Revigny-sur-Ornain (not enough time to blog)

Moored at Pargny-sur-Saulx on Thursday night
We’re now back in France, but before providing an update on our boating so far, I’ll do a quick run through of non-boat life since the last blog entry at the beginning of April as we’ve continued to get involved in many village activities in Flecknoe.  I mentioned in the last update that we wanted to buy a skittles table and since then heard that the landlord of the Admiral Nelson in Braunston was selling his.  As a sorry sign of our times, he was selling it for financial reasons; he reckoned he could make more by turning the space over to dining.  I suppose that with only a ladies’ team it wouldn’t have provided as much income as pubs that also have men’s teams.
 
Our Northamptonshire skittles table

Having decided to have a holiday in Gozo before returning to France, we had a hectic last couple of weeks but at least we knew we’d soon be relaxing on the boat.  After returning from holiday, we took part in a progressive dinner in the village on the Saturday night.  This mainly involved drinking and visiting different homes so we were a little jaded on the Sunday morning which was the day we’d chosen for a butterfly walk for some of the village’s wildlife group. It was also the day before we left for France, so we hadn’t left much time for packing.  We took ten people to Stockton to hopefully find three relatively uncommon spring butterflies.  It seemed to go down well, and we found two of the three species we were looking for: small blue and dingy skipper.  Although we missed out on grizzled skippers, we were treated to several green hairstreaks, the only British butterfly with bright green undersides.

MONDAY 13 MAY

I’d booked a tunnel crossing for 11.20 on Monday morning without consideration for the day of the week.  It dawned on us while packing that we would be travelling on the M1 and M25 in peak times so agreed to leave an hour earlier than originally planned.  It was just as well we did because the journey took an hour longer than it normally does at non-peak hours.  Unfortunately, for the first time ever, our crossing was cancelled and so was the next one, so in the end we ended up arriving in Calais an hour later than expected anyway. 

We’d taken the plunge and bought an EV back in November which we charge at home utilising cheap domestic EV rates and also take advantage of our solar panels and battery.  When on longer trips away in the UK we have used public charging stations, of which there are plenty and more coming on stream so we’ve yet to see what the EV naysayers mean about poor infrastructure.  Having got over ‘range anxiety’ after the first couple of weeks of ownership we were quite happy and decided to take the car to France.  The rates at public chargers in France are at least 50% less than those in the UK so we didn’t recharge the car until we arrived at Calais. We did have three attempts to get the charger working but we got there in the end - mind you, the language barrier didn't help. The rest of the journey to the boat was uneventful and 250 miles later we arrived to find Chalkhill Blue as we’d left her, albeit a little dusty.

Back at the boat with a nice old Tjalk protecting us

TUESDAY 14 MAY

Tuesday was a day for making sure we were ready to start cruising so in the morning we drove to the nearest large town to do various tasks such as stocking up with food at a supermarket, charging the car and getting Buddy’s rabies booster jab to cover him for the next three years.  There are plenty of public charging stations in France and some of them are extremely powerful and we used one attached to a Lidl.  Lidl seem to be making a lot of effort to boost the EV market and had signs in the car park indicating that they aim to have 20% of the spaces allocated to chargers.  Once again we had three attempts to get the charger working but once again we managed it and now think we know what we were doing wrong.  

In the afternoon we decided to get underway even though the skies were uncharacteristically dark for May and rain was forecast.  In fact, it did drizzle at times during the trip but at least we could use the sun parasol to keep us partly dry on the back deck.    

Leaving our home port to turn onto the canal latéral à la Marne

At one lock we saw the lock cottage had been removed since the last time we passed which was a bit sad as it stood in a wonderfully remote location.  What was strange though was that the boundary fence had been left intact.  This was the same with removed cottages at a couple of other locks we passed a day or so later. 

Lock cottage no more but fence still standing

A little further on we went under the autoroute A26 and noticed men in orange hi viz waving at us.  They looked like they were painting the sides of the motorway bridge and I couldn’t work out why they were waving so slowed down anyway.  It turned out they wanted to see the boat, but it wasn’t like we go fast so they would have had plenty of time to see it anyway!

Spectators (not waving)

It was good to see commercials plying their trade during our journey.  All were fully laden and heading in the opposite direction to us, towards Reims and the north.  Apart from one we’d seen them all before, usually carrying grain from grain silos in this part of Champagne.

Thiros, one of the usual suspects

As we approached one of the locks we decided to make a video of the whole operation to send to one of our grandsons.  Ellis has been fascinated by pictures of our boat and shown a keen interest in how locks work.  We sent the video to his parents and they said he was mesmerized so we were glad we'd done it.  

After nearly four hours cruising, which is a long time for us, we were heading into Châlons-en-Champagne and entering the lock in the centre of town.

Châlons-en-Champagne lock

We needed to call into the port in town to pick up our post and we decided to stay overnight.  As you can see from the next picture it had started raining again which is not what is expected when mooring up on a day in May but at least it was warm.

Moored for Tuesday night

On Tuesday we cruised 10 kilometres up three locks and saw five boats, all commercials.

WEDNESDAY 15 MAY

While Karen went for a run in the morning, I did a few more errands including picking up a mop for washing the boat from a hardware store in town where I had a most embarrassing interaction with a lady.  We can usually cope if someone strikes up conversation with us even if we don’t fully understand some of what is said.  This lady had picked up the same mop as I and found it so funny.  I hardly understood a word she was saying but caught the gist at one point that she had broken hers and needed to replace it and wondered if the same had happened to me.  I couldn’t begin to tell her that ours had blown off the roof of our boat in a storm never to be seen again.  Apologies to boater friends Mike and Lesley who'd bought us that mop six or seven years ago as they couldn’t believe how decrepit our previous one was.

As we’d spent many weeks in Châlons during the first covid lockdown it became our home from home, and it still feels like that whenever we visit.  Karen really enjoyed running along the Marne and I felt so happy walking past our old haunts and spotting the changes.  One obvious change was the opening of two CBD shops in the high street outside of which were newly painted manhole covers.  As well as being a fascination of ours, decorated manhole covers are quite a tourist attraction, and I found a good few new ones during my walk.

Not a well lined up shot outside one of the CBD shops

A recently freshened up cover at a church

Talking of manhole covers, a subsection of our family collect pictures of covers manufactured by PAM-St Gobain, whose main foundry is in Pont-à-Mousson, hence ‘PAM’.  We have collected nearly 150 different designs and not just from France, in fact, during the morning, Joanna sent a picture of one she’d seen in Potsdam just two days previously.

A PAM from Potsdam

Follow this link to see our collection of decorated covers or this link for our PAMs (the links open in new tabs).

With chores done and a gorgeous day forecast we set off in the late morning almost immediately passing an unladen commercial.  Heading out of Châlons we passed under the footbridge between two parks, and it made us smile as that bridge was the legally allowed limit of our dog walk during the first lockdown.  Another reason it made us smile was because we were reminded that a gendarme stopped Karen there to check her papers and also reprimand her as she had used a dog poo bin that was outside of the limit of where she was allowed to walk.  Those were the crazy times when much of the world thought things were going to turn out much worse than they did.

Going under the passerelle
Looking back to one of our favourite views

As we cruised along we saw plenty of herons and were treated to the usual electric blue displays and shrill calls of kingfishers in flight.  

We stopped for a quick late lunch at Pogny which is always popular with campervans.

Pogny

Looking through my photographs later I realised that there was only one general canal cruising shot.  I usually take many pictures as the scenery changes but for some reason had completely forgotten that that’s what I normally do.  

Passing through Soulanges - the only canal view I took

Arriving on the outskirts of Vitry-le-François we pulled up for the day at 6.20pm, probably the latest time we’ve ever finished cruising in France.  The mooring we’d headed for was a quay alongside some disused limekilns.  There was a hire boat tied up at one end but with such a long quay there was plenty of room for us.  There was a French couple on board, and they had taken an extended hire and were hoping to do a similar journey to that we did last year in the Ardennes.

Wednesday night’s mooring

On Wednesday we cruised 29 kilometres up eight locks and saw one commercial and two private boats.

THURSDAY 16 MAY

Our plan for Thursday was to join the western end of the canal de la Marne au Rhin at the canal junction at Vitry-le-François and start making our way along it.  It was yet another cloudy start but at least it wasn’t raining.  Having gone up the last lock before reaching the junction we joined a relatively new section of canal as the original line through the centre of Vitry-le-François was cut off in the 1960’s for development.  A bypass was built that now takes boats around the edge of the town.

Old line to the right, bypass to the left

A couple of kilometres later we were at the junction where we turned left in front of some grain silos. 

Junction with the canal de la Marne au Rhin

As the name suggests the canal was built to link the river Marne with the Rhine which it does at Strasbourg just over 300 kilometres to the east.  We cruised along the entire length of the canal a couple of years ago to explore the area around Strasbourg.  This year we’ll be turning off soon after we pass through Nancy just after the halfway point.

We’d been using twisty poles on the canal latéral à la Marne to set the locks in operation, but the locks on the first part of the Marne au Rhin are triggered by sensors on the canal banks.

Twisty poles on the latéral à la Marne
Sensors on the Marne au Rhin

The twisty poles had all worked perfectly without the need to call out VNF, the canal authority.  The sensors at the first lock didn’t respond when we went through them, but we weren’t too concerned as we could see workmen around the lock.  When we reached the lock, it still wasn’t setting itself so I set about dropping Karen off so she could investigate. Poor Karen had to fight her way up a steep bank through long damp grass and nettles to reach the men at the lock.  I could see them talking and gesticulating and in the end she got her point across and one of the men started the lock operation.  We were soon on our way through and the workmen were friendly and chatted to us as we passed.  We did notice that the lock sides were very overgrown and the bollards hard to see and that remained the case for the rest of the day’s locks.  We couldn’t help wondering whether it was a sign of cutbacks or the date for the first cut hadn’t been reached; the wet spring having made vegetation grow quicker and higher than usual.

We had a hold up at the second lock too and again Karen went up to investigate.  This time there was a large French private boat stuck in the lock.  It was heading in our direction and the top gates wouldn’t close behind it.  They had called out VNF, but it was about a further 30 minutes before an éclusier arrived and got us on our way.  While we were waiting for the éclusier to arrive we heard our first cuckoo of the year.

We had no problems for the remainder of the journey and made it to Pargny-sur-Saulx for the night.  The peaceful mooring was some way out of town as can be seen in the picture at the top.

Buddy relaxing after we arrived

It was one of those moorings where boaters have to pay but as the €8 charge included electricity and water we took advantage of it.  The cost to administer the mooring must be in excess of the income when you consider the capitaine has to drive to collect the fees and the number of electrical appliances on normal pleasure boats compared with little old narrowboats like ours.

Contrary to the weather forecast we’d ended up with a dry day with plenty of sunshine and were rewarded with our first sightings of the year of a swallowtail and small heath butterflies as well as a pleasant sunset.

On Thursday we cruised 21 kilometres up eight locks and saw one boat, the French boat stuck in the second lock.

FRIDAY 17 MAY

We awoke to grey skies and the sound of bells at Pargny-sur-Saulx.  We enjoy hearing the chimes of church clock bells in France and often comment on their accuracy or inaccuracy as well as the methods used to indicate the quarters, in terms for the number of chimes, or even lack of.  Karen went for an early run leaving me to do some blogging before I got too far behind.  It had felt there hadn’t been any opportunities because, for us, we’d been cruising so much since we’d set off.  When Karen returned, she told me that a VNF guy was walking towards our boat and sure enough there was shortly a knock on the roof.  He’d come to find out where we planned on going next and to give us a télécommande, a device we would need to operate the locks from number 55 to 15 inclusive.


Télécommandes are used on many canals to operate the locks and they all seem to vary.  The ones on this canal are the simplest with just one all-purpose button but in the past we’ve used one that had five buttons.  Using the télécommande would mean we would have used three different methods of lock operation in as many days.  In addition to those three methods the others we’ve come across in France are radio communication (generally on rivers), éclusier itinérant (where they travel ahead on scooters or cars setting locks for you) and key operated (where we operate a lockside control unit).  We’ve also come across a few manual locks as in the UK and I suppose a lock chain is yet another method.  A chain is where the first lock is set by one of the automatic methods and subsequent locks in the chain are set as the previous one is traversed.

We left for Revigny-sur-Ornain soon after the éclusier departed and after the first lock were crossing the river Saulx which gives its name to Pargny-sur-Saulx where we’d moored overnight.

Aqueduct over the river Saulx with Pargny in the background

At the ninth lock the method of operation changed and, instead of relying on the bankside sensors, we had to use our télécommande by pointing it at receivers mounted on poles on the bank.

We found the lock to be guarded by three goats so had to be careful to keep an eye on Buddy.  While we were at the lock Karen went into the back garden of the lock cottage to find the guy who lives there as we knew he sold eggs - Karen hates to miss an opportunity to buy fresh local eggs.

Welcoming committee

When we stopped at Revigny-sur-Ornain before we’d moored against a rough wooden jetty that had seen better days.  Exiting the last lock of the day we could see that the jetty had now been removed but an éclusier was nearby and told us we could moor against a VNF icebreaker called Asterix.

Friday mooring breasted up to Asterix

On Friday we cruised 13 kilometres up 12 locks and saw no boats.

 

Flecknoe (missing being on board)

Before we left France at the end of November last year, we’d already decided to spend more time in the UK during 2024 than we've done in recent years.  This meant we would be leaving Chalkhill Blue for longer than normal during the winter period.  It doesn’t take long to winterise a narrowboat, unlike larger boats and barges; it takes less than 15 minutes to make sure all the batteries are isolated and charging from the solars, the water and gas are off and all water outlets are opened in case of freezing conditions.  Before setting off for the Eurotunnel, or LeShuttle as it’s now been rebranded, we had a final day in the port spending the time with our neighbours, Alistair and Sabine.     

During the morning, Alistair and I wandered up to the lock above our mooring to watch a passing commercial start its ascent up the flight of eight locks as it headed north towards Reims.  The boat was called Feeling and since we first saw it five years ago it has remained one of my favourite names for a péniche.  As Feeling entered the lock the lady on board climbed up the ladder at the side of the lock and disappeared into the village leaving her partner to bring the boat up.  He made short and effortless work of it on his own, having obviously done it countless times before.

Feeling looking like it won’t fit

The locks on the canals in this part of France are the smallest used by commercial craft and are built to the Freycinet standard introduced in 1879 to cater for 38.50m x 5.05m péniches.  The standard dictates that the Freycinet locks must be a minimum of 39.0 metres long and 5.20m wide to accommodate these barges.  It’s always amazing to us to see these boats skilfully brought into the locks without touching the sides.

As the lady went up the ladder the guy left his cabin and walked to the front to get a line over a bollard as the boat slowly made its way forward.

Getting his line on

He then kept the line taught as the boat neared the far gates under its own momentum:

Nearly in

The boat came to a halt inches from the cill and the guy went back to his cabin while the gates closed behind him, the lock started filling and the boat rose.

Just enough room

The lady’s timing was impeccable, returning as the boat started leaving the lock through the now opened top lock gates.  It then became clear where she'd been as she had an armful of baguettes.  As we said our farewells, I noticed the guy was wearing slip-ons and I had to admit I was surprised as I certainly wouldn’t feel safe walking along the gunwales in that type of shoe.

It was also the end of November so not exactly sock-free weather!

A few days after returning to the UK I received an alert from the French rivers and canal authority (VNF) that a lock on the Rhine was out of action as a boat had crashed into the top gates.  The control of the driver here was clearly totally in contrast to that of the guy on Feeling that we'd watched a few days previously.  Researching a little further I found out that the boat was the 110m long La Primavera that we'd encountered a couple of times on the Moselle in the past.

What happens when it goes wrong…
…and from another angle

Fortunately, the locks on the Rhine are in pairs so at least traffic could continue whilst the gates were repaired, albeit with some hold ups while boats had to wait their turn in the backlog caused by only having one lock in operation.  Amazingly, La Premavera was practically undamaged and was able to continue its journey.  What was also amazing was the speed that stop gates were put in so that the damaged gates could be removed awaiting replacement.

Stop gate installed on the same day

Later I found out that the lady driving the boat was intoxicated and, as the German police reported, she had clearly had more than a bottle of beer.  How true it is I don’t know but an article in a German paper suggested that the gates would cost  around €1.5M to repair.

Soon after returning home we were off again, this time to spend Christmas in Norway for the wedding of Matthew, Karen’s oldest son, to his Norwegian partner, Veronika.  It was a traditional Norwegian affair which, although being quite different to weddings we’re used to, was a wonderful occasion and we were warmly accepted by Vero’s family whom we were meeting for the first time. 

One of the reasons we’d decided to spend longer in the UK during 2024 is because we’d moved to Flecknoe in Warwickshire at the beginning of last year and had spent very little time there.  In the short time we were there we realised that we’d made the right choice buying a house in the village as we’ve been made to feel most welcome and love the variety of country walks available to us from our doorstep.  We’ve also got involved in various village activities including being members of our pub’s ladies and men’s skittle teams.  Our teams are in the local league which has three divisions for the ladies and the same for the men.  Currently we men are at the bottom of the lowest division and the ladies are doing well in the first division.

Karen practising at our local
Action shot from a match at The Friendly at Frankton

Karen is a better player than I am and to put the difference in context, in addition to our teams being at opposite ends of their respective leagues, she plays every week whereas I sometimes get dropped.  A skittle table has come up for sale in a pub in Braunston, the teams that currently use it are transferring to another pub there that already has a table hence this one becoming available.  In the interests of retaining some fascinating history (as well as improving my game 😉) I’ve bought it and will be picking it up at the end of the season.

Another reason for wanting to spend more time in the UK is because of our ever-expanding number of grandchildren.  In February our sixth, Emmy, was born to Polly and Lochlann who’d recently moved to the Welsh valleys.  With our seventh grandchild due in June, a family holiday in August and a further one in October celebrating my 70th it looks like being a busy family year. 

Although we’re going to be busy at home this year, we have booked some time in Malta at the beginning of May and hope to spend a couple of weeks or so in July visiting Matthew and Vero in Norway.  As for France, we’ll have a couple of trips this year; going out in May for five weeks or so and then again in September.  The first trip will be to move the boat up to the German border near Saarbrücken, where we’ve hired a dry dock so we can black the underside of the boat during our second trip to France.  We haven’t yet worked out what we’ll do once we’ve blacked the boat but that doesn’t matter as it’s six months away yet.

As for butterflies, it’s been a slow start to the year and at the time of writing we’ve only seen brimstones, small tortoiseshells and a peacock on the wing.  Brimstones were first on 17th March when we saw a couple of dozen on an unusually warm day compared with the dismally wet start we’ve had to 2024.

The next update should be heading its way to the blog next month, hopefully from sunny France.