For the last three days, since we left Vitry le Francois, we have being climbing up to the summit. On a canal that means locks and we have gone through 71 to get here. Nuala and I have become a slick team at working the locks.
We have managed to get here with only a few small scratches on the boat (no mean feat when you consider we are driving a 40 foot long boat into locks that are only 4 foot wider than the boat) and one bit of change in the wind or water flow can put you off course. We stayed overnight outside the last lock and in the morning went into it at 9.00am.
We got chatting to Eric the lock keeper and he invited us in to his VNF office for coffee. We don’t think he does that very often. He was intrigued that we were from Ireland- again we are the first Irish boat he has seen.
We have a photo of us taken by Eric with the boat at the summit. It was very interesting to hear his story. Two years ago there were ten barges per week using the canal. Now it’s down to one per week. Ten years ago, at this lock there were fifteen staff. Today there are six. As people retire they don’t replace them. Eric is very worried about what is happening and what the future holds.
Nuala chatted away to him in French. I could follow the conversation but my French was not good enough to have a full conversation with him and discuss with him what is happening . I saw the same process happen to my father who worked for CIE (The Irish Railway Company) in Sligo in the 1980’s and as the railways lost out to road transport, the business declined and then disappeared.
The same is happening to the French Canal system, it’s losing out to road haulage. I hope it can adapt to a pleasure craft industry and survive. After all this canal has been here since 1853, it’s very beautiful and a great engineering marvel.
After this lock we had to go through the Tunnel de Mauvages (which is through the top of the mountain). Until two years ago you would have to be towed through the tunnel by a tug but now they let you motor through but the lock keeper has to accompany you. To do this, he has to drive in his van to the tunnel entrance, then cycle alongside the boat on the tow path through the tunnel and see you safely out the other side.
We could not believe when we saw Eric putting on his hat, coat and gloves and getting on his bike at the tunnel entrance. He was right. It was cold. It was very hard to concentrate on keeping the boat in the channel (again about two foot on either side of the boat in a semi dark tunnel for 5 kms which takes 50 minutes and avoid hitting the walls) – but we made it.
On the other side we started to come down the mountain and again more locks, but this time emptying rather than filling- a different experience. All in all, this is a magical part of our journey – rural and peaceful. We know the mighty Rhine is before us with its massive commercial barges but for now we can enjoy the almost empty canals and an army of VNF staff watching out and minding us.