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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.

The Saone River

IMG 1817St Jean de Losne Town Quay

St Jean de Losne was a culture shock. From drifting along the Burgundy Canal, seeing perhaps two or three boats a day, we were suddenly in the major inland pleasure port of France with boats everywhere. We left the Canal to join the Saone, confidently expecting to find a spot in the Town Port, but found it full with nine boats squeezing in. The two pleasure boat ports which can accommodate 350 craft looked to be full too. Fortunately we had previously discovered an unusual though quite shallow spot almost under the main bridge in Losne, on the far side of the river from the town of St Jean de Losne and from here we watched the busy traffic on the river, in and out of the Canal and Harbour area, forty or fifty boats a day. There were many hired boats, lots of private boats like ours, large and small, hotel barges and commercial barges as well.

A really good feature of such a big port is that it has an excellent chandlery and also well- priced fuel. We took advantage of both these features then set off along the Saone River.

IMG 1822River Saone on a quiet morning
Here was a further major change. From having one little lock every kilometre, we had one huge lock on each day's travel. We were also taking advantage of a slight current, so the trip along the Saone was relaxed and fast. Agriculture seems to be the main occupation along the river banks. We decided to explore an arm of the river to the town of Chatelet. Since the 1980s this arm has been bypassed though it is clearly much used by local people for water sports particularly fishing. Finding a spot for the night was hard but we ended up tied to a wall leading to an old lock. To explore the town David scaled the wall with great difficulty like a rock climber but Penny decided to stay put. Sorry, no photos, we could not get the camera up the wall safely. Next stop was Gergy where we were able to find an excellent quay to give access to an interesting town which has clearly been settled for many centuries. There are vestiges of a Roman road as well as other Gallic and Roman sites.

IMG 1826Interesting house near Gergy
From the Saone we turned into the Canal du Centre, just before the city of Chalons sur Saone. This Canal was planned in the 16th Century and constructed between 1783 and 1793, to link the Saone River to the Loire, and eventually with the Seine. Our first stop was the tiny town of Fragnes, a friendly port with a helpful Capitaine. We decided to take advantage of the security it offers and the proximity to Chalons Station to take the train to Marseille for a few days.  

IMG 1829Another still morning- Gergy sur Saone

IMG 1831Charolais cattle on the banks of the SaoneBest Regards,

Penny and David

Down the other side

There had been a two hour delay to our trip through the tunnel while a tree was cleared from the cutting on the other side. We were glad the lock- keeper had seen it on the video cameras just before we set off. Once through the tunnel we stopped in the basin at Escommes to recover from the experience and take stock. The first stocktaking was of our bikes: we planned to ride back into Pouilly for Church on Sunday, a little under 5 kilometres. When we started taking the bikes off the boat we found that David's seat had been stolen some time since two nights before. Those who have followed previous years' blogs might recall that we had our bikes stolen in 2010 when friends were using the boat; they had been left unlocked at the side of the boat. In 2011 they were stolen again when we left them padlocked at Reims Railway Station while we travelled to Auxerre to get our visas renewed. Since then they are always padlocked with thick chains through the wheels and U- bolts locking the frames to the boat or a fixed object. We had not even thought of securing the seats so maybe we were lucky that it has taken 4 years for one to be taken. Now they will be taken off after every ride and locked in the back compartment. Ironically, a cover on the stolen seat was hiding a torn saddle, so the thief may well be disappointed to have taken the worse seat. We are disappointed too not only because of the initial inconvenience of Penny trying to cover 5 kilometres in 35 minutes on foot but also because the bike shop at Pouilly was closed on Sunday and Monday. The next hope of replacement is Dijon, probably ten days away. At least we have one seat left so we can use one bike at a time!

IMG 1809The pretty and tranquil Ouche River
Other than that frustration, we are thoroughly enjoying this side of the Burgundy Canal which now follows the Ouche River, a much more sedate river than the Armancon.

IMG 1805The Bourgogne (Burgundy) Canal

The staff continues to be very helpful. The scenery is beautiful. At first the view was dominated by the prominent Chateauneuf in Auxois, a 13th century chateau and town which command a tremendous view of the surrounding countryside. Many towns still have their old 14th Century bridge over the Ouche. What great workmanship.

IMG 179813th C. Chateauneuf in Auxois
There are two hotel barges carrying a group of nineteen Americans travelling along behind us but we have passed only two boats going in the other direction. The Canal is so far in very good repair and there have been new stopping points added in interesting spots.

The time has come when it is safe to put the geraniums outside. We were lucky to be near a garden store in Pouilly so it was easy to buy and plant them right on time. We already had our herbs inside but they too are thriving on the deck.

IMG 1786
Over eight days we have enjoyed our quiet canal travel through the Ouche Valley, descending quite steeply 76 locks in the 81 kilometre descent. We stopped at places different from those when we travelled the other way in 2010. Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, is the most famous spot along this canal, but we chose to stop at little towns on its outskirts, to continue to enjoy our quiet travel. David did ride into Dijon though, to buy a replacement bike seat. We celebrated by going for a ride the next day, locking the seats up carefully afterwards.

IMG 180814th Century Bridge over the Ouche
Now after three weeks we have completed the 242 kilometres, 188 locks and one long tunnel from Migennes. During the final day and nearing St John de Losne, where it enters the Saone, we started to encounter more boats travelling. Up to now there had been two boats a day, according to the lock keeper at the "counting" station. On our last day as we neared the Saone there were five.

The service from our lock- keepers has continued to be efficient and friendly. We met one man who is the third generation to do this work, following his grandfather, when no barge had a motor, to his father who worked during the transition from horse and human to motor drawn traffic. At one lock there is an open- air museum with a large variety of old machinery including a washing machine.

IMG 1792
Now on this canal there is very little commercial traffic. We saw only pleasure boats but there are still silos set up for use with boats, so presumably in the harvest season there are some peniches carrying grain.


Best Regards,

Penny and Dave

Through the Pouilly Tunnel

We have now completed our ascent (up 300metres to 389metres altitude, 115 locks, 156Kms) to the highest point on the Burgundy Canal, Pouilly en Auxois, where a tunnel takes the Canal beneath a mountain. Leading to the ascent the locks become much more frequent to cope with the steep ascent: on each side there are 12 locks within 5 kilometres, so on average 400 metres between locks, whereas on the rest of the canal the gap is about 1 kilometre, still rather close! Hardly anyone is moving on this part of the canal so we had the whole team of lock- keepers to help us get along quickly. Frequently one pair would stay to get us through a lock then close it after us, another would go ahead on their motor scooters to the next to get it ready for us and see us through while the other team jumped ahead. We counted ourselves very lucky especially as they were so cheerful and chatty. There are a few "vacationers" mostly uni students who come to help out during the holidays when there are more barges and the usual staff is wanting to take a holiday. Those we talked to were very experienced as they have been doing it for 3 or 4 years.

Not far before the summit we had a chance to cycle to Semur en Auxois which dates back to the 8th Century and was fortified in the Middle Ages. We enjoyed walking around the ramparts, inspecting the towers and gates and visiting the 13th Century Church. The Armancon River winds around below the town which is set on a granite outcrop, helping to keep it safe from invaders.

IMG 1748Notre Dame de Semur, built in 1220 on the site of XIth Century Church

IMG 1752The Gehenne Tower. Note the crack from the 16th Century!

IMG 1760View from the higher (wealthier) part of Semur overlooking the poorer partIMG 1762The Semur rampartsIMG 1764The Armancon River at the foot of ancient Semur

So what of the tunnel itself? David has been dreading it since before we left Australia and in fact has been in touch with the "expert" who has details dating back 20 years. As long as the canal is not above its official average depth (30cms below maximum) the roof is just high enough in the centre of the circular arch for us to fit. If the water were at the top of its possible height range, we would not fit at all. However, even with average depth, because the tunnel is curved, the edges of our rather wide roof can fit only if Anja is steered right down the centre. There would then be 15 centimetres clearance on each side and this gap has to be maintained for 3.4 kilometres to give us 5cms of clearance from the roof edges.  This may be easy if the old girl were a nimble light boat, but she weighs 36 tons and there is no power steering- it is 18 turns from lock to lock! The boat does not steer completely straight in such confined water (it moves a little like a crab with the front pointing slightly left and the rear slightly right) so needs constant correction. It takes an hour to get through the tunnel and any lapse in concentration is severely punished.

David first rode along the cutting leading to the canal with tape measure and plumb bob to check the height and water depth. He then rigged up some thick planks of timber to act as fenders, so that they would touch the wall first if he went off course and be able to correct quickly without scraping the roof. So, the task is to steer the back of the boat in the middle and not deviate from the centre line by any more than +-16cms!  One also has to hope that none of the rocks in the tunnel sticks out at all- a little unlikely in a structure designed an built at the end of the 1700s. In  total we touched three times. Despite our best calculations and plans we scraped the back corners of the roof on each side, not badly- really just paint, but in theory we should have avoided any damage. The slight problem was that the planks are behind the widest part of the roof so it only works if the bow is right in the middle. Now David has cut back and rounded the edges of the roof so that the back corners are not as vulnerable.

IMG 1780The heavy planks firmly in place
By now you might be wondering why we did it, for the second time, after also damaging the roof in 2010 when we went through in our first season. Maybe it is because it is a challenge we have not yet conquered? Also, this is a beautiful canal and we really hoped we could get through unscathed this time. Ah well, it really went quite well. Indeed, for the last 2,000metres we were perfectly in the middle.


Best Regards,

Penny and Dave

A great time for frogs

We are now enjoying sunny, warm weather with temperatures up to 30degC. The flooding has subsided on the Armancon though on the Nivernais the water levels are still too high for the entire canal to be open. It has now been unavailable for 11 days, so people may be getting a bit desperate, especially those who manage the two hotel barges. How to entertain passengers who can't travel anywhere by water when they have chosen a Canal Barge holiday? Also, the Burgundy Canal, in the lower reaches, has been busy with rental boats. Rental companies which cannot operate because of the flooded rivers and canals have sent the renters to the Burgundy Canal which remained open throughout.

IMG 1658Farm building still inundated
Humans might be suffering, but the frogs are having the time of their lives in the wet conditions. We heard what we took to be a large flock of geese making a great din in a pool below the bridge near us at the little town of Cry, but on investigation found that is was frogs, probably in their thousands to be making so much noise. The birds too are in full song. They don't look as spectacular as those at Avalon, but they certainly sound beautiful.

IMG 1657The river breaking into the canal
We have enjoyed visiting several towns along the Burgundy Canal which we missed before, and especially the 16th Century Chateau of Ancy le Franc. The frescoes are remarkable and we particularly enjoyed seeing some in the process of restoration. They had been covered with wallpaper later ripped off removing much of the plaster on the wall below. Fortunately the old wallpaper was retained so could be studied to see what had been underneath. There are also un- disturbed wall paintings, ceilings and floors, all very elaborate and intricately decorated. One area had been done up because it was expected that Henry III would stay at the Chateau on his way from Lyon to Reims to be crowned. The Duke of the time went into debt to make the rooms spectacular- then Henry didn't stay after all. Great disappointment, so those involved pretended that it had happened as hoped and even had a painting done to show the King visiting!

IMG 1714Ceiling of Diane's bedroom, unrestored and hundreds of years oldIMG 1716Chateau at Ancy le franc

The Burgundy Canal lock- keepers, like those on the Nivernais, are very helpful and informative. We need to tell them what time we would like to set off next day and where we expect to stop for the night. They can warn us if the spot we hope for is already occupied or otherwise unsuitable, like one where the quay had collapsed with the flooding. Usually one lock- keeper accompanies us for several locks, then hands us on to his or her colleague. Many of them, on both this canal and the Nivernais, live in lock cottages, for a reduced rent which is varied according to how many locks they look after. The longest- serving lock- keeper we have met has clocked up 40 years of service, but many have been doing this job for over 20 years, living in their cottages all that time, and restoring and beautifying them. One lady keeper was selling her own home- made jam which we were pleased to buy. Another cottage was operating as a Cave with Burgundy wines at excellent prices. The storage area had been flooded and the stock disarranged, which was perhaps how, attracted by the offer of Petit Chablis wine for A$11 a bottle, we ended up with the 2006 vintage. We have already sampled and approved.

The most locks a lock keeper has been with us is 30, of which 19 were accomplished in just one morning. These were all manual locks requiring the pushing/pulling of lock gates and the winding of handles. Very energetic, particularly on a hot day.

We have also been appreciating some very well- priced meals. We aim to have a restaurant meal about once a week, to give the cook a break and also to sample the food of the region. In each of the last three weeks we have had a 3 course menu of the day and of the region for $A28. In fact, these dinners also include bread and a pre- dinner nibble; one was a four course meal with a cheese plate included. All were of excellent quality. Remarkably, there is no mark- up on the wine. Last week a 500ml carafe of very acceptable rose was $A7.
Bon Appetit!

Penny and Dave

IMG 1707Unusual original frescoes- two tonedIMG 1703Floor

Drying out

Many thanks Christian and Herman for your comments. Herman, not sure we can do much about the Captcha but perhaps click the refresh symbol if it is unclear. Slowness of map appearing could relate to slow internet.

We were quite glad that the public holiday on May Day closed all the locks. It was a very very wet day and cruising would have been quite unpleasant. Of course we could have made our own choice to stay put, but so far have not changed our plans for the weather. Instead we spent the day cleaning, washing (the clothes dried inside quite well) and catching up on other tasks and correspondence. We were sorry for those who had looked forward to May Day events but some people carried on regardless. A little boy in red gumboots out for a walk with his parents, was enjoying stamping in every puddle along the quay. The fishermen seemed undaunted and a huge fish was caught just behind our boat.

IMG 1648Floods on the Armancon
Having just escaped the flooding of the Nivernais and Yonne, relieved by a couple of fine days, we were concerned that this rain would again affect water levels. David has an application which allows him  to track river heights, and during this day of constant rain, water heights along the Yonne and the Nivernais rose inexorably. By the next morning the Yonne was closed to navigation in its higher reaches, then within two days for its entire length. Various other canals in the region including the Nivernais are also closed.

We are lucky to be on the Burgundy Canal which does not have a river directly leading into it. The Armancon River, which flows into the Yonne, runs for many kilometres next to the Burgundy Canal. There are a couple of places where it goes under the Canal but it does not feed into it, making the Burgundy much less prone to flood influences.
With May Day over, we set off confidently on the Canal on which we cut our teeth after buying Anja in 2010. Then we travelled its length from St John de Losne in the South to Migennes in the North. This time we will be doing it in the opposite direction and aiming to visit towns which we missed last time,

IMG 1655In some places, the river has overflowed across the towpath
The first section of the canal was built in 1606. In the 18th century plans were drawn up to complete the route to join the Atlantic and Mediterranean through Burgundy. It was finished in 1832 and was a very important route during the 19th century. The introduction of railways and improvement in road transport took away much of the freight that used it. Now it is mainly a tourist canal with Freycinet sized locks which are fine for us and for the old- fashioned peniches, but which cannot accommodate the more modern commercial barges. We have still seen barges carrying grain and soil on the Burgundy, but this happens mainly during the grain harvest and when the Canal is being dredged. We know we will have the company of many hire boats, and in fact have recommended this route to friends in the past, as it is beautiful and comfortable to manage.

Our first destination was St Florentin, a town we have always enjoyed visiting. With the rain still falling, river heights continued to rise so it was ironic that we woke the next morning to find ourselves stuck on the bottom because the water level had dropped over 30 cms overnight. Fortunately the rudder was free and with some engine work and pushing with poles, we were free in good time to get to the next lock on time. The same 30cm drop  happened the next night but as we were in deeper water, we were still afloat. For the next two days we noticed low water levels in the canal contrasting with the surrounding countryside where the Armancon was running very fast and had broken its banks, spreading over the low- lying areas, forming huge lakes. We saw one car almost completely submerged. The windows were open so presumably the occupants had escaped to safely. Then in the next pound the answer to the mystery of reduced canal water level: the river had broken into the canal and was pouring into it in a great torrent. Because the water level had been dropped the canal was able to handle the extra water without flooding. In May 2013 when we were experiencing similar flooding which kept us in the yard at the boatyard, the Burgundy was closed briefly when the river flowed over into the canal, so no doubt the aim was to avoid a similar closure a second time.

IMG 1656Water, water everywhere
The rain has now stopped and we have been told that the water level has peaked in the higher reaches of the Armancon so as long as it does not rain in the next few days, the floodwater can make its way to the Yonne and then into the Seine and to Paris.

Meanwhile we are enjoying beautiful- and very lush- countryside and small, old, interesting towns. We have been off on our bikes to cover more ground and certainly enjoy the excellent bike paths which have been created from the old tow paths dating from the time when barges were pulled along by people or horses.

 IMG 1660The picturesque town of Tanlay

We are currently about 20% of the way along the Burgundy Canal at a pleasant town called Ancy le Franc. We have just come back from the good market which has been held here on the same morning for well over 100 years.


Best Regards,

Penny and David

IMG 1658

IMG 1637In WW2, the Germans made aircraft engines in this tunnel at Reveilles on the Nivernais