Moulin de la Roche, le bief

If at first…

For some people it’s crosswords, for others it’s Sudoku. Apparently problem solving keeps the old grey matter in tip top condition and keeps you young. I can always do with some of that, but our latest brain-teaser was a bit more involved.

One large tree trunk + unusually low river levels = severely damaged water wheel

This was the situation we faced when the river authority decided to drain the river to carry out dredging work. Back in England, recent winters have seen severe flooding in various parts of the country due to poor maintenance of the waterways and the same has been happening in the department of the Sarthe. Every river in the area looked like someone had pulled out the plug this autumn. How do you empty an entire river system? What happens to all the fish? While these were fascinating questions to contemplate, the one most concerning us was how to remove a very large tree trunk that had floated down river and got itself trapped in our bief. The bief (or ‘leat’ as it is called in our area of England) is the mill pond in front of the mill, from which the water flows down onto the water wheel, under the house. The entrance to the wheel is protected from floating debris by a grill which can be raised and lowered across the top half of the tunnel, according to the level of the water, but which only ever covers half of the aperture. In days gone by, a regular chore for a young mill-worker would be to climb down and remove all the branches and other rubbish that had accumulated on the grill, to ensure that nothing could jam the wheel or block the flow of water. I’m not sure whether it was due to a lack of zealous housekeeping on the part of Monsieur, the former owner of the mill, but the fact remained that this whacking great lump of tree which had been floating in the leat at a nice safe height, prevented from washing down onto the water wheel by the metal grill, was now jammed in the silt of the drained mill stream. No danger at the moment , but what would happen as the river authority started to raise the river levels and the log started to float? Over the fortnight during which the river would gradually be returned to full-flow, it would be floating at a height where it could easily be washed under the grill and onto the wheel.

With only a couple of days until we had to return to the UK, we had to find a way to get this brute out.

Solution #1: Kitted out in fisherman’s chest waders, Colin walks down the bank into the leat.  Less than a metre in, he is above knee height in mud and can’t move…Lesson 1: We need to ‘catch’ the tree from solid ground.

Solution #2: Apart from a small steep bank at one end, the leat has a stone wall round it and the surrounding terrace is about 12 feet above the water. We try a lasso to catch one end of the trunk, so that we can pull it out. Several centimetres of dead leaves floating on the water mean that the rope just lies on top and we can’t manoeuvre it. Lesson 2: More control needed.

Solution #3: Thinking stray dogs here… a long pole with the noose on the end. Monsieur had left a telescopic aluminium pole sticking through the roof for the TV aerial, which we had removed to avoid being flooded every time it rained. A double length of rope is pulled through the pole to form a noose which can be pulled tight around the trunk. Rope still floats on top of dead leaves. Lesson 3: weight needed to submerge loop under tree.

Solution #4: large brass plumbing thingummy attached to noose to enable it to sink under the end of the tree trunk. Success! Tree trunk snared.

Now all we need to do is lift it out. This baby weighs about half a ton. Him and me, pulling it vertically 12 feet up and over the leat wall? No way! (Our friend Jean-Paul had cheerily estimated 4 large men, several grappling hooks and an electric winch when we had showed him the problem the previous day)

Solution #5: Pull the pole and rope around the leat, towing the trunk across to the other side, where we can attach the rope to the tow-bar on the van and pull the bloody thing out.  Rope attached, Colin gently inches the van forward, while I guide the rope over a log on the top of the wall to stop it fraying on the stone. Bam! The 1500kg strength rope snaps at the tow-bar. Aluminium pole and rope disappear into the water. Lesson 4: Don’t believe rope manufacturer’s claims.

Now we need to retrieve the pole and rope from the boggy depths of the leat.

Solution # 6: One ball of garden twine tied to a hoe, thrown out and dragged across the bottom of the leat dozens of times. Pole and rope are eventually snagged and pulled to bank. Amazingly, they are still attached to the tree. Lesson 5: if at first you don’t succeed…

Now we need to find a different way of getting the b****r out of the leat.

Solution # 7: Drag the pole/rope/ tree trunk back round to the other side of the leat and onto the steep bank that Colin had originally tried to reach the tree from. Staying on dry ground this time, we used all our combined O level physics knowledge, together with log rollers, a plywood sheet slide and the end of the rope tied to a large branch, (retrieved the previous day from the river), as a lever to drag the sodden, 1000 ton lump of wood up the muddy bank and into the garden, out of harm’s way.

Lesson 6: Don’t mess with the Coles’s. YOU’LL NEVER BEAT US!!!

PS The photo here was taken when we first moved in, back in October. The water level in the leat is currently about 2.5 metres lower and the kayak which Monsieur left, when he moved out, disappeared as soon as we went back to England.

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