Canal de Nantes à Brest
The Canal de Nantes à Brest is crossing Brittany from east to west. It is a chain of canalized rivers: the Erdre, the Isac, the Oust, the Blavet, the Hyère and the Aulne. Just twenty percent of the canal isn't following a river. This are the most highly laying parts af course. They are linking the various upper courses of the rivers. The canal is 360 kilometers long and has 237 locks. The canal is dug between 1811 and 1842 as part of a strategic plan for waterways in Brittany from which the Canal d'Ille et Rance was also a part. It made the inland connection of the ports St-Malo, Lorient, Nantes en Brest possible. Because the English made the sea unsafe and blocked the French ports these cities could be supplied this way by the inland waterways.
On a sunny day in July we are cycling along the part of the river Oust. The character of a river dominates here. I see a beautiful wide sheet of water which reflects the sky. Just a boat far-away causes a wrinkling.
At the lock the water widens further. Right next to the locks is a weir over which the water runs down. These are excellent places for watermills. The locks and lockkeeper houses are often decorated beautifully with flowers. The locks are usually some kilometers from each other.
It isn't busy on the water. We only see a few boats. We take a break at a lock to eat something and to watch the locking. The shipper's daughter helps the lockkeeper. Quietly the boat rises about a meter and a half.
We cycle further and arrive at Josselin where a wunderful castle is situated directly at the water. It is the castle of the familie Rohan. Nearby the castle is a landing-stage. There are quite a few boats. It is a popular stop.
On Sunday we decide to continue our survey of the Canal de Nantes a Brest. It is half clouded, sun and clouds are alternating. It is just above 20 degrees centigrade and so it is a wonderful day to cycle. We cycle from somewhere after Josselin to Pontivy. It 's a section with a lot of locks. Our section goes from the river Oust to the river Blavet.
At lock 43 Cadoret where we start, a pleasure-boat is just entering. The lockkeeper is a sixteen years old girl, I guess. She tends the gates and sluices energeticly. I help her with the opening of the gates. The locks aren't very large, about 25 meters long and 4,70 meter wide.
We cycle to the west on the towpath. The tow pad is made of broken stones but in good shape to cycle on. The width of canal changes often.
At the locks the river is often diverted. No more then a modest canal remains then. At other sites the weir for the river water is right next to the lock, for example at lock 46 (La Grenouilliere) and at those places the water is rather wide. On our way we found many locks decorated with flower-boxes. They are all little paradises. We see also a lock with a little characteristic oven outside. After one hour cycling we come in Rohan. At the lock with the same name we eat a baguette. We travel on (kilometer by kilometer) and arrive at lock 55 (Coët-Prat) where we leave the river Oust behind. At this lock is a shelter for the lockkeeper, again a girl of about sixteen. I believe they do a holiday-job. Now an artificial section of the canal follows. There are a lot of locks. We cycle up 23 locks in 4 kilometers. On the south side of the canal spreadings are made to contain as much water as possible. These are marvelous parts full of water-lilies and other water-plants. Contrary to the section alongside the Oust where all the lockkeepers houses were occupied, here the lockkeepers houses are gone. When I see some, they are nailed up. We hear no car on the entire trip: no roads parallel to the canal as so often in Holland. And even the single road that crosses the canal does not disturb the quietness.
We have a break for a while when we reach the watershed. We can see the Rigole de Hilvern: a 62 kilometers long gutter built to take care for the water supply of this part of the canal. Nowadays it isn't used anymore. Today the water is pumped up from the river Blavet.
We see a shelter for the lockkeeper again. The lockkeepers cycle with the boats alongside the canal. They are having an easy day today. Today we see on this section just one single boat.
We are cycling along the 5 kilometers alongside the highest section to lock 79 (Kéroret). This section of the canal is distressed by an abundance growth of water weed. We see two futuristic vessels especially made to remove the water weed. On the banks the water weed is piled up on great heaps.
We have arrived at the other site of the watershed and we can freewheel down. We see two series of locks (9 and 12 locks) with a beautiful shadowed section in between. This section is surrounded by high embankments with trees. It is a little bit dark there. We see large fishes moving slowly through the water and a kingfisher who caught a little fish flew away. It 's a beautiful sight, such a bright blue little bird.
After the series of locks the distance between the locks is growing. Yet we arrive in Pontivy before we realize it. The Canal de Nantes à Brest runs from here upstream by way of the river Blavet. This section is declassified. A great dam blocks the canal. From Pontivy you can navigate downstream on the river Blavet to the south, to the coastal place Lorient.
A few days later I survey the declassified section of the canal from Pontivy in the direction of Brest. The condition of the locks surprises me. The gates indeed are in bad shape but most of them are still present despite the fact that the canal is closed since 1926 because of the construction of the Guerlédan dam. From Pontivy 12 locks are out of use. Sometimes it looks like a wide river. And at other places the canal isn't more than a miserable water-stream because of the broken lock-gates. Yet I see beautiful old elements as a watermill nearby lock 114 (Le Stumo). Most of the lockkeepers houses are still habited. I take a look above the dam. The Guerlédan lake has swallowed 18 locks but from there the canal continues to go in the direction of Brest. A large section is declassified though. To begin with Carhaix the canal is navigable again. I see the rests of the Abbaye de Bon Repos, the largest religious building in Brittany.
I also cycle along the section with the only double lock in the canal: the lock Coat-Natous. Surprisingly I see brand-new gates here. And all the locks in the neighborhood the gates are renewed too. That gives hope for the future. The canal is navigated by canoes indeed, even the weirs nearby the locks. A kind of slide construction was made over which the canoes can descend. Also in this section the lockkeepers hoses are occupied mostly.
I look at the top, 184 meters above sea level. The landscape at the watershed is dominated by great areas of water which served for the water supply. The gates in the locks are dilapidated. So the new gates I saw before are not connected yet with the navigable section of the canal. When we leave Brittany I arrive at Redon which is situated much more to the east. Sea ships were able to navigate with the high tide stream to Redon in earlier days. Nowadays the canal is cut from the sea by a dam. Redon used to be an important port. In this town the east-west route (Canal de Nantes a Brest) the north-south route (the river Vilaine and the Canal d’Ille et Rance) cross each other.
In Redon a number of locks are situated close to each other. They are all beautifully decorated with flowers. It a wonderful sight!