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Simply messing about in boats with the family

by TRAVEL talk0 comments

Ever thought of taking the family on a canal boat for a holiday? Maybe, like I was, you worried that it would be too difficult with children on board and have concerns about their safety.

We took our family to the Canal Du Nivernaise in France to find out if the worry was justified.

Extract from “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, circa 1908

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” said Ratty to Mole. Ratty continues “Simply messing… about in boats — or with boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”

After taking to the Canal du Nivernais in France for a weeks holiday I can unquestionably and wholeheartedly concur with Ratty. It was an absolutely brilliant week. Busy but relaxing at the same time, it didn’t really matter where you got to each day or indeed if you got anywhere at all. There was always something to do and yet it didn’t matter if you decided not to bother.

We booked our canal cruise with France Afloat who are a family run business and based in France. The owners have all lived and worked on the inland waterways of France for many years and can offer the friendly, informed, personal advice that you need to choose the perfect boating holiday

I had always had a bit of an anchoring (excuse the bad pun!!) to try out the canal boating thing but never thought it would be suitable for my young children. How wrong I was, there were throngs of families happily “messing about in boats”

We chose the Canal du Nivernais because it is claimed to be “the most beautiful canal in France” and also was recommended as being more child/family friendly.

The 174km canal was originally built as a feeder waterway to float firewood from the Morvan to the already established log-floating route on the rivers Yonne and Seine, to serve the needs of the increasing population of Paris. The works begun in 1784 were interrupted by the French revolution and were resumed in the 1820s.

The canal was opened in 1841 but suffered almost immediately from railway competition and was never a commercial success. However, it has become one of the most popular cruising waterways of the Burgundy network over the last 25 years.

Breakfast on deck

Continental breakfast on deck in the sun

Day 1 – Vermenton to Accolay – 1 Lock – Cruise time: 0.6hrs

We picked up our boat in Vermenton where we arrived on a very rainy Saturday afternoon in July. We were shown our boat for the week and loaded our luggage aboard our very fine Linssen 60.33 river cruiser named “Sanguetta”.

Now, being rather “green around the gills” about canal boating, I have to admit that I was a little nervous about my ability to captain a vessel competently, and of course safely. My fears were unfounded as I discovered that it is not as difficult as I had first imagined it to be. With a little instruction and demonstration from Chris Down, the base manager, we were off. Chris went through all the controls and safety precautions that we needed to know and then cruised with us for about 20 minutes to the first lock where he instructed us on what we had to do. On board an operating manual is provided with instructions for all the systems on the boat. Also a very comprehensive canal guide which includes detailed maps, information about the locks, towns, attractions, amenities and where you can buy food and supplies for your journey.

As soon as we were in the lock and the lock keeper had let the water out so that we descended to the lower level Chris jumped off the boat and wished us a good holiday. “What? You are leaving us already?” I cried. Chris’s response was “If I didn’t feel that you were capable I wouldn’t be leaving you”.

Oh well, full steam ahead then!

As it was 7pm we decided to stop at the first opportunity to gather our thoughts and familiarise ourselves with Sanguetta. We pulled up at the canal side village of Accolay where we spent the night very comfortably.

Day 2 – Accolay to Mailly-le-chateau – 8 Locks – Cruise Time: 5.0hrs

Up bright and early, continental breakfast with croissants and bread from the village boulangerie. Cast off and into the first lock by 9.15am. The Chief Mate (the wife) and Jim the Cabin Boy (my son James) soon got to grips with their rope and lock duties.

The locks in France are mostly manned, and this is the case for all the locks on the Nivernais. So all you have to do is steer into the lock, tie up and leave the rest to the lock keeper.  Although Jim the cabin boy really enjoyed going ashore and helping the lock keeper with the lock gates. This was very much appreciated by the keepers as it sped things up and cut down their work load. The lock keeper service is free to all holiday makers.

The day went like clockwork as we cruised through the beautiful French countryside. Along the way Jim the cabin boy jumped ship with his bicycle and Donald the ships dog to cycle alongside the canal on the tow-path for a few miles. We pulled up for lunch and then continued on to Mailly-le-Chateau. We moored up on the mooring which had free electric hook up and went off to explore the town.

Day 3 – Mailly-le-chateau to Clamecy – 17 Locks – Cruise Time: 6.5hrs

Up bright and early today as we are aiming to get to Clamecy for the night. The weather is really hotting up and the crew are getting restless. Well the Chief Mate is but Jim is happy fishing as usual. The day passed without a hitch (see what I did there?) and we arrived in the stunning Clemacy which is described locally as the capital of the valleys of the Yonne and classified under the French tourist criteria “Station Verte de Vacances” (centre for outdoor activity–based vacations)

Today we met some lovely folk on the boat just ahead of us from Memphis Tennessee. It had been their lifetimes ambition to see this beautiful part of the world and taste the famous Bergundy Chablis and Pinot Noir wines which can be tasted and purchased at the many vineyards along the canal. The weaving American’s boat ahead suggested that they had taken full advantage of the opportunity!

Our beautiful Sanguetta

Our beautiful Sanguetta

Day 4 – Clamecy to Chatel-Censoir – 11 Locks – Cruise Time: 4.0hrs

Up bright and early again to explore Clamecy. Well worth the time as it is amazing. Lunch aboard Sangetta in the very beautiful mooring set almost in the centre of town. Cast off and head back north to Chatel-Cencoir for the night. The crew are a little happier but it is very hot. My, this place is stunning.

Moored up at Chatel-Censoir, climbed up to the town which is sat above and overlooking the canal for a beer and an explore. Magnificent views.

During Napoleonic times a law was passed in France stating that canal boats have the right to pull up and moor for free anywhere along the canal side. There are obviously restrictions in some places where it is not safe or you may cause and obstruction, these are clearly signed and also on the canal guide. The moorings in the main towns usually do carry a charge but for this you get electric hook up, water to refill your tanks and use of the facilities. These are reasonable, ranging from the most expensive on our trip at €18 in Auxerre to €3 in Accolay to free in Mailly-le-Chateau.

Day 5 – Chatel-Censoir to Vincelles – 17 Locks – Cruise Time: 7.2hrs

The locks are open for business at 9am closed for lunch 12 till 1pm then close at 7pm so you need to plan things around these times.

We had our longest day today and passed through 17 locks, the temperature is 38 degrees and the crew are on the point of mutiny.

We moor up at Vincelles and find a bar by the water for the captain, some swimming for the cabin boy, paddling for the Chief Mate (and wine of course).

Day 6 – Vincelles to Auxerre – 7 Locks – Cruise Time: 2.9hrs

Easy cruise today to Auxerre. We arrive before lunch as it is just too hot to do anything. Remember what Ratty said?

Auxerre is the capital of the Yonne department and is a commercial and industrial centre. The 11th century Cathedral of St. Étienne and the 9th century Abbey of St. Germain tower above you as you cruise under the bridges and approach the moorings which are in the centre of the city.

If you use the main moorings at the France Afloat base in the centre of Auxerre there is a launderette on site for any washing you may have, correction, will have, accumulated.

Jim was also very happy here as there was a Pizza Planet next to the port.

Auxerre skyline at sunset

Day 7 – Auxerre to Accolay – 12 Locks – Cruise Time: 5.8hrs

A bit cooler today so the crew are less restless.

We need to make our way back south towards base so we head back to Accolay where we spent the first night. Jim took advantage of one of the many playgrounds that are set along the canal to burn off a bit of excess energy. There are also many places to pull up for swimming and plenty of picnic areas to use.

A nice relaxing day and some evening fishing for the captain and the Cabin Boy, who bagged a couple of decent Dace.

Day 8 – Accolay to Vermenton – 1 Lock – Cruise Time: 0.6hrs

Short cruise back to base and the VERY reluctant return of Sanguetta.

Along the way we met lots of lovely people from all walks of life and many countries including America, UK, France, Germany, Belgium.

If you are worried that canal boating is not for families with young children then let me reassure you. There are life jackets on board and with just a little common sense and due diligence there is nothing to be feared.

Ratty was correct with his analogy of messing about in boats, there is truly nothing better.

More Photos

Additional Information

Boat provided by France Afloat, a family run business and based in France. The owners have all lived and worked on the inland waterways of France for many years and can offer the friendly, informed, personal advice that you need to choose the perfect boating holiday

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Smalltalk Magazine

Since 2005 Smalltalk Magazine is a printed A4 information magazine aimed at parents, distributed throughout the Yorkshire region. Printed 6 times a year it is distributed free to over 300 parent-friendly locations in the area. Full of useful and informative articles about family life.