On the ‘Shroppie’

After the trauma of contemplating nuclear devastation and the drug infused, drunken debauchery of Audlem music festival we finally cast off our bow line on Tuesday morning and continued our progress south. The most pressing thing on our mind was water, which we were running short of and something less pleasant that we had an over abundance of after five days in the same spot. The weather Gods thought it would be highly amusing to try and drown us as we pulled into the service point where other boaters were already filling up and emptying out. Standing by the boat holding a rope in torrential rain whilst queuing for water holds a certain irony I suppose but it’s not amusing.

Heading south to, errr, the toilet

What we really needed after several days of over indulgence and late nights was a nice gentle plod along an uncomplicated stretch of peaceful water but Audlum isn’t like that. From our mooring we had two locks to negotiate to the water point followed by a third one before the toilet facilities and then twelve more in quick succession. Five bright and breezy hours later we closed the last lock gate with a weary sigh and pulled into a beautiful spot surrounded by trees and heralded by glorious bird song. The peace and solitude were in stark contrast to all the frantic activity and noise of the festival but it was just the antidote we needed and much more typical of what we expect when travelling this stretch of water.

It was a short easy hop to Market Drayton the next day and a two night stop to catch up on shopping and a few chores and to rendezvous with friends that we met when we were travelling last summer. It just so happened that Alan and Jacky were heading north and expected to be in Market Drayton the next day so the six of us arranged to meet up and have a catch up over dinner in the Red Lion. Good food and beer shared with great company is an evening well spent in my book and another cherished memory to deposit in the bank. Like all members of a similar tribe we love swapping stories and the more outrageous the better. Canal life is a rich seam to be tapped and the evening passed with an endless stream of laughter as the bonds of friendship were gently tightened before warm goodbyes in anticipation of future encounters.

Random strange sight

The Shropshire Union canal in this part of the county comprises sets of locks separated by long stretches of peaceful flat water passing through a succession of cuttings and embankments. The cuttings are sometimes deep and dark, almost jungle like with a cacophony of bird song and rich earthy smells. The tree tops often meet over the water forming a leafy emerald tunnel and where it was necessary to cut through tough unforgiving rock the channel narrows to little more than one boat’s width. Some of these narrow channels are straight whilst others meander left and right providing a little exciting anticipation at the prospect of meeting a boat coming the other way. Then suddenly the land and foliage fall away to each side as the cutting transforms to high embankment and darkness is replaced with brilliant light and expansive views in all directions. This landscape was typical of the next day’s travel as we left Market Drayton with Bob and Marie in our wake and entered the first narrows. Once clear of the challenging set of five Tyrley locks we were back in open countryside and The Longmynd and Stretton hills were clearly visible in the distance to the west. Gill and I remembered that there were good moorings not far ahead and as luck would have it we managed to grab the two best spots with panoramic views and good solid rings to tie up to.

Fingers crossed

Ten minutes later we have claimed our patch on the tow path and with chairs set out and mugs of tea in hand we can relax and admire the scenery whilst reflecting on the day’s sights and sounds. Later it’s Bob and Marie’s turn to meet up with their boating friends Paul and Jackie and whilst there is no pub involved this time it makes little difference and soon their friends are our friends and so it continues. Despite our widely differing backgrounds and experience there is common ground in abundance and a whole morning is lost to yet more stories and belly aching laughter amongst the inevitable discussion of the less glamorous, more basic side of narrow boat living. You know what I mean.

It feels as if we are gradually being absorbed into a lovely welcoming community of water travellers that come together and drift apart but always with an assumption that paths will cross again and friendships will be rekindled.

A near Glastonbury experience

Don’t you just love it when all the stars and planets align and everything just falls perfectly into place at just the right time. We spent a frustrating five months last year arriving in places on the boat where some spectacular talent filled entertainment bonanza had either just taken place or was about to happen in two weeks time. We hadn’t quite got the idea of just chilling and hanging around back then so we ended up missing every musical and cultural delight that we nearly came upon all summer. But not this year!

It might not be Glastonbury but it is buzzing
It’s the 19th Audlem festival and we are here!!

This year it’s different. We have landed in the beautiful little canal village of Audlem in perfect time for their four day extravaganza of poetry, music and beer. Arts, ale and sunshine; what more could a weary traveller ask for? Well how about pizza and a hair cut on the tow path. Yes we finally caught up with ‘Baked on Board’ the wood fire pizza boat that we have been chasing all over the canal network since last summer and as if that wasn’t enough, as I tripped over my untidy locks strolling along the canal I stumbled upon a hair dressing narrow boat. I’m not making this up honestly, and I have a nice smart hair cut to prove it. I can thoroughly recommend sitting in the sunshine on the tow path and having your hair cut by the lovely Ann, whilst bemused dog walkers stroll by. It’s so much more rewarding to discuss life on the water and the various pros and cons of a variety of canal side pubs rather than making small talk about Brylcream with a bored barber from Birmingham.

Haircut sir?

The festival itself is a buzzing cauldron of eclectic talent and friendly crowds. Just think Glastonbury without the mud and queues and about 99,000 less people. We have already sampled cool jazz, folk, poetry about Kermit the frog and head banging rock (for about thirty seconds) and there are still two days to go.

Cool jazz from Kevin Hassett and Redux
Inside the Shroppie Fly pub

The pizzas were divine, as predicted by so many boaters we have talked to along the way and I even managed to buy a length of anchor rope from a dignitary.

Pizza worth travelling for.
Rope boat

There is a lovely laid back atmosphere about this festival as the well heeled locals mingle with the slightly more down to earth boaters in a Blackpool meets Knightsbridge kind of way. It was particularly heart warming to look around the crowd whilst watching the Barsteward Son of Val Doonican (seriously, look him up on YouTube), and seeing immaculately dressed fashionistas wiping away the tears of laughter, in just the same way as the denim clad ageing hippies and would be rockers were. I love the fact that below the surface we are all pretty much the same model.

Speaking of models, we are now travelling with friends Bob and Marie on their very recently re-painted boat Rebecca. Rebecca looks stunning, perfect in every detail, while our Golden Girl is starting to show her age a little. She still looks good from a distance but up close she’s ready for a bit of beauty therapy. There is a very definite difference between our two craft on the outside but just like the crowds at the festival it’s only skin deep. Same as people really.

Rebecca, fresh from the beauty parlour

Who would want God’s job

Who would want the job of being God? I found myself asking that question more than once as we sat on the tow path being entertained by one of his slightly more demanding, not to say eccentric disciples. Let me set the scene.

Tow path tales

An old friend of mine, we’ll call him John, because that’s his name, had phoned out of the blue and asked where we were and we had made arrangements to meet him at our next stopping place. Along with Bob and Marie, our boating, and now travelling companions, we were all enjoying the sunshine and whiling away a pleasant afternoon sitting on the tow path, drinking tea and generally getting in the way of the many locals trying to enjoy a relaxing walk. One such local smiled and said hello in a pleasant enough way as she strolled past. She cut a striking figure dressed all in figure hugging black and sporting white crew cut hair and bright red lipstick. She was easily recognisable as she returned about ten minutes later and this time she decided we were beyond a casual greeting, she was ready to talk. And boy, could she talk.

Delighted to have found a captive audience of five with no obvious means of escape she launched into the story of her husband’s lost mobile phone and God’s part in it’s return without wasting any time on introductions or small talk. She seemed to possess a rare ability to talk for long periods without pausing for breath but with the unfortunate side effect of producing a continuous fine spray of spittle which cascaded down onto poor Marie who happened to be in the line of fire. Eventually, after going off on many complex tangential narratives we arrived at the explanation of how the mobile phone was found and handed in to a local shop and subsequently returned to her husband. The kind person that had found it had left a message explaining that they had no means of contacting it’s owner but sincerely hoped it would find it’s way back to them via the shop. This, apparently, was all God’s work and he was rewarded with twenty quid on the following Sunday for his efforts. She went on to tell us other reasons why she had had cause to slip God a twenty now and again and of the many, many times she had called on her long suffering deity for his help.

By now we were all crying helplessly with laughter and wiping tears from our eyes as poor Marie mopped herself down and assured our excited story teller that she was just enjoying being lucky enough to be in the front seat for the performance. Over the next half hour we learned in some detail about the domestic disputes that regularly occurred between our new friend and her husband who was, apparently, waiting for her back at the car “because his legs weren’t too good and he couldn’t walk very far”. I am ashamed to say that the thought crossed my mind that he probably had the legs of a long distance runner but had carefully cultured the story of his worsening legs over the years as a means of escape. These disputes, she told us, led to long periods where she refused to speak to him. It must have been torture for her and a brief but blissful interlude for him. There were many other stories involving loss and bribery of the Almighty but she finally ran out of steam, and bodily fluids, while I was in the boat taking a much needed natural break. When I came back out she had gone, returning to her patient husband who was, no doubt, hoping for a fresh falling out. We never learned about his religious standing but if he did believe in God I strongly suspect that he may have been quietly praying, telling God that there was a hundred pounds in it for him for the unsafe return of his wife.

If, in the extremely unlikely event that the star of this story should ever read this, I would like to emphasise that we all thought you were absolutely wonderful and if there is a God in heaven we have no doubt that he is keenly anticipating your eventual arrival at his side.

Nantwich news (involving a washing machine)

Well the washing machine drama turned out to be a bit like a BBC news story, all headlines but no substance. WASHING MACHINE REMOVED EASILY FROM BOAT is what it should have said. All the complex engineering issues were based on the unit being too wide to fit easily through the rear doors of the boat but when we pulled it out from under the work surface it turned out to be much smaller from front to back than it was wide. I was a bit disappointed if I’m honest. I’d spent quite some time researching how the pyramids were built and I was confident of my heavy block moving science.

Ramp preparations. (Supervisor on left)

As it turned out, placed on its side the width was actually four centimetres less than the door opening and we just pushed it up the ramp and out onto the back of the boat in about thirty seconds. I seriously regretted inviting the press, they were very disappointed. So, thanks to Bob and Dave for the muscle power, to Pharaoh Kufhu for some neat ramp and friction ideas and to Gill and Marie for your supervisory input. The washing machine has gone now, it was picked up by my sister and brother-in-law and now resides happily in a normal house with normal sized doors and single level ground floors. Sorry it wasn’t more exciting.

After sitting out the rain referred to in the earlier blog we made our way slowly along the Middlewhich branch canal and on to Nantwich. This was where we were meeting our white goods removal assistants (Chris and Bun) and also where we very conveniently bumped into friends Dave and Amanda from Rufford on their boat. (Extra muscle power). Entertainment was provided by a boat that came adrift overnight and was wedged across the canal the next morning. I sat on the front or our boat eagerly anticipating the shenanigans that would surely ensue when the first boat arrived at the blockage.

Sleepy heads

I didn’t have to wait long and soon there were four members of the travelling boat’s crew plus another from a moored boat all pushing and pulling amongst a cacophony of shouted instructions and conflicting ideas of how to retrieve the offending boat. The remarkable thing about the whole operation wasn’t really that they solved the problem whilst make a fair amount of noise, it was the fact that the people on the stuck boat never woke up! Hours later they appeared, bleary eyed and completely unaware of their part in my morning’s entertainment and the “Great Nantwich Canal Blockage Drama”.

Historic fairy lights and open mic night at The Oddfellows

Gill is away visiting her parents for a few days so I’m left holding the rather big baby and exploring Nantwich and it’s surroundings. I’m not complaining, the weather has been sublime and the local pubs are so full of character and history that I have felt compelled to make a detailed study of them for academic reasons. I did walk past an old church as well for the sake of architectural balance.

St. Mary’s Acton (note it’s opening time)
Nantwich sunset

We’ll be on the move again in a couple of days, back where we came from but more on that later.

The Middlewich breach

We are moored in a spectacular spot looking down on a body of water called Top Flash some hundred or so feet below us.

Top Flash before the rains came
Top Flash before the rains came

This would be a beautiful spot to laze away a sunny spring day, listening to the bird song and enjoying a rare high vantage point to take in the view. Alas it is not to be. Looking out over the river and the water below us the scenery fades to a misty grey in the distance and the colours of the new leaves on the trees are muted by heavy and persistent rain. The buttercup flowers are refusing to open up to greet the day and most of the dandelion heads have been stripped bare by the wind. No ducks, swans, swallows or songbirds are in evidence and even yesterday’s feverish farming activity in the nearby fields seems to have been suspended for today. As always there are some boaters that will travel in any conditions and I am anxious for all my carefully restored paintwork as they pass by, struggling to maintain a straight line in the squally winds. Staying put and waiting for tomorrow’s promised sunshine seems like the best option to me.

We can’t complain about the weather, we have been travelling for over three weeks now and it’s only the second day that we have felt obliged to sit out the rain and only once have we been caught standing on the back of the boat looking stoic with grim damp faces. The relentless east and northerly breezes have pegged the temperatures back well below the seasonal norm but occasionally in a sheltered spot the sun has hinted at what it has in store and the pure joy of the progression of Spring has kept our spirits high.

New ground, narrow bridge!
New ground, narrow bridge!

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark moment as we joined the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union canal. This section was closed last year due to a major breach that emptied the canal and washed away thousands of tons of earth, destroying a large section of the embankment that carries the route high above the fledgling river Weaver. It took months to repair it and as we passed over the newly formed embankment we were acutely aware of how precarious so many stretches of the canals are where they are raised up above the surrounding land. I love these high vantage points with extensive views but it only takes a minor collapse of the bank to start a process that can quickly escalate into a disaster. Escaping water from a minor weak point can rapidly erode the soil around it, deepening and widening the breach so that a trickle becomes a torrent with frightening speed and with devastating power to destroy everything in it’s path. History is full of records of such events and knowledge of them lends a frisson of excitement to the passage of these elevated and spectacular features.

The MIddlewich branch in 2018
The MIddlewich branch in 2018
Repaired Middlewich Branch today
Repaired Middlewich Branch today

Days like this are an ideal opportunity to reflect and to be grateful to the navvies and engineers that risked lives and reputations to build this amazing network of waterways and to appreciate how precious but also how fragile they have become after hundreds of years of use. It’s always nice to get going again after a wet day like today but we need to be grateful for the rain now and then as it forces us to stop and really get a feel for a location and makes us take the time to absorb the landscape and the history all around us.

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.

Funny old life

It’s a funny old life, living on a narrow boat. We set sail yesterday on our six month summer adventure and here we are, twenty four hours later, three miles from the marina, settled for a few days in Burscough. It feels like five minutes since the gun went off for the start of a marathon and we are sat by the side of the road having a picnic having run two hundred yards. We have even been shopping in Tesco this morning, the same Tesco we have been shopping in all winter. Yesterday, shortly after we moored up, one of our boating neighbours came by with his dog and another boat from the marina is moored just a few yards down the canal from us. It’s all a bit surreal.

We are mainly sitting tight because Gill has to pick up new glasses tomorrow and there are strong winds forecast all day so it wouldn’t be much fun travelling anyway. And talking of strong winds …..

Wind’s up!

We have an unwritten rule, passed on to us by experienced boating friends that if the forecast wind speed is over fifteen miles per hour it isn’t worth going out on the boat. That’s because handling a narrow boat in those conditions is really tricky. It may weigh sixteen tons but the wind will toss it across the canal like a puck on an ice rink and close manoeuvres such as pulling into lock landings or leaving locks is really just a game of chance. With this in mind I stood on the end of our jetty yesterday morning waiting for friends to arrive and watched my new wind direction indicator flipping around like a ballet dancer on acid. The forecast said fifteen miles an hour gusting to twenty five and I was thinking, stay at home. Unfortunately said friends had been promised a ride and there was additional pressure to leave in the form of more help at the other end of the Rufford locks from boaters Alan and Jacky who we met whilst travelling last year. All I could think about was the last two weeks of painstaking rubbing down, priming, undercoating, glossing and blacking and the narrow marina exit with it’s rough concrete edging and rusty iron work protruding. I could have cried.

In the end I managed to get out with only minor contact between hull and stone, in fact the wind practically blew us out onto the canal which turned out to be a haven of calm as the first few hundred yards is well sheltered from the east winds. We passed through lock No. 7 and a swing bridge without a hitch, survived the male mute swan that shepherded us past his partner sitting pretty on her rather magnificent nest and there was just enough straight calm water to let Jackie have her first experience of steering the boat.

Phillip helping. Or is he Morris Dancing?
Pan flat West Lancs

From then on it was a constant battle with a strong east wind from our left blowing across the pan flat West Lancashire fields. They were actually harvesting turf on one side of the canal, a fitting crop for an agricultural area that has the profile and wind resistance of a bowling green. I doubt Gill and I would have carried on on our own, so difficult was it to pull the boat in against the wind as we stopped at each lock, but with more than enough willing hands we were soon through all seven obstacles and mooring up for a well deserved late lunch with lashings of tea and yummy cakes. (It’s beginning to sound like Famous Five go Boating).

It’s really hard to reconcile the amount of effort required to travel through seven locks and two swing bridges whilst covering a little over three miles. It feels as if we should be in another time zone, speaking a different language and maybe even seeking out our passports for a border crossing. Instead, we are round the corner from our local Tesco. As I said, surreal.

Time for another adventure

Time for another adventure. We’re off for another six months of meandering lazily around the waterways and I won’t be sorry to get away. We love the marina we live in during the winter and it’s been great to have the time to do work on the boat but the swallows are here and it’s time to follow their example and get moving once more.

OK, elephant in the room, no blogs all winter I know. No excuses I just haven’t felt inspired to write for some reason so with the full intention of making up for it over the next few months I’ll start with a quick run down of our second winter on the boat and the first of our retirement proper.

I say proper because after retiring in April last year it felt like I was on holiday until we came back to Rufford in October. I got no real sense of what retirement felt like and to be honest I was a little bit apprehensive going into the winter months. Newly retired folks seem to fall into two categories, those that get bored really quickly and either go back to employment or throw themselves into voluntary work and those who say, “I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work”. I appear to fall into a third category, that of enjoying doing lots of things whilst revelling in not having to do any of them. Choice has never felt so good. I’ve always liked choosing. Choosing a book in a library, a meal in a restaurant or a route for a walk or a bike ride, but being able to choose just about everything I do is totally liberating. But there’s a catch. It didn’t take long to work out that whilst I could choose to be idle all day every day, or spend every day busy as a bee it turns out it’s all about balance. Isn’t it always? I’m getting the hang of it but maybe it will take a little longer to fine tune things and who knows, I may even choose to write more.

Nice to be home

Coming back to Rufford was a joy. Like a real home coming. We were enthusiastically welcomed by old friends and warmly accepted by all the new floating residents that had moved here in our absence. The marina is full now and it’s such a lovely community to live in. Totally relaxed, peaceful, stress free and friendly. We are surrounded by nature and in tune with the ticking of the seasonal clock. I have loved being immersed in the transitions from autumn to winter and eventually spring. To really have the time to notice the falling leaves, first frosts, frozen water, snow drops, catkins and daffodils and now, our first fledgling mallard ducklings have marked that passage with a reassuring sense of inevitability. Our regular walks along the tow path have rewarded us with so many sightings of kingfishers we have reached the point that it’s disappointing not to see them. Barn owls, roe deer and hare have all surprised and delighted us whilst the sight and sound of thousands of pink footed geese passing overhead are as much a part of winter as frosted window panes and frozen hose pipes. I have loved it all.

Piggy backing: an early sign of Spring

Converting the spare bedroom on the boat into a sitting and eating area with storage has kept me busy while Gill has been honing her skills as an artist. She seems to have uncovered a treasure chest of hidden talent whilst I have become a dab hand with a tin of emulsion and four inch roller. It’s been great to ‘put our mark’ on the Golden Girl and she now feels well and truly like home. We are now frantically finishing a long list of final preparations before departure and wondering why we didn’t start the list sooner or at least make it shorter. It can feel a bit pressured until I remind myself that since we are actually going away in our home with everything in it there isn’t really a departure day at all. Like the seasons, it’s much more of a transition from our stationary winter mode to what we hope will be another wondrous wandering summer.

Gill’s painting is really coming along

Our route this year is no more precise that ‘vaguely heading south’ but we will be passing through some glorious countryside. I don’t like to promise but I’ll try to blog a little more than last year and if anybody fancies meeting up at a waterside hostelry or two it would be lovely to see you.

Teenagers in the making
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