Dormans (and our 300th lavoir)

What's going on here?



The main task on Saturday was to make sure we had a decent internet signal for the England-Chile game in the evening.  While Karen had been walnutting by the lock at Vandières on Friday after we'd moved the car there, I’d checked the data signal on the three networks we use.  I'd felt that two of the three would be okay so we agreed we would move the boat down to the lock and moor there for a couple of days at least.  First though we wanted to walk to Châtillon-sur-Marne which was on top of the hill to the north of our mooring at Port-à-Binson.

Châtillon-sur-Marne on top of the far hill

After crossing the Marne by the road bridge most of the rest of the walk was through neat vineyards.  

Nearly at the top

At the very top stands a statue of Pope Urban II who was born in the village in 1035.  The 33-metre-high statue is made of granite and was erected in 1887 in the centre of what was his family’s château: 

Only a small part of the castle still stands and last time we visited, it was covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin as it was being renovated.  The renovation had clearly finished as the short section of wall was uncovered and gleaming in the sunshine.

The cross was erected in 1896 after being carried there on a pilgrimage

The views from the top were amazing in every direction; this is looking west:

We took a different route back down the hill so we could have a circular walk and at the bottom we passed a war cemetery at Port-à-Binson.  The cemetery contains 2,671 French soldiers killed in local battles during WWI.

French WWI cemetery at Port-à-Binson

After lunch we set off for the short hop to moor above the lock at Vandières where we’d left the car.  As expected, the mooring was empty and as soon as we’d tied up Karen was off to add to this year's, already large, walnut haul.

Moored in the lock cut at Vandières

It was a lovely peaceful mooring with plenty of shade.  The only thing spoiling it was a large amount of goose droppings on the quayside, so my first job was to clear it up before we and Buddy trod it all over the place.  This was a job I’ve never had to do before, and I found a new use for our coal shovel: a shit shovel.

We were moored on an island with the lock cut on one side and the river on the other.  As we’d left the river for the lock cut, we’d noticed the weir was a needle dam weir, so I went to investigate while Karen was harvesting.   

Just by the weir was a pile of needles some of which were wooden and the rest made of aluminium. 

Judging by the picture at the top, where I'm holding one of the aluminium needles, they were just over four metres in length.  The weir was in three sections with the middle section consisting entirely of aluminium needles and the two shorter outside sections containing a mixture of wood and aluminium ones.  Looking at the plant growth on the outer sections it was obvious the needles there were probably not moved very often:

Mixture of wooden and metallic needles

A few small sets of needles were missing in the centre section indicating that that was the section where they were normally removed or inserted in order to control the flow.  Looking at the picture above, a line can be seen running over the top of the weir which operatives would use to attach their harnesses to for safety.  Noticing a warning sign I did wonder if the operatives were meant to strip to their underpants before venturing onto the weir:

As expected, the data signal was good enough to watch the rugby and we made sure we were settled in on time for the game which was a little nervy for the first 15 minutes or so.

On Saturday we cruised three km through no locks.


With yet another beautiful day in prospect we wanted to spend the morning walking to and exploring Vandières, the nearest village.  Before we left, we made sure our walnuts were in the sun to aid the drying process:

To get off our island mooring and onto the towpath we have to cross over the lock gates which have signs mandating no entry for the public.  Having no public access does make our mooring very private; we’ve not even seen fishermen venture over and they are the people most likely to do so.

The lock and its pleasant cottage

Not surprisingly, as Vandières was surrounded by vineyards, it was yet another champagne village with 30 champagne houses but no other commerce.  There are also two cooperatives producing champagne from multiple growers.  I have to admit that I thought cooperatives only produced wine and hadn't realised some are allowed to produce champagne.  The village was not only very pretty but quiet and extremely clean then we realised that now the vendanges have finished the houses had likely been responsible for cleaning the streets of all the grape litter.  It was probably quiet because most houses will have shut up shop and taking a break for a week or two now the four-to-five-month first fermentation process had started.

Looking west over Vandières with its circular dovecote

As well as producing champagne for many centuries, Vandières used to have brick and tile works.  Until a hundred years or so ago, this industry was commonplace in the hills in the area because of the quality of the clay.  Reading a leaflet later I found that the terracotta produced in the village was distinguished by its particularly rich red colour.  It also explained that many houses exhibit the locally made red brickwork around the windows as well as the red roof tiles although, to be honest, we hadn't noticed a striking colour when we walked around.     

The mairie (with red brickwork around the upper storey windows)
The church dating from the 11th century

Surprisingly, for a village of fewer than 300 people we found three lavoirs, the basin in one was now used as a flower bed:

First lavoir constructed in 1862

In the second lavoir the basin was dry:

This one was constructed in 1833

The basin in the final one was round and in water, one of very few of that shape we have seen.  It also had a chain hanging over the water attached to a lever on the roof joist above.  The water flow into the basin was controlled by a sluice outside the rear wall.  As there was no channel for water to leave, we suspect that when it needed changing, the lever was pulled to lift a plug thus draining the water into the stream running under the building.

The third lavoir was constructed in 1855

In recognition of the heritage next door, the house adjacent to the round lavoir was called Lavandières, the French word for washerwomen.  It then struck us that this was a rather clever naming because of the name of the village: the address of the house was Lavandières, Vandières.  

Back on board I did a little more web browsing on the village and found a leaflet containing then and now pictures of Vandières. I often do the same by finding old postcards and then taking pictures of the same spot to make a comparison.  The ones in the leaflet were much better than anything I could do and some of the pictures even showed the redness of the bricks and roofs I mentioned earlier.

The same leaflet also contained a section on the lavoirs which is where I sourced the dates in our pictures.  Amazingly for such a small village, the leaflet consists of 28 pages of useful information.

Once again we settled in early to watch the rugby games.


With the good weather forecast to continue we decided to stay put at the écluse at Vandières as it meant we could get on with varnishing more woodwork.  The decision was also aided by the fact that the mooring was so peaceful as there were no roads or railways in earshot and also no passersby.

Soon after eight in the morning we were aware of the lock filling and realised a boat was probably coming up.  Sure enough, hotel boat Deborah came past nearing the end of its week-long cruise from Paris to Épernay with British and American guests on board.  One of the guests asked wryly if we’d taken a wrong turning on the Grand Union.

Our first boat in five days

Having remarked on Sunday that no one walks past us as we’re on a small island only accessible by crossing the lock which is not open to the public, two workmen came by during the morning.  I was messing around inside the boat so didn’t see them, but I heard Karen exchanging the customary ‘bonjour’. When Karen told me they were workmen and heading for the weir I got excited thinking I may see them moving needles.  I rushed down there only to find that they were surveyors and had a theodolite set up on one side of the weir and a surveyor’s pole on the far side.  When I told Karen about my disappointment, she said she’d realised what they were carrying but had omitted to tell me.  One day maybe.


Rather than doing our usual morning walks of the last few days, either up or down the river, we went into Vandières again to check up on the supposed distinctive red brickwork on the older houses in the village.  We have to admit that although these bricks are clearly handmade, we’re still not convinced they have a distinctive red colour.  I’ll leave you to judge for yourselves from these pictures:

On the northern edge of the village sits a privately owned château built in the 16th century.  I didn’t include a picture of it when we saw it on Sunday, so here’s one from today’s visit:

Other than getting on with more varnishing it was yet another afternoon making sure Buddy had plenty of shade.  The weather has been so good since we’ve come back to France after our summer break that it’s hard to believe that in a couple of weeks it could turn autumnal, and we may be thinking about lighting the stove in the evenings.  We’re now in our fourth week since returning and in that time have managed to cruise 36 km down six locks so quite leisurely even by our standards.


Wednesday was a repeat of most of the other days since we’ve been moored above the lock at Vandières although Karen did something different for her morning run.  Normally, on run days, she goes in the direction we’ll be cruising, either to move the car or to check out the next mooring.  We’d run out of lettuce so instead of running forwards she ran back to the Intermarché at Port-à-Binson wearing her sports backpack Catherine had given her for such emergencies.

Meanwhile, Buddy and I went for a walk up the hill on the far side of Vandières as I’d read that there was a memorial to the early pilots of the first world war.  I wasn’t particularly successful as although I found a memorial, I couldn’t trace any information about the two soldiers mentioned on the inscription.

A little further up the hill was an information board which talked about two other pilots but there was no mention of their connection to Vandières, if any.  They died in WWI when their plane was shot down in Villers-Agron about 10 km to the north; however, there was a reference to how the French resisted the German advance in Vandières because for one of the first times, supplies were dropped by parachute.  The text does go on to say that the resistance was eventually overcome and the 317th infantry regiment was sadly decimated.
The only reference in the village


As we were having breakfast, hotel boat Nenuphar came through the lock on its way downstream.  With such a warm morning the guests were out on deck and some of them were already drinking champagne.  It took the morning to finish all the exterior varnishing that needed doing and we were having lunch when another boat came through, the unladen péniche Comeback.  It seemed like it was going to be a busy day on the river.

After lunch we went to Verneuil to have a look around.  On the way we passed through the tiny settlements of Trotte and Pareuil, both of which consisted of just a few old farm buildings but did boast a lavoir each. The one at Pareuil even had a privy or rather a classic hole over the stream but it did have a privacy door. 

Next was the village of Passy-Grigny where we found two more lavoirs one of which looked more like a village sports pavilion from the outside:

The tell-tale sound of running water warranted further investigation and sure enough it was a lavoir complete with hanging rail:

Amazingly we found four more when looking around Verneuil including our 300th which was quite a stunning example.  Not only was it in water being fed by a stream but it had an impluvium style roof to direct rainwater into the basin.  On top of that its hanging rails were still intact and there were also four gardé genoux perched on the rails.  These wooden kneelers were used by the lavandières to help save their knees.  The local youth were obviously trusted as the lavoir was open to the public, as indeed were all eight that we found during the day.

Our 300th lavoir 
Two of the gardé genoux

Maybe the local youth weren’t so trusted 150 years ago

Church and war memorial at Verneuil

Walking back to the boat we could hear the sound of an engine and assumed a boat was coming through the lock.  In fact, it was a VNF workboat moving some needles that had just been delivered by a lorry onto the towpath. The grab on the boat loaded up the deck then the boat crossed to the other side of the lock cut to the island where we’re moored and they were unloaded onto the bank.  There were four packs containing 16 needles each, and I can’t help thinking it would have been cheaper to have opened the packs and walked them across the lock.

Maybe we’re going to be lucky and see some of the old ones replaced

Just before lock closing time a fourth boat appeared.  It was hotel boat Deborah that we’d seen passing in the opposite direction earlier in the week.  So as suspected it had been a busy day on the river.


Our Flecknoe neighbours, Jules and Steve and their dog Pip, came around for the morning bringing some delicious pastries with them and also some cool and grey weather.  They’re on a road trip around France at present and found that their route would take them near us.  Even though we’ve only been away for four weeks it was good to catch up with what’s been going on in the village.  Buddy, as usual, was quite happy with another dog on the boat:

Some of you will know that we’re keen on spotting stanking/stop planks alongside the waterways but for some reason don’t often find anyone else interested in the subject.  It transpired that Jules and Steve do share the interest, probably because both have worked for CRT (the main UK waterways authority) in the past.  It was interesting hearing Steve’s account of the store at Hatton, near Warwick, that has all the stanking planks for the Stratford canal and also when they experimented with using aluminium planks.

Since filling up with water at Reuil we’d not been overly cautious with using it as we knew we could pop to the lock where we’ve been moored if we needed to fill up.  During the week, once we decided to stay longer, we started being our normal conservative selves with respect to water usage to avoid the faff of going to the lock.  It wasn’t enough and by Friday afternoon we realised we had hardly enough to wash up let alone have a shower.  At five o’clock we decided to move on down to Dormans, where Karen had taken the car on one of her morning runs, taking on water as we went through the lock.  Unusually, the water pressure was quite low, and it was touch and go whether we’d fill up before the lock closed at six.  As it was, we’d finished with five minutes to spare so got out of the lock just in time.

We don’t often cruise in the evening, so it made a pleasant change, and after an hour and a quarter were mooring up on the pontoon provided alongside the campsite in Dormans.

On Friday we cruised eight km down one lock and saw one boat, an unladen commercial heading downstream.