Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Ourcq – A Road Less Travelled (Or Quaintrelle’s Shame)

There are some massive wheatfields on the Ourcq and this one looked incredibly beautiful in the full moon light.

Okay, this entry is going to cover our navigation of the Canal d’Ourcq and has 63 pictures, so I suggest you get yourself a cuppa and put your feet up for the duration.

We headed onto the Ourcq on Monday 3rd July the first hour or so cruising through the industrial suburbs of Paris which meant there was still a bit of commercial traffic, but this quickly petered out and greenery soon replaced the industrial sites.  When we bought our vignette at Arsenal we had told them we wanted to do the Ourcq and were met with raised eyebrows, “Really??” and told that we shouldn’t do it, it was shallow and full of rubbish and shopping trolleys and would be dangerous for our boat.  However, having spoken to two of the few people who have done it we knew to ignore the warnings as our boat is narrow and shallow drafted enough to fit.  The strangest thing to us coming onto the Ourcq was the flow on it.  Canals are normally still, unless locks are being operated, and the only canal we’ve come across in the UK with a flow is the Llangollen.  The Ourcq is a main water feed into Paris, taking water up from the River Marne via two wonderful old pumping stations, and into Paris, hence the flow.
The start of the Ourcq
Some different ducks
First lock at Sevran - now what do we do with the key???......
Might have a better idea if we could actually read the written instructions......
The first section is a cutting, 'passerelle' is a footbridge
At our first lock (Sevran) we tried to follow the instructions in the booklet (in French) we’d been given – it seemed simple; enter the lock, put the key in, turn it clockwise and let the lock do its thing.  It was all going quite smoothly and the lock seemed to equalise but the upper gates wouldn’t open.  We waited and waited, but nothing.  Thankfully there was a canal maintenance man working nearby and he came over and told us we now needed to move the key into the next keyhole down and turn the key and it would open the gates.  Knowing that, the instructions in the booklet started to make a bit more sense…….. 

We pootled on through a long cutting passing just the one other boat which was a maintenance boat made to clip the weed in the canal.  They cruise along with giant scissors dragging behind them chopping away under the water.  It was a case of too little too late for us as we had several stops to clear the weed from the propeller….

Having only set off after noon, it was 5.30pm when we reached our mooring for the night at the pretty town of Clay Soully.  Our guide book showed shower and toilet facilities and a water point, but everything was locked up and the water tap shut off, this was to become the norm at all the ports along the Ourcq; they are not used, so the town no longer wastes money running them.  Having caught sight of my midriff earlier in the day which revealed a muffin top overhanging the full circumference of my jeans waistband, I decided that I needed to get back to running as soon as possible, and a great towpath in the shade provided the venue.  My first run since January and I managed 2 miles in twenty minutes and didn’t have to stop – I was rather pleased with myself, moreso that the nagging knee pain which had stopped my running in January was not present.
The pretty, disused port at Clay Souilly
Clay Souilly bridge nicely lit up at night
The next morning we headed into the small town to the supermarket for supplies and then continued on our way through some of the most beautiful canal and countryside and not a shopping trolley in sight.  It was a glorious day and around 3pm we reached the first of the two pumping stations, which are historic monuments.  You can only visit by appointment, we discovered, but Mike had his first conversation in French and asked one of the workies in the yard if we could see the pump.  He said no initially, but when Mike told him we came by boat on the Ourcq and there were only two of us he said okay and proceeded to show us around the pumping station.  His colleaugue joined us and spoke a little English and they seemed quite delighted to have two such enthusiastic visitors and we told them about the Crofton Pumping station on the Kennett and Avon Canal and managed to show them a picture on Mike’s phone.  It was really interesting and so kind of the men to take time to show us around, we were really chuffed.
This is more like it.......
Lock number 2 - You're quickly out in the countryside on the Ourcq
Tree-lined canal - very French!
The pumping station at Trilbardou
Part of the exhibition was this gorgeous model of the whole of the canal showing the major landmarks and to our suprise a little narrowboat!!
Huge wheel
The pump
The weir on the Marne at the pumping station

We had considered staying the night at the rural mooring above the station, but decided as it was a nice day we’d continue on to the town of Meaux….
The canal that time forgot - or are we back in England!?

We passed by a small airfield where the gyrocopters looked like they might be coming out to play
But this was the only fly-past we got...
Motorway bridge spanning the valley of the Ourcq and Marne
One man went to ............
Meaux is a ‘Ville Fleur’ a system of rating nice towns and villages in France but as is so often in the UK, the canal comes in the back less salubrious door and as we came to the port, very quickly decided it was not somewhere we felt comfortable mooring overnight, or leaving the boat to explore the town.  We carried on and the next official mooring wasn’t much better so we found ourselves continuing on following a large loop out into the countryside before coming back in on the other side of Meaux.  The edges were shallow and as is often the case, just when you’re desperate to moor up for the day, there isn’t a mooring to be found for love nor money.  As we came through a narrow cutting there was a nice bank alongside the canal so we slowed up and attempted to get in.  The front went in okay and the back end sat out a bit, but it was fine, really peaceful and, we discovered, home to the Ragonde, or Super Furries as we call them.
Super Furry Mooring at Meaux
Huge graveyard with Meaux's cathedral in the background
After tea the Super Furries came out to play
Including the grand daddy of Super Furries
There were loads of these dragon-fly type creatures - stunning colour
The path is well-used by walkers and runners but after dark, it was deserted and a lovely peaceful mooring.  The next day we got the bikes out and headed to the World War I museum just a 10 minute (uphill – booooo!!!) ride away, where we spent a good couple of hours taking in the exhibits and information.  It is a wonderful museum and reminds us that this should never happen again, such a loss of life, such a waste.

After some lunch back on board, we cast off and set off for a few hours cruise to our next stop at Varreddes.  At Varreddes the moorings, water and showerblock were marked below the lock but there was no sign of them, just steep banks of trees on each side.  Approaching the lock, I saw a building above the lock and then using the binoculars saw the bollards for mooring and some picnic tables (which seem to feature at every mooring on the Ourcq – personally, we’d prefer a working water tap, but it’s a nice thought….).  Despite shallow edges, Mike got me off from the front of the boat and I went up and started to investigate the lock operation.  This lock is the only lock that is the original narrow guage lock at 3metres 10 wide, so most boats don’t get any further than this.  It’s also the only lock on the system that is manually operated which I didn’t anticipate being a problem as we know how they operate, it’s just a case of what mechanism is available.  I’d closed the top gate and paddle, and was trying to work out how to lift the bottom paddle to empty the lock when the Madame and Monsieur from the lock house appeared.  With huge smiles Monsieur explained that you need the four keys to operate the lock, not just the one we had, which was Cle A.  You needed B, C and D to get this baby going.  Madame spoke a little English but I spoke a bit more French so she spoke really clearly and would try things in a different way when I didn’t understand.  Basically, our key A went into the top gate lock to lock it which released key B to put in the paddle and lock it down which released key C to go in the paddle on the lower gate allowing it to be opened and releasing key D which then unlocked the gate allowing us in – got it???!!! C’est complicate……. Then the whole process is reversed to put us up the lock…… They were quite simply the most delightful couple, full of smiles and desperate to help us.  I told them we planned to stay the night on the mooring here, but Monsieur quickly advised we’d be better to sleep in the lock as there was plenty of water, whereas it was quite shallow at the sides of the pound above – not to mention weeded up.  So we agreed to stay in lock and then asked about water.  The tap was shut off but Monsieur bustled off to the house for the garage key and hooked us up to his hose from there and allowed us to fill the tank.  We then said farewell for the evening and I gave Monsieur a bottle of red wine as thanks for helping us with the lock and I went and changed into my running things for a quick 20 minute trot again.  As I came out, Madame had appeared with a bottle of chilled Rose wine for us – “It’s nice and cold,” she insisted and bid us a good evening before heading off with the dog for a walk.

We had a wee laugh to ourselves spending our second night in a lock, the first having been on the Bourgogne when a lock further on failed and there wasn’t enough water to moor in the pound.
Another night in a lock.....
The next morning we woke to rain, so had breakfast and waited for it to ease off before heading out of the lock at 10am.  At 10.05 the heavens opened again and we took shelter under a bridge until it slackened off, however, it came and went most of the morning accompanied by thunder and forked lightening overhead.  We stopped at lunchtime at Lizy sur Ourcq and headed for the Intermarche supermarket that was 5 minutes walk from the canal only to find it was closed down until September while they refurbished it.  We headed to a little pizza hut in the car park to get some lunch and ask the chap if there was another supermarket.  There was, about 20 minute walk away, so we ate our pizza and headed there.  We found it strange that Intermarche would completely shut down whilst doing a refurb, as in the UK, large supermarkets doing this tend to shut it down bit by bit and keep a bit open at all times so they don’t lose money or customers to a competitor.  The Carrefoure we ended up at wasn’t as large, but more than sufficient for our needs and having stocked up the food cupboards we headed back to the petrol station at Intermarche that was open and selling diesel for 1.16.  We then headed off for a couple of hours cruise, but again, when it came time to tie up for the night, couldn’t find anywhere to get into the side…..while the middle channel is fine depthwise, the sides are shallow, which allowed us to view our first snake of the year…….  Finally near Crouisy sur Ourcq we got tied up on what had been an old commercial quay, with an information point showing you pictures of how it used to look.  It was next to a canoe/kayak place that looked like none of its 100+ canoes had been on the canal for some time and we weren’t even sure there was someone living in the house…. 

The next morning we were up and away sharpish and inflating our own kayak for a wee trip down the Canal Clignon, a little arm that goes off the Ourcq.  We stopped a bit further away from the entrance of the Clignon than we had planned so by the time we turned onto it, Mike was knackered and ready to get off and walk.  I think the only thing navigating the Clignon now is the local swans – it was clearly many years since any boat had been down there and it was choked with weeds in some places that eventually ground even our kayak to a halt.  We tied the kayak up to a plant, well, there was not a soul around, and we walked the last half kilometre to the end where an information plaque told us the canal had been built after its designer was inspired by the English and Scottish canals!!
One of the weed-cutting boats that drag along these 'scissors' cutting away the weed - clearly hasn't been down the Clignon for some time.....
Breaking sweat on the Clignon
Beautifully peaceful if a little weedy....

The end of the Clignon, looking back up to the Ourcq
An old KM stone shows it must have been navigated at some point
The swans have cut a path through the weed.
A cute little aqueduct goes over the River Ourcq which is a small stream at this point
Train crossing the Clignon
After our morning explorations we had some lunch and continued onwards in Quaintrelle with the kayak drying out at the front of the boat but after a few minutes cruising saw a Marie de Paris van on the towpath and a chap coming towards us.  The next lock would take us off the canal d’Ourcq and onto the canalised section of the River Ourcq and there were water level problems.  He said we might find it difficult to get into the next lock as the levels were low, as was the case with the next one, but after that we should be okay.  It was very, very shallow but we got into the next lock at Mareuil only to find that once I was in the lock and stopped, I had settled on the soft mud on the bottom!  This was a different lock again, ‘V’shaped with grassy sides, so it wasn’t a problem to float up without being tied on and whilst the paddles were automatic, the gates had to be opened manually.  We left the lock eventually manoeuvring a very sharp, right turn to do so and sighed with relief at being on the river, with a bit of water beneath us.  Our joy and relief was short-lived as we struggled at the silted-up entrance to the next lock, rose, then the lock-keepers (another had turned up to help the first) couldn’t get the gates to open… They struggled and struggled and we got Mike off to offer assistance, but the guy refused and said, “It’s my  job.”  They eventually got them open and we started to move off, turned into the channel and stopped as I heard the propeller make a sound I’ve never heard before.  It was the sound of the propeller spinning in mud instead of water……..  S’echouer – our new word for the day “run aground”.  We were well and truly stuck.  Thankfully the second eclusier was still around and saw us and when we shouted, S’echouer!! “ at him, he said he’d go and get his car to pull us off.  Mike wasn’t convinced that his Renault Kangoo would shift Quaintrelle’s 20 tonne bulk but we had no option but to try……

Passing the entrance to the Canal Clignon gave us the opportunity to sing in all truth, "There's Clignon on the Starboard side, starboard side, starboard side......" :D
The lock keepers wondering how the hell they'll get the gates to open
Can you give us a tow please.... Quaintrelle's complete humiliation, being shifted by a kangoo.
As he pulled us off, we had a very quick discussion, having been told that the next locks might be the same we decided to go back down and call it a day on the Ourcqe.  It wasn’t great but it was too risky to go on any further and Quaintrelle couldn’t handle any further humiliation.  So we went back down the lock to Mareuil where the kind lock keeper advised we’d be better to spend the night in the lock, or as they say in French, ‘It’s better to sleep in the lock’, which clearly means sleep in your boat in the lock, not you yourself….  We allowed ourselves a wee chuckle at this; third night spent in a lock!  We locked the boat up and got the bikes out to cycle the remaining 10 kilometers to Port au Perche – the end of the Ourcq so that we could still claim it as completed.  I was shattered; I had kayaked 4k that morning, had a nervous breakdown running aground and now we were on the bikes for a 20k round trip.  We took it easy and much of the ride was in the shade but even the early evening sun was hot when it hit us.  When we got back we showered, changed and headed out to find somewhere to eat as we were too tired to cook and were gasping for a cold glass of wine (it was Friday after all!!).  As is typical of our idyllic lifestyle, we’re frequently in the wrong place at the wrong time and we found ourselves in probably the only decent-sized town in France that doesn’t have a fuckin’ restaurant.  We could have cried.  We were almost too tired to walk back to the boat and eyed up the benches in the square briefly….. then went back to the boat where I cooked and we drank more wine than normal.
I don't think I can go on much further.....
The end of the Ourcq - Port au Perche  A bit of an anticlimax, I expected a port with an ice cream shop :(
The impressive fort and old mill wheel at Ferte Milon, where there was an ice cream shop thankfully.
The lock at Ferte Milon that we didn't reach in the boat
Waiting to go down after spending the night in the lock at Mareuil
On Saturday morning, remembering I had sat on the bottom of this lock on the way up, I was very, very nervous that I’d end up on the bottom and unable to get out and we were on our own; it was Saturday and the lock keepers don’t work on Saturday (they’re really civil servants working for the Marie, with the locks just being part of what they look after.)  I kept her moving backwards and forwards as the levels dropped, hoping to carve a channel in the mud so we wouldn’t get stuck, but the lock was taking forever to empty and the churn from the propeller getting thicker and blacker with every minute and my blood pressure getting higher and higher…. Finally it was ready and Mike got the gates opened, only just in time as I managed to grind out, but my relief didn’t really get time to be even short-lived as when my tail end left the gate Quaintrelle hit a mud bank and started to heel over to the side, and kept tilting as I screamed and screamed convinced she was going to topple right over and fill up with silty, black, smelly mud.  I had a major panic attack and after stopping screaming, thought I was going to pass out, feeling breathless and a bit giddy, so just to put that to bed, I did the next best thing and started crying… sobbing, but managed to back up and get the back end close enough to the side for Mike to get back on and get us through the shallow channel without further mishap.  It was awful.  Once clear I cried again (maybe I should mention ‘my age’ at this point, and associated symptoms of anxiety, emotion, panic attacks along with the usual hot flushes…..), I was so sure we’d been about to lose our home to the mud of the Ourcq.

We continued on feeling more safe with the water levels as we came away from Mareuil, we were back on the canal where the levels are monitored and kept constant.  Well, that’s what they say but we found ourselves grinding along the bottom in places we hadn’t had a problem on the way up.  We should have been quicker as we were now travelling with the current, but it didn’t feel that way as we had to keep our speed down for fear of hitting the bottom – quite frustrating really.  We did a long day as we’d seen it all before, stopping at Lizy sur Ourcqu again for fuel, and finding it was now down to 1.13 a litre, we filled the tank then went back and filled the cans again.  Keen to find a restaurant to eat at in the evening, Mike checked Trip Advisor and the maps and found a rural mooring where, surprisingly, we managed to get in to the side.  A short cycle through some fields and along the banks of the Marne and we were in civilisation where sadly the best restaurant was full, but the one next door had space.  The food and wine was fine but the setting sitting on the bank of the Marne really made it.  Hopefully we’ll get into the good restaurant the next time we pass when we’re navigating the River Marne.
That pudding will not have helped my muffin top in any way... :(

Another sunny morning greeted us on Sunday and we headed off on another longish day this time stopping of at the second pumping station for a look.  As it was Sunday it was completely closed so there wasn’t anyone around to persuade to let us have a look inside, so a peer through the gates was as good as it got.
All closed up
Quaintrelle looking at home on the wee canal

Our next point of interest was back to the lock at Varreddes and the nicest lock keepers in the world.  I wasn’t sure if they’d be around with it being Sunday but as soon as we pulled up, they appeared with their huge smiles and greeted us like old friends.  We chatted away as he filled our water tank again and this time he even checked if we needed fuel – I think he was going to take our cans to the garage in his van!  On our previous visit we’d been discussing cheese.  The French love to talk about food as well as eat it and we’d had a whole conversation on how good French cheese is.  After discussing the good restaurant we’d missed out on the previous night, he gave us the number to make a reservation the next time we want to go, told us about his fantastic meal he’d had there, in great detail, then disappeared into the house.  He reappeared moments later with a bag of Fromage de Meaux and a bottle of Muscadet wine.  He explained it’s the best cheese, made in Meaux at the museum (how in hell’s name did we miss a cheese museum!!??!) and the creamy one is particularly nice with the Muscadet.  This was all presented to us to enjoy!!  Madame was also around to chat and we had a laugh over the Paris Plages that have been set up for the summer along the riverfronts of Paris with sand, deck chairs, all you could want from a beach in the city centre.  All too soon, our water tank was full and we left the lock and our kind friends, amazed and touched by their kindness to two strangers.

We were heading back to Super Furry Central at Meaux and had one more lock to do in a less attractive part of the town, so it was hardly surprising that the lock appeared to be out of operation.  We had no idea what to do, the keys just weren’t doing anything and this was a fully automated lock that had been so simple on the way up.  After a while of trying a man came out of the lock house and tried with his keys – no joy.  This made me feel a bit better as it’s always a bit of a relief to know it’s not operator error………  He made a few phone calls but wasn’t optimistic that he’d get a hold of someone as it was Sunday, however, a few minutes later, he went up into the control tower of the lock and the gates opened.  We think he needed permission from his boss to enter the tower to get the lock going but hadn’t been sure his boss would answer his phone on a Sunday.  We were mightily relieved to get through this lock as we wouldn’t have been happy mooring there overnight, or leaving the boat unattended.  Again we scraped our way along bits of canal we’d sailed over just a few days before and reached Super Furry Mooring to find we couldn’t really get any part of Q in apart from her nose, so we moored anyway with her bum hanging out in the middle of the canal – not a problem with only three boats a year navigating this canal according to Madame Varreddes.  We were disappointed that the Super Furries also seemed to have moved on and we saw not a single one on our return stay.

Rain arrived on Monday morning and we stopped on the other side of Meaux on the offside where it looked safe enough to leave the boat after squeezing past a work team building retaining walls along the bank.  We headed into the town for a proper look and to check the moorings on the Marne there – the town is on the Canal d’Ourcq on one side and the Marne on the other.  It seems a pleasant enough town and we had a lovely lunch in L’Authentique before cruising on and stopping of the night at the pumping station we had visited on the way up.  I managed a quick run between some heavy showers (the muffin top is still here, but I feel better!) while Mike obsessed over the weather forecast anticipating that we would have rain again in Paris on our return.
Workies not leaving much room to pass - just as well we're slim!
Very tame turkey bird taking bread from my hand - he lived at the lock at Meaux
The next day was a short hop to Clay Souilly where we made use of the supermarket, Mike had a telecom with a client and I did the blog and cleaned the bathroom and Wednesday took us off the Ourcq and back into Paris where we moored back at Villette and spent the afternoon at the wonderful science museum and took in an IMAX Movie and had a shot with a VR movie.
There was a few areas of activity with canoes and paddle boats but this one had taken up the whole width of the canal!
Coming back into civilisation
The science museum

Mate, trust me, you don't look fierce enough - try this!

Enjoying the Virtual Reality option
The big silver ball is the IMAX
The canal Saint Denis heading out to the north west of Paris
The Ourcq is indeed a road less travelled as the dimensions do not allow for most boats to go further than Meaux – if they get that far.  But for a narrowboat, it was a little piece of England in canal context, but with better weather!  We had no problems with width and as a slightly deeper-drafted narrowboat (2 feet 6 inches, or 0.75cm) only had a few issues with the depth.  If there had been the normal rainfall over the last few months, perhaps the river levels further up would have been fine, although I think the lock entrances are just completely silted up from lack of use.  It’s a shame that it’s not more used as it is incredibly beautiful and we saw so much wildlife; birds, ragonde, watervoles, snakes!  Despite the couple of moments on the mudbanks, this little canal ranks up there with my favourites – it won’t be forgotten any time soon.

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