Amiens – Picquigny – Abbeville – Saint Valery-sur-Somme
Our aim with Rebecca and Michel on board was to take Catharina Elisabeth to Saint Valery-sur-Somme, the main town where the river meets the North Sea. In Amiens, we had moored near a barge familiar to all of us, Auslag, and, as we were getting organised to leave and walking Panache, Benthe and Kurt hailed us and we spent a very pleasant hour or so with them admiring the exquisite fit-out of Auslag and chatting about bargy things. Kurt and Bente are Danish but for several years have been taking guests on cruises along the Somme from Peronne to St Valery. So, they were a great source of current information about conditions ahead – which they told us were, generally, all fine. They were about to take a honeymoon couple on a short cruise, heading in the opposite direction, so we wouldn’t be travelling with them.
One of the many delights of cruising with Michel and Rebecca is that they are keen to take over helming and crewing Catharina. We get a chance to relax on deck while cruising and also watch two experienced bargees to see what refinements we can absorb while they practice their nearly decade-old experience of cruising. By now, we do have some practices that differ from theirs, that suit us, so it’s not slavish imitation – but we’re keen to learn and so watch closely.
So with Michel at the helm, we cast off and headed for nowhere in particular – just wherever we ended up downstream. We had been told that once you left Amiens, there was very little canalising of the river, so it followed its natural, winding course. This was indeed true and swishing back an forth, giving Michel plenty of exercise navigating the bends in the river, we began to enjoy the cruising even more (which hardly seemed possible) as we wound our way downstream.
We came around one corner into a rather wider section of the river, fortunately, because we were immediately confronted with Eagle River, “The Welsh Barge” from Courchelettes heading towards us. With plenty of room, we passed easily with a wave to the crowd on board.
Michele and Rebecca also explained to us an unusual feature of the locks on the Somme, at least those downstream of Amiens. The original locks had been about 40 m long and 6 m wide, with a standard set of gates at each end. At some point, to encourage commerce of larger barges, these locks had been doubled in length. They did this by adding another set of gates 40 m downstream of the original lock. But, instead of making a full duplication of the lock, the new, downstream lock was a pond with sloping sides, no bollards and a set of gates on the end.
This meant that anyone in the ‘new’ section had nothing to moor against when filling and emptying. In most cases, for us, they simply had the ‘new’ gates opened and just operated the old lock as usual.
However, in some of the combined locks, the cill (bottom of the lock beneath the gate) was fairly shallow, and the bridges are fixed, so if the old, upstream chamber was fully emptied, deeper boats would strike the cill as they tried to get out. In these cases, they would keep the downstream chamber closed and only partially empty the upstream chamber. We would then cruise into the downstream chamber and then they would empty that allowing us to cruise out without issue. This meant that they always carefully checked our water draft – “Qu’est ce votre tirer d’eau?” to which we replied “Mètre vingt” – following which the éclusier would decide whether to run the lock in two steps, or let us through in a single run. If we had to do two lock cycles, then we simply had to slop around in the downstream chamber without being secured, while it emptied / filled. It was good to have the old-salts take us through the first of these – and we never had any problems subsequently.
At one of these, the éclusier asked where we planned to stop for the night, and we said that Picquigny seemed a good choice, so we did not need him to meet us at this next lock as we would tie up before it and did not plan to travel on until the following morning. He was happy with this, and went on to tell us about an old castle nearby that he thought would be worth a visit. News to us – but welcome! Anyhow, an hour later when we came in to moor just before the lock, there was the same éclusier waiting to take our ropes. He had gone on ahead, and was chatting with one of the locals and plainly waiting for us to arrive. So sweet.
Always nice to have assistance, we snugged in, whereupon, with great enthusiasm, he regaled Lisette and Rebecca with the directions to said castle. “Le vieux château est très bon! Venez a gauche, montant, a droit, montant, a gauche, montant, …”. Well, now we really had to go! So, after snaking through the village and a lot of “montant-ing” we found ourselves high above the river, facing a beautiful old church and the ruins of the old chateau.
First, there was a monument to the Treaty of Picquigny, where Edward IV of England had accepted a treaty and considerably bounty to not continue with a war campaign against France. This treaty is generally considered to mark the formal end of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France as Edward also renounced all his claims to the French throne – the basis for over a century of conflict between the two nations.
Many considered the treaty dishonourable. Next, there was a delightful little chapel adjacent.
Inside there were a few decorations but the interesting part was a set of steps that took you down into a cavern underneath.
Apparently, this was once connected by a further tunnel to the castle and probably some sort of refuge during times of conflict.
We walked around the pretty grassed area under the castle walls and up higher to get a full view of the ruins. While it is in pretty good shape from the outside, it was not open for tours inside.
So, after viewing, and an unsuccessful foray into a house across the road to see if we could get some fresh eggs, we returned to Catharina for the night.
Our next target destination was the larger town of Abbeville. Over the past few days, there had been a reasonable amount of rain in amongst some long sunny periods. We noticed that the river was flowing a little faster than on past days. Still, we had good weather, if a little windy and, again, it was good for a little more excitement when going around the bends in the, now, very supple river. That was until we came upon the delightful little village of Long.
We will say more about this delightful place when we cover our visit on the return upstream, but the entry to lock is around a reasonably sharp lefthand bend. As you exit the bend – there is a weir in front of you and further to the left, the lock gates with some moorings before it. WIth the current, we came around at a modest speed but with a strong flow pushing us. The moorings were all occupied up to close to the lock and to get the only open spot we had to haul to a full stop, reverse back into the current and somehow get Catharina across to the port side to capture a mooring. We wanted to avoid the unfortunate fate (that we learnt of later) of a fellow bargee who ended up pinned against the weir, held fast by the flow!
Michel gave the rudder, engine and bow thruster a good workout and brought Catharina into a safe mooring. It was great to watch and Ian was rather relieved to be learning by observation rather than actual practice. Anyhow, after the éclusiers had finished lunch, we continued on through the lock, using a single cycle. However we must have been at the limit because we could feel the skeg (a metal frame at the lowest part of the hull that holds the bottom part of the rudder) scrape the cill as we passed over it.
As we cruised on towards Abbeville, we passed a number of splendid houses – and the occasional ruin. Again, more on this later but the region around Long was once one of the wealthiest along the Somme and consequently, some of the dwellings were, and are, quite ostentatious.
As we were in no particular hurry and it was quite a haul from Picquigny to Abbeville, we arrived rather late (at 6:30 pm) in Abbeville and so, other than checking out the immediate locale, we didn’t explore the town. Again, we would be returning in a few days, so there would be another opportunity then.
Things did not start too well on this next stage of the journey. It is pretty much a boring straight stretch of canal with only five or so bridges all of which need to be opened along the route following a lock on the outskirts of Abbeville. Somehow, we became confused by the instructions about when to depart and we left at 10 am expecting to be passed through the lock five minutes later. Well, we actually emerged from the lock a bit over three hours later, having spent virtually all of that time barely held just in front of the lock by our rear spud pole and a light rope on a bit of rusty metalwork on the canalside. There were no waiting moorings above the lock, so we had to make do. Just before lunch, a convoy of boats emerged from the downstream end and cruised past us and we became quite excited as this was only 11.30 am and we were sure they would now take us through the lock. But gates closed in front of us and the éclusiers took off in their vans no doubt ready for lunch.
It turns out that a team of two runs this section of the waterway. In the morning they bring the boats from the St Valery mooring up to Abbeville (which frees up some moorings at St Valery). After lunch, they take the Abbeville boats down to St Valery. Sure enough, three boats, two smallish cruisers and one large cruiser showed up just before 1 pm and we were off.
Somehow, it started as a race. We entered the lock first with the large cruiser. We were told to wait before the first bridge for the others to catch up after the second locking. We tied up and the French cruiser breasted up against us.
About half an hour later, the two smaller Belgian cruisers arrived. The big cruiser and Catharina cast off and hovered in front of the bridge. When the two men opened the bridge – it was off to the races!
The two Belgians screamed past us and the larger cruiser. Not one to doff his cap to cruisers, Michel put Catharina’s “pedal to the metal” and soon we were hurtling down the canal at 12 kph. We kept this up a little way but then decided that as there were at least three more bridges ahead, and as the Somme men would not open anything twice, we could afford to slow down and the Speedy Gonzales would just have to loiter in front of bridges until we deigned to arrive.
This is how it panned out for the rest of the bridges. At the last one, the two Belgians sped off to get the first choice of moorings at St Valery while the large cruiser hung back on a small mooring before the bridge. We puttered on – there was no prospect we could beat the Belgians. Sure enough, when we arrived the entire stretch of the pontoon was fully occupied, and the two Belgian cruisers were just finishing their ropework. We executed a U-turn before the sea lock and cruised back up towards a very smart but quite large cruiser on the end of the pontoon. We carefully rafted up against this lovely cruiser, helped considerably by Rebecca, from the pontoon. (Rebecca had gone back to Amiens to collect their car and driven it to Saint Valery so it was nearby when they would leave us in a few days). When the cruiser’s owners arrived back on board a little while later, they graciously accepted our company. It was late afternoon and naturally, we set off to explore.
It was a little chilly with clouds and a good sea breeze but we stepped over the decks of our companion and took a walk into Saint Valery. Had we been on the pontoon, we would have used bikes – but for the duration of our stay, we avoided carrying bikes over the decks of our neighbour and walked everywhere. The kilometre or so stroll into the town was a pleasant saunter which provided opportunities to chat. The walk took us down to the sea locks and the bridge that carried the road (and train) across the canal/river.
The sea lock and weirs prevent most, if not all, of the salty water entering the canal during each tidal cycle. Below the lock and weir was another marina with many craft attached to floating pontoons. We could have moored there but the timing of the sea lock is at the mercy of the tides and the marina was very very very expensive.
So we walked along the estuary, on the quayside towards the sea. It was Friday evening and it turned out there was an art & craft market next to the estuary, strung out along our route, to provide some distraction. After a good promenade – we returned with some delicacies,
some nice gifts,
a local beer in tow,
and headed back to Catharina for our evening meal and to make plans for our stay in St Valery.