Notes from a French riverbank

Jen and I have recently returned from a lovely week in France. We were staying in Châtellerault, because Jen’s uncle and aunt, John and Hélène, are looking after Hélène’s mother who lives there. This was a great opportunity to explore a part of France that neither of us had been to before.

On our first full day we were given a tour of the town, which is built on the banks of the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire, and is about as big as the Severn in Worcester. One of the major features of the town is the Henri IV bridge, built around 1600, during the reign of one of France’s best loved kings: his concern for the well-being of the poorest in the country was epitomised by his determination that every peasant should have a chicken in his pot on Sundays!

The Henry IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

The Henri IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

We went on two walks exploring the region close to the Vienne. On the first of these we departed from Vouneuil-sur-Vienne, which has an eye-catching and unusual emblem on its village sign!

The route took us to the Pinail nature reserve, an area of heathland with a large number of small ponds. The bedrock consists of flint and silicified limestone, so that it was ideal for extracting millstones – leaving behind the many pools. This is one reason why the reserve now hosts 46 species of dragonfly and has rich biodiversity. December was not the best month to go, but it was easy to see that it would be a great place to dwell for a while during spring and early summer.

Two of the ponds at the Pinail nature reserve.

The walk – about 9 miles in all – took us through a wide variety of terrain. Leaving the Pinail, we walked through woodland, along a couple of low hills, and then round to the large village of Bonneuil Matours – where we discovered a great cafe with its own bakery! We later discovered that it’s a favourite of John and Hélène.

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

By the time we left the cafe and walked north back to Vouneuil, it was getting late and we didn’t get great views of the river, which, although it ran close to the road along which we were walking, was still a short distance away. However, we did get a good sight of a flock of bramblings on the edge of the village: rounding off a good day of birding, as I’d also seen a couple of firecrests and a black redstart (each probable rather than definite, though).

On New Year’s day we took another walk, south of Cenon-sur-Vienne back to Vouneuil, and this route kept much closer to the riverbank. Although tke sky was overcast all day we had no rain, so it was great walking weather.

Along the banks of the Vienne

Along the banks of the Vienne

Not far south of Cenon, we found a quiet spot on the riverbank. I was searching for a good scenic photo, when, noiselessly, a mid-sized mammal slipped into the water and swam across the river. I thought at first that it was a beaver, but I discovered later (thanks to the expertise of members of the Mammal Society!) that it was actually a coypu, a species from South America which escaped from European fur farms in the early 20th century.

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Both beavers and coypus are known in the Loire valley and its tributaries, but only the latter are seen during the day. Unfortunately for the coypus they have a destructive effect on the landscape and are considered a pest species.

Shortly afterwards we had another extraordinary sight: a train of caterpillars!

Caterpillar train!

Caterpillar train! It turns out this is the Pine Processionary Moth, an invasive species spreading north through France – see here for full story.

The château at Chitré

The château at Chitré, which is quite typical of the region.

Our route this time kept us close to the river for most of the way and enabled us to have some great views. We were lucky enough to see three kingfishers on the walk – the streak of blue flashing past being the giveaway – but unfortunately they were too far away to photograph well. I also saw a flock of cirl buntings – which emphasised the similar-but-different nature of birding in western France. The overcast skies meant that the photographic potential was more limited than it might have been, but it was still an excellent walk which, like the previous one, would be great to repeat in the future.

The river Vienne near Ardentes

The river Vienne near Ardentes

6 thoughts on “Notes from a French riverbank

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