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Canal St Quentin
Last September François Fillon, the Prime Minister of France, signed the decree inaugurating the construction of a new canal. In five years time this will be providing a larger link between the Seine and the big, bustling waterways of northern Europe.
Its locks, expected to number seven in a route of 106 kilometres (the distance, by comparison, between Cromwell Lock, the lowest on the Trent, and the city of Leicester), will be capable of passing over 4,000 tonnes – 150, or thereabouts, of the biggest lorry-loads we ever might find – each time one of these new locks is used.
If you missed the announcement in the British media, with its banner headlines, and wonderings as to why we, in Britain, are still rooted in the notion that canals are curiosities from the days of lace and moleskin trousers, there is no need to feel surprised. As far as I am aware, it went unreported. This link will be between the River Oise, the tributary of the Seine, and La Liason Dunkerque-Valenciennes, the broad-gauge canal constructed across northern France from 1960 onwards (when those presiding in England, with every contrivance they could muster, were intent on closing ours down). I could go on, and on, flogging these comparisons. The dates will speak for themselves. The new route will supersede, maybe even replace, the sombre Canal du Nord. A curious hybrid, the Nord, while under construction, was blasted to pieces during the First World War, then again in the Second. Only in 1965 was it finally opened, concrete-lined, with bigger, if not quite big enough, locks, it boasts as a central feature, a tunnel with a passing place in its middle.
Alongside, to the east, the Canal de St- Quentin, which the Nord was intended to replace, stands as a reminder of earlier days. A wonderful waterway still, imbued with 19th century endeavour, yet countrified, it is evocative of those dreamy notions of France conjured by the films of Jean Renoir.
I entered it first in my Leeds & Liverpool ‘short boat’ Arthur in 1972, climbing to the summit through rolling fields. A train of barges had just emerged from the Souterrain de Macquincourt, which beats by almost half a mile the tunnel at Standedge on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. The locks here are in pairs, side by side, but, just down the line, one of the chambers was kaput. Hence the enthusiasm with which the first two craft, engines roaring, came blasting out of their respective chambers. It was, and still is, a competitive life in the barge world. For ourselves, there were no such pressures, as we joined the five-hour tow through Macquincourt and the other tunnel that followed – with the blissful section in between, through which, with the tow-tug clanking, we drifted as if in a dream. There were 17 barges being hauled through that day (the record, it is said, is 71). The loaded ones went first, hitched astern of the tug that, drawing power from cables overhead, dragged herself along on a chain laid on the bed of the canal. Empty barges followed, then ‘yachts’, that is to say any pleasure craft, such as the Arthur. There is a towpath inside, even the occasional electric light. During the First World War, with the water drained away, Macquincourt was in use as a field hospital.
Hugh McKnight’s exemplary book Cruising French Waterways reproduces one of the historic photos of troops, in their thousands, assembled on the bank here.
For ourselves, there was a terrific moment when, on emerging from the first and longer tunnel, we met the line of barges headed in the opposite direction. The exchanges of cordialities between the family crews, the sense of a society… It stays with me to this day.
When I travelled through the St-Quentin afterwards, ten years later, heading north, the shorter of the tunnels, that of Tronquoy, no longer had a tug. We went through on our own, with three loaded craft up ahead. But at Macquincourt, again, we were back to the old method, hitched behind the tow.
The system survives. For those able to do so, I recommend a stop in this area. Southbound tows still depart from Bony, near Le Catelet, at 9.30 and 17.30, with northerly sessions beginning from Riqueval at 7.10 and 15.10.
When the new route opens, will this one survive? Canals have a funny habit of enduring! For those passing, taking a chance on the amount of traffic, it is well worth a call.
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