Saturday is an important day. It is the day when we can at last shower, do washing and restock with food. All important tasks, especially the restock as French restaurants close Sunday evenings and all day Mondays. The plan was to get all this done and get on the internet to catch up with friends and family and get out of Briare by 1500 so that we could make a little way towards Digoin our next weekly milestone. There was also some sightseeing to do especially the magnificent Pont Canal (what we would call an aqueduct) designed by a certain M. Eiffel and built in 1894 to span the River Loire. It’s a wonderful combination of civil engineering and art and a wonderful sight in the stillness of a tranquil May morning . Motoring across the bridge, a hundred feet above the mighty meandering River Loire is an experience we all enjoyed.
Briare Canal Bridge
Our afternoon run took us as far as Beaulieu, not the place off the Solent, but a small village with some wonderful old buildings and an exhibition of World War 1 memorabilia where Linda, Lenie and Jo made friends with a wonderful old villager. 87 years old Olga later turned up as the “waitress” in the small restaurant where we had dinner. Her joie de vivre was remarkable, a lesson to us all.
Sunday saw us trying to make to make some decent mileage (maybe kilometre-age?) and give us some leeway if we wanted to make stops in our journey. The best of intentions, however, can fall foul of the immovable Eclusiers' lunchbreak and once more we wasted an hour waiting for monsieur to digest his bread and pate at least an hour before we could even contemplate eating. We had hoped to moor close to the town of Sancerre and sample the local cuvee. It didn’t start well as a detour into the side canal labelled as a “Halte nautique” found us ploughing a delicate furrow along a backwater full of live-aboards and nowhere to moor. A little further on however we came upon a really delightful mooring at Menetreol sous Sancerre, run by the local hotel. Not deterred by the bikers boys who were having their Sunday rideout, we made ourselves at home and watched the parade of classic cars that passed by. Despite the heat Jo acted as scout and made the 3km walk to Sancerre while Lenie toiled up the hill on her cycle and the rest of us contented ourselves with a walk around this fascinating and ancient village. Despite being a Sunday we managed to get a meal of Chile-con-Carne served up by “Clo” an interesting local lady who lists painting, interior design and singing amongst her talents. Certainly the food was good, the ambience friendly and the local Sancerre wine delicious.
The following morning Bob Linda and Terry made an early start and did their walk to Sancerre before the heat of the day set in. It’s a fascinating old fortified town set high on a hill overlooking the Loire valley. The views are magnificent.
Resuming our journey we were again caught by the lock-keeper’s lunchbreak. We also noticed that the wind had picked up considerably making manoeuvring tricky through the looks. As you may have noticed from our pictures we have a lot of fenders to protect our baby and they do their job well. The difficult part comes when you go up a lock and find that there is virtually no freeboard between the top of the lock and the water level. Fenders, of course float so it requires a lot of vigilance to ensure that something squashy is positioned between the hull and the dock wall now hidden under the curve of the hull. Starting from rest the boat has very little steerage until it picks up speed, so leaving the lock in a cross-wind requires some determination and a lot of coordination between the crew and the helm. We are getting plenty of practice. By cocktail hour we reached Cours les Barres and passed a relaxing night in this quirky little mooring which gave us free electricity, free water, but tepid showers.
On Tuesday our love affair with the Eclusiers of France took a backward step. Having made an early start we presented ourselves at our first lock of the day just after nine. There was no sign of life, but the lock was definitely closed to us. We waited, not easy with a tail wind urging us nearer and nearer to the lock. Eventually a woman appeared and started to wind down the paddles of the upper gate, one hand on the handle, the other clamping her mobile phone to her ear. Slowly, slowly, she went through the process the phone never leaving her ear, eventually presenting us with one open gate whilst she disappeared inside the lock building. What to do? If there were somewhere, anywhere that we could land, someone we could finish the job ourselves, but there was absolutely nowhere to drop someone off. As it was, Terry had executed all kinds of fancy manoeuvres to halt our inevitable progress downwind towards the lock. At last madame reappeared, conversation apparently terminated, and reluctantly walked around the lock to open the second gate. We entered and moored with our usual jaunty “Bonjours”. The response was a stoney face that might not have launched a thousand ships, but certainly committed many of them to a long term internment between lock gates. And so it continued, Bob’s opening of the top gate unacknowledged. Undeterred we bade her a friendly “Bonne journee” and left. She was back on her mobile before we were two boat lengths away.
The highlight of this day’s journey was undoubtedly the aqueduct at Guetin taking the canal across the river Ailler. Though not as long or high or historic as the aqueduct at Briare this one is approached by a mammoth 2 stage lock to lift us over 10 metres. Motoring into the massive canyon that is the lock chamber brought back memories of Panama. The friendly lock-keeper suggested that we moor at the back of the lock and from the photos you will understand why.
It was our intention to spend the night in Nevers and to do so we needed to turn into the side canal and pass through two fully automated locks. Just pull on the handy operating rope 50 metres before the lock and wait for the green light. Simple.
Terry with Lockrope
The first one was a piece of cake and we easily passed through watched by a group of Canal Authority workmen clutching a collection of surveying tools, but serving no apparent purpose. As we left one waved and asked where we were going. “Nevers of course” we replied not sensing the significance of the wry smile this response generated.
200 metres further on was the second automatic lock. The difference on this was that all the lights were out. In vain we pulled the rope, but it became quite clear that this lock was not going to operate. Using the now trusted “bow in the mud” mooring technique we landed skipper who walked to the lock and discovered that the automated lock also had a lunch break between 1200 and 1300. Only in France! As we progressed along the little link canal to the town we noticed that the canal banks were fast becoming covered in Japanese Knotweed, a sight that was repeated as we travelled further south.
We moored in Nevers and explored the town. Frankly it was disappointing after some of our previous stopovers. Historic yes, but seeming to lack life. In 1944 the Cathedral of St Cry was accidentally bombed by the RAF who were out to disrupt the nearby railhead. Though much of the cathedral has been restored the replacement stained glass windows left us wondering when art had gone.
The plan was to leave then next day, but we were warned of impending bad weather. On Wednesday morning we decided that the prospect of manoeuvring Quartette in and out of locks in the predicted 65kph gusts was something we could live without and so spent the day at much needed tasks of maintenance and revictualling. Here Terry deserves special mention for “valour in toilet maintenance”. Why are yacht toilets so temperamental? Having made that decision to stay, of course the big event passed us , or so we thought until about 1900 when the sky went dark, the wind howled and the rain poured. By then we were warm and cosy eating Lenie’s delicious Frittata and checking out our recent liquid purchases.
After a day confined to port we were eager to get away the next morning and at 0910 Thursday we duly presented ourselves at the first of the two automatic locks and were swiftly on our way south. We needed to put in about 50 km to pick up or schedule and managed to time in nicely with the lock-keeper’s lunch at Fleury giving us time to nip to the village Boulangerie and buy some delicious quiches and ham and cheese croissants before the Eclusier emerged to set us once more on our way. The day was cloudy and the breeze cold, but it was not until the afternoon that we picked up any of the forecast rain showers. They were brief and mainly a nuisance requiring that we slipped into wet weather gear for 5 minutes before the sun once again warmed us and required that we slip back out of it. After the previous day’s winds, the air was uncommonly still, so still in fact that we could sit before a lock and simply not move. Maybe it was this that finally persuaded Jo to make her first attempt at the helm for locking through. She did it perfectly, never once touching the sides and coming to rest exactly by the forward bollard.
By 1830 we had reached Gannay sur Loire, a peaceful canalside halt with deep water mooring, free electricity and water and a small bar which kindly gave us free ice for our G&T’s. With 50km and 10 locks to our credit for the day’s run, the glorious sunset seemed the perfect way to end the day.
Having agreed with the Eclusier that we would be at the first lock at 0900 we all overslept. All over France shepherds must have been congratulating themselves over the previous nights red sky because it really was a most glorious morning, clear, sunny and a sharpness in the air to remind you that this was still May. After ablutions and breakfast we were once again on our way. The passage between huge avenues of Lime trees with their verdant spring colours reflected in the mirror-like water was a sheer delight to the eye and by 1100 we were in our shorts and soaking up the sun. Even the enforced 12 until 1 “lunchstop” was a welcome time to relax, read and enjoy a really good cup of coffee.
In many respects the day might have passed as unexceptional had it not been for the weather. By 1600 the sun had gone and was replaced by dark skies with clouds towering above us. Previously we had escaped the fall-out from these monsters. Today our luck ran out and as we neared our destination of Digoin the wind rose and the heavens opened. Crossing the short aqueduct on the approach to the town we were painfully aware of the stiff crosswind and with the adage that fortune does not favour the faint-hearted in mind we pushed the lever forward and went for it. We crossed without incident and swung into the nicely sheltered mooring that the Capitanerie suggested. By now it was pouring with rain and with the boat now covered in leaf debris we battened down the hatches and had a quiet night in.
That completes the third week of our journey south, we are on schedule and looking forward to the next leg to Lyon, which will involve over 60 locks as we climb to cross the Charollais mountains. On board things are running well, our little engine putters away happily hour after hour, we eat well, enjoy the occasional glass of wine and as a crew work really well together . OK so we are not sailing, but this seems to be the next best thing.