A Slow Day at Marais Poitevin

Updated: May 14

Yesterday, A and I went on a voyage of discovery and killed two birds with one stone! We hitched up the trailer and ventured off into the west on a beautifully hot summers day (by English standards). It was in the high eighties and we later lamented not taking hats and sun cream (why isn’t France full of British on holiday in September?) The languid hot summer air has gone, everything has a fresh edge to it, the weather is glorious and there is no traffic. It’s the most beautiful time of year here….the fields are full of combine harvesters, the grape crops are ripening, fruit trees are laden. Its all simply beautiful. But I digress!

We picked up a chicken coup for the garden and lashed it to the back of the trailer. It was a little smaller than I imagined but will be great for the Silkies or Marans. The person I collected it from had won great awards with her chickens, so there is something to live up to! We left the trailer and the henhouse at the house, with permission, and carried on west.

In the area we had just driven through, trees laden with apples lined the roads and the roadside fields. The crops looked fantastic, despite the lack of rain we have had this summer. Hundreds of trees, branches dripping with apples and hanging low under the weight tempted us to stop and pick, but we refrained. Other people could get away with it, but I knew a burly French apple farmer was bound to be hiding behind the fence with a big shotgun, ready to pounce on two middle-aged ladies scrumping apples!

Ahead of us the landscape changed completely. Driving through the roads lined with apple trees, the landscape could be described as Thomas Hardy country. Apart from the road signs, it was hard not to think you were in southern England on a glorious day. Ahead lay a great flat plain, dotted with wind turbines. We crossed it, watching the combines raising dust from the parched fields as they cut the sunflowers.

Criss-crossing the plain and traveling through pretty villages with tree-lined roads and lots of bunting flying, we came to Damvix, a small but beautiful village that sits on Le Sevre Niortaise, a navigable river that flows from our Deux Sevres Department to the Atlantic.

We were late for lunch and the only thing available in the local café was a massive ice cream sundae, so with popping eyes at the thought of the calories, we indulged in cream, fruit and ice cream. It was delicious!

A sugary boost before our canal trip at Damvix

After our ice cream lunch, we waddled down to the river and hired a punter and a boat and not thinking we imagined we would be going off down the river, so were surprised to be paddled across it and through a narrow gap into a wonderland of small canals.

Now I might have got some of the facts wrong here, as my French is improving day by day, but can’t entirely be relied upon when being told lots of information in a short time! However, if I got it right, there are 45km of small canals around the village. It’s known as Green Venice and I was expecting something a bit like the Norfolk Broads. However, we were punted along small canals, dappled by the shade of the trees lining the banks. Some are only wide enough for one punt, some two and then there are the larger motorway canals. We saw only one other boat in the distance, but we did see several kingfishers. One shot ahead of us along the water, glints of blue and orange flashing. Our host told us that he had seen five already on our trip, but they had vanished too fast to tell us.

A traditional barque on the Marias Poitevin canals

The water level is 45cm below normal this summer, it having been so dry and the large holes that betray the homes of Ragondin or Coypu can be clearly seen in the canal banks. They were introduced from South America in the 19th century for their fur and there were farms in the southwest where they were bred. Apparently, they are very tasty and in times of hardship, they made a good meal. Our guide told us they make great pate! They have made themselves quite at home, having escaped from the fur farms many years ago and been freed deliberately when the bottom fell out of the market. They are now apparently number one on the list of the ten most troublesome exotic animals in Europe and can be seen on many a canal and riverside in France in the early morning and the evening. They are slightly beaver-like and have no natural predators, alligators being few and far between here – though who knows with global warming… Their main problem, apart from carrying disease, eating crops and taking the bark off trees is that they dig big holes in the banks of the canals and rivers, making them very unstable and evidence of that we could see all through our hour-long journey. We only saw one, a baby, though we were lucky because it was mid-afternoon and they are out and about more in the morning and evenings.

Fire on the canal

At one point we stopped and our guide thrust his quant up and down vigorously into the bottom of the canal. A mass of bubbles rose up and he bent down and thrust a lit candle (one he had prepared a few seconds earlier!) into the gasses. The canal immediately had a trail of fire running alongside the punt. We didn’t manage to catch it well on camera, so he did it again several times for us. Great fun!

There are eels and crayfish in the canals and we were told that if we wanted eels, we could order them and he would have them ready for us in the morning. Sadly, we wouldn’t be around. However, more holes, smaller, showed where other animals lived in the banks…. Many of the canals have been there since the early middle ages when monks from the 4th century onwards were granted the marshland by local noblemen for whom it had little use. They built a number of abbeys and started to drain the land with canals. The history is fascinating and our guide was very keen to tell us how the system had developed. As some of it was lost on me, you can find out lots more here… www.vendee-guide.co.uk/marais-poitevin.htm

We felt very relaxed by our slow journey around the waterways and it reminded me how much I enjoyed spending months on the French canals years ago when we took our 32 foot Tahiti Ketch to the Mediterranean. Once we got hang of the locks with sloping sides and the sometimes less than joyful experience of navigating with massive péniches passing in narrow spots, it became a calm and unique time. Before too long I’ll enjoy it all again! The waterways of France are a wonderful place to see the incredible wildlife, leave behind the stresses and strains and go back to a simpler way of life, where occasionally, you can feel sorry for the speeding tourist passing over a bridge as you chug along at a calm 6 knots!

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