We left Peronne on a dull overcast morning after filling up the water tank at the Marina. ‘Peniches’ were already moving on the Canal du Nord after the May Day ‘jour ferie’ but we made the 3km to the branch of the Canal de la Somme passing only one of them, and the first yellow flag irises flowering along the bank, arriving at the VNF Sormont Lock at 11.30am. The traffic lights were blank but there was definitely a Dutch barge in the lock, exiting, and as the lower gates closed we waited patiently for the lock to fill. After ten minutes we thought that perhaps something might be ‘en panne’ (broken down) and so called the number on the board as we hovered in the stream, there being no bollards on which to moor. An answer phone doesn’t really help much in these circumstances and so I called another number which was listed in our Fluviacarte guide and got an answer saying that he could see us on the monitor and something wasn’t working right and that he would see to it – and sure enough he appeared the next minute and fiddled about on the lock-side until a green light showed and the lock duly filled. We exited the lock, at 12.00 midday, to see a large sign on the bank informing us of a number to ring for the Poste Central d’Exploitation (PCE) de l’Agence Departmentale et Maritime de la Somme. It is not easy to slow the boat down, call the crew for a pen and paper and get the number memorised and written down before it passes out of sight, whilst finding the boat slewing towards a tree on the bank in a generally uncontrolled glide – and we didn’t manage to avoid it. Whilst listening to the answer phone and trying to correct the glide I wasn’t sure whether I had heard that the PCE was closed from 11.45am till 3.30pm, or was it 13.30?, and having recovered our composure we carried on to a swing bridge at Feuilleres where further instructions told us to wait, which we were glad to do, and to have lunch whilst we did so. There was no sign of the Dutch barge which was preceding us and so I assumed that their timing had been better than ours and that they had made contact with the centre earlier. I called the PCE hopefully, at 1.30pm, to get a cheery answer and someone on their way to open the bridge and introduce us to the Somme.
The ‘eclusier’ who arrived was not very easy to understand at first and I had to ask him specifically for the ‘Guide Fluvial’, and I sort of gathered that he might be at the next lock to see us through but I wasn’t sure, and after passing a sign which seemed to indicate that I should call the PCE, when he was at the Frise Lock I asked him again and he made it clear that he would be in front of us and there was no need to call the centre before each lock. We could stop at any time, and then call the centre when we wanted to get started again.
We kept going to Cappy, where there is a Locoboat Hire base, and found a nice bank with conveniently placed trees to substitute for bollards (strictly forbidden but the bollards were all spoken for) and we made ourselves comfortable for the night. We had travelled for 16km passing through 3 locks and 2 lift bridges. In the morning we walked into town where there was a lone Boulanger and bought some bread. On our way back we noticed a sign indicating the direction for a location for fresh vegetables and fruits and so we asked the passing post lady how far it was. She conferred with a local inhabitant and we gathered that it wasn’t far but might not be open yet, and we concluded it was best to get the bikes out, which in due course we did, and we found at the end of a country lane about a ten minute bike ride away a market garden selling its own fresh produce.
Having stocked up on veg and some locally brewed cider, we called the PCE and set off for Chipilly, stopping at Mericourt Lock for the obligatory 12noon to 1.30pm lunch break, and very good it was too, before arriving at 2.30pm to find two hire boats taking up the mooring. We hovered, and discovered that they were both about to depart, and so we were able to moor up once they had left and then walk into the village to see the sculpture of a British soldier comforting his wounded and dying horse. We had travelled only 12kms and passed through 3 locks. There was a bar by the quay which also sold gas and so we bought a bottle and left our empty orange, now redundant, English cylinder by the adjacent recycling bins, hoping no-one would object. On our departure the next morning I noticed it was no longer there.
The next day, after watching a water vole inspecting the towpath opposite, we called the PCE at 10.00am and set off again heading for Corbie, some 12km away with only 1 lock to pass through. On arrival there, before lunch, we found that we had caught up with the Dutch barge Vroewe Anna Maria and we moored on the quay next to her and were greeted by her Australian owners Charles and Judith. They explained that as it was a Sunday the nearby supermarket had closed at midday for the day and so when we invited them for drinks that evening I had to explain that we were down to our last bottle of red and last bottle of white wine. They kindly responded by inviting us to finish up some mussels with them for dinner.
After Anna Maria departed the next morning we decided to stay on for a day and moved onto the pontoon mooring they had just vacated which had water and electric supply in a ‘bourne’ for two euros for four hours, which turned out to be more than seven hours. We went shopping twice to the Simply supermarket, once for food and once for wine, having to wheel rather than ride our overladen bicycles back to the boat. The mooring was beside a ‘park homes’ type of campsite on a well maintained towpath cum picnic area and was altogether very pleasant, quiet and scenic, whilst being a short walk into the well-kept and almost park like ‘centre-ville’.
The PCE like to be given thirty minutes notice of one’s intended departure and we have found in practice that they are usually wherever you need them to be in about fifteen minutes. At Corbie Lock they called us back at the allotted time to ask us where we were and when I replied that there was already a boat in the lock they told me that it was waiting for us. It didn’t look like there was enough room for us and the large cruiser, Levana, that was now being asked to move forward but the ‘eclusier’ had worked out that there should be 3m spare and was obviously enjoying the challenge of getting two English boats into the same lock, so we joined in the fun with a lot of discussion and red felt pen marking of where the cill might be exactly and we descended ever-so slowly with great care from the lock keeper. We have found all the lock-keepers to be not only friendly and helpful but to be enjoying the contact with boaters, even in the pouring rain.
From Corbie we travelled the 19km and 3 locks to Amiens, stopping for lunch at a rural quay near Lamotte-Brebiere, all in the company of Levana, and on arrival at Port d’Amont we fitted onto the pontoon just in front of Levana and Anna Maria, having thought that we might be able to squeeze through the Pont du Cange. There is a nice photograph of this bridge in ‘Inland Waterways of France’ by David Edwards-May and it shows a widebeam boat moored at exactly the same spot as we finished up in after scattering a group of schoolchildren in rowing skiffs from the centre opposite and reversing away from the bridge against quite a strong current once we realised it was far too narrow for us to pass through.
The thing about the moorings at Port d’Amont in Amiens is that there is a rather innocuous looking bar called ‘The English Pub’ just across the street which appears to be closed until, that is, about 2am when it must actually be closing time and a lot of fairly drunk and jolly students are cast loose. This creates that wakeful sleep in which a boater always has an ear out for the sound of footsteps on the pontoon or worse still on the boat itself. We suffered no actual incursions, although Anna Maria next to us lost her Australian flag, but after two nights of this we were ready to move on to get a good night’s sleep somewhere else. We did manage to visit the Cathedral and the house of Jules Verne although our sightseeing was rather curtailed on 8th May as it turned out to be a public holiday (again!). It was comforting to have the company of Peter, on Levana, as he was using Amiens with its good rail links, as a staging post for a change of crew and he and Pauline came for a dinner of steak and kidney pie.
Our amazing luck with five weeks of fine weather came to an end in Amiens and we had frequent and quite heavy showers and indeed moved off in one and got fairly wet during the 13kms and 3 locks to Samara, the Roman name for the Somme, where we had to make a turn and moor on the pontoon facing up-stream as the flow was getting fairly strong after all the rain. Peace at last though in this ‘Pre-history Park’ which we visited the next day and where we stayed for two nights.
A short run of 2kms took us in to Picquigny where we went in search of shops and found the desired chemist and butcher and had a nice walk round before going back to the boat for lunch. Then it looked like rain. Then Peter in Levana arrived with fresh crew, Marilyn, and so we stayed on and had an evening drink together.
From Picquigny we cruised the 19kms and 2 locks to Long, passing through a very weedy pound leading up to La Breilloire lock, but despite the weed we made good time covering the distance in less than two and a half hours including the locks. I went for an afternoon walk around this little town which has a very nice riverside chateau and gardens, unfortunately for us only open in July and August, and learned that the restaurant and the butcher, both closed, would both be closed on Monday too. We went for an evening stroll, as it was a lovely evening, and encountered a canoeist at the lock at about 8pm asking, in his best Zimbabwean French, for directions to the campsite. His canoe had ‘Calais to Carcasonne’ emblazoned on the side and this was his first day out having launched himself not at Calais but at St Valery. We walked along the towpath and found a sign to the camping but I doubt very much that he found anyone ‘at home’.
On May 12 it was our wedding anniversary and so we decided to make Abbeville in time for lunch, and hopefully a decent restaurant. There is a depot by the moorings at Long, and I had helped an eclusier fish a very large and heavy old TV out of the river, so there was no delay in getting going. We were warned about the fast flow which speeded us down this very pretty 16km stretch of winding river, through 2 locks, and into Abbeville in just under 2 hours. We set off into town in plenty of time for lunch passing closed shop after closed bar after closed restaurant. A local shopkeeper who was actually open before lunch directed us to ‘Etoile du Jour’ where we sat in an olde-worlde restaurant and were given the Menu du Jour (no other menu choice) and chose between 2 items for each of the 3 courses, all for 15 euros each. We enjoyed it very much, although the cooking was average, and thought ourselves lucky not to have had to eat a Turkish kebab – the only other offering in town that was available. Mind you, we had Onion Bhajis at our wedding!
The mooring pontoon at Abbeville was just what we needed with a Carrefour Market and fuel station literally across the road, and a post office up the street. So we did a fuel run for another 40 litres of diesel, a major stocking up on toiletries and wine and food, and we decided to have our post sent out from Reading – for the first time since our arrival in France – and this meant that the post should have arrived and be waiting for us, Poste Restante, by the time we had gone to St Valery, at the mouth of the Seine, and come back. Of course, this had to be done on Tuesday as the Poste was closed on Monday and as we returned to the boat we saw Anna Maria pulling in to the far end of the pontoon, so we were able to eat lunch with Charles and Judy, and get the latest on moorings and sightseeing in St Valery, where they had spent the previous two days. They carried on after lunch for Pont Remy and we left for St Valery the following morning.
It took us only 2 hours to cruise the 15kms, 1 lock and 5 swing bridges to St Valery along a very straight and wide stretch of canal. Our passage was speeded by our low air draught which enabled us to pass under all the bridges whilst they remained closed and we arrived well before lunch and moored on the pontoon before the sea lock. After lunch we cycled the short distance into this very picturesque old harbour town and climbed up the hill into the old medieval fort and admired the view over the bay towards Crotoy.