On the way back along the Midi Canal – part 1.

Today is the first day of summer, the longest day, the June Solstice, midsummer night, and the Fete de la Musique – all rolled into one – and it seems hardly possible that four weeks have already passed since we returned to Toulouse from a week in England to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. The party went well, despite the rain in the afternoon just as guests arrived for tea, and a good time was had by all fifty or so family, local friends, neighbours and carers.

Family celebrations at The Patch, Lacock, Wiltshire.

We set off from Toulouse heading east and have so far covered 160kms of the 240km total length of the Midi Canal. Having spent 6 weeks getting from Carcassonne to Toulouse (April 1st– May 12th) we fairly raced back covering the same distance in 10 days, arriving in port in time for Pentecost and finding virtually all the shops shut on both Sunday and Monday, although fortunately Monoprix had an exceptional opening on Monday morning so we were able to stock up on food. And we managed to get a propane gas refill and 2 Jerry cans of diesel.

Port St Sauveur, Toulouse.

On our way we had made overnight stops at PK 18 above Vic Lock, PK 26.5 by the Intermarche above Montgiscard, PK 38 above Laval Lock, and for two nights at PK 57 by Not Poterie just below Mediterranee Lock, whilst it rained for a while.

Not Pottery Cassole gets summer use as a fruit bowl.

At Castelnaudary, PK 65, we missed seeing Anne and David on Cassandra but were lucky to find Maggie and Nigel, who came for dinner, at home on Gesina.

Gesina, 3rd from left, at Castelnaudary.

A night moored just above St Sernin Lock, PK 69.7 nearly ended in disaster as we found the water rising above the bank after the locks above were emptied at 7pm – we switched banks in a hurry!

Moored above St Sernin Lock, before the level started to rise.

At Bram, PK 81, we found that the Port really has closed, due to insolvency, and there were no services available. We spotted Alex, Busted Flush, picking up his car and had news of his progress. At Villesequalande, PK 91, it rained all afternoon and we suffered from too many flies, but we made the acquaintance of Sander and Tina whose boat, not called but from Sneek, we have passed many times over the last two years. On our descent into Carcassonne we passed Busted Flush and Lady Sue sitting together above the double lock at Lalande and agreed to catch up for drinks somewhere along the canal before we all reach the Rhone.

Carcassonne Port and Hotel Boat Alouette approaching the lock.

It felt rather sad leaving Carcassonne, PK 105, and saying goodbye, perhaps for the last time, to Stephanie and Chayma (at the Capitainerie) who had looked after us so well over two winters and several shorter stays in between. And we felt suddenly very tired – neither of us sure why, particularly – so when we spotted the empty 20m concrete quay at PK 115.5 just before Trebes we made fast against the speeding passing hire boats and stayed quietly on our own for four nights. First Cassandra and then Busted Flush and Lady Sue passed by on their way to Trebes. We cycled in the short 2km along the canal path for a lunch at La Poissonerie Moderne with friend Nigel (local resident, not boater!) and a trip to the Super U (one of two supermarkets in Trebes).

A quay to ourselves just before Trebes.

Feeling somewhat rested and with the British General Election results just in we headed on to Trebes and, finding the town quay empty, were able to stop and fill with water whilst also doing some last minute shopping. It was disappointing to find that the Tourist Office, which we remembered for having a good and well-priced range of locally produced wines, had changed hands and Tourism Grande Carcassonne doesn’t go in for wines. We arrived at the Trebes Triple lock at 11.30am, and chatted to Anne and David on Cassandra as they went in but, although next in line, we were not able to enter until after the lock-keeper’s lunchbreak had finished at 1.30pm. This gave us plenty of time to also chat to Paul and Sue, Lady Sue, and Alex, Busted Flush, moored nearby and who had heard that the water tap at Marseillette (hidden behind the wall – the secret that all boaters know about!) was out of action. They asked us to check it out for them and text back so that they could reverse up if needed onto the Trebes water point before heading on.

Taking on water in Trebes, beside the restaurant terraces.

At Marseillette, PK 127, the free water tap by the wooden jetty just after the bridge is indeed out of service. So too is the water bourne, €2 for 100 litres, on the smaller wooden jetty further along – I learned from a local boater that VNF (who run the waterways) had forbidden the local Mairie (who run the water supply) to sell water to passing boaters. So I was able to report back and was rather pleased with myself for having followed the well-known boater’s maxim “never pass a water tap without topping up”. At the nice bakery in Marseillette (the only shop in town) they have stopped making my favourite ‘Pain Viking’ and now do a sort of half-breed not quite malted but seeded loaf. It is not as good – and so another disappointment along the canal here. But Nigel came to the rescue with a lovely invitation to a BBQ lunch at his house, complete with swimming pool and full-sized snooker table, in Laure Minervois. It had been a very hot day and by the time Nigel had driven us back at 8pm the internal temperature in the boat had reached 37C/100F.

Chez Nigel. The way to spend a hot day.

With a forecast for hotter weather in the days ahead we set off in search of the first shady tree we could find which wasn’t until just before Puicheric Bridge at PK 135. Tying up to a couple of solid roots with a spring line back to a tree across a not very well travelled path we withstood the pounding from waves of speedy hireboats for four nights (one of the roots did finally come loose – the last straw being a passing Hotel Boat.

Some isolated shade near Puicheric.

Cycling into town (Vival grocery store, butcher, baker, small newsagent, wine cave and Martine the hairdresser who curiously enough I have now visited thrice) we saw no sign of Roberto Locatelli in the corner garden, with the flags by the bridge, and wondered if he was still around. It had been two years since we had last seen this local octogenarian when, as usual, he had appeared beside the boat with a basket of green beans and other veg, fresh from his garden. But later that afternoon we heard the familiar tinkle of the bell on his trug! This year he has gone into the flower business for the first time – which was most opportune as it was Pam’s birthday the next day and as it happened the roses on offer were her favourite colour. He couldn’t advise on the new restaurant Chez Modeste that has been opened recently by the butcher in town so we had to take our chances for Pam’s birthday lunch. It proved to be excellent value, spotlessly clean, nice fresh ingredients well cooked – but perhaps trying a little too hard and it seemed to us to lack a typically ‘french’ atmosphere. On our final morning Roberto came by as arranged with a basketful of fresh veg and some more flowers – and a week later we are still eating green beans.

Hotel Boat passing under Puicheric Bridge.

Our next stop at Homps, PK 145, the only place we know of with free mooring, water and electric for the first night, didn’t disappoint. We found a spot on the quay next to Amethyst, a shared ownership narrow boat based in Carcassonne, and were able to fill up with water and recharge our batteries whilst sitting beside the boat, in a small patch of Oleander shade, sharing a drink with Chris and Trish.

The Port at Homps, beside an Oleander and Amethyst.

We left port at 10.45am and it took us two hours to travel two kilometres, passing through first the Homps Lock, where we waited by an empty lock, gates open, for 20 mins (the permitted time lock-keepers can keep you waiting) for an Hotel Boat that didn’t arrive, and then by the double Ognon lock for 25 mins whilst the lock-keeper did two upward lock movements in succession without letting us down in between – because the hire boats had all been waiting for an hour and a half for the Hotel Boat – which had passed through as we arrived. Just after the Garde Lock d’Ognon, PK 147.5, we knew there was shade with wooden bollards (a valuable combination on the Midi) and we pulled in behind Evelyn J, Peter, just as Vintage Cru, Peter and Margaret, moored on his other side. After lunch and a siesta we were invited over onto Evelyn J’s aft deck (the shadiest spot between us) and shared a very convivial evening and impromptu paella. Next morning Vintage Cru left early but we decided to stay in at least partial shade as the forecast was for continued very hot weather and we also had a date for a ‘spa’ day with Nigel the following day – we needed to be somewhere easy to find and reach by car, which this is. Peter shared a BBQ lunch with us but was driven out the next morning by too many flies and an army of ants. We were glad to be able to shut up the boat and be driven off to relax in a shady garden and swim in a refreshing pool (un-heated water temp 28C!) – a real treat, and when my phone pinged, I realised it was Father’s Day too! On our return from Nigel’s, again well after 8pm, we moved the boat half a kilometre into an open space where we could benefit more from the breeze and get away from the flies.

Feet up on Father’s Day Chez Nigel.

The next day was mercifully overcast with a breeze blowing right through the boat and as we found ourselves on wooden bollards and ‘fly-free’ we stayed put – a little in need of a rest after 5 days of ‘social drinking’ and eating. It was even cool enough to get on the roof and wash it down with buckets of canal water.

A passing ‘peniche’ on an overcast morning.

Another morning of overcast skies encouraged us to move on down through the double locks at Pechlaurier and the single at Argens to reach the 54 km lock-free pound between Argens and Beziers. We had a much quicker run this time from PK 148 through the locks, and had reached Paraza, PK 157, in two hours. We stopped here for lunch on the end of a quay giving priority to passenger boats – there was no other free space and we have never found empty moorings at either Roubia or Paraza. Peter had advised us that he had found no shade until he reached Ventenac and with more even hotter weather forecast we thought we had better find shade again and so moved on after lunch. At Ventenac, PK 160, we found good wooden posts and empty moorings under trees – this despite many trees having been cut down since our last visit here.

Ventenac. In the shade as Alouette passes us again.

There is a good breeze, from time to time, shade all day, hardly any flies, peace and quiet except for the incessant daytime noise of the cicadas, and no lights at night. And today it is cooler here than in Reading, England, according to my Met Office App! So, as long as our water holds out we are putting our feet up and staying in the shade.

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Onward to Toulouse.

This may be becoming a habit – same armchair, another perfect warm sunny day, another selle of lamb, this time with a bottle of Buzet, and another round, this time the final, of the French presidential election. On May 7th we were comfortably moored up in the little Halte Nautique cum Locaboat base at Negra (PK 33) connected to water and electric but finding the office unmanned.

Halte Nautique at Negra.

Since May 1st, we had not travelled far – some 10 km and 3 locks from Renneville (PK 42) following the A61 Autoroute. On Labour Day the locks had been closed (1st Jan, 1st May, 11th Nov and 25th Dec on the Midi) and so, in view of our ‘getting desperate’ food shortage, we decided to cycle the 2 km, between rain showers, in to Villefranche de Lauragais. We thought that there was a sporting chance that one of, either the Spar, Super U, or Aldi supermarkets might be open at least in the morning but not even the McDonald’s showed any sign of life. However, there was a butcher/deli in the town centre open and we joined the ever long queue to stock up on duck aiguillettes and pork chops and for good measure stopped off at a bakery opposite for some Turkish sweet treats for tea.

The quay at Renneville and trip boat Surcouf.

The following day we moved on to Gardouch (PK 39), mooring up to trees on the S bend before the permanent moorings and the town quay (on four previous visits we had never found a space on the quay but this time it was empty for most of our stay), and liked it so much that we stayed for five nights. We had good TV reception, OK mobile internet, bright sunny spells, heavy rain, and gale force winds during our stay but none of this stopped some charming nightingales from serenading us, night and day.

5 nights wild mooring with nightingales in Gardouch.

We had not previously visited Gardouch village and cycled in for a look-see. There are a pizzeria and two bakeries – the church was closed but I was intrigued to notice that the War Memorial was commemorating those killed in Indochina 1945-1954 and in North Africa 1952-1962 – and we came away with only a bag of ten ‘chouquettes’ (delicious little sweet choux pastry puffs).

Memorial in Gardouch.

More serious shopping had to wait for two more trips into Villefranche de Lauragais – first to the retail park Super U (nearer to Gardouch than Renneville) and then on Friday, Market Day, to the town centre and Spar (not a bad little shop with a very friendly butcher who cut us the selle lamb joint). The outdoor Friday market was excellent too.

A space on the quay, Gardouch.

Our larder anxieties now assuaged and with another Bank Holiday weekend coming up (VE Day, May 8th) we moved on to Negra where we needed to find water – it had been ten days since we last filled our tank. On Monday the little port came to life with a couple of hire boats appearing and change-over routines being enacted, and we were able to pay our dues and get permission to stay another night (€14 a night including water and electric).

Negra lock and Chapel.

Having cycled up the steep hill to Montesquieu-Lauragais (old capital of the pastel trade) on our visit here last year we opted for a cycle ride this time to the north (passing first under the A66 motorway and then over the A61 – they connect here) to the lesser known village of St-Rome.

St Rome. A mixture of architectural styles.

At the end of the C19th the Marquis de la Panouse had his vision of an ideal town built, in a range of unusual architectural styles, with the idea of bringing together farmers, craftsmen and agricultural labourers. One can only get glimpses now of a curious mix of Moorish, Palladian, Flemish, and Neo-Byzantine styles from the road around the Chateau. I’d have loved to have been able to see more inside but all the gates were firmly closed.

Architectural detail in St Rome.

Unlike May Day, which had been wet and cold, VE Day was glorious and we enjoyed the luxury of being in port with all mod cons – a full water tank and fully charged batteries on the mains.

Leaving St Rome, heading back to Gardouch.

But back to the business of everyday living we needed to move on and make a pit stop on the overgrown bank, non-tow-path side at about PK 26, where there is a well-hidden but direct access on foot across the minor road straight into the car park of a little retail park – Lidl, Super Intermarche, bank and Brico, car repair workshop and petrol station. I got a bit over enthusiastic in the Intermarche on discovering that the last bottles of goat’s milk were right at the back of the top shelf and could only be reached by dint of standing in my shopping cart. There was no problem getting up there to reach the milk but on the way down I managed to fetch up on my back in the bottled water section in the opposite aisle; fortunately on plastic bottles for a softish landing! Although a little bruised, and severely reprimanded by Pam, I was still able to complete the other domestic chore for that day – 500 manual pumps to empty the black water tank – before moving on sharply to the high stone quay just above Montgiscard lock (PK 25, water only, 4 stone bollards, free) beside quite a busy road.

Lavoir and colourful barge at Montgiscard.

On our previous visits we had not thought to stop here but I was keen to see if there really was a working water tap, as marked in the du Breil guide, and Pam spotted the chemist just across the road. The TV and phone reception were both good and we found that the high stone quay protected us somewhat from the nearby passing traffic and made for quite a comfortable and private berth. We wandered up into town the next morning (post office, newsagent, baker, two restaurants) before an early lunch on board and set off again at 1pm when we discovered that the lock was operating during the normal lunch hour (12.30-1.30) closure time. The weather forecast for that Wednesday was continuing high winds and for rain and thunder storms and higher winds the following day.

Toulouse architecture. 6 bay bell gable on C14th church in Montgiscard.

We were not due into Toulouse until Friday, so we decided to sit Thursday out just above Castanet lock, the last before entering Toulouse, and we managed to tie up with a combination of pins and a well-placed tree root in the relative shelter of the plane trees at PK 16. Again, we were driven partly by wanting to visit somewhere new, this time a lock-side restaurant recommended to us by fellow boater David Rothery.

Castanet Ecluse on a dull wet day.

It has been a few years since David visited L’Ecluse Restaurant at Castanet so I checked on TripAdviser where the latest review was not complimentary. It was a dull rainy day and we decided to go anyway and opted for the €16 Menu du Jour (3 courses) which turned out to be Salad (frisee lettuce with lardons, croutons, gouji berries, and a poached egg), turkey kebabs with a hint of curry spice, grilled tomatoes, and a small portion of dauphinoise potatoes, and a choice of dessert – we opted for the chocolate mousse. It all washed down well with a bottle of local white (€16, the cheapest on the menu but you could do a degustation of the choice of wines before committing). Inside, there is a pleasant rustic atmosphere with some nice pictures of barges and drawings of an old ‘poste’ barge design. I think the restaurant has changed hands since David’s visit but it seems to have remained a ‘good value’ restaurant in a nice spot – although their machine failed to process my credit card (why does this only ever happen to us ,very infrequently, in restaurants?) so I had to cough up the €60 in cash.

Brightening up a bit. View from our Castanet mooring.

Whilst checking up on all our travel arrangements for our trip to England I came across a pamphlet ‘Let’s Visit Airbus’ that I must have picked up on our last visit to Toulouse. I had heard good reports and that it was possible to book a tour in English and fortunately decided to call ahead. Tours were only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays (and you need to book two days ahead and bring your passport) which left us with only the Saturday tour during our planned stay.

Aeroscopia Museum, Toulouse.

On Friday 12th May, our 44th wedding anniversary, we cruised a leisurely two and a bit hours from Castanets into Port St Sauveur (PK 5), shouting quick hellos to Serge, busy working on someone’s barge at Ramonville, Lady Sue (Paul and Sue) and Busted Flush (Alex and Sue) both leaving town and heading east. No doubt we will catch up with them later in the season.

Evening in Port St Sauveur, Toulouse, with trip boat Samsara making a neat turn.

Although getting to the Aeroscopia Museum, departure point of the Airbus tour, proved to be relatively easy on public transport (Tram T1 from Palais de Justice to Beauzelle (40 mins €3.20 return and then walk 15 mins across wasteland/park/building site), it took a bit of research to work this all out. In the process I realised that there was a Museum to visit in addition to the tour so thought we would do this before the 3.45pm tour, but I realised there were no eating facilities on site (I confirmed this by phone!) and so we packed a couple of baguette sandwiches bought from the nice bakery opposite the port. As it turned out there was a small hot dog van in the car park and we sat in the sunshine on a picnic bench before entering the Museum, which indeed only had a vending machine by way of providing refreshments.

Finding our way to Aeroscopia – with the help of Google Maps too!

We had allowed more time than we really needed to go round the Aeroscopia Museum so we did this at a leisurely pace, particularly enjoying looking round inside a Concorde. There were plenty of aviation facts on history boards all around as well as an interesting collection of aircraft.

Inside Aeroscopia. Aviation history and planes.

For the ‘Let’s Visit Airbus’ tour we were ushered onto a coach and with a high level of security driven into the Airbus assembly compound and taken to a viewing platform, no photos allowed, in the main assembly shed (rather larger than a shed, actually, with room for three Airbus 380s) and given a very good explanation of the whole process of building a plane and delivering it to a customer. All fascinating stuff and involving mind boggling amounts of money – but good to see a joint project set up by European government partners, France, Germany, Spain and United Kingdom, to challenge US dominance in the aircraft market, that has succeeded.

Great to get a closer look at Concorde.

Before setting off for England we managed to fit in ‘aperos’ with Daniel and Brigitte aboard Tsarine, a bit of retail therapy in town, a visit to the Basilique St Sernin, and some rather good Vietnamese street food from the ‘kiosk’ on Allees Francois Verdier by the Grand Rond.

Street food. Vietnamese at the Kiosk.

Can’t help wondering how the general warm dry ambience here will compare with our Wiltshire picnic experience this Saturday!

Early summer flowers in the Lauragais (and a bottle of Buzet for good measure).

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On the road again – Lauragais, Gers and Canal du Midi.

On Sunday 23rd April I found myself sitting in an armchair, on Xenia’s back deck with my feet up, on a perfect sunny afternoon on the summit of the Midi Canal – a gentle breeze through the plane trees overhead and illuminated by rays of dappled warm 20c sunshine.

Le Segala, on the summit of the Midi Canal.

After a very good roast ‘selle’ of lamb (for us, a new joint just off the shoulder from the excellent butcher, 2 Km away in Labastide d’Anjou) with roast new potatoes, leeks in a white sauce and red currant jelly, preceded by an aperitif or two of chilled Lillet Rose with duck scratchings and accompanied by a nice bottle of St Mont from the Gers, I settled down for a customary afternoon siesta. My view across the stream and neat rows of the vegetable garden beside us, wafts of lilac and wisteria scent in the air, belied the nearby existence in the middle ground of both the main railway line and the auto-route from Toulouse to Narbonne, neither of which could I see.

Armchair view from the stern deck at Le Segala.

Nor could I hear much of this constant traffic – well camouflaged by the neighbouring garden menagerie conversation of geese, cocks and hens, Guinea fowls, ducks, frogs, and pigeons and the constant wild twitter of birdsong. It had me reflecting that even in the midst of highways of road, rail and water transport, and despite first appearances, an oasis of tranquility can be found in which to sit quietly and just let it all pass by!

On the road to Baraigne. A view across the summit valley, motorway, railway, canal and with Montferrand in the distance.

In addition, the very large Terreal works, manufacturing roof tiles and other building materials here at Le Segala, were no more than two stones’ throw away. We cycled past them before lunch on the road to visit the hamlet of Baraigne only 2 Km away up in the hills. The C12th Romanesque church was open, the C16th Chateau we failed to access, and unusually the Mairie was open – for polling day on the first round of the Presidential elections (always held on a Sunday).

The Mairie, Baraigne, open for polling on Sunday’s first round presidential election.

Since leaving Carcassonne on April 1st we have not travelled very far, on the first day only making 3 Km to moor up at the Epanchoir de Foucaud (PK 102, wooden posts, no services – noisy frogs in season!) beside the rural Gite and old site of the three locks that had served the original canal route bypassing the city. Rain was forecast, and so we stayed for two nights and let it pass.

Rural gite at Epanchoir de Foucaud, Carcassonne.

At Villesequelande (PK 91, wooden posts and a couple of stop/start automatic shut off water taps) we stayed for two nights and were treated to an unexpected museum visit. We walked down into the nearby village to the small grocery store and in passing noticed that a Musee de la Chevalerie would be open at 10am – handwritten note for 11 am that day.

On the road in Villesequelande.

When there was still no sign of life at 11 am we popped into the Mairie next door to inquire. The curator was telephoned, found buying a new PC in Carcassonne, and whilst we waited for him to arrive we were given the key to the old church which we admired along with the C17th elm tree outside, planted by Sully (Minister to Henry IV), one of the very few in France to survive Dutch Elm disease.

The old elm tree in the square at Villesequelande.

We opted for the €6 self-guided tour of the Museum, but to no avail. After fetching change from the general store, the owner/curator was unstoppable and dressed in suitable medieval costume talked us through the history of five crusades and furnished us with weapons of medieval mass destruction and defensive and very heavy body armour. Acting as translator for Pam, when I could get a word in edge ways, I was pretty much beat by 1.45pm when our host remembered that he had a confrerie meeting to attend at 2pm and we were summarily released from our courtly duties. I felt honour bound to make up the €2 difference between the ‘libre’ and ‘guidee’ tours!

The moorings at Villesequelande and a typical old Midi bridge.

At our next stop in the port at Bram (PK 81, wooden posts opposite the port and one service point) the boating season evidently had not started – hire boats empty and idle, port office closed, water points not connected, and restaurant closed. After 3 nights we discovered that Florence, the Port proprietor and Capitaine, was in fact around and had, without a word, turned on a water supply for a few hours so we were able to replenish our tank – leaving €5 as a contribution with the gentleman (at his suggestion) who was working on the restaurant outside decking. As usual the Wednesday market in town (2 km on cycle path) was well worth a visit.

Sunset at PK 73, Canal du Midi.

We stopped, yet again, at PK 73 (wooden mooring posts, no services, one of our favourite views) but this time stayed for only one night. However, we took advantage of a glorious sunny Saturday morning to cycle into Lasbordes (one small general shop) 1 km to the north.

On the road in Lasbordes, looking north towards the Black Mountain.

And then to Pexiora 2 km to the south (much better general store/bar/cafe and a boulangerie).

On the road to Pexiora, looking south to the snow capped Pyrenees (not clouds!) in the distance.

Another 3 km further along the canal we stopped, for the first time for a night, just below St Sernin lock (PK 70, wooden posts on either side but shallow in places). All along this stretch one is spoiled for a choice of delightful rural moorings.

Sunset at St Sernin Lock.

In the pound (bief) between Vivier and Gay locks we overnighted at another favourite mooring (PK 68, wooden posts along the non-towpath side, no services) outside the Foreign Legion base of the 4th Regiment.

Early morning run – French Foreign Legion.

This makes for a very strategic approach to Castelnaudary, where we sat out hire boats coming and going from the large Le Boat base in the Grand Bassin over the weekend, and it made for an easy and fast ride up through the double lock at Gay followed by the four lock rise of St Roch to reach the port before midday on Monday. Odile (Port Capitaine) was expecting us and despite her dire warnings, when we called ahead, of there only being room for a double or triple berth, she had a single space for us on the quay outside the Capitainerie.

Peaceful mooring outside the Foreign Legion 4th Regiment Barracks.

We had booked in to the port in Castelnaudary for a week (PK 65, full services, at this time of year €82 weekly rate, or €13 nightly, including water and electric) so that we could catch a train from the station to Toulouse and connect on to L’Isle Jourdain to stay for three nights with our friends Ros and Gregor at their old farmhouse hidden away in the depths of the Gers near Samatan. And so after lunch and a few quick hellos to friends and acquaintances, still in port in their winter berths, we were on our way.

On the road in the Gers – near Aurignac.

However much we are enjoying life on the water it is always a refreshing treat to have a change of scenery and Ros and Gregor did us proud with a drive south down to the borders with the Haute Garonne for lunch at Chez Villanoue in St Martory, passing through Aurignac and Alan (site of an old bishop’s palace, now a private house) amongst other charming Gers towns and villages.

A rather ostentatious sign but good lunch none the less on market day in Rieumes.

On another day, we visited Rieumes on market day, stopping for a good lunch at Les Palmiers (€18 3 course Menu du Jour), before taking the train back to Castelnaudary via Toulouse from Muret. We spent the long Easter weekend (although Good Friday is not a public holiday in France) in Castelnaudary and had a very social time of it. On Friday evening we were invited to the weekly boaters’ get together at the Cave du Canal (this time a ‘hommage au fromage’ theme) and then on Easter Sunday to a drinks party, again with the other ‘port residents’, a’board Gesina with Nigel and Maggie.

Friday night in the Port at Castelnaudary.

On Monday we hosted June and Albert, who arrived at the last minute from Toulouse a’board Oz, to dinner and on Tuesday my cousin Paul stopped in for lunch on his way from Marciac in the Gers to Perpignan, and that night we limped out of town exhausted just as far as the quiet and peaceful quay in the countryside (PK 59, wooden posts, no services) where we rested for two nights, before heading on up to the summit at Le Segala – making a lunch stop at the Mediterranee lock to visit Not Pottery, looking for a ‘cassole’ dish (in which cassoulet is cooked and served).

Not Brothers’ Pottery and the perfect cassole.

We found ourselves so well situated at Le Segala (PK 54, wooden posts no services) that we stayed for six nights. The bicycles came out in earnest after a long winter’s rest and following our visit south to Baraigne we headed north 4 km to visit Montferrand where we were rewarded, after a climb to 300m, with stunning views over the summit valley.

Looking down from Montferrand over the Seuil de Naurouze and Riquet’s obelisk.

The points of interest, highlighted in one of my Canal du Midi guides, proved hard to find – the Romanesque church is now a private house and I’m not sure whether this is also the site of the ruins of a palaeo-Christian basilica, the Chappe telegraph tower which I thought I had found turned out to be an old mill, the ’14th century fortified door’ I realised was an old arched gateway as I passed through on what appeared to be a private driveway to find the signal tower built in 1927, to guide Aeropostale pilots, and on to the look-out point.

Orientation point, Montferrand.

None-the-less it was a very rewarding expedition on another beautiful day.

On the road – a glimpse of French country life.

We cycled back through the Seuil de Naurouze, the watershed octagonal basin designed by Riquet which we have visited previously, to check out a restaurant prospect – in fact there are now two, one of them closed on a Monday, and exceptionally this week on Tuesday, and the other closed on Tuesday. We passed on Sparks, a chambres d’hote with restaurant (no menu du jour on offer) in the nice old Royal Mill building and decided to return to Le Pas de Naurouze, opposite a large pottery retail outlet, on Wednesday on our way to Port Lauragais to top up our batteries and fill up with water.

The parting of the waters on the summit of the Canal du Midi. Left to the Atlantic Ocean and Right to the Mediterranean.

On an exceptionally cold and wet day we moved on from Le Segala as far as the Ocean lock and tied up whilst we went for a very good 3 courses lunch, €15 menu du jour, at the nearby Le Pas de Naurouze restaurant – which describes its cuisine as ‘bistronomique’ – before descending the lock and making our way the 2 km in to Port Lauragais (full services €14.50 a night inclusive of water and electric) where we moored up for the night on the somewhat difficult to access, past all the hire boats, #1 pontoon.

On the A61 auto-route. Rest area for cars, trucks and boats. Port Lauragais.

This was our first overnight stay in this rather unusual motorway rest stop, featuring restaurant, local specialities shop (rather a good selection, and surprisingly selling yesterday’s Telegraph newspaper, €4.50), hotel, tourist office with Canal du Midi display (but only open May to October, so we have yet to visit) and extensive picnic areas based around a little port, with Nichols hire boat base, adjacent to the Canal. We settled in to a quiet evening beside the fire completing the cryptic crossword in, for us, record time! Next morning I bought another paper before moving on, all of 1 km, and tying to trees just beyond the Maraval Bridge at PK 49.

On the road to Avignonet Lauragais and a tall church spire.

From here Avignonet-Lauragais is only a short 2 km cycle ride away – but first we had to negotiate a very steep bank after gang-plank only egress from the boat to get onto the adjacent cycle path. The reversible gang-plank/ladder proved its worth in an otherwise impossible shore landing!

Not such an easy landing – but needs must.

The Du Breil guide indicated that there was a butcher, a baker, a grocery store and a restaurant in town and as it was a Friday and we needed provisions for the May bank Holiday weekend we made the otherwise rather daunting exit from boat to cycle path and climbed the steep hill up to the church Notre Dame des Miracles – which has an impressive tower that we have admired from afar all along this stretch of canal.

The round tower at Avignonet Lauragais – the last vestiges of old fortifications.

We did find a shop – just the one – a baker/pizzeria with a small choice of sliced cold meats and so we returned home with only bread and ham for the weekend. Dinner that night was aubergine rissoles (based loosely on an Ottolenghi recipe). Amazing what you can do with an aubergine, four small left-over cooked new potatoes, the remnants of a tub of Madame Loik ‘fromage fouetté’, a heel of pecorino cheese, some left over mint and coriander infused crème-fraiche and a splash of Geo Watkins anchovy sauce – positively bistronomique! Next morning we moved on 2 km and 1 lock to moor up at PK 47, just past the next bridge with another road leading back to the village – the baker has a friend who sets up a stall outside the bakery selling fruit and veg on Sunday mornings. Fingers crossed. As for that Saturday night it was an old standby with the last can of tuna, some very old slices of bread, the penultimate two eggs, a heel of mimolette cheese and some milk – et voila! – tuna sandwich soufflé. Apart from the ham and some bacon already in the fridge it looked set to be a fairly meat free weekend – no bad thing for a change.

Another road back to Avignonet Lauragais. Moored just below Emborrel Lock.

The Lauragais plain is very fertile – famous for its grain production, livestock, and formerly for its wealth of pastel (pays de Cocagne) as well as for its ever present winds. Between the cooling southeast Autan and the northwest Cers winds, nearby Villefranche de Lauragais claims to have only 68 days a year wind-free, and on Sunday morning we had to get off our bikes and push them against a very stiff breeze to get to the vegetable man! We moved on that same day, with the wind behind us, mooring up below Renneville lock (PK 43, quay with stone bollards no services) beside the trip boat ‘Surcouf’. For dinner that night we dug deep and came up with corned beef hash pasties.

Comfortable mooring at Renneville for the May Day weekend – locks closed on Monday May 1st.

As we set off from Carcassonne, I did rather wonder how we would be able to make the journey to Toulouse, which we did in reverse last October easily in 4 days, last for six weeks. So far, having completed just over 60 Km in a month, with a further 40 to go in two weeks, we seem to be right on schedule.

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Rays of sunshine, weekends away and a cruising plan.

On March 17th, St Patrick’s Day, the Port changed onto boating season time – from now on no more long weekends and holidays for Chayma and Stephanie at the Capitainerie until the end of this season in November. Our neighbour John, aboard Si Solo, was the first of the twelve overwintered boats to leave before the expiry on March 31st of our ‘hivernage’ contracts, a few cruising visitors have already trickled in, and the restaurant and trip boat have returned to their respective embarkation stations along the quay.

Si Solo – a tight fit under the bridge leaving the Carcassonne lock.

After a winter of rather duller weather than usual we too are keen to get going. Sunshine has been in short supply and the spring bulbs on our roof have not been flowering for long. We noticed particularly this year that Carcassonne is neither well-endowed with gardens nor with spring flowers – so there have been no hosts of golden daffodils to cheer us up on grey, sometimes wet windy and chilly, days. We even had one day of snow on March 4th.

Our rather meagre roof spring bulb collection.

We have however been making good use of the railway station, literally at the end of our quay, to get away each month for a breath of fresh air.

Gare SNCF Carcassonne.

In February we spent a long weekend in Nimes, our first visit to this historic old town and only a two hour train ride away, where we stayed at the Cheval Blanc Apart-Hotel opposite the Roman Arena and attended the opening film Waiting for You at the 20th Annual Festival of British Screen. The film was co-written and directed by our old friend Charles Garrad, and mostly filmed in Languedoc-Roussillon, and he was invited to open the festival – so we tagged along and even managed a couple of meals with him and Mary in between his ‘realisateur’ schedule of public appearances and local hospitality.

Breakfast at Maison Courtois, Nimes with Charles and Mary.

The Festival ‘hommage’ this year was to Timothy Spall, with screenings of eight of his films, but we couldn’t stay all week and had to content ourselves with watching his three series of Somewhere at Sea on borrowed DVDs back aboard Xenia. Here in Carcassonne we did manage to get tickets to see Tosca, for one night only at the Theatre Jean-Alary, and to see the award winning film Moonlight at the Cap Colisee cinema – which we thought to be not as enjoyable as Waiting for You.

Pam meets a tall dark stranger outside the Arena, Nimes.

In March we spent a long weekend on the Costa Brava in Spain, taking the train to Cerbere, two hours plus changeover time in Narbonne, where my cousin Paul picked us up and drove us across the border to his apartment in Llanca. To start with the weather was cold and wet and on our first outing, up to the old Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, to get a splendid view of the coastline, we found ourselves in rain and impenetrable cloud. It was very atmospheric though, despite the limited visibility, and as the guidebook says “the origins of the monastery are lost in the mists of time and legend”.

Head in the clouds. Monestir de Sant Pere de Rodes.

There was quite a storm that night – we discovered later that it had visited Carcassonne too, and blown off Bluegum’s (Charles and Sally) brand new canopy – but by morning the sun was making an appearance and we set off to Portlligat to visit Salvador Dali’s house, created from four small fishermen’s cottages.

Dali’s studio at his home, Portlligat.

We loved the house and terraced gardens and lingered in the sunshine admiring the views and Dali’s inventiveness in design.

Paul and Pam relaxing by Dali’s pool on a lip sofa.

We drove into Cadaques for a walk round and a good seafood lunch, with a great view of the bay, before heading on to Figueres to The Dali Theatre Museum which he himself organised as a showcase, mainly for his own work.

Cadaques, Costa Brava, Spain.

On the last Sunday of each month there is a beach cleaning party in Llanca. Paul founded the Association ‘Platges Netes’,(www.platgesnetes.blogspot.fr) and we went last year at the end of February only to have it cancelled by rain. So it was nice to have a glorious morning and to be able to pick up some of the flotsam and jetsum that washes up into the many little rocky inlets and onto the beaches. There was a good turnout of 15 volunteers plus Paul’s new little adopted lap-dog Ella (who had been left abandoned one night outside his gate in France).

Llanca beach cleaning with Paul and Ella.

In the afternoon we drove to Castello d’Empuries, a medieval grain trading centre and county town, for a walk round town and a look at the Santa Maria del Castello church where we were treated to a short recital on the organ.

Santa Maria del Castillo church, Castello d’Empuries.

It is a wonderful stretch of coastline around the Cap de Creus and we fitted in a good morning walk towards El Port de Selva, admiring the profusion of coastal plants, wild flowers, and great views across these Mediterranean bays, before heading back to the train at Cerbere.

Far de Punta s’Arenella, Costa Brava.

All in all, a real breath of fresh air along this coast which Dali believed had its own special energy, and we arrived back in Carcassonne refreshed and ready to head off into the Midi sunshine.

Pam on stage at the Dali Theatre Museum, Figueres.

Otherwise we have been kept occupied by the ‘boat to do list’, relieved frequently by visits from friends. Mike and Aileen (nb Quaintrelle) drove down from Auxerre to shake off their narrowboat ‘cabin fever’ and we spent a lovely two days catching up on boating news, eating and drinking and planning this year’s  cruising (well, talking about it anyway!). Nigel, on a flying visit from London to see his French builder about his barn conversion, popped in to have dinner only to find that his Ryannair flight the next day from Carcassonne airport had been cancelled – baggage handlers strike. Richard on Allegretto (too small to invite us in) tempted us out to lunch at Chez Felix in the market square (Rick Stein ate here on his culinary barge tour).  Daniel and Brigitte, overwintering in Toulouse on Tsarine, drove over for lunch with us at Chez Fred. We took turns with Chantal and Alain, overwintering here on Serenas, to host ‘aperos’ aboard. Maggie, overwintering on Gesina in Castelnaudary, stopped in for coffee after taking the train here to visit a hair salon.  Charles and Sally also drove down, from Yorkshire, bringing their new cooker and canopy canvas for Bluegum, which we helped to lift into place on the stern deck. Once the cooker had also been installed on board there was room for two more passengers in their car and they kindly drove us the hour and a half to Collioure, Cote Vermeille, a centre for Fauvinist artists in the early C20th, and we enjoyed the market, a decent fish lunch at Bar de la Marine, and a nice stroll around town.

Sally finds a pair of earrings at the market, Collioure.

On the ‘to do list’ the filling of our three diesel Jerry Cans and the recharge of an empty propane gas cylinder were made easy thanks to Charles driving us up to Pont Rouge. Loic came and serviced the engine and re-attached the loose air filter, and I had a rush of blood to the head and, with Stephanie’s help, found a fire extinguisher serviceman who would come to Carcassonne. He refused to recharge/certify my three 2008, and never serviced, 1 kg extinguishers as being too old and supplied me with three new 2 kg powder replacements. In France all fire extinguishers have to be checked every year by a qualified technician. It apparently isn’t good enough to just go and buy a new one from the Brico (DIY) each year – it must have that technician’s stamp on it. So on our planned trip later this year up the Rhone and past St Jean de Losne, where apparently spot inspections are frequent, we should pass the test. We also bought six new Tip Top fenders, direct from Binnenvaartwinkel.nl in Holland, so much cheaper than buying in the UK and paying postage, but I have yet to attach these at the four ends of the boat which get the most action in locks. Otherwise we are pretty much ready to head off, we think.

Collioure and Sally making sure she’s in the picture.

Our outline cruising plan this year is to end up by mid-December in Reading, England! This involves heading back up the Rhone in August, cruising around Burgundy/Alsace, and ending up in Auxerre by November before being craned out onto a lorry at Migennes in December.

Enjoying the view from the top terrace at Dali’s house, Portlligat.

But first we are heading to Castelnaudary for a week over Easter including a three night visit to friends Ros and Gregor in the Gers and then on to Toulouse for a two week stay in May including a one week trip back to the UK for my mother’s 90th birthday party. From Toulouse we will head back east, along the entire length of the Midi canal to the Mediterranean, stopping off at Puicheric to test out Nigel’s snooker table in his completed barn conversion. We then plan to spend some time around Agde and on the River Herault and on the Canal du Rhone a Sete before a visit from Maurice and family at the end of July, somewhere in that area near the beach!

Another terrace, another view from Dali’s house.

So we should be back in England just before the Brexit ‘divorce’ is either agreed or not agreed (my money is on the latter outcome) and before life starts getting more complicated and uncertain for us ‘foreign nationals’ living in the EU.

Wisteria in full bloom. March. Llanca, Spain.

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Another winter in Carcassonne – but maybe, the last.

We seem to have had more than our fair share of dull, wet and windy weather this December, January and February. I have been keeping track of how we are faring relative to other places that we might be and have noted that on most days during this period our weather has only been a degree or two different from Reading, England – and not always warmer or sunnier.

Three Kings' cake - a local treat for Epiphany.

Three Kings’ cake – a local treat for Epiphany.

This weather tracking idea was partly triggered by thoughts about heading north again at the end of this season. Getting back up the Rhone river is really only feasible for us in August or September each year and this would mean perhaps spending a winter in central or eastern France – so Roanne, Auxonne, Toul and Strasbourg have all been on my Meteo monitor. The result so far is “probably not” to all of them. Here it has only reached freezing during one week (when the canal froze over) which happened to be whilst we were away skiing. The thought of spending winter in consistently very cold wet snowy and or foggy conditions still seems a world away from where we are.

Snow is OK - in a ski resort at Bonascre in the French Pyrenees.

Snow is OK – in a ski resort at Bonascre in the French Pyrenees.

Despite the weather being disappointing compared to last year we have still been finding plenty to entertain us in port. Having given the game Carcassonne to a nephew and a grandson for Christmas we thought it only fair to treat ourselves to a version – and now we have become completely addicted and ready to see off any younger (or older – note to Kathy and Charles who introduced us to the game in Ohio at Thanksgiving) challengers should they happen to visit. Upwords, Cribbage, Phase 10, and numerous jigsaw puzzles are gathering dust under the piano!

'Carcassonne' - the game.

‘Carcassonne’ – the game.

Our evenings since the New Year have been taken up with DVD Christmas presents from family – the complete collection of Morse, three series of The Fall and Planet Earth. We have also seen Manchester-by-the-Sea, I. Daniel Blake, La-La-Land and Jackie (in Original language versions) at the Cap Colisee Cinema just around the corner from the port. Our regular French lessons continue every week-day afternoon watching Un Diner Presque Parfait (Come Dine with Me) on the TV in French, with French subtitles.

Maigret? - not on our DVD list this year.

Maigret? – not on our DVD list this year.

We are finding things to do that we missed out on last year. For March it is still a debate as to whether we should go to the Theatre Jean-Alary to see Rock the Ballet or Tosca or both. Yesterday we discovered the view from the tower of the Church of Saint Vincent whose 54 bell carillon we listen to often and whose regular clock chimes we hear loud and clear in the port.

View of the port - Xenia dead centre - from St Vincent tower.

View of the port – Xenia dead centre – from St Vincent tower.

The tower, built in the C14th and C15th, climbs up 235 steps to a height of 54 metres and was used variously as a look-out in times of war, a geodesic point for Maichain and Delambre when determining the length of the earth’s southern meridian, and in the execution of Cassini’s map of France.

View of the Cite - from St Vincent tower.

View of the Cite – from St Vincent tower.

Briefly, during the Revolution in 1794, the church was transformed into a foundry to manufacture artillery mountings but was restored to a place of worship by public demand the following year. I have been reading in the autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (3rd President of the USA from 1801-1809) his account of the French Revolution and note with interest his journey in 1786 “…returning along the coast by …. Monaco, Nice, Antibes, Frejus, Aix, Marseilles, Avignon, Nismes (sic), Montpellier, Frontignan, Cette (sic), Agde, and along the canal of Languedoc, by Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassonne, Castelnaudari (sic), thro’ the Souterrain of St Feriol and back by Castelnaudari, to Toulouse, thence to Montauban & down the Garonne by Langon to Bordeaux.” – all now familiar territory to us although the canal in Jefferson’s day skirted the town of Carcassonne and it wasn’t until 1810 that the 10 km stretch of new canal upstream and downstream of the town was completed.

View of the Midi Canal, heading west - from St Vincent Tower.

View of the Midi Canal, heading west – from St Vincent Tower.

One wet afternoon I stopped in at the Musee des Beaux Arts. I very much enjoyed the temporary exhibition of paintings by Eugene Pech, 1923-1991, a local artist who painted local scenes.

View from the stairs - Musee des Beaux Arts.

View from the stairs – Musee des Beaux Arts.

Lili managed to fit in a day with us on her way to ski with friends in Abruzzi (central Italy, but fortunately not at the hotel recently destroyed by an avalanche) and so we took the #4 bus up to the Cite and walked around the ramparts, the Chateau, and back down to the port. It is always a pleasure to visit here in this World Heritage site off season when there are only a handful of tourists rather than the more seasonal swarms.

Pam and Lili at the gateway to the Cite.

Pam and Lili at the gateway to the Cite.

We passed up the chance to go with Lili to Italy but took the train from Carcassonne to Ax-les-Thermes (an hour to Toulouse and two hours south up into the Pyrenees) to spend a week skiing in Bonascre where we arrived to not much snow, but then to three days of blizzards.

The station - Ax-les-Thermes.

The station – Ax-les-Thermes.

We were confined to our warm little rented ski apartment and so honed our Carcassonne skills and listened to podcast back issues of Desert Island Discs before being released onto the fresh powdered slopes for three days of glorious skiing in bright sunshine – our first time ever in the Pyrenees.

Lunch break on the piste - at Bonascre.

Lunch break on the piste – at Bonascre.

Back in port our main interest really is in our next meal! There are hundreds of shops within very easy walking distance through-out the draughtboard-like town streets and there are more and bigger shops on three retail parks within easy €1 bus rides. Our daily outing to ‘faire les courses’ (shopping) has become both an entertainment and our exercise. There always seems to be another boucherie, or patisserie, or boulangerie, around the next corner that we haven’t yet tried. The Saturday market in Place Carnot is still a weekly must and a great pleasure.

Saturday market - Place Carnot.

Saturday market – Place Carnot.

I have often wondered why French bread tastes so much better here than in England or in the USA. The simple answer seems to be that the French only use local wheat which is low in protein and their traditional bread is made with only flour, yeast, and water – which is why it goes stale by the end of the day (but makes great croutons and toast). There is a huge variety of different types of bread and every bakery seems to have its own range. It was at a Banette bakery where we first discovered a brown malted and seeded loaf called Pain Viking and this has now become my firm favourite from our nearby La Mie Caline (interestingly a large franchised chain of bakers) who call it a Pain Nordique (made with malted barley and wheat flour).

Pain Nordique (with a brique de brebis).

Pain Nordique (with a brique de brebis).

On the subject of franchising – a specific area of my non-boating expertise! – it is a surprisingly well used business format in France, including many of the major grocery chains and supermarkets as well as for smaller businesses such as restaurants and bakeries – but somehow it doesn’t seem as obvious to me because owners and staff don’t behave as though they are doing it by rote. I was very surprised though when early in the New Year our local Quick hamburger drive-thru changed almost overnight into a Burger King. We struggled through the automatic ordering points (unsuccessfully as it seemed impossible to remotely order a Whopper Cheese Meal) and queues at the counter to get a Whopper Meal, but ever since have chosen to go across the car park to La Pataterie, (I have now discovered this is also a franchise operation) which is a basic honest-to-goodness French bistro, featuring baked potatoes, where for not many more €s we can sit down and enjoy a two course meal and a glass of wine with efficient and pleasant service. I guess I may be getting old!

2016-12-20-14-11-26I blame the poor weather for my ‘Winter Boat To-Do List’ getting longer, with very few items as yet ticked off. The Rust-oleum paint I bought in Marmande this summer is not available in Carcassonne and, despite being listed on the Rust-oleum website as a stockist, Cuin Quincaillerie has never heard of it! –I need to somehow ship some paint in. The one tick we have managed though is a visit to IKEA in Toulouse to get a new replacement mattress for our ‘click-clack’ sofa bed – which was weary after 7 years of solid use – but even this took some planning. To order online it could only be for delivery – in our case a delivery charge of €99 plus another €20 to take away the old one – the mattress is €77, interestingly much cheaper than in England at £90. To go and collect meant renting a van and taking a chance on the item being in stock when we arrived, as you cannot reserve an item in store for collection. But then renting a van turned out to be not that straightforward either. The Avis site proved impenetrable with an English driving licence and address (and they have closed the handy office by the station here), Enterprise don’t do vans, Carrefour supermarket does but you must pay the deposit with a French cheque not a credit card, and all the car rentals are out at the airport which only has a ‘navette’ bus service to meet specific flights (one or two a day and none on Wednesdays). In the end, Europcar obliged with an easy website and a good price of €45 for two days and we have now discovered that the airport is only a five minute walk away from the #1 Bus stop, by Geant Casino, through the retail park – €1, and regular service, as opposed to €5 for the airport navette. By the time we had paid tolls and diesel and for 29kms over the 200kms mileage allowance we spent €95 – so still a bit of a saving, and we picked up a load of logs for the fire. Our helpful Capitainerie, Stephanie and Chayma, are arranging a collection of the old mattress as we, as both non-residents and in a commercial van, can’t use the ‘decheterie’ (recycling centre) – we had this same problem in England some years ago but that is quite another story involving nine old mattresses in a rented van and eight trips in our Volvo in and out of the Reading recycling centre wearing eight different hats by way of ‘circumventing the rules’.

Ikea Clic-clac sofa bed when new.

Ikea Clic-clac sofa bed when new.

But these are trifling niggles compared to the very real worry about how Brexit will affect our peripatetic lifestyle. Without our boat having its current Customs status as ‘Union Goods’, allowing free movement in all EU states, it will be visiting from outside the E.U and so will be subject to a limit of 18 months cruising before import duty and VAT become exercisable. We ourselves, under current standard rules, would be limited to a maximum visit of 90 days, with a 90 day exclusion after 90 days (whenever that falls and from all EU states), and a maximum of 180 days per year – not just in one country but in the EU as a whole. Thank goodness we came when we did as I suspect that soon we will not have the option of being able to cruise so extensively and without any bureaucratic hassle. Tant pis! We’ll just have to make the most of the year or so before the red line is drawn and we lose our ‘European liberty’.

What Brexit might really mean to us.

What Brexit might really mean to us.

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The journey so far (part 2). 8 years and counting. R.O.I.

In my idle hours between Christmas and the New Year, on these winter days in Carcassonne warmed on sunny days by the southern sun or on grey days by the glow from Xenia’s wood burning stove, I have been thinking about the journey so far – after 8 years afloat, and two years since my last ‘The Journey so far’ blog – and about what kind of return we are getting on our investment (R.O.I for those who read balance sheets!). This latter thought was prompted by a recent forum question from a prospective boat owner, “What does it cost to run a barge?”.

Hire boat 'Keble'. Oxford Canal.

Hire boat ‘Keble’. Oxford Canal.

It was ten years ago that Pam surprised me in May 2007 with an anniversary treat – a long weekend on a narrow boat on the Oxford Canal. It was our first experience of canal boating and despite the daily rain we were both hooked by the time we returned ‘Keble’ to Oxford. By September we had ditched the plans for a buy-to-let investment, despite our financial adviser’s best efforts, and were taking another holiday on ‘Moonbeam’ on the Kennet and Avon Canal to test out our ‘ideal’ boat design theories. In November we placed our order with Colecraft and paid a deposit. Shortly after, the property market started to crash!

Hire boat 'Moonbeam'. Kennet and Avon Canal.

Hire boat ‘Moonbeam’. Kennet and Avon Canal.

Well, landing on one’s feet is a great skill to have when it comes to buying either a house or a boat and my experience on both counts tells me that serendipity has as much to do with future return on investment as does calculated forecasting of upcoming market trends. As we had found over 43 years at 19 different addresses, only 3 of them owned by us, we were living in a much nicer house than we could afford to buy.

Hillside, East Hendred.

Hillside, East Hendred.

We had no firm plans for retirement and we hadn’t made a decision to live on the boat as we were both assuming that we would carry on working. So we downsized (for the second time – downsizing is valuable experience to have when it comes to life afloat) and spent the year furnishing and decorating the boat and making our first voyages from Abingdon Marina on the River Thames.

Osney Bridge Oxford and on to the Upper Thames.

Osney Bridge Oxford and on to the Upper Thames.

In 2009 we cruised for 228 engine hours on the Thames from Lechlade to Reading and on the Kennet and Avon from Reading to Great Bedwyn and found that we were developing the confidence to live aboard full-time.

Cold and wet in May on the K&A.

Cold and wet in May on the K&A.

During the next 2 years, which we spent in Reading at the Thames and Kennet Marina and Better Boating getting to know more about the possibilities and practicalities of life afloat, it slowly dawned on us that the boat offered us new lifestyle choices – ones that involved travel and freedom from work.

A favourite mooring. Beale Park, Pangbourne.

A favourite mooring. Beale Park, Pangbourne.

In 2010 we spent 140 engine hours pottering up and down the Thames between Oxford and Henley and we began to feel that we wanted to escape the narrow confines of Marina life and explore further afield.

Lili joins us for dinner. Christchurch Meadows, Oxford.

Lili joins us for dinner. Christchurch Meadows, Oxford.

In 2011 we made an Easter trip down the K&A to Aldermaston but only set off in earnest in June to explore the Grand Union as far as Norton Junction, then back to London and the Regent’s Canal, the River Lee (stopped by riots and water shortage between Tottenham and Edmonton) and from Limehouse back up the Thames, making a detour on the River Wey to Godalming (unfortunately the Basingstoke Canal was closed), all the way up to Lechlade again before returning to Reading for another winter. We had added 450 more engine hours to our cruising log.

DBA Rally. Kingston-on-Thames.

DBA Rally. Kingston-on-Thames.

When we looked closely at the overhead costs incurred in continuing to work (self-employed) – cars, accountants, offices, marketing, insurance, professional associations – we realised that we were not getting a good return on our investment of time, energy, and capital. Cutting out our overheads, taking early pensions, and casting off would give us more income than if we continued to work and we believed would give us a considerably more interesting lifestyle. In the meantime house prices had fallen and now seemed a good time to invest in a buy-to-let, which we did before leaving port and heading west.

Paddington Basin, London.

Paddington Basin, London.

So, foot-loose (perennial itchy feet!) and fancy free, we set off, on 31st March 2012, on an unfettered voyage of discovery with no more plan than to cruise every available English waterway. Eight months later we ended up in Worsley, near Manchester, on the Bridgewater Canal.

Bristol Harbour. Waiting for the tide.

Bristol Harbour. Waiting for the tide.

Our 500 cruising hours had taken us all the way down the Kennet & Avon Canal, the Bristol Avon to Bristol where we got stuck for a week, the Severn Estuary with a pilot to the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, the River Severn to Stourport (in strong flowing river conditions and where we got stuck for two weeks after having been stuck in Gloucester for a week) and from Tewkesbury onto the Lower and then Upper Avon to Stratford and back to Evesham where we were craned out of the water, for hull blacking and some repairs.

Evesham. By road to the River Soar.

Evesham. By road to the River Soar.

After a short break here on the quay we continued by road on the back of a lorry to the Soar Navigation where at Redhill Marina, near Nottingham, we were craned back into the water. There is no wide canal through the Midlands connecting the southern waterways with the northern. After exploring the Soar it was a fast journey through Nottingham and down the Trent (!), onto the calm of the Stainforth and Keadby Canal, the Aire and Calder Navigation and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, to Leeds, where we got stuck again, for a week. We beat the November lock closures on the Leeds and Liverpool and got to Wigan in good enough time to make a trip to Manchester and Runcorn on the Bridgewater Canal, getting iced in at Lymm, before settling in to our winter mooring at Worsley Dry Dock on December 3rd.

Leeds. delayed by floods, again.

Leeds. delayed by floods, again.

Our adventures continued in 2013, putting another 550 hours on our engine, taking us first to Liverpool where we stayed in Salthouse Dock for two weeks in March before heading back along the Leeds and Liverpool, up the Rufford Arm but not able to cross the Ribble link to the Lancaster Canal, and on to York (more delays due to flooding) by May, via the Selby Canal and the River Ouse.

Skipton, Yorks.

Skipton, Yorks.

Then we headed back up the Trent to Torksey and along the Fossdyke and Witham Navigations to Boston to await a ‘weather window of opportunity’. On June 10th, in company with four other boats and a pilot we made the 10 hour Wash crossing from Boston to Wisbech on the River Nene, and then (only just) fitting  through the Middle Level Navigation to get from Peterborough to Denver on the Great Ouse to explore the Great Ouse, the Cam, the Little Ouse, the Wissey and the Lark.

Ely waterside on High School Prom night.

Ely waterside on High School Prom night.

We made our way back onto the Nene and down to Northampton by Oct 1st, where we spent the winter in the new Marina at Beckett’s Park, and we now realised that we were at the end of the road as far as new English cruising ground was concerned. We spent the winter preparing for a move to France.

Arriving in Nieuwpoort, Belgium.

Arriving in Nieuwpoort, Belgium.

Our journey through France is well documented in my recent blogs. In 2014 we put another 550 engine hours on the clock, in 33 weeks, covering 2,280kms (excluding the Channel crossing in a ferry) from Northampton to Vermenton in Burgundy. In 2015 we took another 33 weeks and 450 engine hours travelling 2,100kms from Vermenton to Carcassonne. In 2016 we took it easy, only covering 1,100kms in the South-West of France, adding another 250 engine hours in 31 weeks of leisurely cruising!

Somewhere in the South West of France.

Somewhere in the South West of France.

So when faced with finding an answer to “What does it cost to run a barge?” Specifically – Loss of interest p.a. on capital invested – Depreciation (being the difference between what the barge cost and what you can realistically expect to sell it for divided by the number of years ownership) – Annual maintenance average cost – Annual fuel cost – Annual berthing cost – Annual Insurance cost? I have to say that I didn’t really know when we set out in 2009, although I did do some research. Somehow the romance of the idea took over and to quote from Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’;

“(messing) – about in boats – or with boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ‘em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. “What a day I’m having!” he said. Let us start at once!”

But for those wanting to stay ashore and do the figures here are some facts from our log;

  Licence fees Mooring costs Insurance Diesel – litres used
2009 £900 £3,800 £380 487
2010 £1,000 £5,600 £400 328
2011 £1,100 £3,700 £420 856
2012 £1,280 £1,500 £440 1,070
2013 £1,341 £1,348 £479 1,146
2014 £206 + €509 £474 + €1,339 £582 1,333
2015 €540 €1,890 £501 1,252
2016 €560 €2,168 £528 715 x €1.18=€845


Other costs Averaged per annum
Boat and engine (Isuzu 70hp) maintenance. Service intervals 250 hours. Fuel 2.25lph av. £2,500 (averaged over the last 4 years) but very little in the first 4 years
Diesel heating (Webasto) 282 litres (averaged over 7 years) – some very cold winters but the last 2 mild (in S.France)
Electric usage (when moored with land line – electric immersion 1 kw water heater) Between 10 and 20 kwh per day depending on season & charged on a meter or at €4 per day.
Propane Gas (for cooking only) 6 x 13kg cylinders @ €36 each = €216
Wood or coal for stove (winter only) £400+. We use Eco logs for ease of handling.
Depreciation I would be surprised if there has been much as the price of building an equivalent new boat has increased by 50% since 2008.
Loss of interest on capital With interest rates so low this figure has to be – say £2,000 pa (before tax) per £100,000 capital.
Return on Investment (R.O.I.) Off balance sheet!
Anyone for a game of Real Tennis?

Anyone for a game of Real Tennis?

Posted in 2016 Season, English Cruising., Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Toulouse Dry Dock.

Boats need maintenance – rather a lot of it – and every so often that includes the need to take them out of the water to inspect and work on the hull. We first cleaned and re-blacked Xenia’s bottom when she was four years old in 2012. She was craned out at Evesham Marina, water jet cleaned, and left on the hard standing over a long August bank holiday weekend for us to apply the bitumen. It rained every day, the conditions were far from ideal for painting, and we couldn’t actually get to the flat bottom which in fact had never been treated. Since then, another four years on, we have been in and out of salt water in addition to rivers and canals, whilst cruising for over 7,000 Kms and have sustained (quite) a number of bumps and scrapes all over – not to mention the appearance of a lot of rust.

Back on the Midi. PK 1 Toulouse.

Back on the Midi. PK 1 Toulouse.

The VNF covered dry dock in the Radoub basin in Toulouse (PK 6) gets booked up well in advance but we had in April been able to reserve a week’s slot for October this year. We were fortunate to have Serge to do the blacking and to complete all the formalities on our behalf as there is a fair amount of bureaucracy involved with VNF who will only take payment by cheque (from a French bank account, which we don’t have). On October 18th, as instructed, we were waiting outside the basin at 8.30am.

Waiting for the towpath bridge to be slid open.

Waiting for the towpath bridge to be slid open.

It was a half hour or so before Eric and his colleagues came to close the very busy canal side foot and bicycle path and to slide open its narrow bridge to give us passage across from the canal into the basin, where we waited and watched with interest as peniche ‘Margouillat’ was gently eased out of the dry dock.

Waiting for 'Margouillat' to come out.

Waiting for ‘Margouillat’ to come out.

This rather handsome C19th structure is a classified Historical Monument.

'Xenia' going in.

‘Xenia’ going in.

We were then bow hauled in and the water was drained. Serge provided us with a step ladder so that we could get off the boat (there is nothing provided by VNF apart from entry and exit to the dock, electricity, metered water, and access to a shower and squat loo, all of which cost us €378 for the week). We completed an anxious tour of inspection. After 8 years it didn’t seem to Serge that our 4 anodes had been working hard enough! At his recommendation we had, the day before, commissioned a diagnostic test which had established that our galvanic isolator had been doing its job and that we had no electrolytic corrosion, so any rust would be from expected ‘natural causes’.

A dirty side and an 8 year old anode.

A dirty side and an 8 year old anode.

Almost immediately Abdel set about spraying the hull and bow deck clean with a very powerful water jet. The noise was deafening. We went out for lunch, to a very good nearby pizzeria, and came back once he’d finished. Pam took the #10 bus into town, bus stop right outside the gates, to get some proper painting equipment as we planned to re-do ourselves all the non-blacking paintwork up to and around the gunwales, including the bow and stern signage panels which are impossible to reach with a steady hand when the boat is in the water.

Abdel gets to work jet cleaning right away.

Abdel gets to work jet cleaning right away.

We had been worried about reports from other boaters of pigeons roosting in the rafters but were relieved to find that this problem, which had made the dock virtually unusable for painting, had been severely dealt with – only two, to date, had made it back to the far end. There was however a smaller bird, which we never spotted, that regularly left its mark on the stern deck and hatch. As we are self-contained on the loo front with a black tank we didn’t need to go climbing up and down ladders to get to the bathroom or shower and we settled into a comfortable routine. Work started in earnest on the second day, spraying on the blacking, welding on the stern deck, and sanding down the gunwales; all being done simultaneously by five of us – which made for quite complicated logistics with only one long ladder, until Serge set up a gangplank along which we could reach the dockside from the stern deck.

Men and women at work.

Men and women at work.

A week wasn’t long enough! The two coats of blacking were completed by day three, giving them 4 days to fully dry. This included painting the very bottom (the flat bit) which is seldom done by narrowboat builders in the UK. Their excuse is that it is never exposed to air, will only get scraped off anyway in shallow canals, and the steel used is so thick it won’t rust through. The reality is though that few builders have dry docks and so they can’t get underneath when the boat is on hardstanding on wooden blocks. Dry dock operators on the other hand will usually say that the bottom should be blacked to reduce the area open to corrosion, as rust travels. We now have 8 new magnesium/stainless steel sacrificial anodes to replace the original four, which I had always suspected was on the light side for a boat of our size. The rule of thumb is, according to Serge, one every four metres around the whole boat.

Fresh blacking, new sacrificial anodes.

Fresh blacking, new sacrificial anodes.

We had been suffering from severe rust problems on our bow deck and in the bow locker. This had begun to be a problem after our first winter and despite several attempts at treating it the rust was getting noticeably worse. I now realise that it had been caused by storing coal on the deck and in the locker. When coal gets wet and seeps onto steel it becomes highly corrosive. I can’t think why this had never been mentioned to me or why so many narrow boaters in England merrily store coal on every available steel surface! It took three days of solid hammering with an industrial grinder to get to the bottom of it. Then the clean surface had to be treated and left for another day to check that no rust remained and then another day to paint the rust proofing primer and leave it to dry which left only the last day to apply the Rustoleum primer. We realised that we would need a couple more days to apply the two top coats needed, including the anti-slip material, and in the hope of being able to get the job finished arranged to stay on the quay in the basin for two days after leaving the dry dock.

Half a bucket full of rust from the bow deck.

Half a bucket full of rust from the bow deck.

In the meantime work was being done on improving the stern deck and gas locker water run-off as we were getting rust problems building up here too, through poor design, with rain water getting trapped at the bottom inside the gas lockers and on the deck between the lockers by the cabin door. The solution was to weld a raised lip onto each locker which the locker lid/step would overhang and to weld a slightly sloping piece of steel to fall back from the back door towards the existing drain around the engine hatch covers.

Gas locker modification.

Gas locker modification.

More anti-rain measures were needed, both on the roof hatch which, once removed, we found to be badly rusted around the frame and in need of rustproofing and resealing and on all the seals around the window frames.

Work on the roof hatch.

Work on the roof hatch.

The sanding of the gunwale level paintwork, rust primer treatment, two coats of top coat (we had to buy new paint to match the old as we have been unable to get Masons P Type here), and touching up the ‘Xenia’ lettering all got finished in time – just! We even remembered to get that simple little job done of getting a flag pole holder welded to the tiller.

Working around the gunwales.

Working around the gunwales.

But we didn’t leave enough time to replace the Vetus bow-thruster propeller which now only has three out of six blades left. This is a difficult job to undertake, we had it replaced at Evesham when only one blade remained, as it can only be reached through the arm’s width weed hatch and so has to be worked on ‘blind’. Serge suggested that next time we will need to remove the welded bars at either end and clean and black inside the now rusting bow-thrusted tube.

No time for work needed on the inside of the bow thruster tube.

No time for work needed on the inside of the bow thruster tube.

On our last night in dry dock, after 7 days of completely dry weather, there was a tremendous rain storm – revealing a leak in the building’s roof, fortunately over a patch of our roof where there was nothing to spoil; all the contents of our still unfinished bow locker were stored up there! The next morning we came out at 8.30 am and, although it wasn’t still raining, the air was very damp and humid and more rain was threatened later which put paid to our ongoing deck painting plan.

The floating sluice gate as the dock fills.

The floating sluice gate as the dock fills.

We did manage to get one side of the boat cleaned and one coat of primer on each deck whilst they were both thoroughly dry and well before the next rainfall and that was as much as we were able to do over the extra two days – except that we both were exhausted from all the early morning starts, the noise and the dust, and popping up and down ladders holding sanders and paint brushes and tins of paint. The boat was absolutely filthy but we had no access to water on the quay and anyway we couldn’t risk getting the decks wet!

The Radoub Basin.

The Radoub Basin.

This left us only four days to get the 99 kms and 46 locks back to Carcassonne, by the end of October. We did it with time to spare for a pump-out and roof wash on the way and arrived back to a week of fine dry weather – so we were able to finish off painting the bow and stern decks properly and a little more touching up besides. But it still leaves inside the gas and bow lockers, the engine bay, the roof and touching up the sides to do, and more besides…

In need of a rest and the new flagpole holder on the tiller post.

In need of a rest and the new flagpole holder on the tiller post.

This, Xenia’s eighth year, has proved to be an expensive one on maintenance. Having to replace all 9 batteries in the spring and then in the autumn with the dry docking and associated work, along with new paints, shower parts, an alternator and a washing machine has cost us well over €7,000.

Our last evening cruise this year approaching Lalande.

Our last evening cruise this year approaching Lalande.

By contrast to previous years, when we have generally completed over 2,000 kms and 500 hours of cruising, we have taken it easy this year covering just over 1,000 kms in 250 hours so I suppose that we have saved a bit on fuel! And it’s good to be back in Carcassonne, although the prices have gone up since last year, for our second winter here. We need the rest – and are going off on a little holiday to Ohio for Thanksgiving, via England, to spend time with family, away from the boat. But then it’ll be back to all those unfinished maintenance jobs before setting out again next April…..

Good to be back in Carcassonne.

Good to be back in Carcassonne.

Posted in 2016 Season, French cruising - south | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments