Tuesday 30 March 2021

Couvrot (another reconfinement looming?)

We had to pop back to Châlons-en-Champagne on Saturday as a couple of parcels had arrived for us at the port office and whilst there, we did the food shopping.  The Châllonais (and us) refer to the town as Châlons but write it in full as it’s easily confused with Chalon (without an ‘s’) in Burgundy which is called Chalon-sur-Saône.  We visited Chalon-sur-Saône on the boat in 2019 and are hopefully going to cruise a different part of the river Saône this year,

After a quick lunch we took the car to Couvrot, checked the water was working at the lock there, and walked back to the boat at Soulanges.  Most of the French press is calling for a national lockdown and Macron is apparently making a statement about the situation on Wednesday or Thursday.  Looking at the numbers it seems that at the very least Marne, the département we are currently in, will go into a third lockdown (or second reconfinement) along with a few of the other départements under increased vigilance.  Making the assumption that Marne will go into lockdown we now need to get into the next département, Haute-Marne, which we believe we can do by Wednesday. 

Re-reading the previous paragraph makes me feel like the Parisians and Londoners who escaped their cities when they had one day’s notice of lockdown.  In our defence we believe being on the boat is the safest place to be as we don’t need to mix with people other than when one of us goes shopping and also we haven't been mixing beforehand.  Our only concern will be finding somewhere safe to moor if a second reconfinement is introduced.

We wanted to make sure we were filled up with water before getting on the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne as it’s quite a way up until its first water point.  The lock at Couvrot is the last chance to get water on the current canal but, being a lock, there’s an added complication that we have to make sure we’re not holding up a commercial.  Maybe some people don’t worry about it, but it always concerns us.  Saying that, we’ve only been in the situation once where we’ve had to pack up quickly with only a partly filled tank.  There’s a long straight before the lock with an old quay with a few metal stakes at a disused lime works at the end.  We thought we’d get there on Sunday morning, have showers and do the washing and then go up the lock if there was nothing coming.

Temporary mooring at the end of the straight

We passed the other disused lime works at Soulanges on the way
After a good breakfast we set off again as all was clear but as we pulled away, a commercial appeared around the corner.  There was nothing for it but to let him come past and go up the lock before us for which he was extremely grateful – thanking us on three separate occasions.

We liked the name – Feeling
Even though he was laden it didn’t take him long to go through and we were soon going in.  We always have a bit of a faff in these situations because the locks are automatic. Do we take on water once we’re in the lock and before we start the operation?  If we did, what would happen if the automatic operation kicked in after a period of time?  Or do we start the operation first, go up and then fill up with water hoping the gates don’t close on us after a period of time? Logic tells us that the automation won’t start unless a magic eye has registered us leaving the lock but it still worries us as we did get stuck once and had to call VNF to get us out.

Watering up at écluse de Couvrot
Anyway, it all worked out OK and we were soon on our way again.  To our delight as we left the lock our first orange tip butterfly of the year flew around the boat.  I know I say it every year, but this sight is my real harbinger of spring, outweighing blackthorn blossom, hawthorn leaves, or even any of the other early spring butterflies.  The males have distinctive orange tips to their wings, hence the name.

Male orange tip seen in a previous spring
Ironically, the commercial that we let past was the only other boat we saw all day.

Confusing lock information plaque on the lock cottage
I say the information plaque is confusing because it is at lock number 3 not 2.  At some point in the canal’s history an additional lock must have been added, putting all the numbering out of sequence.  We were caught out by this once when calling VNF out to a lock that had failed. I’d read the number on the old information plate and forgotten to add one to it.  They found us in the end but went to great lengths explaining what I did wrong.

We moored up for the day after going up one more lock and about a kilometre short of the final lock on the canal.  Our plan being to stay there until Tuesday morning when the ‘entre’ is due to open and then we can make our way quickly into the next département before the likely reconfinement. We walked back to Couvrot to pick up the car and had a look around the village on the way. 

Walking back to Couvrot
Couvrot is one of the larger villages along this canal with approaching 900 inhabitants which probably accounts for the large modern mairie…

…which replaced the original one which also had a school in centre of town…

…opposite St Martin’s church

While searching for the war memorial we came across this sign on the back of the lock cottage.  It states that American forces crossed the river Marne and the canal at this point at 14.00 on 28th August 1944. 

Another plaque on the lock cottage
We can find nothing about it on the web or elsewhere in the village other than a modern looking memorial with the same inscription not far from the lock cottage:

A puzzle to us
When we found the war memorial we were surprised to find that there were only 31 names inscribed on it considering it was in a village with a population of nearly 900 and covered the four recent main wars France was involved in: WWI, WWII, Algerian and Indochina wars.  

Couvrot war memorial

On Sunday we cruised three miles up two locks.

On Monday morning I received an email from the tourist office at Châlons-en-Champagne letting me know that they had updated their website and brochure.  The picture on the front of the brochure shows the canal, partly frozen over and the cathedral.  It chuffed us to see that the picture was clearly recent as our boat can be seen in the port!

You can just make out our boat – it’s the closest one
My main task on Monday was to move the car into the next département but I went to investigate more about the misleading lock numbering.  The canal was originally three miles shorter and started near where we were moored at a lock leading off the river Marne.  This lock was therefore lock number one as shown on the information plate at the lock cottage which still stands by it.

Plate also shows it was at the start of the canal
At some point the canal was extended three more miles into the middle of Vitry-le-François and two more locks were added and the lock onto the river became disused.

The disused lock at the original start of the canal
Even though I surmised earlier that an additional lock had been added, it appear that two locks were added and one disused with a net result of one additional lock, hence the change in numbering.  

After my little excursion around the locks and a short walk along the Marne I drove to St Dizier with the intention of getting the train to Vitry-le-Francois and then walking back to the boat.  I parked the car up and went to the station where I checked on the times of the trains only to find that during the day the trains are buses.  I had an hour to kill so went in search of the tourist office to get some jetons (tokens) for the water and electricity bornes in the port ready for when we come through.  Like last year I find it amazing that tourist offices haven’t restricted their hours much even though the number of tourists has dropped off dramatically.  The pleasant lady said she’s only getting French tourists at the moment and we spent some enjoyable time with her practising her English and me my French.  I had to lie and make up a reason to get away in the end but at least we have some jetons.

I arrived back at the station ten minutes before the bus was due to leave and found one sitting there with its engine ticking over.  I checked with the driver and it was the right one.  He wasn’t happy with my ticket (even though you get an e-ticket you still have to have a printed copy) as he said I had the wrong date.  I pointed out that it was my date de naissance and he laughed and apologised.  It was just as well I got there early as the bus left seven minutes before it was due to leave and was a Covid-free ride in as far as I was the only other passenger on the journey to Vitry-le-François.

It was also a tantalising ride as it went via the back roads through a dozen or more villages most of which were really quite pretty.  I said tantalising as we must have passed at least six lavoirs all of which would have been new to us.  I managed to get some shots through the coach windows but only a few were recognisable as lavoirs.

The lavoir at Scrupt – what a wonderful name
The lavoir at Scrupt was an impluvium style in that rainwater is collected into the wash basin from the pair of inward sloping roofs.  Another picture that was recognisable was at Favresse where there was a stream fed lavoir in the village square.

The lavoir at Favresse

I got off the bus at the station in Vitry-le-François and made my way to the canal office at the start of the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne to see if I could find the latest on the reopening date.  When I popped in over the weekend it was all closed up but today it was open with an éclusiere on duty, and she confirmed that the canal will re-open at nine on Tuesday morning.  I then started making my way back to the boat and was surprised when I heard someone calling me.  It was Stefan who was dropping his dog off at a friend’s house on his way to work.  We met Stefan at Châlons as he lives on his boat and continuous cruises (lock hops) around Vitry-le-François where he works.

Rather than following the canal all the way back to the boat I cut across the centre of town as it was shorter; it was also eerily quiet.  The canal used to go through the middle of town through a port and wharves, but a bypass was built around the western side in the 1960s.  As I turned away from the canal into the centre of town, I saw a boat that looked like it was stuck across the cut.  Upon closer inspection I saw it was reversing into a dry dock.

Another Suez?

I was heading for the line of the bypassed canal and soon found it.  A lot of it was still in water but very weedy of course.  There were plenty of butterflies around including my first small white of the year. 

The bypassed canal into town

After a few kilometres I turned a corner and could see our boat nestling below an old quarry above the lock at Couvrot.

Our mooring at Couvrot

With the good news that the entre Champagne et Bourgogne reopens on Tuesday we’ll be setting off soon after eight in the morning to get up the last lock on this canal, around the bypass, turn off onto the 'entre', ready for when the first lock opens at nine.



Saturday 27 March 2021

Soulanges (still learning from my mistakes)

On Thursday we drove the car to Soulanges where we planned on mooring next and then walked back to the boat at Ablancourt.  We were due to have a video call with Aussie boater friends, Ian & Lisette, at 10am on Friday which was 8pm their time.  For some reason our internet signal kept dropping out on Thursday afternoon so we thought we’d better cruise to Soulanges first thing on Friday so we could be there before the call.  We left soon after 7.30 and were moored up in Soulanges less than an hour later with plenty of time to have a cooked breakfast.  Soulanges is great for mooring if you want the shade until lunchtime but we’re not at that sort of temperature yet, even so, it's a very pleasant mooring by the line of trees in blossom.

Early morning mooring at Soulanges
On our way into Soulanges we'd passed the smaller of the two sites of the old Soulanges lime works that closed down in 1970.  It was started in 1884 and 100 years ago was employing over 200 people. The predominant surface level rocks in Champagne are limestone so there’s plenty of old limekilns around.  As we travel along, we often see remains of old quarries and the cliffs around Soulanges house such examples.

The crumbling quays of one of the two old lime works of Soulanges

As I said, we made it through Soulanges lock and onto the mooring with lots of time to spare before our call with Ian & Lisette.  We do feel for them and other boaters in the same situation because a year ago most of us thought that things would be back to normal by 2021.  It’s sad to think that it’s going to be 2022 at least before the waterways get busy again with private boaters, especially those from Australia and New Zealand.

Soulanges is another small village (population c450) alongside the canal latéral à la Marne and the river Marne.  A large stream, the Valmont, also runs through the village and flows into the river Marne.    

The entrance to the village from the canal and river bridges (1900 & 2021)

With the canal running alongside the river we're constantly reminded how close they are.  Over the last couple of nights at Ablancourt we've been accompanied by the soothing sound of the excess water in the canal flowing through an overspill back into the river.

Our bedroom view of the river Marne through the overspill

I was recently reading about how barges on many French canals, mainly in the north and east, went through a period of being towed by electric trains.  This happened during the first half of the 20th century and finally ceased as recently as 1973.  The towing engines ran on tracks laid on the towpath and we occasionally come across remnants of tracks and also see the odd disused engine on display.  There was no dualling of the lines, so engines had to operate in both directions.  I had often pondered about the procedure that took place when two boats and their towing engines met.  The article I read explained what happened in great detail, but the upshot was that the towing lines were swapped over, and the engines reversed their directions.

I’ve mentioned this because while looking into the history of Soulanges I came across a couple of pictures clearly showing the railway tracks.  The first is at the lock and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how intricate the operation must have been to tow a boat out of the lock at such a steep angle as the canal widens. 

c1930 & 2021 – overhead cables supplied the power to the engines

I did ask Karen if she would tow our boat out of the lock so I could get a comparison picture, but she said she was busy.  Joking apart, many women used to pull barges; it wasn’t just a job for men, horses or donkeys.  To give an idea of the scale of towing in north and eastern France, these figures were published by the associated canal authorities in 1958 showing they looked after:

  • 1,047 km of rail-operated lines, using 1,700 metre-gauge electric engines
  • 139 km of non-rail-operated lines, using 161 electric tractors
  • 2,545 km of non-rail-operated lines, using 609 diesel tractors.

The second view is looking from the road bridge over the lock with our current mooring in the distance on the left.  The rail tracks can be seen running along the side of the lock. The two barges are both self-propelled so it is probably more recent than the previous picture.

All villages with a mairie have information posted on a centralised national website.  The volume of information varies greatly as some mairies don’t bother much and others go to town so to speak.  Some of the village sites have a section on their history and it was while browsing some old postcards displayed in the section of the history of Soulanges I came across one of where we’re currently moored.

Looking back towards the lock

Six years ago, we had a bumper crop of chillies and we still have some in the freezer which are just as fresh and hot as they were when they were picked. On Thursday evening Karen took a couple out and found they were no longer frozen hard.  In fact, most items weren’t very hard, and the freezer had obviously stopped working.  I did the usual checking of the circuit breaker, plug and fuse when Karen remembered that I had pulled it out to clean behind the other day.  Pulling it out again, I saw two connectors had come apart so at least the problem was easily rectified.  It was a bit obvious really and once again it was a salutary reminder that as I get older, I need to check and recheck everything I do 😉

After the call with our Aussie friends, I went for a recce into the first section of the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne.  One thing I wanted to find out was whether there was a chance of it opening before next Tuesday morning.  I went to the first lock which is at Vitry-le-François and is always manned/womanned as boaters are provided with, or hand back in, remote control units (télécommandes) for operating the first 44 of the 71 locks on this, the northern side of the summit.  There was no sign of life and the office was completely shut up and fully shuttered. I drove further down the canal to a place called Écriennes and struck up conversation with the woman living in the lock cottage there.  When I arrived she was painstakingly filling a watering can from the cut and walking to her garden to water her plants.  She seemed glad to have a break even though it was in stilted French (on my side).  Sadly, she confirmed that the canal wasn’t reopening until Tuesday.  I also drove up to Orconte to see if the water was on but it wasn't (not surprising as the canal was closed) but I did see my first painted lady butterfly of the year.

For my part, while Karen worked, I had a lazy Friday afternoon listening to the cricket and reading. I did have a little walk around the village to check out the mairie and war memorial of course.

Good old version of one building housing the mairie and the school

Relatively few names on the memorial 

On Friday we cruised one mile up one lock.


Thursday 25 March 2021

Ablancourt (lock jumping and hopping)

The warmer weather is finally back but there has still been the odd frost causing us to bring the spring plants into shelter overnight.  We also know the warmer weather has returned because plenty of butterflies have re-appeared.  During our Tuesday lunchtime walk we revisited Ablancourt and couldn’t believe the number of brimstone butterflies we saw.  Most of the time we had three or four in view and, around one patch of cowslips we counted seven.  All were the bright yellowy-lemon coloured males so no doubt the females are still to emerge from hibernation.

Coupled with the warmer weather there has been a marked drop in the wind to the point where there’s hardly a breeze.  The still weather reminded me of those early days when we started living aboard and I used to take upside down pictures in the evenings, generally with our glasses of wine reflected from the gunwales.  No wine glasses on Tuesday evening, our last night in La Chaussée-sur-Marne:   

First upside down picture for a while

One thing we’ve noticed about our mooring at La Chaussée-sur-Marne over the last week is the paucity of waterfowl.  It’s very open, so we’re not surprised that we haven’t seen kingfishers (no, they're not waterfowl), and the only waterfowl we’ve seen have been in transit other than a lone cormorant that keeps swaggering outside the boat showing us how to fish.  The river Marne runs just the other side of the canal and no doubt the kingfishers are down there as the tree-lined banks are ideal territory. When we were cruising on the river Marne itself, we called it the kingfisher river as, like the Bristol river Avon, they seemed to be the most common bird.

Ablancourt looking better in the sun than the grey of last week’s visit

Wednesday was water day, so we set off back to Pogny around 7.30 in the morning.  As we had to spin the boat around, we were going downstream which meant that Karen didn’t need to be on board for the locks.  The locks are so benign on this canal when going downhill that we don’t need lines and just hover in the middle of the lock as it drains.  This meant Karen could give Buddy his morning walk as I took the boat the 3km back to Pogny.  We don't have the issue of finding winding holes to spin the boat around as French canals tend to be wide enough to wind a boat of our length.

Doing a 'Suez'? 

Leaving La Chaussée-sur-Marne early on Wednesday morning

After mooring at Pogny, Karen went for a run while I did the domestic chores like filling up with water and disposing of our rubbish.  Two commercials came past while we were moored there, and each passed back again about fifteen minutes later.  They were about to take on grain at the Pogny silos and had to spin their boats in the winding hole the other side of the village so they would be heading back downstream once full.  After lunch we set off back the way we'd come earlier, and it was lovely to still have glorious sunshine bringing out the butterflies along the banks.

That’s a large winding hole

As we went back through La Chaussée-sur-Marne, Buddy and Karen got off to take the car to Ablancourt where we planned to stay for a couple of days.  As she arrived before I got there, they walked down the towpath to meet me.  We went up the lock with an audience of two families out with their dogs and children but, rather embarrassingly, the gates refused to open once we had risen up.  Karen went to investigate and could hear machinery whirring so started jumping up and down on the lefthand lock gate.  This was a trick we’ve learnt before and usually works and saves a call to VNF.  It didn’t seem to work this time so she crossed to the other gate and repeated her jumping; the gates immediately started opening and, much to the gongoozlers merriment, Karen had to leap the gap that was quickly increasing in order to get back to the boat.

We pulled up just the other side of the lock (we’d checked there were moorings there the other day) and moored up for the rest of the day.  Normally, lock landings aren’t suitable for us as the bollards are for commercials and therefore too far apart.  We’d noticed that the lock landings at this end of the canal also have a couple of bollards conveniently spaced for us.  In the UK, continuous cruisers who keep cars with them are known as bridge hoppers.  At many rural canal bridges, unofficial laybys have formed by bridge hoppers and walkers parking their cars.  It’s a lot easier to bridge hop in the UK as boats can generally be moored anywhere once out of towns.  Over here moorings are normally only available at lock landings, ports in towns and wild moorings.  Wild moorings are obviously our favourite, but they are few and far between.  Anyway, the point of this ramble is that while we’re keeping the car with us we’re calling ourselves lock hoppers rather than bridge hoppers. 

Our new mooring at Ablancourt

With the apparent worsening of the virus situation in France we’re now having to factor in what we would do if there was another national lockdown. At the moment we could still get back to Châlons-en-Champagne which has its pros and cons. It’s a place we know well because we’ve already spent a lockdown there but do we really want to spend another few months there when the main reason for being over here is to visit different places?  So now we also need to look ahead and consider places we wouldn’t mind staying in during another confinement.  

On Wednesday we cruised six miles through three locks although we went in the opposite direction to start with so actually only progressed two miles and one lock from where we started.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

La Chaussée-sur-Marne (all change here)

We changed our cruising route yet again last Wednesday.  We’ve been concerned about going into départements that are likely to become Covid hotspots so have been studying the maps of France depicting the indicative measures in each département.  As it looks like the three départements in the east that we were planning on going through, Bas-Rhin, Moselle and Meurthe-et-Moselle, are on the increase we decided it would be prudent to avoid them.  This means we won’t be heading for Strasbourg after all but will revert to the original plan for this year and head south down the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne to the river Saône before we decide what to do next.

The only drawback in taking that route (that we can think of at the moment!) is that the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne doesn’t open until the end of March after four weeks closure for maintenance.  As we’re only 15kms from the junction where we join the start of the canal it means hanging around in this area until then.  Weighing it up it seemed quite sensible especially considering how sparsely populated the départements we’ll be travelling through are, such as Côte-d’Or and Haute Marne.  The spot we’ve been staying in this week is ideal to stay at for a while as no one comes along because it’s at a dead end on this side of the cut and Buddy can be off the lead when he’s outside.

Our field

The much-awaited news conference by the French PM, Jean Castex, finally happened last Thursday night after being delayed yet another hour at the last minute.  Unlike the UK where nearly everything is leaked in advance, it seems the opposite is done here which of course leads to much speculation in the press.  As from last Friday night, north eastern France and the Alpes-Maritime went go back into 24/7 lockdown rather than just at weekends.  This will be reviewed in four weeks, but weekly monitoring will still take place in all the other areas where, with next weeks’ Western European Summertime clock change, the daily curfew has been decreased by one hour and will start at 7pm rather than 6pm.  The locks on most of the smaller, Freycinet gauge, canals that we travel on tend to close at 6pm for non-commercial traffic, so starting the curfew an hour later at 7pm won't really impact us.

A few people we know were planning on cruising in the north east so will have to change their plans.  Similarly, those who are already there will have to stay put for at least four weeks.  The départements impacted by the new lockdown are in red, the pink star is us now and the blue star is where we’re now heading over the next couple of months.

On Thursday we heard a small engine approaching; this was the first boat for over a week and we soon realised it was Zoe & Sebastian on their small motor yacht.  Like us, they are waiting for the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne to open but had found a place to WWOOF for a few days not far from here.  For those of you who don’t know the expression or want to read about it, click here for more information

We keep in touch with our children in various ways and frequencies from texting through to video calls, and also have video calls with the grandchildren almost daily.  We’ve never got into regular video calls with friends but there are a few boater friends that we catch up with every couple of months or so.  One such group includes Mike & Lesley and Chris & Sue.  I used to work with Lesley and Chris and coincidentally all of us have ended up with narrowboats.  Mike is the great organiser and not just because he is the technical one.  We were due to have an afternoon drinks catch up on Friday at 4.30 UK time and Mike had sent Zoom invitations days in advance; in any other group the details are sent a few minutes before the get together.  I mentioned Mike as being technical and he probably uses an advanced form of Zoom/Google because our invitation, unbeknownst to us, had automatically adjusted the meeting time to French time and we’d assumed it was UK time.  We’d got back from a walk and were just sitting down with drinks when we saw we’d missed a message from Mike about 45 minutes previously asking if we were joining.  We thought he was eager and said yes we've got three minutes and he immediately messaged back saying they were just finishing up.  Anyway, we made amends for being an hour late and had some good laughs and a catch up on Sunday instead.   

I can’t resist telling you about a kilometre stone we came across on one of our walks.  We have found all bar a handful along the 67km length of this canal.  Only one of the stones has been original and the rest have been either from the early 1900s or modern ones from early this century.  The one we came across on Friday was one of the ones we were missing and is also one of the originals:

Pk 14

We will probably stay at La Chaussée-sur-Marne while we’re waiting for the works on the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne to finish.  We'll need a quick trip back to Pogny to fill up with water, but this spot is ideal not just for Buddy as I mentioned earlier but because picnic tables and benches have been provided for boaters, they make excellent saw benches for log cutting.  We’ve lost the fine warm weather of the last few weeks and are finding we need the stove on; not that we’re complaining as it’s still March.

Our field from the other side

It’s unusual to find a lock without a lock cottage over here.  Many of the cottages are in private hands but many are still lived in by lock keepers (éclusiers) or used as local canal offices. It is also unusual to find a lock cottage that is uninhabited but the one just down from where we are currently moored is in quite a sorry state:

Dilapidated lock cottage at écluse de Chaussée
On Sunday morning we walked to a small village called Ablancourt.  It didn’t take long to walk around it and we neither saw nor heard anyone or anything other than a couple of typically noisy dogs left out in gardens as seems to be the French way. 

Approaching Ablancourt on a grey Sunday morning

The sign on the mairie saying it was only open on Mondays and then just for two hours in the morning seemed to confirm the fact that there were little more than 150 inhabitants. 

We’re now quite used to walking around villages and seeing few if any people, but we still remark that if we were back in the UK there would be activity in even the sleepiest of villages: people washing cars or working in their gardens. 

A nice touch on the village war memorial was the tricolor spray painted on the gravel:

Saint Martin’s church is typical of the area; squat and built of limestone

While we were in the village, we had a look at the next lock along and found there were a couple of mooring bollards above the lock suitable for a boat our size.  As it was outside the village it was nice and secluded and one of those spots where Buddy would be safe off the lead.  On this coming Wednesday we were going to go back to Pogny to get water and then return to La Chaussée-sur-Marne.  Having seen the mooring at Ablancourt we think we’ll probably moor there instead.

Regular readers will have probably noticed that we haven’t seen any lavoirs yet this year but I’m sure that will change as we head down to Burgundy.  Similarly, we saw no Victorian post boxes (another of our passions) when we were back in the UK over the winter.  Mind you that wasn’t surprising as we were in lock down for the whole time we were back.  Our son, Steve, was on a work visit in Wimbledon on Monday and sent this rather nice VR box he managed to see on his way.  This in an early box from the 1870s designed by a Mr Penfold, whose name is used for these hexagonal boxes.

A Penfold in Wimbledon dating from 1873-78

We’ve been so used to not seeing any boats coming past while we’ve been here that it took us a while to recognise the sound of one coming on Monday morning.  The guy and his wife came out on deck to take pictures while I did the same (of course):

An empty Sueña (Spanish for dream although Catherine says it should really be Sueño)

While on commercials I’ll show you the mooring hooks we’re attached to at the moment.  These hooks are usually placed around 50m apart along straight stretches of the canal and are used by commercials mooring overnight.  Unusually there are five in this field that are only 20m apart so we can easily moor between two of them:

Handy mooring hook

Having not moved for a week we are still only 11kms and three locks from Chálons-en-Champagne where we set out from over two weeks ago.

Thursday 18 March 2021

La Chaussée-sur-Marne (remembering how to plan)

Evening at La Chaussée-sur-Marne

As it’s so unusual to see a narrowboat over here, we’re used to people stopping by and taking pictures and, if we’re outside, asking questions like, 'What sort of boat is it?' and then, 'How did you get it here?'.
  While having breakfast on Monday we had different admirers, a police car pulled up and when the gendarmes inside got our attention they gave us broad smiles and raised their thumbs.  It all happened so quickly that we didn’t have time to get worried we were going to be boarded and asked for our personal and boat documentation.  Compared to many people we’ve met we’ve been lucky so far and not been stopped and searched once; hopefully I’m not tempting fate.  

During our first year in France we met a couple of Brits on a widebeam, one of whom was still working as they cruised around the country.  They told us that they always had to check out mooring spots in advance as they were dependent upon having a good internet signal.  Of course, we are now in the same situation and it reminded us how we thought at the time that it must have quite an impact on their cruising style.  Karen is enjoying her return to working for a while which means the change of cruising style isn't onerous.  Buddy and I went on an internet and water recce on Monday morning and were fairly successful.  Each of the next five places we could moor seemed to have a decent signal and there was water available at one of the locks. 

Soon after we join the canal de la Marne au Rhin later in the week, we will be on pastures new.  We had to turn back last time we attempted it because the water levels were too low but we remembered that a lady living in the first lock cottage came out as we went through, to offer us water from the tap by her cottage.  The final part of our Monday morning recce was to drive there to see if water was still available.  The cottage was obviously still lived in but seemed shut up for the day as I couldn’t raise anyone.  The tap was still there, so I tried it anyway, but no water appeared – I remembered that the lady had to turn on a stopcock in her cottage, so hopefully she’ll be there when we go through at the weekend.

When I got back to the boat, I was surprised to see we were no longer alone. A motor yacht had moored up in front of us and it must be the smallest we have seen over here. Motor yachts are a relatively common sight on the waterways running towards the south coast as many seem to enjoy taking an inland route across France to get to the Med.  Before we left we met Zoe, a Belgian, and Sebastian who was Dutch.  They were a young couple and confirmed that they were on their way down south to the Med.  They were both very new to boating and wanted to get confidence by travelling on the canals before tackling the open seas.

Neighbours even smaller than us 

We had a planning session on Monday evening, and it didn’t take us long to fall back into the swing of the process and remembering who’s responsible for each aspect of the plan.  It’s slightly problematic due to Karen working fulltime until the beginning of April but that adds to the fun. I work out a rough plan for a few weeks ahead with the aim of having a food shop within walking distance once every week or so.  The outline plan also has to take into account that we’re keeping the car with us for a while, so I need to look into railway stations and bus routes on the route.

Karen researches the potential mooring locations by reading the mooring guides on the Dutch Barge Association (DBA) web site.  These guides are updated by members like ourselves, and Karen always ensures she updates any new or out of date information such as services at the mooring, the method of mooring and the local amenities. She also uses satellite images to get a physical view of the mooring which can be very useful.  One of the things to add to the plan at this time is the availability of water.  This will be especially important once we’re on the canal de la Marne au Rhin where water points are apparently few and far between. Karen does remind me that all the while we have the car close to hand or at least a train/bus/bike ride away we will be able to use it to drive to a water tap to fill up our water containers.

Before we left for La Chaussée-sur-Marne on Tuesday I had a few errands to run.  First, I needed to get rid of the recycling that had built up.  Just like the UK, some areas of France don’t have public recycling bins as everyone is expected to use their own bins at home.  This doesn’t help itinerants like us but there was a small déchetterie nearby that I could walk to. To use these places, you are expected to have an access card or proof of living locally but I thought I’d have a go at bluffing my way in as a boater.  I wasn’t challenged as I walked in and started searching for the appropriate skips.  I managed to get rid of paper, cardboard, glass and tins but couldn’t find the plastics.  I finally found what I thought was the right skip and tipped the rest of my bag in and started walking out.  I was challenged on the way and this guy wanted to know what I had put in the skip.  Apparently, it wasn’t meant for plastic and the cartons already in there had been put in by mistake.  I profusely apologised and made a quick escape.  Mind you, when he saw I had only put a couple of yogurt pots in, he smiled and said it was OK.

Walking back from the déchetterie I had to walk over two bridges, the first across the river Marne and the second over the canal.  In between the bridges was a memorial to 21 French soldiers who died on 12th June 1940 defending the bridges against German attack. 

The memorial was erected in 1962

I realised that when I put a picture of an old postcard depicting the centre of Pogny in the last blog update I had forgotten to include a contemporary picture for comparison, so I went into the village to rectify the situation.

The centre of Pogny now and then

Before we move onto the next location here are Pogny's war memorial, its church dating back to the 12th century and its more modern mairie.

Église de la Nativité de la Vierge

An unassuming mairie

Some boaters we know say bad weather tends to arrive when they start cruising, but we haven’t counted ourselves in that group, until this week that is.  When we cruised to Pogny it started raining soon after we left Chepy and then stopped while we were mooring.  The same happened on Tuesday although we weren’t really surprised as rain was forecast.  We went anyway as we wanted to get back out in the open where Buddy could have some freedom; he couldn’t lay outside at Pogny without his lead on as he has no traffic sense, and he would quite happily wander across the road next to us even if a car was coming.

After saying farewell to Zoe and Sebastian we left Pogny for La Chaussée-sur-Marne.  There wasn’t much to report about the journey other than Karen & Buddy walked it and the only buildings we passed were a chalk crushing plant and an animal feed factory.  Both were large affairs with loading facilities alongside the canal.  It’s one of the odd things about the French landscape as the countryside can be open for miles but dominated by seemingly oversized silos and factories in the middle of nowhere.  I’m sure planning rules ensure that such large establishments tend to be smaller and more hidden from view in the UK which is why we used to be shocked when we came across them in France.  Nowadays, they are all part of the rural landscape and we would think it odd if they weren’t so obvious.

France Luzerne’s animal feed factory at Pogny
Omya’s calcium carbonate production unit at Omey

After going up one lock we moored up at La Chaussée-sur-Marne and it continued raining for the rest of the afternoon so, ironically, Buddy ended up inside for the rest of the day. There are four mooring hooks in a small field that are handily placed to fit our boat between two of them.

Moored in the rain at La Chaussée-sur-Marne

On Tuesday we cruised just over two miles up one lock in the rain meaning we’ve covered 11 miles through three locks since leaving Châlons-en-Champagne ten days ago. 

La Chaussée-sur-Marne is a small village of just under 700 inhabitants but still large enough to have its own mairie and two churches.  The mairie dates from the late 18th century and its design is typical of many mairies in that the building originally contained the boys’ and the girls’ schools on either side of the main building.  The original entrances to each set of classrooms are still clearly visible.

The mairie today and the schoolchildren in 1900

In 1798 two villages, Mutigny and Coulmier-la-Chaussée, were amalgamated to become La Chaussée.  One hundred years later sur-Marne was added to avoid confusion with other villages called La Chaussée.  Chaussée means carriageway or causeway, in this case it is causeway as there was one associated with the river Fion that splits into several channels as it joins the river Marne at the western side of the village.  The amalgamation explains why such a small settlement has two churches dating back to the 12th century.

The river Fion had several mills and associated mill ponds on it, but I couldn’t find any signs of waterwheels on any of the mills left standing. 

The largest mill pond is more like a mill lake

The village is on one of the many Christian pilgrim routes to the shrine of St James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northern Spain.  In France, these routes are known as Camino Francés and the pilgrimages as Saint-Jaques de Compostelle and are marked with brass shells inlaid into paving stones when passing through towns and cities.

La Chaussée-sur-Marne's war memorial was erected on 21st September 1919 and marks local deaths in both world wars as well as the Indochina and Algerian wars.

The names of the dead are inscribed on a tablet on the wall behind the memorial

One of the oldest houses still standing in the village was built prior to 1780 but looking at it standing empty today I do wonder how much longer it will remain standing.

The oldest house in the village, built for the de Marnes, Lords of Mutigny

Here are the two churches in La Chaussée-sur-Marne that I mentioned earlier.  The first is the church of Saint-Pierre that was built in the settlement of Coulmier:

…and the Church of Saint-Martin built for the settlement of Mutigny:

The charcuterie and café (and the people) have long since disappeared

It dawned on us on Wednesday that we haven’t seen any boats on the move for five days and wondered where all the commercials had got to.  On Wednesday lunchtime Karen ran back to Pogny to pick up the car and, at the same time, solved the mystery of the missing boats.  There was a commercial moored where we had been moored on the quay at Pogny with another one just pulling up alongside it.  She could see a third a little way down being filled with grain from a silo and surmised the other two were waiting their turn.  The boats had obviously come upstream, turned at the winding hole at Pogny and were now facing downstream.  If the majority of boats coming up the cut are heading for the same silo, then it looks unlikely we will see many if any for a while.    

Before I finish this blog entry here's a map of France that shows the waterways we've travelled so far in maroon.  The pink arrow is where we are now so you can see that as we head for Nancy and then Strasbourg to the east we will soon be on new waterways to us.