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Waterway enlargement - French Vs English


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Thanks to Nigel Webster of this parish I now have quite a collection of French waterways guides - this gives me a collection of info about French Canal in particular that begins, just begins, to put at my fingertips the kind of information that I have absorbed about the English system many years ago.

 

I note that one or two canals in France have been enlarged TO Freycinet - there was an attempt to do this on the Canal du Midi, but it was aborted mainly because it was too late, and I think the Canal de Rhone a Rhin was similarly enlarged albeit half a century earlier. 

 

It raised a question in my mind whether such enlargement was ultimately pointless, and more importantly, predictably pointless, . I say predictably as it was fairly obvious the du Midi enlargement was not going to revive trade given that Freycinet traffic elsewhere was already in it's death throws, given my interest is very new, I'm less certain that the R&R enlargement was a waste of time as it was earlier. Ultimately I think the nearby improvements on the Marne-Rhin Canal may be of tourist interest but never carried much traffic.

 

On removal of heritage interest I know less, but there were once a pair of two rise staircases in Beziers, the lower one of which included a dry dock alongside the lower chamber - the enlargement removed both. 

 

And are there any parallels with our own system - the North East waterways went the whole hog with enlargement, but that on the SSYN has arguably yielded minimal returns. I'd hesitate to say the Northern GU was a failure, but the traffic it and the GUCCC fleet carried were pretty much a last hurrah. 

 

I'm still reading through all the french guides, so I may come up with more observations - anyone any thoughts on the above? 

 

 

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Before my time but Roger Pilkington went to Europe in the 60s and 70s  and the Freycinet canals  seemed busy then. His books are worth reading as is John Liley's France the Quiet Way written a little later. It would have been logical at the time to enlarge those which were still busy and not quite Freycinet (i.e. 5m wide and sufficiently dredged but locks just needed lengthening) but as you say in the end it was too little too late. There is still some Freycinet traffic where there is a regular trade so  even now some are prepared to make a modest living continuing in trade. There are also some retired boats/boaters which are brought out just for the harvest season. I suspect the main problem is the decline of waterside industry to provide customers. The attitude to restoration is very patchy as it depends on regional funding which in turn depends on perceived tourist or similar benefit, the Somme and Roubaix being 2 examples of magnificent restoration, but for tourism only both being too shallow now for loaded boats in contrast with La Scarpe Inferieure which to all appearances could be reopenned tomorrow but for a couple of failed bridges.

Belgium is interesting as they have abandoned few canals entirely but when modernising sometimes bypass the old canal leaving it largely intact  alongside.to decay gently (i.e. Canal du Centre and the canal bypassed by the Ronquieres inclined plane) Part of the historic centre canal is maintained as a tourist attraction with it's 5 19th century boatlifts still working and which have an interesting history all 5 bypassed by a single giant lift for the commerce.

Edited by Phoenix_V
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B W and it's successors seem quite happy to reduce the size of our waterways, I could give numerous examples  where towpaths have been widened, bridges reduced in width - and tunnels(Edgbaston).  I have said before that we must be the only country in Europe to do this!

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Patrick, you've bought yourself a whole lot of day-dreaming for the winter months! We have two or three of those Breil guides, and occasionally I pore through one, spot a restaurant symbol or an ancient monument one in a waterside town I'd never heard of, and picture in my mind's eye walking up a lane and visiting the chateau or tucking my knees under that restaurant table as appetising aromas emerge from the kitchen.

   I'm surprised to learn that the Canal du Midi's locks are below Freycinet size (about 38 metres by 5,5 metres, isn't it?) We did a week on the Midi a few years ago and the locks didn't seem especially small, though I must admit I never measured one.

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Those waterways in this country which were improved tend to be river navigations on relatively level land, such as the Weaver, A&AN and Lee. Successful canals were much more difficult to enlarge because of the industry attracted to their banks, and the difficulty of financing such a move at a time when the government's 1893 Canal Rates, Tolls & Charges Order limited their income These were the reasons the L&LC were unable to enlarge their canal in Lancashire to 100 ton standard.

 

On France, their waterways have had several enlargements, not just that under Freycinet, with their centralised government control being both an advantage and a deterrent for the usual government involvement reasons - pie in the sky ideas versus concern over funding. The first standardisation attempt was just post the Napoleonic War, when the narrow canal idea was considered, with several built, but ultimately wide canal standards were introduced. As in England, river navigations were enlarged fairly regularly, such as the Seine and French section of the Rhine, but canals were more difficult. Even the larger than Freycinet standard Canal du Nord took around sixty years to complete, for similar reasons to the time it took for the S&SYN to be improved, though it was probably more successful.

 

Perhaps the main thing to keep in mind is that in general French canals tend to be designed as part of government policy, with engineers from the Ponts et Chausées being in charge. They often had expansionist ideas which were curtailed by government financial officers. Compare this to the lack of government intervention in this country in the 18th and 19th centuries, which created a very different type of waterway system, if you can call our canals and navigations a system in the unified sense.

  • Greenie 1
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The current major project is the Seine Nord Europe which will enlarge exisitng canals with locks 185m x 11m between the the Oise and the Grand Gabarit and ultimately link with the Scheld estuary. It has been planned since the 1960s and is apprently only now after a break in 2012  going ahead despite warnings that the anticipated traffic increase will not materialise. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seine–Nord_Europe_Canal

There is little sign of activity in France though lock enlarging on the eventual route  in Belgium has been going on for some years.

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On 22/10/2020 at 08:43, Athy said:

   I'm surprised to learn that the Canal du Midi's locks are below Freycinet size (about 38 metres by 5,5 metres, isn't it?) We did a week on the Midi a few years ago and the locks didn't seem especially small, though I must admit I never measured one.

The Canal du Midi locks are short - 30m. If you don't see a Freycinet barge to compare with it's not immediately obvious. 

 

A few locks at each end were modified - generally by simply lengthening them at the tail. The round lock at Agde had a quadrant cut in so is no longer round, the two staircases I mentioned became single, deep locks by lengthing the lower chamber at the lower end and building the walls up - boats now just sail through the upper chamber. I think something similar happened to a two rise in Toulouse. All the Garrone Lateral Canal locks were lengthened except at Montech where a water slope was built. This has now been completely decommissioned and turned into a static exhibit, thus closing the route to Toulouse for Freycinet. In practice there hadn't been any traffic for quite a few years.

On 22/10/2020 at 08:43, Athy said:

Patrick, you've bought yourself a whole lot of day-dreaming for the winter months!

:D I have haven't I! :D

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13 minutes ago, Pluto said:

The Canal de Briare locks were lengthened twice, as I have mentioned before - search for Rogny.

Found your reference - presumably Rogny were only extended once and then bypassed when the second lengthening came round!

 

(Note to @Athy the Canal de Briare is among the guides I have just received :D )

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58 minutes ago, magpie patrick said:

The Canal du Midi locks are short - 30m. If you don't see a Freycinet barge to compare with it's not immediately obvious. 

 

 

....which of course I wouldn't have done, because they couldn't get there!

1 hour ago, magpie patrick said:

All the Garrone Lateral Canal locks were lengthened except at Montech where a water slope was built. This has now been completely decommissioned and turned into a static exhibit, thus closing the route to Toulouse for Freycinet. In practice there hadn't been any traffic for quite a few years.

 

We've cruised that canal quite extensively, though we've only done the Montech flight once (well, twice if you count the return journey). Once again I didn't notice that the locks were shorter, but we were in a 30-foot pénichette so it wouldn't be apparent.

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