Saturday 16 September 2023

Cumières (found the missing lavoir)

Early morning in the vineyards of Cumières overlooking the Marne


It was weekly shopping day and as we needed household items as well as food, we drove to Épernay, the nearest large town before we reach Château-Thiery in a couple of weeks or so.  As we drove through the champagne villages the giveaways that the vendanges were in full swing were tractors and trucks loaded with full grape crates and the vineyards dotted with pickers and their vehicles, generally white transit type vans.  Another sign was the almost sickly smell of grapes as we passed each champagne house that took a while to get used to. 

Grapes arriving at the Guy Charbout champagne house

We drove back via Cumières, our next planned boat stop, to make sure there was space on the 50-metre pontoon.  It is always hotly contested because there's no charge for water or electricity and also people sometimes leave their boats there over winter for free knowing they’ll be safe from floods as the pontoon is on dolphins.  We’ve seen boats left there from September before so weren’t particularly confident.  As it turned out there was just one boat there, an Aussie couple in a large river cruiser, and they told us they were staying for the weekend but at least there would be room for us.

As most of the journey would be in the shade, we were happy to cruise in the afternoon and Buddy was further protected by the sunshades.  After a quick lunch we set off and were soon passing under the bridge at the entrance to Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.  

Long shady stretch ahead

We saw our first clouds for a week, but they were the wispy sort that seem to disappear when they get anywhere near the sun.  On the way we passed several commercials tied up for the weekend either above or below locks.  They were all empty and obviously waiting for dredging operations to restart on Monday morning.  As is often the case in the UK an excavator was being used as opposed to a purpose-built dredger. 

Dredger quiet for the weekend

After the final lock we dropped down onto the Marne which will be our home for the next few weeks.  I always say how much we love the Marne river and its valley and we still felt the same as we started heading downstream.

Joining the river Marne

It wasn’t far to Cumières, and we were soon moored up on the pontoon giving us wonderful views over the village and the vineyards above.  

Moored at Cumières

Later in the evening some French grape pickers arrived to relax with a few drinks for the last couple of hours before nightfall.  They’d already been swimming in the river and had changed into evening clothes and looked happy but shattered.  We always wonder how fruit and grape pickers survive in the heat of the sun but nearly all the ones we’ve seen wear long trousers and shirts to stop them from burning whilst working.

On Saturday we cruised ten km down two locks and the only boat we saw on the move was a day boat.


Karen ran back to Mareuil-sur-Aÿ to fetch the car first thing and we then went for a walk along the river further downstream.  Halfway to Damery we passed a stand of poplars that had globes made of vine twigs hanging between the trees:

A sign referring to indicated it was an art installation by Hikkla Silva entitled Multivers, a series of overlapping spheres being a symbol of those who believe (or want to believe) in multiple parallel universes.  To highlight the need to reduce waste, the artist uses material at the end of its life, hence the use of old vines to make the globes.  Visiting later we found that they have sponsored 17 installations across the champagne region this year.   

One of the globes

Although we’d arrived the previous day, we’d completely forgotten we could be hooked up to electricity and had continued to use gas for cooking and boiling water rather than getting the electric kettle and induction hob out.  It also meant we should have been using the immersion heather rather than running the engine to generate hot water.  Once we realised the error of our ways, we took advantage and washed all the seat covers knowing they would dry quickly in the hot weather. 

Later in the evening we went for a cooling swim in the river, and I made the mistake of jumping in with my glasses on.  Luckily, they were still on my face when I surfaced, and I was able to place them on the pontoon for safety.  Those of you who know me will probably also know that I’m not really a swimmer and I would never dream of jumping in a river without someone on guard.  Fortunately, Karen is a strong swimmer and very comfortable in the water, so she made sure that she was always swimming near me.  To show the difference between us, by the time it takes me to swim the length of the boat against the current Karen will have done several lengths looking quite leisurely about it too.

On Sunday the only boat we saw passing our mooring was the pseudo paddle steamer that runs tourist lunch and dinner trips between Cumières and Épernay two or three times a day.


Monday was forecast to be the last day before temperatures drop below 30ºC so hopefully we’ll be able to go for longer walks during the day with Buddy soon.  The trouble with living on a steel boat in the hot weather is that we cannot leave Buddy on board while we go out as the boat has to be shut up.  We also cannot take him out in the heat for long, so we end up spending most of the time sitting in some shade with him.

We did get a short circular walk in during the morning, much of which was under trees.  At one point we went by the weir where the river is bypassed by a nearby lock cut and were surprised to find a memorial to two infantrymen beside the barrage. These two were killed in a training exercise at the weir in 2017 but it was sweet that their uniform hats (kepis) were laid to rest undisturbed.

At one point we passed an area where pressed grapes are discarded; each village has one or more of these places.  Every so often the pomace or marc as this waste is called is collected and taken to a local processing plant.  The one closest to Cumières is in Aÿ and we passed it on our cruise on Saturday.  The pomace is processed and converted to all manner of things such as champagne based liqueurs, animal food, fertilizers, cosmetics, pomace oil and medicinal ingredients.

Dumping point west of Cumières

Later on we heard knocking on the roof of the boat.  It turned out to be Regis who lives in the village, and it transpired that he’s met some of the boater friends we have made over here.  Of course, he is particularly drawn to narrowboats and has only seen ours and one other which turned out to be Alistair and Sabine who are currently further down the Marne.  We had a good long chat with Regis who is 71 and has an allotment opposite our mooring.  He asked Karen if she wanted any fruit and vegetables to which of course she replied that she did.  We’re waiting to see if any actually arrive.

On Monday the only boat we saw pass our mooring was a VNF work boat.


Before we left Cumières Karen wanted to have a run through the vineyards on the hills overlooking the village and the Marne valley.  She left early before it got too warm for running up steep inclines and made her way up to the hilltop village of Hautvillers by following cart tracks between the vines.  The grape pickers were already at it at seven in the morning and she thought that they’re probably glad sunrise isn’t earlier at this time of year.  Here are a couple of the pictures she took:

Freshly picked grapes waiting for collection

Hard at it

It was a cloudier morning than we’ve had of late so Buddy and I took the opportunity to have a longer walk while Karen was out and we made our way to the next village downstream, called Damery.  Soon after we returned to the boat the clouds thickened and it rained for a couple hours.  It was really refreshing and soon cleared the air but according to the forecast it will be short-lived as the heatwave is due to return during the week.

Later in the afternoon we walked into the village to hopefully pick up a lettuce from the little shop as we’d nearly run out.  Most of the traffic consisted of pickups and tractors with trailers loaded with trays of grapes.  It was very slow moving and then we realised an artic lorry was trying to get along the high street which really wasn’t built for such vehicles.  It was interesting watching the traffic sort itself out and when the lorry came past it was also loaded with trays.  Each was labelled Möet et Chandon which rather put the size of their operation in perspective compared with the local producers, especially considering mechanical picking is not allowed. 

Once again it was another quiet day on the river with just the tourist pseudo-paddle steamer passing a few times. 


Having painted the sides of the boat last year it was high time to give them their first polish and for some reason I’ve kept coming up with excuses as to why I’ve left it for more than the recommended six months.  The excuses have included the usual my back hurts, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, it’s raining, or it might rain and if none of those applied then there was always some non-essential job to get on with.  With no excuses left I got down to it on Wednesday, and with fresh water available I cleaned one side and, once it had dried, used the electric polisher to buff up the paintwork.

Of course, I wasn’t at it all day and neither did I finish the job.  We did have our walks though and on one we went past the nearest pomace collection point which was being cleared for transfer to the local processing centre:

As well as the trip boat, the Aussies who left our mooring on Monday came back past and Brits, Tim and Belinda on Dutchess, moored up in the late afternoon - a busy day on the river!


We’re so happy on our mooring at Cumières that we stayed put yet again and did more of the same:

  •        Boat polishing
  •   Buddy walking
  •   Vendanges watching

I have included pictures of the church, the mairie and some of the champagne houses in the blog before, when writing about previous visits to Cumières.  Looking back at those entries today I realised I’d never included a picture of the war memorial, so here’s one from one of today’s walks:

Keen eyed amongst you may have noticed no mention of lavoirs for a while and that sort of continues as we haven’t seen any lately.  Cumières does have a rue du Lavoir but there is no sign of one and we have searched several times.  The street is only 100 metres long and ends when it meets the Marne so it occurred to us that there may have been a bateau lavoir moored on the bank of the river and therefore no building ever existed.  Researching old pictures of the village later I was really pleased to find a postcard that showed there was indeed a bateau lavoir at Cumières:

In the early evening we heard lots of horns tooting in the village and immediately thought it must be a wedding, but it did seem an odd time of day.  Then we heard fireworks being let off and saw a procession of tractors and vans and realised that it was a celebration from one of the champagne houses.  We’ve yet to find out if they were celebrating as the first to finish picking their grapes or whether each house does it when they’ve finished.  

Yet again it was still quiet on the river with the trip boat being the only movement.

Evening view upstream…

 ...and downstream



We were shocked, but in a way not surprised, to hear in the morning news that during the previous week’s heatwave, five grape pickers had died in Champagne.  On a brighter note, two more houses in the village completed their picking during the day signalled by a cacophony of horns and klaxons.  This confirmed it’s not just the first to complete that celebrates but did leave us wondering if it’s just the first three.  Regis popped by so see us later and told us that most houses do it so at least we now knew.  We also talked about the bateau lavoir and even though it stopped being used soon after WWI, he remembered it on the river until it was scrapped. 

Unlike the purpose built lavoirs on land that are in the main preserved, nearly all bateaux lavoir have been broken up.  They were very popular on large rivers like the Seine and the Rhône, the riverbanks in Paris and Lyon being lined with them.  The Marne had its fair share, we’ve found photographs showing that the next four villages downstream from us had them and there were three in Épernay just five kilometres upstream from us.

After yet another lazy day we had some company in the afternoon and evening as Alistair and Sabine turned up on their narrowboat, Vector.  Buddy was very excited to see them, expecting treats of course.  We sat outside until it got dark catching up with our respective news and Buddy spent most of the time pleading to go on their boat. 

They will be staying here for a few days before heading east and having been in Cumières for a week we’ll probably head on west after the weekend too.

No boat movements on the river on Friday other than the trip boat and our new neighbours.



Don said...

Ah, Cumieres. We stayed there several days in the late Aughts when the river was shut due to heavy rain and debris in the river. We laughed at the swans that used to gather at the trip boat when it returned because they (the boat crew) would toss their unused baguettes over the side. We imagined the tiny brained fowl worshipping “the great green god that sh*ts bread”.

Neil & Karen Payne said...

Haha! Yes, one of our favourite moorings on the Marne. Good to read about your time when you're out and about on Oldtimer