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Moaning Minnie

Good grief! It’s been nearly three months since I last posted on here. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, more a case of having nothing worth writing about. I still haven’t really, but as the year draws to a close I thought an update might be in order and besides, I need to have a bit of a moan. I’ll understand if you don’t want to read any further of course.

Back in October Gill and I spent several days touring marina brokerages looking at narrow boats and getting, firstly very giddy indeed and then secondly terribly frustrated. We found several boats of interest and within out theoretical price range and then we found ‘the one’. Pilgrim was a beautiful 57 foot traditional narrow boat which had obviously been cherished by its previous owners. We both fell for it instantly and had we had the funds in place I think we would have bought it. Unfortunately our boat buying funds are tied up in the bungalow that we are trying to sell and that is where the frustration comes in. With no real interest despite several price drops our hands our tied. We came home from viewing Pilgrim full of excitement but after a rather dangerous conversation involving bridging loans we came to our senses, got really fed up and decided to stop looking at boats until the property sells.

The cosy lounge area of Pilgrim

For the last two months it has felt as if we are in limbo. The irony of the phrase ‘treading water’ whilst waiting to buy a boat has not escaped me but that is what it feels like. I am constantly wrestling with the exciting anticipation of the time when we will actually be able to go ahead with our plans and the incessant nagging guilt that we are wasting precious moments of our lives. A friend of mine once explained life as a period of years allotted to us that we simply had to fill up with stuff. What we filled it up with didn’t matter, he said, so long as it made us happy. Right now I can’t help feeling that we are letting ourselves down.

We are very lucky in that we have managed to acquire something that many people of our age are still dreaming of. We have a plethora of spare time but it’s hard work filling it with what feels like second best. To be fair to myself it has been complicated by my on going suffering with plantar fasciitis which has meant I haven’t been able to do much walking. Thankfully  that is now on the mend and we are out and about increasingly and enjoying a new found interest in bird watching. (If you are a sufferer you might want to check out this exercise routine which has finally borne fruit.) But it still feels like we are killing time. Every time I see memes along the lines of ‘seize the day’, ‘strike while the iron is hot’ and ‘don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today’ I feel incredibly frustrated but also ungrateful at the same time. We are lucky, we are rich with time and memories and life is easy and my Catholic upbringing tells me I should be thankful for what I have and stop moaning. But I’m still moaning.

Here’s a pair of Cormorants killing time.

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions but maybe this year I should try and start 2017 with a definite plan to focus on the now and leave fate and the future to themselves. Oh and I’ll try to stop moaning. Thanks for listening, I feel a bit better now.

Yours

Moaning Minnie

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.

It’s all a question of balance.

I have a job!

It’s such a great feeling after another depressing period of weekly visits to the Job Centre and mindless applications for jobs I really didn’t want. Being unemployed is like being adrift in a boat without an engine or a rudder. I feel out of control even though I am actively looking for work and the whole job seeking and benefit claiming experience fills me with despair. There comes a point when getting any job at all would be a huge relief so the fact that I have found one that I actually want to do is a massive bonus. But what makes me happiest of all is my working week.

I’m going to be working in a stunning outdoor setting, surrounded by wildlife and talking to like-minded people about a charity that I really believe in.

Not a bad place to work

Not a bad place to work

The job itself is exactly what I was looking for but even better, I will be working three shifts per week, just what I wanted. I think this is what is meant by a plan coming together.

I know that not everybody is in a position to work just three days a week, so I do appreciate how lucky I am, but on the other hand this is just what Gill and I have been working so hard to achieve over the last few years and now we are finally where we want to be; both working less than half of each week and both doing something that we enjoy and that we believe is worthwhile.

You hear a lot of talk about getting the work, life balance right these days but I don’t think it’s that simple in reality. We are not just trying to balance work days and leisure days; we are also considering finances, work patterns, time together and time for ourselves. It’s more complex than a simple balancing act and scales just don’t represent the problem. It’s really about getting the mix right rather than a simple balancing act and right now I think we are as close as we can get to success. No doubt circumstances out of our control will be along to spoil the party sooner or later but then that’s the challenge. To add another element into the mix, stir it all up and find a new solution that works is half the fun but for now we are happy to make the most of the steady state that we find ourselves in.

This steady state is precisely what we need right now. It’s a bit like the shelter of a port after the thrill of a challenging voyage. It’s exactly what I feel we need to contemplate where we have been over the last few years and to consider what comes next. It’s ironic that having worked so hard to get to this safe harbour, it turns out to be the perfect place from which to plan an escape.

Perhaps there is a balance in all this after all. On the one side of the scales, the heavy side, we have our current position of stability; steady work, financial security and a permanent home. The empty pan is where the next adventure will be incubated. Conversations, memories, maps and stories will all be added to the scales until a tipping point is reached and a new idea will be born. We have no idea what, or when, that will be but we just feel that it is inevitable. I think we are both happy to sit back and relish a bit of constancy for now and to take some time to relax, to take stock and maybe to dream a little.

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

1000961

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.

 

It’s a tribal thing

We have bought our tickets for the second annual Cycle Touring Festival in May. The first one was a resounding success with about two hundred like-minded, two wheeling nomads coming together to share tales of misery and delight over beers, brews and a small mountain of cake. At that time we were not long back from our big trip around the coast of Britain which we thought was quite an epic adventure until we listened to some of the speakers at the festival. It turned out that what we had done was like a bit of a warm up for some of the odysseys that others had undertaken. Phrases like “that was our twenty second country” or “it was just towards the end of our third year on the road” were bandied about with a casualness normally reserved for discussing the weather. There were, of course, plenty of cyclists there who had yet to embark on their first multi week tour and even some who had never strapped a pannier on a bike or even sniffed a pair of socks to determine whether they would do another week or not. We were somewhere in the middle I suppose.

P1020947_compressed

What was brilliant about it though was that we were with our tribe. It didn’t matter whether you were a grizzled old warrior of the road or still dithering over which Swiss Army knife you should choose, you were one of the clan and as such safe and protected and in the right place. When people with a common interest and passion come together there is a real genuine feeling of warmth and support; especially if the common interest is a bit wacky and not really understood by other people. I’m sure there is exactly the same cosy sense of being wrapped in a protective but fluffy blanket at model train conventions or a velology festival. I’m not sure whether it’s because of a deep rooted ancient yearning to come together with others that share our passions and beliefs or simply a desire not to feel weird. It doesn’t really matter, it’s fun and it gives us purpose and place in a confusing and crowded world.

Being with ‘your own sort’ is easy and relaxing. It’s so refreshing to be able to emerge from the tent in the morning and talk to your nearest neighbour about the relative merits of synthetic or natural sleeping bag fillings as if it was the most normal thing in the world. When we share a campsite with the public at large we are often greeted by concerned caravaners who want to check that we survived the night without succumbing to hypothermia. We were even asked on one occasion if we would like them to boil a kettle for us. I don’t know if they thought that we might be desperate for a hot drink or a good wash but we assured them in the nicest possible way that we did actually have the means of boiling a kettle ourselves. When you are with your tribe you don’t have to explain the obvious and you can just get on with laughing hilariously at the shared memory of being wet for three consecutive days or making dinner from a spoonful of rice, a chicken flavour cup-a-soup and a lump of cheese that has been lurking in the bottom of a pannier for several weeks. Of course you both know that you are exaggerating wildly but that’s all part of the fun.

Most conversations will, at some point, turn knowingly to the non-tribal members of the population who are missing out on the true meaning of life and the route to ever-lasting happiness by not going cycle touring. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? We come together and celebrate our eccentricity. We revel in our difference from the masses and look to each other as living proof that we and we alone, have found the answers. Just like the train spotters, the sequence dancers and the cheese rollers probably do when they attend their annual tribal gatherings. The sense that we are a part of something is important, even vital, to our well-being so I for one can’t wait to gather around the camp fire once again and remind myself that I’m not the only weirdo on the block.

Budgie breeder, just for Dane

Somebody commented on here the other day that they liked the randomness of my posts since I stopped writing about cycling. Well this one is for you Dane.

I used to breed budgerigars. It was a long time ago now and I have no idea what brought it back to my mind during this morning’s walk. I certainly didn’t see any exotic bird life and I didn’t make it as far as the recently opened pet shop in the village but something brought back the cut and thrust of the budgie breeding world so I thought I would write about it.

I think I was about fourteen at the time that we went to visit my Dad’s brother, Uncle Ted, in Dalton. When you are fourteen visits to relatives aren’t at the top of your bucket list so I was probably being a sulky teenager on the long journey from St. Anne’s all around the expansive Morecambe Bay and without the aid of the M6 to provide any excitement. I suspect I spent the whole journey dreaming of Claire Boon, the most beautiful creature ever to grace the top deck of a number eleven bus but that’s a story for another day.

We already had a budgie in our house. He was called Peter and his party trick was to pick up coins from the mantel piece and drop them onto the hearth because he seemed to like the noise they made. It was an amusing trick but it didn’t require a great deal of intellect and indeed, he didn’t have any. He once spent a good hour transferring about three pounds worth of small change from the dining table to the carpeted floor of the lounge completed baffled by the absence of his favourite jingle. He could barely hold his head up by the end of the exercise but he was nothing if not persistent. And endlessly optimistic. I thought it was cool to own a budgie, well, probably not cool back then, more likely neat or ace. Yes I think it was ace, but when I got to my Uncle’s house he took things to another level.

This is not Peter

This is not Peter

In his back garden he had not one, but dozens, maybe even hundreds of budgerigars in aviaries. They were all the colours of the rainbow (apart from orange, red and purple) and they fascinated me as they flew around their enclosures and jostled with each other on perches, sometimes fighting and sometimes flirting. I was allowed to go into one of the aviaries and even given a bird to hold and shown newly laid eggs and hatchlings. I was hooked.

Over the next few weeks I pestered and pestered to be allowed to become a budgie breeder and in the end, no doubt for the sake of a bit of peace, I was given the green light. My Dad was a joiner and it didn’t take him long to knock up the necessary accommodation for a pair of besotted blues and I was in business. I was genuinely enthusiastic and tended their every need before and after school until one happy day they produced a family. It probably taught me more about biology than Mr. Hodges ever did and I exhausted the local library’s budgie section in my thirst for knowledge. Before long we required an aviary too and what had been my Dad’s sanctuary, his shed, became a feather infested smelly den requiring endless cleaning and constant attention as the breeding program went exponential.

That’s when I lost interest and left it all to my Dad. I think, by then, I had mustered up the courage to actually speak to Clair Boon and really there was just no competition I’m afraid. To be fair to my Dad he really got stuck into it and even won a few prizes at local shows. I have always felt really guilty about the way I got him into breeding budgies at the expense of his beloved shed while I moved on to breeding ambitions of another kind. Not complaining about it was probably as clear a declaration of fatherly love as you could ever imagine.

The whole episode in my life is all terribly vague now. It’s like a kind of Eton Mess of memories involving seeds, feathers, eggs and poo, and, if I’m really honest, probably knickers and bra straps as well. I did learn a few things though and they have stuck with me all my life. I can tell a male and female budgerigar apart without lifting up any skirts or dropping any trousers and I still remember the difference between a Lutino and an Albino. I also learnt what it feels like to get dumped by the most gorgeous girl that ever rode the number eleven bus and then realise that you have lost your budgies into the bargain.

Spot the difference

Spot the difference