(17) Toulouse to Castelnaudary Early May 2011

Eventually, the strike was over and the lock opened. We cruised to Mongiscard lock where we had stopped overnight last year. It was clear we would not reach Castelnaudary as planned before our trip to England on 5th May so I asked the lock keeper if we could leave the barge there for a few days. He agreed and we prepared for the journey.

 Mongiscard, about to board the bus for our trip to the England. Very hot day.

 Fortunately, the bus stop adjacent to the barge served a bus which went to Toulouse Station. We left the following afternoon at a cost of 4 euros. This was another bargain ride as the journey took about 40 minutes. It did mean that we arrived very early for our flight, but it had been easier than walking to the nearest station and taking the train.

We spent a busy five days in England, where Peter attended the Doggett Coat and Badge winners reunion dinner which had been our ‘raison d’etre’ for the trip. Meeting up with friends and family was a pleasure as always and all too soon we were back in France and ready to continue our travels.

We were pleased to find the barge as we had left her and even my pansies were still alive- although not for long. Sadly there must have been a rogue one in the tray as every few days another one succumbed to some sort of blight.

The locks became deeper as we cruised towards the summit and some were double. We adopted a new method of securing the barge in the locks with ropes at the bow, mid-ships and stern. The middle rope stops the bow from swinging across the lock if the sluices are fierce. Some of the locks were manned and some automatic and there was no way of telling which until we arrived. Much of this section of the Canal du Midi is being automated and we wondered if this may have been one of the reasons behind the extended strikes.

 Three ropes seem to do the trick.

 An advantage of automated locks is that we can do everything at our own pace and are not rushed as we had been on the way down last autumn.

We stopped at a wild mooring below Gardouch and were lucky enough to spot an otter among the coypu swimming in the canal.

The effectiveness of our mozzie netting over the hatches encouraged me to make something similar for the portholes. After trying a couple of prototypes, I settled on a version that has worked well all summer, enabling us to keep the portholes open at night in the front of the barge.

We only just cleared the bridge at Gardouch lock with the wheelhouse up and as there was no mooring space we continued cruising. Just above the lock we spotted ‘Sarah Jane’ which we had last seen on the Saone and Rhone last summer. There was no time for more than a quick “hello” as they were entering the lock.

Our (so far) trouble free year was soon to come to an end……after lunch at Renneville lock the engine wouldn’t start and Peter traced the fault to a broken alternator wire leading to the starter battery. Fortunately our battery charger saved the day and we were soon on our way to the summit of the Canal du Midi at Ocean Lock.

The eclusier was very friendly and helpful, advising us to move to a more open mooring above the lock, as a storm was threatening and we would be less likely to be hit by falling branches there. We were pleased to stop as our steering (always a bit on the loose side) had started to veer to the left on right hand bends.

 Top of the Midi, behind it’s downhill to the Atlantic, in front downhill to the Med.

 Within half an hour of mooring up we received a text from Lucie and Malcolm saying they would be with us within the hour. They duly arrived with their guests and we all toasted reaching the summit( any excuse!!) with Cremant de Limoux onboard ‘Aurigny’- followed by a combined meal on ‘Body & Soul’ and another boozy late night.

Lucie and Malcolm left the following morning for the long journey back to Meilhan.

A few days of rain and overcast skies gave us the opportunity to explore the surrounding villages by foot and bicycle. As we were away from the shops I also tried out my recipe for beer bread, but sadly it was another failure. Any one who has seen the film ‘About a Boy’ may remember the scene when he throws his mum’s homemade loaf in the pond killing a duck. No ducks around- but I may have killed a few fish!!

 Obelisk erected by Riquet’s decendants near to the feeder canal at the top of the Midi.

 With our steering playing up intermittently, we tried ‘bleeding’ the system. This required me to turn the steering wheel slowly while Peter squashed into the stern locker and tried to bleed any air from the system. Unsure of what to expect and after many revolutions of the wheel, we hoped that it would cure the fault and planned to leave the next day. We were keen to reach Castelnaudary so that we could get fuel delivered directly to the barge.

Unfortunately, at the first right hand bend in the canal we realised that the ‘bleeding process’ had been unsuccessful. …..no pun intended!

We tacked our way down the canal (zig-zagged to the non-nautical) and somehow managed to negotiate a  single, triple and double lock before lunch. At one lock we had to ‘blueboard’ an approaching yacht as we were well over to the left of the canal. Not having a  ‘blueboard’ this relied on me standing at the bow shouting and gesticulating!

Anticipating the low bridge at La Planque we had decided to take the wheelhouse down after lunch. This was something we had not done since leaving Castelnaudary the previous September. Fortunately, we had done it enough to be undaunted by the task and Peter had even devised a method of storing the roof on the front deck leaving the new grass clear.

 Wheelhouse down, steering still problematic but the views aren’t bad.

 Somehow we made it to Castelnaudary without hitting anything. Peter had to make many turns of the wheel and use the bowthruster a lot in order to make it under the bridges at each end of the port and none of the onlookers could have appreciated how hard it was.

We moored between the ‘le boat’ moorings and island for the first night and then moved down to the public mooring just above the flight of four locks. The pleasant lady in the office allowed us to have access to shore power and after extending our cable we were able to plug in for the duration of our stay. She also gave us the telephone number of a fuel delivery company- Dyneff so we were able to order a delivery of red and white diesel.

Further efforts to remove the steering wheel were unsuccessful, the steering wheel puller having broken, so Peter rigged up a drip feed in the wheelhouse and we spent several more hours turning the wheel and removing hoses, all to no avail.

That evening we strolled around the town and searched in vain for the restaurant that Rick Stein recommended did the best Cassoulet.  The lake we were moored in was lovely and we enjoyed aperros on deck as the sun set over the town.

The following day the weather was sunny and warm, but as we were moored in the shade we were able to keep fairly cool. The wind picked up considerably in the afternoon as it did on several occasions during our stay.

After another futile effort to sort out the steering, Peter approached ‘le boat’ and one of the mechanics came on board to have a look. He owned the barge moored behind us and after an hour or so of tinkering, we were no nearer a solution. He refused payment for his time so we invited him and his wife for aperros later in the week.

Peter rang Ted Johnson (Canal du Nivernais boat guru) for advice, but sadly Ted is more of an engine expert and was unable to help. Undaunted as always by seemingly insurmountable problems, Peter went online to seek a solution.

Meanwhile, I took advantage of the water and electricity to catch up on the washing and finally tackle the curtains which were overdue a wash. I also enjoyed exploring the town which was much more interesting than I had thought when we stopped here last autumn.

Peter finally located a technical advisor online and after a phone call to England was able to narrow down the problem. It was either the steering ram ( a metal rod above the rudder which pushes it left or right) or the steering pump( located behind the steering wheel which we still could not remove!) Unfortunately, we would only know which it was by replacing one or other and seeing if the problem persisted…………………

On advice from various sources, we decided to order a new steering ram as it was the more likely of the two to malfunction. At £259 plus delivery we hoped we had made the right choice.

Delivery from England would take at least four working days and it was now a Thursday, so we decided to make the most of our stay.

We invited Pascale and Francoise (‘Marie Lou’) on for aperros as a thank you for his help and my French had another workout as I tried to keep the conversation flowing. After eventually locating the Hotel de France (had to watch the dvd of Rick Stein’s French Odyssey again) we decided to go there for lunch and try the Cassoulet. He was right it is still the best we’ve had to date.

 A break from the steering problem.

 Rick Stein was right, Hotel de France does produce best Cassoulet.

 Not such a bad place to be stuck in !

 We enjoyed some spectacular sunsets as well the fun of watching the hire boats who would go steaming towards the nearby bridge oblivious of the fact that they would lose their parasols. The ensuing panic and carnage provided us with many a chuckle.

Our planned motor bike outing into the Pyrenees had to be delayed for a couple of days owing to a blip in the weather, but the curtains were now clean, ironed and back up, and Peter had made a new shelf for the front cabin and hinged bed for the shed……severely shredding a knuckle in the process.

Eventually a bright day dawned and we headed off towards the medieval town of Mirepoix and the mountains. At the Col de Chiola(1431m) we stopped to take some photos before heading down into the interesting  skiing, fishing and thermal spa resort of Ax-les-Thermes.

 A ride to the Pyrenees and a welcome blast for the BMW.

 Here we enjoyed our picnic lunch before exploring the town with its several sulphur fountains and public baths. The signs warned that the water was hot, but it didn’t stop me from having a paddle!

 Ah, ooooH it is hot then !

 Twice bitten !

Back at the Col de Chioula, we left the bike and walked up to the observation point from where there was a fantastic panoramic view across the Pyrenees.

 Here we have…and over there we have..

 Our return to Castelnaudary took us through more dramatic countryside and we passed several ruined Cathar outposts, stark reminders of the past cruelty and horror visited upon the region in the name of Christainity

The following afternoon we were amazed and pleased that our new steering ram had arrived- just two and a half working days! Peter fitted it, we ‘bled’ the system and it worked- although our rudder indicator on the dashboard is now the opposite way around. Needless to say, Peter has now added Hydraulic Engineer to his ever increasing list of skills.

Keen to continue on our way, we paid for our electricity- a bargain at 3 euros per night (not 5 as expected), said ‘au revoir’ to our neighbours and entered the first of the four locks at the end of the lake.

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