The end of the season

Hello and welcome to the latest blog from The Olivia Rose Diaries on August 19th 2022.

At the end of the last blog we were wondering whether we had time to carry on down the Somme. The route runs for another sixty kilometres or so to the coast, ending at the charming town of St Valerie sur Somme. I had a real hankering to see the sea, to feel sand between my toes and to swim in clear blue waters. We had checked with the control centre that monitored water levels on this particular canal and they assured us that there was no cause for concern. That was good enough for us. We would leave the following morning. I could almost smell the sea air already.

Later that afternoon we received an email notification from the organisation that oversees and manages the French waterways. We receive these on a regular basis and they are invaluable as they warn you of problems ahead. With much of the network completely paralysed due to the drought they had been coming through thick and fast for days now but we didn’t really expect to see any relating to the next part of our route after the Somme. It was on a major commercial canal, the Canal du Nord, which we assumed would be kept open at all costs.

But there it was, an unexpected name on a list of canals that were now ‘gathering boats’ for entry into the locks as a means of conserving water. What this means is that the lock-keeper will not operate the lock if there is only one pleasure boat waiting to go in. We tie up and either wait to squeeze in behind a single commercial barge, or wait for more small boats like ourselves to turn up and then eventually we will be allowed through as a group. It can lead to long waiting times at the locks and therefore a slow journey.

This gathering of boats happens regularly across parts of France that are prone to water shortages in a hot summer, and in a normal situation it would not have worried us. It is a sensible thing to do if water is limited and something you just have to accept. However this is not a normal year and this felt like a warning shot across the bows. We could ignore it and go on, our enjoyment of the trip marred by the constant niggle at the back of our minds, or take the more cautious approach and head for our winter mooring. We regretfully chose the latter and the next morning saw us retracing our steps back along the Canal de la Somme to the junction with the Canal du Nord. Along the way we were treated to an amazing sight. By pure chance we happened to be looking down at the water and saw a grebe swimming past us – under water. Swimming isn’t the right word as it seemed to be flying through the water, sleek, stream-lined and fast. The fact that we could see it so easily gives you an idea of how clear the water was.

Our waterways guide for the Canal du Nord had an interesting paragraph about the navigation conditions and moorings for pleasure boats.

This canal is heavily used by barges going between the dense northern canals and the Parisian basin. The sloped concrete banks reflect the waves of a passing boat for quite a long time. As you go past a barge, and for some time afterward, your boat will be tossed around. Make sure you leave nothing on the table that could fall off.

The canal is poorly equipped for leisure craft. Some quays have been fitted out but they are rare. The banks are hard to reach and there is so much traffic on the water that mooring in the countryside is not recommended. There are a few commercial quays where you can tie up as long as you leave room for any barge which might appear.’

Hardly reassuring. In fact this was not a canal we would ever have chosen to use but our other routes north were no longer available to us, one having been closed due to lack of water and the other so clogged with weeds that it was as good as impassable. It meant we also had another tunnel to negotiate, the Tunnel de Ruyaulcourt, built below the level of the surrounding water table and just over 4 kilometres long. All other tunnels that we have come across have been an alternating one-way system but this one has the unusual feature of being two-way in the central section. Building an underground structure big enough to fit two of the large commercial barges side by side with room to pass is one of those engineering feats that leave you so in awe of the achievement that you almost forget how easy it is going to be for a little boat like us to be tossed about in their wake as they chug powerfully past. Almost – but not quite.

I had assumed that we would spend most of our time in these last few days cruising through an industrial wasteland (slight exaggeration) but in fact it was surprisingly rural. The moorings were as expected, generally not places to stay in for more than one night, although we did find a couple of quieter spots and the tunnel was a breeze, mainly because luck was with us and we had it all to ourselves! Timing is all on busy canals – just like the M25 in the good old bad old days. Once through the tunnel our elation quickly evaporated as we ran into a backlog of commercials and spent a cumulative total of two and a half hours tied up at the next six locks waiting for a passage through. You can’t win ’em all.

Cruising through the tunnel.

Our experience of the wildlife was in stark contrast to that of our beautiful grebes on the Somme. The sloping sides make canals like this a death trap to animals. We saw a dead cat and a young deer, always such a sad thing to see, but most macabre of all was the sight of a grotesquely bloated rabbit with a live frog perched on top of it. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. We were moored up waiting for a lock and so the horrible corpse and its unlikely passenger floated back and forth for some time.

We left the Canal du Nord at Arleux, turning east along the Canal de la Sensée for fifteen kilometres and then joined the L’Escaut for the last twenty kilometres of our journey to the port of Valenciennes. Now we found ourselves in the company of the really big sea-going ships.

If you look hard in this picture you can see a tiny speck in the water on the right-hand side. That boat is a little smaller than us but it gives you an idea of how huge these ships are.

After months of hot dry days our last day of cruising took place under grey skies and a heavy drizzle. We motored into the port of Valenciennes at mid-day and moored up for the last time this year. It’s always a strange feeling, knowing that our time afloat is over for another year, but it’s balanced by a sense of anticipation as we become landlubbers once more and our travelling takes on a different dimension. We shall spend the weekend here, doing a bit of boat maintenance as the weather reverts to hot and dry yet again, and then set off for the Netherlands next week to visit some friends on their boat before heading back to the UK to visit friends and family in September.

Next week I should have some pictures of the Dutch waterways for you, but I’ll leave you today with a picture taken on a walk we did last night. I usually love kicking my feet through the autumn leaves, but this is August and these leaves are still meant to be on the trees. Another consequence of the drought, another sign of a world out of kilter.

Wishing you all the best.

Mary-Jane

11 thoughts on “The end of the season

  1. What a summer, eh? Such extreme weather! I feel for those poor trees, there is nothing to be done for them.
    Will the OR stay in the water or be dry docked? Just curious. 🙂
    Bon voyage for your next leg of the journey. Stay well.

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  2. Sad, yet another season comes to an end, and sadly for us readers the end of reading your wonderful nautical descriptions.

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  3. I’m glad you were able to get to your winter mooring without any difficulty, disappointing though it must have been not to continue. It sounds as if you made the right decision. I look forward to reading your further adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

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