Friday, August 04, 2017

Slowing down: From Péronne to Douai

The peaceful beauty of the Somme

Last Sunday I said we'd be heading towards Valenciennes, didn't I? Well, us being us, we've changed our minds again and we have been in Douai for the night on our way to Lille and thereafter to the Canal de Roubaix where we spent some time last year, but to our mind, not enough. What changed our minds was the realisation we have barely stopped moving since we started and the three days we spent at Courcelles on the way down are the longest we have stayed anywhere. But we are going back there again tomorrow, and again, we hope to stay for a few days. A big plus for me is that apart from the peace, there are showers, something that's been rather lacking in our lives for most of this trip. Despite being dry most of the time, the weather hasn't been hot enough for my camping 'douchesack' to produce enough warm water for anything more than a hair wash. But enough of that. It isn't something I really want readers to dwell on...

Gorgeous bankside flowers

A poignant reminder of Sailly-Laurette's
connection with Wilfred Owen's poetry
The Somme in reverse was beautiful, but we didn't linger, except when we had to wait at locks until the lock keeper turned up. Since this involved an hour at Sailly-Laurette, the first lock back from Corbie, I took the opportunity to look around. What serendipity the delay proved to be. When I crossed to the other side of the the lock, I found a notice board describing how it was from this village on the river that hospital barges took the severely wounded to Amiens during the intense battles that took place on the front line in 1916. In fact, the inspiration for Wilfred Owen's poem, Hospital Barge, came from here. It was one of those moments when again, I felt deeply moved to be here, in this region, at this time - 100 years on from that dreadful and tragic waste of human life that was WWI.

Poppies or coquelicots, fitting floral tributes to this area

Waiting for the lock at Sailly-Laurette

 At the next lock, we had to wait again. According to the information, the locks are manned from 9 a.m. 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. The French have to have their food after all. However, what one has to take into account is that for them, they have to be at where they will be having their lunch by 12:30, which means leaving the locks earlier to drive home and arriving back later than 1:30 (because lunch itself only finishes then). The result is that you can count on at least an hour and a half's wait if you arrive just after they have gone, which is what happened to us. As luck would have it, we'd joined a gorgeous former police boat at the lock, whose Belgian owner was very proud to show it to us. The time went quickly and after that, we managed to go through all the subsequent locks and bridges until the last available stopping place before Péronne. Despite the noise from the TGV railway and the motorway, it was a peaceful mooring and we weren't in a great hurry to leave the next morning.

A gorgeous former police boat

Some locks are raging torrents as they fill up

We finally motored out of the Canal de la Somme at about two o'clock and turned right for Péronne to do some shopping. Mooring up near the bridge, we saw a tiny sailing boat with a young couple and a toddler on board. The name of the boat was in Russian lettering, so Koos, who is justifiably proud of being able to read a bit of Russian, called out to them. It transpired they were from Brest in Belarus and they had sailed all the way from Gdansk in Poland, through Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium into France. They were on their way south to Marseille, where they are planning to take to sea and sail back round Italy and Greece to the Black Sea, then up river through the Ukraine and back to Brest. What an amazing journey! I have a feeling they were being sponsored too, judging by the sign-writing on their boat, otherwise I can't imagine how a young family like that could afford to make such a long trip. Hats off to them anyway, especially with such a young child!
After doing our shopping, we spent the night at bollards on the Canal du Nord just north of Péronne. It was a gorgeous evening and one of the most peaceful spots we've ever had. The evening sky was translucent and to my huge delight, I heard an owl hooting. 

A beautiful, peaceful mooring on the Canal du Nord

Ghostly barges creep past us in the Ruyaucourt Tunnel

Koos goes bush bashing in a side arm

Back on the commercial waterway proper. On the way to Douai

On Wednesday morning, we set off up a series of five deep locks in convoy with another Dutch cruiser. Despite the fact these locks are around six to seven metres deep, there are unfortunately no floating bollards, so we had to keep putting our ropes up to the next wall bollard We followed them all the way to the next hurdle for me, the Ruyaucourt Tunnel, a 4.6 kilometre souterrain that had all my 'what if' instincts raging. However, for this one, we didn't need to be towed through and could traverse it under our own steam. What I didn't realise was that we would have to stop half way in a wider section to wait for traffic coming the other way. Oh gulp. As we approached it, there was a roaring sound and a light in the distance. It sounded terrifying and even Koos thought it was another barge coming towards us, but as we crawled along the section, hugging the side, and towards the roar, we realised it was the overhead fan in the tunnel and the light was an illusion. I don't know about Koos, but I felt a bit foolish for being so anxious. We moored up behind our Dutch cruiser companions at the end of the widened section where there was a clear red light forbidding us to go further. Even so, we quickly put on our navigation lights for certainty. The barges, when they did come, were silent as ghosts and they slipped past us. No noise at all. It was a very creepy experience and I was glad to get going again, even if it meant I had to steer while Koos did some filming. I should mention that I lose all sense of direction in the dark, so I don't really like steering in the tunnel, but I managed and it gave me something to think about other than 'what if'?

From then on, it was literally down hill all the way, The Canal du Nord is generally straight, but it runs through some lovely rolling Picardie scenery and we really enjoyed it. Picardie is said to be the bread basket of France and produces 11% of the country's grain. The golden tree-capped hills are beautiful with a lonely kind of majesty.  The canal has the reputation of being a concrete gutter, but we liked it because of the variety of the scenery and the constant passage of commercial barges. Last night was spent after the fifth of the down hill locks when we both felt we'd had enough for one day. We joined our Dutch fellow travellers in mooring up to the quay. Again, it was a lovely, peaceful spot. We walked up to the lock before making supper and watched a commercial barge enter. What practiced ease. One rope, one bollard and then when the gates closed, he took it off and let his barge drift gently forward as the waters rose. By the time he was within talking distance with us, the barge was taking care of itself and we learned he had been to the same skippers' school as Koos. Another moment of Serendipity.

Back in Douai again
Yesterday morning (Thursday) it was raining heavily, but by the time we were ready to set off, the rain had stopped. We joined our Dutch cruiser friends in the first of the last two locks down and shared some friendly banter with them. When we reached the last lock, the sun was shining and after a quick bit of Koos bush bashing into a very pretty old sidearm that had me terrified we'd get stuck in the mud (which we didn't, luckily), we continued on to Douai in clear blue skies and hot sunshine. So here we've been for the night again. Our friends, Lisette and Ian are still here; we are behind some other charming New Zealanders and a Dutch boater who was here last time is also back. It almost feels like coming home! Still, who knows what tomorrow will bring. Will our plans change yet again? Watch this space next week and have a great weekend everyone.


  1. What an interesting, moving and relaxing read, thank you for sharing your delightful tales Val, lovely post

    1. Thank you, dear Angela. I'm so sorry I haven't been to yours lately. Internet is so difficult here. At the moment I am sitting on a curb near a wifi spot, but I feel a bit conspicuous, so won't be able to simply sit and read. I'll catch up with you when I'm home again!

  2. I do enjoy reading of your travels Val. I had no idea one could voyage from country to country in this way. Amazing story of the people from Bolaris. I don't like the sound of the tunnel, but happily all was well. Enjoy your time with friends, it all sounds wonderful fun.

  3. Hi Val - thanks for the descriptive journey through France and some of its locks and canals ... loved the Wilfrid Owen reference - I check out the poem .. Hospital Barge ... They've been having some programmes on Passendale here .. which have been interesting and moving. Then the film Dunkirk (tale of the Little Ships) is out - perhaps you can see it when you get back ... enjoy the rest of the trip - cheers Hilary

  4. Thank you so much, Patricia and Hilary. The WWI reminders have been an important part of this trip for me. Very moving. If a book follows this, it will be my special dedication to those who died. Hoping to catch up with you both soon. All my very best from France!

  5. A lovely post, Val. And I had no idea there are tunnels for barges!

  6. Such a lovely read, Val. What a fantastic adventure! ('Today, I went to Sainsbury's' doesn't compare!)

  7. Cathy and June, thank you very much for reading my long rambles! It has been a wonderful trip and I could go on forever, and June, I know what you mean. I can twll you it takes quirte some adjusting to go back to normal life again, but in the end, it's good to be home :) Xx

  8. Your days are so full. I don't like that tunnel!


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