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A History of the Waterways: Barge Building in France

Desiree Michels

Visitors: 80

Though you may be a lover of barge holidays in France, how much do you actually know about the history of this mode of transportation? Although the waterways are now reserved for leisure activities, tourism and barge holidays, France once relied on the humble barge to maintain and grow its economy. In fact, for centuries canals and rivers were essential components of France’s trade network, linking the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Standardisation and Transportation

Despite these all-important river links, transportation was slow due to a lack of standardisation across the country. At the end of the nineteenth century, the then Minister of Public Works, de Freycinet, had a light bulb moment: he decided to regulate the network of waterways by building the same sized lock country-wide. This lock was to be 40m x 5.20m and, once they were installed, boats had to be redesigned to fit inside. The new wooden vessels, sometimes known as ‘Freycinet barges’, were built in dimensions of 38.5m by 5.05m as standard. These modern, standardised cargo-carriers could deliver goods across Europe.

However, how did these non-motorised vessels move around the intricate network of European canals? The answer is man power – although actually towing was carried out by women, horses and even children throughout the 1800s, as well as men. Some –such as Klippers and Tjalks travelling to England – used sail-power and others, in Belgium and the Netherlands, were towed by steam-powered tug boats. Progress, though faster due to standardisation, could not be called speedy as most people would be travelling at walking pace.

Fuelling the Nation

In a drastic change to how canal transport operated, the 1900s saw the introduction of diesel engines which did away with the need for towing altogether. However, as the engines were not very powerful, motorized vessels such as Spitzen and Luxemotors had to have distinctive pointed bows similar to the tug. These new creations were extremely luxurious as they were equipped with a kitchen and toilet – more than some houses at the time – and were independent.

By the 1920s wooden hulls had been exchanged for steel, making stronger, more resilient cargo-carriers that could withstand potential clashes with locks. Twenty years later the diesel engine had gained much more power and many motorised barges were built across France, Belgium and the Netherlands. This was the peak of this industry in Europe. Non-motorized vessels were towed by diesel-powered tractors, rather than horses, so journey times were considerably decreased.

Goodbye to All That?

The decline of French water transport began in the 1970s as the faster and more efficient railways and road vehicles gained in popularity. The canals, once the lifeblood of the country, fell into disrepair and were sadly not restored. Hundreds of Freycinet barges were scrapped and it seemed like it was the end of the line for this once-important vessel.

Fortunately, barge holidays in France have kept this traditional form of water transport alive. Tourism bloomed in the 1970s, drawing visitors to France’s canals and rivers have not abated in nearly four decades. Barge holidays in France show off the most beautiful and interesting regions of the country to visitors who appreciate the gentle pace, and alternative view point, that a hotel barge affords them.

Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider if you're looking for all-inclusive, luxury barge holidays in France or other great destinations. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.

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