On Saturday 16th July we left Chauny and travelled the short distance to enter the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne. This would take us up to the Souterrain du Braye and then down to Bourg et Comin and onto Canal à L’Aisne. Again the scenery wasn’t that spectacular, and now the warm weather had left us with grey skies and showery rain. We were heading for an overnight halte called Pargny Filain which was 35km and 9 locks way from Chauny. About halfway the skies darkened and it pelted down with rain. Luckily, Sno’ Rush has both interior and exterior helming positions so we quickly changed over. What a dreary time it is ambling along with the rain pounding on the coach roof! Made even worse when you have to go back outside to helm when a péniche comes towards you. It stayed like that for most of the day, however we did stop off at a place called Pinon, a picnic halte that had a large Carrefour behind it – civilisation at last!
The rain was still bucketing down when we arrived at Pargny Filain. The halte consisted of a pontoon suitable for about three boats, an electrical pod with two plug-in points and a water tap. Unfortunately three boats were already moored up with another rafted, so we rafted against a steel motorboat that looked as if it had been left there for some time. Two of the boats had connected together to use one socket whilst the cable from the other trailed off towards the bank. A plug was loose on the ground and was clearly coming from the abandoned boat. I asked the third boat about the supply but he wasn’t connected and didn’t know whose the single cable was. I then wondered whether that cable was supplying the rather large péniche that was moored someway further along the bank. I always thought they were self sufficient with their own generators – anyway we’ll soon find out. I took my 2-in-1 connector to the pod, unplugged the single cable then plugged it all back in to share the supply. It was the péniches supply as I saw three heads pop up and look directly at me from then deckhouse. No shout of abuse or anything, so I just waved to them and went back to our boat, fully expecting a knock on the hull. I thumbed through our French phrasebook to get my argument together, but no one came.
The following day it became clear that the péniche was a liveaboard, but, even though the occupants were around and about, no one came to speak to me about the electricity. In fact no one came to see us about the mooring charges either even though they were clearly displayed at €7 per night on a display board. I guess that whoever took charge of the halte had been driven off by the rain and didn’t work Sunday’s. As morning turned to afternoon, the sun came out and the place took on a far more hospitable ambiance, even though it was in the middle of nowhere. We took a short walk along a nearby road but, other than a crossroads, a few houses and a closed warehouse of some sort there was nothing. Nevertheless, the warm sun made the afternoon rather pleasant.
Monday morning saw us cast off and head towards the l’Oise entrance to the Braye tunnel. This is the high point of this section being only a small hill at 66km above sea-level. The tunnel is almost 2½km long, and lit throughout its length. Again, it is operated on a traffic light system which seems to work well as we encountered no problems at all. I wondered if the slow progress through these tunnels would evoke some base, claustrophobic instinct but, I’m glad to say I had no reaction at all. I think the wonderment of how these places were dug overcame any fears of that kind. We left the tunnel and began the short descent through 3 locks to Bourg-et-Comin. Here the canal joins the Canal lateral à l’Aisne at a ‘T’ junction and since we were not heading towards Paris, as all canals in this area seem to, we turned East toward a halte marked on the VNF guide at Maizy, only 6km away. Well, the halte wasn’t there. It may have been some years ago but it isn’t any more. Luckily, on this section there are no locks, so we carried on to the next halte marked at Berry-au-Bac, a further 14km away. Had the canal banks been anything other than overgrown and totally unsuitable for mooring, I’d have tied up sooner as the showers had started again. It was becoming a long day.
Berry-Au-Bac is another ‘T’ junction where the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne starts its southerly track, leaving the main canal to head off towards Belgium. When we arrived there we mistook the halte for a lock waiting area (no signs) and went through the automatic locks onto the l’Aisne à la Marne still looking for somewhere to tie up. What we found was a large section of canal bank with péniche bollards outside a granary silo. A péniche was being loaded but behind him there were two bollards just the right length for us. Having done 6hours, 6 locks and 35km, we plumped for this opportune mooring. Well, it seemed opportune at the time and watching the péniche being loaded with tons of fresh wheat was intriguing. What I hadn’t considered is that the quay had spilled wheat grains along its length, which obviously attracts all the little beasties. We found out the following morning when Hil opened the door to the deck. The sight of a dozen earwigs scampering around made her freeze. She doesn’t like earwigs, neither do I, but someone had to kill them. It must have been a odd sight, me jigging around the deck trying to squash the little horrors! We cast off as soon as no more could be seen.
Due to the forced (and energetic) early start, we decided to make for Reims, 24km away, and have a few days there. This meant going up 6 locks and would make for another long day but, for all that, we were now back on the charts. Our Fluviacarte guide for the Champagne Ardennes region charts our journey from Berry-au-Bac to Pontailler-sur-Sone, and the end of the canals. The journey to Reims was uneventful apart from the occasional flurry of earwig stamping. More had boarded overnight than we had thought and were settling in all sorts of places. They had even ousted the spiders from the stanchion guard rail holes. Hil tackled the cull on these by pulling the guard rail to one side to crush them, each successful kill accompanied by a squeal of joy.
It soon became clear we were entering the suburbs of Reims when the scenery changed from rural woodland to urban concrete. Disused warehouses and works, graffiti-covered bridges, allotments, all the outer trimmings of a big city. Just before the centre we had noticed a Commercial Centre in the guide and when we passed by, part of it was a purpose built péniche loading port, some years old now but still working in a smaller capacity. Some twenty péniche loading bays and associated warehousing and storage trailing back from the quays. In its heyday it must have been tremendous. Only four or five péniches were loading when we passed.
The postcard view of Reims Cathedral
Reims Port du Pleasance, or Halte Relais as it calls itself, is a larger version of Chauny with finger pontoons from a quay wall. It has electricity & water pods on the quay by the pontoons and a Capitainieré nearby with toilets and showers (locked when he goes home – of course). I have no idea why but the rates are high at €30 for two nights (including two showers). We spent that evening and the whole of the following day in Reims, exploring the city and re-stocking supplies from the local Carrefour.