The Canal du Nivernais (May 2014)

Henri the Heron - Pont de Vaux

Henri the Heron – Pont de Vaux

Sunday 27 April

We arrived at Pont de Vaux at 6.00pm, having taken the Channel Tunnel route again as opposed to the ferry. The boat was fine, dry and warm. Lots of spiders’ webs everywhere, but I only came across one live specimen who was quickly despatched to an outdoor existence. I used to have more tolerance for these creatures but the recent horror stories about poisonous spiders have sharpened my responses. I’m not going to hang about validating their DNA – off they go.

We spent the first couple of days filling up; food, diesel and that nice stuff that comes in red, pink and white… wine I think it’s called.

We also made another trip to SFR at Macon to secure a new internet arrangement. That’s an hour of our lives that we won’t get back! We’ve yet to secure the services of an SFR assistant in under 35 minutes, and inevitably once you’ve engaged their attention their procedures make up the other 25 minutes. The current deal is 25 euros a month for 6 gig, comparing favourably to the contracted deal we had with them for 3 gig – which never was quite enough for us. That contract lasted 2 years, and though it didn’t take us quite that long to stop them taking payments from our bank account on expiry of the contract, it certainly felt like it.

The Port de Plaisance at PdV had their annual ‘exincteur verification’ day which was useful, so we had both extinguishers checked and certificated for 30 euros. The next day, of course, we discovered a previously un-noticed third extinguisher behind the door in the back cabin. Duh!

Tuesday evening we were ready to leave port. The plan was to visit the Nivernais. No fixed route apart from getting there via the Saone and the Canal du Centre. Once on the Nivernais, our route would depend on our rate of progress. If slow, we’d probably stop and retrace our steps; if quicker, we would decide on completing a round trip, either coming back via the Canal du Loing, Briare, Lateral a Loire and Centre, or climbing up the Canal du Bourgogne and coming back down via Dijon.

As the first part of this trip was documented in fair detail in a previous report entitled Canal du Centre, Chalon sur Saone to Digoin (May 2012)   and also in the report entitled Canal Lateral a la Loire, Digoin – Briar, June 2012  I’ll only add new information or anything that we found to have changed or needs updating.

Wednesday 30th April – Sunday 11th May

We set off midday and overnighted at Tournus, where we ate out at Le Grille on the quayside. It was a good choice. We’ve found that a lot of waterside restaurants pay more attention to the food than the ambience of the surroundings (and rightly so!) but this one was beautiful inside. The dining room is upstairs, the walls comprising all kinds of brickwork, stonework, and masonry with aged dark beams, tapestries and medieval figurines. The tables each have their own table lamps, the menu is varied and the service excellent. We’re not big eaters so we tend to have just the one course, but there are two and three course options available. Neville had ‘gambas’ and I had magret du canard in a honey sauce, with mashed potatoes served on some kind of dried ground mushrooms. Excellent meal with bread and a half litre of house red, coming to 45 euros. The two and three course options would represent better value for money at 17 and 25 euros, but not if you can’t finish them! I remember a time when we could…

We set off next morning, oblivious to the fact that the locks on the Saone close on May Day, and had to return to Tournus to wait for next day.  We spent some time walking around this pretty little town.

On the Canal du Centre we overnighted at Fragnes, Chagny (still looking very tired), St Leger sur Dheune, St Julienne sur Dheune (lovely meal at Auberge le Manoir again). Instead of mooring at Blanzy, this time we tried Montceau les Mines. The new LeClerc complex before you drop down into Montceau appears to be finished now, and very spectacular it is too.

(If you want to identify the individual locations in the montage of photos below, pass your cursor over them to reveal the captions.)

The mooring at Montceau is 6.60 (inc electric) and internet is available. You do need to have a mobile phone to use it, as you have to select the connection on your laptop/tab, open a browser, enter your phone number and then call a number that appears on your computer screen, hanging up after the first ring. You can only make one connection from one mobile phone though, but as we have both a French and English mobile, we managed to have one each. (Remember to put the French code in if you’re dialling from an English mobile).

If you don’t want to walk back to LeClerc, which is a fair hike, you might want to call at the Géant which is located at the end of the street which cuts across the lock. Montceau seems like a pleasant enough town, the main shopping street running parallel to the canal, one block back. I believe Saturday is market day.

We carried on, overnighting at Genelard (where we saw another Sagar barge, Tammy, which is under new ownership) and then at Paray Le Monial. In the previous report I gave a glowing account of our favourite Chinese restaurant in Paray, Aux Baguettes D’Or.

If you find a good restaurant some place and you come back that way a couple of years later you have a decision to make. Should you go where you know you’ve had a good meal in the past, or should you break out into new territory and run the risk of regretting not sticking with the tried and trusted? We’d tend to go for the safe bet, but after last night’s experience we might reconsider our future options.

When we’ve been in a restaurant twenty minutes or more and nothing has passed my lips – neither water, wine, green tea, prawn crackers – then I am, as we say, ‘nowty’. When it takes an hour and a half to have a plate of dim sum and a main course arrive on the table, I’m getting quite edgy, but when the waiter, (who for the first hour only had our table to contend with, and for last half hour only another two tables) never once looks round the restaurant to see who might have been sitting over their dirty plates for a good ten minutes, or who might be itching to get their bill and get the hell out of there…. Well, then I’m really cross. Add to that the fact that I had the same meal as last time, Canard lacque, which last time was delicious, sliced duck thinly glazed with a light honey sauce and this time was drowned in a thick sludgy mess…. Not one of our better nights, and Aux Baguettes d’Or is now off our list. But on the positive side, at least we’re free to try others now in Paray.

After passing through Digoin onto the Canal Lateral a Loire, our next stop was at Diou, and then Gannay.

DSCF2652The hotel at Pierrefitte which seems to have been under construction/renovation for ages has now finally been completed. Not wild about the style of the external décor, but the layout seems quite nice. From Gannay we dropped down to Decize, which now marked the start of new territory and new experiences for us.

Monday 12 May
The supermarket behind the port at Decize opens at 8.30am and having shopped we were off down the lock onto the Loire just before 10.00am. The lock has sliding poles, and the balisage for the Loire is marked on a board at the lock, but not on the river itself.

On entering the Nivernais we completed locks 35,34,33 before lunch, 32 and 31 after.

Along this section there are winders to open gates. By lunchtime, we remained to be impressed, finding the Nivernais at this point just like any other canal. It wasn’t industrial but had been pretty much characterless so far. It was a fairly grey day too with only patchy sunlight emerging through cloud. There are plenty of ‘narrows’ along this first stretch. The locks present a little difficulty as the bollards are set quite far back – great for your lassoing skills if descending but you’re dependent on the lockie to take your rope whilst ascending.

We moored up at Cercy la Tour.

Lovely little moorings here, the first pontoon being fully serviced whilst the one before the lock isn’t. If there is no space at either there is a kind of basin above the lock, unserviced by the look of it that has quite a few long term moorers there. This is a nice little village with a statue overlooking the town from the terrace, and if you climb the narrow streets you get to a restaurant Grill Flambé.

We were about to log onto our SFR connection when we noticed an available CNN Hotspot connection. When we tried this we found that it was a dedicated internet for the Canal du Nivernais, with a great website showing aerial videos of the canal and the sights along the way, with several restaurants etc. You register and are sent a username/password which is valid for two weeks! Don’t know how good the coverage/speed will be along the way, but at Cercy la Tour it was excellent, and a big relief to us. We both use quite a lot of internet on our travels (me on my website and Neville on his Nene Valley Railway work) and although we’ve been very judicious in our use of our new 6 gig/pm SFR allowance we have managed to get through a third of it in two weeks, even though we’ve had the use of port connections at Decize, Montceau les Mines, and Fragnes

Tuesday 13 May 2014

I walked up to the locks just before 9.00 to help open/shut the gates and take the ropes.

Some of the locks along this part now don’t have ladders but a tall person can lift themselves up from the boat roof onto the quayside if, as was often the case, we arrived at the lock whilst the lockie was dealing with the other lock (since at this time of the year most of them were handling two locks). This way we could secure the boat and close the gates in readiness for his/her arrival.

There is a difficult right angled turn at the flood lock at Pannecot, where we managed to make contact at both the bow and the stern. Question marks over whether it’s possible to moor in basin. The first lockie of the day had told us you couldn’t enter the basin, but that it was possible to moor before it. There were some bollards just before you turned for the flood lock and again afterwards but these latter were placed at the top on a steep bank. There was a channel marked into the basin with red and green bollards, and from what final lockie told me, the boat who’d shared the last lock with us was planning to moor there. She expressed doubts about the advisability of this and said she thought they would have problems. We’d been warned three times in total before we arrived, and one lockie had said the basin was full of sand.

Arrived at Fleury at 4.00pm to find another Sagar boat, Star of Destiny with Derek and Erica aboard. After helping us to moor they invited us round for a drink and we had a pleasant couple of hours comparing our Sagar and other boating experiences.

The CNN hotspot connection couldn’t be detected here, as had been the case as we passed through Pannecot. Even our SFR connection was reduced to about half dial-up speed, though another boater said the connection was better up at the bridge over the lock. Next morning I discovered that there is a little restaurant beside the lock with free Wi-fi. This restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesdays but the menu is reasonably priced at 13 euros, and looks like a good prospect otherwise.

There was evidence of good services at Fleury, but they were not available. Maybe it was too early in the season yet but the Accueil building was boarded up, the shower block had two missing sinks and one of the two remaining sinks was shattered The toilets/showers were locked. There is an electric distribution board on the wall of the Accueil building, but it was locked. The following morning a man arrived and began working on the services. He told me he thought they would be open from Thursday.

Wednesday 14 May

A very cold morning, but looking finer than of late.

Two boats waiting to ascend but the lock wouldn’t accommodate our 16m with their 14m so the lockie decided to lock us up one immediately after another. He was locking up the second boat when we arrived at the next lock, so we entered, closed the gates, and Neville closed the paddles in the downstream gates. I’m not keen on doing anything with the paddles, but when the lockie arrived he checked the downstream paddles, thanked us and opened the top paddles. After a while I began to suspect that the downstream paddles weren’t properly closed and a few minutes later the lockie leapt to the same conclusion. It appears that when the racks above the gearbox on the downstream gates are not visible, the paddles are open, whilst the opposite is true on the upstream gates!
The bendy bits from Brienne to Chatillon en Bazois were not particularly onerous, particularly since we didn’t meet any traffic coming in the opposite direction. We arrived at Chatillon before the locks opened, so nosed up against the stone arch of the lock gates to wait. The mooring above the lock is Canalous, 7 euros a night with electricity. If you just moor up to take on water it’s a staggering 4 euros per fill, but not every Canalous employee bothers to collect the fee.

There is one slightly longer pontoon there which would have been more suitable for our boat, but the water is slightly shallower there. We’d have tried it, but there was a strong breeze and we more or less accidentally slipped into another berth. There was some movement of the boat there, but it didn’t affect the satellite reception.

You can walk/cycle up either side of the canal here to reach the town of Chatillon en Bazois, with the magnificent Chateau and gardens right by the canal itself on your left. Once you reach the bridge, you can turn right to find a boulangerie, or go straight across towards La Post before turning right to find a Maxi Marché.

The CNN hotspot (Canal du Nivernais connection) works fine at Chatillon.

Thursday 15th May

A pleasant mooring this, so we treated ourselves to a day off to catch up on some chores. Our bowthruster has been working so much better since we changed the batteries, so Neville, who’d previously freed up the brushes to make a better contact with the rotor, did a bit more cleaning up on them. A very breezy day, so I got some washing done. Went to the supermarket on our bikes.

Returning home just as a hire-boat came up the lock, we watched in dismay as they tried to moor next to us. Having only just entered the wheelhouse, the door closest to the impending disaster was locked and we were too late to fend off the hefty thump he administered to our midships with his bow, but fortunately managed to get outside in time to fend off a similar swipe from his stern immediately after. In fairness, there wasn’t much anyone could do in this wind.

The winds (supposedly at 21 km/h) didn’t abate much towards evening and more hire-boats came in, skating around in the wind, each mooring requiring at least half a dozen attempts before boats were successfully secured. A testing time was had by all, except for those who’d eventually managed to moor and enjoyed the spectacle in which they’d so recently been a participant.

Friday 16 May

The wind continued; it was going to be an interesting boating day and with 7 boats all heading upstream it was going to be a cosy locking session for most people. Walked up to the boulangerie (turn right down the main street after reaching the bridge) and came back nursing a warm baguette. Very, very cold at 7am.

Off promptly at 9.00am. The second lock after Chatillon en Bazois (Ecluse 13) is quite deep,(3.5m) and the lockie, an uncommunicative type, took my rope to the front bollard (there are three bollards on the upstream side, two on downstream, all set far back). That was closer to the gates than I feel comfortable with, but as we couldn’t see the placement of the bollards from the bottom of the lock you have to rely on the lockie. But not this one. Slam! Up went the front sluices, out came a huge chute of water. After the usual initial surge back, the boat ploughed forward, closer and closer to the front gates under the casually interested gaze of the lockie on the gates. Drenched in spray, I struggled to bring it back, and was left seething by his nonchalant attitude. The lockie indicated he’d be at the next lock, sadly, but at 1.6m depth we didn’t think anything could go wrong.

Wrong! Again up to the front bollard with my rope, again opened the vannes fully and immediately. A similar struggle ensued, which I thought I was just about winning, when suddenly I realised I wasn’t getting any help from behind, and I heard the roar of the engine which fortunately Neville had left running after our experience at the prior lock. Glancing back, I saw the frayed and severed end of Neville’s mid ship rope lying on the grass and him in the wheelhouse trying to control the boat in reverse.

I shouted to the lockie, indicating the snapped rope and he rushed round to hand the length that was still round the bollard, (but unattached to the boat), back to Neville. My momentary lack of attention to my own rope then gave me a problem as the boat yawed across the lock. All good fun.

DSCF2893Afterwards Neville told me that the boat had surged so violently and so far forward that he had watched the newish (second season only) 20mm rope sawing its way for several feet along the lock-edge, shedding fibres as it went. Unable to give it any slack because we were by then so close to the upstream gates, there was nothing to do but watch the inevitable unfold.

And so to the next lock (11), where a charming young girl had to be persuaded to take my rope, reminded to take Neville’s and then proceeded to open the paddles on the opposite side to the boat. All the vocabulary I had at my disposal resulted only in “doucement” and though I later asked why she’d opened the other vanne first I didn’t elicit a comprehensible explanation. She was very pleasant, and explained she was in a hurry as there were other boats coming up behind us. And there, I think, lies the explanation for the first lockie’s handling of his two locks.

But she heeded our words and at the next double lock (9-10)was meticulously slow.

At the next set of locks (a double and a triple with a (somewhat) moorable basin in-between) a different lockie worked on until 12.10 to get us through. The gates and downstream vannes are automatically operated on the triple.

At 12.30pm we passed through the reputedly low bridge (according to the fluvial guides) that has thus far deterred us from tackling this stretch. In according with advice on the DBA website we kept to the towpath side and at 2.85m air draught had plenty of clearance both sides of the wheelhouse roof.

As we continued up to the top of the locks the wind increased in intensity. We were anxiously anticipating mooring up at Baye but at least we were at the head of the procession of arriving boats, and would execute our mooring without too much of an audience.

And to locking downwards for a few days, particularly after today.

The last lock (1) is 3.1m with well spaced bollards affording little rope control but it wasn’t particularly turbulent, or at least it wasn’t operated in a turbulent manner.

As you leave the last lock there is a fairly wide stretch leading to the port of Baye, with the étang on your left. There are mooring rings and bollards here on the left, overlooking the lake. We tried to get into the Aqua Fluvia mooring but were turned away as too long and retreated back to the mooring rings by the lake, losing a fender in the process as the wind blew us against the wall. Fortunately I followed its progress back up the cut, and managed to hook it with the boat hook and reunite it with the boat.

It’s a nice spot along this wall with lovely views across the lake, but no services. If you’re short enough to be able to moor end-on at Aqua Fluvial, don’t put anybody ashore first on the left hand side, as it’s a long way to get across the inlet there to the moorings; the canal itself runs on to the right with a tunnel entrance almost immediately after the turn.

The CNN hotspot was available here too, working better on my laptop than on Neville’s for some reason.

We walked round to the port later in the afternoon. Certainly there are full services there including pump-out, but none of it available to anyone of our length and no available space today to moor there temporarily in any event. All in all, Baye was, we considered, a bit of a disappointment and we wouldn’t schedule a stop there again. Later other smaller hire boats came up the locks and were turned away to moor behind us on the wall by the lake.

Saturday 17th May

Awoke at 6.15 to the sound of fishermen setting up vigil on the narrow towpath beside the boat.

The canal veers to the right here to start the sequence of tunnels, with traffic lights at the entrance to signal one way passage. Not sure whether they are sensor activated, we left it until 8.55 to leave the mooring and once we were approaching the tunnel the lights changed to green.

Three tunnels here, the first 700+ metres, the second two around 200+ metres. There is a walkway on the right at the entrance to the first, which the barge behind us didn’t spot so they had a good and fairly audible start to their passage. Neville, with reactolite lenses on his spectacles was momentarily unsighted as the tint adjusted. A walkway on the left hand side starts about halfway through, round about the time you come across a bit of an unexpected rocky outcrop on the left.

The second two tunnels were quickly navigated compared to the first. We’ve always had a problem maintaining a steady course for a protracted period in a narrow channel, due to water drag building up. The canal itself is very narrow here, almost jungle like and in parts there is a build up of fallen rock at the edges. Not an easy first hour’s navigation by any stretch of the imagination. And despite the fact that we’d been hanging around waiting for the one-way system to open, we’d forgotten to put the headlamp on the boat roof. (Ours is not a fixed lamp, it’s kept in a box in the boat and we have to plug it in when we need it.) This I did very feverishly as we negotiated the cutting towards the first tunnel.

But then the cutting opened up to bright sunshine into the canal proper and we began the picturesque descent down through the valley. Many of the lockside cottages have been taken over by artists, and impressive displays of their work can be found as you make your way down.

We managed to get to the 12th lock downwards by noon, and we were left in the lock at this point for lunch. I walked between the locks, a matter of only a few hundred yards, and helped open and shut gates. From time to time there were four lockies working the same stretch, and then, miraculously when the great wooden-beamed lock-gates needed opening, it was down to me and one other! Some of these locks, I was told, were 200 years old. Even the winding gear seemed to be operated only with superhuman strength.

The canal was heavily weeded here, and by lunchtime, alerted by a change in the engine note, Neville checked the weed filters and found them full and the pipes blocked. Luckily we’d stopped for lunch in a lock and he was able to clear them with a length of hose pipe.

After lock 15 the distance between locks lengthened and at lock 17 I got the bike off the boat and from then on until we finished for the day just after 3.30pm at the Locaboat station below lock 24 at Corbigny, I rode between locks.

The Locaboat base charges €13.50 per night with water and electricity. The CNN hotspot didn’t work here. There is Locaboat wi-fi but it only works in front of the office. It’s a delightful spot on a wide stretch of the canal, with wooded slopes on one side, though a fair walk to Corbigny itself.

We’ve really enjoyed today’s cruising, hard work though it was. We’ve done three tunnels, the 16 lock stretch, plus another eight locks and I’ve helped at almost every one of the locks. I am, frankly, exhausted.

Sunday 18th May

The worst and best of lockies…

A lovely clear blue sky but bitterly, bitterly cold. Sandals, three-quarter length pants and a cardi were soon swapped for trainers, socks, long pants and a fleece.

Straight from the Locaboat basin into a narrow one-way stretch with sloping stony edges. No signals here, so you just take your chances. This must be pleasantly taxing if you’ve just picked up a hire-boat for the first time in your life, particularly if you meet someone coming the opposite way. Followed another boat out at 8.30am – priority in numbers hopefully.

At the lock we were told to move in front of the other boat and to go right up to the front of the lock; they were going to fit three boats in. I reminded him we were 17 metres (as we always are in a lock; 15 when mooring) but he said the third boat which had set off along the cutting was small.

So we had to wait ten minutes for the third boat to join us, and another 5 minutes whilst we all squeezed around trying to accommodate ourselves, all the while watching a fourth boat (that could have shared the lock with the third) advancing along the cutting.

Fortunately reason prevailed, if not speed, as we were then told after the first double lock that the third boat would wait for the fourth, while we, the first and second would have to wait for the lockies to deal with the third and fourth boats before they dealt with us. At least it was more comfortable in the lock.

I asked if we could enter the next lock and close the gates; one lockie said yes, the other said no. An argument then started, but the upshot was that one of them motorbiked down to the lock and opened the gates for the two of us to wait. When he rejoined us, having helped his mate at the higher lock, he had to execute the lock on his own, as his mate, still clearly miffed at their earlier disagreement, sailed past in his van without stopping. The lockie commented that this was not very kind of him!

After the next lock we passed through Chittry les Mines where the entire port is being refurbished. Not sure whether this will turn out to be principally a hire base but it’s certainly looking good at this stage.

Just below the lock at Marigny sur Yonne is where Burgundy Cruisers have relocated their boats whilst the work continues at Chittry, so it’s a bit congested there. By this time we were blessed with a lockie working single handedly, running everywhere, sweating profusely and tearing up and down the towpath in his van. He was clearly a man on a mission and I felt so appreciative of his efforts I even climbed out of the lock via the ladders to open and close the gates for him.

DSCN5225We reached our first lift-bridge just before noon. It’s a simple press button arrangement but it didn’t seem to be working when I tried it. This might be because two cyclists, clearly lost, had just crossed the bridge and were standing close to the other side. Or, as I later learned, you need to keep your finger on the button throughout the lift! In the event, a man on a quad bike arrived and took over the operation for us, thankfully. There is a landing stage before and after the bridge to let crew on and off.

At 11.45 am we were forced to take a long lunchbreak, one and three quarter hours because of ‘two boats coming’. We duly arrived at the lock at 1.30 to find no boats ascending and the lockie turned up with excuses I couldn’t understand. Still no sign of any upcoming boats at the next lock, and it was almost an hour before we passed a boat coming in the opposite direction. We didn’t remark on this at the time, but later we wondered whether something was afoot.

Two locks further down we came across two side lift bridges spanning a narrowing of the canal. The first of these bridges was broken and had been left open at a fairly acute angle, giving some concern for the wheelhouse as we passed under it.

After another long stretch marked as one-way in the Guide, we arrived at lock 35 to find it wasn’t set for us. As we’d just passed an upcoming boat, we were surprised but hung around whilst the lockie took his time emerging from the shade at the side of the lock and began turning it for us. Everything was conducted at snail-like pace, sauntering around, winding slowly. There was nowhere to put crew ashore so I couldn’t help to accelerate the pace, but the slow lockie was joined by another even slower lockie coming up from the next lock to assist for the second stage of the locking.  Why he didn’t pause to fill the following lock as he passed it… well…

The two of them then turned the next lock very slowly, and we cruised to the third lock to find that this too was not yet ready, so we hung around in the blazing sun whilst the second lockie came down on his own and made a studied pretence of examining the paddles at both ends, having a go at winding both upstream and downstream ends, and generally acting like he’d never seen a lock before.

Time ticked by… the sun beat down.

Eventually he judged the lock to be ready to open and tried to open the opposite gate. No success for what seemed like ages.   Eventually it moved.  Slowly he meandered round the lock again and ‘struggled’ to open the nearside. Having done that, he leaned against the gate. As we entered the lock I told him we would close that gate, but he gave a long and rambling explanation as to why we couldn’t do that. The only word I understood was ‘le soleil’ so we were left baffled and frustrated as he slowly closed his gate, sauntered around the lock at a snail’s pace and closed the other gate. Then, having only cracked the paddles, he wandered off into the shade as we sat in the blazing sun watching the lock slowly empty.

In all, 90 minutes to negotiate two locks (36 and 37) which were 300 metres apart. There was clearly some game afoot here.

Just before we reached Tannay there was another footbridge where you’d have to climb up from the boat onto the ‘narrows’ just before it in order to operate the controls. (There is a landing stage after the bridge for crew to get back on board.) Fortunately there was a couple standing around to watch, and I managed to prevail upon the slightly horrified woman to press the button for us.

DSCF2766And so we arrived in Tannay, where Locaboat offers moorings at 13.95 including water and electric. We moored on the bank opposite the base as most boats on the other side were moored end on, and the only linear mooring there was a bit uneven.

The CNN Hotspot was available at Tannay, a restaurant just above the bridge within sight of the port, a supermarket and boulangerie in the town (up a torturous hill).

And then we discovered that a lightning 24 hour strike had been called from midnight by the lock-keepers, one of an unscheduled series taking place throughout the network. We wondered whether our enforced long lunch break (almost two hours) had in reality been to facilitate a union meeting to plan the action.

In any event, we were to have a well deserved rest after a difficult and at times frustrating two days of locking.

Monday 19th May

The strike turned out to be a partial action, with progress at locks threatened to be slow. Since there was a terrific wind today, which would have made hanging around to enter the locks even more frustrating, and also because we felt we needed a break, we stayed put. Three or four boats went past, but traffic was light on the waterways.

Cycled down the hill to L’Estaminet which is advertised as a bread depot, to find that no deliveries are made on a Monday. So we tackled the long drawn out hill, about 1.5 kilometres up to Tannay where there is a U supermarket and a boulangerie. The supermarket turned out to be well on the way out of the village, (probably another half kilometre) but we hadn’t tackled that hill for nothing so we pressed on. At least our progress back down the hill was fairly rapid, even if, in my case, it was accompanied by the smell of burning brake blocks..

A day for washing, boat polishing and general maintenance duties. The Australian couple (Jenny and Kevin) we’d locked down with all day yesterday recommended the local restaurant, Hotel du Morvan, as they’d had a good meal there the night before. They came round for drinks and we all went over there for a meal. The Sole Meuniere was lovely and reasonably priced at around 13 euros.

Tuesday 20th May

L’Estaminet wasn’t open at 8.00am so no bread unless we can get to Clamecy for a reasonable time. Away by 08.30am.

Jenny & Kevin set off immediately after, and a longer hire-boat with French crew later joined the queue. We arrived at 8.55 at the lock (39-38) and waited in a stiff breeze until 9.10 when the lady lockie strolled out of her cottage, grinning sheepishly and meandered around the lock. She insisted on cramming all three boats into the lock despite our protests. It took 45 minutes to complete the double lock, and the positioning of our ropes afforded little control.

On the way down to the next lock there was a swing bridge. The last hire boat decided to overtake Kevin at great speed in order to get to the bridge first, and then blasted us with his horn to get out of the way too. Having seen the problems they’d caused Kevin at that speed, we could see they would have forced us into the trees if we had waved them through on the left. As it was, I waved them through on the right side, thus neatly clearing the table on the top of their boat whilst their wash sent us careering wildly along the canal. They seemed to think the whole exercise was wildly amusing. We were in for an interesting morning’s locking.

Now ahead, the hireboaters sped off, to no apparent benefit as they had to wait for us at the next lock. Another boat that leaves its engine running in the lock.

We continued locking down in this uncomfortable manner, our boat and Kevin’s positioning themselves diagonally in the lock to gain an extra few inches. Then at the last lock before lunch, half way through the cycle a shout went up from Kevin and we turned to find him tilted down at a crazy angle, his stern lodged on the cill at the back of the lock. We shouted to the lockie, who seemed momentarily dumbfounded, and then went to open the paddles at the back instead of closing the ones at the front first. Then, realising, he raced back whilst Kevin increased his angular descent, before he returned to slowly refill the lock until Kevin’s boat was level again. Hopefully no damage done.

Couple of bollards on right side by a sign for Hotel Restaurant La Manse and just before lock – moored for lunch.

Three more locks and then we arrived in Clamecy, having passed Chevroches on the way. We heard from fellow boaters on Maggie May that Chevroches was a lovely mooring with water and electric and a beautiful clean village. You can’t stop at them all, but we were sorry we would have to miss that one this time. Just after Chevroche there appears to be a separate new mooring with splendid new building which may have been a purpose-built hire-boat base/recreation centre and a pump-out station. There’s nothing there now though, and the pontoons are stacked on the quay.

Clamecy is a beautiful little town with tiny medieval houses, and winding cobbled streets full of arts and crafts shops of every imaginable kind. There is a Casino City supermarket quite close to the port itself (carry on to the roundabout and turn right, passing a boulangerie on the way). The Caves are in the centre of the town too and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. The lock is right next to the inlet which provides mooring, and lets you down onto the Yonne. There is serviced mooring on the opposite side to the lock, where the shower block/toilets are. Water and electricity available at most points.

Clamecy was the leading centre of the flottage industry, where logs from the Morvan forests were floated down streams and rivers to be assembled into rafts up to 72m long to be transported to Paris via the Seine. A bronze statue by the river commemorates Jean Rouvet who was the founder of this flottage industry.

Wednesday 21 May

We decided to stay put for a couple of nights, and said goodbye to Jenny and Kevin who pressed on at lunchtime. We walked around the town during the day, and visited the Cave where we bought some Merlot. We’d decided on the more expensive Reserve Merlot, but the owner of the Cave suggested we try it, and he was right to do so. It wasn’t to my taste at all, very strident. I’m used to a more mellow, subtle Merlot. So we bought the cheaper one and a couple of bottles of Cote du Rhone.

In the afternoon there was a brief downpour and thunderstorm, but by early evening the sun was breaking through again and it was unbearably humid once more. The port was very busy tonight – probably a dozen boats in addition to the large hotel boat (Luciole) which has been moored there since we arrived. A group of young people took up residence on the steps of the shower block, drinking and smoking, but they weren’t a problem, except if you wanted to take a shower or toilet break. I don’t think I’d have felt very comfortable.

We visited the Casino supermarket again, though we’ve been told that if you climb out of the town and walk about two kilometres there is another bigger supermarket. Neither of us was feeling that energetic though and we didn’t really need that much.

Thursday 22 May

Rained heavily right through the night. The Municipal Police came around 8.30pm to collect the mooring fees, 6 euros per night including electricity and water.

We’d spoken to the lockie last night to schedule a 9.00 departure which he confirmed. By 9.00 two hire-boaters were hanging around in the water waiting to enter the lock and no lockie in sight. By 9.15 a lockie arrived and began to fill the lock. We were crammed in at the back, but tight though it was, there was no sill to worry about.

We were now onto the Yonne. A slight moment of panic when the hireboater in front appeared to be deciding whether to go over the weir as opposed to back onto the canalised section. He certainly went close enough to look over the weir and that seemed to make his mind up.

Moorings at Pousseaux didn’t amount to much when viewed from the canal; a few bollards and a big shelter that looks like it might be a concert venue. There certainly appears to be a major power supply by it. The book said showers were available; we didn’t see them as we passed but they might be set further back. Certainly looks a pretty little village; a lift bridge shortly after the moorings.

Coulanges sur Yonne

Coulanges sur Yonne

One of our fellow boaters dropped off at Coulanges sur Yonne, (an attractive little mooring spot with a shop and a restaurant we heard) so with a bit more space in the lock the two of us continued on, stopping at Lock 54 in the lock for lunch. The previous lockie had actually worked into his lunchbreak to get us through the lock before, much to the anger of a boater moored below the locks waiting to come up, who was having a temper tantrum. He’d moored right at the start of a one-way section, and as we negotiated around him he kept on protesting that ‘it wasn’t his fault – it was the lock-keeper’s who should have taken him up the lock first. No one was blaming him for anything, but I suspect the good-hearted lockie was about to get it in the neck when he eventually did get back from his belated lunch. Sometimes you can see why they might get a bit surly with time.

Lucy-sur-Yonne looks like a pretty village, and there are mooring bollards either side of the bridge, the upstream bollards looking the better bet.

It was getting on for 2.30pm when we cruised into Chatel Censoire. This is down in the book as being a Locaboat base, but if it was it either isn’t now or they’ve completely hired out this week. I suspect the former as the office appears to have been stripped. There is a central pontoon from which the side fingers have been removed, thus offering end or linear mooring either side, but we secured a linear mooring on bollards right on the canal, with more bollards opposite. There are bournes for electricity and water, but we didn’t see anyone connected up to them.

We went for a walk into the village which was pretty much deserted. There is a charcuterie and two boulangeries premises, one of which looks to be closed. There is also a pharmacy, a Credit Agricole with cashpoint, tabac, flower shop and a Proxy Marche which wasn’t doing business but looked to be in the middle of renovation. There was also a Cave, which seemed to be selling basic epicerie type goods, perhaps whilst the Marche was being refurbed.

There are lots of side streets with steps leading up to the old church of St Potentienne at the top of the hill. A series of four crosses (there used to be eight) mark the mule track up to the church and the routes of religious processions.

More boats arrived later on, which made about 7 or 8 hire boaters, plus quite a few long term absent moorers in the basin. There is a restaurant about half a kilometre down the canal towards Auxerre, (Etape de Gourmand). All in all, a mooring with a lot of potential but looking a bit down at heel with a leaking water bourne and empty flower tubs.

We’ve had a very obliging set of lockies today, very helpful.

Friday 23rd May

The boulangerie opens at 7.00am and the shops in the village were all open by the time I went up there at 8.00am, apart from the Pharmacie. A beautiful fresh day after the mugginess and intermittent showers of the last two days.

Away promptly at 9.00 with another French hireboater. Throughout the day we would be weaving on and off between the Yonne and the Nivernais.

We passed through Rochers du Saussois – towering cliffs, pontoon mooring, village. Bar Restaurant.  We felt we should really have carried on for an extra hour last night and moored here, as it would be well worth a visit. Long floodlock here. Our locking companions stopped here.

After the next lock we rejoined the river and it became very shallow for a stretch, to the extent we could hear the shale shifting beneath the hull.

DSCF2835Mailly le Chateau a square basin, looks like a good mooring. Three reasonable sized boats there and still room. This truly is a beautiful stretch of the Nivernais.

We’d had relatively pleasant lockies until the last lock just before Mailly le Ville. Here the lockie pointedly turned his back on us as we approached/entered the lock, begrudgingly returned my persistent ‘bon jours’ without looking at me and very rudely ignored Neville’s greeting altogether. It was going up to lunchtime; he looked annoyed at having to do a lock so close to his break and didn’t thank me for my assistance in opening the gate, walking off to get in his mate’s van straight away whilst I stood there waiting for a signal as to whether I should close the gate.

DSCF2843There are two pontoons at Mailly le Ville with services from a concrete bourne set back a little the first one a very short distance from the lock. Be aware if mooring at this first pontoon that the Yonne briefly joins the canal for a 100 yards or so here; it’s easy to forget about the upstream mooring protocol as you leave the lock and we gave the pontoon a hefty swipe as we were pushed in by the current rounding the bend at this point.

Signs indicate boucherie/charcuterie, rotisserie, volailles, fromages and vins regionales available in the town.

There’s a small private port downstream of the floodlock. And beyond there, a small boat ending its days within the shade of the towpath.

We arrived, as agreed, at 1.00pm at the next lock (65) and of course – no lockie. By 1.15 we were on the point of telephoning, when we saw a VNF van cruising slowly up the towpath. At almost a snail’s pace the lockie ambled down the lock, closed the paddles and one gate, whilst I closed the other, long before him. A slow stroll up the lock to open the paddles to fill the lock, and the same slow process of closing the gate after the boat was in. I closed my own gate virtually half a minute before he did.

One kilometre further on, and when we arrived he hadn’t even started filling the lock (even though he must have passed it on the way up to us and could easily have set it off). The snail’s progress continued. By the time we got through it had taken us an hour to do one kilometre and two locks.

As luck would have it, he was also doing the third one! Our schedule for the day seemed well and truly beggared now.

At the third one a couple on a bicycle stopped to ask him if it was hard work! That was all he needed to drag the process out further – a long conversation.

Back on the Yonne and the next three-arch bridge has no sign to indicate passage. One Fluvial guide indicated the right arch, another the middle. We went through the middle, which appeared slightly higher, but still not sure about that and looking over our shoulders afterwards, I think we probably should have chosen the one that had been on the right as we approached. Certainly the canal bends to the right immediately after.

At the next lock we half expected a no-show, but the lockie had the lock ready, came out immediately and asked if I would prefer to speak in English! A swift and efficient locking in under ten minutes. The pendulum swings one way… and then the other.

One option on our revised schedule had been Bezares, but as we passed it didn’t look very attractive at all, heavily weed-infested and no apparent services. We were glad we’d decided to stick with the original plan for Cravant even though now it would be a very long day.

After the last lock of the day we met another Sagar barge, ‘Linda’ waiting to lock up. We exchanged brief pleasantries in passing and the woman remarked on what a lovely part of the world this was. “Grumpy lockies though,” I said. “Well, wait until you see the one at the vineyard further on,” she said, “he’s a real corker.”

More pleasure awaited it seemed, but in fact we didn’t come across him.  Or if we did, his mood must have improved significantly.

As the skies darkened behind us, we cruised into Cravant. This had looked a promising mooring on the Fluvial Guide but in reality it’s not very boat-friendly, with the moorable edges quite rocky. We tested out the sides but eventually resorted to mooring with fendered midships against the concrete promontory and running a springer and an ordinary rope to two mooring pins on the banks, thus keeping the boat a good couple of metres out from the banks, but still affording access and egress via the concrete promontory. You’d need to put some sturdy fenders between the boat and the concrete as there are a few bolts protruding there.

Electricity and water are 5 euros plus taxes, and there is wifi available, not CNN Hotspot though.

Shortly after mooring the threatened storm erupted, with hail, thunder and lightning. As it ended, a privately owned steel cruiser came in at a great rate of knots, grated against the banks, tipped slightly, and then withdrew saying they’d carry on to Vermenton as the weather seemed better now.

I hope they made it, as half an hour later the skies darkened again and the next storm hit us, lasting late into the night.

All in all, a mixed day with much frustration.

Saturday 24 May 2014

There’s been a fair amount of weed on this canal, and we’ve had to be pretty meticulous about clearing out the weedtraps for the engine cooling system both at lunchtime and at the end of the day. Yesterday there was a thick brown carpet of sludge on the canal, (so thick you’d swear you could walk on it) and the task was even smellier than usual.

After rain during an entire evening and the early part of the night, at least the sun was shining this morning, though from the look of it we will get wet at some point today.

We arrived at the first lock (72) with some apprehension after our experiences of yesterday, apprehension that turned out to be well-founded when the young girl manning the lock started shutting the gate before our stern had cleared and gave us a hefty clout and a resultant 12 inch scratch along the paintwork.

DSCF2869

Then she couldn’t decide whether the paddles were open or shut. I’ve mentioned before that the winding gear on these locks is such that when the ratchet is visible the paddle is closed and when it is not visible, they are open (unlike on the UK canals). Apparently this lock was different… and apparently the girl was not aware of this and had to ring up to ask someone which way she should be winding as she was filling the lock from the top whilst emptying it from the bottom. In this way, as you may imagine, it could take some time to negotiate the lock.

Dropping down the second lock without incident onto the Yonne we came to Vincelles where there is a fairly long mooring quay with rings but no services. There are signs for restaurants and a boulangerie at 50 metres. Looks fairly nice round here.

Another mooring on the right at Vincelottes, close to a restaurant with no services but looks in good repair. Three lockies at the next lock.

Back on the river again and good serviced moorings spotted at Caves de Bailey – two restaurants signposted there. The remaining locks from here to Auxerre went swiftly and efficiently, some with two lockies on them. One of them a pleasant English speaking man kept us fully informed at all times.

Passed Phoenix (another Sagar barge)

Completely different character to the canalised river at this point, and with more time we’d have enjoyed a leisurely cruise, stopping off at some good moorings and visiting the Caves de Bailey.

The bridge at Pont de Vaux not marked, both books said left passage. The book showed moorings on the left just after the bridge, but it looks as though a pontoon has been removed there.

Moored below the lock 78 for lunch and continued down the last three locks promptly at 1.00pm, arriving in Auxerre around 2.30pm. With the exception of the first lock-keeper, today’s locking has been expertly and swiftly executed, even on occasion with that rare event on the Nivernais – a friendly smile.

We moored up just outside the Capitainerie. There is wi-fi here, though at 17.50 for mooring and 5.40 for electricity, it’s not a cheap mooring.

So in a couple of days we will set off on the next part of our trip – along the Yonne to Migenne and them climbing the Canal de Bourgogne to start our descent back down to the Saone.

 

Summary

The Nivernais has charm all of its own with constantly changing scenery, steeply wooded hillsides, occasional winding stretches, rocky gorges and beautiful countryside and villages.

At times it’s been busier than most other canals we’ve cruised in May, particularly between Chatillon and Clamecy. Compare this to the Canal du Centre, which is quite lovely also, where we sometimes didn’t pass another boat all day during May. Here we’ve been crammed three to a lock on several occasions, and we’ve waited at locks, though not for interminably long periods. At this time of the season the lockies are working two or three locks, which can cause hold-ups, and maybe it’s resentment about this which is making them such a surly bunch.

Although the moorings are quite plentiful you do need to get there in good time to secure a serviced one, particularly in the more popular spots. We like to make an early start, cruise through lunch if we’re between locks, and finish around 3.00 to 3.30pm. Even with that schedule we were quite often not amongst the first at the mooring. We’ve also found that, unlike our experiences on the Midi, the hire-boaters like to start their day promptly at 9.00.

Headroom has not been an issue, considering it has been the reputedly low bridge at PK62 which has put us off tackling the Nivernais before now. At 2.70m in the guide (we are 2.85) we thought it impassable, but the Bazolles bridge profile recently issued by the DBA persuaded us that it would be possible.

A lot of work has gone into making the Nivernais an attractive destination for holidaymakers. We particularly appreciated the free CNN Hotspot internet which was available at the larger ports along the way; and we appreciated the electronic information kiosks stationed along the route which we found very helpful. It’s a truly beautiful route.

But….
The Nivernais has some of the best and some of the worst lock-keepers we’ve come across during our six years in France.

We’ve had a guy who literally ran everywhere, from top gate to bottom gate, leaping into his van and haring between locks in order to expedite progress through his stretch. We’ve had a young guy on the flight down from Baye who wanted to practice his English and gave me a running commentary on the history of the locks and the area, and another after Chamercy who worked well into his lunchbreak to see us down a lock.

But sadly it’s the bad ones that you tend to remember. A smile from a Nivernais lock-keeper is about as rare as rocking-horse poo. At times we’ve had studied insolence from several of them, we’ve been set adrift in a violently filling lock when the surge from sluices (that had been literally flung open) sheered an almost new rope in two on the lockside, and we’ve had the third boat in our overcrowded lock wedged dangling from the sill whilst the lockie finally recovered from his shock and got his act together. We had a lock-keeper, clearly resenting the fact that he had three locks to attend, who took over an hour to get us down two locks with a one kilometre stretch in between them and never once thanked me for my help. And then there was the girl who shut the gate on the boat (twelve inch scratch) and then had to ring up for advice as to which direction she should wind the paddles.

On the days of industrial action, and the days adjacent to them, we’ve had go-slows/no shows, and on one occasion been left hanging around mid-canal desperately trying to control the boat in blustery winds while the lockie emerged from her cottage grinning sheepishly, having clearly decided to start her working day ten minutes late.

I’m amazed that one employer should have managed to garner so many people who clearly don’t like the jobs they are doing!

I spoke to a capitaine at one of the ports about the attitude of some lock-keepers. She said they talk to them regularly and they are very resentful about being short-staffed and having to cover two, sometimes three locks. But to demonstrate this resentment by moving at a snail’s pace simply destroys their case and alienates the boater… the client… who, observing this behaviour, can only draw the conclusion that if they worked a little bit faster, with a little bit more forward planning, they could probably manage with even fewer staff!

Your progress, safety and your assets are in their hands, and for a significant part of our journey we didn’t feel comfortable about any of these aspects.

We won’t come back to the Nivernais again.

 

 

 

About Sandra

I cruise the French waterways with my husband four or five months a year, and write fiction and poetry. I love animals, F1 motor racing, French bread and my husband, though not necessarily in that order.
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6 Responses to The Canal du Nivernais (May 2014)

  1. Sandra, What a lovely trip and great photos. Thanks for taking us with you virtually. 🙂 —Susan

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  2. d.de.korte@hetnet.nl says:

    Dear Sandra,

    Thanks for your fantastic navigating journal. I had a quick look on it at Dublin airport, as my little screen is difficult to read. I will react after coming home. I recognised every spot, as the dirty sanitary block at st Florentin, the unfriendly lady at the restaurant in Fragnes, the manoir at st Julien sur dheune and of course Pont de Vaux, Montceau wth the waggling floating piers, and so on.

    greetings also to Neville,

    Dick and Marijke

    >—-Origineel Bericht—-

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    • Sandra says:

      I’m glad it brought back memories for you both. I see you are on your travels at the moment too. Let us know where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. We are back in the UK now, where it’s more comfortable weatherwise. The last few days in Pont de Vaux the temperatures were around mid thirties. Too hot to move, and sometimes not a breath of wind. Look forward to hearing from you.

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  3. Giles says:

    Im sorry to hear your are not comming back to the Nivernais ! i have been here for 23 years with big barges 27 m 35m and now 38.50m and have never had a problem with lock keepers
    Giles Grenville Captain….

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    • Sandra says:

      I’m glad that your experience has been so much more positive than ours, Giles. Maybe we caught them at a bad time in their industrial relations scene, certainly there was something going on in the background. But that’s no reason to take it out on the customer. In the past we’ve come across the odd section of canal where there’s a bad vibe amongst the lock keepers, but I can honestly say that we will always identify the Nivernais with those seven or eight lockies who really made our journey difficult and miserable and on one occasion downright dangerous. Happy boating.

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