At 9am, give or take, we left our mooring at Arleux and headed along the Canal de la Sensee. This is very much a commercial canal and has no locks. It took less than 2 hours to travel its length and then we were on the Escaut river. Our first lock of the day was at Ivuy where we were given our telecommander to operate subsequent locks. These are brilliant, a kind of remote control for locks and just as reliable (and difficult to find at the beginning of every day…). Lots of pointing and pressing, pressing again, swearing, climbing up higher on the boat, pressing again, and the lock starts to prepare. We went through 5 locks in total and stopped at the moorings in Cambrai during the middle of the afternoon.
Cambrai seemed like quite a nice town, and in an attempt to entice Cy off the boat for a little while, I suggested heading out for a beer. Armed with a recommendation from Google, we headed out to find Le Poisson Rouge. Bit of a trendy bar, but we were warmly welcomed by the owner, Morgan, and chatted with a few of the customers. Enjoyed a glass of Belgian beer each and wobbled out again. We proceeded to amble around town for a bit and headed back to Doris for dinner.
It was a really cold night and unfortunately, the heating did not start up the following morning as it should have done. On investigation, this was because the house batteries were flat. They had been problematic for a while and at about 11 years old really needed replacing. Cambrai was the largest town we were likely to be in for a while and an internet search revealed a battery supplier on an industrial estate outside of town. So off we headed off to find the place. As the batteries we needed were house ones, not engine start batteries, we had less choice. The only ones that would physically fit into the space were a bit more expensive than we hoped, but there wasn’t really much option. After much explanation in French by Sarah again and measuring and advice by the helpful chap behind the desk, our batteries and ourselves were duly delivered back to Doris. Our return was also down to Sarah; it’s amazing what you get when you (Sarah) asks. It had taken us 45 minutes or so to walk there, so it would have been impossible to carry them back on foot. The driver was incredibly helpful and stayed for about half an hour to help Cy with the fitting and took the old ones away for recycling. It was the first job he had fitting batteries onto a boat and was quite interested. Once completed, we had to fill up our water tanks and then we were able to get going for the day.
It was 2pm by the time we were on our way. We passed through 11 locks during the course of the afternoon, all operated remotely with the telecommander and there were no associated dramas.
One of the locks was manned by a lovely chap who we showed our boat papers to and explained that the passage through the Grand souterrain de Macquincourt would be the next day at 5pm. He sent us on our way with a ‘bon chance’ and a wave and a smile. Macquincourt tunnel is 5.6km long and you get towed through by an electric chain tug. Eek! We carried on for another hour or so and tied up for the night at a tiny village called Vaucelles. It was a warm, sunny evening and we headed out for a quick walk to have a look at the abbey there.
There was no great hurry the following morning as it wasn’t far to the tunnel, however we also wanted to be there in plenty of time. The canal guide explained that the boats all line up in order of weight, with the heaviest first. We headed off from Vaucelles at around 11am and were at the tunnel approach section before 2pm. We tied up a long way back, as we had no idea how many barges would be arriving and going ahead of us. A UK flagged boat came past us and once it was tied up, we wandered up to say hi. The boat owner is called Len and is a retired London boatman. He has a UK built, replica Dutch barge which looked beautiful. There were four working barges, Len and us in the convoy. Obviously we were last and we had to give our ropes to Len to tie to the back of his boat. Ropes need to be about 30 metres long and have to be a matching pair in terms of elasticity and length. They are crossed and tied to the boat in front and you are all towed in a line. Engines are supposed to be switched off.
The preparation of lines and checks all took a while and then we were off.
I had read that it took nearly two hours to get through, so was prepared in principle, but it really felt like forever. There were a lot of banging, scraping and clanking noises and we could see Len ahead of us struggling to keep his boat straight – the stern kept swinging out so he needed the engine on to keep it on course. We were luckier and glided along well at the back, but were very conscious of the vulnerability of our little fibreglass home in this tunnel. We were not sorry to get out and back into daylight.
There is a second tunnel a bit further along, and no stopping is permitted between the two. We had to keep going and dutifully followed the other boats along. The next tunnel was only 1km long and driven through normally. The signal light was red, but as three barges had just gone in, we kept on following (not a happy Cy). It was quite late by the time we reached the first possible stopping place. I had managed to get dinner mostly prepped whilst Cy was at the helm. Once tied up, the props needed clearing of debris, again, and wandered over to invite Len over for dinner. We had a few beers aboard Doris and then moved on to wine on his boat. We got the guided tour which was great. His boat is wonderful, really lovely inside and out and he is rightly very proud of her. We finally staggered off to bed in the early hours.
All things considered, we were reasonably bright the following morning and followed Len down to the nearby lock at about 10:30. It was a real pleasure to see him handle the boat and obvious that he was a pro. I looked on with envy as a rope with a loop tied into the end was flicked effortlessly over the nearest bollard, whilst it took me four or five attempts to get our line round. After the first few locks, we said goodbye to Len, as we could not make the same speed. Our stopping point for the night was just outside a town called Tergniers. We were quite low on provisions, so I walked to the nearest Lidl to top up on groceries. It was a bit of a way and two hours later I arrived back with my shopping bags achy and grumpy! Cy took pity on me and cooked dinner while I had a shower.
The next morning (30th), we planned to head as far as Chauny. This wasn’t far and we arrived by lunchtime. As May 1st is a bank holiday, it would not be possible to travel as the locks would not be operating. Chauny seemed like a good place to stop for a couple of days as there looked to be some decent moorings with services. On arrival, the mooring looked quite full, but we were waved in and tied to a small liveabord barge, Perseverance. Electricity, showers, water, wifi (pronounced wiffy) and laundry services were all available and the mooring costs were modest. Definitely a good choice for a couple of days. The pizza take-away round the corner only added to the charm. The four cheese pizza was fantastic! We were happy campers.