Wind in the Willows (Tales from the Riverbank)

One of the many breathtaking views we passed as we wended our way into France along the Seine.

Fraser talked last time about how we reached Rouen and removed our mast so we could fit beneath the many bridges we’d encounter on our long journey south to the Mediterranean. In this episode, I will bring you with us along the last stretch of the tidal Seine and onwards through France to Paris.

Still feels weird, not trying to look around the mast to see where we’re going.

When we left Rouen, we followed the advice of a helpful man in the marina, a local, who advised us to leave at 2pm on the Wednesday to take full advantage of the tide. We did as we were told (never undervalue local knowledge), but within 10-15 minutes of leaving the Bassin St Gervase, where we’d spent the last couple of days, we began to second-guess ourselves. We usually double-check all our tides and timings, but somehow neither of us had done so this time, and the current was so powerful that we were hardly moving forward at all.

A very happy man. Note bag of pain au chocolate close to his hand…

I checked online for tide times, wondering if the helpful local had been yanking our chain, but every website I looked at quoted a different time for low water, some of them several hours apart.

This river is so peaceful, with another amazing view around every bend.

Fraser wanted to turn around and go back so we could research a little more thoroughly, but my pride wouldn’t let me. We argued (amicably) for so long that eventually the boat began to pick up speed, and our trust in local knowledge was restored.

One of the many large barges (péniches) that passed us en route.

This far upriver, the tidal effect was almost non-existent, and the current was still pretty strong, so we found ourselves creeping forward far slower than on our trip to the city of Rouen. Luckily, we had only set ourselves the target of getting beyond the first lock, at Amfreville, then intended to moor for the night just the other side at Poses, a journey of around 25 nautical miles, about 5.5 hours. Once again, the scenery was stunning, and once we were clear of the industry and heavy commercial traffic of Rouen, we began to relax and enjoy ourselves again.

Fraser acting cool as a péniche bears down on us. The drivers are a friendly bunch and always wave back at us.

Until we needed to radio the lock keeper (éclusier) to tell him we were coming.

Chateau Gaillard, a castle built by Richard Lionheart in the 12th Century, and still mostly standing. He built it as a challenge to the French monarchy. The name means something like, “Saucy Castle”, probably a proverbial middle finger aimed at the French.

My French was just about holding out, but talking on the VHF radio in a language that isn’t your own native tongue, is a whole other ball game. Even in English, it can be hard to understand people on the radio, but this was a real struggle. I became very good at saying, “Pardonez-moi; je ne comprends pas bien le Francais, alors, vouz pouvez le repeter lentement, s’il sous plait?” Which always impressed Fraser, but only meant that I was telling them how bad my French was and please could they repeat it slowly for me. At this stage, some lock keepers took pity on me and spoke English, but some didn’t!

A push-tow péniche. One long, heavily-laden barge pushing another long, heavily-laden barge. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to steer one of these things!

Fortunately, the éclusier at Amfreville spoke better English than my French and we managed fine, securing the boat on bollards while the lock gates closed behind us and the water levels rose, bringing us up to the level of the non-tidal Seine beyond.

Very happy to be on the non-tidal Seine. We celebrated with a cold dinner of salad, cooked meats, cheese, fresh baguette and , of course, washed the whole lot down with a glass of wine. Note the fender board alongside. This is to protect the inflatable fenders from rough lock walls. It will also double up as a gangplank later, when we can’t get as close to the bank as this.

We found ourselves a snug little berth tucked away behind an island, and were glad to observe that we wouldn’t have fitted in the space if we’d been carrying the mast onboard, as it would have stuck out past the ends of the boat by a long way and made berthing in tight spots impossible.

Some of the cliffs we passed reminded us of the Easter Island statues. Maybe someone should come along and carve faces into them, like the ones at Mount Rushmore?

We feasted that evening on baguette, cheese, paté, salad and wine and felt like kings. The peace and quiet of the river bank brought to mind the Kenneth Grahame children’s book, The Wind in the Willows, Tales from the Riverbank. I expected Ratty to scull past, or Mole to peer short-sightedly at us from between the rushes at any moment.

Ratty, at the pretzels and wine!

The next morning, we awoke to the sound of birdsong and the bleating from a family of goats who seemed to live on the island. With light hearts, we slipped lines and pointed Barberry’s bows upstream. To our chagrin, the fact that this stretch of the river, although no longer tidal, still carried a significant current against us of 2-3 knots, which meant we went slower than anticipated. In addition, we had two locks to navigate that day if we were to reach the place we’d earmarked for our next overnight stop.

Fraser handles the lines in the locks, and I drive the boat. Some of them are huge, commercial locks, and we can rise by 4-8m in height as the lock fills.

Perhaps we were too blasé after the previous day’s successes, but we found the next two locks far harder than expected. Both times, we had to wait for commercial vessels to pass through before us. This is not an issue, because they have a living to earn, while we’re just a pair of eejits on our holidays and not in a rush. However, holding the boat still against the churning current caused by the weir alongside the lock is challenging and tiring. We estimated that we’d cover the 44 nautical miles in around 10 hours, but it took us a bit longer than that and we finally arrived at our next stop late in the evening.

This lock, Méricourt, was under repair, so only one side of it was available for tying up. Also, we had to follow a commercial barge into it. When the barge sets off, its propellor wash sends poor little Barberry careering all over the place. It’s a miracle we haven’t crashed into the lock walls (yet).

We were so late that the capitainerie (office) had closed and wouldn’t open again until after 0900 the following morning. That meant we didn’t know where we should moor, and that we couldn’t get access to the showers, laundry, etc. So we slotted ourselves into the first empty pontoon we came across and tied up. Unfortunately it was so narrow and wobbly that I didn’t feel confident getting off the boat at all. My balance isn’t great at the best of times, and my mobility is impaired, plus, when I’m very tired, I tend to get attacks of vertigo. Not good on a narrow, wobbly pontoon!

More idyllic scenes from the banks of the Seine.

We slept a bit fitfully, worrying about the schedule we’d set ourselves in order to reach Paris on Saturday, when we’d booked a berth at the Arsenal Marina. The next morning, we tried to fill up with diesel, but the pump wasn’t self-service so we had to give up. We did leave an envelope with cash for our overnight berth in the marina post box, guessing the cost to be 20€, although we later learned it should have been around 13€.

We passed some abandoned locks with their structures rotting away and the old éclusier’s house derelict.

This marina was in an incredible setting, inside an old quarry that has become overgrown and surrounded by nature. On our river travels we no longer see dolphins, but we’ve spotted a fat otter, loads of herons and swans, geese, ducks, and even (Fraser’s sharp eyes) a kingfisher.

More eye-candy. There were so many beautiful places and I’m trying to share as many as I can.

Maybe because our expectations were low, that day’s travel was surprisingly easy. We covered the 41 nautical miles to our next stop in good time, helped by some luck at the next two locks. Both were ready with a green traffic light displayed as we approached, so we were able to go straight in. As soon as our butt was through the gates, the éclusier started to close the gates and fill the lock, so we probably took 15-20 minutes for each one instead of over half an hour the previous day.

Our last overnight stop before Paris, at Reuil-Malmaison

Our stop for the night was at a lovely little Haute Plaisance at Rueil-Malmaison, only 25 miles from the centre of Paris. There were no facilities there, but it was a safe and quiet resting place with a fountain, restaurants and shops nearby. Fraser managed his first solo shopping trip to a boulangerie with his hard-earned beginner’s French. Apparently, he just pointed at yummy stuff and said, “deux.” They seemed to understand him okay.

Fraser’s first solo provisioning trip. Many yummies!

The next morning we had a leisurely start, with only one lock left between us and Paris. By that time, we were taking locks in our stride and had no difficulty at all. Very soon, the sky scrapers of Paris appeared mistily on the horizon and we started to pass such landmarks as the Microsoft building (aptly, this had many shiny windows).

Many of the péniches have their families on board with them, along with the family car (carried on deck) and a small boat to use as a dinghy. These huge pontoons are one of the places they can crane their cars on or off their barge.

Before long, the river traffic increased as we drew closer to the tourist landmarks. I can’t find words to describe the feeling as we motored past the Eiffel Tower, which is so close to the river that we could clearly see the rust spots on its metal work. Not that I’m dissing it. When you consider that Monsieur Gustave Eiffel only intended it to last for a short while when he built it for the World’s Fair in 1889, it’s doing pretty well to look so good 134 years later!

Some quad scullers tried to race us as we approached Paris. Scarily, they kept up really well!

After that, we were dodging tourist boats of all shapes and sizes, from tiny speed boats that would change direction without warning, to enormous passenger boats crowded with camera-wielding tourists. I’m pretty sure we’re going to appear on dozens of holiday snaps as they tried to photograph the Eiffel Tower while we bobbed past in front of them, grinning like a pair of loons.

One of the bridges of Paris, seen from a unique angle.

Next came the Louvre, then Notre Dame de Paris, and finally we were at the lock that separates the Paris Arsenal Marina from the River Seine. We were the focus of many cameras again (on purpose, this time) as we rose slowly up to the level of the marina basin as people watched in fascination and took selfies with us as a background. Weird!

Worth all the battering at sea for this experience. Totally surreal, motoring past the Eiffel Tower on our own wee boat. Sensory overload! Also, this is the first time I’ve realised how droopy my boobs are. Surely an optical illusion?

We were very lucky to find a space in the Arsenal Marina as it’s incredibly popular, set as it is so close to the attractions of Paris. The Place de la Bastille is at one end of the basin and the River Seine at the other. Barberry us tucked into a space that doesn’t look as if it was ever intended to house a boat, which is an advantage of being so small. We get tourists gawking at us (have to remember to close the blinds when we’re wandering around in bare scuds), but we’re very happy here.

Fraser steered us past Notre Dame de Paris (we took turns so we could both take photographs).

We may have mentioned (once or twice) that we judge marinas by their showering facilities. Well, this one wins the prize. Great showers that allow you to change both flow and temperature, and don’t soak your clothes. Spotlessly clean, too. And the laundry is brilliant (we really needed that laundry, and the showers — don’t ask!).

The last lock into the Arsenal Marina. We had quite an audience for this one, with couples taking selfies from the bridge with us in the background. Luckily we didn’t panic under pressure and mess it up!

So now we’re here for a week, or longer if we wish, and we plan to make the most of it. I’m sitting in the “Yachtsmen’s Room” which has free wifi, a piano (I’m currently being serenaded by a couple of Frenchmen with piano and trombone), a library of books and DVDs in several languages, comfy seats and tables to work at. This is really taking luxury to the next level.

Barberry, squeezed into an almost non-existent space right by the lock onto the Seine. Lucky she’s so small!

Next time, Fraser can tell you what we get up to in our mini-vacation inside the big voyage.

Fraser, playing the piano in the sailor’s room at the marina. In the foreground is the desk at which I’m sat writing this blog.

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