As Chantilly’s adventures at John & Françoise Tilley's hands terminated with her sale in 2015 (to France of course!) they have elected to compile their Funnel reports of her travels, hopefully as encouragement for those contemplating similar cruises or simply to while away the odd coffee break.
Each article will be republished online throughout 2016 or you can download the full document here (10Mb).
Although Chantilly has steamed a number of the better known waterways in France, there is still a lifetimes cruising left around the edges.
The pin this year stuck in la Charente, navigable from Angoulême inland to Rochefort in the estuary-and then into the Bay of Biscay.
As a plus the River Boutonne was stated to be navigable from the estuary for 30 km inland. This gave a projected cruise of about 200 km and 40 locks- comfortable for the 8 steaming days available.
We reached Angoulême 20 hours from home, overnighting on board Chantilly in one of the comfortable ‘aires’ found on the autoroutes. Slight set back one, was that, although advertised in the carte fluvial as having a slipway, and full services, Angoulêmes didn’t agree and offered only a meagre slipway, rocky banks and a weedy river. Advised to try downstream at Chateauneuf, we found a splendid starting point with lock side facilities, including a restaurant private car park and a railway station opposite.
The line, which followed the river for its length, was to be a boon for ultimate car recovery, but a bit of interruption to nocturnal repose.
Our first steam was upstream towards Angoulême, to cover the bit missed. The Charente, as many French waterways, is only really used by English operated hire fleets, so 4 boats a day was crowded! It has a noticeable current, and for the upper half more than noticeable weeds. Our previous training for weed avoidance on the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal was not wasted! The water is astonishingly clear; and the weeds can be seen growing from the bottom in 10 or more feet of water, so careful navigation, and coasting with engine in mid gear thro’ the un-navigable patches reduced attacking the prop with the boat hook, to a minimum. This clear water gave a magical view of underwater life and no doubt gave the many fish a choice as to which worm to nibble.
On the surface, we had a plethora of game birds, and coipu. These friendly fellows were happy to bask in the shallows with the ducks and took no heed of us. Kingfishers a plenty, sadly absent from our waterways this year, were so populous that they often hunted in pairs. Add to this the many often crumbling, mills and chateaux, gave an aura of wild, uncharted waters. The locks are occurring every 5 or 10 km and are large 30 m x 7 m with usually 1m drop, and all bar one are hand operated, self service although occasionally, one would meet a lock manned by enterprising youths to whom one tossed serious money in exchanged for respite from the 150 turns of each of the 4 paddles. We found the usual surfeit of gourmet cuisine, and some delightfully fruity Charentais wine, which despite the untold cubic ‘metres’ distilled into Cognac, still flows a plenty. Our journey downstream, at a very easy pace with the favourable current, took us to St Simon, now a quiet hamlet but until the early 1900’s, a major boat building centre of the 100 ton square rigged sailing barges, the Gabare.
Sadly for the town, when boat building died, with the onset of steel barges, the termites imported with the African timber, didn’t, and many of the buildings are now suffering serious roof droop from the still thriving beasties.
On next to Jarnac, a major hire base where we discovered slight set back two- the Boutonne was navigable, but only by canoe, and the lower tidal reaches to Rochefort were most unattractive to small boats, as one needed to travel the 30 km on a falling tide and wait in the mud till high tide, before the sea lock would open into the harbour. This effectively eliminated 3 days of our intended route. This fact turned out to be a boon, allowing us to explore the freshwater Charente in more detail, and spend time with a number of the many steam boat afficiados we met.
Like Antoine, who spent a morning showing us his fascinating family Cognac distillery, and then joining us in Jarnac for a steam and bank side produce sampling, and meeting his best friend Pierre who was building a model of a steam boat- and Jean-Claude near Cognac who has made, in 20,000 hours over 14 years, a collection of the most intricate working steam models, marine plants, loco’s, road vehicles, including Cugnot’s carriage (1769), stationary engines and a few revolutionary devices of his own design- all to scale and from old plans making everything in house, including the steering chain links for a ¾” scale traction engine.
Then there was Philippe in St Savinien at the end of our navigation, who with his Swedish wife Eva, runs a Swedish restaurant, and imports old ‘Peterson’ wooden motor boats from Sweden and, restores them.
All of them, fired by thumbing thro’ our copy of the Index, and a data sheet on Chantilly prepared before in French, are now hell bent on constructing a steam boat.
The cruise continued on thro’ Taillebourg, where the chateau overlooking the river was used for B&B by such notables as Richard the Lion Heart…on to Cognac, with its splendid new harbour, a well kept interesting old town, bristling with distilleries all housed in imposing chateaux. Then through Port d’Envaux, once an important port, now a quaint waterside village but still with splendid hostelries, on to St Savinien.
Unable to continue by water, we entrained and visited our goal, Rochefort by rail. Here, the ‘temps’ ceased to be ‘beau’, and we had torrential downpours that found Chantilly’s canopy a little less than watertight (but a 60 KW boiler soon dries damp bedding). We then had a long days steam, 55 km and 2 locks back to Cognac, spent our last day steaming around with new found friends and, witnessed the hilarious local sport of water jousting, where the technique seems to be to upset and deflect the oarsmen before the jousters meet. Amongst the many attractions of Cognac was a most effective slipway, and a TGV station from where I was whisked, a breakneck speed back to Chateauneuf to collect car and trailer.
Then end of our steaming, but not quite the end of our adventures, as at our overnight stop off at Chateau-sur-Loire, ‘F’ espied an ad for 3 old Vélo Solex mopeds ‘like Grandad had’, so after a phone call, we deviated early Sunday morning 50 km to Ponce where we met the family and accompanied by Dad in his night attire, we whistle along the county lanes testing their 20 cc capabilities to the full, did a deal for a 30 year old model in splendid original condition, popped it under Chantilly’s canopy, and returned with a really useful souvenir. A leisurely trip on an unspoilt waterway. 170 km and 30 locks of steaming- and we brought back some of the 150 kg of coal we started with; which sadly meant less need for the usual wine ‘ballast’ on the return trip!