Flotteurs of the Yonne

A ripple seizes my attention. A V-shaped mass of vegetation is moving at a steady rate against the flow of water. As it nears, a small mouth and face are revealed. The water vole takes a left turn, dipping below the canal bank timber to reach riparian safety.  I wait expectantly but my privileged glimpse is over.  I must move on to complete a 70 kilometre section of the Nivernais Canal from Auxerre to Clamecy.

Paris’s booming 16th century population demanded firewood, their own surrounding timber supplies having been exhausted. The forests of Morvan had an abundance of oak, beech, hornbeam, and elm but transport by ox and cart was too slow and expensive. In the river port of Clamecy a statue of Parisian trader Jean Rouvet commemorates his system of “flottage”  that made it possible to float huge rafts of wood to Paris. This was achieved by regulating the Yonne river using weirs, reservoirs, artificial flooding and the pertuis (the pertuis being a mini dam in which wooden slats could be inserted to raise the water level on a weir).  In fact, the man who organised the first successful raft to reach Paris from Châtel-Censoir was Charles Leconte, two years before Rouvet, in 1547. For 300 years Burgundy would supply the majority of the capital’s firewood and provide thousands of Burgundian families with work. Building the 180 kilometre canal began in 1784 and it opened in 1843.

It’s six am on a promising July morning. Humans and boats are slumbering; the silence on the canal heightens awareness allowing the detection of the smallest ripple on the water or the slightest flutter of wings.

River and canal conduct a seamless dance, deftly changing positions; the natural and the unnatural may be a few metres apart, moving as one or swinging away from each other, their steps gently oscillating across the landscape. Boulevards of water, lined with trees, shade the ghosts of bargemen in their labours while two huge weeping willows cascade their branches into the canal, creating a mirror image on the still water.

 Above the door of the lock-keeper’s cottage the raised letters of the cast iron plate are large enough for canal users to read both the lock number and location.  I take only cursory notice of the next cottage.  However by the third lock I begin to realise that they are not identical – each occupier has stamped their mark on their small dwelling: freshly painted red, yellow and sky blue nameplates, a flaking navy plate and a neglected ferrous rusted plate, a window box of crimson and white primulas amongst variegated ivy, a prim flower garden, a compact vegetable plot with cauliflowers and runner beans standing in military rows, a stack of logs, children’s toys and the surreal sight of a garden gnome in charge of  farm animal figurines lining the canal bank. 

Earlier I had begun to build up a mental identikit of a typical lock-keeper.  Bearded and smoking a briar, he would have a bargeman’s cap or even a beret and some very practical grease marked trousers. Perhaps a pair of folded down rubber boots. Now I wasn’t so sure.Two locks on I finally spot a boat waiting. In the distance a figure emerges. As I approach, I see the lock-keeper is winding the lock handle. Surely not!  An attractive blonde in her twenties dressed in a low cut blouse and shorts is operating the lock. Nonplussed, and chiding myself for stereotyping, I quickly pass by.

During the winter months the loggers of the Morvan felled trees and stored them. On the first of November the previous year’s logs were auctioned ; a unique stamp of the appropriate broker was hammered into both ends of each log, then stacked on the banks of the Yonne or one of the tributaries feeding it.

As the sun rose, iridescent dragonflies hovered and darted displaying their metallic bodywork. A Small Pincertail, Onychogomphus forcipatus  rested on the path allowing solar energy to warm its ectothermic body. I pause to admire its black veined gossamer wings, the thorax and abdomen’s diagonal patterns of yellow and black and its large green eyes. 

I rounded a bend into a maelstrom of small blue-black birds with white undercarriages: house martins displaying their aerial acrobatics with their short pointed wings and forked tails. Here is an instance where a mass killing can be described as beautiful, as we marvel at the swoops and dives, but for the insect world this is terror from the skies. Perhaps they will be returning to those nests I spied the previous day in Chatel-Censoir. Underneath the eaves they cluster, like a village of upturned mud huts, tiny black white faces wearing black caps peered down at me. Gardyloo, I jumped out of the way of the droppings. I indulge myself in a little anthropomorphism and hope they do not catch my basking dragonfly.

In mid-July stacked and marked logs were thrown into the water to await the “the small stream”- a flow created by releasing water that had been held back behind the logs. On arrival at each pool on the banks of the Yonne a quota would then be “pulled” on to the bank, moved by wheelbarrow and stacked. Later these would be released back into the 22 pools to await the “great flood”.

A bell tolls. The extent of the sound waves represented a village’s aural domain; once you heard another bell you were in a different community. Graham Robb in his book The Discovery of France writes that “the number of bells and the size of the bell tower often give a fairly accurate measure of population density.” Today the churches seem disproportionate to the village size. The effects of almost a century of decline  is evident: empty streets, a couple of basic shops,  cracked wooden doors and shutters that have been deprived of varnish, partially plastered walls and commuters who work in Auxerre.


Spring water from the melted snow fed into the Yonne and was held back creating reservoirs. The first Grand Flot took place on a specified day in March. Men, women and children of Clamecy, employing hooked and spiked poles pulled 700,000 cubic metres of timber from the water and stacked them according to their markings. Having left home in the darkness, women and children would then stack the logs until darkness fell. Being crushed or suffering hypothermia were constant risks.

A field of sunflowers- thousands of hippies packed together, facing east, listening to an invisible concert.  Beside these spectacular American cultivars, on this side of the fence, a mosaic of colours: forked purple thistles, clusters of grape-blue Willow Gentian, golden marigolds, azurean wild asters and . . . I wish I had brought a field guide.





An infrequent boat, sporting a Swiss flag, throbs its way under the bridge. The proud owner gives me a magisterial wave.  A grey heron opens its wings and ascends in pursuit of quieter fishing.

Entering Clamecy, I spot two small boats, one red and one blue, remnants of the 14th of July celebrations. The 300-year-old water jousting tournament takes place here. Eachteam’s jouster is mounted on the front deck, the boat being manoeuvred by two rowers and a coxswain. Armed with a cushion- tipped pole the jouster tries to knock his opponent into the water. The winner, known as King Dry or King Sec, becomes a spokesperson for the workers for one year- an interesting way of choosing a trade union leader.

Late summer marks the period of raft building. It takes six skilled men a week to build one raft 75 metres long (the length of five city buses) holding 200 cubic metres of wood.  Once launched, a man at the front and a boy at the rear guided the raft. On reaching Auxerre the young flotteur would walk back to Clamecy. The elder completed the two-week, 150 mile journey to Paris, then walked home. Parisians eyed them with suspicion: wild in straw hats and wolfskin coats, speaking in a distinctive dialect.  Black Burgundian hoods identified the accompanying women seeking temporary employment as wet nurses.

In 1843 the Nivernais Canal linked the Loire valley to the Yonne and the Seine. Barges could now carry wood, stone, cereals, wine and ominously . . . coal from Decize to Paris. Coal and trains supplanted wood and barges; the last raft left in 1923 and the last commercial barge in the 1970s. National and regional governments saw tourism as a way of resuscitating the area and began renovating the canal for pleasure boats, laying down a cycle path and protecting the habitat.

By the beginning of the last century it was clear that the victor was not King Sec but King Coal. Today the Yonne and the Nivernais support a cornucopia of flora and fauna including over 180 bird species. Welcome the new king, he who is carved into the vaulting, tracery and corbels of Autun’s Cathedral, Vezelay’s Basilica and many of Burgundy’s churches . . . The Green Man.



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