Cruising in France June 2006

France in June 2006


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The River Lys below Armentieres

Young Andrew Pattemore managed to marry his lovely Shanaz by the skin of his teeth having succumbed to a blood clot a few days before. He managed the ceremony in considerable pain and then returned to Yeovil hospital for further treatment. The wedding at Highclere Castle in Hampshire was simply stunning and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

As it was a bank holiday weekend we continued to the Isle of White where we didn't enjoy ourselves quite so much. To return to Harmonie we caught the Berry bus to Hammersmith, the tube to Heathrow, British Midland to Brussels and Belgian Railways to Menen. This roundabout route cost about £100 each thus saving the £300 each that Eurostar wanted for the most direct route via Lille.

Back at Menen it had not stopped raining since we left, the quay had flooded and Harmonie had slipped one of her moorings but was otherwise secure.

We stayed another couple of nights and the weather started to improve so we set sail up the river Lys to Armentieres, pausing at the Belgian border to top up our tanks with cheap red diesel and replenishing gas bottles and water tanks. As we sailed into France the sun came out again and mainly stayed out during June. At Armentieres there was no sign of any mademoiselle parlez-vous'ing but we bought our French VNF (Voies Navigables de France) vignette for the season to September and moored at the Port de Plaisance for the weekend. The Capitanerie didn't make an appearance so we sailed away after three days feeling a little guilty not having paid our mooring fees.

Welsh Fusiliers memorial at St Venant
Mill house at St Venant

At St Venant we worked through the lock and moored up alongside the canal bank watched by hoards of French persons strolling around this picturesque village. (We knew they were French persons because they had this ridiculous accent - oh regardez l'Harmonie, c'est beau, c'est splendide, c'est magnifique!!)

At the lock side is a monument to 89 soldiers of the Welch Fusiliers who died between the 24th and 27th May 1940 delaying the advance of the German divisions to the channel ports. It also paid tribute to the suffering of the local population and the care given by them. We noted the many local civilian lives lost on the village war memorial.

At Aire-sur-la-Lys we joined the Liasons au Grand Gaberit, a waterway built to carry 3000 tonne ships. We tried to moor for the night at Bethune but were unable to find a decent place. Considering it is the headquarters of the VNF I would have expected better facilities, however, we found a splendid spot at Courcelles where we spud poled.

Trees in blossom on the grand gaberit
Liasons du grand gaberit

The countryside became even more pleasant as we continued on our way. I was intrigued by a number of trees which were covered in large white blossom reminiscent of white wisteria. If any reader knows what they are called, please let me know? (Thanks to Lynne Edwards who thinks these trees are Robinia pseudo-acacia) We finally turned off the big canal onto the river Escaut. This eventually becomes the Schelde and flows into the North Sea at Antwerp.

Bassin Rond is a huge basin at the junction and there we moored for the night. Across the other side of the basin were a couple of narrow boats and through the binoculars I saw that one was called Rosie. I cycled round to introduce myself to Bill Davies from whom I had gleaned much information from his excellent web site (now extinct) during my search for a barge. Over a few beers we learned he was heading for the Somme for the anniversary of the battle on 1st July as were we. Bills Fanny explored Harmonie with interest. Perhaps the bitch smelt the previous owners Pookie!

Sunset at Cambrai
Port de Cantimpré at Cambrai

Once on the river Escaut the scenery changed from a series of wide straight canals to a gently meandering river winding through pleasant farmland. At the first bridge a crash tinkle tinkle scraping sound from the wheelhouse roof reminded me that I had not lowered our satellite dish for 3.5 metre air draught. No serious damage but life wouldn't be the same without a daily incident! At the first lock we waited for some time until the lock keeper arrived and presented us with a remote zapper to operate the locks. Just before the lock, you point the zapper in its direction and a flashing orange light tells you the signal has been received. The lock is then emptied, we were going upstream, and the lock gates open when a green light signifies you may enter. Once inside the lock and secured you lift a rod to activate the locking procedure, the lock gates close, the sluices open, the lock fills and the upper gates open to let you out. Six locks later we arrived at Cambrai and found a nice mooring at the harbour entrance under a weeping willow tree. The sun continued to shine and the sunsets were something special.

On Monday 12th June Mike Thurstan arrived by car from England via Norfolk Line for £54 (+ fuel in the car) compared with a through rail journey Crewkerne/Cambrai via Eurostar of £355. We sat around under the trees, "cheesed down" a few beers, BBQ'd a few snags and lamb chops then walked around town. Cambrai's Grand Place is very grand and we finished the day here with an al fresco beer!

Tree pruning on the Canal de St Quentin
Cruising the canal St Quentin

The next day was rather hot, it reached 33 degrees C in the wheelhouse as we worked up through 17 locks to the summit level of the canal de St Quentin. At the last of these we produced the ships papers and booked ourselves on the 9am convoy through the Bony tunnel the next day. An invoice for this dubious service would be sent to our home address.

A very picturesque canal this, opened by the emperor Napoleon in 1810. Mike took the helm and collected a few tree branches in the process and we moored up just short of the tunnel entrance. We ate on the canal bank but a sudden clap of thunder sent us scurrying inside as the heavens opened.

The next day we were up early to move further up the canal at 8.30am to prepare lines for the tow through the tunnel which is 5760 metres long. I turned the key at 8am to start the main engine and discovered we had flat starter batteries, the first of our daily incidents. Down to the focsle and lugged the generator engines batteries up the ladder along the deck and down the engine room. Sweating profusely I completed the task by 8.30am and the engine started first time but we now had no means of starting the generator so no bow thruster.

Electric powered tug at the Grand souterrain - Bony tunnel
Starting the tow through the tunnel

The fairly useless Navicarte guide showed the towpath though the tunnel on the right hand side, however, the Belgian behind us, who we nicknamed the Git from Ghent, informed us it was the opposite. We had prepared fenders on the top of the wheelhouse on the port side so we changed them to the starboard and hitched our 30 metre long crossed towlines to the peniche in front. The Git from Gent was tied on to our stern but mysteriously unhitched himself a few yards into the tunnel. Only three of us in this convoy but the electric tug can tow as much as 70 vessels and uses a continuous chain on the canal bed for this purpose.

WW1 troops after taking the Riqueval Bridge in 1918
Damage to our car

Our incident packed day continued as we entered the tunnel with ominous scraping sounds from the wheelhouse roof! It proved near impossible to keep Harmonie on the towpath side and every so often the stern would drift out and we would scrape the aft end of the wheelhouse roof on the tunnel wall. Worse was to come when we subsequently discovered that the bonnet of our car had also suffered scratches. After the best part of two hours we emerged into daylight and retrieved our tow lines.

We passed under the Riqueval bridge where thousands of troops posed for a famous photograph during World War 1, the original now in the Imperial War Museum in London. This intrigued Mike who photographed the place which I had hoped to feature here along with the original. Unfortunately I had problems with transferring the files from Mikes Fuji camera and have ended up with just the thumbnails and links back to the camera, however, here is a photo from the Franco-Australian museum in Villiers-Bretonneux showing the entrance to the tunnel at Riqueval just after the Aussies had liberated it in 1918.

Bony tunnel in 1918 after liberation by Australian troops
Entering the Bony tunnel

The second tunnel is only 1098 metres long and we steamed though under our own power with nary a scratch so the basic problem was being towed. If I do the Bony again I will use my engine so I have some steerage which is what the peniche ahead was doing.

On then to St Quentin itself. The capitanerie was very helpful and pointed us in the direction of a battery supplier who delivered new batteries within half an hour for a rather expensive 400 euros but beggars can't be choosers.
On the next day we walked to the station for the 8.58am train to Cambrai to pick up Mikes car. It was 10am before they piled us on a coach which visited every station on the way and took over two hours, a 20 minute journey by car. The driver had to keep stopping and asking locals where the local station was. France might have the modern fast TGV system but judging from the state of some of the trains and infrastructure we visited on our countryside tour, it is at the expense of the rest of the system. We have become used to the efficient Dutch and Belgian rail systems and were surprised to discover how inefficient SCNF are.

A quick shopping trip in Cambrai taking advantage of Mikes car then a fast journey down the motorway to Laon, a medieval city perched on the top of a hill. The best bits were Mike buying lunch and the funicular railway to the top of the hill.

In Cambrai we had purchased a kilo of prawns and Mike a bottle of shampoo, both of which we consumed back on Harmonie for our farewell dinner with Mike. In the morning Mike set off back to the UK and we sailed on down the St Quentin canal after parting with a scandalous 86 euros for two nights stay in the Port de Plaisance!

A few kilometers down at the junction of the canal de la Somme we found a superb mooring on the island in the middle of the junction. It was equipped with picnique tables, a boules pitch, a BBQ stocked with firewood and grass neatly strimmed. No bridge to the mainland so we launched the dinghy and motored to nearby St Simon which in typical French fashion was closed!

Island mooring at start of canal de la Somme
Souterrain de Ruyaulcourt  - canal du Nord

It was another hot 32 degree C day next so we decided to stay on our little island and commune with nature. Not a single ship of any sort passed us the whole day, not a profitable one for VNF but very peaceful. The next day we moored at Abbecourt at the junction with the canal de l'Oise à l'Aisne and cycled back into Chauny. It was Sunday and another hottie but we found the boulangeries all open and even a bar selling draught Hoegaarden, wonderful beer for hot weather. I forgot to take my camera but opposite the bar was the best traffic roundabout I have seen in a long time, full of flowers and topiary monkeys leaping round it! The whole town was full of flowers and is worthy of a special visit.

Sundays and Mondays, France closes outside the major cities, something to do with the 35 hour week I think. Whatever the reason it is certainly not tourist friendly. Consequently, Pont l'Eveque was nice but closed so we cycled into Noyon which was lovely but also closed, on up the canal du Nord to Péronne where we could not find a mooring and so on down the little canal de la Somme.

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