Cruising the Somme June 2006

The Canal de la Somme 2006


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Port de Pleasance at Cappy


The canal de la Somme actually begins just south of St Quentin at St Simon, however, the section from here to its junction with the canal du Nord has been closed for the last three years. Just beyond Ham and for some 24km the modern canal du Nord uses the original course of the Somme until just north west of Péronne when you branch off west down the original canal proper. It begins with a rather claustrophobic overgrown section, through one automatic lock into a stagnant shallow stretch of unpleasant waterway thick with algea where we had trouble steering and our speed was reduced to 3 km/hr. The first bridge was a lifty uppy one where we met a travelling lady eclusier who went ahead in her little Citroen to set the locks. At Frise the sides of the lock were in a terrible state and our bow rope was caught on some sort of projection as we descended. Before we could take evasive action the rope snapped and Harmonie continued down at a rather faster rate! Our incident for the day! We seriously thought of turning round at the first turning point, however, conditions and scenery slowly improve from mediocre to good so we decide to press on!

Now the scenery becomes really pretty with lovely lakes to our starboard side covered with yellow, white and purple water lilies and clear deep water in the canal. We moor up at the Locoboat hireboat base for only 10 euros a night including a 15 amp electricity supply, we do five loads of washing and question why St Quentin charged us so much? We cycle into Bray for provisions and eat out at one of three cafes in this delightful little village of Cappy. A miniature tourist train runs through here but it only runs on Sunday. Typical, and the local Pizzeria is only open at the weekend!

It was difficult to imagine that this lovely place was part of the western front from where the allied offensive that became known as the Battle of the Somme was launched 90 years ago on July 1st 1916. At the end of that day 20,000 allied soldiers had perished and by the end of the battle in November, 1.2 million had been killed, injured or were missing in action.

We cycle down the canal towpath, following the little railway line that supplied the front with ammunition, food and fodder for the 200,000 horses of the cavalry regiments. The museum at the start of the railway in Froissy was of course closed but it does open on Sundays when you can ride the old train through beautiful scenery for 7km. In Chipilly during the war the valley bottom was transformed every night into a giant drinking trough for 22,000 horses and the canal was also extensively used for war materials and evacuating the wounded to the coast.

River Somme below Cappy
Wilfred Owen memorial at Sailly

As we descended the many locks with our travelling eclusiers the countryside became even more beautiful. At the Sailly-Laurette lock there is a little monument to Wilfred Owen who was evacuated wounded from here by barge. I remember reading Owens poetry as a child and he was tragically killed shortly before the end of the war.

We sailed on down, past numerous lilly covered lakes, until, on 22nd June, we reached Corbie. Here we found a modern quay adjacent to a newly landscaped riverside with picnic tables, close to the town centre. The lady at the tourist office gave us reams of literature in English to digest and we admired the rather splendid town hall, which was once a private castle, tucked behind the inevitable war memorial.

Water lillies on a Somme lake
The Hotel de Ville in Corbie

Corbie is close to where the Australian army held the German advance of 1918 which turned the tide of the war and eventually led to the armistice on 11th November 1918. Some 3km to the south of Corbie, on top of a ridge overlooking the Somme valley, is a war cemetery with over 2000 graves of which more than 700 are Australians. It is also the site of the Australian National Memorial. Designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, it honours the 11,000 Australian soldiers killed in WW1 who have no known grave. 331,000 fought in the conflict, there were 215,000 casualties of which 59,000 died.

At Villers-Bretonneux close by we had a beer at a bar next to the Restaurant le Kangourou! This was where the Aussies stopped the German advance on 25th April 1918 and the ruined village was subsequently adopted by Robinvale, part of the city of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. Many Australians still make the pilgrimage to this area and the anniversary of that battle is ANZAC day when a remembrance ceremony is held every year here, in Australia and New Zealand.

Australian National War Memorial
War Cemetery at Australian National War Memorial

The local school was eventually rebuilt with donations from the children of the schools in Victoria and the top floor is of this building is now the Franco-Australian museum. Notable among the exhibits were the excellent quality photographs which might have been taken yesterday, such was the clarity. Above the school courtyard on the building is emblazoned "Do Not Forget Australia".

We cycled on to Le Hamel and the Australian Memorial Park. Here there are remains of trenches together with information panels describing the various actions in the area as the Germans were driven back beyond the Hindenberg line on the canal de St Quentin. There was also a description of the shooting down of the Bloody Red Baron which was the subject of dispute between a Canadian airman and Aussie machine gunners in the area.

Looking south east across the Somme vally towards Peronne

We cycled past the old brickworks where his plane crashed on the Corbie plateau. The views across the valley from here are impressive.

Cycling around the countryside it is easy to understand why the red poppy became the symbol of remembrance day as the flowers grow everywhere here. The countryside is full of different wild flowers but there are always the poppies.

Our stay in Corbie coincided with their Fête dans la Rue. This consisted of street theater, comedy, clowning, puppets etc from as far afield as the USA plus heavy metal, rock, percussion bands etc until late in the evening.

The next day we set sail for Amiens. It rained all day and on arrival at the city quay we grabbed the last space right opposite the sex shop! The Dutch barge "De Tiid" arrived late and we invited them to moor up alongside. Richard and Marilyn Edwards had 4 guests on board. Pat & Mac, poms who have lived in Australia for 40 years, plus Jock and Jill (no joke). Jock immediately went ashore in the direction of the sex shop and in a few minutes phoned to say there was a television with the England game on in the bar next door, (no reception at the quay) so we all trooped off to watch the game over quite a few beers.

Mooring at Amiens
De Tiid

After a meal of carpaccio, roast suckling pig and creme brulee washed down with several glasses of wine, we all floated off in the rain to watch the son et lumiere at the cathedral - stunning was the only way to describe it, despite the weather. The facade of the cathedral is a huge gothic masterpiece, the largest in France and every statue is coloured by the lighting as it was when it was built in the 13th century to house the head of John the Baptist.

The next day we wandered around Amiens, located the train station and obtained the train times to Albert as we intended to go the Thiepval for the commemoration ceremony of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July. We joined the crew of "De Tiid" again to watch the Aussies get robbed in the coup de monde then retired early.

Our hydrophore, the bit of kit that provides the fresh water under pressure, was playing up. The relay was continually working and the pressure fluctuating rapidly. If this continued I was afraid the relay would eventually burn out. I tried three different boatyards in Amiens but all said their technical bloke was en vacances. Unable to resolve the problem we set off down the Somme. The sun was out again and the scenery beautiful. While waiting for a lock keeper at lunchtime we met John and Jacky Taylor out cycling and on holiday from Reigate who joined us for a beer on board.

The Chateau at Long
The Three Graces at Long Chateau

We ended up at the village of Long, mooring up just above the lock with some difficulty due to a strong current trying to pull us over the weir. Long prospered by the cutting of peat. It has a huge chateau with marble statuary in the grounds and an orangery overlooking the Somme covered in roses, an large ornate Hotel de Ville, a "small" cathedral and even a hydro electric plant. The next morning the lock keeper presented Sue with a sprig of the roses growing alongside the lock and we sailed on down this lovely river. Lakes of water lillies, substantial chateau, attractive villages and water meadows drift slowly by. The river runs swiftly as you progress further downstream and on tight bends we found ourselves running out of river as the current took our stern and slammed us into the bank. Fortunately there was virtually no upstream traffic, in fact one of the delights of this waterway was that for the most part we had it to ourselves.

the Somme below Long
Chateau near Pont Remy

At Abbeville we negotiated two very low bridges, descended the lock, turned around a few metres downstream and returned through the lock to moor at a new city quay with free electricity and water as they can not get the pay system to work! We had been to Abbeville before and were unimpressed. The centre was destroyed during WW2 and rebuilt unimaginatively, but this time we cycled around and discovered an older more elegant Abbeville with a splendid selection of up market shops and restaurants. A short walk from our mooring was a large supermarket so we had everything we needed.

On our return upstream to Amiens we moored above the city lock.The next morning we set off early, caught a bus to the station to get a train to Albert for the Battle of the Somme ceremony only to find that SNCF had once again let us down. Despite having obtained train times from the station and from their web site, no trains ran to Albert until the afternoon. Bloody useless bunch!*! So we missed the ceremony completely.

approaching Amiens from the west
Hortillonnages at Amiens

Amiens has one more delight I had better mention and as you leave you sail through the Hortillonnages. These were originally allotments and market gardens which supplied the city. The produce was bought in by flat bottomed punts and you can tour around the little canals in similar craft today. Most have now been turned into pretty riverside gardens with little weekend retreats where Dad can fish and Mum can knit!

We stopped at Corbie below the lock and watched Englands defeat followed by Frances victory and Corbie went mad for about two hours with fireworks, cars and bikes roaring round blowing horns and everyone shouting and cheering. The next day we took a bit of stick from kids swimming in the river - eh, rostbif, Portugesé, vive la France! We of course replied with allez les Bleu! Entente cordial and all that!

On our return to Cappy we had an incident. Coming out of a lock, a change in the exhaust note indicated the problem. Water is injected into the exhaust pipe of the engine which flows out through a flexible rubber hose and special silencer with the exhaust gases. This reduces the exhaust noise considerably, unfortunately, if the water supply should fail, the rubber hose has a tendency to melt so we moored up above the lock to investigate. Filters were OK so I stripped down the Jabsco pump and found a broken impeller vane. I replaced the impeller but with little improvement so the real cause of the problem looked like blocked suction pipes (we have two). I ran our deck hose from forward through the bathroom skylight and into the engine room, fabricated some connections with hoses and jubilee clips, Sue turned the pump on forward and I opened the sea valve. Both suction pipes were cleared and the water supply restored.

I then decided to look again at our dodgy hydrophore. The pressure is maintained by an inflated balloon inside a large accumulator tank. Having tried to adjust the pressure regulator without success, I had concluded that the accumulator balloon had deflated. Knowing nothing about these infernal contraptions I felt around in the small space between the tank and the side of the ship and found a black plastic cover which I unscrewed. Underneath was what seemed to be an air valve which, wonder of wonders, our bicycle pump fitted, so I pumped about 100 times and the system now works fine again. These little repairs and adjustments were carried out in high humidity and temperatures of 40 degrees plus, such that I leaked at a prodigious rate and my cold beer intake increased in proportion!

Susan at Suzanne
Ecluse Vaux

Moored in Cappy were Bill Davies on the narrow boat Rosie and his friends Mike & June on the narrow boat Temujin. Bill swung the lantern with us over some Moussec, Rosé, and coffee washed down with some Hasselt Genever. Mike lost his glasses in the canal for the second time so more were ordered from St Quentin. We cycled to Suzanne, a nice little place with some lovely houses beside the lakes but with a name like Suzanne, exactly what Sue expected! At Ecluse Vaux we were headed for a famous belvedere with a view out across the lakes but the heat and the hill beat us so we returned to Cappy and collapsed into a bar to drink draught Hoegaarden with a slice of lemon in glasses straight out of the deep freeze - luvverly. Finally we had a thunderstorm which cooled things down.

Rosie and Temujin leaving the lock at Frise
Harmonie at Frise Lock

We left Cappy in convoy with Bill and Mike, chatting occasionally on the VHF about oncoming traffic, it made a nice change to understand the language properly coming over the set! Back on the big and busy canal at Péronne we moored at the quay between bollards about 50 metres apart. With four ropes, on each side fore and aft we still drifted out from the quay wall about 2 metres every time a peniche passed. We visited the Historial of the Great War in Péronne. The museum chronicles the period from the pre war years giving the reasons it occurred, the war years and the post war events that resulted from the conflict. The conclusion seemed to be that it was all a waste of time for all concerned at a cost of over 10 million souls.

We picked up a couple of hitch hikers with their canoe at Péronne, paddling from St Valery to the Mediterranean for charity but more about them in the next chapter.

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