Prologue in Charleville-Mézières, Ardennes

With Padraic Neville, a member of the Canal Society of New York State, on the footbridge over the Meuse loop beside the Rambaud Museum. This was a ‘prologue’ around the town and the Meuse loop, before heading off down the Meuse on Wednesday 17 May

Taking up this new challenge, the ‘towpath’ mode is chosen for practical and personal reasons; I couldn’t devote the time needed to cruise the whole network, even if I were fortunate enough to own a boat! But as the author of Inland Waterways of France, I have a duty to readers and users, to immerse myself in the reality of the system at reasonable intervals.

This personal project coincides with what has become an accepted form of waterway tourism, qualified by the unfortunate neologism tourisme fluvestre, a contraction of fluvial (which confusingly means ‘waterway’ rather than ‘river’) and terrestre (‘on land’). There was even an entire conference devoted to the subject in Paris in April 2017. VNF convened tourism agencies and local authorities to discuss the issues of itinerant tourism on the canal and river banks.
While I’m a keen supporter and user of cycling infrastructure, I wonder whether the emphasis on the cycling mode is not exaggerated, especially where councils see this as the ‘easy option’, a popular alternative to navigation. This new paradigm is not just French; the same trend is to be observed in Germany and Belgium, throughout the waterways of the Walloon Region.

Risks of downgraded service to navigators are looming on the horizon. Look at the critical situation of the river Lot. The ‘mainstream’ activity and focus of investments throughout the valley is now the activity on the river banks, while navigation is relegated to the status of poor relation. Politicians will vigorously deny this, and claim that navigability of the river Lot is still on the agenda. In practice, projects that remain on the agenda but are deemed to be non-urgent are systematically delayed until after the next election!

Map of the French waterways. Click to enlarge the map. In red are the sections I propose to cover running rather than cycling, for a more intimate ‘hands off the handlebar’ experience.

Navigation structures and the channel or canal ‘prism’ are expensive to build, to operate and to maintain. With a sluggish economy, the temptation is all too great to abandon the expensive works required for navigability, and to opt for the ‘land-based’ tourism option.

In conclusion, while perhaps appearing to jump on the ‘canal cycling’ bandwagon, I am determined not to betray the core readership of boatowners and other users of the waterways for navigation. This means continuing to support – even from the relative comfort of the towpath – the noble function of navigation, the reason the waterways were built in the first place.

After the first eight days of cycling, from the far North-East to Reims and Paris, and a brief foray in Central France, the project takes on a new urgency regarding the state of the waterways. When I drafted this introduction in Charleville-Mézières, before setting out, I was unaware of the fact that the towpath is itself under a permanent threat of downgrading. The success stories, and the reason why so many French couples and families are ‘cycling the canals’, are the result of local authority investment to create cycle itineraries using the towpaths. This involves ‘superimposed management’ (superposition de gestion), where VNF (or the equivalent authority) retains ownership of the track, while the partner rolls out the tarmac or the crushed gravel path and maintains it for its new function. This is fine, and my companion on the first leg, Padraic Neville, and I certainly enjoyed swishing down the Ardennes cycle path along the Meuse.

Elsewhere, Padraic and I noted that the towpaths are in a very sorry state, verging on the impassable, except through flights of locks where VNF’s own staff have no choice but to drive along the path, usually metalled for this purpose.

On day two, the towpath on the Canal des Ardennes was found to have been practically destroyed by cattle and farm tractors, to such an extent that VNF have had to build a new embankment to retain the canal in one section near Saint-Aignan. No towpath at all in that section, while the works are completed.

Already at the outset, this is clearly going to be a story of contrasts. I hope readers will be inspired to discover French waterways, will enjoy some of the inside stories discovered on the way, and accept a little bit of the ‘rough’ along with the ‘smoother’ experiences. I’m sure many boaters will agree that in retrospect, the ‘rough’ is also part of a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable experience… discovering France by water.

See the day-by-day account on www.edwardsmay.eu

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