Travelling life

New day, new view

The last few days have been a great illustration of the variety we experience living and travelling on our Golden Girl and they have given me a better insight into the appeal of this lifestyle. Storm Hannah gave us a fair old battering in Lymm last week but Sunday dawned calm and much brighter and we were more than happy to untie and move on. First stop was Stockton Heath just a few miles to the west and that was our first port of call to catch up on a range of routine chores.

The services at
Thorne Marine are adjacent to a bridge with moored boats on either
side and I recalled being a bit stressed last year trying to work out
where to pull in. I’m much more relaxed about these situations now
and I was happy to tread water while another boat finished off
filling up with water before vacating the spot we needed. We have
become quite slick at these service stops and without any discussion
we were soon filling up with water and diesel and after emptying the
bins and toilet cassettes there was still time to browse the
chandlery section of the shop for a couple of clips and shackles that
we needed. I laid out my shiny new bits of hardware on the counter in
an “experienced boater” kind of manner and I was all ready for a
bit of salty Jack tar conversation but somehow the proprietor and I
ended up talking about Excel spreadsheets and our respective
inability to remember numbers as we got older. Maybe I need a stout
pipe and a broad Cornish accent before I’ll be taken seriously as a
nautical type.

Photo by Gill
Pit stop at Stockton Heath

The water tank was
finally full and after the usual wrestling match with the hose pipe
we moved away from the services and tied up once more. Shopping time!
Stockton Heath seems to be quite an upmarket kind of place with a
selection of smart boutique shops and eating places. As neither of us
urgently needed a new ‘outfit’ we settled for a meal deal from M&S
for tonight’s tea and a main shop in Aldi for everything else. We
always do supermarket shopping with a list and we are pretty good at
sticking to it so the large red and black wheelbarrow wheels that
definitely weren’t on that list looked a bit incongruous as they sat
amongst the extra virgin olive and oil and breaded ham at the
checkout. But that’s the problem with Aldi isn’t it? There’s always
something to tempt you and knowing our boating friend Bob was looking
for a pair of wheels as a mooring aid it seemed churlish not to buy
them. I should say at this point of course that other German
supermarkets selling a variety of obscure domestic hardware and
sports goods alongside the baked beans and cheap wine are available.

Wheels
Look what I got Bob!

We left Stockton
Heath with everything that could be emptied empty and everything that
could be filled full, including ourselves after a very tasty Cajun
chicken pizza. (£1.69 from Aldi)

The next two days were spent moored in a fabulous spot with neither a town nor village in site and little but birdsong and the occasional Virgin Pendolino for company. We were quite close to the main west coast rail line and still not clear of the Manchester airport flight path but these things were a minor price to pay for an otherwise peaceful and isolated mooring. We were now on the Trent and Mersey canal and the beautiful river Weaver was just a twenty minute stroll away. We spent hours and hours exploring the Longacre and Birds woods nearby with their breathtaking displays of wild garlic and bluebells.

Bluebells

Garlic anybody?

Back on the boat Gill was busy transfering her recent photographs to the computer while I spent a relaxing hour sitting on the prow and watching a very patient heron fishing. The heron eventually caught his supper but not before a kingfisher had paid a visit and a sparrowhawk had shot across the canal in pursuit of some prey or other. A David Attenborough voice over wouldn’t have gone amiss but I guess you can’t have everything.

Photo by Gill
Painted lady butterfly

Photo by Gill
Heron fishing

Later whilst washing
the dishes from our very tasty M&S dinner for two I was struck by
the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of this existence we are
living. Like the pendulum of a cranky old time piece we swing
effortlessly between home life and wildlife without a pause. Our
domestic circumstances are really not any different to those when we
are stationery in the winter, but the travelling adds a completely
different and ever changing backdrop to the everyday routines of our
days. I think the appeal lies in the perfect blend of adventure and
predictability. The familiarity and comfort of home but in a never
ending variety of new places just waiting to be explored and
discovered.




Any port in a palindrome

You must have heard the phrase “any port in a storm”, no doubt sailors are glad of any shelter they can find when the seas rage and the winds roar. OK I may be over egging it a little but we are taking shelter from storm Hannah in the picturesque, if somewhat battered little town of Lymm. We spent the first night right in the centre of town, almost in the town square in fact but more on that later. We have now moved out to moor amongst what look like premiership footballer’s houses. The large sturdy three story dwellings are dwarfed by huge mature trees which in turn are made to look puny as the wind throws them around like weedy saplings.

Hannah, going either way

We have been in this same spot for thirty six hours now and it has barely stopped raining for most of that time. The wind has increased as the day has gone on but we are happy to snuggle up by the fire and indulge in the three r’s of reading, writing and relaxing. We think it’s the sensible thing to do when the weather turns foul like this but then we are lucky enough to have no schedule, no dead lines and even, if we choose, no particular direction. That can’t be so for the many boats that have passed by today, battling against the wind and rain, their stoic captains standing firm on the back of their boats wrapped from head to toe in water proofs and looking for all the world as if they are on a vital mission to ‘get the cargo through’. To be fair to them they almost certainly have a limited time slot in which they have a fixed route to cover, particularly the hire boaters, and for them a day off is simply not an option. You might expect them to be grim faced, even miserable in such circumstances but the astonishing thing is that they are no such thing. We feel each boat approach from some way off as the water it is displacing strains us against our mooring ropes with a groan and I’m grateful that I took the trouble to hammer in double pins to hold us fast.

Moments later these defiant warriors of the waterways glide swiftly past us, ignoring the normal etiquette of passing moored boats slowly, as they fight to control their craft in the gusty winds. We peer out at them through misted, rain obscured windows and without exception they wave and grin back at us as if there is nothing more pleasant than being cold and wet for hour upon hour on the back of a narrow boat. It’s amazing but they look genuinely happy with their lot. I know from experience that their beer, wine or tea at the end of the day will taste sweeter than ours will, but I’m also happy to sit in the warmth by the fire and wish them safe passage. Each to their own as they say.

I promise you they were smiling

Despite the awful
weather I really like Lymm. We had a wander around yesterday before
the storm set in and it’s a delightful little place. It has a river
that has been dammed to form a tranquil lake, a fine selection of
pubs and eating places, a lovely little heritage centre and a grand
square that is unique in that it isn’t where it used to be.
Unfortunately for Lymm and its peaceful residents that lived quietly
overlooking the original village square things took a turn for the
worse back in the eighteenth century. The Duke of Bridgewater was
building a canal to move coal about and make his fortune during the
industrial revolution and when he and his agent John Gilbert reached
Lymm they hit a bit of a problem. They were disappointed to find that
the place was a tad hilly and in order to route the canal around the
village they would have to spend time and money building expensive
locks. Unfortunately for Lymm they also noticed that the village
square with it’s surrounding picturesque cottages just happened to be
on a single convenient level and in exactly the right direction so
they solved all their problems by just digging their canal straight
through the square. It must have been like an early version of HS2
and if your home or the hub of your community happened to be in the
way of ‘progress’ it was just tough luck. The house on the left in
the picture has had it’s corner cut off to prevent it interfering
with the line of the canal bank, what you might call a close shave in
terms of compulsory purchase. Aside from this act of vandalism and
profiteering on a grand scale the canal did bring prosperity and a
disproportionate number of ale houses to Lymm so maybe all was
forgiven and forgotten in the end.

Close shave (the car is not moored in the canal by the way, it’s an optical illusion)

The new old village square

Something remarkable
also happened here in that we just happened to be here on the right
night to enjoy some live music. We always seem to land in places the
week before or the week after events of interest but to our excited
delight we discovered that on our first night here there was an open
mic session at the Brewery Tap pub. The local Lymm brewery ales were
superb and whilst the music varied from stunning to stumbling it was
all received in a generous manner and we found ourselves staying up
well past our bedtime. I probably should have resisted the temptation
of the Lymm Dam ale at 7.4% but heh, when sailors reach a safe port
in a storm, well, that’s what they do isn’t it?




Lancashire Mining Museum

As we travel through Lancashire on the canals it’s impossible not to be aware of the role that they played in the industrial revolution and if further evidence of the history of that period were required the towering chimneys and majestic mill buildings give us a clue to the sheer scale of the cotton industry at that time.

Dark satanic mill becoming bright new apartments

There is talk amongst enthusiasts for such matters of the three C’s; Canals, Cotton and Coal and that together, these three threads wove the very foundations that the north west of England was built upon. Strangely, whilst the canals and mills are obvious symbols of that era, evidence of the coal industry itself is almost totally absent. It’s strange because the volume of mines dug in Lancashire was such that the land itself has collapsed into the old underground workings and shallow lakes and meres have formed where once a dark and smoking edifice of mining paraphernalia would have stood. The above ground structures themselves are gone, bulldozed to make way for new industry and housing. Of the hundreds of tall pit head winding gear structures that once dotted this landscape there now remains just one single monument to that time.

It appeared on the horizon as we rounded a bend on the Bridgewater canal, the giant winding wheels suspended on impossibly spindly legs high above the picturesque village of Astley Green. Like a creature from another time it stands out for it’s sheer rarity and it marks the site of a remarkable museum where Gill and I spent a fascinating afternoon.

Last remaining pit head winding gear in Lancashire

Astley Green mine was commissioned by the Pilkington Company in 1908 but such was the audacity of the the project that the shaft alone took four years to sink, descending as it did, nearly three thousand feet below the bogs of south Lancashire. The full story of the mine can be found on the museum web site here, but if you want a real hands on experience and the benefit of genuinely enthusiastic guides you really have to pay it a visit. The winding gear and main buildings were only saved by chance when it was realised that the engine house and steam powered winding engine itself were almost unique and the wrecking ball was stopped in its tracks even as it swung at the pit head winding structure. What remains is a fascinating and awe inspiring insight into the lives of a mining community and the physical infrastructure required to extract the coal from such deep seams. The engine house itself seems out of all proportion to the rest of the site until you climb the steps to the first floor and step inside. What greets you is the largest remaining steam winding engine in the world! The sheer scale of it is breath taking and it is a credit to the many thousands of hours that volunteers have invested over the 30 years it took to restore it.

Hard to convey just how huge this engine is

The museum is currently at what I would describe as a fledgling stage but the current band of volunteers have ambitious plans for the coming years and we will definitely be paying another visit or two in the future to monitor its development. There is so much equipment, infrastructure and memorabilia to see already that it is fascinating but it can only get better as more and more machinery is restored and the facilities and grounds are developed. If you are a fan of Peaky Blinders by the way, you may even recognise a scene that was filmed there last year featuring the pit head gear as a backdrop. Alan Shaw, the set designer, was so taken by the place that he has since become a volunteer himself and has created a detailed replica of an old miners cottage on the site with lovely period tea rooms attached.

One of many fascinating engines

We were lucky to have our visit enhanced by the wonderful Marilyn and Stephen who enthusiastically explained everything, filling in the gaps in the history with fascinating little gems gleaned from miners themselves that have visited the museum.

Marilyn – fount of all knowledge

As well as being a fount of all knowledge Marilyn was also insistent that Gill and I really got into the themed experience by dressing us up in period clothes and having us pose for photographs.

Tony with volunteer and history enthusiast Stephen

A twenty five minute video documentary tells the story of the mine and its eventual demise and closure in 1970 with wonderful scenes of hard labour underground and hard drinking (and singing) in the local inn.

For more information about the museum itself please visit the web page https://lancashireminingmuseum.org/ or look them up on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/TheRedRoseSteamSocietyLtd1/

If you’ve read this far then I suppose you deserve to have a laugh at our expense so here are the pictures of us playing dress up.

Must have been a Monday

What a lovely old couple




Never ending contrasts

The media these days is full of pictures of discarded plastic floating round on our oceans but the seas don’t have exclusivity in this problem. There were times today when it was depressing to see just how many empty bottles, beer crates, buckets and traffic cones end up in the canals and as they drift on the wind they always seem to end up buried in what would be beautiful reed beds. Plastic appears to make up about ninety percent of the debris in the water but that figure may be wrong because bicycles, bedsteads and shopping trolleys don’t float do they? It’s sad to see the canals abused in this way but the feeling never lasts long as nature has a way of absorbing the punches and coming back fighting to delight us with its resilience. The sight of a female mallard shepherding her brood of twelve new born ducklings puts things back into perspective and reminds us that things are not all bad. The youngsters dart about on the water like small jet propelled bundles of fluff, peeping frantically when our boat momentarily separates them from mum. The coot chicks by contrast seem more like grumpy teenagers as they mooch about in the reeds dressed in a covering of hairy black down and sporting punk like red hair styles. I’m sure their parents think they are beautiful.

Little bundles of trouble

Mum thinks you’re beautiful

Today we enjoyed another kind of stark contrast passing as we did through industry and countryside as we made our way around the outskirts of Wigan.

Shipmates Bob and Marie

Our boating friends Bob and Marie had joined us for dinner at the pub last night and over an excellent meal they had agreed to accompany us and help with the locks on our route. It was good to have a few helping hands on board as we anticipated that we might have problems with low water levels at the point where the Leigh branch of the canal leaves the Leeds and Liverpool in Wigan. Over the past few days we had been hearing stories of boats becoming stuck on the bottom of the canal and even one poor chap who was marooned overnight. Whilst Bob and Gill went on ahead to prepare locks for us I was entertained by Marie, a Wigan lass through and through as she explained the enormous changes she had witnessed over the years. The area around Wigan pier itself (not a pier but a point where coal was tipped into barges on the canal) had gone from a hub of industrial activity based around coal and weaving to a brief spell as a heritage museum and themed pub to what is now a tired and sad looking collection of uncared for waterside buildings in a state of disrepair. The decay and neglect however is once again counter balanced by the appearance of smart new office buildings and apartments overlooking stretches of the canal. All part of the ever changing history via the industrial revolution and beyond.

The Orwell pub, sadly closed and boarded up

Pit brow lass at Wigan Pier

After a late breakfast taken as we filled up with water we negotiated the last two locks on the Leeds and Liverpool and took the right hand turn onto the Leigh branch. On either side of the canal exposed rocks and debris clearly showed how low the water was, at least eighteen inches below normal levels. I had been advised to stick firmly in the centre of the canal to avoid grounding and all went well until we came to the approach of the final lock. Staying strictly in the middle channel was suddenly not an option as a boat was coming the other way and as I gingerly inched over to the right I was dismayed to see two more narrow boats entering the lock in front of us. Gill then put the lid on any idea of a simple passage through by announcing over the radio that a fourth boat was waiting to come up the lock. We crept cautiously over to the right hand bank expecting to ground at any moment but to our relief we were able to stay afloat on the mooring whilst the others manoeuvred though the lock.

Once through this
tricky section the tensions eased as the water levels deepened and we
had a delightful trip through the Wigan flashes. These expansive
water features on either side of the canal are the result of mining
subsidence and have become a haven for a huge variety of wildlife
whilst providing a playground for water sports enthusiasts at the
same time. The banks of the canal have had to be raised as the
surrounding land has sunk creating the sensation of travelling above
the surrounding countryside with expansive views in all directions.
It’s yet another example of how travelling on a narrow boat is a
never ending series of contrasts, all experienced at a pace that
really allows you the time to absorb them for all their different
merits. Our next destination is Astley Mining Museum and a chance to
uncover more of the rich industrial heritage of this region. More on
that in the next post.

Nature winning the day once more




Travelling slowly, with wildlife

I sometimes think we are living on the ark. In the past few days we have had to evict a beetle, several huge wasps, a spider that really didn’t want to go and two dogs, one of which having come down the stairs onto the boat was too fat to get back up them unassisted. We don’t mind sharing our home with a little wildlife but it already feels like high summer with the soaring temperatures and the sheer volume of wee beasties that have emerged. At this rate there won’t be room for us on the boat by August.

Halsall cutting: The place where the Leeds & Liverpool began

Hitch hikers aside
we are determined that this year’s trip will be totally chilled and
relaxed, even more so than the previous one. With this in mind we
took things to extremes earlier in the week by setting off in
entirely the opposite direction to our overall plan but it gave Gill
a chance to practice turning the boat around and enabled us to fit in
a quick train trip to Southport for much needed replacement summer
sandals. We rediscovered a few favourite places from last year and
found a couple of nice new mooring spots along the way. We are now
heading the right way but we have ground to a halt in Parbold, five
miles from our winter base. I think we are getting the hang of this
slow travel business. It’s lovely to chill out and explore the local
area a bit more thoroughly and being so close to home we are
constantly bumping into other boating friends which also involves pub
based research which I’m particularly fond of. At this rate we will
be lucky to make it any further than Manchester before it’s time to
turn round and start heading home again.

Mooring with blackthorn bloom

One of the things I
have noticed already this year is that we are both more relaxed about
the whole business of handling the boat and travelling. We couldn’t
understand some of the people we met last year who seemed to spend so
much time moored in the same spot but I think I’m starting to get it.
A place changes when you spend time in it, more often than not for
the better. It’s a chance to discover surrounding walks, to explore
nooks and crannies that often reveal hidden architectural gems or to
get to know the local wildlife and their habitats. Lots of birds such
as kingfishers for example are territorial and once you have
discovered their ‘patch’ it’s not uncommon to see them every day and
to have the opportunity to observe them in greater detail. At this
time of year every day brings new delights as more and more migratory
birds return and the familiar sounds of summer like the chiff chaff,
black cap and warblers fill the canal side woodlands with their
songs. Butterflies are also about in dramatic fashion already with
the brilliant orange tips, peacocks and speckled woods decorating the
verges with dancing colour as they seek out early opportunities to
feed and reproduce. Hawthorn, blue bells and wild garlic are all
coming into flower as are the brilliant yellow celandines. It just
such a wonderful time to start a journey and to watch the Spring
unfold.

Peacock butterfly

If this first week
is anything to go by it’s going to be a wonderful summer learning to
treat time with all the respect and precious value it deserves as we
potter gently south. That’s if we are going south. I think we are.

Saint Cuthberts, Halsall




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?




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.




It’s only a scratch

I have been repairing the damage I did to the boat during our short trip last autumn. There is a surprising amount of it when you get up close and start to examine it but it’s not all bad news. It turns out that rusty scratches and scrapes are a bit like music and perfume in that they bring back detailed memories to savour and roll around the mind. Admittedly, most of the memories that I am talking about here were tainted by fear, embarrassment and a strong sense of my own incompetence as I bashed the boat into wharfs, trees, fences and the occasional other boat. (Don’t tell anybody about that last bit.) However, it’s the painful memories, the ones that recall what didn’t go so smoothly that stay with us for longer and they mellow with time.

The scars on the boat remind me that the bad times rarely prevail anyway and mostly we find ourselves looking back on them with a positive slant. Relief that they are over, laughter at our own stupidity, an understanding of how easy it is to get things out of proportion at the time. Bad memories will often trigger good ones too. When we were being blown against that horrible rusty old Armco barrier and the expensive paint was being stripped away with a horrible screeching sound, that was when the lovely hire boat couple came and rescued us. We enjoyed some really great times with Chris and Steph over the next forty eight hours, proof that losing a bit of paint isn’t necessarily the disaster it feels like at the time.

Patchwork

I was a bit apprehensive about tackling the paint repairs as it was probably forty years since I had last done anything like it. Attacking our beautiful girl with power tools and wire brushes seemed counter intuitive but like so many things, the anticipation was far worse than the reality. I tentatively applied the screaming sanding tool to the first rusty patch and almost immediately felt much better. What had felt like an aggressive invasive process very quickly turned into a healing one. It dawned on me that having done the damage in the fist place it would be cathartic to repair it and make good my early blunders. As I progressed along the side of the hull I relived each damaging impact. I heard the sickening scrunching sound of concrete on steel and regretted not having tackled the repairs more quickly.

Re-living the damage

The rust was like a screeching voice, berating me for my lack of urgency and my timidity in not getting to grips with the job sooner. “A stitch in time” became my irritating mantra running around my head as I worked. But as I applied the first coat of primer paint my whole mood changed to one of achievement. The memories of those awful moments as I closed my eyes, not wanting to see what damage I had done were replaced with ones of beautiful bright afternoons gliding along on sun dappled water. I found I could only remember the good times. The vibrant flash of blue as a kingfisher zipped along in front of us or the expectant heron reluctantly giving up his hungry vigil, rising on lazy gigantic wings to find a quieter fishing spot. The sense of satisfaction and achievement at the end of the hard day and the glorious first sip of a well earned pint in a canalside pub.

Oops! I remember that one.

I have absolutely no doubt that there will be plenty of incidents this summer that will result in more paint being lost. I am hoping that as we get more skilled at manoeuvring they will become less frequent but even so I won’t be quite so precious from now on. The scars I have covered up will remain visible due to my lack of professional skills but they will serve as reminders of good times not bad. I will try to see them as minor negative incidents that form tiny parts of a much greater positive experience. Of course we could avoid any further damage to the boat by simply not going anywhere. We could spend the summer painting and polishing her lovingly and then sitting back and admiring her. But that isn’t living is it?

The more I worked on repairing the boat and the more I realised how like life she is. Life is all about those knocks and scrapes. Without scars to remind us of life’s challenges and how we survived them what is the point. That’s why we will be off in a few weeks to time to scrape some more paint off the boat and make some more memories in the process. I might take a pot of paint and a brush with me this time though.




Getting wound up about nothing

We’ve been living on the boat for a month now and I think it’s fair to say that we can class ourselves as ‘live-aboards’. Novice ‘live-aboards’ I’ll grant you but ‘live-aboards’ all the same. We have also manoeuvred the boat in and out of marinas, through locks and swing bridges and battled sideways winds completely ineffectively.

Perfect day for a winding hole

Maybe you could call us seasoned novices. From here on I suppose it really is just a matter of practice and experience apart from one particular manoeuvre which had, until last Friday, eluded me. Or, more accurately, I had avoided. The operation in question was turning the boat around on the canal. It’s the watery equivalent of a three (or possibly five or seven) point turn and it can only be performed in specific places where the canal widens out into what is called a winding hole. There is much debate about the pronunciation of this canal feature based on whether or not you are thinking in terms of wrapping cotton around a bobbin, winding; or, encouraging a baby to burp after a good feed, winding. If you see what I mean. Based on the fact that narrow boats never had engines in their original form then winding as in baby burping makes sense because the wind would have been used to assist with the turning procedure. I could wind myself up in knots discussing this but it isn’t really the subject of the blog so let’s leave it there. Pronounce it how you like.

Gill in full control

Back to my concerns over the actual turning business and why I was apprehensive. There are two issues really. The first is making a judgement as to whether or not the hole in question is actually big enough to turn our 57′ boat around in and the second, which is related, is the probability of getting stuck, grounded on the shallows at the edges of the canal. It’s easy to blow these things out of proportion by over contemplating them and that’s exactly what I had done. My mind was partially put at rest by a friendly lock keeper. When I told him that it was the only thing I hadn’t yet mastered and that I was a bit nervous about it he came up with a bit of infallible logic to put my mind at ease. He pondered the problem for a moment and then said; “You know the canal network is about 200 years old and to the best of my knowledge, there are no boats stuck in winding holes.” I nearly replied that I might be the first but thought better of it and laughed heartily at my unfounded concerns instead.

Did we really come through there?

Last Friday was forecast to be wall to wall sunshine and, most importantly, dead calm. There would never be a more suitable opportunity for a bit of winding hole turning so having failed to come up with any plausible excuse for not going we sailed off under a cloudless blue sky. Forty minutes and two miles later we turned the boat around without grounding or wrapping any trees or submerged debris around the prop and we are not, as I imagined we might be, still stuck in the winding hole three days later.

In the hole

That’s close enough

The whole process was completely without drama and I actually really enjoyed it. In other words, as is so often the case, I had been worrying about nothing. It was a classic case of the monkey on the shoulder whispering in my ear; “you might get stuck”, “you might foul the prop”, “the winding hole might be too small”, and so it goes on until the problem becomes insurmountable.

Not listening to that pesky little monkey is a lesson that I have to just keep on learning over and over. The lock keeper was right, there aren’t any boats stuck in winding holes but if that monkey has his way he’ll drive you into a hole that you really may never get out of. Don’t listen to him.