We might have bought a narrowboat

Do you remember this?

Well look at it now!

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

May we introduce Golden Girl

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

All mod cons

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

Cosy lounge

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

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

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

Learning Narrowboatian

Buying our narrow boat is totally dependent upon the sale of a property that we have a share in so we were very excited to finally get the bungalow on the market, one step closer to life on the water. Or so we thought. Of course we didn’t expect to the sell the house immediately but that didn’t stop us getting excited and intensifying our search for the perfect floating home and that’s when sod’s law took effect.

Of course we should have guessed that the total absence of any interest in the house whatsoever would be in direct contrast to a veritable flood of near perfect boats coming up on our searches immediately. We have a fairly detailed and strict criteria against which we are matching our floating dream home and it was unbelievably frustrating to tick all the boxes against the sales ads whilst knowing that with no interest in our property for sale there wasn’t really any point in organising a viewing or even making a tentative enquiry. That frustration has now got the better of us and having dropped the asking price on the bungalow we are busy organising visits to view boats that are for sale within our as yet, imaginary price range.

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, ...

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, …

This brings me to the topic of how you choose a narrow boat to live on, which turns out to be very similar to choosing a house. In both cases it is common to lay out the basic requirements of style, price range, age, number of rooms, outside space etc. before selecting properties/boats to view based on those requirements. However, listening to other boat owners that have been through the process reveals that like buying a house, all those carefully thought out requirements will all be abandoned the day you step on to the perfect boat and fall in love with it. It turns out that it’s more akin to choosing a dog at the rescue centre in that the boat, apparently, will choose us rather than the other way around. It doesn’t mean I am abandoning my carefully constructed spreadsheet that, in theory, identifies our perfect craft. It simply means that we have to be prepared to fall head over heels in love one day and we will need a level headed friend to point out that the new love of our lives won’t last five minutes on the canal before it sinks and hopefully they will stop us wasting our relatively easily earned cash on it. A bit like the way your heart sinks when your precious teenage child comes home all doe eyed with that totally inappropriate girlfriend or boyfriend in tow and it’s your job to delicately persuade them that they really could do better. Love is a dangerous thing.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

The similarities with buying a house wain by virtue of the fact that most houses don’t have an engine and you can’t, therefore, drive them around. A narrow boat on the other hand is the essence of freedom and mobility; provided, it turns out, that it is of certain dimensions. There are two thousand miles of navigable canals and rivers in England and Wales and we want to explore all of them. That means that our craft can’t be longer than sixty feet and no more than seven feet wide if we aren’t to be restricted by certain locks on the system. We are advised that since we want to ‘liveaboard’ (that’s what we canal people call living permanently on the boat) we will also require at least a fifty seven foot boat to give us enough space so it would appear that our choices are actually quite narrow in more ways than one.

Restrictions may apply

Restrictions may apply. Photo: Canal and River Trust.

In the mean time we go on looking and I am busy learning the new language of Narrowboatian so that I can converse with the salty dogs that are hanging up their windlasses and retiring, hopefully, to a nice two bedroomed bungalow close to the sea.

Swapsies?

Swapsies?

Anybody want to swap a short fat bungalow for a long narrow dream home?

 

Mixed emotions

Bicycle security chickens at the first campsite

Bicycle security chickens at the first campsite

It’s coming around to the second anniversary of our big adventure cycling around the coast of Britain and as always at this time of year I find there are endless memory joggers that cause me mixed emotions of joy and consternation. Joy at such happy memories and consternation over whether we will ever manage to tear up our new anchors and break away to taste that amazing freedom once more.

I have always followed other people’s adventures but for obvious reasons I am now particularly drawn to any endeavour to circumnavigate our coast by whatever means. I am currently following Quintin Lake who is walking the coast and creating a stunning photographic record of his journey, Elise Downing who is running the circuit and Sean Conway who has upped the anti and is attempting an extraordinary triathlon cycling, running and swimming the route. All of these adventurers have been reminding me acutely of our own experience but when it turned out that Elise and Sean would both be passing through our village the week before our two year anniversary I found myself reliving our departure like it was yesterday.

Great to meet you Sean

Great to meet you Sean

But just when I thought these coincidences couldn’t get even more profound we received an e-mail from yet another intrepid soul about to embark on her own odyssey.

Adrianne Hill wrote to us via the Warm Showers cycle tourers hosting site and asked if we could put her up one day next week. She went on to explain that she was cycling the coast of Britain and we could learn about her journey from her website. Obviously this piqued my interest so I went to find out more only to discover that she has raised the bar in more ways than one. Not only is she cycling the coast but she then intends to run from Lands End to John O’ Groats before crossing the country SUP style (Stand Up Paddle) to complete her own unique triathlon. That is an impressive and ambitious trip but what really bowled me over was when and where she was starting from. She is leaving Liverpool today, Tuesday the 26th April, exactly two years to the day since we set off and she is staying with us tonight! I’m not a believer in fate and all that stuff but really, Mystic Meg could not have written this stuff.

Ready for the off on day one.

Full of nervous anticipation two years ago today

All of these poignant reminders only serve to put me in reflective mood as I look back with timely perspective at our own trip and contemplate what I learned from it. As predicted it really did change me in all sorts of ways, most of which I couldn’t see without the benefit of two year’s hindsight. Trying to assess the effects of a trip like ours immediately on our return was a bit like standing two feet from a very large oil painting and trying to take in the subject. All you see is a blur of colour and texture which may be interesting and even attractive but you get no sense of what the painting is about. Looking back over a decent time span is like stepping back from the work of art and all of a sudden everything comes into view.

I wrote a whole list of the ways in which I believe I have changed as a result of our adventure which included things like being less materialistic, believing in the good in people and appreciating the simple pleasures in life but the one thing that really stands out for me is that I just feel more content. I feel like I have found my place. I think I have always had a yearning to find out what it would be like to throw caution to the wind and metaphorically set sail, leaving the safe harbour behind and chancing to the wind to explore and discover. Our cycle trip has scratched that itch for me and left me feeling simultaneously sated and happy to be where I am. It doesn’t mean I would never want to set out again, but I am happy for now to just enjoy the moment. I remember writing something before the trip about squeezing every last drop of juice from life but the trip has taught me that you don’t necessarily have to be pedalling thousands of miles to do that. I would love to go off again to find new adventure but I don’t have the same sense of urgency that used to gnaw at me. Standing on the start line of a 4,500 mile bike ride is daunting and magnificent, as is looking back at it after two years, but the reality is that the journey itself is no different from any other part of life and the trick is to recognise the value of now and exploit it for everything it is worth.

I’m looking forward to hosting Adrianne and to sharing her excitement at the very beginning of her journey. I’m looking forward to following her adventure along with Quintin’s, Sean’s and Elise’s and enjoying their experiences as they push themselves to new heights. The difference now is that I won’t be jealous of them because I don’t need to imagine what they are going through, I know.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Are you sitting comfortably?

The sun is streaming in through the lounge window and the sky is an unbroken summertime blue. It looks like a beautifully warm spring day and yet when you step outside it’s hard to believe how cool it is. It might be disappointing to discover that winter hasn’t quite lost its grasp but it reminds me that we need contrasts like warm and cold or winter and summer, to make sense of the world.

The news is full of horror stories about war, economic crisis and climate change while social media is awash with tales of human endeavour, extraordinary acts of kindness and a genuine feeling of people fighting back against social injustice. The world seems to be full of differences that conflict with each other but we need both halves of the picture to form a whole. There is no good without evil, no kindness without self-interest and no reward without sacrifice. On a personal note everything seems to be falling into place; we love our new home, I have found a job I really want to do and we have exciting long term plans that look more feasible with each passing month. So why do I have this nagging feeling that something isn’t right? It must be something to do with that old chestnut, the comfort zone and how it can sometimes make us feel strangely uncomfortable.

Life is all about contrasts; it’s the way that we measure things, one against the other. From something as simple as flopping into a comfy armchair after hours standing on your feet to stepping out into the unknown from a cosy secure lifestyle, it is the difference between the two sensations that enable us to measure them and it’s the difference that creates the experience.

Gill and I couldn’t be more in the comfort zone right now. No financial worries, a simple but comfortable home, good friends, a happy marriage, good health, what more could anybody want? I’m enjoying the option to simply wallow in comfort for now but I know it won’t last. There will come a time when I have nothing to contrast the safe and cosy lifestyle against other than the fading memories of another very different one from two years ago. We do this quantifying thing on many levels from the micro, shifting in a chair to get more comfortable and saying, “Ooh, that’s better”, to the macro; moving house, changing jobs or packing our world into a few bags and taking off travelling. We are doing it all the time at one level or another, it’s our way of ‘tasting’ the world.

Sometimes life deals us a blow that turns our comfortable world upside down and reminds us to appreciate what we have. Of course nobody actually wants to lose their job suddenly or suffer an unexpected illness or accident but in the aftermath of these awful experiences people often talk of the positives that can come out of them. These things may be out of our control but they are another way that we can see and measure one part of our lives against another. Like it or not, I think we need these upheavals now and again to stem the rot of stagnation. Obviously though, it is so much better if we can create the disruptions of our own accord, and in a good way, rather than through some terrible misfortune.

Alastair Humphreys published a book called, Micro Adventures, all about fitting short exciting experiences into busy lives when ‘packing it all in and taking off’ just isn’t an option. (That’s covered by his new book, Grand Adventures.) He advocates such things as climbing a hill after work and sleeping out under the stars in sharp contrast to the normal pattern of commute home, have tea, watch telly, go to bed, repeat. The thing about doing something a little bit crazy and maybe uncomfortable like this is that it can actually make the tea, telly, bed thing quite appealing. Contrast; it’s all about contrast.

I like Alastair’s idea of the micro and the grand adventures but I would quibble over the exact terminology. I would suggest that his micro adventures would be better described as mini ones and the term micro could then be reserved for the really tiny but important things like watching the stars rather than the telly or getting up early to see the sunrise.

Worth getting up early for

Worth getting up early for

I would like to think that the next few years of our lives, assuming we can predict anything of course, will be cosy and comfortable but I also know that it won’t be enough. It’s going to take a whole load of micro adventures and a fair number of mini ones if comfortable is going to remain satisfying. Maybe there is a lot more to the phrase, “make yourself comfortable”, than you might at first think. I think that it is something that we have to work at constantly and it never comes alone. There is no such thing as comfortable without uncomfortable.

Somewhere between all these contrasts and differences there lies a rich vein of reward that is just waiting to be tapped.

Buying a car, selling a dream

Never has the phrase ‘fish out of water’ been as apt as when used to describe a situation I have found myself in, not once, but twice, in the last two days. The situation in question was that of sitting in a fancy car showroom, opposite a young, enthusiastic, self-confessed petrol head of a salesman, discussing the possibility of buying a new car. We don’t do new cars.

As regular readers of this blog will know Gill and I drove from Gloucester to Lancashire last week sporting a makeshift passenger window fashioned from a plastic bag and a lot of gaffer tape due to the failure of the electric window winding mechanism on our elderly Skoda.

Make us an offer

Make us an offer

The now all too familiar prospect of another expensive visit to the garage prompted a discussion on whether perhaps it was time to consider changing our old car for a slightly less old one as we do from time to time. One thing led to another and I set to work crunching numbers to determine exactly what our current car had cost us over the last three years. The result was shocking and in some ways quite sad. It seems that in this age of interest free credit and a car industry that is desperate to shift new models we have arrived at a situation where it costs the same to buy a brand new car as it does to run a fourteen year old one. Hence the showroom visit but that isn’t what this blog is about.

What this blog is about is how fundamentally similar us humans sometimes turn out to be when we least expect it. As soon as we sat down with our clean cut, young and fashionably bearded adversary, because that is how I saw him at that point, I made it absolutely clear that we were not the kind of punters that sales targets and bonuses were made of. “We aren’t really car people” I announced and his face was a distorted blend of disappointment crossed with determination not to be beaten so easily. He declared himself to be a car person of the first order and we both laughed politely at how much ground we would need to cover to even come close to understanding each other. In a nutshell, we had absolutely nothing in common other than that he wanted to sell a car and we, reluctantly, needed to buy one.

Over the next half hour we batted off gentle attempts to add a few hundred quid here and there for unnecessary extras but as we did so we found ourselves revealing more and more of each other’s soft underbellies. The conversation bounced from metallic paint to some mystical ‘paint protection system’ which cost £300 but guaranteed that the car would remain in dazzlingly pristine showroom condition for as long as we were guardians of it. I had my doubts. Strangely though, in between all the sales guff, we found ourselves telling our new friend about our cycling adventure around the coast of Britain. He in turn revealed that he had a dream to move to Australia and start a new life but his girlfriend’s fears and family ties were holding him back. I explained the dilemma I had felt leaving my aging Mum when we went away.

I voiced my concern about a long financial commitment and a conversation that took place only the other night about jacking it all in again and taking off on another adventure. He asked with a smirk if such a conversation had involved a bottle of wine and we sheepishly confessed that it was two actually. A new common ground seemed to be emerging.

Suddenly we understood each other on a level that went much deeper than his love and our indifference to something as mundane as a car. It no longer felt as if we were in any form of car sales combat with each other. We both knew that really the only conflict lay in ourselves and our constant tug of war between the safe and the exciting. We were going for what would be a boring, safe car in his eyes but I sensed a touch of envy all the same. We had already taken a much bigger plunge than buying an expensive car and knew what it felt like whereas he was still standing on the edge of the diving board wondering. I wanted to tell him that the answer doesn’t come from fast exotic cars, the answer was staring him in the face but I didn’t because I sensed that he was close enough to diving not to need a push. That last step would have to be his and his alone. I still felt slightly uneasy about the new car, like it isn’t really us, but I felt very comfortable to have played a part, no matter how small, in encouraging somebody to take that leap of faith into the unknown. I am very confident that he will recall how it felt to land in Australia on the first day of a new life long after the memory of any souped up Subaru has faded.

How to win the lottery without buying a ticket

So the genuine winner of the thirty three million pound lottery prize has finally been found and now there are a few dozen very nervous false claimants wondering if they are going to prison rather than on a Caribbean cruise. These Lottery stories seem to capture the imagination of the public every time they come around and spark off another succession of conversations that start with, “what would you do with x million pounds?” I don’t feel qualified to contribute to the debate because I have never bought a lottery ticket and don’t ever intend to. Why would I put myself through all that false hope and then disappointment when I already feel rich? Gambling is one way of getting rich but the odds are long and even those that win don’t always get what they want. Search the internet for “Lottery winner stories” and you will find numerous sad accounts of couples and individuals who found that untold wealth is no guarantee of happiness and many who ended up losing everything they won. There are even a few tragic cases that led to suicide.

Of course it does work for some people but if you read the stories of those that did cope with a big win they all talk with great satisfaction about giving money away, helping others and, in many cases, being able to do voluntary work and to support charities. In other words it is the giving rather than the gaining that has actually brought them happiness.

Personally, rather than hope in vain for a huge bank balance I choose to think about what defines being rich.

All this navel gazing has come about because of a conversation yesterday that ranged from pensions and retirement via the recent unclaimed lottery win story to some of our experiences on our ride around the coast of Britain. We met many rich people on our travels but not all of them had money. So what is wealth and how do we achieve it?

I accept that for some people money will do the trick but I really don’t think it’s the only option. When we went on our trip we had managed to set aside ten thousand pounds and in the end we spent eight thousand of it during the five months on the road. For eight thousand pounds we could have bought four thousand lottery tickets, a small basic car or a three week luxury cruise. We chose to spend it on campsite fees, simple food, a beer or two and enough memories to last us a lifetime. Here are just some of the things that we got for our money:

Priceless

Priceless

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memories

150 completely unique days each of which had it’s own ups and downs in every sense.

Countless scenes that are etched into our minds for future viewing.

Acts of kindness that ranged from meals and accommodation to just an encouraging word on a gloomy day.

The satisfaction of getting somewhere by our own effort and determination.

The endless discovery of boundaries that could be stretched and broken only to discover new ones waiting for us.

The investment of suffering that adds value to pleasure and comfort.

2000 photos to re-kindle memories

80,000 written words that I can re-read when my memory struggles with the details.

A bunch of new friends that continue to enhance our lives from a distance.

A large bucket of anecdotes that I can torture people with when I am old and senile.

Never having to wonder what it would be like to ‘take the plunge” because we’ve done it and it turns out to be great. (Thanks for the reminder Gareth)

 

So my chances of winning the lottery may be non-existent but that doesn’t mean I will never be rich; far from it.

 

Making motorway minutes count

It is said that travel broadens the mind and I would heartily agree in almost all circumstances bar one. Gill and I have just spent three hours driving down to Gloucester on the M6 and M5 and despite the best efforts of Radio 4 I can’t help but feel as if I have just lost those precious hours of my life forever. There is something absolutely unique about the tedium of motorway driving despite the fact that the volume of traffic requires constant vigilance. I made a concerted effort today to get something positive from the experience but it wasn’t easy.

Screenshot_20160127-153454

I could make the same journey in any other way and get something from it. Walking the 200 or so miles would be a serious adventure over a couple of weeks and it would leave a legacy of valuable memories. Cycling the same distance over three days would be a real challenge and provide a great sense achievement and satisfaction. Even driving via smaller, quieter roads would make an interesting day out with stops for lunch and afternoon tea. On a train I could have focussed on a good book or the radio without compromising my safety, or that of other travellers. Then there are the many eccentric options such as roller skating, skateboarding or maybe travelling by pogo stick. A flight in a microlight would turn the journey into a thrilling experience or maybe it would be possible to navigate by canoe or narrow boat. Anything but the motorways.

I understand the importance of motorways and their contribution to the efficient transportation of both goods and working people but boy oh boy are they boring. For me the driverless car just can’t come soon enough.

I can think of a positive slant on today’s experience though. Whilst the journey may have felt like a waste of three hours there is, at least, a valuable lesson to take from the experience. It reminds me of why it is so important to treat not just every day but every minute as if it was your last. Put another way, if I was told I had three hours to live I wouldn’t be making a bee line for the M6 or any other motorway for that matter.

I’m sure there were plenty of people on the road today who would completely disagree with me, even some who enjoy motorway driving but the message remains the same. When you are forced by circumstance to do something boring and apparently pointless you can at least use it to remind yourself how precious every minute really is. I may feel like I wasted the best part of two hundred minutes this morning but isn’t that all the more reason to treasure all the ones that follow?

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