Hornblower on the Loire

La Loire à bateau with CS Forester

Horatio Hornblower’s escape through France in 1810/11, as told in CS Forester’s novel Flying Colours (1938), is one of the naval hero’s best-loved adventures.  Ably supported by first lieutenant Bush (minus one foot) and coxswain Brown, Captain Hornblower survives a near drowning and a love affair before sailing a rowing boat 500km down the Loire from Nevers to Nantes, where he liberates a cutter and single handedly sinks two enemy ships before rejoining the British fleet.  Forester had sailed down the Loire himself, and his beautifully observed descriptions betray intimate knowledge of the river in its different phases and seasonal moods.

Forester is quite specific about the location of the action in Flying Colours, but does allow himself some geographic and historic license.  The place where the three captives overpower their guard and hi-jack a small boat is 6km above Nevers. They travel 20km before capsizing and being washed up at the foot of the Château de Graçay, which is ‘a little way’ above the confluence of Loire and Allier (Le Bec d’Allier).  This does not quite add up, Nevers being only 6km above the confluence.

The three are persuaded to sit out the winter in the château, the frustrated Hornblower finding consolation in the arms of the count’s widowed daughter in law while coxswain Brown seduces untold numbers of servant girls.  The sailors continue their journey in spring, when the Loire has subsided from muddy winter spate to its delightful summer mode: shallow, swift and clear enough to drink.   As they remark, it was a lot more comfortable than life at sea. Fat Jeanne had made them fifty pounds of biscuit.

M le Comte has assured Hornblower that the river will be empty because all fluvial traffic uses the lateral canal – although work on its construction did not start until 1827 – and there is hardly a house or a village beside the river between the château and Pouilly.  What about La Charité-sur-Loire? They don’t notice it, perhaps distracted by fat Jeanne’s parting gift of cold pâté and a bottle of wine.  Hornblower and friends row past the non-existent lateral canal and under a non-existent bridge at Briare.  Who cares? It is a rattling good yarn, masterfully told.

Forester’s description of the chateau de Graçay – “the turrets at the corners had been added, he knew, no more than fifty years ago by a Comte de Graçay with a rococo taste for the antique” – has led to the suggestion that the Château du Four de Vaux at Varennes Vauzelles, a few km north of Nevers (but not beside the Loire), may have been the model for the Château.  Chambre d’hôte accommodation is available, so Hornblower fans can check in and decide for themselves. (www.chateaudufourdevaux.com)

Cecil Forester was a great devotee of river boating and in 1928 (or ’27) he and his wife Kathleen spent three months sailing from Rouen to Nantes via Paris and Orléans, taking the canal link between Seine and Loire.  Their craft was the Annie Marble, a flat-bottomed 15-foot punt-built dinghy with a removable camping cover and outboard motor: ‘a boat of efficient ugliness’ that drew 4 inches of water with two people and luggage on board.  They saw only one other travelling boat on the Loire – two Americans in a canoe at Blois – and their expenses for the entire trip amounted to £24 10s.

 Cecil and Kathleen Forester in the Annie Marble at Beaugency, c1928 

The journey was a book project perhaps inspired by Stevenson’s Travels With A Donkey but The Voyage of the Annie Marble was not one of Forester’s best sellers.   Now that the Loire is once again filling up with canoes, flat-bottomed excursion boats and old-time gabarres, chalands, toues and  futreaux, perhaps it is time for a new edition.