2018 Summer adventure

Well that’s our summer adventure over with and what an adventure it has been. A total of 673 miles, 386 locks, 60 lift and swing bridges and 26 tunnels. Then there were the four new engine mounts, four new batteries, one replacement fridge, about a dozen or so petty arguments but nothing too serious and an unknown quantity of lost paint. We’ve met some really tough challenges along the way but by far the greatest one is how to sum up such an experience in a few hundred words.

Lock approaching Liverpool

I started off keeping a daily log of highlights but that went by the wayside at an early stage so now I have to trawl my rapidly deteriorating memory to bring back the best and the worst bits of the trip. Actually when I cast my mind back the idea of best and worst makes a lot of sense because whilst I would describe the whole experience as hugely positive there were some difficult and unpleasant times to add balance and perspective. I hated the appalling abuse of the canals in some places, particularly in towns and cities where they are seen by some people as convenient places to discard all manner of rubbish. On the other hand some locations such as the Montgomery canal in Wales were amongst the most beautiful and peaceful locations I have ever spent time in. Idyllic landscapes full of an abundance of wildlife which probably represented about seventy five percent of the journey and even in the industrial parts there was always architectural and historic interest so I certainly don’t want to dwell on the bad bits disproportionately.

Moorhen

Banded Demoiselle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that the backdrop to most of the last five months was a summer like nobody under the age of forty has ever enjoyed before helped to make what would always have been a great trip into an exceptional one. On many days we were leaving our moorings before seven in the morning and looking for a shady spot to stop by midday. I am almost relieved that the final four weeks were a bit of a mixed bag of weather if only so that we could experience a more typical period of cruising.

Oh for a shady tree

Highlights that spring to mind when I wander back down memory lane are certainly the journey into the heart of Liverpool and a wonderful week there exploring that fine old city and its culture.

In the heart of Liverpool

Meeting and making new friends amongst the boating community and all their generosity in giving advice freely and without any hint of patronising whilst treating us as if we have been amongst them for ever. Stunning sun rises and sunsets, especially on those magical occasions when the sky and trees were perfectly mirrored in the surface of the canal or the mist hung gossamer like over the water. Dazzlingly bright and colourful dragon and damsel flies and the incomparable blue of the kingfisher. Stumbling on a picture perfect canalside pub and making an impromptu decision to end the day there or more often, to mark it down as one not to be missed on the return trip.

Oh dear, another pub

Sitting in the late evening sun sipping a previously undiscovered local ale whilst perusing the menu and choosing our dinner. I confess that we did that far more often that we planned to because it was just so much fun. In fact one of the biggest problems of the trip was remembering that we weren’t on a two week holiday with unlimited funds.

There were long dark tunnels such as the Harecastle and dizzyingly high aqueducts like the Pontcysyllte which were unforgettable for being both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Bucket list items for most boaters and now well and truly ticked by us, twice!

Deep in the Harecastle tunnel

High on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

We encountered many fascinating towns and villages, often with histories intimately interwoven with the arrival of the canals like those based around the salt mines in Cheshire or the potteries in Staffordshire. The amazing engineering achievements of individuals such and James Brindley and Thomas Telford provided a fascinating background to our travels. From simple yet ingenious lock mechanisms to the goliath that is the Anderton Boat Lift, there was always something of interest to investigate and enjoy around every bend.

Mr. Brindley, canal engineer extraordinaire

Anderton boat lift

It is humbling to navigate those waterways that only exist because of the ingenuity and bravery of the designers, not to mention the sacrifice of blood, sweat, tears and even lives of the navvies that dug them. The many historic boats that we came across, both original and reproduction were beautiful and impressive but also a constant reminder of a brutally cruel bygone way of life which couldn’t be further removed from our pampered meanderings.

There was plenty of time standing on the back of the boat to consider the history of the canals and the industry they served. I sometimes wondered what those tough, hard working bargees and their families would have thought of our centrally heated home with all its conveniences of fridge, freezer, TV and washing machine. Their only focus was moving produce and materials whatever the weather and conditions. Comfort and living space was sacrificed to maximise carrying capacity and potential to earn with couples living in the tiniest of cabins and children often forced to sleep on top of whatever cargo happened to be in the hold. Not only did those people represent the reason for the canals existence but they are also now a source of endless fascinating social and industrial history that adds to the nature and beauty of the canals we travel today.

Ambush. An old barge now used as a fuel sales boat

We met some amazing people while we were away, some of whom will now be friends for life. We travelled for days and sometimes weeks with others, leap frogging them as we moved from village to town but often mooring up together to enjoy an evening exchanging tales that grew taller with each passing glass of wine or beer. Like most people with a common interest there is a camaraderie amongst boaters that means that you are never really alone. I have heard the two thousand miles of waterways described as a linear village and even with our limited experience I understand why. We would often get talking with fellow moorers and discover that we had common acquaintances on the network, even bumping into boats from our home marina in Lancashire. It didn’t take long to feel as if we were part of a very disparate but strangely interwoven community. An extended family of very different individuals all bound together by a common thread of life on the water and all the joys and challenges that it entails.

I’ll leave you with one more set of statistics that for me sum up the magic of our summer on the Golden Girl. It was a perfectly still, warm summers night and I was reluctant to leave the back of the boat despite the darkness; surrounded as I was by two hooting tawny owls, one screeching little owl and a total absence of cares in the world.

At the end of the day

All photos by Gill

Questions, questions

It’s amazing how many people are curious about narrow boats and the prospect of living and travelling on them. People we see on the tow path seem to fall into two categories; those who show absolutely no interest whatsoever and don’t even want to make eye contact and the larger majority who, given the tiniest hint of invitation will hungrily embark on a detailed interrogation about our lifestyle. The same comments and questions come up again and again so for those of you who have never had the opportunity to ask, here are the answers.

“Do you live on the boat?”

This is an interesting one because when we say yes we do we invariably get the same response which is something along the lines of; “Ooh, how lovely. I would love to do that. What a wonderful life you must have.” The reason it’s interesting is because they probably have almost no concept of what living on a narrow boat entails but they are confident that they would be ideally suited to the experience. It’s often followed by a second question that somewhat undoes their declared desire to abandon everything and move on board immediately and that is:

“Have you got a house as well?”

The question isn’t quite what it appears to be because what they really mean is: “Have you got somewhere proper to live like normal people?” Technically we have because we own a property that is rented out but as we have no intention of ever going back to live in it we don’t feel that it counts as the safety net that the questioner is hinting at. It’s usually at this point that I can sense them beginning to re-evaluate their initial rose tinted idealism and it leads to questions such as:

“Have you got a telly?”

The answer to that is yes we have but for some reason we stopped watching it back in July and haven’t missed it at all. I suppose we will watch it in the winter on the marina but while we have been travelling it just hasn’t appealed. Variations on this question are:

“Can you cook on the boat?”

No we just eat bread and drink cold water.

The Golden Girl doing ‘real’ cooking

“Is it cold in the winter?”

No because we have a solid fuel stove and diesel fuelled central heating. I can’t really imagine why anyone would choose to live somewhere that is cold in the winter. I’m sometimes tempted to reply with, “No, is your house cold in the winter?” But maybe I am being unkind now.

“How do you get on for shopping?”

Well we moor the boat up somewhere close to some shops and go and buy stuff actually. I guess for most people shopping starts and ends with a car in a car park and they have never considered it can take place any other way. We have been known to walk a mile or more each way to the shops but that doesn’t bother us and you would be surprised at how much shopping two people with a rucksack each and four shopping bags can carry. The only serious issue is when you see your favourite beer or wine on offer and you have to ration how much you buy.

“Can you just stop anywhere you like?”

I like this question because it’s sensible and the answer could have a massive impact on the joys of boating. That answer is, more or less anywhere, yes. There are designated mooring spots that have time limits of one or two days or maybe a week but generally so long as you moor on the tow path side and you are not obstructing a bridge hole or a winding hole then you can just pull up and stay for up to two weeks in one spot. In the earlier part of our trip we almost moored in some beautiful places. I say almost because before I was confident at reversing the boat we would usually just end up looking back longingly at some idyllic setting that we hadn’t noticed in time to stop. It’s better now as although I’m still no expert I can bring the boat to a halt and at least try to back into a nice location. It doesn’t always work and can lead to a little, shall we say, friction between the crew and the captain but we’re getting better.

I think I did actually reverse into this spot.

There are other practical and sensible questions about mail, doctors, dentists etc. and then there are the really ridiculous ones. Often they are heard as observations rather than outright questions. Things like:

“Look, they can stand up inside it”. Or, “They are eating a proper meal” and “That one’s got a washing machine in it”. These things are normally heard as people pass by and blatantly stare into our home without any thought for our privacy. It doesn’t actually bother me really and can be quite entertaining.

The one question that people rarely ask, though I suspect many would like to is; “What do you do about your toilet?” Well it’s quite simple, we use a porta potti just like caravaners do. I’m sure you don’t need any more information than that but one couple I met got a bit more. They were walking the tow path and stopped me to ask for directions as I made my way to the elsan disposal point carrying a heavy waste cassette. I apologised and explained that I couldn’t help them as I wasn’t local to the area at which point the man took in the situation and said; “Is that full of what I think it is?” I replied, bluntly but honestly, “yes, it’s full of poo”. The lady he was with went visibly pale and made a sort of squeaking sound before they hurried off. Probably in the wrong direction. Well, what did he expect me to say!

And finally, the most common question by far:

“Are you the Golden Girl?”

I hasten to point out that this one is always addressed to Gill. She smiles shyly and confesses that yes she is indeed that creature, whilst I usually stand behind her making gestures to indicate that actually she only thinks she is. I’m always tempted to say that I get my turn at weekends and on Bank Holidays but I don’t want to shock people.

I enjoy these exchanges with the people we meet and if the initial flicker of curiosity grows into a full blown desire to own a boat one day then good luck to them. Perhaps I just like being the object of intrigue but really it’s more about sharing something that I enjoy and enthusing about it.

Any more questions at the back there?

A year’s worth of lessons

Beginning of our journey

Twelve months ago today, on the 27th of September 2017 we moored up our Golden Girl for the very first night of our new life. As I recall it Gill was exhausted from the physical effort of raising paddles and pushing heavy lock gates and I was exhausted by the stress of handling the boat during those first half a dozen miles of our journey. A year later and the journey continues along the waterways and of life and the learning goes on.

Having lived through a particularly cold winter and one of the hottest summers on record I think it is safe to say that we now have some idea of what living on a narrow boat is all about. Those first few days on the boat last year were a very steep learning curve but now after this year’s journey of nearly six hundred miles (and counting), 370 locks, numerous tunnels, aqueducts and bridges I think we can also say that we have some boating experience under our belts. Living in such a small space and being responsible for your own water, fuel and waste distils life to the basics and that in itself has been another challenge. So have we learned anything?

Deep in thought, deep in a lock

Self sufficiency certainly. Practical skills of course. But most of all I think we have learned to cherish the simple things in life. Perfectly still mornings when the mist rises from the water and nothing disturbs its glassy surface. Leaving a mooring when the only sound is that of the dawn chorus and no other boats are moving yet. The flash of electric blue as a kingfisher skims by the boat and the wary look of a heron as it watches us pass by and tries to decide whether to stand its ground or gracefully move on. Relaxing on the back of the boat at the end of a tiring but fulfilling day and watching a spectacular display of light and colour as the sky comes to life with the setting of the sun. All things that cost nothing but give plenty.

Should I stay or should I go?

One of the things we have laughed about is the feeling of satisfaction and comfort that we both get when we leave somewhere with a fresh tank of water, empty toilets and bins and having re-fuelled with diesel and gas and re-stocked the larders with food. It makes us feel totally self sufficient and that the world is, once again, our oyster. We are free to go wherever our fancy takes us, to stop and moor wherever and whenever we like and to enjoy the anticipation of new places and people as yet undiscovered. To travel with no real destination is the best kind of exploration but it has been something that has had to be learned and I’m not convinced we have totally mastered that skill yet. It’s going to take time as well as miles and maybe another long trip or two to really perfect that skill but we are getting there.

Early morning bliss

I think from our previous experiences travelling we had already learned that people are mostly kind and friendly, always willing to help a stranger in need but this last few months has helped to reinforce those lessons. We have met some incredibly kind folks, made life long friends and enjoyed coming across some real ‘characters of the cut’. So much of what we now know has been generously passed to us by people such as Bob and Betty. Both in the latter half of their eighties we first came across them as Bob skilfully reversed their boat into a mooring space whilst Betty jumped nimbly from the prow with the rope to tie up the boat. Later that day they invited us on board for gin and tonics and regaled us with fabulous tales of their fifty four years of boating. Including the one about their second boat “which kept on sinking all the time”. Listening to them and seeing the sparkle in their eyes made me both wish that we had taken to this lifestyle earlier but also very grateful that we have done it at all.

Of course just because we have learned some valuable lessons over this last year it doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty more to learn. I am still trying to understand why I haven’t been motivated to write for example. I thought that having lots of free time and plenty of subject matter writing the blog would be easy but it hasn’t been so at all. Learning that it’s OK not to write is one of the trickier lessons for me. We also still fall out and bicker sometimes over silly trivial stuff but that’s probably related to living in such a confined space and always in each other’s pockets. We haven’t met anybody yet who has the answer to that one!

Sometimes it feels as if we have this new lifestyle down pat and there is little more to learn and then at other times I still feel like I am only in the foothills of the greatest mountain I will ever climb. It seems as if our lives go round in a circle. We start out doing little other than learning and then after a period of thinking that we know it all the learning starts again. Long may it go on, I’m loving it.

End of the day

Becoming nomadic

I’ve never had my genes analysed so I have no idea if I share any percentage of them with the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara desert but I am inclined to think not. I do own a fair amount of blue clothing and admittedly my skin is beginning to resemble the bark of a gnarled oak tree but it’s the wandering thing that I’m not really getting. Not yet anyway.

Moving on

We have been travelling now for three months and apart from a two week hiatus when we had to visit Gill’s parents to help out with some health issues, we have tended to move on most days. Occasionally we have moored up for a couple of nights in the same place but that has been mostly related to having to shop, find a launderette or visit friends rather than to explore the surrounding area. So I am asking myself this question, are we living a nomadic lifestyle, or are we on a journey? I think it’s the latter but it will eventually change into the former.

Waterways community

As this is our first long trip out on the boat we have elected to spend six months travelling around the canal network before returning to what we think of as our ‘home mooring’ at Rufford. That’s the key point, knowing that we are going back to a place where we have come from and within a fixed time frame makes this more of a travelling experience rather than a wandering lifestyle. That might change next year if we elect to give up our winter mooring and set out with no fixed destination and how that might feel intrigues me. We got talking to a woman the other day that has lived on her boat for fourteen years and she mentioned that she was spending a week in the same quiet spot on the tow path. When I told her that we rarely spent more than two days in the same place she smiled and said, “yes, we used to be like that when we first lived on the boat.” That’s when I realised that we are on a journey rather than living a lifestyle.

I suspect that a sense of place, belonging somewhere specific, is a deep rooted thing and maybe we’ll never become true nomads. For now we are making ourselves spend more nights in the same place and exploring our surroundings in more depth. This might be the compromise that is needed to make a wandering lifestyle acceptable. To settle for short periods in somewhere that becomes a temporary home, albeit for a few days or a week. We have noticed that we see some boats again and again whilst others we only ever see once, and that’s a clue.

Life is such an ……

We are beginning to notice the different types of boaters on the network. There are the obvious holiday hire boats but then there are all the different types of private owners. Some boats are pristine with barely a scratch on their paintwork whilst other look as if they might sink at any moment. Some are piled high with logs, coal, wheelbarrows and all manner of practical paraphernalia whilst others are adorned with gleaming brasswork and containers of flowers that might hold their own at any horticultural show.

It’s on the roof if you need it.

It doesn’t take long to work out which boats are lived on and which ones come out on sunny weekends and a two week holiday once a year. I think we are a bit lost at the moment, not fitting into any particular category and rather than it taking a few weeks to settle into our new lifestyle I now realise that a few years might be required.

Taking time to explore

We are half way through this first long trip and although it still feels like one long holiday we are just beginning to recognise that what we are actually on is a journey of a whole different kind. When you put a finite time or distance on a trip there is an element of enduring the difficult things because they will come to an end but without that end point it’s no longer a case of endurance but adjustment and acceptance of change instead. We will have to grow into this new way of life and it can’t happen quickly because the changes are just too big. We are thoroughly enjoying the whole experience so far but we are also beginning to understand that there are no short cuts to becoming nomadic.

Let’s not get too serious. Here’s a laughing cow.

Underpants, a pony tail and bad vibrations

Warning: this is a blog almost entirely about things that go on in the engine room. It contains graphic descriptions of an engineering nature and some people may find it boring.

The beating heart of the Golden Girl

Our Golden Girl has always had the ability to shake rattle and roll with the best of them but only when over excited by an excess of engine speed. Anything over two thousand revs per minute would send her into a frenzy of vibration accompanied by a tooth rattling clatter that sounded like the engine was about to make a bid for freedom. I hadn’t paid it that much attention to be honest because it usually corresponded with me throwing the gear stick wildly backwards and forwards in a panicked attempt to avoid destroying a precious piece of grade two listed national heritage. The rattle only became a problem when it moved down the revolutionary chain over the last couple of weeks and began to kick in at twelve hundred revs. Then at eleven hundred and eventually at ten. We had reached the point where anything beyond a couple of miles per hour would set up a racket like an old fashioned football rattle on steroids and we were looking forward to passing under motorways just to drown out the noise. It was time to take action.

I set up a high level investigation bringing in various suspects from the engine room for interrogation. The mop bucket, the anchor, various fuel pipes and cables were all given a thorough going over in order to try to pin down the offender but without success. The anchor was severely muffled with rags, the cables were rendered motionless with pipe lagging, the fuel lines were made chatter free by the judicious application of cable ties and the mop bucket was put into solitary confinement on the front of the boat. The next morning we set off in optimistic mood but alas at one thousand revolutions per minute the rattle was back again and just as loud and irritating as ever. We drifted slowly along the canal getting in the way of sluggish swans and even the odd water snail while I pondered the problem and we argued over the precise location of the clatter.

Whether it was a dream or a nightmare I will never know but for some reason I woke up in the middle of the night excited by a new theory of what was shattering our dream of cruising gracefully and relatively quietly along the waterways. Before we set off the next morning I removed a large wooden shelf that sat over the batteries and which, in theory, protected them from non-existent falling objects that might short circuit them. I put it on the roof where it couldn’t do any harm and we gingerly left our mooring and accelerated. As the rev counter approached 900 I began to sweat with anticipation. At 1000 we both held our breath and strained our ears. At 1100 I couldn’t stifle the beginnings of a grin and at 1200 we rejoiced in the sweet thrum of nothing other than the sound of an engine doing what it is supposed to do with quiet determination. At 1500 rpm the only noise louder than the engine was the sound of swans wings flapping wildly as the poor birds flew for their lives. Surfers were eyeing up our bow wave greedily and water skiers were queueing up on the tow path looking for a ride. I did eventually come to my senses and as we approached a line of moored boats I dropped down to a gentle tick over and that’s when the new noise started.

This wasn’t a rattle or a vibration as much as a random clanking and thumping. At anything over tickover speed it went away but each time I throttled back it returned with renewed vigour. There was something irregular about it that made me nervous and some deep seated engineering gene that I didn’t know I possessed told me it was serious. We pulled up and lifted the engine bay cover and I set off again cautiously but now it was worse and the source of the problem was obvious. The engine was doing a fine impersonation of a drunken Dad at a wedding dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller; it was jumping around like a thing possessed and it didn’t look good. There was only one thing for it; we moored up and called International Rescue. We asked them to send whichever Thunderbird was appropriate and within an hour Jake arrived.

Jake was young and hip and he wore his cap backwards. He moved around the engine bay showing us a fine view of his fashionable underpants and when he dipped the oil he wiped the dip stick on his T shirt. I liked Jake. He seemed to know what he was doing but he couldn’t be sure of the problem from my description and after doing a lot of prodding and poking he asked if we could take a little cruise along the water. We set off, in tick over and it seemed touch and go as to whether the engine was going to come along with us or not. It was jumping around in a tantrum but this made Jake very happy because now he thought he knew what the problem was. We pulled up and he ran the engine in neutral and stood on it. There was a sound like a machine gun going off and Jake announced with a grin; “your engine mounts are shot”.

“shot engine mounts”

Twenty four hours later Phil knocked on the roof of the boat and announced that he had come to fit new mounts for us. Phil had a pony tail and a very impressive set of spanners and he oozed confidence. I liked Phil. Gill and I went shopping for wine and beer in order to celebrate finally getting to the bottom of the problem and to deaden the effects of the eye-wateringly large invoice that was heading our way. Phil packed up his tools, showed us how the engine could run at any speed without looking like Shaking Stevens with the DT’s and transferred most of the oil and grease from his hand to mine with a manly hand-shake.

This is Phil, he knows about engines

The big spanner being deployed

So we are rattle, shake and clank free at last and I am pleased to say that the mop bucket has been released without charge and retuned to the engine bay.

The joys of boating eh?

Drama in Market Drayton

We may have broken a record of some kind today having covered a total of one and a half miles before mooring up for the night. The achievement hasn’t come easily, we have had to work our way down with a couple of five mile days and then a three and a two until distances and times become meaningless and what dictates our stopping place is all about location. I think we made our break through on the day that we stopped for an early lunch in a beautiful elevated location and never got round to starting again. It’s amazing how much time you can spend sitting on the back of the boat watching the wildlife and just being lost in the peace and quiet.

Tyrley Wharf – sans pub

We spent last night at a place called Tyrley Wharf just outside and above the small town of Market Drayton. It was another case of stopping before we had really got started but we were so struck by the setting and the weather was so enticing it seemed like as good a place as any to pass an evening. We were actually so close to the town that we were able to walk down the flight of five locks and do a bit of shopping for our evening meal but we weren’t tempted by bright lights and strolled back to our quiet backwater. Our mooring was in the shadow of the old wharf cottages and associated buildings which have all been lovingly restored and converted to accommodation. Sadly the ale house that served the old working boatmen didn’t survive. We had no phone signal or TV to entertain us but it didn’t matter at all. There were other boaters to while away the time with and as the evening sun went down the bird song and activity more than competed with anything that the BBC might have to offer.

Plenty of neighbours to chat to

In the morning we topped up with water before beginning the descent of the locks in more glorious sunny weather intending to travel beyond Market Drayton and another set of five locks. An elderly couple on a very old traditional boat were behind us in the queue for the first lock so as the lock was ‘set’ and it didn’t need filling we let them go in front of us to save them a bit of work. Big mistake.

As we walked down and back up the flight yesterday we had learned that these particular locks had a few tricks up their sleeves just waiting to catch out the unprepared.

Looking back up the flight of locks

One boat had become completely stuck on a concrete shelf just as we were passing and other boaters had warned us of fierce by-washes that could push a boat off course and onto the shallow off side banks.

The dreaded by-wash – think narrow boat in a washing machine

With the help of a friendly volunteer lock keeper we passed through the first two locks without too much problem but then things started to get complicated. Other boats were coming up the locks so there was a bit of careful manoeuvring around each other and then on entering the fourth lock everything came to a halt. It seemed that the people on the old boat that had gone ahead of us had been washed to the off side by the strong current and then having got themselves unstuck had fallen foul of the concrete shelf on the other side. All movement of boats through the system came to a standstill and I found myself sitting in an empty lock for half an hour. This was the lock with the very strong by-wash at its exit and I was grateful to pick up a few tips from the lock keeper while I waited. It seemed that the trick was to use power to drive through the current and head for the next open lock in the manner of an express train entering a tunnel. The difference of course is that express trains are on rails and can’t really miss the tunnel, whereas I was not and the prospect of missing the entrance to the lock with sixteen tons of steel moving at full tilt wasn’t worth thinking about. These locks are much longer than our boat so I backed up and took a run at it. I’m not sure which was running faster, the by-wash or my adrenalin but with a bit of a shimmy and a hasty application of reverse I managed to land myself in the target hole without destroying anything more substantial than my nerves.

Video of the by-wash

That was quite enough excitement for one day so with a mile and a half of travel and five locks behind us we pulled up in the town and put the kettle on for a calming cup of tea and a second breakfast.

A round of applause please

What defines a holiday? I have been pondering this conundrum because somebody on a narrow boat interest group on the internet posed the question; “Do you feel like you are always on holiday no matter how long you have lived on your boat?”.

Speedwell Castle in Brewood

I would have said that a holiday is a break from work, responsibilities, worries and day to day routines. It normally involves lots of changes, such as location, activities, eating and drinking habits and people. I suppose you could wrap all that lot up with the word ‘different’. A holiday is very different from your normal daily life. So here’s a question; if you live and travel on a narrow boat all the time are you always on holiday or never on holiday? It feels like a holiday but it doesn’t match my definition. One or two of the respondents to the question on the internet replied that they had lived on their boats for five, ten or even twenty years and still felt like they were on one long holiday. Maybe if this wonderful weather breaks or something serious goes wrong with the boat it will all feel different but for now I’m just happy to just go with the flow and assume that the holiday will last forever.

Golden Girl and Rebecca on holiday

We are now on our fifth canal, the Shropshire Union and very beautiful it is too. We joined it via a tight turn off the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal and straight into the mouth of a lock. I’m still working on my manoeuvring skills in these situations so to see a small crowed gathering on the tow path as I began my turn was a bit daunting. They were ramblers and I assumed they would carry on walking but no, they all stopped and began to discuss my chances of success amidst speculation as to how much damage might result from failure. I was relieved to make the corner without incident but then bitterly disappointed that I actually had to ask for my round of applause. Really, some people want entertaining for nothing!

Bob and Marie leading the way

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark in our journey because not only did we come to the most southerly point in our route and begin to head north, we also said goodbye to two people who have become very firm friends over the last few weeks. A chance meeting when we were having maintenance done on the boat led to a vague plan to travel with Bob and Marie and their boat Rebecca once we came back from our Liverpool break. They just happened to be going in the same direction at approximately the same time so we agreed to try travelling together and see how we got on. These arrangement can be tricky of course and if it turns out that you don’t hit it off you can’t just part company that easily. When you are both going in the same directions and with a top speed of four miles per hour, it’s not easy to give another boat the slip. The solution was to a have a very frank, upfront conversation and agree that either couple could end the arrangement without explanation at any time. Well that turned out to be a wasted conversation because we got on like a house on fire from day one and we haven’t stopped laughing for three weeks. Sadly, Bob and Marie are on a different time schedule to us so we have had to say goodbye and agree to travel together again another day.

On the beautiful ‘Shroppie’

Since leaving Stone our confidence has been rising as we have cruised through the locks with calm efficiency, negotiated on coming boats at blind bends with casual aplomb and even dealt with our first visit to a marina full of boats to obtain fuel without causing any damage. Nothing has really phased us but then nobody told us about ‘The Narrows’. It seems that in this corner of Staffordshire the canal builders came up with a cunning way of dealing with changes of level that didn’t require a complex and expensive lock. They simply dug a channel through solid rock to maintain the even gradient of the water. That’s a fine idea but digging through rock is time consuming so they halved the problem by only digging the cuttings half the width of a normal canal and only slightly wider than our boat. Some of the cuttings are short and you can see if there is another boat coming and hang back. Others are longer, not straight and you enter them with your fingers crossed and You Tube videos of how to reverse a narrow boat running through your head. So far we have been lucky and not met anybody head on but I know you are all now just waiting for our luck to run out because that will make a much better story. I hope I never have to tell it.

Entering the narrows

Fingers crossed

Just a quick reminder if you missed the last blog, I am now updating a map that shows you our route around the system. Click here to see it.

Photos by Gill (mostly)

We’ve been attacked!

We’ve been attacked! It’s not too serious but I have a couple of facial injuries and a damaged ankle while Gill got hit on the leg. We aren’t entirely sure how it happened but we think it was probably some kind of biting gnat that got us while we were enjoying the last of the day’s warmth yesterday evening. I have two lumps, one on each temple that are absolutely symmetrical. It was either two gnats flying in formation or one gnat with a severe case of OCD but whatever the cause I now look like I am about to sprout horns. We have also suffered a few afflictions at the hands of inanimate objects recently too. I was attacked by a cheese grater whilst innocently shredding parmesan and we have both been given a good kicking by angry windlasses whilst operating the locks. Fortunately none of these injuries have required anything stronger than a glass of red wine to remedy them and all in all we are in fine fettle and really enjoying the adventure.

The potteries at Stoke (could do with a bit of a trim)

We are now well south on the Trent and Mersey canal and clear of an intense stretch of narrow locks and the Harecastle tunnel. The previous twenty miles have been fascinating and challenging but certainly never boring. We approached the Harecastle tunnel with a little trepidation as it was far longer than anything we had been through at one and three quarter miles. Passage is controlled by Canal and River Trust staff and is strictly one way. We arrived shortly after other boats had entered the tunnel from the south and we were kept entertained by the highly amusing member of staff on duty. He asked me if I had ever been through before and when I said I hadn’t he delighted in telling me that there was nothing to worry about but to go and have a strong brew whilst waiting for our turn. Here’s a tip for anybody going through for the first time; don’t look at the faces of the people on the boats emerging and don’t ask them how it was or if they enjoyed it. After a short safety briefing and with lights and horns checked we were off into the longest blackest hole I have ever been in.

Don’t ask how it was.

It was actually OK once your eyes adjusted and the only concern was the sudden changes in roof height that threatened to decapitate anybody foolishly looking back to see how far they had come. Forty minutes later we popped out of the other end blinking in the sunshine and to the delight of about forty small children on a school trip who gave us a round of applause. Time for a picnic by the beautiful Westport lake.

Seen one tunnel, seen ’em all.

One other feature of the infrastructure on this section has been the double locks. When somebody mentioned them I imagined locks wide enough to take two boats side by side and as we had used these on the Leeds and Liverpool canal I wasn’t all that excited. In practice they turned out to be amazing pieces of Victorian engineering which are actually two narrow locks side by side and independently operated.

Double locks

As we were travelling with our new friends Bob and Marie we were like a couple of kids disappearing into the deep, dark, coffin like enclosures alongside each other but out of sight. Gill and Marie would then close the gates on us and begin to fill the locks. The water level would slowly rise lifting our boats up and after a couple of minutes Bob and I would majestically surface into the sunlight like a couple of silly meerkats grinning at each other as if we had just popped out of adjacent burrows. They were also a great opportunity for Gill to get more experience of controlling the boat in them as after managing eight in a row one day she suddenly decided that driving the boat for the next eight locks might not be such a bad idea after all. Needless to say, I am now a lot more experienced at turning a windlass and heaving lock gates open and closed. The physical side of this game is actually really good fun and it has the added bonus of making beer in the late afternoon calorie free.

Descending into a double lock

 

Pop-up-Bob

We have now had a little break in Stone where we have been generously wined and dined by friends there and we will be meeting up once more with Bob and Marie in a couple of days to continue onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. One or two people have asked if I will be updating an online map with our route. I hadn’t thought of doing it but it if helps here is a picture of the area we have travelled so far. If you trace a route from Liverpool via Wigan, west Manchester, Lymm, Middlewich, Stoke and Stone you should be able to get an idea of where we have travelled so far.

Edit: I have now updated the map on the blog so you can see all our stops indicated by the blue boat.

 

I would write more but I have just noticed that there are about ten million small flies gathered on the inside of the boat windows. I think I recognise one of them and I am off to have a word or two.

The dark and narrow road

Earlier this year adventure cyclist and all round nice chap, Mark Beaumont cycled 18,000 miles round the globe on his bike and he did it in just over seventy eight days. Just let that sink in for a moment. That’s an average of about 230 miles a day, on a push bike. It might help to create a little perspective when I tell you that I have just checked our logs and we have managed an impressive 115 miles in three weeks with the aid of a thirty eight horse power engine and an occasional tail wind. I think we may have achieved our prime objective of travelling slowly.

Long sunny days

I was hoping by now to be able to give a reasonably rounded assessment of what travelling on a narrow boat is like but I don’t feel qualified. I am very happy to tell you that I am only qualified to tell you what it’s like to travel on a narrow boat in near perfect conditions. We’ve had three weeks of mostly unbroken sunshine and for the last two, very light or no winds. It’s boating heaven and the longer it lasts the more nervous I become about what we might have to deal with later.

We are in Middlewich now and at the start of a new phenomenon in canal terms. We are about to embark on our first experience of narrow canals. It all changed over the last couple of days when the term narrow boat suddenly made sense. You see up to now we have mostly travelled on the Leeds and Liverpool and the Bridgewater canals They were both designed to accommodate barges up to fourteen feet wide. Bridge holes, locks and aqueducts are all built to this specification so travelling on a skinny minny like the Golden Girl is quite straight forward. You just aim her at the middle of everything and she slips through with room for a little wiggle on the way. Or so we thought.

Tight corner

After several days of no locks, swing bridges or obstacles other than the odd bicycle wheel or dead fish we set off last Friday for what promised to be an exciting leg of the trip. After a brief stop for our travelling companions to top up on fuel we would be leaving the Bridgewater Canal and joining the Trent and Mersey. We would be passing through one lock and no less than three tunnels and we hadn’t realised that our Golden Girl had been hitting the wine and cream cakes, or so it seemed. The lock was our first one that would only take one boat at a time and that’s when I first suspected that somebody appeared to have put a little weight on. Gill was handling the boat with confidence now and she elected to navigate the first tunnel after waiting for our time slot to meet the one way regulations. She entered cautiously and it was obvious that this was narrower than other tunnels we had been in. There was still plenty of room either side and no doubt it would all have been fine if Victorian engineers had had access to lasers and tunnel boring machines rather than pencils and pick axes. It was soon obvious that with each change of shift the navvies that dug this beast had changed direction! I won’t go into too much detail as it wouldn’t be fair but let’s just say we had a little bump and Gill took full responsibility for trying to create a branch line using our TV aerial pole mount on the side of the boat. It didn’t work and the boat came off worst. (It’s all fixed now so no serious damage was done.)

Here we go

Gulp!

It’s a bit dark in here

Who put that kink in the tunnel?

By the time we emerged from the third tunnel at the end of the day we had pretty much mastered the technique for staying in the middle and accepted that perhaps it was the canals that were narrowing rather than the Golden Girl’s waist line that was expanding. The challenges got greater over the next two days with narrow and winding sections of water which seemed to be occupied primarily by newly acquired hire boats travelling flat out and plainly not expecting to meet another boat coming the other way. Particularly at blind bridge holes. Words were exchanged on a couple of occasions, especially with the driver of the one that was travelling so fast that he couldn’t take any avoidance measures and ended up, rather satisfactorily, buried in the mud and reeds on the far bank. We left him and his crew, at a sedate pace of course, trying to dig themselves out with barge poles.

Not the place to meet a coal boat towing another one!

We only had another couple of miles to go before mooring up for the night and although I had found these new narrow sections with very tight turns quite tricky, I had actually secretly enjoyed the challenge. We hadn’t had any mishaps other than those caused by other boaters so I was feeling tired but a little smug when we came around the final bends. That didn’t last. As we rounded the corner I was trying to work out the line to take when the canal disappeared. Well at least it appeared to. No doubt perspective played a part but about fifty yards ahead the waters narrowed into what appeared to be a six inch channel over a river. I hastily looked around for an escape route, assuming I was going the wrong way but all I was faced with was impenetrable canal bank. Engaging reverse with more enthusiasm than the engine was keen on I slowed down and approached what looked like an impossibly narrow gap half the width of the boat. As we got closer I finally accepted that perhaps it was wider than us but only by inches and passed gingerly through to the other side. I swear the boat breathed in as we passed over the considerable drop to the river below. Now I really understood that we were on the narrow canals.

I don’t know how we did that.

The white water rapids and waterfalls that I was now expecting around the final turn didn’t emerge and we were able to moor without further trepidation just outside the small town of Middlewich.

We are having a little break now for two days and we are all on strict diets in preparation for up to twenty narrow locks per day and the tunnel from hell. More on that later.

Photos by Gill

Finding the good

These canals we are travelling are turning out to be like people of wildly different characteristics. Liverpool was like a crazy bunch of excited party goers in part and some down and out toothless old men in others. West Lancashire reminded me of gentle folk who don’t like change and keep themselves largely to themselves except when attending mass on Sunday. Moving west and south through Wigan, Leigh, Salford and Stretford was sad, nostalgic, intimidating but also stimulating. Like meeting a crowd of recalcitrant hooded teenagers but finding amongst them old mine and mill workers with fascinating stories to tell. This menagerie of places and history has finally spat us out through the leafy suburbs of Sale into the most pastoral Cheshire countryside. The gentle cooling breeze brings us a little relief from the unseasonally hot sunshine and the sound of spring birdsong adds to an air of chocolate box English scenery. I feel like I have been at a wild party for the last two weeks, full of the most amazingly diverse people, loud music, exotic food and finally arrived home in the early hours to a calm, quiet and familiar home and a warm cosy bed.

It probably hasn’t been quite what people first imagine when you talk about travelling on a narrow boat. All the marketing material features images like the one below.

Tranquillity, just like in the ads

It’s always sunny, the canal is bordered by weeping willows kissing the calm and quiet waters which gently transport a traditionally painted craft and her passengers back in time to a golden age of unhurried tranquillity.

Early morning idyll

Admittedly, we have had a little bit of that, and we are hoping for a lot more of it over the coming months but the marketeers don’t mention that all this idyllic scenery is joined together by large, dirty and sometimes downright ugly bits of urban sprawl. Our journey so far has consisted of rather more of the sprawl and not so much of the neat and tidy but the irony is wonderful. Towns and cities like Liverpool, Wigan and Manchester may owe their very existence to the canals that connect them. For us, they represent fascinating but often unattractive obstacles that have to be traversed in order to get to the glorious countryside that makes travelling on a narrow boat so relaxing and satisfying. To the great canal engineers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the exact opposite.

Mining and canals went hand in hand

Travelling through some of the industrial landscapes can be depressing, even daunting, with tales of evil drug users lurking under every bridge, just waiting for an easy, slow moving target to rob or simply vandalise. It’s easy to become blinkered by this image and to only see the negative. The mindless destruction of the graffiti rather than the artistry and skill it demonstrates. The irresponsible discarding of the ever present bobbing beer bottles and not the fun and laughter of the youngsters who consumed the drinks by the canal because they had nowhere else to go. The dark, windowless warehouses and factories that tower dark and menacing above the water linger in the mind like nightmares. But there are bright new waterside developments of apartments, bars and restaurants in equal measure that are bringing new life to these old arteries of the industrial revolution. There is positive everywhere if we look hard enough and history and heritage galore.

Out with the old (To be fair this was being saved)

In with the new

 

Art or vandalism?

We have probably started our journey with a disproportionate share of the dark and dreary but it looks very much from where I am sitting tonight that the balance is going to be redressed over the next few weeks. When the barons of the industrial revolution had made their fortunes from mining and building canals at the expense of near slave labour they built grand houses in places like Cheshire to retire to away from the filth and poverty of the cities. Now it’s our turn to go and have a look at how the other half lived.

Hello Cheshire

All photos by Gill

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