Hello and welcome to the latest blog on The Olivia Rose Diaries on May 7th 2022.
Those of you who have read the last blog entry will be pleased to know that the DHL donkey confounded all expectations and arrived a day early! The spare part that we had been waiting for took less than a minute to fit, and we were ready to move on once more.
Whilst we have been grounded for this past week I helped pass the time by pondering about the naming of things: the names of places, streets, towns, tourist attractions and canals. Most places have had their names for a long time but I wondered who chose them in the first place. For example, who decided to call a village in Dorset ‘Scratchy Bottom’, and what were they thinking in West Yorkshire when they came up with ‘Upperthong’? Over in California in America someone had a high opinion of themselves in ‘Cool’, and a distinct lack of confidence in ‘Boring’ in Oregon. And here on our canal in France we’ve seen a sign to a place called ‘Fussy’.
If I was given the option of re-naming the Canal du Nivernais I would call it the ‘Buttercup Canal’, admittedly a whimsical indulgence on my part but at least one that doesn’t evoke passing reference to bottoms and thongs. I would choose that name because that is the image that will remain in my memory long after we have passed through this region. When I close my eyes and think back to these gentle days of early spring, I know I shall see field after field of buttercups, a glorious profusion of golden, delicate flowers that instantly transport me back to my childhood and a time where my brother and I would hold a flower under each other’s chin, playing the game to see if we liked butter or not. We knew it was only a game, but we were young enough and innocent enough to half-believe that the buttercup had magical powers.
However, despite my day-dreaming, this idyllic waterway is still called the Canal du Nivernais, gaining its name from a former province of France, based around the city of Nevers. These days the canal is very quiet, mostly used by the holiday rental boats, the occasional hotel barge and what seems to be a dwindling number of private boaters such as ourselves. As I write this we are moored in Chitry-les-Mines and when we were here three years ago it had a lively, bustling feel to it, with a steady stream of boats coming and going, as well as a number of live-aboards. In the two days we’ve been here we have seen just a single boat go past and there is only one boat with people living aboard in the port. The little restaurant by the quay has got eight people in for lunch today, which is better than yesterday, but hardly a thriving business.
Four hundred years ago it would have been a very different scene. On April 22nd 1547 a raft of timbers made the first journey to provide Parisians with their firewood. The wood was felled from the forests of the Morvan, and thrown as loose logs into rivers and streams, consolidated by artificial flows from a series of reservoirs, until they reached a collection point where they could be grouped together as a raft. These rafts were called ‘trains de bois’ and were typically 36 metres in length, bound together by flexible cords made from the branches of hazel trees. Manned only by a raftsman and a child, one assumes a son or daughter, and steered only by a pole, these rafts headed to Chatel-Censoir, a little further along the canal from our present position, from where the River Yonne became easier to navigate. From the town of Clamecy, it would take them eleven days to reach Paris, where the rafts were dismantled and the logs then sold for people to use for warmth in their homes, or to fire their ovens for cooking, or selling bread and other goods. Once all the wood had been taken, the raftsmen then turned around and began the long walk back to Clamecy, where the cycle would begin again. Wood was big business in those days, with over 3,000 rafts passing through Clamecy in 1804, but with arrival of the railway and the commercial barges, the art of timber-floating eventually became redundant.
For our first night after leaving Châtillon-en-Bazois we moored up at the long wall that runs along the Étang de Baye.
Baye is the summit of the canal, and for the first three kilometres from here we passed through three short tunnels, controlled by a one-way traffic light system, before beginning the descent.
Imagine you are a bird flying high, with a perfect aerial view of Olivia motoring along a ribbon of black water just wide enough for one boat. You’ll have to concentrate to keep the boat in your sight line, as the sides to the gorge are steep, smothered in creepers. The trees cling to the slopes, forming a dense canopy, their branches reaching out over the water as they compete for the light. The transition from the wide skies and open waters of the summit to this hidden, mystical place happens suddenly, transporting you into a different world. One blink and Olivia disappears, swallowed up by a tunnel, and then a few moments later she chugs slowly out into the light again.
Once we had traversed the tunnels the first half of the day was taken up by the Sardy lock staircase, sixteen locks over four kilometres. We had a team of four lock-keepers travelling with us, one woman and three men, travelling between the locks on a mixture of bikes and mopeds. Two of them went ahead to prepare the next lock while the other pair stayed with us. We were the only boat going down, which meant that it was a very quick journey, all of us getting into a rhythm with our respective jobs. The staircase passes through a rural, wooded landscape that feels as if it hasn’t changed much over the years.
Most of the lock-keepers’ cottages are empty, falling apart, but a few have been taken over by artists or sculptures. I use the word art in the loosest sense of the word, as I struggled to understand the artistic significance of a collection of chairs and tables where there was no restaurant – perhaps there had been one long in the past – and the dolls on the ladder were decidedly creepy, but art has ever been a personal choice. The painted bollards were much more to my liking.
After lunch we descended a second staircase of locks, making the total for the day twenty seven locks, which is as many as anybody needs in one stint. Now we are in the port in Chitry-les-Mines, and as it has been two weeks since we had the option to connect to shore power we shall stay here for two nights. There comes a point when the laundry basket overflows and can be ignored no longer! It’s time to get the washing machine on.
Hope all is well and see you next week.