Sunday 18 June 2023

Condé-sur-Marne (back in Champagne)

Back in our beloved Marne waters 


With less than a fortnight to go before we head back to the UK for a few weeks to escape the worst of the French summer sun, we’ve begun planning the trip back.  Buddy is the main constraint, as is always the case on a return trip, as he has to have his French passport stamped by a French vet between two and five days before the crossing.  To that end, before we set out for a cruise on Saturday, we made a booking with our vet in Châlons-en-Champagne for the following Saturday.

It promised to be yet another hot day, so we wanted to get underway early and by 9am were leaving our overnight mooring opposite the silos at Château-Porcien bound for Asfeld.  We were now at the western end of the canal des Ardennes and the character continued to be quite different to that where we joined it.  Whereas mooring was possible anywhere in the first half between Pont-à-Bar and Attigny, the second half of the canal is now more like a river with very few places to moor other than recognised spots equipped with bollards or rings. In many respects these river-like stretches reminded us of canals in England:

In other places tall trees along the banks provided welcome shade:

When we approached the second lock of the day, we realised from the combination of lights that a boat was about to enter and come up so we hung back for a while to wait and also avoid a build-up of weed that had accumulated at the entrance.  When the boat started rising, we could see it was a commercial which made a total of four that we’d seen on a purportedly non-commercial canal.

Waiting for the commercial to clear the weed for us

We moored up when we reached Asfeld as we wanted to have a look around the town and have lunch.  Just as we were leaving for our walk a pleasure boat appeared making two boats on the move during the day - a relatively busy one for us. 

The Asfeld mooring

The place was absolutely dead, and we saw no one apart from a mother and a toddler and we clearly stuck out as tourists as she immediately asked if we were on a boat.

High street – empty both ways

On the edge of town, we visited a WWI German war cemetery which housed the graves of over 5,000 soldiers:

The town church, which was built in the 1680s in the Baroque style, did look very Italian to our eyes.  Buddy didn’t care for the style of architecture and when we went inside he immediately laid down on the cool stone floor. 

Église St-Dizier

 The building was laid out in a most unusual shape.

Diagram of the church layout

Running perpendicularly to the main road through the village were two tree-lined avenues.  One had taken us down to the German war cemetery and the other led down to the mairie.

Grand avenue down to the mairie

Rather than having a school for girls on one side and a school for boys on the other as is the traditional case, the Asfeld mairie had a register office on one side and a courtroom on the other.

Every so often, nestling under the trees, were metal caricatures accompanied by information boards explaining some aspect of Asfeld’s history.

Following lunch we continued to the end of the canal des Ardennes and after dropping down the final lock joined the canal latéral à l’Aisne where we found a secluded spot to tie up for the night.

Saturday night at the start of the canal latéral à l’Aisne

On Saturday we cruised 15 kilometres down three locks.


Opened in 1841 the 51-kilometre-long canal latéral à l’Aisne, as its name suggests, runs parallel to the river Aisne.  It starts at the western end near Soissons where it joins the river Aisne.  It continues alongside the Aisne to where we stayed overnight on Saturday at its junction with the canal des Ardennes.  Although we have been on the canal several times before we hadn’t travelled on the 19-kilometre-long eastern part that we are now on down to Berry-au-Bac where there is a junction with the canal de l’Aisne à la Marne.

Route of the Aisne and the canal latéral à l’Aisne

We were just about to set off on Sunday morning when we heard the lock being set behind us, so we remained tied up until the boat went through.  It turned out to be yet another commercial, this one flying a Dutch flag.  After it had gone through we headed off for Variscourt and on the way we left the Ardennes département and entered the Aisne.  Karen had read that the mooring at Variscourt was shady which indeed it was and we were happy to moor up and stay there out of direct sunlight for the rest of the day.

In the shade at Variscourt

On Sunday we cruised 11 kilometres down one lock.


While Karen went for her early morning run, Buddy and I went for a walk taking in the small village of Variscourt.  With a population of fewer than 200 inhabitants it wasn’t surprising that I saw nothing of note on our walk and even the mairie and church were uninspiring.  As happened the previous day we were just about to cast off later in the morning when an unladen commercial came by.  I’ve included a picture of it as it shows how far down in the water it would be if it were fully laden: the water would be at the border between the blue and the black paint.

Univers built in 1948

Later on a laden one passed us that demonstrated what I tried to describe above.  We have sometimes seen them laden to their maximum and then the water reaches up to and laps over the gunwales. 

For comparison – an almost fully laden boat that passed us later on

We had a couple of hours to travel down to Berry-au-Bac where we would turn onto the canal de l’Aisne à la Marne.  As we approached the large basin by the junction, we radioed the lock cottage to let them know we were heading to Reims as opposed to continuing down the latéral à l’Aisne.  We could see a boat had just gone down the lock that was straight ahead and we half expected that we would have to wait for our lock as it is often a busy junction.  As it was the éclusier said there were no other boats so he would prepare our lock immediately.

About to turn left onto the Aisne à la Marne

As soon as we turned off and were going up the lock, we knew we were on one of our ‘home’ canals because of the colour of the water.  The canal is fed at the summit by pumping water up from the Marne which has a distinctive blue-green colour from the chalk and limestone rocks of Champagne.  We’ve always considered the Marne and its connecting canals our waterway home in France.

The information plates on the lock cottages on this new canal are very distinctive and the style is another thing that reminds us that we’re on a home canal:

The Aisne à la Marne, as the name suggests, is a canal that provides a route between the rivers Aisne in the north to the Marne in the south.  The 58-kilometre-long canal was opened in 1861, runs between Berry-au-Bac on the Aisne and Condé-sur-Marne and has a 2.3-kilometre-long tunnel at its summit. 

We moored for lunch above a lock where a walnut tree gave Buddy some shade to relax in:

After a break we carried on a bit further to Loivre where we knew we would get some shade during the evening. 

The whole boat was in the shade by 7pm

Commercials continued passing during the evening reminding us of what a popular freight route the l’Aisne à la Marne canal is.

On Monday we cruised 17 kilometres down one and up five locks.


It felt like it was becoming a habit as, for the third morning on the trot, we were just about to leave our overnight mooring by a lock when a commercial came into sight.  As per the rules of the road as well as common courtesy, we let him go up the lock first.  I then had to reverse back to twist the pole for our turn as our mooring was between the pole and the lock.  We were just about to go in when another commercial appeared so once again we let him take our turn which meant I had to reverse again to twist the pole.  Third time lucky and we were going up following the two boats that had gone in front of us.  We were in a chain of four locks about a kilometre apart meaning each subsequent lock readied itself automatically. 

When we came out of the third lock, we could see that a boat was coming down the final lock so the boat in front of us was having to wait.  By the time it was our turn, the delay meant that yet another commercial had caught us up so we had to let him go first.  The last guy explained during our radio conversation that if we catch up with him after the lock then to radio him and he would pull over to let us pass.  I told him we didn’t go much faster than a laden commercial so probably wouldn’t want to overtake him.

We did catch up with him after a while and he radioed us to see if we wanted to pass but again we left it and agreed to call him if we changed our minds.  As we approached the outskirts of Reims, I did change my mind and he slowed down to let us pass.  Going through the large freight port at Reims we saw several of the boats we’d seen in the previous 24 hours in various states of being loaded or unloaded.

After the freight port came downtown Reims where we pulled up against an old railway line to take advantage of a supermarket on the other side of the tracks.  Being by a busy road junction and old buildings being demolished it wasn’t really the place to stay for long:

Outside Aldi

Next stop was the fuel station that we always visit when passing through Reims.  I managed one trip trolleying two jerry cans but felt that it was too hot to do anymore; remembering it’ll be easier to do it using the car when we reach the port where it’s parked.  Soon after stopping for diesel, we passed the congress centre so knew we were in the middle of Reims:

Another sign of where we were was the fact that we had to be highly aware of the constant stream of rowers as is usually the case in a city.  Next was the port, which we’ve never stayed at because not only is it right next to the autoroute and another main road it seems ridiculously expensive.  Saying that, there were a few boats in so maybe they wanted the electric hook up provided or just weren't aware of the free moorings a little further on that we always use.

As can just be seen in the picture above, beyond the boats in the port is a long section of liveaboards, mainly péniches and mostly double moored.  I’d read a report a few months ago that there are plans to redevelop the area and the liveaboards would have to move but there was such an outcry that plans were on hold while alternative moorings could be found.

Next was the spot we always moor at in Reims, opposite a park and just below a lock.  We were lucky in that there was no one else there so we managed to nab the only shady spot, in fact it’s probably the only shady mooring in Reims.

Tuesday evening

On Tuesday we cruised 15 kilometres up four locks.


When Karen went for a pre-cruise run, she passed some grain silos outside of Reims and saw Star, one of the boats that we’d locked up with the previous day, taking on grain.  Judging from the height it was out of the water, loading hadn't been going on for long. 

Star taking on grain

Less than two hours later we passed the same spot on the boat, a fully laden Star was just leaving the quay and a lorry was already being loaded at the same point.  We’d often wondered how long it takes to load one of the Freycinet péniches so now we had a better idea: between one and two hours.

We were going to stop for lunch and a break in a basin by the VNF yard in Bauzemont-sur-Vesle, but there were quite a few fishermen in situ.  Rather than try and work our way into a corner that was free we tied up on the canal itself using a commercial bollard and a pin:

After lunch we had one further lock to ascend and then we were at the summit with only six kilometres to travel to where we like to moor just before the northern entrance to the tunnel at Billy-le-Grand.  About halfway there we went under a bridge where teenagers were cooling down by leaping off into the water.  As I’ve said before, we wouldn’t dream of swimming in a canal knowing what goes into it.  I assume they were the same local lads that we’d seen in that spot before, so they’d obviously not come to any harm.

Lads having fun

I mentioned the other day that the start to 2023 has been one of the worst I’ve known as far as butterflies are concerned.  Yes, we’ve seen most of the expected species so far but the numbers of each are dramatically down.  The only one that seems to have bucked the trend, at least where we’ve been, is the orange tip; this spring was one of the best we can remember for the numbers of orange tips.  Things do seem to be picking up though and we saw more butterflies on the wing during the day’s cruise than we have on any other day this year including some large fritillaries that we were unable to identify as they were flying along the bank refusing to fly over the boat.

We moored for the day at the northern approach to Billy tunnel where I’d thought we’d have shade from late afternoon.

Billy tunnel entrance in the distance

My memory hadn’t served me correctly as I thought that there were some tall trees on the opposite bank that would provide the shade.  When we arrived, I realised my mistake as the line of trees finished just before the mooring spot:

The trees on the mooring side meant there wouldn’t be any sun until late morning but that would be of no use to us as we planned on leaving straight after breakfast.

On Wednesday we cruised 22 kilometres up seven locks.


We managed to leave straight after breakfast on Thursday and it was one of those rare occasions where we were ready before 9am.  As soon as we started to cast off, the éclusier in the tunnel control unit had obviously seen us moving around on the CCTV as the green tunnel light came on.

Approaching the northern portal of the 2.3-kilometre Billy tunnel

As with most French canal tunnels it was lit throughout which we always find contrary to the French attitude to H&S.  Funnily enough tunnels in the UK, which has many ridiculous H&S rules, are hardly ever lit.  The tunnel doesn’t have a towpath but it still has the tracks used in the days when barges were towed by electric locomotives.

A few kilometres after leaving the tunnel we were at the top of the eight-lock flight down to Condé-sur-Marne.  It was an uneventful journey even though the final lock had no lights on but as we approached it a VNF van turned up and saw us straight through.  Arriving at Condé-sur-Marne we moored up next to Alistair and Sabine’s narrowboat, Vector; it’s not often two narrowboats are seen together in France.


We drove to Aÿ station in the afternoon to pick up the bike that I’d left there a week previously.  On the way back we treated ourselves to a visit to Philippe Bénard for some champagne tasting.  If you’ve read the previous blog entry you may remember that we turned up on a Wednesday last week which happened to be the only day they are closed.  Philippe wasn’t there but his daughter, Lucie, looked after us.  In fact she looked after us so well that we ended up with quite a bit of the produce.

On Thursday we cruised 12 kilometres down eight locks. 


We’ll soon be going back to the UK for our summer break so here’s a quick summary of where we’ve been this year.  Because of low water levels at the end of last year closing several canals we had to leave the boat down towards Strasbourg for its winter rest. We started cruising at the end of March and quickly headed through Nancy and up the Mosel to Toul as we’d travelled that route a couple of times previously.  We then joined the Meuse and travelled the length of the French part all the way to the Belgian border at Givet.  Turning around we went back upstream to join the canal des Ardennes and headed along its length to the canal l’Aisne à la Marne which we have now cruised to its end.  

What we’ve done this year

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the canals and rivers we’ve been on so far this year.  The northern French Meuse took us through some stunning countryside with steep sided wooded valleys enabling us to have some excellent walks with wonderful views along the tight meanders in the river.  The Ardennes, being not as hilly, was quite a contrast but just as enjoyable particularly the extremely rural eastern half where it was possible to moor almost anywhere we fancied. 

Traffic has been very light and in the early weeks we sometimes went several days without seeing a single boat.  Private boats are now more plentiful seemingly only starting cruising at the beginning of June.  Brexit will have had an impact on many Brits who will now suffer from the 90/180 rule.  Also, most of the boats have been Dutch or Belgian so they may well have started cruising earlier but have only recently reached this neck of the woods.

Commercial traffic has been most varied.  We saw some of the big boys on the Mosel even though we only travelled on it for a short way, and we saw none on the Meuse.  We weren’t expecting to see any on the Ardennes but passed half a dozen of the smaller 38-metre péniches so hopefully helping to justify keeping the canal open.  Since we’ve been back in the Aisne-Marne area there are plenty of péniches every day as would be expected.  As for hire boats we have only seen a handful and they were all on the river Meuse.

Where we’ve been since being in mainland Europe

As for Friday we did a few tidying up jobs around the boat and had a walk to the Marne so Buddy could have a play and a paddle.  The cricket started at midday our time and to be honest we spent the rest of the day glued to the radio.


It was a very early start on Saturday as we had an eight o’clock appointment at the vets in Châlons-en-Champagne, a 30-minute drive away.  All went well and the required vet stamps were entered on his French passport so Buddy would be allowed entry to the UK.  The weather had turned muggy as well as hot, so we did as little as possible.  Of course, we had another day’s cricket to listen to so were glad of a reason to stay still most of the day.

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