Mussey (off we go)


Sunset at La Chaussée-sur-Marne
We left Juvigny for Châlons-en-Champagne soon after breakfast and in a little over an hour were approaching the town and the lock in the centre.
  Once through the lock we went into the port and moored up on the pontoon allocated to us by Roxana the capitaine.  The place was quite a buzz of activity with people de-winterising their boats and getting ready to cruise.  Our pontoon was soon full of people welcoming us back and updating us with their stories.  In particular, Alistair & Sabine, with whom we have had many phone conversations but have only ever met once.

They also have a narrowboat which is one of the reasons we keep in touch.  It’s quite different cruising on a narrowboat compared with the usual larger boats for which guides etc. are written, so it’s good to share experiences of the different waterways.  In addition, narrowboats aren’t suited to the method of operation of European locks where all work is done from the boat.  This means various modifications are required so it’s good to keep abreast of new ideas. We only know of one other narrowboat used regularly, but we do know of three others that have recently returned to the UK and a few others that are now moored up permanently.  There must be others around, but for example Mac, who’s been in the port all winter says he has never seen another narrowboat in five years of cruising in France.

One of the first tasks was to walk to a supermarket to stock up with food.  As Buddy was happy sunning himself on the pontoon and generally being made a fuss of, we left him behind making our job easier.  It was good to see that the town’s retail outlets seemed to have survived Covid.  It had been quite sad during our visits in the last two winters seeing shops shuttered up.  Not only have they reopened but new outlets have sprung up taking advantage of the tourists already holidaying.  Talking about holidaying, Pivoine a hotel boat that had been in the port all winter, was in the latter stages of being prepped for the season; its first cruise starting over the coming weekend.  Looking at their schedule it appears they are fully sold out this year which is good news.

Alistair & Sabine left during the afternoon on Vector and headed west like we’ll be doing the next day.  It’s going to be unusual for the locals seeing two narrowboats passing through their villages.

Vector setting off

The rest of the afternoon was spent socialising and doing odd jobs such as visiting the post office.

On Tuesday we cruised seven km up one lock.


A big day for us on Wednesday, Karen was due to pick up the replacement for her residence permit that she lost in a lock last year.  We’d decided in advance that if, for some reason, there was another delay in the card being handed over that we would set off cruising anyway.  We would just cross the bridge of how to get back to Châlons when the time came.  The appointment was after lunch, so during the morning we went for one of favourite walks along the river Marne.  It is also one of Buddy’s as parts are quite sandy which make him tear up and down and use up some of his energy.

We arrived at the préfecture on time and, despite the numbers of people waiting, were seen within 10 minutes and Karen was given her card after confirming all the details were correct – success at last!  The Marne préfecture (equivalent to a county hall in the UK) is quite a grand building…

…but, as with most administrative buildings it had outgrown itself many years ago and the building we had to go to was around the other side.

We were so happy and couldn’t wait to get going once we returned to the port, so after a last round of goodbyes we set off:

Au revoir to the port at Châlons-en-Champagne

As the first part of the journey is not new to us, we won’t be hanging around much until we reach Toul where we will join waters new.  Proof of not hanging around is that we travelled for nearly three hours before tying up for the day although some boater friends would say that is no distance at all, just a pre-mid-morning coffee jaunt.

We were heading for a mooring we know at La Chaussée-sur-Marne alongside a small, enclosed field on the offside that would be safe for Buddy.  The mooring is a few hundred metres after the lock in the village but as we went up the lock we saw the lock landing looked pretty remote too and as we hadn’t stopped there before, changed our minds.

New mooring for us just before La Chaussée-sur-Marne (Buddy is the black dot)

We were having an early dinner when three British lads came past on a sailboat.  They were waving madly and really excited to see another private boat, especially a British one.  Little did they know that a few miles further on they would pass yet another: Alistair & Sabine’s narrowboat.   No doubt the lads were off to the Med and we recalled that it’s this time of year we see sailboats rushing madly down the canals to get there.  Of course, these days, any Brits doing it would have to get long stay visas beforehand as they are now bound by the 90-day Schengen rule.  Although thinking about it they could probably have their 90 days in Europe and then sail along the African Med for a further 90 before returning to European waters.  

On Wednesday we cruised 17 km up three locks.


We set off to reach Vitry-en-François for lunch on Thursday morning, to then decide on whether or not to continue on afterwards.  It was an uneventful journey reliving the memories of when we’d been along the canal before and after 2½ hours were heading into the last lock before the mooring.  The locks on this canal are shallow, generally between two and three metres deep, but this was the deepest, at 3,56 metres, which is about 20 cm shallower than the limit for Karen to safely get a line over a bollard.  Fortunately, this lock had stepped bollards in the walls making the job a lot easier.  This was just one example of the different approaches required to operate French locks where the operation is handled from the boat.

Leaving the last lock, we were surprised to see the British sailboat that had passed us the previous evening was tied up at the side.  One guy was earnestly talking on the phone and the other two couldn't be seen.  We slowed to see if he was OK but were waved on.  A few hundred metres later we were approaching the old lime kilns where we were mooring for lunch.  Alistair & Sabine were still there, having moored up the night before.

Not something you see every day

The only other time we’ve moored with a narrowboat was three years ago on the canal du Centre where we met Paul, a Brit who’d lived in Iceland for the previous 45 years, and Pia who was Swedish.  We‘ve heard recently that they have sold their boat and moved on to new adventures.

After spending some time with our neighbours, we decided that as it was such a nice day we would continue cruising for the afternoon.  We were soon going up the last lock on the canal which would take us into the town of Vitry-le-François.  Coming out of the lock we crossed the river Saulx whose valley we would be following when we shortly turn off onto the canal de la Marne au Rhin, signalling our farewell to the Marne valley.

Crossing the Saulx, a tributary of the Marne

The V52 veloroute links Paris and Strasbourg, the majority of it on the towpaths of the waterways between the two cities.  Much of the section that runs through Champagne is being upgraded at the moment and as we came out of the lock, we came across evidence of the preparatory work that has to be carried out.  The towpath is quite narrow for a short way meaning the machinery that we’d seen working on the path earlier in the day would not be able to be used.  There was clearly concern for the line of plane trees and, to prevent damage, the lower trunks were wrapped in thick foam secured by layers of black plastic.

Mollycoddling the plane trees

At Vitry we turned left onto the canal de la Marne au Rhin which, as its name suggests joins the two great rivers.  When it was opened in 1855 it was the longest canal in France at 313 km and was constructed at the same time and along the same route as the eastern half of the railway line between Paris and Strasbourg.  In 1979, a middle section of 23 km was closed and replaced following canalisation works on the Moselle.  The canal was then split into two sections, East and West.  We were joining the Marne au Rhin (ouest) which we’d travelled in the opposite direction last year.  We probably won’t hang around much while going through the places we covered before, but you never know as the character and views afforded by canals can be quite different when going in the opposite direction.

The two sections (ouest & est) of the Marne au Rhin

There are 97 locks on the western section and 55 on the eastern.  There were originally 78 locks on the eastern section but 17 were replaced by an inclined plane opened in 1969 and the others were replaced by one very deep lock.  As we approached the first lock, we remembered that the operation is triggered by sensors on either side of the canal.

One of a pair of sensors

Everything was going well until the penultimate lock of the journey where, once the doors closed, it just would not start filling.  Karen went up to use the intercom to contact the control centre and as soon as she got off the call, an éclusier arrived in his van to sort us out.  Fortuitously he must have been patrolling our section anyway.  Julian was a jolly young guy and we all recognised each other from last year, not least because he'd wanted to practice his English.  His level was pretty good as he was able to joke, asking Karen why she’d broken his lock.  He said he’d see us through the last lock before we moored up and also warned us that two commercials would be passing in the opposite direction during the following morning.

We moored up for the night at a peaceful spot below the lock at Bignicourt-sur-Saulx.

Catching the last of the evening sun at Bignicourt-sur-Saulx

Alistair got in touch later on and said the British sailboat had passed them later in the day but was being bow hauled.  Apparently, they had lost their prop and were pulling the boat down to a boatyard in Vitry where they hoped to have a new one fitted.  They were lucky that they only had a few kilometres to go as boatyards are few and far between in this part of France.   

On Thursday we cruised 29 km up nine locks (in keeping with our more adventurous boater friends).


Our overnight mooring had been just before the lock at Bignicourt-sur-Saulx but after the magic eyes that trigger the lock operation to start.  After we’d moored up we’d rung VNF to tell them we weren’t actually going through and they then reset the lock remotely.  This did mean that when we were ready to leave on Friday morning we had to ring back to get the lock started, again remotely.  We needed to call them anyway in order to give 48 hours notice of using the lift bridge at Mussey which was undergoing repairs.  At least the repairs were such that the bridge wasn’t closed completely.

We were going up the top lock at Pargny-sur-Saulx when Julian, our éclusier from Thursday stopped by to let us know where to expect to meet the two commercials that were on their way down.  Coming out of the lock we were surprised to see a large boat in the distance as it was going to be another hour or so before we met the first commercial.  The boat turned out to be an old large private barge that clearly Julian hadn’t thought to mention.

We met the two commercials in the expected pounds and only one was on a corner.  They were Drakaar and Dhana that we’ve seen a few times this year as they wend their way to and from the steelworks further upstream at Contrisson.  They have an interesting manoeuvre to make when they reach the steelworks as they have to turn at a winding hole two locks before the works and then reverse up the locks to the unloading quay.  They are then in a position to set off back downstream once they have been unloaded.

Approaching the winding hole

The steelworks is a large place and quite unexpected considering how remote the lovely countryside is along the canal.

Contrisson steelworks

Once we passed the two commercials, we moored up on the offside with just a centre line through a hole in the side pilings for lunch.  Buddy found some deep, damp tractor tracks and spent all the time fast asleep in a rut out of the sun.

We continued climbing after lunch and were soon approaching ‘goat’ lock.  We named it this when we came down towards the end of November and there’d been a couple of goats right on the lockside.  Although they were still there when we went up this time, they weren’t the least bit interested.  All the locks from ‘goat' lock to the summit have to be operated by using a télécommande which Julian had given us on Thursday and as the climb became steeper, the distance between the locks became shorter.

In a previous blog or two I’ve talked about the electric locomotives that used to tow the barges of northern and eastern France until the 1970s.  We still come across the locos at the side of the cut and also the sheds they were kept in.

Two loco sheds we hadn't spotted before

After 13 locks we had two left before where we wanted to moor, and I made the stupid mistake of remarking to Karen about how good the locks had been.  When we got into the very next lock, the paddles wouldn’t open so it needed a call to VNF.  A different éclusier came out and sorted things out and we were on our way again.  When we got to the next and last lock, we couldn’t get it to recognise our télécommande but the éclusier who’d just helped us out was on his way and stopped to see us through.

We were mooring in the VNF service yard just after the lock where we’d spent a few days in the winter on a rickety landing stage which now looks in an even worse condition:

We couldn't believe we moored here for a few days last winter

Fortunately, the VNF quay was free, and we moored there instead.  I say fortunately because the quay is where an ice breaker normally moors.

Moored at the VNF service yard at Revigny-sur-Ornain

We’d had a lovely day cruising through the open countryside but both of us felt we needed to stretch our legs.  We’d explored Revigny before, so this time walked in the opposite direction, up the hill above the canal that was meant to offer great views across the town and the valley below.  The guidebook was obviously out of date as the hill was covered with tall trees and there was no way we could get a glimpse of anything below.

In the woods at the top of the hill was a small chapel called notre dame de Grâce.  A hermitage had been built on the site in the 16th century with a small chapel.  The chapel seen nowadays is a 19th century replacement as the previous one was destroyed when the hermitage became disused.  The trees grow so close to the building that it wasn’t easy to get a picture with all of it in:

At the bottom of the hill and only a few hundred metres from the canal was a spring.  Considering we’d stayed here for three days in November we were surprised we hadn’t seen it before.  The spring is decorated with an ornate stone structure which has a small statue in the middle, supposedly of notre dame de Grâce which was also the name of our penultimate lock of the day.

The spring would have been an ideal place to build a lavoir

On Friday we cruised 18 km up 15 locks.


Saturday promised to be another warm day, ideal for a cruise, but the light wind that was forecast turned out to be quite gusty at times.  We had arranged for the lift bridge at Mussey to be raised at 2.00pm so we had a bit of schedule to work to.  We wanted to stop at Neuville-sur-Ornain on the way as it was a village that we hadn’t visited before and Karen had read that there was a lavoir there.

Just before the Neuville lock we found an old quay with four or five bollards still in place.  The trouble was a lot of the stonework had fallen in the water making it difficult to get close enough.  In the end we managed to use two of the bollards and be within leaping distance.    

No need for the gangplank

After securing the boat we walked up to the lock where we crossed to the other side and found the road to Neuville-sur-Ornain.

Looking over to our mooring

Before reaching the village, we crossed the Ornain which is a tributary of the Saulx, the river whose valley we’re currently cruising up.

River Ornain, a tributary of the river Saulx

Once over the bridge we could see the lavoir at the edge of the village and it was clearly one of the largest we have seen making it really difficult to get a picture of the whole building.

Lavoir at Neuville-sur-Ornain

The lavoir was built in 1855 and had two large washing basins with room for 80 women as well as a round rinsing basin with a large fountain in its centre.  The building has now been converted into the village hall and, sadly, the two washing basins removed.  Fortunately, the rinsing basin is still a central feature, but impossible to photograph because the building was closed, and all the glass windows were smoked.  

Dated entrance to the lavoir

Returning to the boat we set off for the lift bridge at Mussey.  The canal has been remarkably free of weed so far; it has been closed in late summer a couple of years recently due to too much weed growth. The pound leading up to Mussey did have the first appreciable weed we’ve come across but still not enough to bother us.

We arrived at the lift bridge about five minutes early and hung back because of the strong breeze.  I didn’t want to get caught in an embarrassing situation with workmen watching me trying to control the boat.  With the wind coming across from the left there would be a danger that the front (the lighter end) would get blown across to the right bank (the boater's left bank).  This would more than likely end up with the whole boat pinned against the side making it difficult to get away.  I opted to turn into the wind and hold the front against the other bank. 

Waiting at a discrete distance

The workmen finished their lunch dead on the hour and dragged barriers across the road to stop the traffic.  It was then quite comical watching their antics for the next five minutes or so as they dragged what looked like steel ramps across where the bridge was hinged.  I could only assume that this was to prevent the bridging coming out of its hinge as it was raised.  Meanwhile a VNF éclusier turned up and waited for the signal from the workmen before raising the bridge and opening the lock at the other side for us.

One of the things that we and other people love about France is how quiet the rural areas are, and this was evidenced at the bridge at Mussey.  By the time we'd got through the bridge and up the lock, the workmen had only just cleared the road again.  This meant that the bridge had been closed for about 20 minutes, even so, only one car was held up and they'd been full of smiles and waving as we went through.  


We decided to stay at Mussey for the rest of the day and once through the bridge and up the lock we found an old commercial bollard at the back of some gardens.  We’d intended having a look around the village but ended up sitting outside for the rest of the day.  We’ll leave the exploring until Sunday and maybe even stay a couple of nights.

Moored at Mussey

On Saturday we cruised seven km up six locks and through one lift bridge.

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