from somerset to the canal du midi
Now for something completely different. In the last week of September Mrs W and I left the middle of nowhere in Somerset for the bright lights of Toulouse and the start of our tour of the canal du Midi. We had a brief stop for a few nights in the city, taking in a boat trip that explained the importance of this canal as well as giving us our first glimpse of an automated lock (more of these later!). We then set off by train to the French version of the middle of nowhere Port Lauragaise about 40 minutes train journey and the base of Nicols boat hire. To be fair, although we disembarked from the train on what was barely a platform, the port itself is new and part of a motorway stop over containing a restaurant café, shop and boat yard.
The boats are smart glass fibre cruisers with fly bridges, large saloons, en suite shower rooms and very well appointed. The one we hired was about 26 foot long and about 10 foot wide. Great, apart from the fact that we couldn’t see it, and that’s because it wasn’t there - having failed to be returned from a long journey to a medieval city about four days down the canal. So we had what is known as an upgrade roughly 40 foot long sleeping four in two separate cabins and about 16 foot wide – What didn’t come as a sweetener was the tow behind hot tub that you could hire separately that hooked on to tow bar ball hitches. The size compared with Dawn Treader was initially rather daunting as there was only two of us but after a thorough hand over with reassuring words such as it wont steer in reverse and beware the fly bridge on parts with restricted head room we trundled off slowly. Oh yes one last tip once you have turned the engine off on the stop button make sure you turn off the ignition - I will explain why at the end.
Before ambling off on this article I would point out two things that made our trip so much more enjoyable. One, brush up, learn or at least try and speak the language. Many of the people especially in the large cities like Toulouse will smile sweetly at you and then reply in perfect and almost ashamedly good English but in some areas they don’t at all. Also it gives you the confidence to wander off the beaten track - after all you are in a foreign country. Two, you are in a foreign country where they do things completely different to us, basically they don’t rush about, especially in the afternoons, so best not try and micro plan a journey.
We set off about three o'clock on Monday afternoon and had to return the boat by 9am Friday. We soon encountered our first automated lock – the highest on the system: push buttons and it empties, the gate opens and you drive in and tie up , the gate shuts behind you and you push another button in the direction you are going and it fills/ empties and reopens the gate. Why we haven’t done this is beyond me - apparently it was done doing WW2 to speed up transport .However, for those of us that are used to coming tight along side there is a special design feature to confuse you , they are not rectangular but oblong! We opted for my usual safe method of pulling the boat in by ropes, one because I hadn’t quite mastered the controls at this stage and two because they had £1000 of my money as a deposit and I would rather not damage their boat.
We were back packing so didn’t really have much in the way of food with us and just bought some basic provisions – mainly wine because the plan was to buy it at a supermarket in a small village about 2km walk from the canal- it’s also worth noting that the canal passes through some very remote regions. The boat is provided with pins similar to the type we use but without the hooks which means to keep a 40 foot boat from coming adrift one must be capable of a semi decent rolling hitch .So after a good brisk walk we found it shut for a stock take, never mind we can use the canal side café – that was also shut on a Monday, so the first meal aboard was duck pate, pasta and wine whilst sat out on an aft sun deck. The showers were excellent, and the hot water came off the engine and seeing as this was designed to sleep four ,6 at a push we had plenty. The bunks were cleverly designed and could be pushed together to make a double or set as standard v berth, hatches and opening windows provided ventilation because although we did this at he start of autumn and interestingly the entire system shuts at the end of October and opens in March it was still pleasantly warm – mid summer it must be very warm.
Refreshed we set off towards Castelnaundary through a wide plane tree lined canal. Many of the locks we encountered were multiples and had lock attendants who were more than happy to help especially as we were short handed on quite a large boat but we learnt to handle the ropes from the fly bridge making sure that they didn’t catch any part of the boat and were under the guard rails and doing our usual hand it through the locks slowly and carefully. However, even these were automatic, and the lock keeper operated them via remote control.
I didn’t plan to do the journey to Castelnaudary in one hop; the idea had always been to cruise for say three hours a day and take in the local villages etc. However, with a food and wine shortage it was prudent to push on. At this point I came across something that has changed my entire holiday and my outlook on life – a remote automated lock complete with picturesque keepers’ house. We dutifully tied up and set off with newfound confidence to push a few buttons – nothing not even a whirr. being a man, I pushed them again and this time with more purpose – nothing, until I managed to read the sign. They might be automatic but they also shut for lunch, there’s no point in fighting it just open the wine and eat the last of the duck pate, we are going nowhere and neither is any one else for a hundred mile radius – makes a mockery of our trying to look busy reading pointless emails over a sandwich in an office – or worse still a lunch time meeting.
Castelnaudary has a huge basin – the size of a lake .It was at one point a major port on the canal We were met by two very quick and enthusiastic harbour masters who were keen to get us tied up as quick as possible and as tight as possible with bow springs the works, following us along were very black clouds and this area being close to the Pyrenees and jammed between high ground either side is prone to storms with high winds, strong enough for the original builders to incorporate an island in the basin to provide shelter. Seconds after we tied up, it hit with squally winds and thunder. Although we were relieved of 20 euros to berth alongside this included electric hook up and water, hot showers on shore etc. For 22 euros you could order the local delicacy – Cassoulet, duck pork and beans in a dish a sort of up market just eat. You even get to keep a hand thrown casserole dish. The boat was re-provisioned from the local Spar – which was nothing like ours they have such more varied types of food rather than our 10 varieties of chicken wing we get (Microwave meals). No wonder Lidl has caught on.
The following day we set off about 10 and made it through two locks before lunch and then decided to stop and go exploring for the afternoon, walking through fields of sunflowers – Both Mrs W and myself are professional horticulturalists – we have even been head gardener of the same gardens so plants fascinate us – the varieties growing wild in the hedge rows amongst derelict farm houses that we could only dream about growing . We stumbled into an old village that seemed empty and a time warp of sun-bleached shutters, tree lined squares providing shade from the summer sun – in the same way the plane trees were planted along the canal. Back to the boat for supper and finish reading our books, remember this is a holiday - slogging at the helm for hours whilst pouring over canal maps to check progress is more akin to a motorway journey.
The last day we toddled along to make it to a pottery, the one which made the casserole dishes. This rather rundown looking place would be a shock to any one risk adverse or in the visitor attraction business and has a health and safety officer who loves hazard tape. Basically, you just wonder about whilst they make pots on a wheel, pass a wood fired kiln, shelves full of pots drying and rooms of a house built in 1820s with pottery in every conceivable corner. We duly paid 3 quid for a smaller version of the casserole dish and returned for a gentle cruise up to the canal side café that was shut the Monday we passed. This is where a little French is handy – even just for ordering a beer. This is along side a major pottery and most of the work force came for lunch for a couple of hours. This was really the last afternoon as the boat had to be back by 9 am Friday morning. At one point we did tie up about 30 minutes from the marina but eventually thought we may as well toddle in having walked around an ancient mill site and seen the monument to Pierre Paul Riquet the builder of this UNESCO canal.
I was actually pleased we toddled in as the French use a stern first mooring with no finger pontoons – trying this manoeuvre in a large boat that wont steer in reverse was playing on my mind and not the kind of thing you want to do in a hurry. Basically, we managed to turn and reverse enough to hand our way in using a moored cruiser with out a bump. Supper in the café and a good clean of the boat ready for the hand back. Ok there is a theme running through this we took everything slowly and carefully, maybe I would like to have gone on further but it was a holiday and we didn’t rush, we broke one coffee cup that I offered to replace from the café full of coffee if need be! However, some were not so lucky and had to pay 600 Euros damage to the boat caused by a careless rope getting caught around part of the fly bridge. The first cost is the diesel, and this was charged by the hours that the engine had run. We did about 20 hrs over 4 days and were charged a reasonable 20 euros – hence turning the ignition off. Full deposit returned said our goodbyes and returned to the middle of nowhere station – only to find out that we had to go back to Castelnaudary first to get back to Toulouse or wait until mid-afternoon.
The total cost of everything including boat came to about £1000 for two. Would we do it again, yes, we are already looking. The hire company were excellent and the boats far in excess of anything we expected. The area is incredibly historic and warm and sunny, the canal is wide, and the natives are friendly and the wine tastes like wine not the sludge we get.