2019 Barging France

Clamecy: 18/07 – 21/07

Châtel-Censoir – Clamecy

Early in the morning, Catherine bounded up the hill to the boulangerie and returned with breakfast baguettes which were consumed in a leisurely fashion. At about 10 am we walked down to the station where we bid Simon and Catherine farewell. We laboured up the hill back to the town square

Only a small market …

to gather some fresh supplies from the market

but a bounty of fresh produce.

and then took a slightly different route back and stopped at a small park near the canal that had some displays describing the firewood trade

that used to be the raison d’être for the Niverais/Yonne waterway. There was a small model demonstrating the arrangement of the standard sizes of logs, bound together by only by roots and rushes, that comprised the rafts that floated to Paris and were eventually broken up to deliver the firewood.

The actual rafts were at least double the width and ten times the length.

Very late, indeed after lunch, we set off on our cruise, intending to moor at Pousseau.

One section proved a bit fraught. Between écluse 53 Crain and écluse 54 Bèze the canal was only wide enough for one craft (we were in convoy with a smaller boat behind us) we found ourselves fully committed, and a good way along the single-width section, when, after passing under a bridge where the canal veered off on an angle, we saw two vessels approaching us. There was no way we could pass each other, and we would have had to reverse a couple of kilometres at least. Thankfully, the two other vessels had only just left the lock – the barge pulled over a little and the cruiser reversed a short distance.

We passed them and entered the lock (after a minor grounding) and queried the éclusier about the correct procedure. He apologised and said he had forgotten to check with the downstream écluse before releasing the two boats and failed to warn them to wait before entering the narrow stretch. Still, this primed us to now query the éclusiers wherever we thought there would be a narrow stretch, to check that there were no oncoming boats.

Just before Pousseau, we saw (watch video here) the first of a series of manually operated bridges that we expected to pass in the next few days on the Nivernais.

There are six of these bridges, each has to be opened by someone on shore – they are not controlled by the VNF. The usual process is to stop at a landing just before the bridge and allow a crew member (which would be Lisette) to disembark and then she would walk to the nearby bridge, press the appropriate button and the bridge would raise. Once up, Ian would take Catharina Elisabeth through the bridge and wait at a second landing on the other side for Lisette to reboard once she had lowered the bridge. A bit of a performance!

The bridge, still fully raised. The landing is just before the pretty lavoir.

Well, we had two bridges on this stretch and we lucked out – a passer-by in both cases, kindly raised and lowered the bridge for us. The only issue we noted was that the bridge did not raise entirely to the vertical, so, Ian had to keep Catharina close to the wall on the other side of the bridge so that the bimini did not catch the floor of the bridge. A bit of bumping and, perhaps, paint loss was an acceptable cost for protecting the bimini.

We arrived in the basin at Pousseau to find two moderate-sized barges moored on the shore. As it was getting late, we approached one, a French boat, and asked if we could moor alongside. The kids were waving in a friendly fashion but the father firmly refused to allow us to come alongside. He claimed it was too shallow (surely it was deeper where we would be alongside, since we were actually cruising and not grounded!). After several polite verbal attempts, in French, and despite showing we had more than enough fenders, rather than make a fuss (legally he could not refuse – you must share a mooring to allow other vessels to access the shore), we decided to continue on to Clamecy.

After more canal sections, we turned back onto the Yonne to cruise up to Clamecy. Facing us was a three-arched bridge and we followed the boat we had been travelling with all afternoon through the middle arch. He was smaller than us, and presumably had a much smaller tirant d’eau.

The GPS track that our navigation program records superimposed on the satellite photo of the bridge at Clamecy.

There was no indication of a recommended route under the bridge in our map book, online materials or on the bridge itself. Just over the bridge, we grounded – pretty hard. After some hard reversing and giving the bow thruster a heavy workout to push the bow towards the shore, we managed to drive off the bottom just as the éclusier from the nearby lock was making his way towards us to see if he could render assistance. Hugging the left bank, we made it into the lock with no further incident. It turns out that the stream you can see on the right side of the image must deposit silt into the Yonne, predominantly on the right and centre of the river. We updated our charts and the information on the guide provided by the DBA.

After rising in the lock and watching as the éclusier pivoted the swing bridge that covers the upstream end of the basin, we cruised out into the ample but busy port. As it was late, most mooring spots were taken but we found a spot on the extreme upstream end against the bank and settled in for a welcome, post-cruise beer.


Clamecy is one of the bigger towns along the Nivernais and we loved it. The heart of the old town is well preserved and clean – civic pride supplemented by a vigorous exhortation from the Marie. ‘DON’T!’ signs were all over the town, in many shop windows and flashing on the electronic board near the port.

DON’T – throw cigarette butts; park cars selfishly; litter the streets; leave your dog’s shit around.

It features many half-timbered houses and narrow, steep, cobbled streets.

A pure delight to walk around and gaze into the many interesting shopfronts. With many restaurants and bars, one could merely walk, eat and drink and have a wonderful relaxing time. We certainly did some of this and, in particular, had an excellent meal at ‘La Grenouillère’ where Ian loved his first real taste of their eponymous dish of frogs legs. We both had them, in fact, and just chose different sauces. No record exists of the main course but Lisette’s desert of Thé Grande was a delight to the eyes and delicious to boot.

There was a large supermarket a short cycle away, a smaller one in easy walking distance and several boulangeries near the port so reprovisioning was easy.

In addition, the town didn’t lack for attractions.

We absolutely loved the Gothic Collegiate church of Saint-Martin, founded in the early 13 century, which was situated in the town square at the highest point of the old town.

Collégiale Saint-Martin de Clamecy

Imposing from the outside, the interior was a glorious delight of colour deluging from some splendid stained-glass windows.

The decorative portal.
Intricate workmanship. The lack of heads may be partly due to vandalism that took part during the Revolution.
Towards the nave.
Glorious colours.
Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel.
Saint Joseph.
The organ and rose window.
The decorative portal.

Naturally, our favourite was the one that featured Joan of Arc, which amply substituted for a statue.

Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, Saint Marguerite and the heavenly host gang up on Jehanne la Pucelle to send her on a mission to save France.

The other major attraction we took in was a well-appointed, modern museum, ‘musée d’Art et d’Histoire Romain Rolland‘. Named after a local-born author who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1915, the museum has a varied collection – although there is very little English throughout the museum. There are artworks, pottery and displays of historical/archeological material related to the early history of the area.

However, two collections stood out for us. The first was a compilation of posters and other artworks by the artist Charles Loupot. He is most famous for his work in producing advertising and product branding posters. Doesn’t sound that interesting – but reading about his development as an artist, his skill and the effect he had on the response of ordinary French folk to the products and services he illustrated, demonstrated that such work, at the higher levels, requires considerable talent. He is especially well known for developing the branding for the St Raphaël aperitif, still featured on the product today.

The second aspect was a section dedicated to the ‘Flottage’. To cover this adequately would make this a very long article so, we’ll summarise a few key facts; at the end of this blog is a copy of a good summary that was available at the museum and a series of videos that cover both the history and cultural significance in addition to a float from Clamecy to Paris in a 70 m raft recreated using traditional methods.

The flottage is central to the history, culture and even existence of the Nivernais.

In the middle ages and up to the mid-1800s Parisians heated their homes by burning wood. When the nearby forests were exhausted, the capital turned to the large forests of the Morvan. This region is drained by the river Yonne and river Cure and so the obvious means of transport was by water. However, the huge amount of wood that needed to be transferred necessitated an industrial scale of exploitation. In its mature form, the process became quite structured. The trees were first harvested and the wood cut into standard lengths (1.14 m) these were stacked up and the company that owned them would hammer a stamp at the end of the log so its ownership could be determined.

Between December and February, all the logs were chucked into the streams and rivers collected in reservoirs behind dams built on virtually every stream. During this period, the dams were opened regularly and the outpouring of water flushed the logs out of the reservoirs they and floated down to two main collection points at Clamecy and Vermenton.

There the logs were retrieved, sorted by owner, stacked and then built into huge rafts composed entirely of logs and vegetable bindings (ie no nails). These rafts were about 5 m wide and around 50 m long.

Again, at a particular time, these rafts were sent down the river Yonne under the control of just two crew. After a journey that was long, arduous and dangerous, the rafts passed into the Seine and downstream to Paris where the rafts were broken up and the logs stored for use. This industry waned and eventually died out when cheap coal became readily available.

The actual Canal du Nivernais was built to assist in conducting the flottage but soon became key to other industrial activities along the Yonne. Unfortunately, during our visit, the nearby, premier museum covering the flottage, the Ecomusée du Folttage du bois, wasn’t open.

Other features

As we said, just walking around was pleasant and as we sauntered we saw:

A striking memorial to those that fell in the two world wars. It is near the port and you must pass it to enter the town.

The stones with the names of the fallen were tumbled down and partially wrecked. This was because the Nazis had ‘profaned’ the original WWI monument during the second World War.

The French consider it is inappropriate and, indeed, often against the law to repair the damage inflicted by the wars unless it presents a danger.

On the bridge under which we passed before grounding is a statue honouring the flotteurs,

Catharina is just visible in the background.

and the architecturally striking but somewhat decrepit Eglise Notre-Dame de Bethléme which was swathed in scaffolding and sheet iron when we were there, presumably for restoration.

And of course, there was plenty of socialising with Kiwi’s, Dutch, Aussies and Brits on some of the many boats that arrived or were already in port. Notably, we caught up with Mike Gibbons, his wife and brother onboard Decize. Mike is the chairperson of the DBA, the barge association to which we belong and an also a habitué of the Nivernais so we were able to collect a few tips from him for the next stage of our cruise. The charming Dutch family who were moored astern entertained themselves for part of the time by magnet fishing. Dropping a strong magnet into the canal means they can trawl for metal objects that have fallen overboard. However, what they recovered was this creepy looking organism that was attached to some sticks they snagged.

A French fisherman, passing by, insisted it was very toxic and death to touch it. However, a bit of research revealed that it was a bryozoan, harmless colony of single-celled organisms, introduced and spreading through the waterways of Europe but more of a bit of a nuisance than an ecological problem.

Although we would have been happy to spend more time in Clamecy, we were on a bit of a schedule and our next guest was due to arrive in a couple of days. The next phase of our journey was to be entirely on the canal du Nivernais as the Yonne was no longer navigable and eventually we would separate from the river entirely as we approached the summit.

A pleasant prospect visually but a possible navigation challenge – the Canal du Nivernais south from Clamecy ahead of us.

Our informants also presented us with the unwelcome information that the canal was going to get shallower from this point on – a challenge for our relatively deep-drafted Catharina.


The Flottage

Below, the text that describes the basics of the Flottage.

If you fancy more background and a video recreation of the flottage, there is a 20 episode series (each episode about 2 min long) that covers the history of the flottage, inspired by the recreation of a 70 m long log raft, and its journey from Clamecy to Paris.

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