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The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 3

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 5l’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.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

The downstream entrance to Lock N°5 with the Pont Wilson forming the roof

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal 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.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 6, l’Écluse Saint-Denis

From l’Écluse Saint-Denis I walked on passing this rather nice cottage on the quayside.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis

Men at Work

And I was also able to capture the sounds of this barge passing.

Canal Saint-Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis - Saint- Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis - Saint- Denis

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!

Canal Saint-Denis - Saint- Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis - Saint- Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis - Saint- Denis

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.

Canal Saint-Denis - Saint- Denis

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.



The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 2

IN THE FIRST PART of my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis I followed the canal from its starting point at the Canal de l’Ourcq in the Parc de la Villette to the end of the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement.

In this second part, I’m going to leave the Paris city limits and follow the canal as far as the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, at Aubervilliers in la Plaine Saint-Denis .


The green arrow shows my route from the end of the Quai de la Gironde to the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis. The horizontal line shows the Paris city limits.

Canal Saint-Denis

Tram stop, Canal Saint-Denis, on Tram Line 3b at the end of the Quai de la Gironde

To continue walking along the canal it’s necessary to cross the bridge at the end of the Quai de la Gironde, the Pont MacDonald, and walk down to the canal on the opposite side. But before I did that I wanted to take a short detour.

Before crossing the bridge, I crossed the road by the tram stop and walked along the canal as far as the Boulevard Périphérique, which is as far as you can go on this side of the canal. There I found the newly opened first forest planted within the city of Paris.

Canal Saint-Martin

Occupying a strip of land between office buildings on one side and the Boulevard Périphérique on the other it’s perhaps a little early to call it a forest but these young saplings are expected to grow into something much more substantial over the next fifteen years or so.

Canal Saint-Martin

This new urban forest is intended in part to shield the neighbourhood from the noise pollution generated by the constant ribbon of traffic passing by on the Périphérique.

Canal Saint-Martin

The Boulevard Périphérique lies directly above and behind these saplings beyond the wall and the lamppost.

It seems that the Paris city authorities are not expecting the root cause of the noise pollution problem, excessive traffic, to reduce any time soon.

Canal Saint-Denis

Having had a look at this new urban forest I walked back to the Pont MacDonald, crossed over and went down the steps to the canal towpath just in time to catch this barge passing under the bridge.

This type of barge is called a ‘pusher’ and it’s quite common to see them on the Canal de l’Ourcq, the Canal Saint-Denis and, of course, on la Seine. They comprise a pusher tug and barge combination combining the operational capabilities of a non-propelled split hopper barge together with the capabilities of a pusher tug. This one was empty but I was to meet it again on my walk along the canal, this time heading in the opposite direction when it was full of sand.

Canal Saint-Denis

Pausing under the Boulevard Périphérique to record some sounds (of which more later) I happened upon this sign. The towpath along the Canal Saint-Denis forms part of l’Avenue Verte, the 406 km cycle route stretching from Paris to London, a good part of which follows special traffic-free greenways.

On the opposite side of the canal just beyond the Périphérique I came upon the shopping complex Le Millénaire which you can get to by road but it’s also served by a fleet of electric powered ferries, or navettes fluvials, which you can see and hear in Part 1 of my exploration of this canal.

Canal Saint-Martin

On my side of the canal I discovered a wall covered in colourful graffiti.

Canal Saint-Martin

At the end of the wall I crossed the Paris city limits into the commune of Aubervilliers and the second lock on the canal, l’Écluse des Quatre Chemins.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 2, l’Écluse des Quatre Chemins

Canal Saint-Denis

This lock, like all the locks on the canal, is a dual-chamber lock remotely controlled from Lock N°1, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, at the head of the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis

The quay leading from l’Écluse des Quatre Chemins

After leaving the Paris city limits, the Canal Saint-Denis crosses the western edge of Aubervilliers from south to north before reaching Saint-Denis.

Originally a hamlet called Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, the first reference to Aubervilliers comes in the mid-eleventh century when it was known as Albertivillare. These names live on today with the thirteenth-century church still called the Église Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, the fourth lock on the canal is called l’Écluse des Vertus and the residents of Aubervilliers are still known as Albertivillariens or Albertivillariennes.

Up until the early nineteenth-century Aubervilliers’ claims to fame were the miracles that were supposed to have happened in the parish in the Middle Ages and the quality of its vegetables, notably cabbages and onions, that were much sought after in the Parisian markets.

Once totally dependent upon the large, fertile, agricultural plain on which it stood, the nineteenth-century marked a turning point for Aubervilliers. The years following the arrival of the Canal Saint-Denis in 1821 and the removal of the barrières d’octroi (the tax barriers) in 1860 saw a medieval peasant village transformed into an industrial city with much of the industry centred along the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 3, l’Écluse d’Aubervilliers

Among the industries that sprang up were factories manufacturing soap, sulphuric acid, matches (the former match factory is now preserved as an historic monument), glass, tripe, chemicals (the buildings of La Pharmacie Centrale de France still remain), and ceramic, plaster and cork tiles.

All this changed the face of Aubervilliers. At the end of the 19th century people from Belgium, Lorraine, Alsace, Brittany, Spain, and Italy arrived in successive waves seeking work in these new industries. The Quatre-Chemins district, which straddles the boundary of Aubervilliers and Pantin, was pejoratively nicknamed La Petite Prusse (Little Prussia) due to the many immigrants coming to work in the Saint-Gobain glassworks established in 1866 next to the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis

Just as the industrial revolution changed the face of Aubervilliers, so has its de-industrialisation.

Today, the large manufacturing industries have gone to be replaced by a network of service industries including the Rhodia and Saint-Gobain research laboratories, Orange S.A., Documentation Française (housed in the former match factory), some workshops of the Paris Métro and a large RATP bus depot. New areas have developed in fields such as telecommunications, audiovisual and cinema (Euromédia, Studios d’Aubervilliers, Ciné-Lumières), and textiles and fashion (Kookai, Redskins, Hugo Boss, Afflelou, etc.). Wholesale activities have also become a strong sector with more than 300 establishments concentrated around the Port of Aubervilliers importing cheap manufactured goods (textiles, watches, toys, etc.), mainly from China, which are distributed throughout France.

But, despite the rise of these service industries, Aubervilliers still suffers the blight of de-industrialisation since most of the people employed by these industries don’t live in the commune. With a population of over 70,000, around 40% of whom are immigrants now mainly from Africa, Aubervilliers is one of the poorest municipalities around Paris.

Canal Saint-Denis

Today, it’s only the depots for cement, concrete and aggregates for use in the building industry that line this part of the Canal Saint-Denis.

Canal Saint-Denis

Lock N° 4,  l’Écluse des Vertus


The railway bridge crossing the canal next to l’Écluse des Vertus

So, I’d now walked from the start of the Canal Saint-Denis in the Parc de Villette (see The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 1), I’d explored four of the locks on the canal, walked under six road bridges, one footbridge and one railway bridge and I’d covered a little over half the length of the canal. Now I’d come to a bridge that I couldn’t walk under, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, the fascinating swing bridge.

Canal Saint-Denis

I was lucky enough to arrive as a barge was waiting to pass through and so I was able to watch the bridge in action.

Canal Saint-Denis

The barge waited on the canal until a signal from the control room at Lock N°1, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, at the head of the canal set the bridge in motion. Very sedately it swung open until it was completely aligned with the opposite bank allowing the barge to pass.

Once the barge was clear, another signal set the bridge in motion once again and it began its return journey.

Canal Saint-Denis

I took up a prime position to record the sounds as the bridge swung gently back into place.

Canal Saint-Denis

A set of hydraulic bars acted as guides to enable the bridge to slot into position.

Canal Saint-Denis

Once returned to its place, the bridge was still higher than the adjoining roadway and so with a hydraulic driven clatter it was lowered into its final position to make a seamless connection with the road.

Canal Saint-Denis

Once the bridge was locked into place, the gates were opened and the traffic began to pass.

Canal Saint-Denis

I found all this fascinating not only to see from such close range but also to listen to, which brings me neatly onto my sound portrait of this stretch of the Canal Saint-Denis.

The Canal Saint-Denis from the Quai de la Gironde to the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis – A Sound Portrait.

This sound portrait begins at the Pont MacDonald at the end of the Quai de la Gironde with the sounds of the ‘pusher’ barge passing under the bridge. Then come the curious sounds I recorded under the Boulevard Périphérique, a clattering as traffic passes overhead over a joint in the road. The delicious sounds of the engine of Puebla, a barge berthed at the side of the canal opposite the ready mix concrete works, comes next with the purring sound of the barge’s engine interspersed with the whistling sounds of trucks reversing under the ready mix concrete hoppers. Next are the sounds of a barge manoeuvring into l’Écluse des Vertus accompanied by the sounds of trains crossing the railway bridge overhead.

And then … well, then comes what will undoubtedly be one of my sounds of the year – the sounds of the barge passing and then the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis closing. Capturing sounds like these make all the countless hours I spend walking in and around Paris hunting for sounds worthwhile.

Next time, I will complete my journey along the Canal Saint-Denis from this swing bridge to Lock N° 7, l’Écluse de la Briche, where the canal discharges into la Seine. That will include exploring three more locks, walking under two more road bridges, one of which is absolutely huge, two footbridges and a railway bridge as well as pausing on the way to look at France’s National Stadium, the Stade de France, and the commune of Saint-Denis.

Canal Saint-Denis