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Couple spurn home to explore canals

British pensioners Roy and Margaret Smith cast aside the idea of settling in France - to tour the country on a barge.

British pensioners Roy and Margaret Smith have cast aside the idea of settling in France - to tour the country on a barge.

Mr Smith, 69, formerly in charge of maintaining a large industrial building in south-east England, said: “As we had spent our holidays in France for the last 12 years touring in our campervan and had grown to love the country, culture and the way of life, we decided to go back.
“We had enjoyed so many areas, we wanted to take our time without the pressure of timetables and ferries.
“On our travels we had met many people touring the canal system in liveaboard boats and the idea of a boat seemed the ideal solution.”

‘Romar’, their Dutch-style barge which gained its name through a contraction of their names, was built to order at a knock-down price of £30,000.

Its builder said he had always wanted to try such a barge which he made in aluminium measuring 15m by 4m. It includes a large wheelhouse, a lounge/kitchen-dining room, a bedroom with a double bed, a toilet and a small shower.
An experienced skipper offered to take them across the Channel - the start of their French adventure.

Waves

“We were unlucky with the weather on the day we left and it was a stormy crossing. For part of it Margaret went to bed and put the duvet over her head. There were waves breaking over the boat. I wasn't scared because the skipper stayed so confident.”

In Calais they bought an annual licence to use French canals and a chance meeting with a passing boat owner led to their decision to head for Roanne, a town north of Lyon, where they were told conditions were ideal for life onboard.

They contacted the capitainerie and arranged a berth, but took their time - two months - winding down through France.
“The first two weeks were a very steep learning curve because our previous experience was on the little canals of England.
“The sight of a very large French péniche (freight barge) coming towards you makes you want to start saying your prayers, and sharing a huge lock with three commercial barges makes you seriously wonder if gardening could have been the preferred option.”
However he said they soon learned to appreciate France's canals, which he said were wider and better-equipped than British ones.

“There is no comparison. In the UK the canals are small and shallow and almost all the locks have to be hand-operated - you have to get out and get your back against a big lever. In France they are remote-controlled or there is a lock keeper, in which case I get out to help out of courtesy.

“What they call a small lock here would be the biggest in the UK. There was one south of Saint-Omer, which was so big our boat seemed like a rowing boat inside it and when you looked up you could just see a square of light at the top."

He said there was never any difficulty finding convenient places to moor or to find water and electricity.

“The boating fraternity look out for each other,” he said. Other boaters went out of their way to be helpful and the couple soon got the hang of the lifestyle. “After two weeks I could lock without hitting the sides and Margaret could throw a rope on a bollard like a cowboy,” he said.

There were many memorable moments on the 1000km journey, including Easter morning in Sillery, in the Marne. “Answering a knock on the door, we found a group of local children wishing us a happy Easter and presenting us with chocolate Easter eggs.”

They were also warmly welcomed in Roanne, where people of many nationalities, including Australians and New Zealanders, live on their boats, and they also made friends with French locals who live near the harbour.

“In the port it is like a mini United Nations of people who have chosen boating as a way to explore France.
“We had been on our mooring about two weeks, when a knock on the door revealed a group from the apartments opposite who made a welcome speech and presented Margaret with a home made cake. Since then we have visited them for a glass of wine several times.”
In summer they leave their boat moored and visit relatives abroad in a campervan - Roanne is halfway between a daughter's home in Germany and Mr Smith's brother's home in Spain - but they also plan to take to the canals again to explore further afield.

“There are lots of towns with marinas in the centre which are wonderful places to stop and get water supplies and plug into the electricity. It is a lovely way to see France.”
Mr Smith said the mooring charges in Roanne were “very reasonable” and they had no taxes as the French authorities considered they were on an extended holiday.

Their French is improving thanks to recorded language courses, and they find they are always understood. “It is a mixed blessing that the boating community here all speak English, but when we talk to French people we always use our French.”

Plans

Their original retirement plans were very different, he said.
“We thought we would come to France and have a good look around and buy a house, but now we've lived on the boat for three-and-a-half years and we find it so comfortable and warm and convenient. We think we have the best mooring in France.

“Roanne has a really nice harbour right in the town centre with everything you need close by. In England we had a nice house with a big garden with a greenhouse where I used to grow my own veg, but you can't do that all day every day.

“The social life here is great. Everyone visits each others' boats and we organise wine evenings and French lessons. We meet up in the harbour bar once a week for a happy hour and once a week we choose a restaurant to try. There were 30 for a Chinese last time. We are having a great retirement and and je ne regrette rien.”

Mr Smith said for those wanting a taster of the canal boat lifestyle, companies offered holidays where people could rent a barge, and a set itinerary was proposed, with mooring places booked in advance.

Barge owners called them ‘bumperboats’ because of the holidaymakers inexpert control of their craft, he said. “They have a really good time.”

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