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19 Apr 2010

River Vire walks

After weeks of snow, and heavy rain, we are now left at easter with high winds and vicious showers. Nonetheless, the weather is good enough to restart some proper country walks. Like most of France, Normandy has a lot of well marked footpaths (randonnées), and maps and routes can be had, usually free from tourist offices, or newsagents (Maisons de la Presse). For example, there are many easy, interesting walks along the Vire River, from Pont Farcy in the south, to Carentan in the north. 

Towpath sign
The Vire is an appealing river, going though a long gorge north from the town of Vire, and running alongside the road for most of the way to St-Lo. For much of that part of its flow, it seems to me to be very much like the Wye in England. It even has an equivalent of the viewpoint at Symonds Yat, at les Roches de Ham. Just before St-Lo, at Candol, there is a very old bridge and weir, and well laid out walks along the towpath (chemin de halage) in both directions. 
St Suzanne Village
For most of its length, the towpath has now been improved and surfaced, so that it is easy to walk and cycle, but also accessible without many problems for pushchairs and wheelchairs. It is also well marked with the signs shown below, information signs at all the points where you can join or leave, and regular distance indications - in km and minutes - between points. 

There are obstacles and weirs along the length of the river, but it was even so used for water transport until replaced by rail and road. In a number of places the river meanders along, with rapids and weirs bypassed by old locks and short canal lengths, some just 25 metres or less. These locks (écluses) are mostly ruins, and in many cases the canal bit is silted up and overgrown. At Vire town there are waterfalls and rapids that effectively blocked the river traffic, and to the north it joins the Vire and Taute Canal. Interestingly, as many of these old lock locations are where the water flow is faster or over a weir, there are micro hydropower electricity generating stations - 11 between Pont Farcy and St-Lo alone. Each generates enough power to supply a few hundred houses. So not only has the river been turned into a valuable leisure amenity, but also a renewable energy resource creator.

We joined the river walk at Condé-sur-Vire; there are small car parks at most villages along the length of the walk. There is a base for canoe and kayak sports there (in summer only, of course). A week or so before, we had gone past the valley of the Sée at Tirepied, where the whole flood plain was under water, again. The Vire had also burst its banks then, with the water level up to three metres higher than usual. That meant that it covered the towpath, which is raised above the land, and burst into the fields the other side. There are permanent metal signs at each access point, which can be folded open to show that the path is closed because of flooding. Useful, because the flooding can be localised to where the river is narrower or the towpath lower. We walked a little bit along the towpath at Candol a few weeks ago, but most of it was under water and invisible. Now the waters have receded, and there were no problems; there were a lot of little rivulets still flowing into the river, though, and the ground was throughly waterlogged.

Spring must be arriving, because we saw four or five swallows skimming the river in between the showers, and apart from primroses and celandines everywhere, there were a couple of clumps of marsh marigold in flower. On previous walks along the river, we have seen otters, an adult near St-Lo, and a juvenile a bit further south. We also saw this deer (chevreuil) at Candol, during the hunting season, so it may have been away from its usual place.

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