The floods continue and we’ve had many hold-ups waiting for the waters to recede. Since Roanne we have travelled:
- Back down the Canal de Roanne a Digoin and along the canal lateral a la Loire to Decize which we passed many weeks before.
- From Decize we entered the canal du Nivernais.
We’re now at Clamecy (60 kilometres up from Auxerre) waiting to cross a section of the river Yonne – but the lock is closed as the river is too high and the current too strong. This is a town with a wonderful history related to the rivers of the Yonne valley, in particular ‘wood floating’.
The canal du Nivernais is 174 kilometres long with 110 locks and from the summit (at Baye) to Auxerre, where we’re now heading, the drop in level is 165 metres. It was built between 1784 to 1843 for floating wood downstream to supply Paris with firewood. This was a huge trade and the region became wealthy because of it but some of the small towns and villages these days look a little neglected. Since the death of the trade in wood to Paris (which ended around the 1920s) the economy depends mostly on farming and tourism, and the weather is making both quite challenging.
We left Roanne, after an extended stay to have the wheelchair repaired, and as we progressed back down the canal we came across several skippers and their crews setting off for the summer tour. Some of our fellow travellers were heading south and some, like us, north. Soon we all discovered it didn’t matter in which direction we were heading, we were going to experience long waits. Floods all over central France had caused damage to bridges and banks and the rivers were just too fast to enter at the various crossings.
At Entente Marine, Gannay (now back on the canal lateral a la Loire) we needed three small mechanical tasks doing: installing a new pump for our air conditioning; changing the fuel jet in the Kabola heating system (what a contrast of cold and hot); and fixing a blockage in our bilge pump. This meant a long weekend waiting but it made no difference to our progress as at Decize, when we finally arrived there, we joined several boats that’d been waiting almost a week to cross the flooded Loire.
Luckily for us, the very next day the French Waterways team (VNF) saw a window of opportunity for us. The past few days had been relatively dry but overnight we’d had more torrential rain .. they said, go now before last night’s fall reaches us. There was a little bit of trepidation about this crossing, one of our neighbouring boats had told us “it’s roaring out there, you’d need a big engine and I’d push on at around 16 kilometres to get ahead of the current.” We’d had good experience of rivers before (the Boven Seascheldt in Belgium, the Ijssel in the Netherlands, the Thames in London) but he made us think about this crossing. We could see the swirling water from the banks and thought it looked OK, and of course it was fine.
Just three of us (boats) scooted across the slithery water and into the safety of the canal a few kilometres downstream: the start of the canal du Nivernais. Stewart’s been excited about this particular canal ever since 2008 when Endellion was still sheets of steel in a big shed waiting to be welded together. At this point of the Nivernais, the southern end of the canal, we were very impressed with the amount of work going on at the locks, in particular grass cutting. However, we realised soon after that these cuttings were gathering in the locks and floating on the surface, then being sucked into our water cooling system for the engine. This is fine, given our huge new filter, but the T junction before the filter is our problem. Happily, thanks to work done by Rousseaus at Moret-sur-Loing, it is now accessible so we can clean it ourselves. Sure enough we had to stop short of our planned halt of the day to clear the cuttings from the T junction .. an easy job, but not one we can do on the move.
We had stopped at one of the many picnic parks along the Nivernais: a green bank, with several good bollards, picnic tables and benches and beautiful shady trees. Not that we needed any shade, the rain just kept pouring down.
Almost on dark we heard a tap on the window and a grey-haired, grey bearded man holding his bike peered in. He asked if we minded if he pitched his tent in the trees nearby – of course we didn’t. And so we had a very quiet companion for the night, hidden away in the trees in his tiny green tent. But also we had a bird which sang the whole night through, something like an Australian lyre bird running through a wonderful demonstration of his ability to laugh, whistle, cluck and tweet.. he was a delight. We’d love to know what it was.
As soon as we entered the Nivernais the countryside seemed very different to the lateral a la Loire: Lusher, hillier, quainter with beautiful soft-toned buildings and farmyards. Sheep and Charolais abound, all looking extremely content with themselves. Little do they know what’s in store (at the abattoirs).
We enjoyed a stunning run into Chatillon-en-Bazois with umpteen loops in the canal which followed the river Aron, arriving just at mid-day at the last lock on the edge of the port de plaisance.
This was lunchtime for the VNF so they had kindly let us wait inside it until 1.00pm when lunch was over and they put us through to moor within the footings of the chateau. This was a delightful mooring with electricity, water, CNN wi-fi, and satellite reception. All free.
The highlight of our stay in Chatillon was to have been the marionette (puppet) show. Stewart had queued for twenty minutes when I joined him, and just before the starting time of 5.30pm, five under seven-year-olds arrived with mums. There clearly was an expectation of support for this show as there were at least 30 tiny chairs in rows inside the small marquee. We waited until 5.40pm when a lady approached us with the word ‘Desolet’ .. meaning sorry. The show was not going to be on tonight. The little four-year-old that Stewart had been winking at was the most distraught.. after Stewart of course.
Leaving Chatillon we were paired with a hire boat, named Cyrano, to continue the climb. Unfortunately for us we were asked to enter the lock first which put us under the full force of the water as it poured in to fill the lock. At one stage we had a massive water fall roaring out and over our bow onto the hatch doors which normally would have leaked water into our bedroom below. But, luckily, I had taken the kayak off the roof and stored it on the bow across the hatch out of the way of potential low bridges .. it acted as a shield, to everyone’s relief. The lock-keepers were very anxious when they saw what was happening. They must have experienced a few angry boaters in the past who didn’t have such a shield and ended up with floods inside their boat.
On board Cyrano was the Skipper with a tobacco pipe (something from bygone days) – often we saw puffs of white cloud following his head. His wife was mostly below decks with her sister (they told us later) taking shelter from the rain. Meanwhile his First Mate, his Beau Frere (brother-in-law), did most of the steering of the boat (which I explain further below). Beau Frere (the First Mate) had two lovely dogs which needed watering quite frequently.
At one stage, right beside the triple locks at Chavance, a utility truck (ute) came along as Beau Frere happened to be walking his dogs on the towpath beside the boat. The truck didn’t stop, it hit one of the dogs and we could hear a prolonged yelp and thought the worst. Meanwhile Beau Frere had yanked open the door of the truck and lunged inside and must have whacked the driver (from what we could see) .. certainly lashed him with oodles of angry sacrebleus.
It wasn’t funny .. but this family are even older than us, and when we realised the dog was OK (a bit bruised) we had to admire the feistiness of Beau Frere defending his chien. All of this had caused such a stir we had lock-keepers roaring in from all directions as word spread about the altercation. It seemed all was resolved satisfactorily as soon after the dog was walking around again, the pipe was lit and puffed, and Beau Frere took his place on the bow with his boat hook.
We arrived at the summit, Baye, in the constant pouring rain which made it look a rather bleak place. We had climbed just over 74 metres from the canal lateral a la Loire, using 35 locks, most of them squeezed in with Cyrano making it quite challenging.
We were looking forward to the descent secretly hoping we would be on our own in the lock .. but no, our travelling companions on board Cyrano stayed with us for the next three days. As it turned out they were great fun and descending through a lock is easy: it’s like pulling the plug in a bath where all the water drains away very calmly.
The way the Cyrano team work their boat is very interesting. The Skipper with his pipe uses the throttle, standing or sitting on the roof at the external wheel (there would be one below decks in the dry but they didn’t use it). His brother-in-law stands firmly on the bow with his boathook in hand. Beau Frere’s job seemed to be to steer the boat with the boathook while the Skipper applied the throttle .. usually at full speed. They were hilarious and lovely to watch all day long as we went through lock after lock in the pouring rain.
At one point we met a large hire boat ascending, waiting below to enter the lock as we exited. They slowly and carefully passed us, and then I could see our friends in Cyrano exiting the lock but swirling around like they were driving a bath tub. The poor hire boat didn’t know which way to go to keep out of the way. Standing on the bow of Cyrano was the First Mate with his boathook held out like a lance. It was as if he thought he was jousting! The poor hire boat crawled along in the bank until finally it was no longer under threat and our jolly Rogers skidded around behind us to the next lock.
This very merry crew were made all the merrier by their regular interest in priming the lock-keepers (and themselves) with alcohol. We could see the bottles come out from below decks, magically handed up on a tray. Sometimes they were placed on some convenient ledge or electric box at the side of the lock where regular nips were taken as the locks were operated (all locks along the Nivernais are manually operated by the lock-keepers). We were not left out; at one lock standing on the roof of Endellion as I do to handle the ropes, I was asked if I’d like to partake of the latest bottle of whatever. I declined. What about the skipper, they asked. I thought I should take a tiny sample for Stewart so joined the group and was passed a large wine glass half-full of some golden liquid. I was told it was Calvados .. and not just any Calvados, it was thirty years old. And the First Mate (Beau Frere) held up all ten fingers, flashing them three times, to make sure I really got the message. I took the golden liquid back on board for my skipper, who took a healthy slurp, gulped a bit and we sensibly decided to put the ‘rocket fuel’’ into one of our own glasses to ‘enjoy’ at the end of the day, after boat handling!
At lock 28 (Chitry-les-Mines) with a synchronised loud hooting of Cyrano’s horn, and from the First Mate’s personal hand-held horn which could have come from a vintage car, they said their goodbyes as we journeyed on without them!
For a while it felt lonely after such an enjoyable period travelling with them through some of the most stunning countryside. The three tunnels from Baye and the long, narrow and windy cutting with water cascading down on us, and a towering viaduct overhead were some of the most spectacular scenes we’ve seen. We were back on our own again, travelling solo, and the rain still had not stopped.
At Monceaux , now only one stop away from our next important stop at Clamecy, we woke to a big slope.
The boat was so far over (stuck on the muddy bank) that the pull-string for the light in the bathroom (acting like a plumb ball) was at an acute angle and made us laugh. It was difficult to walk because we were on such a slope and the sliding doors would only fall closed. The night before the lock-keeper had told us to make sure the ropes were left loose as they were going to drain some water from the canal overnight. This we did but it’s the same old story with our dead flat bottom: our bow end sticks to the bank like glue .. it’s a landlubber. The lock-keepers passed by at 9.00am and called out .. don’t worry, we are putting the water back in.
This delayed our arrival into Clamecy to meet our sister-in-law Pammie, coming from Australia via a lovely stay in the sunshine of Italy. What a contrast for her to arrive here in lovely central France, to barely more than 10 degrees C, pouring rain, flooded rivers and a small country town. Thankfully, Pammie said “what a relief, I need a rest after hectic and lovely Italy”.
As mentioned at the start of this blog, Clamecy has a very interesting history based around the water. It’s known as the capital of the valleys of the Yonne. From the mid-1500s until the early 1900s three-quarters of the firewood supplied to Paris travelled along the river and later canal through Clamecy.
From the Morvan forest logs were cut to a specific size then thrown into the many tributaries of the rivers of this valley where they floated down to Clamecy until they were stopped by a weir used to block their progress. Here they were hauled out and dried through the summer until finally they were built into huge rafts, 75 metres long by 4.5 metres wide (and several layers deep).
Then in the autumn they set off on these rafts for Paris, about 200 kilometres away. By coincidence, having seen our First Mate (otherwise known as Beau Frere) joust with his boathook on our journey down to Clamecy , this town may have been his inspiration. It has an annual Jousting Tournament, held on the 14th July. Apparently the two competing rafts are called ‘Tu Iras’ (you’ll go in) and Toi Aussi (you too)!! Perhaps this is where Beau Frere learnt how to use a boathook.
Together (Pammie, Stewart and I) we explored the town of Clamecy with its many charming old buildings, the one good museum (Musee d’Art et d’Histoire) and the church; then all we had left to do was visit the markets. This done it was time to move on and the only way we could go was back up the canal (given the Yonne was closed to us). This we thoroughly enjoyed as we hadn’t dawdled on our way down pushing on for our rendezvous with Pammie.
For the first time in a very long time we had a crew member to help with opening and closing gates, always a hit with the lock-keepers.
Pammie pointed out how handsome one of the young lock-keepers was, thinking of matchmaking for her nineteen-year-old daughter Claudia. She asked him if she could take his photograph. No problem at all .. Max was more than happy to have his face sent down under to Australia especially when Pammie showed him a photo of Claudia! Tres belle, he said enthusiastically. This was on our way back up the canal a few stops and so of course we had to come back through the same lock the next day. This time quite a group had gathered along our journey, Pammie at the centre of it helping with lift bridges and locks, showing photos, exchanging emails! And believe it or not we even had a glorious day of sunshine.
Sadly, it was just the one day of sunshine and Pammie left us today for Paris. We’re back on our own, and in the French words and meaning, we are experiencing Deja Vu: rain, Clamecy and a closed lock.
The VNF say, “peut-être demain” (we’d heard these words for the past week now) .. and we are always optimistic.. perhaps tomorrow they will open the lock and allow us onwards.