PYC Summer Cruise – Week 4 Onwards and upwards (then down again)

Saturday is of course victualling day and in true EB* fashion Five went to the Supermarket and came back with lashings of goodies to last them the final week of their adventure (except for Jo who will endure another week of this madness with  Capt Andy).  Digoin is not a particularly pretty town though it does possess the most elaborate Post Office that we have seen to date and a Brasserie called Chez Liliy which appears to have the only wifi in town.

    Digoin Post Office

It is ironic that whilst France has some of the speediest internet connections in Europe it’s network is the least accessible to itinerants like us.
After clearing the decks of the debris from the previous day’s deluge we set off to have a taster of the 61 locks between us and the River Saone at Chalons. A pleasant Saturday afternoon with lots of families cycling the really excellent towpath and the automatic locks an absolute breeze.  The Canal du Centre was built to facilitate the  development of the coal mines at Blanzy and the forges at Le Creusot and in previous times was a very busy waterway.  Today many of these industrial sites are abandoned and the canal is only used by pleasure craft. Just an hour or so brought us to the town of  Paray le Monial, a site of some religious significance owing to a vision by a young lady a long time ago. The legacy of that vision is a town with lots of churches and chapels all rather splendidly lit at night. However despite being a Saturday night the town was quiet as the grave, even the travelling funfair parked nearby closed at 6pm.
     Paray le Monial
Sunday was a bright and breezy morning with a cool chill from the north-east wind. No shorts today!
A mention here for the designer of the canal Emiland Gauthey, the engineer and architect who once declared that “Straight lines are particularly boring”. Clearly Emiliand had left his ruler at home when he plotted this waterway as it twists and turns with barely a straight stretch anywhere. Blind corners abound and pleasing as these gentle curves may be they often give little chance to “straighten up” before the next lock appears.  And many locks there are.  In our 9 hour run we covered just 56 km and went up 24 locks. We would have stopped for lunch but moorings for a vessel of our draught are rare so it was easier to throttle back and munch on the move.  Our target had been Montchanin at the top of the flight which promised moorings, water, power and showers.  Oh when will we learn!
On arrival we discovered that the only useable mooring was next to the canal company yard and that if the facilities existed they were almost certainly at the small boatyard across the canal where a local resident was picturesquely relieving himself against his neighbour’s boat as we passed. The ladies looked away.
Even as we made fast to the bollards we could see the threat of the darkening skies behind us and at 2030 the rain commenced, the lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled while we tucked into a wonderful dish of Porc aux champignons created by Lenie and tested whether wine tastes better during thundery weather.
Our score for the day was a record 54km and 24 locks and in this time we had encountered just one other boat.  We had all this wonderful waterway to ourselves.
While the UK was enjoying yet another Bank Holiday Quartette had no time to relax. . Having reached the headwaters of the Canal du Centre at Montchanin, it was downhill all the way from now on and our first call was at “Sept Ecluse” where a flight of four locks had been built to replace the seven of the original canal.
   Montchanin Top Lock
Here we had to change our technique. Going down a lock is considerably easier than going up.  The water flows out steadily and the boat gently settles deeper and deeper into the lock. In some locks the bollards descend with the water level making life even easier.  The only tricky point comes with entering the lock, especially when the lock is very full with very little “freeboard” between the top of the masonry and the surface of the water. It is very easy for fenders to pop out of place and so we developed the technique of having a “stuffer” ashore whose job was to ensure that fenders remained between boat and lock until such time that the boat had dropped enough to contain errant fenders. Not a glamorous job but an important one.
The first four locks were a steep learning curve, giving us little time to admire the landscape from this lofty viewpoint though the landscape was definitely changing. Gone were the hints of the industrial past and now on either side were vast pastures populated with herds of Limoisan and Charollais cattle. In some respects this was our hardest day so far, with locks coming every kilometre or so and little time to take breaks. By 1600 we felt that the moorings at St Legere were calling us to halt.  The promise of showers and wifi made that call irresistible. In less than 6 hours we had travelled only 19km but worked through 19 locks. Dinner at the only place open…. a Pizzeria.
We slept well, probably due to the generous servings of Grappa and Limoncello plied to us by the proprietor of the Pizzeria..  It rained most of the night, and in the morning we were greeted by overcast skies and the portent of more precipitation to follow. Jo was the early bird and returned with bread and secret afternoon treats. After breakfast we set off on what would be our final day on the canals but a lot of locks stood between us and the freedom of the River Saone. Nineteen of them in fact, all downhill but some of the over 5 metres deep. Soon it became a routine and we circulated jobs: helm, bow-rope, aft-rope, and of course the fender stuffer giving someone a chance to use the really excellent bicycle path.  There were impromptu “flicking” contests, a test of skill at removing the mooring line from a bollard without untying the inboard end. Possible potential for an Olympic sport here.
Mostly we were lucky with locks set in our favour, occasionally we were held up waiting for upstream traffic to clear the lock. This is the first time that we have encountered any major traffic, but maybe this is what summer is like on these canals.

Waiting for a lock

We slowed down in a 5km stretch to eat an “leisurely” lunch on the move and later took advantage of a similar stretch to take our afternoon tea and Jo’s blackcurrant tarts. With the end of our confinement coming close we were unlucky to be held up behind a huge hotel boat which seemed to be ploughing a mighty furrow in the muddy bottom.  Kindly he invited us to pass him on a straight stretch and as we reached his stern we found the mud too. Luckily he moored at the next lock, and let us pass.  That lock was the last lock and a MONSTER. Over 10 metre drop and sized for the big river boats, we felt dwarfed at the bottom of this mighty chamber.

The Monster lock

As the huge lower gate lifted, the sense of freedom  became  irresistable, the depth gauge smiled with readings it could have only dreamed of over the  past weeks. 8 metres, a whole 8 metres and room to turn around without danger of hitting ANYTHING!  The chart plotter responded with signs of AIS equipped vessels and actual names of places.  It was like coming home.
Soon we were moored in the well equipped marina at Chalons sur Saone,  engine off, power connected , wifi established, beer opened. Relax! Chill!
Despite being in the centre of a reasonably sized city the marina at Chalon is a  charming place replete with swans and water lilies and a nightingale that serenaded us for most of the night. The following morning we took some time out to explore the town.  A large chunk of the historic centre has been pedestrianised so that the central Place de l’Eglise is a huge open space filled with tables and chairs and in the morning people taking their time over coffee. Very civilised.
Back on board we fuelled up and were surprised that we could only get 100 litres into the tank.  Under a blue sky with big fluffy clouds we slid beneath the stylishly rebuilt (post 1944) Ste Laurent bridge and with nearly 2 knots of current to help us on our way soon left Chalon far behind. Cruising the river seemed so easy in comparison to our previous days on the canals.  The channel is clearly marked and it was simply necessary to keep a check on our progress on the helpfully placed PK (pointe kilometre) signs.  Terry spent a happy hour or two shining up the brightwork until sunglasses became essential.  In fact Terry has put a lot of time throughout the trip cleaning the teak and Bob polishing the Cabintop so that Quartette is looking rather splendid and ready for her Mediterranean adventure.
Having been in the constant company of Herons through our canal passage we were delighted to encounter storks alongside the river and as we neared Macon noticed a nest at the top of a broken tree.  What a precarious start in life these lovely birds get.  Throughout the trip Terry has been our resident ornithologist, identifying swifts and swallows, kites and even a buzzard (we think). In fact the birds of France have been our constant companions and the sound of birdsong has been one of the highlights of our trip.
By 1700 we were moored in the very new Macon Port de Plaisance.  Very well equipped, spotlessly clean but some 2.5km distant from the town, but a pleasant walk along the river bank where preparations were in place for the weekend’s rowing regatta. We had dinner over-looking the  finely proportioned 14th Century Pont Ste Laurent in a restaurant that served a fine meal with wine grossly overpriced.
We all slept well despite the absence of nightingales.

 14th Century St Laurent bridge at Macon

A fine dawn welcomed us to Thursday. After a revisit to the island of the Storks where we counted 4 nests high in the trees we once again turned south and headed towards Lyon.

Storks at Macon

At this point river cruising becomes more functional than recreational. With the river so wide one somehow loses contact with life ashore though here and there people waved to us.  As the valley of the Saone widened we became aware of the fine view towards the distant line of hills in the west.  We must have passed through a gap somewhere.  The occasional hotel boat passed us leaving a wake to remind us that someday soon our boat would be back on the ocean where things are not so placid.
Our plan had been to travel the 80 km to Lyon and have a whole day there prior to handover on Saturday but, after 5 hours, we passed through the pretty town of Trevaux and the sight of a useable mooring made us think that maybe there was a nice night to be had here. The fact that our Swiss friends from the Canal du Loire in their Beneteau were already moored sealed the deal.

Mooring at Trevaux

What we had not noticed however was the large number of children out playing with their parents in the riverside park.  It felt like a Sunday, and when we started looking for a restaurant discovered  why. Despite being a Thursday this was a public holiday and every restaurant was closed. Ultimately we ate aboard and tried mitigate the storage problem posed by our excess liquid victualling.
Friday. Our last day (‘cept for Jo) Gloriously sunny while the UK gets a pasting from Mr Rain.  The wash from a passing hotel boat brought us to our senses and after our usual relaxed start we pottered on down river and passed through our final lock, the aptly named (for me anyway) “Ecluse de Couzon”.
Nearing Lyon the cockpit conversations had turned to what we each thought was the highlight of our trip.
Linda: The village of Beaulieu where she fell in conversation with an 87 year old lady at a wonderful WW1  exhibition
Jo: Sitting in the square in Briare with a glass of something pleasant after doing the washing and having a shower.
Bob: Riding a bike along a towpath shoulder high in Cowparsley and Buttercups with the birds singing their hearts out.
Lenie: Steering Quartette through the chaos of the River Seine in Paris on a sunny Friday afternoon.
Terry: Seeing storks nesting, kites swooping, cuckoos calling and falling asleep to the sound of a nightingale singing
We throttled back to take in the river view of Lyon with it’s fascinating variety of architecture and many bridges.  Before long the entrance to the “Halte Fluvial” was upon us and with a deft turn of the wheel Terry steered us into the small empty marina.  Lines on, power on, break out the beers, relax! We had made it, all in one piece, no major catastrophes and still all good friends and still talking to each other after 4 weeks in our little Quartette.  Thank you Quartette, thank you PYC and thank you Andy for having the perseverance to make this happen.
Good luck to everyone on the next stages of the tour, we hope that you have as much fun as we have had.

 Quartette’s Crew:      Terry, Lenie, Jo, Linda and Bob

For the factually minded some (vaguely) interesting statistics:
Distance travelled from Rouen: 1017km
Engine hours: 163
Fuel consumed: About 180 litres
Spend on moorings and food (inc  Restaurant meals) since Paris:  about £180 per head per week
Teabags used: about 200
Bottles of wine: consumed:  Several
*Enid Blyton
— Bob Cousins

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