AT THE END OF the 12th century, Ville Neuve Saint Ladres was little more than a hamlet alongside the Roman road leading from Paris to Flanders. When a church was constructed in 1426 the hamlet’s name was changed to La Villette Saint-Ladres-lez-Paris. In 1790, La Villette, then with a population of some 1,800 souls, was formerly recognised as a commune and in 1860, by which time the population had increased to around 30,000, it was incorporated into the City of Paris.
Bassin de la Villette
La Villette though was to play an important role in the life of the city before its formal incorporation.
In 1802, mindful that a plentiful supply of water was a key to public health and to public morale, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered work to begin on the construction of a canal, the Canal de l’Ourcq, stretching one hundred and eight kilometres from Picardy to Paris. When completed, this canal would not only provide a plentiful supply of water to the city but also provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning the city.
The Bassin de la Villette was created at the Paris end of the Canal de l’Ourcq from where the canal would link, and still links, to the Canal Saint-Denis, which enters the Seine close to Saint-Denis to the north and the Canal Saint-Martin which enters the Seine south of Place de la Bastille.
Napoleon Bonaparte opened the Bassin de la Villette in 1808.
Bassin de la Villette with the lock gates leading to the Canal Saint-Martin
Once the Canal Saint-Martin and the Canal Saint-Denis were completed in the 1820s the area around the Bassin de la Villette became not only a transit centre but also a busy commercial hub.
Warehousing companies including the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux set up on the quays alongside the Bassin mainly to store grain and flour as did a cattle market and several abattoirs.
Bassin de la Villette – Les Entrepôts
Image via Wikipedia
Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux: Share certificate from 1952
This industrialisation of the Bassin de la Villette lasted until the late 1960s by which time decline had set in and the warehouses were either abandoned or demolished. The cattle market and the abattoirs closed in the early 1970s.
Bassin de la Villette looking towards the Canal de l’Ourcq with some of the original and now renovated warehouses just beyond the boats
The Bassin de la Villette is in effect a man-made lake and at eight hundred metres long and seventy metres wide it’s the largest artificial lake in Paris but, despite its industrial decline, it still plays an important part in the life of the city.
The Canal de l’Ourcq, which terminates at the Bassin de la Villette, still supplies about half of the daily water requirement for the city’s public works. The Bassin is still a transport hub with the intersection where the Canal de l’Ourcq meets the Canal Saint-Denis with its mainly industrial canal traffic and the Canal Saint-Martin with its now thriving and lucrative tourist traffic.
But the Bassin de la Villette has also undergone a revival with some of the former warehouses being converted into cinemas and restaurants and some of the barges into cultural venues.
La Péniche Opéra for example is berthed on one side of the Basin de la Villette on the Quai de Loire. It’s a former industrial barge now billed as the smallest opera house in the world and it puts on a wide range of operatic events.
At the head of the Bassin de la Villette in what is now the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad is another reminder of the history of La Villette.
La Rotonde de la Villette
Built by one of the earliest exponents of French Neoclassical architecture, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, the Rotonde de la Villette was originally one of the barrières d’octroi in the mur des Fermiers généraux, the Wall of the Farmers-General.
This wall, built between 1784 and 1791 by the Ferme générale, the corporation of tax farmers, surrounded Paris and was intended to ensure the payment of a toll (octroi) on all goods entering Paris.
The Rotonde de la Villette or the barrière Saint-Martin as it was known at the time, was one of sixty-two such tax collection points in the wall. With the expansion of Paris in 1860 and with the octroi by then abolished most of these tax collection points were demolished. The Rotonde de la Villette escaped demolition and survived to become a bonded warehouse for the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux. Today, it’s a restaurant unsurprisingly called La Rotonde.
On my visit to the Bassin de la Villette I not only wanted to explore its history but also its sounds.
I recorded a soundwalk for my Paris Soundscapes Archive beginning at the fountain next to La Rotonde de la Villette. I walked along the Quai de Seine on one side of the Bassin, then over the Passerelle de la Moselle to the Quai de Loire on the other side, which brought me back to the head of the Bassin but this time at the Écluses de la Villette, the double lock at the head of the Canal Saint-Martin.
Écluses de la Villette – Picture taken from on top of the Passerelle des écluses de la Villette from which all distances on the Canal Saint-Martin are measured
The Canal Saint-Martin links the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine. It’s four and a half kilometres long, two kilometres of it run underground and it passes through nine locks and two swing bridges. From the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine the canal drops a height of twenty-five metres, the first eight metres of which occurs at the Écluses de la Villette.
The first set of lock gates at the Écluses de la Villette
The sounds of a boat full of tourists passing through the Écluses de la Villette seemed to be too good to miss since it seemed to me that they would represent a good part of the life of today’s Bassin de la Villette so I positioned myself just beyond the first pair of lock gates and waited.
This was one of those occasions when I felt that the story would be best told by fixing my microphones in one position and simply waiting for something to happen – a technique I learned from studying the work of the great photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The red arrow indicates my recording position
Sounds at the first Écluse de la Villette:
And presently something did happen – something completely unexpected.
As a Paris Canal boat hove into view people were passing behind me and then I heard the sound of horses hooves. I turned round to see two splendid horses from the Gendarmerie passing by. They passed very quickly but it was long enough for their sounds to transport me back for a fleeting moment to the Bassin de la Villette in a different age.
Presently, the first lock gates opened and the Paris Canal boat, complete with its running commentary, slowly and carefully entered the first part of the lock. Once in, the gates behind it were closed and the sluices on the gates ahead of it were opened and the boat began the first part of its descent.
Going down ….
The sounds tell the story as the boat descends.
In making this recording I left the microphones and the recording levels untouched throughout so what you hear is what I heard. If you listen carefully, you will hear the sound texture change as the boat descends and, as the boat gets lower, the voices of the passengers can be heard more clearly.
Eventually, the lock gates ahead of the boat open and the boat slowly moves forward into the second stage of the lock and the sounds get fainter.
If you listen really carefully, above the hissing sound of the water leaking through the first set of lock gates, you will hear two faint thuds as the second set of lock gates close one after the other behind the boat. Immediately after, the sluice on the first set of gates opens and water gushes in to refill the first part of the lock.
That’s where my sound portrait ends but for the boat and its passengers, now in the second part of the lock, they began their second descent until they were completely out of sight from street level. They then moved off into the tunnel taking them under the road and onto the next part of their journey along the Canal Saint-Martin. Meanwhile, the first part of the lock was continuing to refill ready for the next boat to repeat the process.
I came away from the Bassin de la Villette with a good and varied collection of sounds for my Paris Soundscapes Archive but I couldn’t help wondering what rich pickings there might have been for a sound hunter like me if I’d been there when it had been a centre of industry rather than of tourism.
IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY it was part of the fossé, the ditch that surrounded the wall built by Charles V to encircle Paris. Today, the Bassin de l’Arsenal (also known as Port de l’Arsenal) is a marina connecting the Canal Saint-Martin to the Seine.
Bassin de l’Arsenal looking towards Place de la Bastille
After the destruction of the Bastille fortress in November 1789 during the French Revolution, the Bassin de l’Arsenal was excavated to replace the ditch that had been in place at the fortress.
The Bastille fortress with the fossé (ditch) in the foreground. The fossé was later converted into the Bassin de l’Arsenal.
From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries an arsenal existed here, which accounts for the name of the port and the name of the neighbourhood bordering the westerly side of the Bassin.
In the early nineteenth century, the construction of the Canal Saint-Martin was undertaken connecting the Bassin de la Villette to the Bassin de l’Arsenal and the Seine. With the increased barge traffic on the Canal Saint-Martin during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the Bassin de l’Arsenal became an important commercial port handling mainly wine, wheat and wood.
Separated from the Seine by the ninth and final lock on the Canal Saint-Martin, l’Écluse de l’Arsenal, the port was converted into a port de plaisance (a marina) in 1983. At the same time, a 1.4-hectare public park, the Jardin du Bassin de l’Arsenal, was created along the eastern side of the marina, which includes maple and willow trees and a rose covered pergola.
Jardin du Bassin de l’Arsenal
The Bassin de l’Arsenal stretches for six hundred metres between Quai de la Rapée and Place de la Bastille and it forms the boundary of the 4th and the 12th arrondissements.
Running over the lock leading to the Seine at the southern end of the Bassin are two bridges, the road bridge Pont Morland and an iron bridge carrying Métro Line 5. The sounds of the Métro trains running over the iron bridge into and out of Quai de la Rapée station dominate the soundscape around the lock.
Sounds of Métro Line 5 running over l’Écluse de l’Arsenal:
The gates of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal at the southern end of the Bassin de l’Arsenal
I’m fascinated by industrial soundscapes and so I’ve made many recordings of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal in operation but all of them have been punctuated by the sounds of passing Métro trains. The sounds of the lock operating are really interesting and so for several years I’ve been trying to capture the sounds of the lock without the Métro sounds in the background. The other day I finally succeeded thanks to a temporary interruption to the service on Métro Line 5.
The lock is operated from la Capitainerie, the Harbourmaster’s office on the eastern side of the Bassin. Against a background of hammering from building work on a neighbouring apartment block, two boats are waiting to leave the Bassin de l’Arsenal to enter la Seine.
Sounds of l’Écluse de l’Arsenal in operation:
In this soundscape we hear the lock filling and then a warning signal before the lock gates creak open. The first boat to enter the lock is a bateau école, a training boat. It passes into the lock almost imperceptibly.
The next boat is larger but its sounds are equally tranquil.
Once the two boats are in the lock the lock gates are closed with more creaking. A grandmother comes alongside and explains the process to her petite-fille. Note the fascinating sounds of the hydraulics after the lock gates are shut.
Water drains out of the lock, the boats drop three metres, the lock gates at the far end of the lock are opened and the boats are free to enter la Seine.
But as the water level is lowered, the soundscape closest to the Bassin de l’Arsenal changes as water seeps into the lock from gaps in the closed but exposed lock gates.
Some of the best sounds in my Paris Soundscapes Archive are sounds of the Paris Métro but even though the sound rich Métro Line 5 was so close this was one occasion when I was pleased that the Métro sounds were absent.
WHEN IT WAS BUILT in 1885, this pont levant, or lifting bridge, was at the cutting edge of technology. With its mechanism hidden in the sewers below and using pressurised water from the Paris drinking water system to power it, this was the first hydraulically operated bridge in Paris.
The Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée crosses the junction of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement and it’s the fifth bridge to stand here.
The first bridge was built in 1808 upon the completion of the Bassin de la Villette and it was a wooden pont à double bascule, a double-leaf bridge with a deck composed of two spans joining each other in the middle of the bridge and pivoting around a vertical axle at each abutment. During the Second Empire this bridge was replaced with another wooden bridge, this time a drawbridge. The third bridge, also in wood came to an ignominious end when it, together with two of the warehouses alongside it belonging to the Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux de Paris, were burnt down during the Paris Commune of 1871. This bridge was replaced by a pont tournant, a metal swing bridge.
Some twelve years later, the creation of a new road, rue de Crimée, together with the widening of the channel connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Bassin de la Villette, meant that the swing bridge had to be replaced and the option of a lifting bridge was adopted. This is the bridge we see today and it was opened on 2nd August, 1885.
This bridge worked continuously from 1885 until 2010 by which time it was beginning to show its age. Towards the end of 2010, the bridge was temporarily closed for a much-needed makeover to make it more economical to operate, more environmentally friendly and safer.
The steel deck was suffering from corrosion so it was replaced. The hydraulic system, which was buried in the sewers and had leather joints that were constantly leaking, was modernised so that it no longer depended on the Paris drinking water system for its operation. The moving parts of the bridge were completely refurbished, the sidewalks widened and a cycle lane was incorporated.
Great pains were taken though to ensure that modernising the bridge didn’t detract from its historical significance, it is after all an official monument historique.
I went to the Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée to see and listen to it in action.
Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée in action:
The movement of this bridge is controlled remotely from the control room of L’Ecluse du Pont de Flandre, the first lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, which is a considerable distance away and completely out of sight of the bridge.
The first indication that the bridge is about to embark upon a lifting cycle is when the signs at each end of the bridge indicate ‘Pont en Manoeuvre’. A beeping sound then indicates that the two arms of each gate at either side of the bridge are about to close. The gates close one arm at a time so that those caught on the bridge have time to escape before the lifting cycle begins.
Once the bridge is clear of traffic and pedestrians and the gates are closed, a gentle thudding sound is heard as the bridge separates from the roadway and begins it journey upwards.
Since the overhaul of the hydraulic system the operation of the bridge is very smooth. Two hydraulic rams, one under each end of the bridge, push it upwards and then lower it once the lift is completed. Four metal cables gliding over the wheels mounted on iron pillars above the bridge, two at each end, help to support the bridge during the cycle.
There are no spectacular sounds from the bridge itself during the cycle, just a slight groan as it begins to lift, a gentle purring of the hydraulics during the lift, a gentle thud as it begins its descent, more purring as it comes back down and a final sigh of relief as it nestles back into position joining the roadway.
And, of course, the reason for all this is to allow the canal traffic to pass to and from the Bassin de la Villette.
The length of time the bridge stays aloft depends on how much canal traffic needs to pass. During this particular cycle a Canauxrama tourist boat passed followed by these guys …
Once the canal traffic has passed the bridge is lowered and locked into place, the gates open and the pedestrians, the cyclists and the traffic can resume their passage along Rue de Crimée.
I think there’s something really fascinating about bridges that actually move and so I stayed around to watch and listen to this one manoeuvre through several more of the 9,000 or so lifting cycles it completes every year.
MY EXPLORATION OF THE Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds began at the head of the canal where it parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette. In Part 1, I followed the canal to the end of the Quai de la Gironde on the edge of the 19th arrondissement of Paris and in Part 2, I crossed the Paris city limits and followed the canal across the western edge of Aubervilliers to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis.
Having completed a little over half my journey, I’m now going to follow the canal into the commune of Saint-Denis to the final lock on the canal, l’Écluse de la Briche, where it discharges into la Seine.
My route for the final leg of my journey along the Canal Saint-Denis
Walking along the quay from the swing bridge, I crossed from Aubervilliers into the commune of Saint-Denis and the French National Stadium, the Stade de France.
The Stade de France, the French National Stadium
With a seating capacity of 80,000, the Stade de France is a major international sporting and concert venue. It was opened in January 1998 in time to stage the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final in July of that year, a final which appropriately France won beating Brazil 3-0.
Built on the site of a former gasworks and costing €290 million, the stadium took just thirty-one months to build during which time some 800,000 M2 of earth was moved and some 180,000 M3 of concrete poured. The stadium has retractable seating, which moves to reveal an athletics track around the central playing field.
The most notable feature of the stadium is the elliptical roof, which is suspended some 42 metres above the ground, covers an area of six hectares and weighs 13,000 tons.
The one glaring omission in the design of the stadium is the lack of any under floor heating, something that was highlighted, much to the stadium’s embarrassment, when in 2012 a Six Nations international rugby game between France and Ireland had to be cancelled just before kick-off due to the pitch freezing.
As well as hosting the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final, the stadium also hosted the 2003 Athletics World Championships, the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final and the UEFA Champions League Finals in 2000 and 2006. Had Paris won its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, the Stade de France would have been the main Olympic stadium.
As a major concert venue, the stadium has hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Madonna, U2, Céline Dion, Coldplay, Beyoncé, Eminem, Lady Gaga and many more.
Having stopped for a while to look at the Stade de France from across the canal, I moved on a short way and followed the canal to the next lock, Lock N° 5, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris.
Lock N° 5, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris looking downstream.
This lock is enveloped in sound, not only the sound of canal traffic though, although plenty of canal traffic passes through the lock, but rather the sound of endless traffic passing over two road bridges adjacent to the lock.
One of these bridges, the Pont Wilson, carries l’avenue du Président Wilson, part of the trunk road running from Paris to Calais, and the other is the huge bridge carrying the France’s busiest Autoroute, the A1, which runs from Paris to Lille.
The Pont de l’A1
Despite the fact that Aubervilliers and Saint-Denis are probably the poorest municipalities around Paris and both have a very high crime rate, I never felt uneasy walking through either as I explored the Canal Saint-Denis – at least not until I arrived here. And it wasn’t the people I encountered that made me uneasy, instead it was the atmosphere around where these two major arteries pass overhead. Both bridges feel oppressively low to the ground. One, probably because of its size, feels as though it is – and the other just is! The base of the Pont Wilson in fact forms the roof of the downstream entrance to Lock N° 5 and I couldn’t help feeling claustrophobic and very uneasy as I walked underneath it. In addition, the noise pollution here from the traffic passing overhead is particularly oppressive and certainly didn’t add to my sense of well being.
The downstream entrance to Lock N°5 with the Pont Wilson forming the roof
The downstream entrance to Lock N°5 with both the Pont Wilson and the A1 passing overhead
On the downstream side of Lock N° 5, the canal makes a left turn and widens out to form le bassin de la Maltournée, a zone de débarquement, a zone for loading and unloading construction materials, mainly sand and aggregates.
Looking back from here you can see both the Pont Wilson and the A1 passing over l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris with the Stade de France just beyond.
I can’t account for the clothes draped over the rail. They didn’t seem to belong to anybody and there were many other items of clothing scattered around along with much assorted detritus.
Le Bassin de la Maltournée looking upstream
And this is what le Bassin looked like in former, busier, times.
Le Bassin de la Maltournée courtesy of Wikipedia
Because of the width of the canal at this, its widest point, vessels are able to manoeuvre to and from the landing stages whilst allowing other vessels to pass in and out of the lock.
The barge ‘Diane’ heading for the lock while a barge behind her manoeuvres alongside the loading quay
The fifth lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris, takes its name from the nearby Porte-de-Paris. Before the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, Saint-Denis and Paris were separated by a vast agricultural plain, la Plaine Saint-Denis. Two gates, the Porte de Saint-Denis in Paris and the Porte de Paris in Saint-Denis, allowed access between the two cities.
Today, we should think of Porte de Paris as a neighbourhood rather than as a gate. With a population of around 9,000, Le quartier Porte de Paris – Stade de France, links the historic city of Saint-Denis with the modernity around the Stade de France and there are plans to bring an urban continuity between the two. New private and social housing is planned along with a new school and a new hotel project and improved accessibility will be provided when the new Tram Line 8 comes to town later this year.
Le Bassin de la Maltournée – zone de débarquement
From le Bassin de la Maltournée I walked on to the penultimate lock on the canal, Lock N° 6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis in the heart of the commune of Saint-Denis.
Lock N° 6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis
What we now know as Saint-Denis actually dates from the 2nd century AD when it was a Gallo-Roman village named Catolacus or, Catculliacum.
Somewhere around the year 270 AD, during the period of the Christian persecution under the Roman Emperors Decimus and Valerian, Denis, a Christian missionary and Bishop of Paris, was martyred on the hill of Montmartre. He was beheaded and it is said that, after he lost his head, Denis picked it up and walked six miles or so preaching a sermon as he went. The place where he eventually fell and died was Catolacus and his grave became a shrine. Around 475, Saint-Genevieve purchased some of the land around the shrine and built a church. This became a place of pilgrimage and in the 7th century, King Dagobert I had this church replaced with something grander, the Abbey of Saint Denis. By the 12th century it had grown to become one of the most powerful Benedictine abbeys in France. The abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, rebuilt portions of the abbey church using innovative structural and decorative features turning it into a masterpiece of what came to be known as Gothic art. This abbey church, the Basilique Saint-Denis, provided an architectural model for the cathedrals and abbeys of northern France, England and other countries.
From the 6th century onwards, the Basilique Saint-Denis became the necropolis of French monarchs. Most of the kings and queens of France were buried there. The list is impressive: 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm. With I think three exceptions, all the French monarchs were buried here from Hugues Capet onwards.
Some of the Royal tombs in the Basilique Saint-Denis
And at some point in all this, although we’re not sure precisely when, the Gallo-Roman village of Catolacus became Saint-Denis.
Industrialisation first came to Saint-Denis in the seventeenth-century under le Roi-Soleil, King Louis XIV, when weaving and spinning mills and dye houses were established. But it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that industry really took off. A combination of an expanse of flat land easy to build on together with the arrival of the canal in 1821 and the railway in 1843 facilitated the easy transportation of coal from the mines of northern France and Belgium, metals from Lorraine and raw materials from abroad.
The proliferation of industry changed the face of Saint-Denis, not least its political face. In 1892, Saint-Denis elected its first socialist administration and by the 1920s, the city had acquired the nickname of la ville rouge, the red city.
But, as with neighbouring Aubervilliers, (see Part 2), the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s took its toll. There was a shift away from manufacturing to service industries with the concomitant mismatch between the qualifications required for the new industries and those of the local population leading to increased unemployment, increased poverty, increased immigration and the flight of the wealthiest part of the population leaving the poorest concentrated in dilapidated older housing in the centre and social housing projects at the periphery.
During the 1990s, some rejuvenation of Saint-Denis began with the building of the Stade de France and the associated infrastructure improvements and since then, there have been attempts to attract more new industry and to initiate renovation projects not only in Saint-Denis itself but also throughout the wider Plaine Saint-Denis. The Saint-Denis website outlines some of the projects underway.
Lock N° 6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis
From l’Écluse Saint-Denis I walked on passing this rather nice cottage on the quayside.
A little further on I discovered that my way on this side of the quay was blocked and so I had to cross over the Passerelle de la Gare and continue along the canal on the other side. This brought me to a bridge carrying several railway lines and an elevated roadway over the canal.
I paused under the bridge to record some sounds only to find that two men, complete with the obligatory white van, were busy shovelling concrete. I could have waited until they’d finished before doing my recording but I didn’t, I carried on and to good effect as you will hear.
Men at Work
And I was also able to capture the sounds of this barge passing.
I spent the best part of an hour under the bridge capturing the various sounds before moving on to complete my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis.
Walking along the quay, I paused to look back at the bridge that had occupied so much of my time. It not only carries the RER trains of Line ‘D’ but also the Transilien trains of the SNCF-owned railway network operating within the Île-de-France region, as well as SNCF and Thalys high-speed TGV trains.
Looking in the other direction I was able to get a good view of the final lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, Lock N° 7, l’Écluse de la Briche.
Lock N° 7, l’Écluse de la Briche
I continued along the quay to the downstream end of the lock where I found a sign listing the destinations that can be reached from here together with the distances and the time taken to reach them.
I could see that from here to the Canal de l’Ourcq was 6.6 kilometres and it would take a barge 2 hours and 20 minutes to get there. But I already knew that because I’d just walked all of those 6.6 kilometres. But to cover the 113.3 kilometres to the far end of the Canal de l’Ourcq from here would take a barge 21 hours … and who knows how long by foot!
So now that I’d reached the final lock on the Canal Saint-Denis I couldn’t leave without seeing the point at which the canal discharges into la Seine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pass the lock by walking further along the quay because the way was barred so I had to divert away from the canal to the road that would take me up to the bridge that crosses the canal close to the lock, the Pont de la Briche.
On the way to the bridge I found this plaque, which reminded me that Saint-Denis was occupied by the Germans from June 1940 until it was liberated by General Leclerc on 27 August 1944. Sadly, this unfortunate soul didn’t live to see la libération, he was killed just two days before.
Standing on the Pont de la Briche I looked over l’Écluse de la Briche and thought about the things I’d seen and what sounds might represent this third leg of my journey along the canal.
l’Écluse de la Briche from the Pont de la Briche
Canal Saint-Denis from the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis to the Pont de la Briche – A Sound Portrait:
This sound portrait begins with the sound of a barge manoeuvring in la Bassin de la Maltournée and another barge negotiating the entrance to Lock N°5, l’Écluse de la Porte-de-Paris. Then comes the sound of long the Lafarge barge carrying a load of sand exiting Lock N°6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis. We then move to underneath the railway bridge with the sound of trains rumbling overhead, a barge passing under the bridge and the men shovelling concrete. All these sounds conjure up images for me of this final leg of my journey.
But my journey wasn’t yet quite complete. I couldn’t walk all this way and not visit the spot where the Canal Saint-Denis actually enters the river – and simply to see it from on top of the Pont de la Briche wasn’t good enough, I had to see it from ground level just as I’d seen the rest of the canal.
Finding a way down from the bridge took some time but eventually I discovered a set of very uneven stone steps some way away from the bridge. I ventured down and this was my reward – the junction of the Canal Saint-Denis and la Seine.
The Canal Saint-Denis discharging into la Seine
And this was the end of my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis. I’d walked from the head of the canal in the Parc de la Villette where it parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq and followed it through the 19th arrondissement of Paris and then through the communes of Aubervilliers and Saint-Denis to the point where it discharges into la Seine. The canal stretches for 6.6 kilometres, although I walked much further than that if you count the detours I made to look at things that caught my eye and to find suitable places from which to record sounds. It took me almost seven hours to complete the journey, much longer than a serious walker would take of course, but then serious walkers seldom stop to hunt for sounds!
My walk along the canal made me think not only about my immediate surroundings but also about history, the medieval history of the fertile Plaine Saint-Denis, the industrial revolution in the nineteenth-century and the more recent de-industrialisation with the urban decline and attempts at renewal that have followed in its wake.
Next time, I shall add a postscript to my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds, something I came upon by chance and something I think captures the very essence of the canal.
ALONG WITH THE Canal de l’Ourcq, the Bassin de la Villette, the Canal Saint-Martin, and the Bassin de l’Arsenal, the Canal Saint-Denis is part of the 130 km Réseau des Canaux Parisiens – the Parisian Canal Network.
The Canal Saint-Denis looking from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre to the Pont de Flandre
The Canal Saint-Denis links the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement to la Seine in the commune of Saint-Denis, 6.6 km to the northwest. From the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine the canal navigates seven remote-controlled locks and one remote-controlled swing bridge and it drops some 28 metres.
The route of the Canal Saint-Denis from the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine showing the locks, or ‘écluses’ in French
The canal is 3.2 metres deep at its shallowest point and 3.5 metres at its deepest and its width varies from 30 metres to 140 metres. It can accommodate vessels with a beam of up to 8 metres and a maximum displacement of up to 1,000 tons. It takes about two and a half hours for vessels to navigate the full length of the canal.
Like the Canal de l’Ourcq, the Canal Saint-Denis was born in the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte. Both canals were intended to provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning Paris but whereas the Canal de l’Ourcq was also intended to provide Paris with a plentiful supply of water, the Canal Saint-Denis was designed as what we might think of today as a ‘by-pass’, a means of reducing the number of ships and barges passing through the centre of the city. As well as being a by-pass for river traffic the Canal Saint-Denis was, and still is, a by-pass for water. By diverting excess water from the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine, the Canal Saint-Denis serves to maintain constant water levels in Paris’s canals thereby helping to prevent flooding.
The building and operating of the Canal Saint-Denis was achieved through what we would now call a public-private partnership. The City of Paris purchased the land and then tendered contracts to private banking firms requiring them to build and operate the canal in return for which they were permitted to collect tolls from traffic using the canal for a term of ninety-nine years.
Work on the Canal Saint-Denis began in 1805 under the supervision of the French ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Édouard de Villiers du Terrage, and it opened in May 1821, on time and, at an estimated six million Francs, under budget.
I’ve been to explore the Canal Saint-Denis by walking from one end to the other and in this and in subsequent blog pieces I will share with you what I observed.
I began at the beginning, where the Canal Saint-Denis parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette and runs alongside the Quai de la Gironde.
The green arrow runs along the Quai de la Gironde. The large rectangular building on the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the Museum of Science and Industry
The intersection of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Canal Saint-Denis at the Parc de la Villette
Not only is the Parc de la Villette a large green space (at 35.5 hectares it’s the third largest park in Paris) it also houses one of the largest concentration of cultural venues in Paris, including the Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie (Museum of Science and Industry), three major concert venues and the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris.
The beginning of the Quai de la Gironde
From my starting point at the head of the canal, I had the beginning of the Quai de la Gironde on my left and the entrance to the first lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, on my right.
The start of the Canal Saint-Denis and the entrance to l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre. On the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and the circus Big Top of the Cirque Plume
When the Canal Saint-Denis opened in 1821 there were twelve locks along its length. Between 1890 and 1895 the canal was rebuilt to accommodate bigger vessels and the number of locks was reduced from twelve to seven each comprising two adjacent chambers. The largest lock on the canal is the first lock, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, with a rise of 10 metres which, when it was built, was a world-record. Today, all seven locks and the swing bridge on the Canal Saint-Denis are remotely controlled from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre.
L’Écluse du Pont de Flandre
Work is underway to renovate the quays on either side of the canal between l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre and the Pont de Flandre so it was not possible for me to walk close to the water along this stretch. But I was able to walk alongside the canal along the Quai de la Gironde, which has its own history.
In the early nineteenth-century, the Parisian flour and cereals warehouses were limited to the granary at Bastille and the Corn Exchange at Les Halles but with a rapidly growing population new storage facilities became necessary. The area around La Villette was chosen because of its canals, which provided easy and inexpensive transportation. In 1858-1859, two stores docks and additional warehousing capacity were built along the Quai de la Gironde to store flour, starch, grain, oil, alcohol and commodities from the French colonies.
In May 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, the warehouses were burned to the ground but they were rebuilt soon after and served Parisians for the next century.
These warehouses alongside the Canal Saint-Denis, together with those at the pont du Crimée and alongside the Bassin de la Villette, were known as the Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux de Paris. Today, they are being redeveloped and turned into up-market office space.
From the Pont de Flandre onwards, both the canal and the Quai de la Gironde take on a different feel. The slow moving, lumbering barges and the occasional leisure craft contrast with the sleek, high-speed (although not high-speed at this point) TGV trains crossing the railway bridge. And the Quai de la Gironde ceases to become a road and is transformed into a paved thoroughfare accommodating both pedestrians and cyclists.
The sleek trams of the fairly recently opened Tram Line 3b pass by on one side …
… while the navette fluviale taking visitors to and from the Millénaire shopping complex further downstream passes by on the other side.
And all the while the sound of construction work echoes in the background as the former Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux are rejuvenated.
It was from here amidst all the redevelopment work that I decided to pause and listen and to record a sound portrait of this stretch of the canal and the Quai de la Gironde.
The Canal Saint-Denis and the Quai de la Gironde – A Sound Portrait:
Next time, I will explore the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, but in the meantime, I will leave you with a view looking back along the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde – a very different view from that at its beginning.
ONE OF THE MORE unusual sights in Paris at the moment is the recently drained Canal Saint-Martin.
The double lock at the upstream end of the Canal Saint-Martin
Opened in 1825, the Canal Saint-Martin is a 4.5 km stretch of water connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine.
From the Bassin de la Villette at its upstream end to its junction with the Seine at Port de l’Arsenal downstream, the canal comprises nine locks and two swing bridges and from one end to the other it falls some 25 metres.
For the final 2 km at its downstream end, from Rue du Faubourg du Temple to Port de l’Arsenal, the canal runs underground passing under Boulevard Richard Lenoir and Place de la Bastille.
The double lock looking downstream to Place de Stalingrad
On Monday, 4th January, work began to drain and clean the canal and to do some renovation work to some of the locks.
To get things underway a dam was installed at the upstream end of the canal. Once the dam was in place the lock gates along the canal were opened and some 90,000 cubic metres of water drained from the canal into the Seine.
The dam separating the Canal Saint-Martin from the Bassin de la Villette
The canal has a large fish population and so some 10 cm of water was left in the bottom of the canal initially so the fish that didn’t manage to escape with the flow of water could be rounded up in nets and transferred to the Seine.
Once a waterway supplying Paris with fresh water, grain and other commodities to support a growing population, the canal trade eventually dwindled and the canal came close to extinction.
Today, with its romantic footbridges and mysterious vaulted tunnels, the tree-lined Canal Saint-Martin conveys passenger boats and pleasure craft and has become one of the key tourist spots in Paris.
In contrast to its romantic image though, the canal takes on a different aspect once the water has been drained.
The canal was last drained and cleaned in 2001 and during that operation 18 tonnes of fish were recovered and 40 tonnes of rubbish gathered. The haul of garbage and occasional treasure could be even more this time around.
The other day, I walked along the Canal Saint-Martin from the Bassin de la Villette to Rue du Faubourg du Temple where the canal enters the 2 km tunnel before it reaches the Seine. It is this above-ground stretch of the canal that is being cleaned.
Looking downstream to the tunnel entrance at Rue du Faubourg du Temple
Anxious to capture the cleaning operation in sound and since I couldn’t get close to the canal from either the Quai de Valmy on one side or the Quai de Jemmapes on the other, I chose to record from the top of the footbridge crossing the canal close to Rue du Faubourg du Temple.
The recording doesn’t last for long and it isn’t perfect – but it is historic since these sounds are only heard every ten to fifteen years!
Sweeping bottles in the Canal Saint-Martin:
All the detritus from the canal is being transferred by road to barges on the Canal St-Denis that will take it on for disposal.
At a cost of €9.5 million, the cleaning and renovation work will take three months and the Canal Saint-Martin is due to open for business again on 4th April.
Looking upstream from Rue du Faubourg du Temple