Monday, October 27, 2014

Have car will travel Pt 3

Now that we are in our winter mooring we have leased a new Peugeot. This opportunity is available to Australians and Americans if you want a car for less than 6 months. You get a really great rate and have 100% insurance cover - no excess - so backing into a tree doesn't become an expensive exercise! Renault and Citreon also offer the same sort of deals. So we have our Peugoet 308 and suddenly we are able to move further afield than just that dictated by waterways or public transport routes.
We have certainly scoped out all the shopping centres and DIY places (Bricolages over here) and have done some sight seeing.
The house where Van Gogh lived and died in Auvers Sur Oise
Vincent Van Gogh spent the last 75 days of his life near Cergy at Auvers sur Oise. In that time he did 80 paintings - now that's what I call being productive. During his lifetime he only sold one painting!
He lived at the Ravoux Inn during that time. In his 37 years he had no fewer than 37 other abodes throughout France, Belgium, the Netherlands and England.
It was in Auvers sur Oise that Van Gogh's life came to an end. He apparently shot himself in the chest and died 2 days later. There is some conjecture that he was accidentally shot by a young boy with a malfunctioning shot gun but no-one can be sure. He was known to suffer bouts of severe depression.

Another impressionist painter who lived near Cergy was Claude Monet. His property at Giverny gives an insight into the inspiration for many of his paintings. The gardens are so colourful and we were fortunate enough to visit on a beautiful sunny autumn day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Lagny at dusk
Well we have reached our winter mooring at Port Cergy, on the outskirts of Paris. After leaving Meaux we travelled down the last stretch of the Marne to Lagny, a really nice little market town where I could have happily stayed for 3 or 4 days. The town had a really nice feel, with the mooring almost in the centre of town and the convenience of a train service into Paris. Unfortunately we needed to get to Cergy quicker than we originally planned so only managed an overnight stay at Lagny.
Our next stop was at Maison Alfort, only one lock away from the Seine. Once again a relatively quiet mooring but, like Lagny, subject to lots of rocking around when the large commercial barges went past.
So onto the Seine. Going around the Ile de la Cite is a one way scenario with 15minute slots each hour, depending on whether you are going upstream or downstream. our slot (downstream)was 35 minutes to 50 minutes past the hour. We arrived at 8:55 so had to wait on the pontoon outside Port Arsenal till 9:30 but then had a dream run through the centre of Paris. Most of the tourist boats hadn't started yet so the water was a lot calmer than the Thames through the middle of London. And we got to see all the major Parisian sites from a different perspective - from our own boat. From the Notre Dame on Ile de la Cite to the replica of the Statue of Liberty with the Eiffel Tower in the background, we managed to capture all the sights. We even saw turtles nestling on the roots of a tree on the banks of the Seine.
After a longish day of 6 hours of cruising our first night on the Seine was spent on an island in the Seine at Rueil-Malmaison. This island became a favourite haunt of many of the impressionists. We also met a couple of Swiss high school students who were painting scenes along the Seine as a school excursion. Sounds like a pretty amazing private school as they also told us they went on overseas excursions every year.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Marne

The Marne is a river that has been canalised in parts to help boats cruise along its length, with deviations made to shorten it and also locks added where there would normally have been rapids. It meanders through the Champagne region and joins with the Seine just outside of Paris. The upper reaches are very picturesque with broad sweeps of river and Kevin has loved being on a river again. The boat prefers the "freedom" of a flowing river rather than the narrower confines of a canal. As we are heading downstream we have had a bit of a current behind us so are making about 10kph with very little effort from the boat.
Once again we have been meeting up with a number of other English speaking people but the traffic is very light. No where near as busy as we were expecting. Many people blame the weather, although it hasn't been that bad, and they are also blaming a downturn in the economy. What this does mean though is that we are able to find moorings in most places so we have been taking our time sailing down the Marne and staying several days in little towns.
After leaving Damery, we stayed at Dormans, then Chateau Thierry. We arrived on the weekend when the march celebrating the liberation of Paris was taking place so managed to get a front row view. All the towns show evidence of damage done during WWI and many have memorials or museums paying tribute to the French and their allies and also to the part played by the resistance. In Dormans there was a large church in the ground of Dormans Chateau (as well as a champagne museum in the old mill) and at Chateau Thierry there is the huge American monument. La Ferte sous Joarre has a large Commonwealth memorial.
As we have sailed around we seem to have missed the local markets. This has been very disappointing as this is one of the aspects we love about France. Going to a supermarket doesn't have quite the same appeal. Well we have finally arrived at Meaux and they have several markets during the week. We have just returned with a bounty of fresh donut peaches, lovely ripe figs, amazing variety of mushrooms including swiss brown, oyster and girolles and fresh herbs. Kevin couldn't resist the the cooked meat stall. He purchased a whole roast duckling, two paupiettes de lapin (rabbit), pork sausage and turkey chilli sausage and a heap of roast potatoes. So lunch and dinner are sorted - probably for the next 2 days. There is another market tomorrow on the other side of the river so we'll check that out as well.

Monday, August 25, 2014


We have been on the French canals for 4 weeks and have made it to Champagne. Along the way we have experienced some very big locks and some very big barges, particularly on the Canal de Dunkerque and Escaut. In fact being in some of those locks was a bit like being in a big watery coffin.
I think we have finally developed a technique for entering a lock and tying up but that may all change once we go to a different canal. It seems each canal has a different lock system (some are automatic with telecontrollers, some controlled by lock keepers and some that require you to turn a wand attached to a pole on the bank some 200m prior to the lock) and the bollards aren't really positioned for smaller boats like ours so each lock can be a bit of an adventure. We just went into our first lock on the River Marne and our knowledge of locks has been increased again. This lock has sloping sides and a floating pontoon.
 As we entered the lock we were approached by the l'eclusier (lock keeper) who, after getting a few details, handed us the mother of all lock controls. This telecontroller even comes with it's own box (like a briefcase) to protect it, as well as having its own battery charger.
Then there are the tunnels. The first tunnel we came across on the Canal St Quentin was unusual in that you weren't allowed to enter under your own power. Due to the fact that there was no ventilation and the tunnel was over 5km long we had to be towed through by a chain tug. We have heard that sometimes there can be as many as 20 boats tied in a queue with the biggest and heaviest at the front and the smallest being swayed to and fro on the back. Fortunately for us, on the day we went through, we were the largest of three so had the privilege of being directly behind the tug. Other tunnels that we have been through are shorter and have ventilation so we are able to go in under our own power. However, they have been controlled by VNF which only allow one boat through at a time.

The prettier canals are those less commercial ones such as the Canal St Quentin that runs through Cambrai. There are more villages on the sides and more places to stop. If you are happy to stop anywhere then the mooring is free and sometimes even those with water and power are free, just to entice you into the village to boost the local economy. We have come across some great little local boulangeries and boucheries along the way. Currently we are moored at Damery. We were surprised when we got off the pontoon to find hidden in the shrubbery an electric hitch up point free of charge as this wasn't listed in our book.
We have also met a great array of people, mostly English, Australian and New Zealanders. In Sillery, between Reims and Epernay, there was quite a little community of expats and most nights we have drinks, or a BBQ and there was even a friendly game of boules. You almost have to leave to save your liver!!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Channel crossing - part 2 - and things that go bump in the night

We were awakened with a mighty bang at 2:30am. Drawers crashed open and we were nearly tossed out of bed. Someone in a nearby boat screamed. Everyone was awake so we turned on the lights to survey the damage and try to figure out what had caused the sudden jolt. All the drawers in the kitchen were open and a wine glass that had been sitting on the kitchen bench had been caught by one of the drawers as it slid open. So nothing broken. We can only assume that the tide had turned at the same time as a large container ship went past and the wake, coupled with the reversal of tide, caused the boat to buck a bit!!
Needless to say we didn't get too much sleep after that. Not a good way to start an epic journey across the channel!
Fortified with breakfast we started at about 10am to head towards France, first passing Margate and then Ramsgate as we headed towards the channel and the current that would eventually take us south near Dover.
We had recently installed AIS (Automatic Identification System is an automatic tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services for identifying and locating vessels by electronically exchanging data with other nearby ships, AIS base stations, and satellites) so we were able to identify other ships in the area through our GPS chart plotter and they were also able to see us. I had also installed an App on my iPad which allowed me to see all the ships in the area. Many have descriptions of length, weight, cargo, where they are going and where they have come from. Quite interesting really if you're not worried that one of these behemoths is directly in your planned route. It is even more scary at night time when it is difficult to judge the speed from just their lights. One boat had a draught of 19 meters and was carrying an incredibly heavy load of cargo so Dover Port Authority was warning other ships to allow it a clear passage. (our draught is only 0.76m)
Apart from other ships there is not a lot to see on the trip across the channel although at the mouth of the Thames in the middle of the channel there are observation towers or forts  (called Maunsell forts after their designer) dating back to WWII. These were used to prevent German submarines from entering the Thames. Apparently one of these forts has been taken over by an eccentric gentleman and he has claimed sovereignty thereby, I suppose, evading paying UK taxes. Prior to this takeover it was used by one of the pirate radio stations that operated off the UK coast in the 60s.

Once we started heading south towards Dover we were also making our way east towards the English Channel shipping lanes. There are two lanes, one for ships heading north and the other for ships heading south. This, in theory, makes it easier for private vessels to cross as in each section you know that ships are only going one way. Once you reach the shipping lane you have to cross at right angles thereby ensuring you are in the shipping lane for the shortest period of time. Of course there are ships heading east west as well because most of the passenger liners going from England to France go straight across.
The water had actually been pretty smooth until we reached the shipping lanes and there was only a slight breeze. However, once we reached the shipping lanes the water was being churned up by the large cargo ships and tankers so it made travel a bit rocky. I went downstairs once and came back telling everyone that I wasn't going to be preparing dinner tonight  (sous chef Kevin stepped up to fill the gap - or should I say everyone's stomachs) and spent the rest of the journey in the wheelhouse where I could see the horizon and also looking at the AIS information on my iPad. Fortunately we had Internet for most of the journey.
As we approached the French coast it was pretty close to 11.30pm and we heard over the radio that the bridge to the marina at Calais was going to be open in 10 minutes - perfect timing as  our pilot had planned the trip so that we would be able to enter the marina on high tide. After getting permission from the Calais port Authority to enter we approached the rotating bridge but had to wait as another craft was leaving the marina. As we dropped the revs of our motor, alarm bells started ringing and the temperature started to head towards boiling point. We had to keep going now as there was nowhere to stop and it wasn't long before we were tied up alongside the visitors mooring. Kevin couldn't believe that the engine had overheated at the last moment. We had been going at a steady speed of 1600 rpms for 14 hours with no indication that there was an issue but as soon as we dropped the revs back there seemed to be a problem. So glad this didn't happen in the dark in the middle of the English Channel!!
We tied up, had a glass of Bolinger champagne to celebrate finally arriving in France then went to bed as we were all mentally exhausted. 
Hotel de Ville Calais
Our route across the channel
The next day we dutifully trotted upto the capitainerie's office to show our papers, passports etc. He only wanted our SSR registration and one passport and charged us a whopping €45 per night. We only stayed an extra night due to the worries about the overheating and then headed off down the Canal du Calais. No customs or immigration checkpoints. We were on the canals in France!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Crossing the English Channel Part 1

I have always said that there was no way I would cross the Channel in our boat. It is bad enough on one of the huge ferries let alone in a 21m flat bottomed barge. After much thought and a bit of a nudge from our insurance company (who wouldn't cover us for the crossing unless we had a pilot) we opted to hire a pilot to take us onto the tidal Thames and then across the Channel to Calais - not Dunkerque as we had originally planned. After speaking with him and looking at the weather forecast for the proposed days I decided that I might brave the crossing instead of taking the Eurostar train. Another consideration by the insurance company was that our cover was null and void if we went across with a forecast of winds at force 4 or greater. So with a forecast of light winds and a low swell we set off from Kingston on Thames at lunch time Saturday 26th July (a month earlier than our original plan).
Kingston on Thames is a great town and we thoroughly enjoyed our overnight stay there. It is an ancient market town where Saxon Kings were once crowned. There were markets on both the Friday and Saturday and it was great seeing all the lovely fresh produce at terrific prices. The atmosphere here needs to be experienced, with market stall holders spruiking their wares and trying to outdo other stall holders with their specials. Five avocados for £1 quickly escalated to 7 avocados for £1 and 3 eggplants for £1 went to 5 for £1. As the day progressed and the stall holders wanted to go home a box of vine ripened tomatoes that was £3 a kilo suddenly became £3 for a whole box!

List of Kings crowned at Kingston

We set off from Kingston at midday on Saturday, with our crew of Kevin, moi, Ryan, cousin Roger and pilot Bill, to meet the last of the incoming tide. Consequently progress was slow but once the tide turned our speed quickly picked up and we were hurtling ( well as much as you can  on our barge!!) down the Thames. Against the tide we were struggling to do 3 knots but with the tide we were hitting 8knots.
Westminster Palace and Big Ben
All was smooth sailing until we reached Westminster and then the water became pretty choppy. I was nearly ready to abandon ship because if it was this rough on the Thames imagine what it was going to be like on the Channel. However, our pilot assured me that this was rougher than the Channel because all the tourist boats were churning up the water and trying to create excitement for the passengers in the jet boats. Certainly, once we got down to Canary Wharf the river was once again quite calm.
It was interesting seeing the sites along the Thames from the perspective of our boat rather than from ground level.

Tower Bridge and the Shard

O2 Arena
Once we passed the O2 Arena, our next hurdle was the Thames barrier but as the tide was still running out there was no issue. As it was now nearing the end of the tidal run and we had been going for about 6 hours our pilot decided it would be prudent mooring on a Buoy off Gravesend. We had to be pretty secure as the tide would turn twice before we took the challenge of the Channel. 
Thames Barrier
The tide is out at Gravesend
Our mooring for the night
Sunset on Day 1
As the sun set on our first day we had dinner and planned the strategy for the coming day - it was going to be a long one with a departure from Gravesend at about 10am and arrival in Calais predicted to be about Midnight.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

French Internet

Unfortunately we haven't had much in the way of Internet so I haven't been able to upload any new blogs or photos. I am currently sitting in McDonald's in Cambrai with a fast Internet but no photos to post. Once we get a reliable internet I will start writing my blog again. I could go on and on about the bureaucracy around French Internet and mobile and the need for a French bank account but what good is that going to do!!! Someone could make a fortune developing easy Internet access for tourists with a large amount of gigabytes. At the moment it is expensive to get just 500 megabytes. Oh well, thank goodness there is McDonald s in most towns. A bientot!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

And so the journey continues

We are travelling back down the Thames stopping at places we didn't get to see on the way up and generally taking it slower than the upstream journey. All in preparation for the Channel crossing, weather permitting, on the weekend of 26th July. Till then we will be moored at Penton Hook marina doing last minute chores and sorting out the inventory for what we require in France. We, however, does not include me as I get really seasick so will be driving across and meeting the boys on the other side. I certainly don't feel like I will be missing out on anything, particularly throwing up!!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Have Car will Travel Part 2: 1st - 7th July

We have decided to stay at Thames and Kennet Marina in Reading for a nearly a week to get our new deep cycle batteries fully charged and also to collect some things that have been sent to Ryan's (our son) address while we have been travelling around. So once again we hired a car but the only problem with this marina is it is so far from public transport. Fortunately Gary from Leesan was delivering some items to us so we cadged a lift from him to the car rental offices.
We also decided to order some sun loungers for our deck for those lazy days when you just want to sit and sip a glass of wine and read a book. The new zero gravity sun loungers/deck chair caught our eye so we placed our Amazon order and several days later this arrived (but ours are blue)

Also while we had the car we once again decided to check out a couple of National Trust places in the Reading area. The first was The Vyne, a palace built by for King Henry VIII's Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sandys and it is a good example of Tudor architecture. The original palace was huge. It is believed that many of the outbuildings that housed servants, grooms, horses etc were made of wattle and daub and as time went on and it became no longer fashionable or affordable to have such a large number of retainers, this part of the palace fell into disrepair and eventually disappeared. What remains of the palace has been renovated over the centuries and the interior design reflects those periods. There are still some interesting aspects of the tudor period with the stained glass window in the chapel depicting a scene with Katherine of Aragon and carvings in the oak gallery of pomegranates which were apparently Katherine of Aragon's heraldic symbol. Imagine how Anne Boleyn must have felt when she visited with Henry to see such blatant images and reminders of Katherine of Aragon! It is also believed that Elizabeth I visited this house. This is another example of a property where you could spend the whole day as there are extensive gardens, woodlands and wetlands.
Garden Rotunda

Outbuilding converted to tearooms
Tudor Brickwork with some rather wonky windows

Chapel window with Katherine of Aragon depicted in left hand window bottom middle panel

Lovely wildflowers in the woodlands

The Vyne looks imposing when viewed from the other side of the lake
While travelling back to the marina we decided to meander our way through the back lanes and came across a sign directing us to Silchester Roman ruins. This was too good an opportunity to miss so we followed the signs, much to the distress of our GPS, to the remains of the Roman city walls. Unlike most Roman towns, it was never re-occupied or built over after its abandonment in the 5th century, so archaeological investigations give an unusually complete picture of its development. There is still an ongoing archaelogical dig here conducted by Reading University. It was a bit disappointing as it was touted as the best preserved Roman town in England - all we managed to see were some quite impressive town walls and I couldn't convince Kevin to walk the extra distance to view the amphitheatre. I had seen remains of a large house north of Cirencester several years ago and what we saw at Silchester wasn't anywhere near as impressive.
Roman walls at Silchester

Basildon Park was another National Trust property close to us. In fact we passed close by it while we where on the boat but there wasn't any access from the river. Basildon park is an 18th Century Georgian Mansion that was rescued and renovated by Lord and Lady Iliffe in the 1950s. Lady Iliffe was a bit of a scavenger and managed to salvage appropriate decorations from other houses to use at Basildon to recreate the feel of the Georgian period. The house is surrounded by 400 aces of parkland with amazing views from the house and garden.
Most recently Downton Abbey has been filmed here. It has been used for the internal shots of the Crawley's London home in the 2013 Christmas special and there are plenty of promotional stills showing what rooms were used in what scenes. 
The entrance to Basildon Park

Walled garden

Library and where filming of the card game took place

This dining room was converted into the ballroom for Downton Abbey

Originally the walls were lined with red silk. Lady Iliffe found some felt to replace the silk with surprisingly rich results.