Germany and Luxembourg then back down towards Nancy again.  If we find we have to stay in France, then we’ll probably explore the River Meuse and the Ardennes.  Neither of us really know the area and we were so impressed with the scenery when we saw Nikki & Gorete there while they looked after Buddy on our trip back to the UK in the summer.

Starting from the green star we intend to travel clockwise around eastern France

So, what happened during our three months back on dry land?  Like most people, not a lot, because of the lockdown rules preventing us from socialising.  As we have a large family, we had the additional pressure of deciding who to spend the Christmas period with, but the powers that be finally saw sense and took that particular dilemma away from us and the many other families in the same situation.  We have to say that we’ve been fortunate as we’ve been able to look after our grandchildren most of the time we’ve been back.  As Ellis was under one when the December rules were announced we set up a support bubble for Lauren & Lewis meaning we could look after Ellis.  Of course, this couldn’t start until after the first fortnight as we had to self-isolate on entry to the UK and the same applied for the final two weeks as we wanted to be sure of having negative PCR tests to get back into France. 

Once we realised that we weren’t going to be mixing with anyone other than grandchildren we had a mercy dash to London.  Jo was going to come down and stay with us over Christmas but obviously plans had to change at the last minute, so we took a parcel of Christmas food and other goodies up to her and had a socially distanced chat on her front path.  This meant that the large (> 1kg) beef fillet that we were going to use for a beef Wellington while she was with us was going to be too much for us.  We ended up slicing it up and then putting it in the freezer meaning we’ve had four weekends where we’ve treated ourselves to good fillet steak meals.

Living on the outskirts of Reading means we’re a short walk away from open countryside and also the River Thames, so we have plenty of scope for walking Buddy.  Mind you that scope was severely curtailed over the last few weeks as the Thames was running so high that it flooded our routes around places like the lakes and the marina at Caversham.  It also prevented us taking the grandchildren to the riverside playpark.

Playpark under water

Glad we weren’t on this widebeam moored near Caversham bridge on the Thames

We were thankful that we didn’t have the volume of rain like many places in southern France where floods on rivers like the Lot and Garonne caused a lot of devastation.  I expect many of you will have seen videos and pictures of cruisers being swept off their moorings and being destroyed as they went over weirs or collided with bridges.  The most dramatic we saw were 20 hire boats being swept downstream complete with the pontoon they had been secured to; apparently only one of the boats was rescued unscathed.  So sad when you also consider there was no hire boat season  in 2020.

Not only did we have to spend time making sure we had our heads around the constantly changing rules about getting back to France because of Covid, we also had to keep on top of the impacts of Brexshit.  As things turned out the Covid side of things wasn’t the issue, it was the fallout of Brexit that caused the real headaches.  As far as Covid was concerned we only had to have proof of negative PCR tests and also print out and sign several attestations each swearing to many things including having none of a long list of symptoms, promising to self-isolate on return to the boat and having another test after seven days.

The most recent Covid related change made by France for travellers was to severely limit travel for French nationals and also foreigners like us that have French residency. This change only applied to those people travelling out of France since 1st February so, having left France before that date, we expected to be allowed back in.   As tens of thousands of Brits have applied for French residency under the Brexit withdrawal agreement there is quite a backlog in the issuing of residency permits.  Along with everyone else, we have been issued with temporary certificates and it may be several months yet before being invited to a préfecture to receive our official cartes de séjour.  

Documentation to get back into France

A bit of good news was that I’m now enrolled in French healthcare system; however, Karen’s application to join has been delayed as they said they couldn’t read the copies of our birth and marriage certificates – strange when you consider the same copies were accepted for my application.  You would think it would be a simple matter of taking better copies and sending them to the social security in Reims.  Search as we might, we just couldn’t find our original birth certificates, just the poor-quality digital copies we’d used.  Unbelievably, it took three weeks to get new official copies from the government’s General Record Office, but they have now winged their way back to Reims.

As for the Brexit issues, here are some of things we’ve had to contend with:

  • We always buy Buddy’s food in bulk in England as it is so much cheaper.  It was only after buying eight 13kg bags to keep him going for most of 2021 that we found out that meat and dairy products cannot be taken into the EU.  The bags of dog food are now in our storage unit, but the space not needed in the car for dog food was taken up by some bags of coal – coal is not easy to get hold of in France.  We usually stock up with those food items that we find hard or expensive to buy in France.  Like the dog food these can no longer be taken into the EU.
  • From the end of 2020 UK pet passports are no longer valid and an Animal Health Certificate has to be obtained from a vet before travel.  These cost £100 or more each and are only valid for four months which is why we got a French passport for Buddy.  Until now pets haven’t had to be checked as they leave the UK so new reception areas have been set up at points of exit.  We’re not confident the new pet checking procedures have bedded in yet as some people in our situation have been refused permission to travel.  To be on the safe side we got Buddy an Animal Health Certificate but hopefully we won’t need one for future trips.
  • Catherine is enjoying living and working in Barcelona and as it has become more permanent, we sent out a parcel of some of her remaining belongings.  We put an arbitrary €200 value on the consignment but forgot we are no longer part of the EU and there is a low limit on fee free consignments.  This meant an extra €90 had to be paid for things like import duty before the Spanish customs would release it so it could be sent on to Catherine.
  • On a similar vein we have a potential VAT issue when we bring the boat back to the UK.  HMRC consider such movements as imports and we will therefore be liable for VAT on its value when it’s brought back in even though we paid VAT when we had the boat built.  We are in discussions with the relevant HMRC department as it is a residence rather than a pleasure craft and we feel we may be able to claim Transfer of Residence relief.  This is quite a thorny issue for many British boaters and the UK government has put an extension in place so that boats brought back by the end of 2021 will be exempt from this double-VAT charge.  This doesn’t tend to affect larger boats as they are zero rated, but narrowboats are treated differently and very much a minority issue in Europe.

When we came back last winter, we were rather lucky and were able to live on Ken & Anne’s narrowboat on the Kennet & Avon for two of the three months.  This winter has been a quite different as we have been on dry land the whole time.  Just before Christmas, Karen was approached by National Grid who she did some work for before we moved to France.  They needed her for a short-term contract so with not a lot else to do she agreed and will be working for them until the end of March.  This has made the last fortnight of self-isolation easier for her and I have filled my time by redecorating a couple more rooms in the flat. 

Ellis getting ready to go to Nanny & Grumpy's for the day

Practically the last thing to do before we left for France was to get my coronavirus jab which hasn’t given me any side effects as yet.  As I had a late appointment I asked if they had any spare so they could do Karen too.  Unfortunately, although they usually have a few doses left over at the end of each day, none were available on Friday so it’s either wait until we come back or see when Karen gets called in France whichever comes first.

Our crossing was at five on Saturday morning so we had to be up by one.  We had given ourselves an extra ½ hour or so because of the issues in getting over the border, both for humans and animals.  As it turned out, Buddy’s checks were hassle-free and, as rather expected, the Animal Health Certificate wasn’t required but we felt the cost of buying one for this one journey had been a good insurance policy.  It appeared to be a very quiet crossing as there were only a dozen vehicles taking the train.  Most of them had headed off for border control about 20 minutes before they were due to be called.  Like sheep we ended up joining them and it was just as well as it took an age to get through both the English and French border control points and also the police/customs checks.  For once, our car wasn’t searched but we appeared to be the only one that wasn’t.  Both the English and the French wanted to see proof of our negative PCR test results and also proof of residence in France.  Strangely the English guy was more probing in his questioning than the French girl who processed us.  Not only did he want to know how long we’d been back in England, why we’d returned and where we’d been living, he kept asking questions until he was happy our primary residence is in France.  Some people weren’t so fortunate and were taken aside to be questioned further and have their paperwork scrutinised.

Having always raved about how quiet the roads are over here, we were caught up in the backlog of an accident on the autoroute around Reims that delayed us for about 50 minutes.  We were still back well before lunch even allowing for the hour’s difference and spent the rest of the lovely spring day unpacking the car and sorting the boat out.

One of the first sounds we heard when we arrived were herons nest building on the island next to our mooring.  It immediately reminded us of when we were here during the first confinement a year ago when many a happy hour was spent watching the young herons fledge and learning to fish.

One of three commercials that we saw going through town on Saturday

As it had been a warm day many people were out walking along the canal and through the parks but as soon as the cathedral bells were announcing six o’clock, we suddenly realised everyone had disappeared because of the 6pm – 6am curfew.

We certainly felt happy and relaxed being back on board and I imagine the blog updates will now get back to some form of regularity after a break of three months.