The location: Auxerre in summer. In one, a sprinkling of craft lies against the quay on the town side in 1973, amongst them the basically converted Leeds & Liverpool barge Arthur, taken there by myself and Michael Streat. In the other: Auxerre as it often is today, with Luciole executing a turn. Our Captain Stephane, at that moment, would be wondering, no doubt, where the heck he might moor up.
No longer now are we allowed to halt on the eastern bank, the side to the right of this picture. Many smaller craft stop there, and we take up too much room. Luciole is pointing that way, incidentally, solely because – like many with a right-handed propeller – she turns more easily to star board. Once facing into the stream she would probably try her luck on the other shore, or maybe ease astern towards the Abbey in the background.
So begins a session of haggling with people on the quay, trying to persuade them to move their boats together a tad, so we can simply reach the bank. Not always are they prepared to do this; at least not at first, despite their being able to shift in a twinkling by comparison with what we go through. The ultimate sanction is for us to lie alongside them; but that is a last resort, hardly ever talked about. Gentler persuasion usually works.
Despite this crowded scene, the French pattern is different to the British. Moorings away from the towns are few, except for folk staying overnight, of whom the majority are on hire-boats. The ‘linear mooring’, in which craft on a permanent basis straggle off into the distance, has yet to arrive. So have out-of-town marinas. Perish the thought: the countryside should not be a parking lot.
Note the narrowboat in the picture, incidentally, outermost in the trio in the foreground, one of the growing number appearing in France, their owners tempted, no doubt by all that space.
The pressure is growing, nonetheless. Had I access to high finance and, of equal importance, political connection in places such as Auxerre, I would be angling right now for setting up jetties and pontoons. For these (and it is in the city’s interest, too) the demand goes on growing.
As to ourselves, rather than engaging in shout-ups on the quayside, we preferred in earlier years to move in mid-summer to the Canal de Bourgogne instead. This, the Burgundy Canal, is far less busy, even in August. Get high enough up, in fact, and you can have it to yourself.
That we do not do this now hangs upon the time that it takes, after descending farther down the Yonne, to climb the Canal de Bourgogne to Tonnerre, the point at which it becomes decent. The first 40 or so kilometres have too many stretches that are humdrum.
Getting up that part of the Burgundy Canal in turnaround time, the half day either side of the “evening off” (ha, ha) took us around 111/2 hours. There would be problems thereafter having the groceries delivered, dealing with the laundry and so forth, but reaching pastures new was always a consolation.
Now, with shortened canal hours, this is harder to do. The days when these waterways opened at 6.30am, have gone. Nowadays the lock keepers start at nine. They have an hour for lunch, instead of just 30 minutes, and finish half an hour earlier, at 7pm. At 6 kilometres an hour and 15 minutes for each of the 18 locks the trip from the river to Tonnerre takes 11 3/4 hours. We might still, if we work on it, just fit this journey in, between waving one set of passengers goodbye and welcoming the next group on board, but the stress is too great.
We miss the Burgundy, though. Beyond Tonnerre, there are glories: Tanlay with its fairy-tale chateau, the lovely approach to Ancy-le-Libre, a crystal clear section beyond Ravires, where you can see every fish, the forge at Buffon, the medieval atmosphere of Courcelles, Benoisey and Les Granges, the feeling of away-from-it-all.
Thereafter the grandeur continues. But you have to like locks. There are 40 in a row at one stage, many of them on bends, with an ever-shifting vista of wooded hillsides. The endearing village of Marigny-le-Cahouet lies along the way, at which to gather breath. Then there’s Braux, the long formal cutting after Pont-Royal, and St Thibault, at each of which you can moor – on your own!
I am talking myself into going there again. What a pity it is so far away…
Hotel barge Luciole
Cruising since 1976
Phone: 00 44 1625 576880
From USA: 011 44 1625 576880
23 Adlington Road, Bollington
SK10 5JT England
Quai de la Marine, Auxerre