In the second episode, with the waterways almost to ourselves, we enjoy champagne in a cold, bright November, travel the delightful and very quiet Marne à la Saone canal south to the River Saone and get to Saint Jean de Losne where we meet lots of new friends.

I went out late one night
The moon and the stars were shining bright
A storm come up and the trees come down
I’ll tell you boys I was waterbound.

Wed-Thurs 22nd-23rd October
MEAUX – Capital of Brie

50km. We leave the Seine for the Marne, then some delightful ‘by-pass’ canals (and 2 short tunnels) and finally back onto the Marne at Meaux – as in Brie de Meaux. Starting to experience more typical, more frequent ecluses (locks) and our general level of basic ‘lock technique’ competence is growing. We moor up at newer pontoons than the books show, whose surroundings are unfortunately (for us) being further improved. This means diggers and no electricity or water. It’s a good spot and a nice town, but the weather turns icy and in spite of our modest heating system Grehan is very cold. Sleep fully clothed with two layers of socks and woolly hats, and wake up to ice inside our windows. Brrrr!!

Fri-Sat 22nd-23rd October

44km along the Marne. La Ferte is a lovely typical small French town and we moor up close to the centre just off the main river. Get the bikes out and cycle up to the ancient Abbey at Jouarre, past a monument to almost 8,000 British soldiers killed near here in the first 3 months of the First World War. Bright sun but a bit chilly. Move on late afternoon Saturday to moor by the next lock at Courtaron, which is quiet and peaceful.

Sun-Mon 24th-25th October

36km to Chateau-Thierry another nice smallish town, this time with a large American war memorial above it. Good mooring with free electricity, so our fan heater is going non-stop!

We have been given a ‘hoofer doofer’ remote control to operate the next few locks ourselves. Do they know just what they’re letting themselves in for? Will the system survive?

Tues-Thurs 26th Oct – 6th Nov
EPERNAY – Capital of Champagne!

Leave C-T in thick mist – we can see both river banks, but not too much more. Fingers crossed that it clears and we don’t meet a barge convey head on. It clears, the sun shines and the 51km river journey past the vineyarded (?) hillsides is lovely. We see no other boat all day, except for 2 dinghies with friendly pecheurs in. We know the last three ecluses have sloping sides, which causes us unwarranted anxiety – but they’re all OK and have pontoons inside. At the last one, we return our Frank (Zappa) to the VNF eclusier. Then 2km up the Epernay branch to our mooring on the by-passed Marne at the Societe Nautique and opposite one of the big champagne ‘houses’. A lovely quiet spot (ok, it is near the railway but we rather like the sound of the freight trains whooshing through) with good facilities including champagne cocktails every night at 6. Decide to stay for a while . . .

And so over the next 11 days we cycle, shop, compare notes with Norwegian neighbours Arfinn, Anniken and Martin + Dina (their children), are visited by Trish & Tim (sister+brother-in-law), visit champagne firms, go on a truly excellent champagne fields and grower tour (for details click on poster, below, and thoroughly recommended), return to Paris by car (more sightseeing plus dentist and root canal work) and visit the battlefields of Verdun where so many thousands of French (and American) soldiers were killed in WW1. We learn a lot about champagne, and other things.

Fri-Tues 7th-11th November

Leave Epernay on a cold windy Friday for short (18km) passage to Conde where we sadly say goodbye to T+T. Moor up for the night tucked up behind sans-engine motor cruiser with our electric cable draped over. Being ever so quiet the next morning at 7 we still awake the owner who cheerfully emerges in his underwear to give us a hand. Ruth’s influence, obviously.

52km to Vitry where we are hoping to find electricity, water, showers . . but no luck. The facilities are closed. Tomorrow’s Sunday and that means the shops and the canal locks will be closed too. Zoom into town, supermarket, boulangerie, and camping-gaz shop.

Monday 10th. We have informed VNF about our passage plan but when we get to the first ‘manual’ lock there is no eclusier to open it. Phone and have to wait for hours, moored on quayside next to grain barges. Ultimately 14km further south to Orconte, in the middle of nowhere, but with newish Halte Fluvial – which is also closed – but the local Marie kindly switch on the electricity for us. ‘Us’ being Grehan and our Finnish motor cruiser neighbours Henry and Rita who have been voyaging the world since 1988. It’s a great spot, and we’re here on the 11th also, that being Remembrance Day with the canal system closed down.

Wed-Thurs 12th-13th November

Our mobile eclusier meets us at the first lock and onward we travel. We hope to stop at St Dizier’s Port de Plaisance for fuel and water, but its very closed – looks terminal. Anyway, we park up by a garden supermarket who let us have water in our jerries and Ruth inveigles a nice man in a truck into taking her and three 10 litre cans to the nearest service station for some diesel. After lunch we pass through the lock immediately outside the VNF office and they have a water hose for us. Finally we reach Bayard, with a nice little mooring, a picnic area, a supermarket, two football pitches, a lifting bridge, a St Gobain glass factory and a railway line.

9 hours (including 2 lunch-stop hrs), 32km and 14 ecluses, today. About 4 kph, or one page in the Navicarte book equals 4 hours. Once upon a time it ‘meant’ half an hour – that’s what lots of locks does for yer! (and a change in map scale).

Bright and early (well, grey and eight o clock) we meet our Mlle de l’Ecluse and her moped. All smiles, she takes us through to Joinville where an unpleasant young man takes over. Spitting nails, he clearly doesn’t approve of our desire to keep going until lunchtime. But we do. Oh yes. And after lunch Mr Angry has been replaced by Mr Ponytail who is helpful and friendly and who takes us on to Froncles, past his own lock-keeper’s cottage (which is a picture). 39km, 16 ecluses, 8 hrs overall. Looks like any day’s journey hereabouts may be gauged by number of locks times half an hour. Weather mostly clear and bright: almost Spring-like.


Fri, Sat-Sun 14th, 15th-16th Nov

Friday morning and it’s bye-bye pretty Froncles where the skipper saw a falcon sieze a bird in flight just 5m away, through locks and – increasingly now – also lifting and rotating bridges. After lunch we cast off, move off and round the bend to be greeted by a big Belgian peniche, head on, emerging from the next lock like giant steel toothpaste from the tube. We beat a hasty retreat then it’s onwards through the lock, a short 1/2km tunnel, another lock and now we’re at Chaumont in the (pouring) rain. Slow progress today, though we can’t work out why – we seemed to be moving along ok. 25km, 11 ecluses, 7+ hrs. No facilities at the Port de Plaisance, but we cadge an electrical plug-in from the pleasure craft in front. [no pics – poor weather]

With a light morning mist shrouding the river, we leave Chaumont and encounter Mme Samedi Eclusiere who is small, round, friendly . . and yet strangely uncommunicative. Maybe it’s her lack of teeth? Whatever, we certainly do crack on in record time, looping ’round hills ever upwards into the clouds and into remoter – very pretty – countryside. Mme tells us there’ll be no peniches (barges) on our stretch today, so we don’t need to worry about what’s going to loom around the next bend, forcing us to seek sanctuary on the sides, which are either stony or shallow or (usually) both. We lunch tied to our ‘rond’ anchors hooked into the bank and eventually arrive 1hr ahead of expectations at Rolampont, a large village. Water + Electricity = Heating and a Bloomin’ Good Wash. 29km, 15 ecluses, 7hrs overall. The GPS says we are 300m above sea level.

Monday 17th November

36km, 24 ecluses, 9hrs overall – good stuff. We meet up with our best eclusier(e) yet. Happy, talkative, helpful and with a Gitane always on the go . . (is there a connection?). She takes us past Langres (historic hilltop town – we must return and see it properly) and en route we wave at a boulangerie van which promptly stops by the canal and thus we get our morning croissants and baguette ‘drive-by’ style. Finally we get to ecluse #1 on the Marne side, having done 71 since Vitry. Thence we go through the 4.8km Balmesnes Tunnel at the canal’s apex, 331m above sea level. Stop for lunch on the other side and it feels almost like another country. Now it’s downhill in double quick time – a chain of 8 ecluses, followed by a chain of 4, then 3 more (dropping 60m via 15 ecluses in just 12km) and we arrive at pretty Dommarien‘s little jetty at dusk. A Danish boat rafts up against us – they’ve travelled from Malaga, Spain. Feels like a significant day has happened.

Tuesday 18th November

Tuesday, 32km, 20 ecluses, 9hrs overall. Slightly less successful. As per instructions, waited at first of the morning’s locks, but no-one turns up and it also turns out (after having called on the lock intercom three times) that the Dane messed up its mechanism last night, exiting after 17:30 when its radar had turned itself off, so it didn’t ‘know’ he wasn’t still in there . . So after a frustrating delay we get going in pretty cold, grey but dry conditions until lunchtime. After lunch – similar peformance – there’s no-one at the alotted time. So we operate the ‘manual’ ecluse manually ourselves and proceed steadily for another 4km. A chap in a VNF van passes by about an hour late and at the next manual ecluse the lady eclusier who is waiting tells us (a) we shouldn’t have done it ourselves but (b) “he’s a lazy so and so, that one, and if she’d left a plaisancier in the lurch like that her neck would be on the chopping block”. Arrive at grain silo quay near Champagne-sur-Vingeanne about 5. Dusk. Time to stop.

Wednesday 18th November

22km, 9 ecluses, 4hrs. The end of the Canal de la Marne a la Saone at PK224 (pic shows kilometre-stone PK223), the last canal ecluse – and almost the last ecluse before St Jean de Losne and the end of our voyage, phase one. We emerge into the River Saone (so different from that cosy shallow narrow canal), then a short journey to Pontailler and a hot shower.

Thursday 19th November

36km, 2 ecluses, 4hrs. So this is how episode one ends, not with a bang . . but a whimper. A very quiet, grey, cold few hours on the broad River Saone. No other craft, except in the two last ecluses and also when we reach St Jean de Losne which is a notable barge-inland-waterway centre. We’re moored up at “H2O” a very well-known place in French canal circles, with liveaboards of every nationality, boats of every size and variety, weekly events and relaxed friendly patrons in the shapes of Jean-Paul and Captain Bob. Apparently it freezes over come January.

Ah well, head South and get cold. Only going forward ‘cos we can’t find reverse.