Articles by John Liley

Featuring articles written by owner and author

Canal de la Somme

Not having been to sea for decades, it was instructive to meet recently someone who goes sailing a lot. It was flattering, too, to be asked for advice. Not on yachting, I hasten to say, which has changed to the extent I would have to start again; but about France. Advice, of course, is a dodgy commodity; but my opinions, hopefully, were accepted as such.

His boat, a medium-sized catamaran, is not best suited to clattering through the locks in their hundreds, but, with care, a good time could still be had. After taking the vessel across the Channel to Fécamp, his plan was to rejoin her there, before sailing to the mouth of the Seine. Then, with the mast lifted out, he, his family and friends would make their way upstream. Priority Number One, it seemed, was to talk him out of this. To voyage inland up the Seine is the traditional yachtsman’s introduction to France. It is the downfall of many a dream.

The Seine has its splendours, but it is a long river with a fair number of locks -big ones, through which pleasure craft pass with other vessels. So, there is waiting, and uncertainty, while the barges muster. Small boats, usually, find themselves at the tail end of the lock. What happens next is that, after the gates open again, the various freighters go blasting out, to disappear at speeds at which water-skiing becomes a distinct possibility. !e yachts, left far behind, are excluded from the lock to follow, with a wait, sometimes a long one, for it to be readied again – by which time the next group of crazies has arrived. And so on.

The Seine is a Devil-take-the-hindmost kind of waterway. The late Roger Pilkington described it as Darwinian, upon which the strongest prosper. In such company, little modestly powered craft do not do well. Nor, it must be added, are there many places to stop, not comfortable ones anyway, since few, if any, of the passers-by take care to slow down. To survive on the Seine, it helps to have a tough vessel, and a fast one. Why not, I suggested, head for the Canal de la Somme instead? A quiet, bucolic waterway, it is the likelier to fit that dream. The approach by sea can be tricky, requiring good weather and some expertise, and there’s a dead straight bit to follow, as far as Abbeville.

Thereafter, though, a far more agreeable view is presented, with numerous villages, and lakes formed by long-gone peat workings. The old quarters of Amiens and its splendid cathedral justify the visit on their own. Associations with the battles of World War I are, of course, strong, but the atmosphere of the canal itself is by no means mournful. The word Somme, from the Celtic, means tranquility.

Towards its upstream end, the river metamorphoses into the Canal du Nord. This is a busier route with a steady flow of freight, but by no means as manic as the Seine. Should the crew then opt for Paris after all, they can continue down the Oise, which, though busier, still offers the prospect of keeping up. Following that, it’s the Seine again, with two more locks before Paris. In these the old problems may return; but at least there’s been the diversion on the way, a chance to get adjusted. In Paris itself, with the turbulence added to by the tripping boats, and the lack of any gaps on the bank in which to moor anyway, the done thing is to spend the night in the Canal St-Martin. That costs money but, for a recuperative stay, it might be worth it. My enquirer seemed to take the point, and went off to reconsider.

We shall compare notes again in due course, hopefully; and I will discover if I was right.

Hotel barge Luciole

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