You could possibly guess from my earlier post that canals are one of my loves, and probably one of the things I miss from the UK. I get the impression that the UK canals are horribly crowded now, and like the rest of France, French canals are less populated. My first canal holiday was on the Llangollen canal back in 1969, on a wooden boat that leaked, and of course it rained – you could navigate all the way into Llangollen then, and at the Pontycysllte aqueduct (sorry, didn’t check the spelling) there was an old guy who for a shilling would tell the story of how the aqueduct was built with oxblood and lime and the steel joints sealed with sheep’s wool dipped in boiling sugar. I’ve no idea how true that was, but there must be a semblance of truth. Since then I had annual canal holidays, and two friends that lived on boats which made for extended free holidays as well. My ticked-off list is:
- Shropshire Union all the way to Ellesmere Port
- Grand Union
- Birmingham Canal Navigations (fascinating industrial history)
- Worcester & Birmingham, Staffs and Worcs
- Leicester Main Line
- Oxford north and south, and Coventry
- Trent & Mersey
- By canoe, Lea & Stort, and Kennet & Avon before restoration
I’m in two minds about canal restoration, partly because they have a magical atmosphere which is lost when they’re restored. My Ex and I used to canoe on the more inaccessible parts, and I remember the Kennet & Avon being clear flowing weedy water with large fish (trout?) and derelict locks – we once helped out with the Devizes to Westminster canoe race with a huge portage in the middle, and I’ve walked along parts of the Thames & Severn and Wilts & Berks canals, and even the Wendover Arm before that was restored.
Now in France, in possibly the furthest point from any canal, I’m missing them. Our nearest canal is 2 hours drive away, and derelict to boot, we took a drive out there at the weekend. I’d done a fair amount of research and knew where I wanted to go – Canal de Berry in the Cher department.
The aqueduct was unfortunately built from a variety of sandstone, and as can be seen is in a state of advanced “not holding together too well”. Ainey-le-Vieil also has a chateau that is worth visiting.
There’s a group or two trying to restore this canal, which is not small at 320km, but generally it seems to be in exceptionally good condition, i.e. new lock gates, a bit of water, lovely! Ok, there are a few tennis courts, and fields of hay on the waterway, a few road bridges, filled in channels in a few villages, but nothing insurmountable. Vierzon could be a problem as they’ve built on it there. In Montlucon, the end of the canal arm, it’s unrecoverable. The canal side cottages now sit alongside a main road, but who would want to go into Montlucon anyway?
Slightly north of the aqueduct is Drevant, where they’ve embraced the extinct canal. There are some tiny electric boats for hire, and a lovely but modern canal side bar and restaurant (we didn’t eat there, so no recommendations). A couple of hundred yards up the towpath are some Roman ruins, but unfortunately we didn’t have any time left to visit them (and as for French Tourist Boards – huh?). That’s one thing I love about France – they don’t advertise attractions, so you don’t roll up and find an ice cream van, 20 euros admission etc, on the down side, it’s hard to find anything without extensive research! Another plus point, the towpaths are great for walking/cycling, unless you get people like us in cars driving along the towpaths, ruining their suspension.
Canal de Berry restoration group (in French)