We joined the Loire, with a quick stop on the Decize town quay for croissant and pain complet, and then on to the Nivernais, passing the confluence of the tributary Aron. And before too long the renowned beauty of the Nivernais kicks in.
It’s not so very spectacular – sunny, green rolling pastures, Charolais and chateaux – it’s just that it’s everywhere, so much of it, on and on. There is a sense of entering a different land where peace is never ending and you are welcomed into it, embraced. Not so much a world gone by, nor untouched, but a secret country, cherished and revered. Am I describing heaven?
The Nivernais was originally built – from 1784 – to carry timber, building stone, grain and wine into Paris, and to bring in new essentials, like coal. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the complete cessation of this commercial trade, the canal-side banks are now low and well-kept, providing plenty of places to moor up for a break, or for the night, and excellent views across this paradise. The locks are frequent but mostly shallow and all are manually operated, except for a couple of electrically operated gates at the triple lock at Chavance.
The keepers – not all students on this canal, in fact, one is an almost toothless, elderly lady – follow our progress in their Nièvre region logo’d vans (this southern leg of the Nivernais is not managed by the VNF) from one lock to the next, handing over to a new keeper as we move through a sequence. They are all kind and friendly, ready for a chat.
Their lock-side cottages are a joy, the lower ones built as late as 1837, with some inhabitants on a mission to cover every square inch of their patch with flowering plants, even the lock gates themselves. If only there were more boating folk around to appreciate them…
We know that some of the bridges are low and we take precautions, lowering the navigation light mast and also the rear flag pole. But even so, the bridge at Anizy at PK31 shaves off another 2mm from the wooden staff. Two inches lower and we’d have been scratching the aluminium aft-deck rails too.
We see coypu for the first time this year, swimming by the banks with their mouths full of grass roots; walnut and apple trees with ripening fruit at every lock; blue sloes in the hedgerows and strongholds of mistletoe in the many stands of poplar. We see our first wooden push-gates, still in operation after perhaps 100 years of use.
Then, at Bazolles, we meet Antoine Herault-Simonnar, a young man with a large case and umbrella by the lock-side. I help him with the gates and the vannes (sluices) and when we’re nearly done he asks if we’d like to hear a little music. Out of his case he fetches a shining new Vielle – a hurdy-gurdy – the traditional instrument of the Auvergne (not this region) with a 1,000 years of history. He plays us a jig and a waltz and says that he is part of a small group of other musicians specializing in traditional music. Just one of the many serendipitous moments of life on the French waterways.
We’ve now done the ‘uphill’ leg from Decize north to Baye. Some lovely places along the way and we are moored now looking out towards a little hilltop village, alongside grass and trees, just beyond a lock, on our own, very quiet and peaceful. We have moored similarly, ‘au sauvage‘ (in nature), every night since we got onto the Canal du Nivernais. No need of pukka places with electricity, not that there are that many anyway.
Tomorrow we start going downhill towards Auxerre (still northwards), which is easier for the locking but we do then have a chain of 16 in 3km to experience, as well as three (short) tunnels and a deep cutting.
It’s all pretty marvellous.