Welcome to the 18th blog of The Olivia Rose Diaries on September 4th 2020.
This week we left the River Saar and joined the Canal des Houillères de la Sarre. Oh what a joy to be back on these smaller waterways. After so long on the big rivers it almost feels like we have ended up cruising along a ditch – but what a lovely ditch. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for this blog, and try and keep my rambling to a minimum!
As the banks come closer so also does the natural world. Red squirrels dart amongst the branches as we pass by, their auburn-red fur so thick and fluffy they look more like toys than the real thing. A flash of electric blue along the waterline signals that we have kingfishers for company. The autumn fruits are so abundant this year that they are dragging their host branches down to the ground – apples in every shade of green and red, tiny crab apples scattered in the grass and purple plums peeking darkly through the greenery. Scarlet hawthorn berries, tiny sloes and the ripening husks of walnuts hiding in the foliage complete the picture – a plentiful harvest indeed.
It was early August when we visited this area last year and we struggled through a heatwave, with temperatures up to a crippling thirty eight degrees. Now in early September the temperature is down in the low twenties, which is perfect. We’ve had a mixed bag with some very wet days, but thankfully we are now back under blue skies.
It’s not just being closer to the banks that make canal cruising so different to river cruising. The canal locks are tiny in comparison, just holding two boats of Olivia’s length and much shallower, most of them around 2.7 metres deep in this area. The big commercial barges can’t physically fit on these waterways and it makes for more relaxed cruising, not just because of having to be aware of the big ships but also because the canal doesn’t need to follow the industrial conurbations. Instead it meanders through peaceful countryside and tiny hamlets and there are endless opportunities to moor up bankside in the middle of nowhere.
Given the virus situation we had assumed we might be on our own for most of this trip but the hire boat business seems to be having a late summer boom. They are out in force, but the Aussies, New Zealanders and the Brits are noticeably missing. We saw one Austrian couple, one British couple, another from Luxembourg and a handful of French boaters. The rest were overwhelmingly German, as this north-eastern corner of France is an easy hop across the border.
The southern end of the Canal des Houillères de la Sarre is particularly beautiful, passing through heavily forested areas and great lakes, or étangs to use the French word. Much of the time these lakes are hidden from view by the high banks but every now and then we are treated to a tantalising glimpse, as the photo below illustrates.
It’s one of my treasured rituals in our life afloat to take my mid-morning cuppa and sit down at the bow. A gentle sun on my face, a blue sky above me and the water stretching ahead – it’s simple moments like these that remind me why I love this boating life so very much and I am incredibly glad and grateful that we have managed for this short time at the end of the season to finally be able to spend some time on a canal.
This canal ends at the t-junction with the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. A left turn takes you east to Strasbourg but we turn right, heading west towards Nancy. Again these locks will be little ones, all except our first lock, which is a giant. The Ecluse de Réchicourt, a vertigo-inducing 15.4 metres deep concrete coffin, replaces six of the small locks and, as with so much of these ancient canal networks, is a truly impressive feat of engineering.
This first picture below shows the lock when it is empty, looking down from above. You can see the door opening up. The second shows three hire boats who have just come in. The lock will now fill with water, bringing them up to where we are waiting. Once they exit, we go in as you can see in the third picture. The water goes out and takes us down with it.
The lock-keeper here has to keep his wits about him. He has a lot of holiday boaters coming through who are unsure of what to do. Regardless of their expertise he will pack three boats in nose to tail, patiently calling down in either French or German until he has them all safely moored up to the bollards. Although it looks nerve-wracking, this is actually one of the smoothest and safest rides we’ve been through. There is a choice of rails or rising bollards so once you’re tied up, you don’t have to do anything – except smile for the camera, because this is a tourist attraction and there are always people at the top snapping away as if they were expecting a load of celebrities to appear from the cavernous depths.
At this stage we are roughly two thirds of the way round our circular route. We have been moving on every day at quite a pace as the route finishes with us going north on the Moselle back to the marina at Basse-Ham and the locks will be shutting in a couple of weeks for their routine maintenance – or at least we think that’s why they’re shutting. It’s not entirely clear, and we can’t help but wonder about all those commercial boats. I guess they all have to take their holidays while they can’t work. Not so easy this year.
Whatever the reason, we obviously don’t want to get caught out, hence the route march around the circuit. Tonight we are moored up in a tiny place called Einville au Jard, where the local village shop has proved sadly lacking and so it’s tuna and pasta for dinner tonight – our standby meal when we have nothing much else to eat!
I hope you all have a more exciting dinner than we do and see you again in a week or so.