Welcome to our Golden Girl

Well in terms of blogging drama I’m afraid I have disappointing news. Today we completed the purchase of our Golden Girl.

She goes on forever!

The survey went really well. Our surveyor, Peter, gave us the thumbs up after giving the boat a thorough going over. He scratched and scraped her bottom and submitted the poor girl to a detailed and intimate prodding with his sonic probe and to the great relief of all concerned he declared her to be generally very thick skinned. Which is a very important quality of a steel hulled craft that is prone to rusting away whilst sitting in the canal.

Our lovely surveyor Peter and the even lovelier bottom of Golden Girl

There were a few minor issues of an electrical nature which the current boat owner is addressing but nothing that will stop us roaming the waters and setting forth on our next exciting adventure. (Edit: these have now all been resolved)

As always I don’t like to make promises but it is my intention to document what will no doubt be a catalogue of predicaments that we will get ourselves into over the coming months and maybe years while we literally learn the ropes. In the mean time I can only offer those who are sufficiently interested, a few more details of our lovely new home.

First off, she’s a narrow boat. She’s not a barge and she certainly isn’t a long boat. Long boats usually came with lots of oars and a crew of hooligans hell bent on mischief of all kinds. We don’t have any oars.

This is the pointy bit at the front which we call the prow.

She’s 57 feet long, 6′ 10” wide and has a draught (the bit that sinks below the water surface) of 1′ 9”. Working from back (stern) to front (prow) we have:

A small back yard where we will stand to steer the boat and hold social gatherings of an evening. Technically it’s called a cruiser stern but it’s amply big enough for two chairs and a bottle of Chablis on ice.

All back yards should have a life belt of course.

A lounge/diner complete with wood burning stove, comfy but dodgy looking leatherette sofa and compact dining table with two chairs. Guests will get a tray on their laps (assuming they get dinner).

The galley (kitchen to all you land lubbers reading this) is fully equipped as they say with stove, grill, fridge, freezer and washing machine. There is loads of storage space which on a narrow boat is a particular luxury and I am already eyeing up at least one cupboard for tools. (You don’t get a shed on a narrow boat unfortunately)

“Put the kettle on darling”

After the kitchen comes a spare bedroom. Now I know you are all busy checking your diaries and visualising life on a free floating Bed and Breakfast but I should warn you that we will probably convert this space eventually into a sitting/dining/getting-away-from-each-other space so get your requests in quickly.

The bathroom is compact but nicely fitted out with a good shower, hand basin and caravan style cassette toilet which guests will be invited to take their turn in emptying. Unfortunately there is only a door on one end of the bathroom, the other one being open to the main captain and lady captain’s bedroom. (You can go back to your diaries now and cross out all those prospective weekends you have pencilled in).

Note the posh toilet rolls that came with the boat.

The main bedroom has a double bed but as is common in many boats it is hard up against one side of the hull and negotiations are still on going as to who will be doing the gymnastics several time a night to go to the bathroom. When I say negotiations, I mean Gill has told me it will be me.

Main bedroom and front door.

Finally we come to the prow. This has another outdoor seating area which I suspect will mainly be used by guests who will be able to sit and watch the world go by at 4mph whilst sipping an early evening gin and tonic as Gill and I wrestle with locks and swing bridges. (Maybe you shouldn’t have been so hasty to cross out those potential visits after all eh?)

Despite appearances these are NOT spare wheels.

We have solar panels, central heating and all manner of boaty bits and pieces, the purposes of which we are hoping will become clearer with experience.

It make take a while to get the hang of everything!

The plan now is to use our two week holiday at the end of September to get to grips with the boat and then move it to its new home in Rufford. No doubt there will be a story or two to tell and no doubt those stories may involve the forty odd locks along the way!

P.S. We have just made our maiden voyage from the dry dock to the marina but that’s another story.

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Those necessary nerves – 24 hours to go

Golden Girl will be surveyed tomorrow and we should know by the end of the day if we are buying her or not.

Will she be our dream girl?

There is something delicious about being on the very cusp of an adventure. I love the feeling of anticipation; that exquisite cocktail of excitement tinged with fear and the magnetic attraction of the unknown. The fact that this particular step into the unknown has been over two years in the making ratchets up the expectation and as the time left to the finish line diminishes the emotions grow stronger and the waiting gets harder.

I’m not really sure when this journey started. I’ve always loved canals and often wondered what it would be like to live on a narrow boat. It may go back ten or twenty years or even longer. The problem with ideas like that is that life gets in the way and we rarely get beyond the dreaming part. It’s just too easy to think of a million and one reasons why we can’t follow our dreams and convince ourselves that something we would really like to do isn’t an option. When we were planning our cycle trip around the coast of Britain we heard it over and over again; “Ooh, I’d love to do something like that but….”. The fact that we did actually break the tradition and go and do it changed us fundamentally and it has given us the ability to get beyond the dreaming and make something a reality.

Cheers – remember this?

That’s why we plan to part with what seems like an insane amount of money later this week and buy our boat. I wouldn’t say we aren’t nervous about it and things will ramp up another notch or two when we put our present home up for sale and commit to life on the water. (I can’t even swim!) But that’s the whole point I suppose. It must be nice to be really content with the status quo but we are all different and I’m just grateful that Gill and I are similar in that we are always looking for what is beyond the next horizon.

I have been holding off from writing any more about this whole boat business until the sale has gone through but now that we are so close to the finishing line I have realised how important this period of anticipation is. I have been really guilty over the last twelve months of wishing the time away. Wishing somebody would come and view the house, put in an offer, get their survey done, exchange contracts. Wishing the right boat would come up for viewing at the right price. Wishing the money would come through so that we could make an offer and finally wishing that the boat survey would happen so that we could complete the purchase. I’ve become a little obsessed about the next step rather than trying to enjoy the journey. Finally, with just hours to go I’m trying to savour every last morsel of sweet anticipation before reality smacks us in the face and the inevitable “what have we done” moment occurs. I’m a bit more prepared this time though. It happened on the first morning of our big bike ride as I pedalled along the road out of the village I was suddenly daunted by what we were doing and scared of what we had committed to. The feelings soon passed once the journey for real was underway and now at least I know from experience that those early nerves are just a necessary component of any great adventure.

I’ll update the blog at the end of the week or early next week and tell you what it feels like when a dream comes true after two years of anticipation. Or, if she turns out to be a rust bucket destined to sink in the first lock she encounters, how it feels to have your dream snatched away when it’s just inches from your grasp. I suppose it will make a better blog if she turns out to be a rust bucket.

Dream on

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We might have bought a narrowboat

Do you remember this?

Well look at it now!

I have just re-read my last twelve months of blogs which started with an announcement of our plans to buy and live on a narrowboat. With a few diversions into bird watching and house plant management there was a heavy emphasis on bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t actually buy a boat until we sold my Mum’s old bungalow. Well I guess I deserve a bit of a slap on the wrist for not keeping you up to date because, like my indefatigable palm tree, our plans have suddenly sprouted new and exciting life.

May we introduce Golden Girl

We finally sold the property last month and after a few weeks of renewed searching we found our dream boat. Barring any untoward findings during the out of water survey which takes place next month we will be the proud and considerably giddy owners of Golden Girl. 57 feet of pure loveliness and with an engine that purrs like an overfed pussy cat. She’s really lovely.

All mod cons

The process of getting from that blog to finally owning a boat has been like torture and when I shook the hand of Golden Girl’s current owner the overwhelming emotion that flooded through me was one of relief. I had expected joy, happiness, excitement and maybe even a touch of anxiety and a little sinful pride but no, it was just pure unadulterated relief. At last we could relax and stop worrying about viewings and surveys, false promises and lost dreamboats and just get on with living our dream. Well, at least that’s what I thought.

Cosy lounge

Buying a narrowboat is not unlike buying a house in some respects in the sense that it is common to have a survey of your prospective new home carried out by an expert. In the case of a narrowboat however this involves hauling it out of the water somewhere so that the surveyor can get a good look at its bottom. I already had a surveyor lined up so everything seemed straightforward when I rang up Burnley Dry Dock to book us in only to be told that they had no availability until late October! I think I may have overdone the tearful disappointment in my voice a little but it worked because they found us a shared slot with another boat early next month. So that’s it. So long as the surveyor doesn’t come back and tell us that the Golden Girl has completely lost her lustre we should be the new owners by the end of September or sooner. Of course if it turns out that her bottom is rusted and rotten we might have to pull out of the sale. I expect there could be tears so don’t miss the next episode and the possibility of high drama!

That’s it for now really. I’m hoping that this new development might inspire me to more regular and even creative writing as we set forth on our watery adventure. It should start with moving the boat from Burnley to its new home at Rufford via forty seven locks so if that doesn’t provide me with something to write about then I don’t deserve your further attention.

There is so much more to tell you but I feel I am tempting fate until we actually have the keys in our hands and our bank account is empty. We will know for sure on September 12th but until then I will simply ask for your best wishes. See you on board soon, we hope.

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Dawn at Brockholes Nature Reserve

After a half hour drive on nearly deserted city roads the initial shock of a 3am start is beginning to wear off. As we put on our boots and gather up camera and binoculars the light of the full moon is competing with the glow of the unrisen sun to create a half light and the sounds of the birdsong are clearly audible above the noise of the nearby motorway. It’s a short walk along one of the reserve paths to check on the nesting great crested grebe sitting stoically in the cold on her semi-submerged platform. Dedication personified. From here we enter the woodlands and as the sounds of nature take over from those of the grinding wheels of commerce we are, in turn, transported to another world. One of natural tranquillity and rich earthy smells emanating from the abundant woodland floor.

We can pick out the repetitive but beautiful call of a song thrush and just about make out its silhouette, perched on a nearby sapling and as we watch a subtle movement catches Gill’s eye. She calls out, quietly, deer! There are two young female roe deer just twenty yards from us. All four of us have stopped in our tracks and we stare at each other waiting for somebody to make a move. After a couple of breath taking minutes the deer decide we are far enough away not to pose any immediate threat and they melt quietly into the undergrowth. Jumping over fallen branches soundlessly and seemingly without effort they make their way through the familiar terrain as we clomp clumsily on along the path in our heavy boots, like aliens in a foreign world.

It’s still too dark in the woods for bird watching but we have fun trying to identify the numerous calls and songs. The familiar wren is ever present with its strikingly loud song that nearly always incorporates a giveaway trill mid call. It’s a wonder that such a tiny creature can create such a powerful cacophony? At less than a quarter of their size it drowns out the blackbirds and song thrushes it shares this place with and seems to shout out its territorial demands with an unlikely authority.

As we leave this enchanted place the sun is threatening to rise over the river, opposite the still bright moon which glows pale and surreal through the high branches of the trees.

Setting moon

It’s cold, very cold and despite the promise of a warm spring day later on; we are glad of hats and gloves as the faintest of breezes wafts the chilled air off the waters of the Ribble. The river is busy with black headed gulls, oyster catchers and the odd redshank. Herons are already standing sentinel, looking for their first fish or eel but the sand martins that occupy the riverbank mud walls are nowhere to be seen. I’m thinking that it’s probably too early but just as that thought crosses my mind the first ones appear swooping and darting above the river, leaving their nest holes to feed on the early flies.

Chilled bird watcher

A fiery red crescent is growing out of the distant skyline giving the impression that the eastern horizon is being engulfed by a terrible inferno.

Here comes the sun

I can’t wait to feel the first warm rays on my back as we turn away from the water and make our way towards the car park area where it’s very likely we will be able to spot one of my favourite mammals. We climb quietly up the river bank and peer, commando style, over the top of the rise and sure enough there are two brown hares cavorting on one of the paths just close by. They pick up our scent immediately and retreat to a safer distance but not before we catch a tantalisingly brief view of their antics. They are spotted on the reserve at all times of the day but if you want to be sure of a good sighting it’s best to come early.

Brown hare in car park. Photo by Emma Jayne Sharples

By now the odd car is arriving on the reserve. We are not alone any more and the feeling that we are somehow privy to a wonderful secret is slipping away. It’s time for something to eat and a brisk walk to restore some warmth to chilled fingers and toes. Our visit isn’t over but the main objective of experiencing the new day is. We have shared something very special that only a dawn walk can provide. There is a real sense of adventure about starting out in the dark and a wonderful reward in watching the birth of a new day at this spectacular time of year. Was it worth setting the alarm for three in the morning? What do you think?

Early morning light

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Blackcaps and Bluebells or “What’s in a name?”

I’ve always liked those short pithy adages that sum up a huge experience or offer profound advice in a few thought provoking words. Things like; “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That particular one often comes to mind when I sit down to try and write something. The barriers to doing so many things in life can usually be brought down by making that first brave and daunting step. I thought I would have a go at writing my own saying to sum up what I did last week. It’s a bit rubbish and I doubt it’s destined to feature in the top ten memes of the twenty first century but here it is anyway:

“If you can’t sell your house and buy a boat, take a walk in a Bluebell wood.”

I have always taken a passing interest in birds and wildlife but working at Brockholes Nature Reserve here in Lancashire has fuelled that curiosity and given me a thirst for more knowledge. In particular I was keen to get to know the reserve better first hand and with that in mind and a certainty that getting close to nature is a sure fire way of putting things in perspective Gill and I decided to spend a day there. What could be more fun than poking around in the woods and gazing out over the River Ribble and the numerous lakes in the hope of spotting some of the rarer delights of the reserve and trying to identify them.

Brockholes floating village

It wasn’t long before we were staring hopelessly up into the now quite dense spring foliage of the trees desperately trying to pin down the source of a loud and stunningly beautiful bird song. It doesn’t help that in my case being deaf in one ear means that I have no sense of audio direction. Most of the time I wasn’t even looking in the right tree. We did eventually spot a small bird with a black cap as the source of the warbling and identified it as the unimaginatively named Blackcap. This led me off on a train of thought about all the people that spot birds and other wildlife and claim to have no idea what they have seen. Like the small seagull with the black head for example. That will be the Black Headed Gull actually. Or the dainty little white butterfly that I was watching just the other day. When I looked it up later on the internet it turned out to be called a Small White. I should have guessed. You see you probably know a lot more than you think.

Small bird with black cap. (Photo Wikipedia)

That theme doesn’t always run true though. The next bird we identified, the Garden Warbler wasn’t in a garden at all. A much better name for it would have been The Tall Trees by the River Warbler. Nice song though. After a couple of hours of exploration we made our way back to report our findings and add them to the sightings board in the visitor centre. There, one of the regular bird experts, Bill Aspin, undermined our growing confidence in song recognition by playing us a recording of a Willow Warbler (not always in Willow Trees I should point out) which was impersonating a Chiff Chaff. Oh well, still lots to learn I suppose. We paused to recuperate over a sandwich and a cuppa in the floating restaurant on the lake.

Re-fuelled we made our way along the reed bed walk and peered deeply in the reeds in the hope of spotting a Reed Warbler (makes sense) or maybe a Reed Bunting. What we did see was both a Large Red Damselfly and a Blue-Tailed Damselfly both of which live up to their names admirably.

Large Red Damselfly. (Photo Gill Pearson)

This was all beginning to make sense now and a small brown bird with a white throat turned out, predictably, to be called a Whitethroat. Everything was falling into place until we spotted a Kestrel and a pair of Linnets and and I realised the flaw in my new found theory of how to guess the name of everything. Then there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes building a nest on Ribble Pool. They break all the rules; Grebe meant absolutely nothing to me but the great crests on their heads made some sense. It’s all very confusing. When I say they were nest building by the way that isn’t quite accurate. One of them, gender not established, was busily swimming all over the lake gathering reeds and twigs and laboriously bringing them back to add the the structure while it’s partner slept peacefully nearby. Occasionally the sleepy one would raise it’s head and open an eye as if to say, “you’re doing fine, just another couple of hundred sticks should do it”. I could sense a row brewing so we moved on and left them to it.

Grebes with great crests (Photo Gill Pearson)

Now we were in the Bluebell Woods.

Lots of bell shaped blue flowers. (Photo Gill Pearson)

In every direction there were thousands of small, blue, bell-shaped flowers. Who would have imagined. As we were watching a delightful little Bank Vole (a vole that lives in a bank) amongst some fallen logs a couple of visitors came by. Seeing our binoculars they jumped to the false conclusion that we knew a thing or two. They were wondering if we could throw any light on the identity of a small song bird they had seen. It was a pale brownish grey with a black cap they said. We tried not to sound too smug as we confirmed for them that what they had seen was almost certainly a Blackcap. They didn’t look particularly impressed and I think they may have thought we had just made the name up.

So there we go. A fabulous day of diversion therapy in a beautiful place. Oh, and if you were wondering; Brock is the old word for Badger. On the fringes of the reserve there are Badger sets and of course Badgers make holes don’t they. Which brings me back to adages and the particular one; “What’s in a name?” Quite a lot it seems.

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Narrow boat dreaming – again

If we ever do get our narrow boat I think I might rename it Dreaming, or Dream On, or maybe even Nightmare. For the last six months I feel like I have been swinging between sweet dreams and frustrating nightmares as the idea of living on a boat on the canals has remained tantalisingly out of reach. In my last post I hinted that we were getting serious again about looking for a boat but I don’t know why because there was absolutely no progress on the house sale. But what a difference a month can make. Not only is Spring now in full and glorious bloom but we have also had a firm offer on the house from somebody who isn’t stuck in a chain. It’s hard not to get excited.

Sweet dreams

Of course I realise that nothing is guaranteed with these things and until contracts are signed and money is in the bank anything can happen but we are allowing ourselves the luxury of dreaming once more.

Oddly, I woke up a few days before we received the offer in a strangely joyous mood only to realise that it was because I had just dreamt that the house was sold. It was a terrible blow to find that no such thing had happened in reality and my mood plummeted at the thought that we could still be in this position in six or even twelve months time. I could have got very depressed at this idea but I decided there was no use in moping and I really must take stock of what we have got and live for the moment. Life is full of blows and disappointments and I guess it’s all about learning to deal with them.

The problem with dreams is that they make us even more vulnerable to being knocked back. Goodness knows most of us are just bumbling along through life never knowing when the next wave is going to smash over our bows or a sudden squall is going to blow up from nowhere and drive us off course. It seems to me that all we can do is learn to take the knocks when they come and hang on tightly to that dream.

Which reminds me of my boxing days. I’m not a big fan of the sport but as a school boy I did have a bit of a go at it under the tutelage of non other than a British Olympic coach Kevin Hickey, who just happened to be our P.E. teacher. I learned a little bit about ‘going with the punch’ and that the difference between this and ‘going into a punch’ was a whole world of pain. I was a seven stone weakling at the time and I used to spend my lunch breaks happily battering a six and a half stone weakling around the gym. My comeuppance came when my sparring partner was off school one day and I was put in the ring with Charlie Parker (it’s all true I promise). He promptly knocked seven bells out of me and taught me a valuable lesson about complacency. It didn’t stop me fighting though.

Just a few months later I was back in the fray going head to head with a formidable opponent. I had come across this boy before and knew of his reputation. He was a skilled and wily opponent. I was on the defensive for quite a while before finally getting the upper hand. With a couple of deadly blows I had him exactly where I wanted him and in just one more move I was able to declare Check Mate. I might not have made it in the noble sport of boxing but I was at least Year Four Chess Champion.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that it’s OK to dream so long as you are prepared to take the knocks when the dreams are cruelly snatched from your grasp, or in our case, constantly held at arms length.

So for now we are back in the game of serious boat hunting with the caveat that it could all still come to nothing. And talking of re-naming boats, if you remember back that far; I could live with most names but I came across one the other day that would just have to be given to the sign writer. “Knot a Yot”. Really? What were you thinking of.

I hope the sale goes through quickly for all our sake because there is only so much I can write about dreaming. By now I really was hoping to be regaling you with fascinating and hilarious tales of life on (and possibly in) the water. Fingers crossed eh?

Remember the palm. Never give up.

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Towpath temptations

The lack of progress of our plan to live on a narrow boat has been pretty depressing when combined with the dark winter months and without actually discussing it we have refrained from walks along the local towpaths. In the same way that you might avoid walking past endless confectionery shops during a self-imposed abstention from sweet eating during lent, we have avoided the temptation of bumping into sickeningly contented and blissfully happy live-aboards enjoying the lifestyle that we so envy but can’t yet have. But you can’t avoid temptation forever.

Peaceful Lancaster Canal

Signs of Spring

It may have been a bunch of daffodils or snowdrops that did it but something lifted my spirits and gave me the urge to get back out there and start dreaming again. Come to think of it, it may have been those loveable thespians Timothy West and Prunella Scales who were back on the telly, bumping into various obstacles on the Leeds and Liverpool canal and oozing love and contentment as they casually destroyed locks and jetties on a borrowed narrow boat. Better TV might have been to view the owners of said boat watching the program Goggle Box style and weeping quietly into their Pinot Grigio as their pride and joy bounces from one side of the canal to the other.

Whatever it was that spurred me on, it resulted in a lovely walk along the Lancaster canal. It’s not the busiest of canals at any time of year so in the depths of winter we knew we would be unlikely to bump into many occupied craft. As it happened we only saw three boats and whilst they all looked beautiful and homely I was relieved to see that none of them bore a For Sale sign or sign of life so we were safe. Safe from conversations about living on a boat that inevitably end with the well-meaning but frustrating advice to ‘just get on with it’ without any acknowledgement of the fact that getting on with it costs money that we don’t currently have. Fortunately there were plenty of distractions of the feathered, flowery and woody variety to keep us more than occupied spotting early signs of spring, or more accurately, the end of winter.

A male goosander taunted us by waiting patiently for us to get within about twenty yards of him and then just as I raised the camera he would take to the air and fly just far enough along the canal to be out of photographic range before repeating the process.

Not so close up goosander

Being teased by a Goosander

I got bored in the end and turned my attention to a much more obliging swan who seemed to think that I was a photographer from the avian equivalent of match.com or something as he paraded up and down like an over inflated gigolo.

What a splendid chap and didn’t he know it.

As far as we could see he was wasting his time as there wasn’t another swan anywhere in sight; unlike the female mallard that seemed to be enjoying being diligently followed by not one but two hopeful suitors. I’m not sure how she was going to make her mind up because it looked to me as if she was being pursued by identical twins. We had a really close up view of a moorhen next and what a stunning bird it is.

Look at those feet! (Photo from http://www.nerjarob.com/)

There is a perception amongst those not interested in such things that all British birds are small brown jobbies. Well this beauty is brown, black, white, red and bluish grey with huge striped yellow feet. I mean how exotic do you want?

We joined the arm of the canal that links it to the river Ribble and the rest of the national network.

Deep scary locks

A set of deep locks takes boaters down onto the branch and under the main road to wind through the suburbs of Preston.

Under the road

Canals in these situations are a haven for wildlife and it was a delight to see grey wagtail and long tailed tits busy amongst the budding trees and catkins. We took to a woodland path alongside the railway to get back to the Lancaster itself and make it a circular walk avoiding a stretch of boring tarmac. The trees are all like coiled springs at this time of year, just waiting for another couple of degrees of warmth and another hour or two of daylight to spur them into a frenzy of leaf production.

‘Now you see me’ nest.

Just a few more weeks and the stark outline of naked branches will be transformed into a rich vibrant green canopy hiding the nesting birds and providing food and shelter for a wide variety of life. The abundance of summer will be here before we know it and those that live all year on the canals will be joined by the weekenders and the holiday boaters. Fingers crossed we will be joining them.

 

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