It’s all about the fire

Sitting on our warm and cosy boat and staring into the fire as the ice in the marina gradually melts made me realise just how important our stove is. So important I thought I would write about it.

I have fond, if somewhat rose-tinted memories of growing up in a council house with basic central heating. I don’t mean central heating in the modern sense of the term, what I mean is that we had a coal fire and it was roughly in the centre of the house. It may have been central but it’s role of heating the whole house was plainly unachievable and our levels of comfort were indirectly proportional to how far away from the fire we were. In the depths of winter I recall changing into my pyjamas in front of the fire before attempting to get up the stairs, into my bedroom and under the bed clothes in less than five seconds, and then attempting to warm the bed up with what was left of my meagre body heat. A hot water bottle may have been deployed in extreme conditions I admit. Eight warm, snugly and peaceful hours later I would awake to find ice had formed on the inside of the bedroom windows while I had been dreaming of long hot summer holidays. Now, approaching retirement and in an era of sophisticated, thermostatically controlled, touch of a button activated heating systems I find myself once more scraping ice off the windows from the inside. It sounds grim I know but I’m actually loving it and I think I know why. I think it’s all about the fire.

Baby it’s cold outside (photo by Gill Pearson)

The option to heat your entire living space to any temperature you choose, to control which rooms are heated and when, and to be able to adjust and monitor the system from your phone seems like the ultimate convenient heating solution. The alternative of filling coal buckets, emptying ash pans and attempting to ‘move’ heat from a single source around fifty seven feet of ice clad steel tubing couldn’t possibly be seen as preferable or even acceptable could it? So why am I enjoying it? Well it’s all about the fire.

Maybe it’s the whole effort, reward cycle. After all setting the timer and thermostat on a modern central heating system doesn’t require much effort and even if you overcome the challenge of a wireless system it’s still only a momentary sense of satisfaction. It doesn’t last. You stay warm but there isn’t any sense of earning that warmth. Tending our solid fuel stove on the other hand is a never ending task that requires real physical effort and a degree of skill and organisation. Carrying a full coal scuttle the length of the boat whilst it rocks from side to side is a brilliant core workout and those 20kg bags of fuel don’t move themselves either. When it comes to keeping the fire in it will burn for ten hours without attention but during the day a little more tending gives us more control. Feeding the fire with coal, emptying the ash pan, cleaning up the dust and adjusting the ventilation to fine tune the heat output means that there is a real sense of effort and involvement in order to achieve the reward of warmth. Then there is the cooking! There is always a kettle on the go and more often than not there will be a stew or curry simmering away, filling the boat with mouth watering smells. The stove has become a crucial element of day to day life that provides warmth, hot food and a good deal of satisfaction.

The true meaning of mult-fuel

Apart from the sense of reward there may be another reason why I am just a little bit obsessed by this simple metal box. Fire has been at the heart of living for a couple of million years now so in the scheme of things our modern ways of controlling it in the form of cookers, boilers and other heating methods are new inventions and maybe in evolutionary terms we haven’t yet left the hearth behind. Nearly everybody enjoys a bonfire or a campfire and who doesn’t love a good barbecue. The idea of sitting around a fire is so ingrained in our species that it drives us to create excuses for doing it and cooking on a fire takes us back even deeper into our roots. Huddling around an open fire and baking potatoes in it couldn’t be described as practical but its attraction endures beyond far more convenient methods of preparing food or staying warm.

We’ve put several pictures on social media of our stove blazing away with pots and pans on it and I have been amazed by the level of attention these posts have attracted. It seems that food and fire are just as critically connected and central to our existence as they ever were. Despite the unbelievable technological advances that we have achieved in the past few hundred years we are still essentially driven by primitive needs and emotions and maybe that is why I am looking forward to finishing this post and putting a bit more coal on the fire. Maybe the novelty will wear off eventually but for now, it’s all about the fire.

I know: the glass needs cleaning

A life, and a boat, of two halves

Well I suppose it’s better than half a life, or an empty life, and yes, a boat does have two halves.

We are now spending just over half of our time on the boat and the remainder back at the park home in Warton. It’s a bit frustrating to be honest. The time spent at the marina is everything we had hoped for; we are surrounded by nature and wildlife, our neighbours are lovely and always helpful and we are enjoying making the boat our own and our home. By contrast, back in Warton, we find ourselves living in the shell of our former dwelling as we gradually divest it of our belongings. We are trying to find a balance of keeping it looking lived in to engage prospective buyers whilst taking sufficient of our chattels to the boat to make that our cosy home. It’s a balance that results in us always needing the one thing that is in the other place. Far too many of our conversations start with the phrase, ‘did we bring’….., and usually the answer is ‘no’. Hopefully we will sell the park home soon or at least Gill will find work in Rufford and we can make more of a definite move to our new life afloat. In the mean time…….

I like being somewhere new and undiscovered and at the moment that includes the boat, the marina and the surrounding area. We seem to flit between getting to know our neighbours, discovering new and beautiful footpaths to explore and pulling apart various bits of the boat to work out where and how, we are going to keep everything when we do eventually get it on board. And as if that isn’t enough to keep us occupied there is always the distraction of what has turned out to be a fantastic local hostelry in the village. Great food, great beer and, did I mention the Ukulele playing? We have discovered a lovely five mile walk that takes us along the towpath and country lanes to Mere Sands Wood wildlife reserve and back to the village and we have already had close encounters with Kingfishers, Water Voles and Tawny Owls all within a mile or two of our new home. It’s fabulous.

Kingfisher by Gill Pearson

Whilst we have been roundly entertained by the local fauna, I have been doing my best to entertain the other residents of the marina by moving our boat about. Boat movements aren’t that common now that winter is upon us so whenever the throaty throb of a diesel engine alerts everyone to some activity they all come out to watch. Particularly if the boat in question belongs to a complete novice like myself. Mutterings of “this should be funny” could be heard from all corners of the water as Gill and I prepared to leave our mooring. Popping over to the service point to fill up with diesel seemed like a simple enough operation to me so I thought I would spice it up a little by turning the boat around at the same time. We had originally moored with the pointy bit towards the land and having cleaned half the boat from our jetty we needed to swap it about to get at the other side.

Leaving our mooring to do some entertaining

We managed the re-fuelling easily enough and then I began to reverse vaguely back towards mooring point number 98 with something I had read occupying my mind: “narrow boats are notoriously difficult to steer backwards”. I can now vouch for that, they are.

It felt as if I was trying to coax fifty seven feet of seven foot wide wriggling python into an eight foot wide slot that I could swear was moving. By the time I managed to ‘engage’ with the end of our jetty at the third attempt the spectators standing on the other boats were probably wishing they had made a sandwich and flask of tea for the occasion. I think I was supposed to ‘drive’ our beast gently backwards along our berth but in reality Gill and I just dragged it there using the ropes. It was more like a round of The World’s Strongest Man (and woman) than a lesson in boat handling but never mind, I’m sure everybody but us enjoyed it.

Are you sure it will go in there?

The next challenge is to take the boat down the canal towards Sollom where there is supposedly a winding hole where we can turn around before heading back. We wandered down there this morning to take a look and the ‘hole’ looks about two inches wider than our boat is long. That should be interesting I thought. Perhaps we should go under the cover of darkness for our first attempt.

Getting a quart into a pint pot

We are back on dry land and I am wondering how do you get a quart into a pint pot?

Plenty of space in this one!

We are once more in our cosy little park home in Warton and as I contemplate moving everything from here to our new home at the marina I am reminded of my first job working for Field and Trek, the outdoor equipment suppliers. Allow me to explain:

When I originally went to work for them they operated from two high street shops but carried a bewildering quantity and range of stock squeezed into a rabbit warren of basements, attics and rickety extension buildings. Every new delivery brought fresh frustrations as we were expected to pack items into already full shelving bays. I complained bitterly one day to the manager about the impossible task of putting twenty large tents into a space that was barely big enough for five. “Can you get just one more in?” he asked. “Well yes, I suppose so” I replied. “Well just keep doing that until they are all put away” he quipped. I have a feeling his words will be coming back to haunt me over the next few weeks and months.

About a quarter of our possessions are now on the boat and those that remain here will have to be severely whittled down before the final move. It’s going to take a good deal of ingenuity in terms of storage space on that boat to fit everything on board. Even then it can’t possibly work without another round of charity shop trips, Ebay sales and calling in favours from friends with large attics and garages. (Hint, hint) It’s going to be another hard lesson in working out just how little we need to be comfortable and content. There are plenty of existing ‘live-a-boards’ at the marina to prove that it can be done but when I look around at our furniture, books, CD’s, clothes etc., I am just a little bit daunted by the task and as for the shed, well I’m just pretending it’s empty for now!

Look out for the advert on Right Move soon:

BEAUTIFUL, COSY, MODERNISED SINGLE BEDROOM PARK HOME FOR SALE

Contents also available by negotiation.

I found myself sitting on the boat the other day looking into the galley and thinking, I wonder what’s behind that kick board under the kitchen unit? Before I knew it I was lying on the floor rejoicing at the size of the cavity I had discovered when the board was removed. I suspect there might be quite a bit of that kind of thing going on over the coming months.

Meanwhile, it’s back to painting, weeding and generally sprucing up this place with a view to a quick sale. Offers invited!

Any interest?

The Wigan Flight and my new friend Joe.

It seems the canal network is full of kindness but it is also full of characters too. Put the two together and you have Joe.

Joe and his son Malcolm.

I’ll come to Joe in a minute but first a bit of context. All the way through our maiden trip on Golden Girl we were acutely aware of a particular elephant in the room. Most trips and adventures have renowned obstacles that have to be overcome and our route back to Fettler’s Wharf Marina was no exception. We had already conquered the Foulridge Tunnel; at 1640 yds long it is the fourth longest on the network and boasts a great anecdote about a cow that fell in the canal at one end of the tunnel and for reasons best known to itself decided to swim to the other end where it was reputedly rescued and revived with brandy.

That exit to the Foulridge Tunnel is a long way away!

The tunnel was challenging but didn’t compare to the ogre that was constantly playing on our minds; the Wigan flight. It consists of 21 locks squeezed into a two mile stretch of water which takes boaters through the town of Wigan and drops over 200ft in the process. It is notoriously hard work and because of water shortages the top and bottom locks are only open for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Although there is a place part way down to stop it isn’t the most desirable of mooring places so once entered the locks effectively have to be completed in one hop.

We had been concerned about this section of the trip because of our limited experience and everybody told us that we needed to ‘double up’ with another boat to make the job easier and quicker. That’s where Joe and his son Malcolm came in. We met them as we moored up at the top of the locks the night before the big adventure and although wary of Joe’s appearance at first he turned out to be a real rough diamond and a seasoned traveller of the waterways. His boat was practical rather than pretty and at sixty years old it was still ten years younger than him. Both boat and boater had a ‘used’ look about them but what they lacked in style or finesse they made up for in years of hard earned experience.

We were up and away by 8am and whilst Gill went off with Malcolm to organise the first lock I was given a little pep talk by Joe and challenged to follow him via the “really tight turn” into the lock. I nervously tracked his wake and made it in neatly alongside him without bumping into anything and only later found out that Joe had been tempting Gill into a small wager on whether I would make it first go or not.

Nervously approaching the top lock.

What followed was four hours of hard graft, some really great inside knowledge of technique and an endless succession of stories from Joe that got taller and taller as the locks got deeper. I got a bit over confident at one point and got caught by the currents between locks and before I knew it I was heading down the culvert that takes excess water around them. With racing heart and a good deal of thunderous reverse I managed to back away but it was a timely reminder not to take anything for granted and to maintain concentration. Joe didn’t say a word as I came in alongside him but his face clearly said, “don’t get cocky lad, you’ve still a lot to learn”.

Gill and Malcolm did an amazing job. Gill was always one lock ahead making sure it was full and the gates were open for us to enter whilst Malcolm worked the lock we were in. I was given a free passage for the first couple of locks but then Joe gradually introduced me to tasks that I could manage by leaving the boat briefly to shut a gate or drop a paddle before nimbly, and nervously, jumping back onto our boat as she began to descend into the watery depth.

There was a definite element of master and apprentice about Joe and I and whilst he was a great teacher he couldn’t resist a bit of teasing at my expense. I got completely soaked by a cascade of water leaking from the side of one lock and as Joe chuckled at my predicament he wryly commented, “Aye they do tend to let a bit of water in on that side”. Now I knew why I was on the left and he was on the right!

Doubling up in a lock

In less than four hours and having had a break half way for a brew we were through the flight and whilst Joe and his son went off for a few well earned pints and some dinner we plodded on to our evening halt at Crooke in the pouring rain. We were more than a bit soggy by the time we tied up but nothing could take away the feeling of achievement and a fair bit of relief at having overcome that particular demon. As our friend said later in a text message, we were very definitely not lock virgins any more.

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.

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

Long Tailed Tits and narrow waisted trousers

The problem with being of slim build is that there is nowhere to hide an ever expanding waistline. I’m currently shaped like one of those fishing floats that are long and thin with a large bulge in the middle. It took a wedding in the autumn to force me to pull my head out of the sand when I realised that none of my trousers that were remotely suitable for such an occasion could actually be buttoned around my waist. Two months on and I am finally getting round to doing something about it.

Now that I am able to walk a reasonable distance again without any significant pain there is no excuse so it was out again this morning for my regular two mile march around the streets and into the countryside as the sun struggled to get out of bed. The route I took today is about fifty percent main road, thirty percent housing estate and twenty percent country lane. It’s fine for getting a little bit of exercise but not brilliant for scenery or bird watching so I don’t usually bother to take a camera or binoculars. It’s more a case of head down and quick march while I mentally run through my wardrobe of narrow waisted trousers and try to summon up the purpose to walk faster and harder. This morning was different though and an abject lesson in stopping to smell the metaphorical roses and regret leaving the binoculars at home.

For a start it was cold but blissfully calm after several days of windy weather and the sky was magically lit by a reluctant winter sun. We may have turned the seasonal corner now that we have passed the solstice but the sun is like a sulky teenager at this time of year. It unenthusiastically peers over the horizon and attempts to perform its daily duties whilst barely leaving its bed. It doesn’t get up any earlier either for the next few weeks; it just goes to bed a bit later but those extra few minutes of daylight are already filling me with anticipation of what is round the corner. There were other early signs of a change too; a Robin and a Dunnock were singing enthusiastically as if nobody had mentioned to them that spring is still a good few months away.

What a cutie. The Long Tailed Tit. (Photo by Craig Smith)

Along the short stretch of country lane a Long Tailed Tit caught my eye as it flew into the bushes next to me and as I looked around for more (they usually come in small flocks) my eye was caught by the frenetic and constant movement of a pair of Gold Crests.

The Gold Crest. (Photo by Tairi and uve Pixdaus.com)

These are stunning little birds with their brilliant black and yellow head stripe and they are a joy to watch as they acrobatically search for small grubs and eggs in the nooks and crannies of trees and shrubs. They are constantly on the move prompting the question of whether they might not need quite so much food if they ever sat still for a minute or two. They are actually quite common, similar in winter numbers to Robins but being Britain’s smallest bird and rarely appearing out in the open, lots of people have never seen one. The final birdy treat was provided by a Blue Tit that flew past my face so close that I actually heard its wing beats.

The last stretch of the walk is through a housing estate and back to the main road. It didn’t mean there was nothing to see though. Starlings, Blackbirds, Gulls and a flock of Gold Finches all added colour and sound to the otherwise dull scenery while the sky continued to flaunt its silvery winter splendour.

Winter sky and a chance to find out where the birds nest.

Oh and I nearly forgot; I saw sixty seven pigeons as well.

As I walked the final stretch to home my thoughts turned back to those frantically busy Gold Crests and I realised where I might be going wrong. I’ve never seen an overweight Gold Crest you see and come to think of it; I’ve never seen one slumped in a chair drinking beer either. I’m not planning to start doing acrobatics in the bushes but maybe less beer and more walking might go some way to alleviating the problem of a wardrobe full of trousers that don’t fit me.

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