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Great Lakes - Haute-Charente

Great Lakes - Haute-Charente

Going to the beach doesn’t have to mean driving all the way to the coast, as we discovered when we visited the Lacs de Haute Charente, midway between Angoulême and Limoges... 


haute-charente-lakes-sailingFrance is celebrated the world over for the natural beauty of the landscape, much of which has been shaped by the presence of great rivers and their lesser known tributaries. Left to their own devices, some (like the mighty Loire, for example) make unpredictable neighbours, with a Jekyll-and-Hyde tendency during prolonged wet periods to suddenly transform themselves from orderly flows into raging torrents, bursting their banks and inundating sizeable flood-plains. It’s nature’s way, of course, but modern society has other priorities, so for many years major rivers have been managed to regulate their flow, generate hydro-electricity or to create reservoirs.

The man-made Lacs de Haute Charente, however, had a very different raison d’être, as the centrepieces of an inspired sustainable tourism initiative on the part of the Communauté de Communes de Haute Charente et le Conseil Général de la Charente. In 1989 a peaceful valley just downstream from the source of the Charente River was dammed (with minimal visual impact on the landscape) to create Lac de Lavaud, a similar exercise some two years later creating its companion, Lac de Mas-Chaban. Clearly, the price paid went beyond the realms of financial investment, since the scheme meant losing around 450 hectares of perfectly good agricultural land. Today, though, the lakes have offset the infant Charente river’s reduced summer flow, while increased visitor revenue provides a welcome boost for the hard-pressed local economy.

For centuries the Charente Limousine endured the misfortune of being situated in a buffer-zone between two cultures divided by their respective languages (the Pays d’Oïl, of northern France and the Pays d’Oc of the South), which more or less ensured that the area would remain sparsely populated and hence largely non-industrialised. Fortunately, an upside of this accident of birth has become apparent in modern times, as the unspoilt local landscapes are gradually being discovered by urban weary city-dwellers in search of a rural idyll in which to unwind and reconnect with their roots. Stand among it and you can understand why – traditional hedgerows still enclose lush meadows grazed contentedly by the distinctive Limousin cattle and bounded by vast mature forests of stately oaks, hornbeams and chestnuts. And since the neighbouring northern Limousin area possesses France’s highest concentration of ancient ponds (around 16,000) and small lakes (almost 23,000), the presence of the largest soft-water area in the Poitou-Charentes region seems perfectly natural.

Follow one of the routes now signposted from every direction to Les Lacs de Haute Charente and well before you reach the lakes themselves there’s a mounting sense of the outside world slipping away behind you, as you enter a vast area which is now carefully protected to preserve its flora, fauna and delicate environmental balance. Even so, the lakes aren’t about to be upstaged by the beauty of their setting, as we saw for ourselves when we finally got a first glimpse of Lac de Lavaud, glinting beguilingly in the afternoon sunlight beneath a near-cloudless sky. Sensitive landscaping has added willows to the existing wetland tree cover to provide shelter from summer breezes and welcome shade for perfect picnic spots.

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And the beach? In fact, on the southern shores of Lac de Lavaud you’ll find two, located on opposite sides of the Charente river, at La Guerlie and Videix. There’s fine sand, plus soft grass and plenty of shade nearby for post-swim relaxation (during July and August designated bathing areas are supervised), or you can simply stay on the beach with the other sunbathers. Either way, there are nearby picnic tables, children’s play area plus ice-creams, refreshments and a restaurant. An Audioplage guidance system is there to aid visually impaired bathers, while those with reduced mobility enjoy the use of Tiralo trike-style amphibious wheelchairs. NB: Bathing is not permitted on the Lac de Mas Chaban.

If you prefer your fun on, rather than in, the water, you can enjoy boating all year round in designated zones (created to assure peace and harmony between anglers and other water-users) on both lakes. At the Lac de Mas Chaban you’re free to sail the upper reaches, while on the Lac de Lavaud you have both upper and lower areas to enjoy. Canoes, catamarans, kayaks, sail-boards and Optimist Class sailing dinghies are all available to rent at the Lac de Lavaud’s Base Nautique des Lacs, and with no power-boats or jet-skis to disturb things, the on-water experience here is a refreshingly natural one.
The calm setting is also a haven for wildfowl and other bird species; sandpiper, heron, greenshank, shoveller duck, teal, red-crested pochard, tufted duck and shelduck are joined in summer by great crested grebe, ringed plover, coot, cormorant and many more. An ideal way to watch them discreetly is from the Observatoire Ornithologique de Foucherie, on the western shore of the Lac de Lavaud.

Not that the water is the focus of all outdoor activity. Around the lakes lie the lanes and footpaths of signed itineraries from 18-47km, plus 11 mountain-bike trails from 7-40km, to suit all levels of rider – guides are available from the Tourist Office in Massignac, and bikes can be rented from the Base Nautique. Meanwhile, the Aventure Parc on the shores of the Lac de Mas Chaban has plenty to entertain active families, including Junior and Adult adventure routes, bungee-jumping and aerial ropeways.

With so much to see and do, you might decide, as we did, that the Lacs de Haute Charente won’t be among the region’s best-kept secrets for much longer.

 

A PARADISE FOR ANGLERS

The lakes are home to carp (carpe), perch (perche), pike-perche (sandre), tench (tanche), black bass, wels catfish (silure) and pike (brochet). Anglers are welcome throughout the year, but must hold the standard French annual fishing permit (carte de pêche), although short-term permits are available for day visitors (cartes journalières) and holiday visitors (who can purchase 15-day cartes vacances). Authorised times are between 30min before sunrise and 30min after sunset, although night fishing is permitted for eels (using earthworm bait only) and carp (in designated areas and in accordance with normal carp-fishing regulations). Fishing is prohibited from the dams and nearby zones indicated by yellow buoys, but non-petrol powered boats are allowed for 3 months each year – details available locally. In summer months (1 May-30 Sept) bathers and water-sports have priority in zones dedicated to these activities. Anglers and those with reduced mobility are provided with specially-adapted pontoons and hoists to enable them to use small boats.
If you’re fishing for a tasty meal, two catches are allowed to be retained per angler, per day – a rule which is relaxed in the case of two invasive species introduced from North America many years ago, and now causing problems throughout France: the American catfish (poisson-chat) and Louisiana crayfish (écrevisse de Louisiane).

 

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Find out more...

La Maison des Lacs is located in the centre of Massignac at the Office de Tourisme de Haute Charente, which has maps and other visitor information relevant to the lakes and the surrounding area. There’s also free internet access, plus a selection of regional produce to buy. The centre is accessible to persons with reduced mobility, and promises a warm welcome for visitors. Tel: 05 45 65 26 69, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. www.lacs-de-haute-charente.com
See also: www.parc-naturel-perigord-limousin.fr

The Aventure Parc®, Massignac.
Tel: 05 45 24 07 43
www.aventure-parc.fr

If you feel like extending your visit, the 15-hectare Camping des Lacs, beside a sandy beach opposite the Centre Nautique, welcomes tents, caravans and mobile homes, with 160 pitches separated by hedges,
a swimming pool and children’s play area. Tel: 05 45 31 17 80

 

WORDS: ROGER MOSS

PHOTOS: SHUTTERSTOCK

Published in Living Magazine June 2013