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
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.
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.