Monday, 8 May 2017

French Holiday Part 1 - Bromsgrove to Bram & 'Winifred'

The first thing I want to say is how much we will miss Les' (nb Valerie) blog posts, but not half as much as we will miss him as a friend. It was a privilege to know you Les and to take part in the wonderful Remembrance Service Jaq laid on for you.  Jaq we are glad you are back in the UK and on the cut.  We both hope there are no more boat issues for you to contend with and that you are rewarded with a few weeks (at the very least) of stress free gentle putting around the canal system.

So what is this blog all about – well a trip we took last summer to France.  I had no internet at the time, so I wrote the journal in Word with a promise to myself that I would write it and post it over the winter and here we are in spring and I am just getting it done! I wrote it in the present and future tense and have since changed it to the past tense - please forgive anything I have missed!

Read it if you want to – firstly I cover the three weeks we were on the Canal du Midi and then the two weeks we spent in a small village called Bize Minervois.  It was supposed to be a holiday of a lifetime, however we need two lifetimes as we want to go back and cover more of the Canal!  This is being written mainly for us as a reference when we do return and to dip into in our dotage when such adventures are beyond us!

So why has it taken so long to get down to writing it?  Well we just seem to have been busy having fun!  We went to visit friends in Spain in November, spent a week at Center Parcs, Sherwood, with the family just before Christmas.  From there we went straight to stay with friends for the festive season returning home on the 27th.  We had our family Christmas on 28th / 29th and Sue and Ken (nb Cleddau) came to stay for New Year.  There are always chores that need to be done and you might wonder why we are not already out cruising this year?  Chris had surgery on a bunion on 15th March and is hobbling round with a large boot on his foot (it makes him walk on his heel), so I have been busy dog walking and doing everything else!  We moved the boat on 25th April to Droitwich for the St Richard’s Festival (29th April – 1st May) and all being well Chris will lose the boot when he sees the consultant on the 27th April (he did).  We spent a weekend doing bits and bobs on the boat, so we knew Chris could manage to get around okay – he will steer and I will do the work – no change there then!  

So to the French trip which will be posted over 15 days as 5 weeks worth of blogging is a lot!

The Journey:

Wednesday 15th June 2016
Before we could set off we had to deliver Monty to his temporary home for the next 5.5 weeks.  He was going to our friends Jane and Chris and his best friend, their black Labrador – Kiera.  He also had to learn to live with two cats – he had been before and is pretty good with them.  Well they, I believe, have educated him how to behave! What does a dog need for that length of time – a lot!! 

Thursday 16th June 2016
Bromsgrove to Beauvais
327 miles

We set off at 07:45 to head for the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone for our train which was due to depart at 12:50.  According to the Sat Navs (we had two as we were not sure whether the in car one had loaded the French maps) and the AA route map it was a 3 hour journey, so we should have had plenty of time – well that was the theory.  We got notification from motorway signs that there was an accident between junctions 4 and 3 on the M40.  Both Sat Navs suggested we leave at junction 5 which we did, but instead of heading us along the A40 to junction 3 we were sent south towards Marlow.  We soon realised the error and headed back to the A40 through very heavy traffic.  I found somewhere to pull over so we could swap seats as despite Chris spending 26 years as a navigator in the RAF I am actually better at following road maps!  We made it back to junction 3 and re-joined the M40.  We had a brief stop to ease springs at Clackett Lane Services on the M25 and swapped seats again.  We arrived at the terminal at 12:00, so in time (our deadline was 12:20) despite the diversion and delays.  This is when the trouble really started.  The traffic was at a standstill.  It took us an hour to get to the check in and we finally departed at 14:05.  We were certainly glad we had stopped at Clackett Lane or there would have been two sets of very crossed legs!! 

Anyway depart we did and ate our lunch whilst we were in the tunnel and emerged in France and moved off the train at 15:45 French time.  We were glad we had opted for an hotel north of Paris.  It was just a two hour drive from Sangatte.  We stopped at the Hotel Balladins in Beauvais.

Fantastic value – I booked ahead and it cost 44€.  The room was clean, the bed comfy, the TV had CNN, there was free Wifi and there was a restaurant where we both opted for the Chef’s Omelette for dinner – one of the best we have ever had.  The plumbing fittings were a little tired, but clean where they mattered and we would stop here again without hesitation.  It fitted the bill perfectly and was only a spit off the autoroute.  It was also very close to a large Auchan where the fuel was a lot cheaper than on the autoroute.  The shock of the day was seeing the news on CNN about poor Jo Cox – such an appalling tragedy.

Friday 17th June 2016
Beauvais to Cahors
412 miles

According to the Mappy route planner this journey should have taken just over 6 hours.  The sat navs both said just over 7!  Which was right? – sadly neither!  We left at 09:00 and made it round Paris without too much trouble.  There is a new tunnel just past La Defense which reminded us of the M5 culvert – it is very low.  Even in a car you feel you need to duck.  It is, however, very fast with no junctions or hold ups and traffic only goes in one direction.  We are not sure how long it is, but we think we were in it for around 15 minutes.  It did cost 7.70€, so I would not want to do it every day, but once every few years it is well worth paying for.  The weather was intermittent showers that were mostly very heavy, so that slowed things down a lot.  We swapped seats on four occasions – three were very quick stops with one longer one for lunch.  There were two very long bouchons (traffic jams) for roadworks and the journey ended up taking 9 hours!  We stopped in Cahors at the Hotel Deltours.  Again booked ahead and although it was okay and good value we would not stop there again.  There was free Wifi, but no CNN, it was a good 20 minutes from the autoroute, had no dining room and our room smelt musty.  It looked clean enough and the plumbing fixtures were newer than the Hotel Balladins.  We could have walked to the local restaurant, but neither of us felt that inclined, so we went to Le Clerc (another big hypermarket with fuel) and got salad, cold chicken, cheese and bread and ate in our room.  A last minute addition to our packing was two picnic plates, two knives, forks and teaspoons - all put to good use!  The temperature today ranged from 13˚c to (very briefly) 19˚c.  We are hoping it improves.

Saturday 18th June 2016
Cahors to Bram via Castelnaudary
116 miles

We left the hotel at 09:30 for the two hour drive to Bram where we were due to pick the boat up at 15:00.  We had more of the wet stuff and even though we were quite far south it was no warmer.  We stopped in Castelnaudary for lunch and to do a supermarket shop.  This is a town we know fairly well as we have been to this part of the world around 8 times over the last 19 years.  There is a big square in the centre of Castelnaudary for parking, so we did not anticipate any problem finding a parking space, however, when we arrived we discovered it was the Feu de la St-Jean

and the car park was full of veteran cars.

After about 3 trips round the town we did find a space and got some lunch before heading for Géant to stock up on supplies and then driving the last few miles to Port du Bram to collect our boat.  

Whilst we were checking in this boat came and moored up – one of our Grandsons will approve of the name!

 After all the paperwork was done and money paid for CDW, bikes, car parking etc we were shown to our home for the next three weeks – Winifred, known as Winnie.

We were given a briefing on all things technical and left to it as we said we would not be leaving until sometime on Sunday.  We were in no rush and after three long days there seemed to be no point in going before we had unpacked, settled in and had a good night’s sleep. 

Our company at Bram was the local dog – very friendly he was too.

We were also treated to a rainbow on the first evening

So what is the boat like – very big! 50 foot by 11 foot wide, so a lot more space than we are used to. 

Just note here how easy it is to get on and off - the importance of this will become apparent as the story unfolds.

It is designed for two couples with two double bedrooms both with en-suite facilities as there was going to be four of us on the trip.  Unfortunately for us the daughter of our friends’ who were coming announced her wedding was going to be in July 2016 after we had booked – an event they could hardly ignore!  So there we were in a huge boat that we hoped we could handle.  I think my biggest concerns were no centre rope and managing the locks – I suspected a few éclusiers (lock keepers) might have had a few choice words to say to me if I couldn't get the rope over the bollard!  We had to decide which cabin we would use and we went for the one in the bow.  Everything was unpacked accordingly. 
However after one night we had to move to the stern bedroom
Looking from the stern bedroom into the galley
 So why the move?  There is a skylight in the bow cabin with no cover and whilst it did not bother me, Chris is very sensitive to light and therefore did not sleep at all well.

The very large saloon

The steering position in the saloon.  This is where the engine is switched on, but you can only steer from the stern outside.

And this the galley which comes complete with two fridges  

The boat has all mod cons and is very comfortable.  The big question was how would we manage with just two of us with such a big boat.  

Sunday 19th June

We had intended moving off today, late morning, but in the end we had to wait for Florence (the lady in charge) to come on duty at 17:00 as we had discovered a few issues that needed to be sorted out:

  • ·         Having changed my phone to Three who offer data roaming at no extra charge and specifically saying I wanted to use it as a hotspot in France, on trying to connect to hotspot I got a message saying I could only do this in the UK!  Florence had a ‘deal’ for wifi that would work anywhere, which didn’t even work in the port in Bram!  We needed to see if she could sort it, she couldn’t, so we had to get our money back
  • ·         We had two parasols (which we hoped we would need - it was still overcast and chilly) - which came in two parts -  a short pole attached to the parasol and then the longer extension pole – both of the extension poles were broken and if the weather changes (we had been assured that it would) we would need at least one parasol – Florence agreed to give us one working pole the next day from a boat due back in the morning.
  • ·         We had a bucket, but no mop – it transpires that the sort of mop we are used to is called a Spanish mop and they do not have them here.  They provide a thick cloth that you immerse in water, wring out and then push round with your broom.  It remained to be seen whether this worked or not (it was not brilliant!)
  • ·         Chris had put his 'boat driving licence’ in a safe place, however it was too safe!  That was easy to sort – Florence gave us a photocopy.
So what to do for the day waiting – well first we moved all the ‘stuff’ from one bedroom to the other. At one point in the day this group of travellers passed by on the opposite side of the canal.

We decided to go to the fish restaurant in the Port for lunch as they are closed Sunday evenings.We had high hopes for a good meal as we were told that the locals come from miles around and it is essential to book a table.

I had the Sea Bass

And Chris Moules Marinière.
 They were both excellent.

We also decided to try out our bikes with a very short ride to the lock at Bram and back again.  Our bottoms are not used to hard saddles!!  It was all a bit wobbly to start with, but we got there and back without incident.

A nice relaxing Father’s Day.  The weather was still not brilliant, so we were still hoping it would improve.

History of the Canal du Midi

Before we set off I thought I would just give a brief outline of the history of this wonderful canal. Most of my information comes from a very well written book with some great photographs - 'The Canal du Midi Waterway - The Story of a Masterpiece'.  In case anyone is interested or intending to go to this part of the world the ISBN is 978-2-7373-3923-3.  Well now that is interesting - I have just looked on Amazon and there is one available at £19.99 - we paid 5,10€, so wait until you go to France!
The idea of a waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean dates back to the Roman Empire. It was considered and the idea abandoned by many people over the years including Nero, Charlemange, François I, Charles IX and Henry IV.  The sheer difficulties of such a project whether to use the rivers despite their destructive floods and torrential flows, or whether to dig a canal from the River Garonne to the Mediterranean Sea, despite the problems involved in supplying it with water in the drought-prone regions plus how to cross the watershed that is 190m above sea level all proved too much until Pierre-Paul Riquet came along in the 17th century.

This was in the time of Louis XIV and Colbert (a very influential minister).  There were times when the latter supported him and others when he decided the project should be abandoned. 

Riquet was born (probably in 1609) and bred in Béziers.  His father was a part of the Council of 30 in Béziers who had banned research into the ‘New Canal of the Two Seas’ on the grounds that it would be too expensive and probably never succeed.   Riquet was neither an engineer nor an hydrologist.  He did not have any qualifications and unusually, for a man of his standing, he could barely read Latin.  He was a salt tax collector and then a munitions provider for the Catalonian army.  He amassed a vast fortune.

He just had a vision that he wanted to build a canal from the Garonne to the Mediterranean Sea which he started on 15 April 1667 when he was 57 and could have retired in comfort.  Sadly there was still 2.5 miles to go when he died in 1680 aged 71.  By then his fortune was in tatters and his children only inherited massive debts, but his genius was acknowledge throughout Europe and his name went down in history.  He was a very forward thinking and good employer as his workers (very unusual in those days) got sick pay, better than average wages, payment for Sundays and Bank Holidays and even for days when the weather stopped them working.  He is still revered today – most towns and villages we stopped in had a ‘Rue de Riquet’ and there is a large statue of him in both Béziers and Toulouse. 

A project of this size was bound to have many obstacles – the following are the three major ones:
  • ·         A water source – he created the Lac de Saint Ferréol which collects water from the Black Mountains to the north – it is vast and an area used for swimming, sailing and many other water sports
  • ·         The Malpas Hill between Corbières and Beziers – they could not go over it, so it was a tunnel or nothing.  Bearing in mind this was 100 years before the first canal was built in the UK, he was definitely well ahead of his time and had no one else’s experience to draw on.  When they started to dig they found they were contending with crumbly subsoil and Colbert ordered them to stop as he thought it was too dangerous.  Riquet, however, was determined to win the day, so he collected together a team of trusted workers and they forged ahead in secret.  They had to be quick to succeed before anyone found out and they created the 165 metre tunnel in one week!  Now can you imagine keeping anything of that magnitude quiet in this day and age for one hour, never mind a whole week.  Although we did not go through the tunnel we did go and have a look from Bize Minervois, so there will be pictures later on in this tale.
  • ·         Fonserannes Staircase, Beziers – this is a drop of 25 metres over a few hundred metres to the River Orb.  It was originally 9 locks, but is now just 7.  Again there will be more about these much later on in our travels.
Just a few key facts about the Canal du Midi
  • ·         It is 240.5 kilometres long (we did 108 of them)
  • ·         The longest reach (lock free stretch) is from Argens Lock to the Fonserannes Staircase locks (we did just 37 kilometres of that stretch)
  • ·         The shortest reach is 250 metres between two locks at Fresquel – we did travel that vast expanse!
  • ·         45,000 trees were planted – the book says there are 60,000 today, but we do wonder with all the problems with canker if that is correct.
The books states there are 350 feats of engineering as follows:
  • ·         126 bridges
  • ·         55 aqueducts
  • ·         7 Canal bridges
  • ·         6 dams
  • ·         63 locks – including 1 septuple, 1 quadruple, 4 triple and 19 double which makes a total of 101 chambers.  We did (each way) 22 locks of which 2 were triple and 7 double, leaving 13 single locks – so 33 chambers each way.  66 locks in 3 weeks should have been a breeze when we have to do 45 locks just to get from our marina to the top of the Tardebigge flight whenever we want to go north each year! 
I make that a total of 295, so what happened to the other 55 and surely the tunnel must count as a ‘feat of engineering’?

Hopefully the above will have given you a small taste of what this canal is about.  The first canal in Britain, The Bridgewater, was not built until the mid 18th century.  Also the Canal du Midi is much wider and therefore a much larger task, especially considering it would have all been dug by hand.  


  1. Really looking forward to reading this - nearly 40 years ago (before kids) we hired a boat with 6 friends and had a wonderful time going as far as Beziers. I wonder how much we'll find familiar?

  2. Good to hear from you Debby. With a large and youthful crew I am sure you got further than we did! I have just left a comment on your blog and as I hit send I realised I had put advise instead of advice! If you can change will you please. Thanks