by Sally Hammond
It wasn't sensible, our group realised the next morning, to have told that scary barge story while eating dinner, even though our own vessel, a sleeps-seven penichette, was tied securely to a railing which was itself firmly planted several metres in from the bank.
Little wonder that when the nocturnal noises began, our individual imaginations ran riot.
After all it had been raining sullenly for hours and was almost dark when we finally found somewhere to moor; something that didn't look like it would wantonly give up its muddy position and let us float aimlessly away in the night, a la the tale about midnight barge invaders and rogue rope-looseners, which someone later (recklessly) recounted.
Finding a place to tie up had become crucial – either we made a landfall there or elected to spend the night bobbing around, crashing first into one bank and then the other. That manoeuvre had been pretty well mastered, anyway – that is if you can count being helplessly out of control as one.
We had our excuses. The briefing at Pont-à-Bar, the hopping-off point for our exercise had been just that. Brief.
Monsieur ‘le Barge’, had no doubt moored and manoeuvred more penichettes – the charmingly inoffensive name (simply meaning 'little barge') for the eleven-metre vessel for which our group was now collectively responsible – in his twenty-plus years than we'd had hot showers. As he also described the push-pull-twirl regime for starting the minuscule gas stove, he flicked a green cigarette lighter out of his pocket and promised to leave it with us. He didn't.
He never told us, either, the exact technique for raising the blue pole at each lock. Important omission, this one, as it was the single technique essential for letting us OUT of each lock. One of us never mastered it, a couple did, the other (me) never tried. Oh, and he somehow forgot to explain that the ‘sleeps-seven’ penichette, slept only two couples and one single. Maximum. Which would have been fine if the four of us had been two couples rather than unrelated colleagues, dead-set on maintaining a semblance of personal space.
The first noise at midnight was yours truly relocating the dining area cushions from what turned out to be a claustrophobic experience pinned under the edge of the immovable (trust me, I tried) dining table to the slightly less cramped, but draughtier wheelhouse. Oh, and the (not so) muffled exclamation was when I re-manoeuvred the captain's chair to a new site on the dining room table. In the dark. Trying not to wake the others.
As it was, the barge, tucked calmly against the reedy bank, was as silent as the rest of the très-rural French countryside. Even breathing rocked the boat so I couldn’t help smiling as I wondered how sleep-sevens would manage if the boat really was filled with couples.
Those cries and screams that night had nothing to do with passion either. Next morning, under the sort of group-interrogation that follows a largely sleepless night like that, these were traced to one bunk and vigorously denied by its occupant as simply a nightmare. Those that had witnessed them confessed to a waking dread that the barge had been boarded and our pal put in peril – although not enough, they admitted, for them to check out if this was actually the case.
At last after the long night, a pearly dawn appeared and I, from my commanding position on the bridge was the first to witness it. Yesterday's rain clouds had magically been replaced by a sheen of silver sky, lightening to lemon at the edge where a tracery of distant bare branches marked the horizon. Birds I couldn't identify, and most I couldn't see, joined an impromptu six-am chorale, so that the air was dense with their song.
A lazy curve took the canal away from sight between eye-high stands of thick reeds. There were glimpses of fields ploughed ready for planting beyond, and through the rising mist, a barn or two in the distance. Closer than we'd suspected was a road, with all the usual early-morning country traffic on it.
By the time we had debriefed from our night terrors over croissants, baguettes and hot chocolate (yes, hot chocolate, one sensible soul had discovered in her luggage a promotional pack of matches from a recent hotel stay) the sun was up, we were ready to go, even managing a semblance of affection for our penichette.
The latter emotion passed quickly enough a few minutes later as we realised again just how tricky this beast was to steer. Technically driving a barge is dead simple – to which fact M. le Barge would strongly agree. You simply push a lever forward, gently at first, and then away you go, powered by the growling heavy-duty diesel engine. The wheel works like a car steering wheel and theoretically you turn it one way or the other to go whichever way you want.
"Don't get too close to the bank," M. le Barge had warned, "you could get the propeller tangled with weed." Yeah, right!
Fine in theory, but the fact is the play on the wheel is such you need to give it repeated turns to get a reaction, which when it eventually happens is too late, as by then you should be turning the other way. Or is that the other way? The knee-jerk car-driver’s reaction – prompted by the fact you are belting flat out for the muddy bank is to throw it into reverse and steer it out of the whole mess.
Which would have been OK too, but then the lack of immediate reaction from the wheel had the more dyslexic members of the team alternately steering left and right, forgetting their last manoeuvres and careering along the straight canal as if it held a series of chicanes, or – and here you have it – cannoning into the bank with such force that each of us gathered a promising range of bruises on any limb used to brace ourselves for the force of the impact.
It was then I discovered an aspect of barge-craft that became my specialty. A couple of long broomsticks with hooks on the end turned out to be barge-poles (as in 'I wouldn't touch it with a…') and these, when firmly planted against the bank and used as leverage, were sometimes the sole difference between sticking fast in the mud and weed and charging off to do it all over again.
Then there were the locks. A major advance in technology now allows bargers to point a garage door-opener-like device at another small device on a yellow pole, labelled 'HERE' in three languages, a hundred metres or so before each lock. This gives the mechanism time to get into action by the time you arrive there. Which, again, is the theory of it. In practice you need to attempt to pull over into a spacious bay, usually thoughtfully provided some distance before the lock gates, to wait out the necessary time for them to open. If you can.
Mostly our time was filled by a number of graceless pirouettes mid-stream and the distinct possibility the damned thing might close again before we could line up properly. Once inside the lock area, with the gates safely closed at either end, the barge bobbing like a bathtub ducky, it was necessary to face the next feat of skill: lining up with the blue pole cryptically marked Bassinee Levez (literally ‘raise the water’) and doing something with it.
The first few times, the pole was muddy and slippery and pulling decisively and repeatedly on it did nothing, until the realisation came that we needed to give it a determined upward thrust. This was enough to activate the mechanism on the other end of the lock. As the water levels organised themselves, we had then one of the few times available to sit and collect our thoughts and admire the dogs and goats and garden gnomes and stacks of firewood and other paraphernalia around each lock keeper's cottage, before launching out into the canal itself again.
So if by now you are revising downwards whatever fantasies you may have had about barging through the French countryside, here are some balancing details.
Once the sun came out, and we had quite (well, almost) mastered the business of managing the craft, we found that it was possible to motor along at least as fast as those of us who wanted to cycle on the barge path. These members seemed less than awed by the barge's now largely parallel course to the bank and chose to disembark, scooting off instead to explore whatever villages or ruins lay in the middle distance. My guess is they wanted to escape the possibility of witnessing any further embarrassing antics.
After successfully negotiating a rather long tunnel, built according to the inscription, in 1892, we ultimately tied up near a lock and ate lunch, toasting ourselves in the sunshine, and toasting the whole experience with a bottle of fine Bordeaux. Dogs yapped in a nearby village, the odd jay flew overhead, while a drift of blossom which had scattered somewhere upstream floated past.
In broad daylight, our penichette, the Sauville, looked benign and exactly what it was: a reliably sturdy (well, it had to be, given the thrashing people like us gave it on a daily basis) and, yes all right, a pleasurable way to reach places you'd never be able to see any other way.
And to do things you never could elsewhere too, we decided. After all, consider circling at random on a French freeway and see how long you last!
With more time, as many true holiday-makers have, we should have pushed on much further and had endless practice in 'levez-ing the bassinee' pole at the total of 46 locks over the 106 kilometre length of this canal.
We'd missed out on all that, but what the hell, all good things have to come to an end. At least the next night we all slept more soundly.
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