Onto the Somme

The first lock (Sormont) on the Somme is listed as automatic in the guide books, triggered by a beam 300m before the lock. Not so anymore it would seem. So we tied up, called the tel number on the lock and awaited the eclusier. He arrived quickly and was most pleasant and helpful. He also went ahead of us to open the lifting bridge at Feuillères where we were stopping for the night.

We had a little walk around the village. No shops at all but we discovered a campsite with a bar – beer and ice cream de rigeur – where we could order baguettes & croissants for the morning. And the well recommended Restaurant du Port where we booked a table for lunch the next day.

Both these items were of great importance. Chris and Helen on Vrouwe Olive, have been speeding along (up to 50kms in a day!) to catch up / meet up with us on the Somme. We did the channel crossing with them a few weeks ago so they have come a goodly distance. Very soon after leaving Calais they were delayed by a lifting bridge which didn’t respond to requests to be opened! Adrian made a few tel calls on their behalf and eventually someone came but it held them up for 2 days! But they then reached the Canal du Nord in record time. Tuesday morning saw them set off at about 9.30 with only 2 locks and a few kilometers to go. But they got well and truly held up by commercials at these locks. Took them about 3 hours!

We had their baguette & croissants awaiting their arrival – Helen is a real sucker for a fresh french baguette.

And lunch was booked for 1pm and the ecluses are shut between 12.30 & 1.30pm! Luckily, as I was attaching our Somme pennant flag, I saw a car with 3 eclusiers going past …… a little chatting up and laying it on a bit thick and they agreed to head back to the lock to wait for Vrouwe Olive. (The young eclusier in the back of the car held out his crossed fingers as the other discussed the issue!) They got there at 12.32pm, were let through, and arrived at Feuillères at 1.05pm. Quick turn around and we went into lunch!

Great little restaurant! Very full – a cycling group and a group of eclusiers. Three course tasty lunch for 16.50 euros each! A wonderful way to get back together.

They were moored above the lifting bridge with noise from the TGV trains hurtling along behind. We were moored the other side of the bridge with the accompaniment of frogs. A whole army (another collective noun) of frogs! Having just watched something of Paul McCartney’s appearance at Glastonbury I was reminded of The Frog Chorus – We All Stand Together.

We actually stayed another 2 days at Feuillères because on Thursday lots of rain was predicted and we all decided we didn’t fancy getting wet. Fair weather boaters maybe but we are no longer in any sort of hurry.

We walked up to the campsite each day to order our bread and croissants. Unfortunately we were not allowed to use the campsite’s swimming pool. That request met a definite ‘non’ from Madam! We bought vegetables, freshly pulled from the ground, & homemade jams at the house next door. Breakfast on the top deck – coffee with fresh croissant & local rhubarb jam – what’s not to love?

We now have a mini convoy & on Friday 1st July we set off to Froissy. 12 kms, a couple of lifting bridges, a couple of locks and an enforced stop for lunch. A real change of pace. We had to go through the locks separately so we had two eclusiers allocated. Service or what? It seems they do not have a lot of boat traffic at present. A lovely cruise through the countryside. We are taking it in turns to cook for each other – so tonight Adrian and I ate at the ‘Resto Vrouwe Olive’ – delicious and not far to head home.

Early this morning , when I got up to make the tea, I saw that we had the makings of a misty morning as the mist was rising from the canal…….

Misty morning at Froissy

Nature Watch

The Canal de la Somme has beautifully clear water and lots of wildlife – birds, insects, dragon flies, damsel flies and frogs! All signs of a heathy waterway.

However, it is extremely weedy. Very thick weed causing a dense carpet on the surface in places.

It is much worse this year than when we were here 3 years ago. We are having to take great care to follow the channel, cut by previous boats, through the weed & not to use our bow thruster. At some mooring places it is impossible to moor because the weed is so thick you cannot get through. Boats are advised to use reverse to clear propellers & boats with water cooling engines have to take extra care to clear filters.

Apparently throughout April they were cutting the weed and plan to do so again from July 11th. It grows that fast.

The Somme leaflet describes it being impacted by ‘D’espèces Exotiques Envahissanes – Myriophylle Hétérophylle’. It is so dense that it could adversely impact fishing, water sports, navigation and the biodiversity of the waterway. Every year a scheme of cutting and removal is undertaken. 2019 = 360,000 eus.

One of the eclusiers told me that they didn’t really know where it had come from but that it is thought to be an aquarium plant. People emptying aquaria into the water system may have inadvertently caused the problem. And it really is a problem.

Ruyaulcourt Tunnel (4.354m)

From Graincourt to the tunnel we cruised in glorious isolation & in glorious sunshine! You would never think you were on such a major water motorway! Really lovely with rolling countryside and ripening crops (wheat, barley) all around. Lots of birdsong. We saw grebes, herons, gulps (collective noun) of cormorants and mummy ducks with tiny tiny ducklings. Delightful.

Then to the tunnel. We hardly had to wait before the green light came on letting us enter. The lady on the radio rattled something off to us (we think) but was very difficult to understand and did not repeat when I asked her. We thought she was advising us to wait in the lay by half way through the tunnel for a commercial coming in the opposite direction. It turned out she was telling us a commercial would be waiting in the lay-by for us to pass.

As we approached the lay-by we slowed down as we could see a red light. Need green light to proceed along tunnel. But this turned out to be the commercial’s port side navigation light. The hull was huge & all black which didn’t help. However, we realised what was nearly our mistake, picked up speed again and continued past. Just shows how confusing lights can be & how easily mistakes can happen.

Not sure exactly how long it took us to get through the tunnel – around 40 minutes – but we were very glad to reach the end and to emerge into the sunshine once more.

15 kms and 5 locks (6.5m deep each) down the other side brought us to the junction of the Somme.

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Leaving Valenciennes

Red sky at night ……it sure was! and it certainly was a lovely day on Sunday 26th June when we set off just before 8.30 am to head towards the Somme.

To ensure a safe and event free departure Pascaline (the capitaine of the port) had requested the VNF ‘turn the water off’! By stopping the flow to the weir, which is at the end of the port, the water stills and so makes manoeuvering much easier & safer. We had also spoken to both our neighbours and Peter and Barbara (Siyabonga) were up and ready to fend us off if necessary. It wasn’t necessary as Adrian completed a faultless exit. They sent us on our way with very nice bottle of Shengan wine. Thanks for that!

The first part of the trip was on new waters for us. We headed up the Escaut and were at our first lock by 9.00 am. After 3 locks – with extremely polite eclusiers – we turned right onto the Canal de la Sensée and went to the other end to moor for the night before joining the Canal du Nord on Monday.

The Canal de la Sensée, linking the Scarpe to the Escaut, was first put into use in 1820. 25km long it originally had 3 locks but in 1968 it was widened and deepened to accommodate european gauge barges and today it is part of the heavy gauge waterway linking Dunkerque to the Escaut. There are no locks now and we hardly saw another boat.

We moored at a ‘halte nautique’ by the Marais de Brunémont. There were fishermen there but no bollards to moor to. There were some ladders on the bank which others had obviously used to moor to and were showing signs of misuse. Expecting heavy passing trafic, particularly early in the morning, we made sure we were well secured both forward and aft and in the middle to boot. We hardly felt any movement of the boat at all by the few commercials which passed by.

We went for quite a long walk around the marais (swamps) & lakes beside the canal. The marais were formed as a result of peat extraction since the 12th century. The discovery of coal brought this practice to a close but it left a maze of ponds and wetlands full of a rich variety of flora and fauna. This is certainly so around Brunémont – a huge expanse of waterlillies at one place.

The whole area seems to be covered in rather shanty type holiday homes! Its busy. People everywhere enjoying the sunshine – walking, fishing, playing with the kids. All good apart from the bar we came across belting out terrible karaoke. Needless to say we didn’t stop for a beer or a sing song!

Monday 27th June

I was woken by a commercial passing by at 6am. Hardly disturbed the boat and didn’t disturb Adrian at all!

We set off at about 9.30am and, after a couple of kms, we turned onto the Canal du Nord. We had 7 locks of 6m deep to go up to get to the top pound. Luckily we were on our own in the locks as there were not very well positioned bollards for us. The locks are set up for the commercials (50m+). At one point we were approaching a lock when a ‘push-me-pull-you’ (ie double length) commercial set off crossing ahead of us. We were going slowly, getting ready to line up for the lock, so we had to slow even more to get through his wash. We were then lining up for the lock again when the lock keeper came over the radio saying ‘Piedaleau GO GO GO!’ How rude!!!

We reached the top pound and moored for the night beside a disused silo at Graincourt-lès-Havrincourt. We tied up well expecting lots of commercial traffic going to and from the lock in front of us. This time we were not disappointed! Some came really close to us as they lined up approaching / waiting for the lock to open and wished us ‘bon appetit’ as we ate our dinner in glorious sunshine on the top deck.

We walked around the fields, watched the windmills and the farmer watering his fields by pump from the canal. Red sky at night again.

Back in Valenciennes once more

After all the excitement of the channel crossing with Chris and Helen we returned to Piedaleau on Weds 15th June. We were both rather exhausted.

We now needed to get on with the painting we had in mind but the weather was not in our favour. No clear run of dry days forecast and then it turned hot hot hot! We saw 37* on our thermometer one day. So either too wet or too hot to paint! Its fussy stuff this boat paint as we found out back in 2015.

Pat (Coole Swan) contacted us and we arranged with Pascaline (Capitaine) that he could moor his boat here for a month while he returned home and his sister and brother in law stayed on board. This resulted in an extremely enjoyable weekend – eating out and sharing a glass or two – before Pat left.

Sunday was Father’s Day in Uk and la fête des pères in France. The three of us walked into town with the aim of having a coffee and we ended up having lunch. Adrian really enjoys Flammekueche (rather like a pizza but from Alsace) and when he saw a restaurant serving this culinary delight it was a done deal. Lisa had instructed me to look after Adrian on Fathers Day in the absence of any kids but Pat valiantly offered to be his stand in kid for lunch!

The forecast was more amenable so Tuesday was ‘fancy’ undercoat day for the rear deck. We had bought a 2 part undercoat from a boatyard in Ghent before lockdown. This requires careful measuring of the 2 components to ensure it does what it says on the tin. Two top coats on Weds – morning got rather hot and evening it rained a bit within a couple of hours of finishing. But we finally got the job done. Now we will wait a couple of days, to let it harden off, before going cruising. The Somme is calling again.

Calais

Chris and Helen had spent some time in Calais in 2019 due to Chris’s accident with his hand when trying to leave. He had a bit of an argument with one of those swinging buoys in the outer harbour and had to be taken off by the coastguard to go to hospital. They stayed about 6 weeks whilst he underwent treatment and then they waited for suitable weather into December. Sounds like he had amazing care and treatment throughout but not a pleasant interlude.

They had told us that they enjoyed Calais but we, like most people, had only ever driven in / out to the ferry terminal. What we saw in the couple of days we were there was really rather pleasant.

The mooring they found, thanks to another boater on the Somme, is very pleasant and within easy walking distance of the centre & Town Hall.

We saw the outer harbour in the sunshine on Tuesday with boats on the buoys, and the wall where we tied up in the distance.

But we had a couple of jobs to do with Chris and Helen before we left. Firstly Adrian found where they could buy a Free SIM card – amazing value you get around 200 GB for 20 euros a month. We went to a small shop hosting a Free SIM machine, bought said card and Adrian fitted everything up for them on board.

Secondly we needed to get through some form of passport control and customs check now we are no longer in the EU. Chris had hoisted a yellow flag before entering Calais which identifies vessels from foreign waters. Adrian had telephoned French border police beforehand and we were told to go to the Calais Marina and give them details of the boat & occupants. Since we weren’t in the marina itself we had to make sure that our mooring was clearly identified. They then email the police who decide whether or not they need to visit the boat. Within a couple of hours two policemen did indeed arrive. They checked & stamped our passports (a little bemused that we had just been in & out within days!) & asked about our visas. They decided there was no need to check anything on the boat so Chris was able to take down his yellow flag.

Bizarrely when we were at the marina office another yatch owner was registering and was amazed that we had come from Pin Mill – he explained that that is his winter mooring! He was leaving Calais having sailed around Brittany. Small world.

Town Hall and the Burgers of Calais

In 1885, Rodin was commissioned by the French city of Calais to create a sculpture that commemorated the heroism of Eustache de Saint-Pierre, a prominent citizen of Calais, during the dreadful Hundred Years’ War between England and France (begun in 1337).

President de Gaule married in Calais ……. preparations for the Tour de France

Some rather impressive wall art

We all went out for dinner together that evening and then on Thursday Adrian and I headed off to the train station to travel back to Valenciennes. A fairly easy change in Lille and we were back on board within a few hours. Nothing like as long or complicated as our trip to Pin Mill!

We both thoroughly enjoyed our sojourn with Chris and Helen on Vrouwe Olive. The Crossing was a real treat but definitely a one off! We won’t be taking Piedaleau across the channel.

Another item ticked off the old bucket list ……..

And a big thank you to Chris and Helen xxx

The Crossing

On Sunday, when the tide was right (around 11am) we left the mooring at Pin Mill for ‘sea trials’ i.e. to check that the new rudder (built and fitted by Chris) & everything else, was ship shape and in Bristol fashion. Didn’t need any nasty surprises in the channel. We motored up and down for a couple of hours and then ‘picked up a buoy’ in the river Orwell to await high tide so we could set off for Calais early in the morning.

It was rather pleasant sitting in the middle of the channel in Butterman’s Bay watching the world (and quite a few sailing boats) go by. The wind did seem to get up a bit and caused the buoy to knock on the hull quite loudly at times. But we had dinner and settled down for the night leaving the final decisions to Chris. It was his call ……..

And today’s New York Times Wordle was FLOAT!!!

Chris was keeping an eye on the forecast, particularly the wind, so it was not certain that we would, in fact, set off early in the morning as per his plan.

But at 5am Chris woke us all up, slipped us off the buoy and we were away. Down the Orwell past Felixstowe docks Margate and away!

It got chilly!

Somewhat chilly at that time of the morning, but the weather remained kind to us throughout the day. The boat was a little rocky at times depending on the wind direction but nothing to concern us. Helen was the ‘hostess with the mostest’ providing sustenance for us all throughout the trip – she even cooked some cup cakes (iced and decorated of course!) as we motored along! How did she manage that!

Cup cakes at sea

Both Adrian and I took a spell at the helm but I found it too difficult with the roll of the boat and trying to see where we were heading around the mast. Adrian did better. Helen took the helm frequently, particularly when Chris was plotting and checking our course.

We steered a course avoiding the infamous Goodwin Sands, which can cause big problems for th unwary, & we passed huge wind farms. We even picked up a couple of hitch hikers for a while ….

And then there was the crossing of the shipping channels as we approached France. Huge container ships and ferries in a virtually continuous line. They crack on at quite a speed ( 25 knots-ish to our 4 knots-ish) and they don’t take no prisoners. Small pleasure boats just have to keep out of their way! Chris, our excellent Captain and navigator, ensured we did just that. Adrian commented that it’s a bit like crossing a motorway on a bike with two flat tyres.

The approach to Calais seemed to take forever! But we eventually came into the harbour. We headed to pick up a buoy in the outer harbour to wait for the tide before heading through a couple of locks & onto the planned, free, mooring. The buoys were all full so we tied up to a wall reserved for fishing vessels. A port official soon came round to tell us we shouldn’t be there and should have waited outside the port for the tide. He said we could remain for the 1 hour 10 mins til the tide was right. We had dinner (already prepared by Helen) and waited for the tide.

Finally we were able to go through the locks in the dark and to tie up at the mooring at around midnight!

The crossing itself took about 15 hours and was around 60 miles as opposed to the Dover Calais route which is around 23 miles.

15 hours at sea
Our cross channel route

Excitement

As I mentioned towards the end of my last blog we have been planning an exciting trip for some time. This involved travelling back to UK by public transport, meeting up with Helen and Chris Hanley and then crossing the channel to Calais with them on their boat, Vrouwe Olive, when the weather was suitably favourable.

So we bought tickets for trains and the Flixbus and prepared to leave on Friday 6th June. We were ready …… all packed, sandwiches made and were about to leave to catch the train when I checked my emails – only to find that the Flixbus had been cancelled! We tried to find an alternative means of going that day without success. So having rung Chris & Helen we ‘stood down’ and had sandwiches for lunch and tea!! We later learnt that the cancellation was due to tube strikes in London.

We carried on doing some work on the boat for a few days altho the weather was pretty variable so we couldn’t do the painting …… but the upper deck table and chairs now look great!

Chris kept checking the weather forecasts and our trip was rescheduled for Friday 10th June. This time the trip went without a hitch…..

  • walk to la gare at Valenciennes(15 mins)
  • train from Valenciennes to Lille (40 mins)
  • walk round to Flixbus area to await bus
  • Flixus to Victria coach station – included getting off at Euro tunnel for french customs – all luggage checked and passports and then again at Uk side for passports to be checked again (about 6 hour trip)
  • no 11 bus from Victoria bus station to Liverpool St train station – used our OAPs bus passes for this leg! (45 mins but free)
  • train to Ipswich – involved a bit of sweet talking the conductor so that we could go on an earlier train than booked! (1.5 hrs)
  • picked up at Ipswich by Helen and taken to their mooring at Pin Mill (30 mins)
  • all in all about 12 hours so quite an adventure just in itself!
  • on Flixbus we chatted with a lady beside us who works as a tutor for young offenders at a prison near Milton Keynes. Fascinating but very tiring and stressful job. She had gone to stay with her sister in Brussels in order to have a tooth extracted – much quicker and cheaper for her than in UK!

Then we waited for the right weather window and for Chris to complete some jobs on his boat. He planned to cross the channel on Monday.

So we had Saturday free and Helen took us to visit Woodbridge which was very pleasant with harbour and shops.

In the afternoon we walked around Pin Mill. It really is a one off – lots of houseboats in various states of repair – but a real community feel to it. It is a tidal along here so you may go to bed with Vrouwe Olive sitting on the mud and wake to feel her floating. Along the shore there is a real boat’s graveyard!

And, of course , there is an excellent Adnam’s pub on the shoreline serving excellent fish and chips. Dinner sorted.

Back in Valenciennes or ‘starting as we mean to go on’

Having finally got our VISAs we headed off really early (5am) on Wed 1st June to catch the ferry at Dover. We had heard of problems at airports and ports because of staff shortages since Covid. There was not much of a queue when we got to Dover so we were, in fact, rather early. At french passport control we had to explain what our 6 month tourist visas were! But we got through even though the car bonnet wouldn’t open for security check and the back of our car was full full full (it always is somehow). Still we were put on the earlier Irish ferry and we didn’t even end up in Dublin!

We usually use the tunnel which takes 35 mins but had decided, for reasons of economy, to use the ferry (1.5 hrs). This obviously confused the sat nav.

Our car crossing the channel

But the crossing was delightful. Beautiful weather and a very calm sea. I prefer going by ferry, having our little picnic on board and taking a turn around the deck. Making it part of the adventure and not purely getting there.

So we arrived in Valenciennes earlier than expected and emptied the car – wondering yet again quite why / how we had brought so much stuff! Apart from being filthy Piedaleau was absolutely fine.

As we were setting up to fill the tank with water a lady came along the pontoon and stopped to talk to us. We soon realised we had met each other briefly on the Somme in 2019! Sue and Allan are from New Zealand so they haven’t been on board Suzette since then. She promptly invited us to their boat for ‘bubbles’ a little later. Mike and June, also from New Zealand on Contessa, also joined the get together! We had also met them on the Somme.

Bubbles on Suzette with June, Mike, Sue and Allan

It was just great to meet up with them all and to start as we mean to go on.

They were heading off in a ‘mini kiwi convoy’next morning so we waved them all a fond farewell.

Thursday & Friday were spent organising the boat & deploying the power washer for hours. Sure takes a while to get rid of 8 months worth of grime. We were also booking tickets for early next week (hopefully more about this exciting trip in next blog).

Saturday saw us working away but then we were invited along the pontoon for a BBQ chez Benoit. It was an interesting evening with 2 seasoned boaters (Benoit & Roberto) who are residents here – both living in what can only be described as basic boats. We were right back into french, complete with leg pulling, english and mysogenistic tongue in cheek jibes. Tried very hard to give as good as we got.

Lightning flashes started …. and thunder rumbled …. so we returned to the boat before the deluge came. The boat is well and truly washed now.

Got it!

Finally on 27th May we received our passports back complete with 6 month visas so we are off to the boat lickety spit!

But first I very much wanted to visit Doddington Hall (only 15mins from us) to see the iris display. I love iris, particularly since seeing the iris gardens at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo back in the 1980s. So this visit was a must!

Doddington Hall is an Elizabethan manor house with Flemish tapestries and walled gardens. The Hall provides a unique insight into 400 years of unbroken family ownership. We love to visit the hall, gardens and the excellent farm shop. We even went there to a wine tasing last week with Lisa and Alex! I very much look forward to seeing the Christmas decorations …….

The range of iris is just lovely – lots of different colours and varieties. In fact they are specialist growers of British tall Bearded Irises.

Enough chat …. here are some pictures…..

So my next post will be from Valenciennes when we are back on board Piedaleau at last!