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LOVE ON THE WATER
“Barge conversion, as I was to discover myself, is a conjuror’s box of puzzlements.”
Thirty years on the French canals! To survive so long in any business must mean something. Commitment, at least. But a Love Affair with France? I am not so sure.
There were several starting points. One was in England, in 1952. That was when my dad, who was never one for convention, took us on a narrow-boat. The canals then were far from fashionable. Our route, embracing as it did the grimier outposts of Birmingham, was not the stuff of holidays as most people saw them at the time.
To me, though, it was a revelation. There was another world here. Cargo craft came by, managed by folk with badly fitting teeth who swore if we got in their way. From the family-run boats, smoke wafted from the cabins as flaxen-haired children swirled around the lock-sides, doing magical things with ropes. The essence of it all reached out and touched me deeply. To “tourism” there was no concession whatsoever. It was entirely uncontrived.
A decade later, when, after a period at sea, I had joined a boating magazine, a man called Richard Parsons came to see us. As the new boy on the staff, I was the one who went down to meet him. Under the glare of the company commissionaire, sitting in the foyer like the recruiting officer for all things British, we looked at some photos Richard had brought.
Small and blurry ones these were - of what it was difficult to tell. The Eiffel Tower offered up a clue. So the waterway must have been … the Seine, while the vessel in the foreground, like a salami sausage with a shed on top, was presumably ...
“… a barge," Richard said. "We're fitting her out." He rolled his eyes as he said this. Barge conversion, as I was to discover myself, is a conjuror's box of puzzlements. That it is hideously expensive as well takes even the experienced by surprise.
The idea, he explained, was to carry groups of people by the week, eating and drinking as they went, and sharing in the adventure. Could we give him some publicity, he asked? The money was running out, and bookings were urgently needed.
Richard had christened his barge Palinurus - someone in Greek mythology, whose background he explained, but I immediately forgot. Prior to this, as a coal boat near Dunkerque, the name had been Ponctuel, a suggestion it seemed prudent not to pursue.
Burgundy was the region Palinurus would be exploring, the dukedom of the Vagabond King and the home of quality wine, though few in Britain drank it and the general concept was vague. Burgundy, indeed, was a grey area of the English mind, to be filed with Transylvania or Lilliput.
It was a surprise to learn it really existed, but Richard said it was beautiful. There were waterways in Burgundy, he added, and those were beautiful too. It was a working system as well. Though France was strange to me, and more than a little frightening, the vision of a new domain swam enticingly into view.
"Can you help?" Richard asked again, and I said we would try. We shook hands and he left.
To my eternal discredit, we did nothing much about it. An item appeared in some text about 'developments', while the photographs, as they do with magazines, lingered in a drawer for a while, then disappeared.
France then, to many British people, was a far-off land. It had different ways of doing things. The French, it was commonly understood, were haughty and uncooperative. They closed their shops at lunchtime and insufficiently cooked their meat. The language, too, was different, a reminder, all too often, of difficult days at school. Those I knew who visited the country did so in a spirit of apprehension and seemed glad to get back.
Nine years later, pushing prejudice aside – or at least holding it at bay – I set off to explore France by barge myself.
In Britain, meanwhile, the rivers and canals were being saved. But the freight had gone and with it, as far as I was concerned, the take-it-as-you find-it spirit that made it all so special.
“France has endured ‘the take-it-as-you-find-it spirit”
In France, on the other hand, much of this endured. Around the coalfields of the north, the barging fraternity was busy still, as it was at Nancy, Strasbourg and Dijon. Beside the quay at Auxerre, nowadays the Port de Plaisance, queues of vessels were topping up with grain, before heading off for Germany or the mills of Belgium and Holland.
A job on another magazine was waiting after my trip, but that fell through. And so, in 1976, I followed in Richard’s footsteps, operating a hotel-barge, as they were known, first of all near Nevers, later from the very same quay at Auxerre.
It was a disappointment, at first, to discover that our clients, when at last we found some, were not canal buffs at all.. Wine, ancient buildings, and comforts on board: these were what they wanted. The comfort, alas, was minimal in our early years though the extremely good cook I had accidentally hired made up for our omissions and avoided any showdowns.
The French canals, too, were changing. Rarely now, on the up-country waterways, did we encounter any freighters. Other pleasure boats were appearing (though not that many and when, in our second season, the propeller got entangled in a massive sheet of rubber, laid on the bed of the Canal du Nivernais at Dirol to seal off the leaks, not a single vessel arrived throughout the 36-hour spell in which we were stuck beneath a bridge)
The ambiance of the canals was anyway, by then, a minor concern. I was too distracted by the need to remain solvent. Priorities changed. Comradeship was what we were providing, with good food and drink and the glories of the scenery. When it all worked the satisfaction was immense.
At the wineries, sometimes, and in the shops, almost always, the locals proved friendly and helpful – friendlier, I had to admit, than shopkeepers home in England, certainly at the time we began. On the waterways, however, co-operation could be patchy.. The lock-keepers and their cohorts soon enough came to know to us, mellowing each time we passed; but those in control (who even today never seem to be enthusiasts themselves) could be remote, and sometimes high-handed.
The novelist Anthony Burgess, who lived in France, once commented that in Britain bureaucrats tread carefully, aware of the ridicule that can descend. In France this is not so and when, in more recent times, a new authority, the VNF, took control of the French canals, their opening contact was to send inspectors round, checking on the boats. When, on the Nivernais, a replacement chief was appointed, she declared as she arrived she would be calling in the Gendarmerie to do the very same thing. On a waterway that has been undredged for years, where bridges are deliberately lowered, where the bollards that are vital in times of flood are removed because they bust up the grass-cutting tractor, the lack of humility here struck in a very big way. Had it been the British Waterways Board I would have let them have it with both barrels; but we are visitors to France (even if we do pay taxes and fees) and have to tread carefully.
“It is the Adventure..that is the core of a life in France.”
Today, twenty years after she first saw our barge, my wife Penny runs the show to a standard I never dreamed of. The barge, incidentally, is the old Palinurus, purchased from Richard then rebuilt as the Luciole. We know the area well, or at least the parts of it beside the canal, and I myself have changed. People interest me more; the canal buffery is contained. There are commercial waterways elsewhere in France, becoming busier again as the Green philosophy takes hold. Ours is not so, but there are challenges every day (not least in negotiating the shallows) while the glories of our surroundings are a balm each time we take a cruise.
The adventure now is in surviving. In surviving the downturn in the American passengers on whom we largely depend, following the war in Iraq. In weathering the regulations. In measuring up to France. “Keep your head down,” I was advised long ago by a fellow entrepreneur. Maybe that applies in England also, but we are not intruders back home and could more easily fight.
It is the Adventure, surely that, for Brits who come over, is the core of a life in France, an Adventure, in my case starting with the exploration of canals, adjusting now to staying in business upon them. It is fun very often; there are friends being made; the ambiance can be great; but it will never be a Love Affair. Almost, sometimes; but never quite.
John Liley, has written several books on inland waterways, amongst them France – the Quiet Way, following his initial journey around the French system in the Leeds & Liverpool ‘short boat’ Arthur. With his wife Penny he runs the hotel-barge Luciole, alternating between their home in Cheshire and a base near Châtel-Censoir, Yonne. They have three young sons.