Think­ing about tak­ing your boat to France? It’s worth­while ex­plor­ing its wa­ter­ways and lifestyle first – and a trip makes a great break

Canal Boat - - Welcome - WORDS & PIC­TURES STEVE HAY­WOOD

The Canal du Midi beck­ons and Europe’s first nav­i­ga­ble tun­nel

The in­cen­tive for most peo­ple de­cid­ing to hol­i­day on a boat in France is the prom­ise of de­pend­ably hot sum­mer days, of chilled white wine on the deck and lunches in lit­tle red-roofed vil­lages tucked among vine­yards. What de­ter­mined it for me was some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent: it was my knee.

I’d wo­ken up one morn­ing with a fully-fledged car­ti­lage prob­lem that im­mo­bilised me so much I hadn’t been able to set foot on a boat in months. I was get­ting with­drawal symp­toms. As I wrote in one of my Canal Boat col­umns, what I’d started to fan­ta­sise about was a wa­ter­way with no locks, yet one wide enough to ac­com­mo­date large craft so I could req­ui­si­tion a crew who could carry me off the boat ev­ery now and again to a pub where I could be com­forted by lim­it­less sup­plies of anal­gesic. You know the sort: it gen­er­ally comes in pint or half-pint glasses.

Then some­body sug­gested France. Okay, there are no pubs in France – but there are enough bars. And though there are locks, there are also lock-keep­ers to op­er­ate them for you. The idea of France touched a chord with Moira and me be­cause, like Aileen and Mike Queenan who have just writ­ten about do­ing it in the last two is­sues of this magazine, we’ve been think­ing about tak­ing our boat to France for years. Now it looked as if my crocked knee might give us the op­por­tu­nity for a scout­ing mis­sion.

Of course, the first de­ci­sion for hir­ing in France is where to do it from. The ex­ten­sive French wa­ter­way sys­tem is, roughly speak­ing, split into two. Most nav­i­ga­ble rivers and canals are in the cen­tre and north; the rest, sep­a­rated by more than 400 kilo­me­tres of the some­times treach­er­ous River Rhone, com­prise the River Garonne and the Canal du Midi, which to­gether link the Mediter­ranean to the Bay of Bis­cay.

On the ba­sis that if we took our own boat to France we might not ven­ture that far south, we plumped for the Canal du Midi which has been sub­stan­tially de­vel­oped in re­cent years for hol­i­day travel. Our crew se­cured, we chose to rent from Min­er­vois Cruis­ers, an off­shoot of Nap­ton Nar­row­boats whose fleet is well-known to any­one fa­mil­iar with English canals.

Now, re­mem­ber, we were pay­ing for this trip; it wasn’t a jour­nal­is­tic free­bee. So

when I men­tion that Emily who runs the Min­er­vois op­er­a­tion was help­ful be­yond the call of duty, and that our steel-built boat Nar­bonne – while not the most el­e­gant of craft – turned out to be spa­cious and well ap­pointed, bear in mind I’m un­der no duress to say it. Le So­mail, Min­er­vois’s base, is a de­light­ful village with restau­rants, cafes, a unique book­shop and float­ing gro­cery clus­tered around a pretty hump-back bridge, and we im­me­di­ately de­ter­mined to spend a night here on our re­turn.

For the mo­ment though we headed east along a 54km lock-free pound – Le Grand Bief, as it’s known, one of the most im­pres­sive, yet un­re­marked fea­tures of this canal. To keep a canal at the same el­e­va­tion on such a long pound in­volves a few chal­leng­ing turns around hair­pin bends, but the re­ward is ter­rific views which on clear days mean you can see as far as the Pyre­nees.

On cer­tain stretches the panorama be­fore you is the more im­pres­sive be­cause lines of tra­di­tional plane trees which char­ac­terise the canal have had to be felled as a re­sult of canker stain. The dis­ease was im­ported into France from the U.S. in wooden am­mu­ni­tion boxes dur­ing World War Two, and it’s been a prob­lem since, though its ef­fects on the land­scape can be ex­ag­ger­ated. There still many thou­sands of trees left, and thou­sands more are be­ing re­placed an­nu­ally so it doesn’t sub­stan­tially af­fect the qual­ity of a hol­i­day on these waters.

We’d stocked up on sup­plies be­fore leav­ing base, but at Capes­tang – one of a reg­u­lar se­ries of at­trac­tive small towns which punc­tu­ate this part of the canal – we hap­pened across a de­light­ful Sun­day mar­ket which high­lighted why France has such a de­served rep­u­ta­tion for the qual­ity of its foods. Gleam­ing piles of fruit, fresh fish, olives, bread and veg­eta­bles proved too much of a temp­ta­tion, and though only a short walk (or in my case, hob­ble) from the canal, on our jour­ney back we were weighed down with the bags we were car­ry­ing.

The cruis­ing route we’d cho­sen kept us clear of the me­dieval town of Car­cas­sonne which ex­erts an in­ex­pli­ca­ble al­lure to boaters, de­spite how hor­ren­dously busy it can be and what a Dis­ney con­fec­tion it is. We’d headed in the other di­rec­tion, opt­ing in­stead for the much more in­ter­est­ing canal town of Béziers where we ar­rived af­ter pass­ing through the 165-me­tre Mal­pas Tun­nel. This was Europe’s very first nav­i­ga­ble tun­nel – which comes as some­thing as a shock for any­one fa­mil­iar only with English canals.

The tun­nel – like the Canal du Midi it­self – was built be­tween 1666- 81 – 80 years be­fore Fran­cis Eger­ton em­ployed the il­lit­er­ate mill­wright James Brind­ley to dig out his Bridge­wa­ter Canal. But where the Bridge­wa­ter was a rudi­men­tary, lock­less ditch, punc­tu­ated by only one sig­nif­i­cant en­gi­neer­ing struc­ture, the older Canal du Midi is built to a to­tally dif­fer­ent and much higher spec. The locks, for in­stance, have ovoid walls, like shal­low arches on their side, made to pro­vide greater strength than our straight-sided English locks. The canals them­selves are wider too – and built to al­low moor­ing on both banks. But it is the con­struc­tion that is most im­pres­sive on the Canal du Midi. Whether it’s a sim­ple weir or a ba­sic bridge, the qual­ity of the build is so much higher than we’re ac­cus­tomed to at home.

Never is this more ap­par­ent than at Béziers, birth­place of Pierre-Paul Ri­quet, the man re­spon­si­ble for this en­gi­neer­ing mar­vel. There, a set of seven stair­case locks drops im­pe­ri­ously over an es­carp­ment, fall­ing a dis­tance of 21.5 me­tres. That’s more than 70 feet in real money – 11 feet more than the drop on the Bin­g­ley Five Rise on the Leeds & Liver­pool.

For many years Béziers was the cen­tre of France’s table wine trade – ba­sic vin or­di­naires – and the town is still com­fort­ably pros­per­ous with a 13th cen­tury cathe­dral, el­e­gant parks and gardens and a net­work of fas­ci­nat­ing back­streets pep­pered with small and lovely squares.

You can get there from the Fon­ser­annes Stair­case on what’s called the Lit­tle Train

– Le Petit Train – which isn’t a train at all but a sort of theme-park truck dressed for the part. Nev­er­the­less it runs to a reg­u­lar timetable and it’s worth mak­ing the trip, if only in homage to Pierre-Paul Ri­quet whose statue dom­i­nates the town’s main square.

The canal sur­vived as a com­mer­cial wa­ter­way much later than its English coun­ter­parts, and as re­cently as 1980 sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment was made into a wa­ter slope which – like Fox­ton on the Grand Union – con­stantly had prob­lems, one of them ap­par­ently in­volv­ing the mech­a­nism run­ning away with it­self down the hill! It was of­fi­cially closed in 2001, and to­day it stands look­ing very sorry for it­self at the top of the locks, a mon­u­ment to the fail­ure of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy.

We turned at Béziers and cruised back to the Mal­pas Tun­nel where a short walk took us to a view­ing point where we could look down on the Étang (or Pond) de Mon­tady. This ex­tra­or­di­nary fea­ture of the land­scape is a la­goon drained by a se­ries of ra­dial chan­nels that look like noth­ing so much as the spokes of an enor­mous cy­cle wheel. From this point it was back the way we had come, re­trac­ing our steps to le So­mail where we’d picked up the boat and from there trav­el­ling fur­ther west, through the pretty town of Ar­gens-Min­er­vois, dom­i­nated by a cas­tle once owned by Si­mon de Mont­fort, where we en­coun­tered our first lock of the trip.

Here we dis­cov­ered that though French locks have res­i­dent lock-keep­ers, it would be a mis­take to think they look af­ter you in the same way as on the Thames. Ba­si­cally, you’re left to se­cure your boat your­self while they swan around with mo­bile de­vices, like grown-up X-boxes, con­trol­ling the pad­dles and gates.

The locks are clichés of ev­ery­thing you imag­ine on French wa­ter­ways: each has its own charm­ing cot­tage, and each lock­keeper runs his or her own con­ces­sion at the front, sell­ing eggs, milk and lo­cal wines. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the lock op­er­a­tion too – and, like it or lump it, you may have to spend time watch­ing it be­cause these waters are still used by sub­stan­tial barges, of­ten equipped as float­ing ho­tels, and these are al­ways given pri­or­ity over small plea­sure craft.

The locks came thick and fast at this stage, of­ten in stair­case pairs so that we seemed to be on the go con­tin­u­ously. Well, at least the crew were. I sat haugh­tily at the out­side steer­ing po­si­tion, paus­ing only to make my­self look ridicu­lous when I re­alised I was steer­ing with a wheel, not a tiller, and didn’t re­ally know what I was do­ing. We turned at the tiny and unas­sum­ing village of Homps where time seemed to stand still as we sat sip­ping drinks at one of the wa­ter­side cafes.

As an in­tro­duc­tion to the French wa­ter­ways, the Canal du Midi might only dis­ap­point in that in places it can be very like English canals. Squint your eyes and ig­nore the vine­yards and the sun­shine on your face, and there are places where it nar­rows and you could be in Shrop­shire or parts of Stafford­shire. Well, sort of… Un­til the land­scape opens up, or you pass through a sleepy village where you can smell the lo­cal restau­rant, or you are con­fronted with a huge peniche bear­ing down on you. Then – un­mis­take­ably – you know you’re in France.

We loved it. It set us think­ing again, more se­ri­ously this time, about where to spend more time.

Lazy days at the wa­ter’s edge

The barges get pri­or­ity

The lock cot­tage at Pech­lau­rier

Aban­doned wa­ter slope at Béziers

Many barges are now hol­i­day boats

Grown-up X boxes to con­trol the locks

ABOVE & RIGHT: The Fon­ser­annes locks on canal du Midi, unesco her­itage land­mark in France

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