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Kerr Barging Blogs

We have spent a fair bit of time cruising in the South Pacific aboard our 33 years young 11.1metre yacht, Pastime of Sydney. We are now cruising through the canals and rivers of France on our old barge, "Anja", which was built in the North of the Netherlands in 1903. Anja was 110 years old in May 2013 and we celebrated with good French Champagne- but the boat did not get any! In 2014, for Anja's 111th, we took her back to where she was built in the North of the Netherlands.

Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne

IMG 2169Peaceful villages in the French countrysideThe canal "entre de Champage et Bourgogne" i.e. "between Champagne and Burgundy"- is 224 kilometres long, from Vitry le Francois in Champagne to Maxilly sur Saone in Burgundy. It has 114 locks. It was constructed relatively recently, the Northern part finished in 1873, the southern by 1907. It is predominantly rural, offering beautiful countryside, interesting towns and unusual canal features. There has been very little canal traffic.


One unusual feature has been the number of "mobile bridges", bridges that are too low for a boat to pass under so have to be lifted or turned. There are sixteen of these, fifteen on the Northern section from Vitry le Francois to Langres. Most of these bridges rise from one side to become vertical (or almost so). One other raised the whole span so that it allowed us to pass underneath. The most unusual pivoted from the centre of the canal and swung to be parallel to the banks, allowing just the minimum space to clear on one side. The chart told us to keep to starboard, but as we were going upriver we worked out that we probably had to keep to port. We're glad we worked out which side to go or we would have been squashed between the bank and the bridge. Looking back, there was not room on the other side for us to get through.  IMG 2090The amazing manually cranked turning bridge

We noted one such "manually operated" bridge in our last blog. Fortunately we did not have to provide the manual labour. Most of the locks on this canal are operated by a remote  control device or else by radar controls, so we rarely see lock keepers except at the beginning and end of the day when they do their daily check. Many bridges have been marked "automatic" and we expected that they would be controlled by our "telecommander". Not so. In almost every case a lock keeper has appeared to operate the bridge. This was particularly confusing on several where we had a red light even though the bridge seemed to be up. Cars and trucks were lining up waiting. Then we noticed someone  waving his arms for us to go through, so we set off, hoping that we had correctly interpreted his signs and that the bridge would not start coming down on us as we passed. What a crunch that would be.

In the two exceptions where a bridge was left to work without assistance, they failed miserably. In the first, the bridge followed directly after a lock. As soon as the lock was full, the moment when the gates would normally open to allow us to leave the lock, the bridge beyond rose to vertical. We waited for the lock gates but were dismayed to see the bridge coming straight down again, at which point the lock gates finally opened. Just as well we had not anticipated that the bridge would stay up to let us out! This was the moment for David to practise his best French on the phone supplied at each lock to summon help.

IMG 2183We have been "programmed"!

The second failure also needed David's French. This bridge was supposed to be operated when we passed through a radar beam, but it obvioulsy did not repsond to our passing. After a short wait, Dave used his mobile phone to ring the number we had been given, told his story, and was told by the cheerful woman on the other end that "you will be programmed" in three minutes. As we have been married over 40 years and there are no signs of my success in programming him, I thought that was a tall order but was happy to accept just that the bridge would open for us, and that it did, by some remote over- ride. As we looked back from a long way down the canal it was showing no signs of closing again so we wondered if the waiting cars and trucks had to make a similar phone call and also be "programmed".

It is clear that we need to keep our wits about us and take nothing for granted. This was the case also with the Balesmes Tunnel, 4.8 kilometres long. This is probably one of the longest tunnels we have negotiated and we expected that as usual we would be made aware of strict controls so that we would not meet a boat coming the other way. We have read of someone waiting 10 hours to go through this particular stretch. As we approached there was a narrow stretch preceeded by an explanatory sign and  an unlit traffic light. We proceeded into this section and became aware that it led directly to the tunnel, no more stopping, no turn- around spot. What if the light was out because the bulb was blown and there was a huge peniche approaching us? We were both visualising what to do if we met someone in the middle- Anja will not steer in reverse.

 IMG 2167

Once into the actual tunnel our eyes quickly became used to the dim surroundings and we became aware  of a pinpoint of light ahead, growing bigger as the light from our entry became smaller. This was very reassuring as we decided that an oncoming boat would obscure that tiny light, the far end of the tunnel. So we proceeded, very relieved to finally get through over an hour later (speed limit 4kph). Looking back we could see no evidence of any lights stopping traffic coming towards us, so the mystery remains. I must note here how accurately David drove Anja. He had only 40 cms to spare each side, and yet only brushed a fender once, very lightly, in this long, dark tunnel. The tunnel must have been a very dark and dangerous place in the times of the horse drawn barges.


The very large pulley, sideways on the top of the lock wall, is from about 140years ago when horses pulled the barges. When you came to a lock, the rope was put around this pulley and the horses were sent in the opposite direction.

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All the best,

Penny and David

To Burgundy

For the last few days we have been indulging in yet another new experience- travelling on a newly re-opened Canal. From Vitry le Francois our route takes us South to Burgundy, along the Canal between Champagne and Burgundy, previously called the Canal between the Marne and the Saone. At the end of this canal we plan to travel north - east on the Canal des Vosges. This route was planned for last year but not possible then because there was a collapse at Charmes which closed the whole canal for over a month.

We knew that the Canal from Vitry was closed for routine maintenance from the end of
April until the end of May, to re- open on Tuesday May 28th. Why a Tuesday, we wondered? Because Monday was a public holiday, Pentecost Monday, the fifth public holiday in May. We arrived on the Friday before and told the Capitaine at the Port de Plaisance of our intention. It seems that this comment put us in the queue in spot number one for pleasure boats- or else we were put there because our grand- daughter Mary gave the Capitaine such a winning smile.

By this time there were six or seven commercial boats waiting so we knew we would not get away early on Tuesday. In the event, the VNF decided that it would devote the morning to getting them underway and the first pleasure boat (us) could leave at 2pm. An Englishman at the port had been pacing all morning as he thought he should be able to get underway at 10am and prevailed on David to give up our top spot to him. We were in no hurry and did so politely but regretted it later when his slow progress meant that we were waiting for him to finish at every lock.  img 1935The barge queue- right across to stop queue-jumping

So what is different about travelling from the first day of a newly re- opened canal? First,for several days you can be comfortable that no- one will be coming towards you. The entire 224 kilometres of canal is clear, so until the commercials drop or pick up a load and turn around, and until the boats from the south get past the middle, everyone is travelling the same way. We have now finished day 4 without any oncoming traffic.

Because the canal has been empty for so long, people seem to notice the barges more. Today was the first time we have ever had a toot and a wave from a train driver.

There is a great deal of weed in the canal. At times on the first day we seemed to be ploughing through underwater gardens. One of the locks broke down at the end of the first day probably because of the buildup of material in the water which prevented the gates from openning fully. The month has been used to make repairs to the sides of the canal, which can only be done when it is not in use, and it was probably drained to some extent. In general the lock mechanisms and lock walls were not on the "to do" list this time.

Because everyone is going the same way, all the locks are the "wrong" way around. For us this means that every lock we come to has taken the previous boat upwards and stayed that way. Before we can enter it has to empty again so that we too can be taken upwards. As a result evey lock takes twice as long to get through. If these were manned locks the lock- keeper would probably leave the locks ready because all the boats are travelling upstream. Unfortunately in this case "automatic" means "not that smart".  

We are very pleased that we did not change our plans, and waited until the Canal was open. It is a very pretty rural canal, with  the Marne still flowing alongside. The main town so far has been St Dizier where in 1544 42,000 soldiers of Charles V were repelled by 2,000 brave men (plus 2,500 women and children) of the town so that it was saved for Francois 1st and Paris was kept safe. It is now a modern expanding industrial town, very attractive and well maintained. The roses were magnificent in the homes fronting the canal. We were moored opposite a large swimming complex which seemed to be doing a roaring trade, with people coming in and out constantly. Other nights have been spent surrounded by fields in the quiet countryside.img 1938The manually cranked bridge

A surprise today was seeing on the chart two bridges marked "manually operated". We had already today been through several "automatic" lifting bridges operated by a VNF person pressing a button. The only other manually operated one we have experienced was on the Nivernais Canal where David had to get off the barge to crank it up so that Anja could pass through. Then Peter Aston was driving but Penny is not confident to squeeze through the narrow opening typical of these bridges, so she was flexing her muscles and doing her warm- ups as we approached the first of these manual bridges. While we were looking for a spot where a bridge- opener could get off the barge, we were relieved to see a VNF man appear in the usual little white van and start to turn the crank handle.

Best Regards,
Penny and Dave

To Vitry le Francoise

Over the next few days we continued our pleasant time in Champagne territory, very different this year with the vines just showing their leaves whereas last year the harvest was in full swing. Instead of finding streets full of vehicles carrying grapes and juice, with pickers camping out wherever they could, the towns were very quiet.

 IMG 1852Talon, who was born in Chalons and designed Quebec

David and Wendy explored the Grand Cru town of Ay, just bursting with Champagne houses (and added to the ship supplies). We learned there that last year's harvest was the second earliest since 1821, so we can count ourselves lucky that we saw the grape picking activity last year.


Soon we entered new territory, continuing along the Canal Lateral to the Marne to reach its junction at Vitry le Francois. The highlight of this section of the Canal was Chalons-en-Champagne with its many waterways, beautiful public gardens and tree-lined walks. We were at the Port de Plaisance located on a small river off the Canal.  Everywhere in Chalon's town centre are plaques and signs in French, English and German to describe its very interesting history and the background of its buildings. There are several walks through the town which  inform the visitor about the places of interest, going back hundreds of years.


Here was yet another Unesco World Heritage Site (Notre Dame Cathedral- one of two huge Cathedrals) to add to our large list. As often the case, this place is not even mentioned in the "Lonely Planet" which focusses on the big tourist areas and can also be subject to the whims of the writers (or, perhaps, where they have travelled). The people of Chalons definitely make the most of their pleasant surroundings and there seemed to be a non- stop procession of runners, cyclists and families with their children in strollers. One little girl had a rabbit in her bike basket and was struggling to keep it from hopping out. Of course her dad was on hand to wrap it tightly and settle it down- at least for 50 metres.


Our granddaughter Mary was a wonderful bargee but there is not much space to crawl on the barge, so when she spotted the huge floor in "Galleria" in Chalons during our re-stocking trip to the market and supermarket, she took off in all directions. Her last really good crawl had been in the Pompidou Centre in Paris surrounded by modern art. The French are very tolerant of such behaviour and she was rewarded with smiles rather than frowns.


Chalons has three Museums and we managed to visit them all. Among many other things were:


  • Two small birds that were killed and buried with him when Napoleon died.
  • Plenty of beautiful Sevres jars and plates
  • A huge number of beautiful wooden scale models of famous buildings/churches around France


Vitry le Francois at the end of the Canal Lateral to the Marne is mainly an industrial town, largely destroyed in 1940 and 1944. Waterways meet here to go east, west and south so it is an important junction. The southern canal, the "Canal entre Champagne and Bourgogne" has been closed for repairs for a month, to reopen on Tuesday May 28th. We arrived in time for Wendy and Mary to catch the train to Paris to the airport and home. The canal is due to reopen in four days' time and we plan to join the queue when it does. When we arrived there were five commercial barges lined up to go through; more drifted in over the weekend. As they take priority we do not expect to get away until late on Tuesday afternoon. On top of that, there are about 8 pleasure boats also lined up. Meanwhile, we are having a quiet time getting used to life without our grand- daughter's happy presence.


IMG 1862

IMG 1870
Notre Dame Cathedral (too big to photograph properly!) Inside
IMG 1841 IMG 1856
The main street of Chalons The main street of Chalons
IMG 1886 IMG 1896
Columns from ancient Cloister Sevres
IMG 1902 IMG 1905
Intricate, detailed, wooden Models Our mooring in Chalons!
IMG 1909 IMG 1836
Another Cathedral near our mooring location Another view


Here is a set of photos from the following:

Vineyards of Champagne
The house of Louise and his parents
The bed of Louise Braille's parents (he slept upstairs in the unheated attic)
Here is our typical lunch
The "devil's House"- so named by bargemen of the past (they were fearful of it)
Dormans War Memorial
and one of the many stained glass windows
Modern Barrages have huge electric motors to operate them but this barrage was formed of hundreds or thousands of these rectangular steel posts which must be manually lowered into position (or raised) from a boat!
On the way to Braille's House, David visited a garden full of huge sculptures beautifully carved from the shattered stone from some wartime bombing. They are about three times life size
David Steering


Up the Marne River

Our route after leaving Paris took us up the Marne River, retracing our steps from last year, though in the oposite direction. At first we found the Marne current very strong and had to keep a sharp eye out for large logs and branches and even whole trees being washed down after the recent heavy rains. As the days went past with little extra rain the current slackened and there was less debris.IMG 1633The River Marne


We again enjoyed the town of Lagny with its excellent market. David rode to Louis Braille's house at Coupvray from Lagny. It looked to be a straightforward ride along the canal but ended up as quite an adventure on difficult paths. The story of his (Braille's) life was an inspiration. We won't repeat it here because you can find it in many other places. The museum curator was a total expert on Braille, his family and his life plus life at the time. He told me (Dave) about Black Brie (Brie Noir) and we were able to taste and buy some at the Jouarre Affineur.


We had hoped to stop nearby on the canal the next day so that the rest of us could visit but in the event, as so often happens, the timing was wrong and we missed out.


Next was Meaux where getting into the port de plaisance was quite difficult across the strong current and blown also by the wind. This had been one of the spots where David knew that the bow thruster would be missed and so it proved, but after a couple of attempts to come into the quay, we were finally successful and appreciated the presence of others who were ready to take our lines.
  IMG 1615Sunset at Meaux
Here we were in Brie and our visitors were very keen to visit the dairy where Brie de Meaux is made. We discovered that it would be possible to visit for a tour in English only on Saturday afternoon at 4.30pm. For once we were in the right place (almost) at the right time, the catch being that Meaux cheese is actually made in Jouarre, 40 kilometres away. It was possible to get to Jouarre by train and reach the Cave after a 3.3km uphill walk. The men in the party took off to do this and enjoyed the chance to hear the story of the cheese's production, see the storage and finally taste the many varieties available. They arrived back at Anja carrying a huge wheel of Brie de Meaux cheese which we have been working through ever since.

IMG 1625Affination of Brie (5,000 per annum)

Another daughter joined the crew along the way, en route from Croatia to Guernsey, and soon with a very full barge we were in Champagne territory. Again our visitors were very keen to sample the local product but we were reminded of the difficulties of touring in May- there are so many public holidays. We had already had May Day (May 1) and Liberation Day (May 8) and now (May 17) it was Ascension Thursday, a date which changes every year as it is tied to Easter. Chateau Thierry promised "Magnificent Cellars set in a medieval quarry" but the English language tour would not be conducted on Ascension Thursday or on the next day which also seems to take on the status of a holiday, even in train timetables.



When we pulled up at the town of Chateau Thierry, we were rather surprised to see that a circus was in town and right next to the barge were giraffes, llamas, donkeys and plenty of other animals. We stayed there for a while so that the baby could visit the animals but then moved further upriver where it was quieter.

IMG 1718.jpgChateau Thierry

So we moved on to Dormans to find that the tiny village of Vincelles, only two kilometres away, offered several Caves which met our needs and provided us with Champagne to go with our Brie de Meaux.


The Halte at Dormans is very pleasant, adjacent to a camping area with play equipment, a mini golf course and several petanque courses. Our petanque set had a good workout. Dormans also has a train station which allowed us to farewell two of our guests. One of our daughters and our  granddaughter will continue with us for another week.

Best Regards,

Penny and Dave


 IMG 1795First of the spring cygnets at Dormans


Here are some photos- mainly of the excellent views of Paris seen from the barge as we moved up the Seine. The cars are from the car rally at St Mammes.