Friday 14 April 2023

Commercy (black squirrels?)


For some unknown reason I was up before sunrise on Sunday and just caught the moonscape before the light was too bright from the rising sun:

Mind you it wasn’t long before the sun rose to confirm that the forecast warm day was on its way.

Sunrise at Fléville-devant-Nancy

We had a long day ahead of us in terms of locking so ate a good breakfast to keep us going. We wanted to get to end of the canal de Jonction (aka embranchement de Nancy) where it meets the canal des Vosges at a place called Richardménil. As this was only a couple of kilometres from where we’ll join the Moselle it seemed an ideal overnight stop before doing the long river stint on Monday downstream to Toul.

We had to climb 11 locks to reach the summit and they were in a chain.  This meant that as soon as the lock we were in was filling then the next lock would set itself so we could drive straight out of one then into the next.  We quickly found they were just too deep for Karen to get the front line over a bollard, so we had to change from the process I described in the previous blog entry.  Karen and Buddy walked between the locks and once I was in one, I'd walk down to the front of the boat where I could raise the line to Karen who would loop it over a bollard and I'd secure it to the boat.  I'd then go back through the boat to ascend the lock in the usual way.  Once up the top Karen would untie the line and we’d repeat the process.

For some reason two of the locks had recessed bollards so Karen was able to reach these by staying on the boat.  It did mean she had to use binoculars at each lock to see if the next one had recessed bollards or not; that way she could decide whether to get back on the boat or keep walking. 

Looping the line over a recessed bollard

All went well and we soon settled into a routine; however, the gates on the penultimate lock on the flight wouldn’t open once we rose to the top.  We tried the usual tricks of running across, jumping up and down on and rocking the lock gates but we couldn’t trigger the mechanism to open them.  A quick call to VNF, the national operator of canals and rivers, and within a few minutes an éclusier arrived in his van, opened up the control box and got us on our way.

The canal was devoid of boats and felt very rural so we couldn’t believe we were only a few kilometres from Nancy:

Nancy is out of sight over the crest of the summit hill

Once we went across the summit level, we only had five locks to go down to reach the junction and, again, these were in a chain.  All went well until the final lock as we just could not lift the blue rod to start the lock operation, even with both of us pulling together.  Another call to VNF was required and this time we had to wait longer as the guy was doing something else first – I don’t know what as I didn’t understand what was said to me but at least I understood that we would have to wait 20 minutes.  The same chap we had earlier arrived and soon got us moving.  Strangely, VNF obviously knew about the stuck rod as he didn’t even try it and just locked us down using the control box.

Coming out of the lock we were on the canal des Vosges and almost immediately moored up ready for dropping down two locks onto the Moselle in the morning.

Sunday evening at Richardménil

As it was such a warm day there were plenty of butterflies on the wing including many orange tips, our harbinger of spring.  We also saw several other species including our first clouded yellow of the year.

Orange tip with the distinguishing male features of orange wingtips

On Sunday we cruised eight km up 11 and down five locks.


We had over 30km to travel on Monday so left straight after breakfast at 10.30am.  There were two locks to drop down near our overnight mooring and then we were on to Moselle at its highest upstream limit of navigation.  From here the river winds its way downstream for 400km through northern France and Luxembourg and then into Germany until its confluence with the Rhine in Koblenz.  Last year we joined it in Germany from the river Saar and travelled upstream through Luxembourg and most of its French route.  All the locks are built to take boats up to 185m in length and are manned by éclusiers who sit in control towers overseeing the locking process.  Radios have to be used to communicate with them, both when announcing our approach and also whilst in the lock.  Before leaving we had to do a few extra chores for river travel such as preparing the anchor, putting on life jackets (including Buddy) and making sure the radio was on and working OK.

Last lock before the river

We’d been a little apprehensive about going onto the river as it had recently been closed for a couple of days because of high water.  As it was, the trip turned out to be most uneventful and the water could best be described as serene. 

All three locks were a dream in that they were all set for us as we arrived, the éclusiers were even chatty on the radio and the locking itself was a smooth process. 

Always a welcome sight – lights on green

Leaving one of the river locks

The locks were pretty deep at just over seven metres but had stepped bollards, so we were able to keep secure by moving our lines down as each bollard was exposed by the descending water.  Following the river regulations for our length of boat we each used a line at either end, and were fortunate that the distance between each set of bollards was about the length of our boat.

Stepped bollards

We did see a few commercials but had each lock to ourselves and, as usual, we felt a bit like cheats when such large locks are used just for a tiny narrowboat.  We were very surprised to see what one of the cars was on the back of this 110m boat but I’m sure if you know your cars you’ll easily guess.

The Panamera

After dropping down the third lock we were in the outskirts of Toul and had a good view of the cathedral:

When we reached the lock at Toul that would take us up off the river there was a small Swiss barge already there and clearly having problems getting the lock set.  A pole hanging over the lock approach has to be twisted to set it in motion, but any amount of twisting had no effect.  Both of us moored up while the Swiss lady rang VNF and an éclusier arrived in his van in less than five minutes. 

The locks on the canal we were joining, the Marne au Rhin ouest, were the small 39m Freycinet gauge but both of us easily fitted in and we went up together.  Not so in the second lock because, although there was room, the lockside bollards weren’t positioned such that we could both safely tie up.  As we’d gone in second, we reversed out and let the Swiss couple go up on their own.  The lock was in a chain with the first lock off the river so now we were stuck between the two locks with no way of getting the second one to work as we’d broken the chain.  So, it was a second call to VNF and the same guy, who was obviously still close by, turned up and got us through.

After an automatic lift bridge, we went up another lock, above which the town port can be accessed.  As we went past, we saw the Swiss couple had moored up and were already sitting outside having drinks.  We’d decided to carry on up a few more locks and moor back out in the countryside.  The locks were all in the same chain that had been started for us by the éclusier and all went well until the fifth one which had no lights on it.  We decided to call it a day and were just mooring up when the éclusier appeared and set the lock for us.  To avoid looking churlish we decided to carry on so untied the boat and moored up a couple of locks later outside a place called Écrouves. 

Our mooring at Écrouves

Looking at the picture above, the box called the Echo Cube is actually a weed collector.  If you look closely there's a line of bubbles crossing the cut diagonally from the Echo Cube to the back of our boat.  These bubbles prevent bits of weed passing any further and directs them to the cube which has a moving platform at 45 degrees to the water to collect the weed and disgorge it inside.

On Monday we cruised 34km, down five and up seven locks and through one lift bridge.


We were only about 16km from the junction with the Meuse and decided overnight that as we’d been on the first 170km of the Meuse as far as Sedan before, we wouldn’t hang around thus leaving more time for exploring the places we haven’t visited further downstream.  Our daughter Joanna has also decided to visit us for a few days in June when we should be on the canal des Ardennes.  The canal des Ardennes is very rural and has very few links with large towns on its route.  This led to another overnight decision that we will keep the car with us until Jo visits us, that way we’ll be able to transport her to and from places with good rail links for connecting with the UK. 

Our aim on Tuesday was to get to Foug for lunch and then decide, depending upon the weather, how far we’d go in the afternoon.  As we’d stopped in a lock chain overnight, we had to ring VNF to get it restarted for us but we managed to get up the eight locks to Foug without any problems.  It seems that we've had to call out VNF several times over the last few days which really isn't as bad as it sounds as they are always very responsive and is part of the charm of the way the French canal system is run.

At one lock I saw a black squirrel-like animal running across the top lock gates and at first wondered what it was.  I then remembered where we were and that red squirrels are far more common than the greys and that they can be quite dark brown, almost black.  This particular one was the darkest I have seen and it reminded me that we have never seen a grey squirrel over here.

At Foug we were met by an éclusier who asked us whether we were turning off onto the Meuse and, as we were, he gave us a bright yellow télécommande for operating the automatic locks.  Not all the locks are automatic and after the first 10 we are assigned an itinerant éclusier who will operate the following 20-odd locks for us.  This obviously has setbacks in that we have to plan our times of departure each day we move but when we've had that service before we’ve always got in the swing of it and never found it an issue if we change our minds.

Pulling up for lunch on an old lock island in front of Foug tunnel

After lunch the weather was still set fair so we headed off through the tunnel and moored at Pagny-sur-Meuse for the rest of the day.  We passed one boat on the move, it was the first sail boat we’ve seen this year on its way down to the Med avoiding the Bay of Biscay.

Pagny-sur-Meuse has a long pontoon and as there was just a VNF work boat moored up, we had plenty of space to tie up.

Moored in front of a VNF work boat at Pagny-sur-Meuse

On Tuesday we cruised 11km up eight locks and through one tunnel.


Rain was forecast for practically all day and indeed we woke up when it started raining and it didn’t really stop all morning.  There was a brief interlude just before lunchtime which was ideal for giving Buddy a walk but not a long enough window for us to move on.  The next place we could stop was at a place called Euville which was four locks and 11km away.  That would be a two-to-three-hour journey so we kept checking the forecast to see if a decent opportunity would present itself during the afternoon.

Whenever we visit somewhere new, the first thing we generally do is to seek out the mairie, the war memorial and any lavoirs we can find.  If the place is large enough to have a tourist office, then we make a visit there too to pick up any self-guided trails they have.  As we’d been to Pagny-sur-Meuse back in 2021 I had a quick look at relevant the blog entry and photos we took at the time.  I was rather surprised that, although we’d walked around the village, the only photo we took was of the back of the mairie.  To make a partial amendment to this oversight here is the front of the mairie, which was rather plain looking, and the war memorial.

Dedicated to the inhabitants who died in the two world wars and the 1st Indo-China war

The rain stopped during lunch and by 2.00pm the sun started appearing in breaks in the clouds but there was quite a stiff breeze.  Even though there’d been reports of hailstorms in parts of the UK, France and Belgium we decided to take the plunge and left for Euville half an hour later.  As we left the mooring, we passed the church which was the other building we’d omitted to take a picture of:

The church in Pagny-sur-Meuse, the roof anyway

After five kilometres we reached the junction where the canal de la Meuse starts.  It was built in the 1870s and runs for 270km down to the Belgian border at Givet, our current target.  For most of its length in France it is actually the canalised river Meuse but the section we were joining is pure canal for about 7km.  When it was built it was called the canal de l’Est and originally started 130km further south at the river Saône.  The southern section is now called the canal des Vosges which is felt to have a more touristic appeal.  From the French/Belgian border it flows to Holland at Maastricht and then empties into the North Sea some 925km after we join it.

The junction with the canal de la Meuse to the right

The clouds continued to roll away, helped by what was now a very stiff wind and we were soon in the first of four locks in quick succession.

In the first lock on the canal de la Meuse

The information board at the lock actually contained some useful information for once and it was the first time we have seen such a thing.  Two sides of A4 listing the stopping places on the canals and rivers in the area and against each were details of the closest fuel station including distance away.  I know that lists of this type can go out of date, but we took a picture anyway:

The canal was quite wide and very clear but, in some places, loose weed had collected.  Luckily we managed to avoid picking up too much around the prop and thus didn’t have a weed hatch trip until we moored up for the day.

When we reached Euville we called it a day; Karen went off to check the water tap situation whilst I secured the boat and removed the weed from around the prop.  There wasn’t any water at the tap, but she located a manhole, went down it and found a stopcock so at least we’d be able to take on water before we leave.  As strikes were due the next day across France, we weren’t sure whether we’d be travelling or not on Thursday.  A VNF van stopped by early in the evening, and the guy driving took the details of the boat and our rough cruising plan for the canal control centre at Verdun.  When we’re on the section of river where about 20 locks are manual, we’ll have to arrange with the control centre for éclusiers to come out and see us through each one.  Before he left, I asked if any of the local locks would be closed on Thursday due to VNF being en grève but he said they would be open.

Moored at Euville

On Wednesday we cruised 10 km down four locks.


As the VNF guy from the previous evening had intimated, the strike wasn't affecting our part of the canal and the lights on the lock in front of our mooring came on at 9.00am so we knew we could travel to Commercy, our next destination.  The original plan was to get there in the morning and then catch a train back to get the car which we’d left the other side of Nancy.  Unfortunately, that plan wouldn’t work as all trains to Nancy, where I’d have to change, were cancelled due to the strike.  As there was now no great rush to get to Commercy we took it easy for the morning and just had a walk further downstream to where the canal joined the river and then a pleasant walk along the river itself.

The only other boat we’ve seen since leaving the Moselle earlier this week was the Swiss barge that we locked off the river with.  They’d stayed in Toul for a couple of days but went past us on their way to Belgium while we were moored at Euville.  We very much doubt we’ll see them again as they were on a mission and also drive a lot faster than us.

We left for Commercy after lunch, and it wasn’t long before we joined the river Meuse.  The river was tranquil and not very wide this far upstream, and we had a pleasant journey down to the town.

Joining the Meuse

As we approached Commercy we entered a canalised section where the river went off right over a weir.

A barrage keeper’s cottage stood by the river at this point and, not surprisingly, it was built in the same style as the lock cottages.  I wonder which job had the higher status.

Left: Euville lock cottage. Right: barrage keeper’s cottage

The smell of madeleines hit us as soon as we were on the outskirts of Commercy a town famous for the manufacture of these cakes.  We were instantly reminded of the debacle that occurred when Karen tried to bake madeleines on the boat.  She’d bought a madeleine tin and it wasn’t until she’d made the mixture and poured it into the moulds that she found that the tray was too large to fit in our oven!

Arriving in town we moored on an old quay which had an Aldi right alongside.  I’ll go and get the car on Friday then we can visit a garden centre to buy plants to put in our roof pots and also have a trip to a fuel station to buy diesel to top up the boat's fuel tank.

Moored in Commercy

On Thursday we cruised four kilometres down one lock.

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