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.

Going nowhere – but we have a plan

Today hasn’t worked out as planned at all. The weather forecast said it would be a bit warmer last night and today would be calm but foggy. We had tentatively discussed a little trip out on the boat, just a few miles down the canal to a turning point and back to the marina in time for tea. It would also be the ideal opportunity to let the stove go out and give it a really good clear out. It’s been burning for a couple of weeks now and it tends to get a bit clogged up and less efficient as time goes on. That was the plan, this is the reality: Gill is tucked up in bed with a horrible cold infection, the marina has a thin coating of ice on it again and I have spent the last hour coaxing the fire back to life rather than letting it go out. We are going nowhere today.

Come to think of it, today is like an analogy of the bigger picture. Our old home in Warton is up for sale but we haven’t had any offers so far. Paying bills on two homes means that we are tied to working until such time as it’s sold and being tied to work means that we can’t just take off and travel indefinitely on the boat. In other words, we are going nowhere tomorrow or the next day either.

Never mind; it’s nice when a plan comes together but it’s also important to be flexible and make the most of things when it doesn’t.

Another plan has gone a bit pear shaped in the last few days but in a good way. We had been planning to go back to our old house and pack up the rest of our belongings to bring them back to the boat. Goodness knows where we were going to put it all but we would cross that bridge later. I knew that we could be imaginative and creative in using all the available space on the boat and I just hoped that once we had it all on board we would work something out. Fortunately, the problem was solved by a simple observation from Gill. She said to me one morning; “the mistake we are making is trying to fit our old life into the boat rather than starting a new one on it”. Light bulb moment!

Just needs a bit of organising

We realised with a bit of reflection that we had been living on board Golden Girl for months now without any hardship whatsoever. We are living in comfort, doing everything we want to do and enjoying life. Why do we need more stuff? So rather than go back to collect the rest of our precious belongings we examined what we were actually missing and it turned out to be next to nothing. What should have been several trips in the car and maybe the use of hire van became one trip, a half filled car and wonderful sense of freedom.

A few more ‘essentials’ to find a home for

We left behind kitchen cupboards and wardrobes full of ‘stuff’ that it turns out we just don’t need. Admittedly there are several boxes of things going into storage but nearly all of that falls into the category of ‘having special meaning’. You know, particular books, photos, keep-sakes etc. No doubt we will get pleasure one day from unpacking them again or if not, some poor relative will unpack them and add them to the pile of rubbish to be discarded.

We thought that we had been pretty good at paring down our belongings over the years but it seems that the temptation to acquire stuff is limited only by the space available to store it in. You may only be able to wear one pair of shoes at a time but given enough cupboard space you can’t half hoard a lot of pairs. We will, of course, have to empty the old house at some point but the contents will mostly be heading to the charity shops or the tip rather than joining us on board as part of our new life. Well, that’s the plan…………. for now.

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.

image_pdfimage_print