francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

 

On June 28, 2004, at 07.26, d'Argile et d'Eau, a 38m Freycinet motor-barge that is both my home and my workshop, emerged from the Chalons en Champagne lock, en route for Namur, Belgium.

According to comment and advice from mariner friends, corroborated by careful study of relevant charts and guides, it looked to be a journey of 324 km including the passage through 107 locks of all sizes and shapes. The prognostic was 10 days, flat out!

Two sections of this trip were especially memorable: the stairways of locks climbing more than 80 metres over a hill, between Rilly-sur-Aisne and Le Chesne, and then the wonderful valley of the Meuse, between Pont-à-Bar and Namur.

I have always had a special liking for the reach of Mont-de-Billy, on the canal from the Marne river to the Aisne river. It goes through a splendid scenery and, through eight locks in 11 km, takes boat traffic over the hill between the Marne Valley and the valley of the Aisne and the Vesle rivers.

The scenery is unique and never seen by car-confined travelers who are anxious to reach their sunny destinations. It is a region of large farms, with plenty of open spaces. Wisdom has prevailed along each bank of the twisting canal, with enough trees left to give to the passing boater the impression of traveling through a deep forest, just before entering the tunnel of Mont de Billy, which exits on the other side of the hill and proceeds in an endless strait line to Reims and Berry au Bac, with only a few locks, here and there.

 

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

From Berry au Bac the Aisne river has been turned into a canal, although so long ago that it has recovered its wild, unspoiled beauty

It is true that our waterways are beautiful and their charm is due to the fact that they are centuries old, completely part of wild unspoiled nature, as if they had been here since the beginning of time . . . a pleasant thought, quickly forgotten when a heavily loaded barge coming from the other direction forces you against the bank, under a deluge of leaves from overhanging branches slapping at your wheelhouse. . .

 

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

Along the way, many charming surprises are await, such as a meeting with M. Jacky Dana, lock-keeper in Condé sur Suippes, whose lock is decorated with a marvellous rainbow of flowers,

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

A little further on, in Asfeld, I discovered, on one of the lock's doors, a moorhen's nest, sheltering 8 eggs, the worried mother retreating by just a few feet before immediately settling back on her nest, puffed with indignation, before the doors were completely closed

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

It is at the lock of Vieux les Asfeld that the Aisne river becomes the Canal des Ardennes. Although it goes through the French "département des Ardennes", the canal is quite far from the mountain range of the same name, and threads its way between the hills of the Argonne and the Thierache. . .

The stairway of locks of the Canal des Ardennes

On July 1st, at 10.45, we went through lock #27 and we exited lock #1 less than 8 hours later, at 18.15. A minor breakdown at lock #20 happened just in time for us to enjoy a sit down lunch rather than the occasional sandwich on the go. Coming to a lock, while my crew of two was handling the deck lines, I was doing my best to enter without touching the sides, still a thrill for me (including great pride and bragging rights!) but a routine task for experienced mariners, whom I have often seen entering a lock at 5 km/h, without a scratch!

 

At the time the canal des Ardennes was built, between 1823 and 1860, locks required the presence of lock-keepers who were living with their families in houses adjacent to the locks. The keeper's house of lock #6, prim and well kept, with its lovely garden full of flowers, shows its date of construction as 1858, engraved over the front door. It is the home of a retired employee of the waterways administration. It is, sadly, also the last lock keeper's house which is still inhabited, but for how much longer?

These sturdy homes were well built, with solid walls of blond limestone blocks common to the area. Nowadays, building such houses would cost a fortune! Most of them are flanked by several little outbuildings, reminders of hard times, when a lock keeper, cash-poor and children-rich, grew a vegetable patch and kept rabbits and chickens, sometime a pig or a goat, in order to feed his family.

 

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau
 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau
 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

Today, signs of hard times are showing. On some houses, windows and doors have been boarded up in order to try to keep them off limits and enclosed, but many of the abandoned houses are now left opened to the depredations of the elements, and degraded by vandals. For some houses, this abandonment is so recent; that they still show old connections to power and telephone

Naturally, the administration in charge, the V.N.F. , must have been be concerned about possible accidents and their financial consequences. For many adventurous children, an abandoned house is a magnet for risky exploration; the solution chosen by the V.N.F. was both brutal and . . .final. This pile of rubble was the home of many generations of keepers at lock

 

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

Obviously, the administration of the Canal des Ardennes is, like any other administration, overworked and under-budgeted. Maintenance, in its most basic meaning, is nonexistent. (Photos #10, 10bis, 10ter).

 

 

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

This is the downstream gate of lock #23. You will notice that there is no pedestrian bridge across the gate , but sharp, rusty bits of scrap metal waiting for an accident to happen, while the upstream gate is in no in a better shape. . .

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau
 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

In France, the "bricoleur", the corner-cutting-handyman, is never away for very long . . . as seen in the "minimalist" contraption which carries essential hydraulic lines across the canal. Two sawhorses, twine and wire, and more than a bit of luck . . .

Alas, there is worse. At lock #7, at the command post, anyone can enter the place through the broken windows and interfere with the lock's mechanism, or mess with all the lights and signal systems, if he/she doesn't die first from contact with one of many bare electrical wires.


 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

houses are kept and maintained by local Heritage societies or other benevolent associations or foundations. It would make a lot of sense for the administration of the waterways to pass the torch to an entity devoted exclusively to keeping these houses alive. After all, it is our heritage. In the 'département de l' Aisne", following a "regionalisation" of the waterways, many lock-keepers houses have been successfully converted into rural inns. . . Could this not it be done on the Canal des Ardennes?

 francis dumelie, bateau d'argile et d'eau

 


PS : ce texte écrit en 2004 n'est pas à jour : Les plantations sont toujours aussi belles, les panneaux de signalisation aussi neufs, et les maisons éclusières ont été barricadées. Il était temps...
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