At Léré we ate an improbable dinner at the Lion d’Or, much like seeing the Taj Mahal in Walsall. We had come in to moor, as usual, bow in and Jan handling the ropes. The stern turned out before I killed the engine. I shouted out ‘I’ve lost control!’ and both our pulses quickened. A young blond German man came to our rescue. ‘Turn the wheel full to the left and put the boat in reverse for 3 seconds’, the stern duly swung towards land. I was very politely grateful but had thought up till then I had been captain and now I was just an ordinary crewman. Another indignity to add to that of middle age, a young blond man had triumphed where I had failed. He tied the ropes as well and assured us that all was now safe. ‘I saw you earlier in the week practising’. ‘Thank you very much’ I said.
We then went ashore to explore the delights of Léré. All these small villages have merged into one in my mind. They all have a Mairie, a community school, a boulangerie, and rarely an epicerie. Jan as usual took her camera out to record the rustic excellence of rural France. The mooring spot itself, on the map boasted a shower, toilet, water and electricity refill facilities but as we had learnt by experience, it was rare for these facilities to exist in fact. At Léré, I cannot recall now whether any or all of these facilities existed.
For miles the Lion d’Or had advertised its presence so we searched it out. We confirmed that the menu was appropriate and returned at 7.30 pm for dinner. It was obvious the minute we stepped in that my shorts and polo shirt and my rucksack were not in the spirit of the place. Jan looked English in her cropped khaki trousers and top. The travelling and excitement had brought the colour to her cheeks. ‘Are we too early?’ we asked. ‘Non’. That was the start of the most extraordinary dinner in the middle of nowhere in rural France. The Maitre d’Or must have imagined himself in Paris. We were the lone customers and did they wait upon us? You have to imagine the delights of French cooking in a railroad café or in England along a canal side pub. It was unforgettable.
After dinner, we returned to our boat. In the distance a dog was barking. The sharp taste of Sancerre rosé like the cooling air and the soft satin light, also the canal water, a murky marine green mirror flowing past fixed the scene, an iridescent emerald dragonfly, in my chapbook, August 2005.
Soon after Léré, we came to the end of our time on the Loire valley canal system, although the canal itself stretched on beyond Decize. Our final stop here, at Plagny, between two locks, I suppose, was an appropriate end to our adventure. At the start we had assumed that canal boats in France would be like English long boats, barges, but not a bit of it. Instead of a tiller we had a wheel and hence had to learn to steer whilst handling the boat for the first time. This was no mean feat as we had to navigate the famous Aqueduct at Briare on a Sunday afternoon with families and couples on hand to watch our, no, my poor handling of the boat. We swerved from one wall against the other, banging our way through what was after all straight as a die. It was most embarrassing. Actually it was shameful. Jan said, ‘I don’t know how you managed to do that, in front of all those people’. My reply ‘When you’ve been publically shamed so many times in medical school, you become immune to shame!’
This was a trip through Sancerre, la Charité-sur-Loire, Marseilles-lés-Aubigny, Nevers and Plagny. We had moored each night with increasing confidence beside fields and woods, alongside roads, under lampposts, and on proper mooring posts, the evening light soft and dawn like dense dark butter, rather tar, melting and lightening to grey and then a glorious unimaginable gold, the whole world ablaze and crisp. That incredible brilliance lasted only for three days, then it was like dawn all day- grey, dismal and uncertain, but cool running weather.
In the heat dragonflies and water skaters, butterflies and bees, everywhere swallows and even more swallows, occasionally a heron lifting its wings and skimming the water, the canal ahead, hardly a ripple but, behind us, a wake fanning out and rippling against the bank, like a washing machine washing and rinsing.
On either side a line of birch, elm or mountain ash, the wind rustling the leaves and the sound of rain on rooftops encircling the canal but, in the absence of rain, only a rumour of rain as Andre Brink might have said. We walked too, on towpaths, usually at dusk, two sore thumbs in the empty countryside. When it rained as Simenon put it in The Carter of La Providence, it was a ‘dreary landscape’ but he was referring to Lock 14 at the junction of the river Marne and the canal, we trudged on in our anoraks, bent and crouching, shoulders hunched.
We haven’t been back to any canal since this trip nor visited any château since then. We have run along towpaths and cycled along the Rea river valley. The one enduring habit from this trip has been Sancerre and Pouilly fumé wines. But, the glorious fantasy world of the Loire valley châteaux has been irreplaceable- Château de Cheverny, Château de Chambord, Château de Chaumont, etc.
Photos by Jan Oyebode