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?

 

Poking around in their bedrooms

We spent a pleasant enough afternoon yesterday investigating the homes of complete strangers, grilling them mercilessly about their bathroom arrangements and poking around in their bedrooms.

The homes in question were afloat and no more than seven feet across at their widest point. Yes, you’ve guessed, we are going to buy that narrow boat.

For some time now we have had a plan to retire to the waterways in about seven years when I receive my state pension and we are finally free from the shackles of paid employment. It’s what is referred to as a long term plan and therein lays its failing. It’s not dissimilar to the position we were in three year ago when we had long term plans to pack in our jobs and cycle around the coast. Back then we suddenly realised, prompted by a change of circumstance, that waiting was a mugs game and as readers of this blog will know we packed our bags and got on with it. We have decided it’s time to just get on with it again.

Obliging owners who took us for a ride. (Cruiser stern)

Obliging owners who took us for a ride. (Cruiser stern)

Waiting and dreaming sometimes works out for people and good luck to them but so often it turns into an invitation for disaster and disappointment when all the plans come tumbling down due to some unfortunate and unimagined circumstance. We simply don’t want “if only” to feature anywhere in our epitaphs.

It’s a bit like seeds that are held in an inanimate state waiting for the right conditions that will enable them to germinate and flourish. We acquired this particular seed some time last year when we were tossing around ideas that would satisfy our newly found wanderlust but we put it in the metaphorical fridge as insurance against future drudgery and boredom. A few weeks ago we realised that the fridge was no place for something with so much potential for joy. Now the seed is firmly planted in the optimum conditions and already the first exciting signs of germination are appearing.

Hello! Wake up, can we look in your boat?

Hello! Wake up, can we look in your boat?

We have visited various narrow boat marinas over the last few weeks and have found the location for our new home and placed a deposit on it. Now we just have to raise the funds and go and find the home itself. All our conversation at the moment revolves around cruiser versus traditional sterns and the pros and cons of pump out or cassette toilets. We have produced a complex list of features, (in a spreadsheet of course) each weighted with a score according to its importance and we are busy putting boats for sale through the matrix to find the kind of craft we need to go and view once we have the funds. It’s very exciting and talking to boaters that already live on board is all part of the build up to this next adventure.

Traditional stern

Traditional stern

Our technique so far has been to visit a marina or section of towpath where it is possible to engage with owners, ask them a slightly corny question such as, “how long is your boat?” and then without further ado invite ourselves on board for a good poke around and a grilling of the occupants. So far, without exception, they have been more than willing to show off what is very obviously their pride and joy and also to encourage us without reservation to ‘get on with it’. So we are.

We have to sell a property to raise the funds for this so it might not happen tomorrow but happen it will and that in itself is far preferable to wondering ‘what if?’ Expect a lot of pictures of narrow boats on here over the next few months.

Wildlife on wheels

Bit of a dearth of blogging lately I know, my only excuse is starting work and spending all my spare time trying to stop the big fat pigeon from eating all the food we put out in about thirty seconds. There will be more on that and my new job in another post soon.

In the mean time I have been guest blogging for the Wildlife Trust junior web pages on the joys of combining cycle touring with watching wildlife. The result is over here: http://wildlifewatch.org.uk/wildlife-cycling I hope you like it.

1010201

 

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.

What’s in a name?

Sometimes it’s tricky deciding what to call something.

What's this?

What’s this?

A dead one of these!

A dead one of these!

“A building for human habitation, especially one that consists of a ground floor and one or more upper storeys”

This is the dictionary definition of a house. Our new place of habitation doesn’t have any upper storeys so I guess it isn’t a house. It’s not a bungalow either. So if we don’t live in a house or a bungalow, a flat or a maisonette, what do we live in? What do we call our new home?

The problem started as soon as we began negotiations with the vendors and it’s still going on now three months after we moved in. Obviously you don’t buy a new home without constantly referring to it and we quickly found that we didn’t actually know what to call the thing we were buying. I don’t mean we were struggling to choose between ‘Dunroamin’ or ‘Att-om-ere’, I mean we just kept using different ways of describing it. Park home, Mobile home, Caravan, Static Van, Unit; we tried them all out but they all felt a bit awkward. We are not alone in this either. When people come to visit for the first time they are genuinely complimentary but they always seem to stumble when reaching for the correct descriptive noun. “It’s bigger than I thought”, they say, “I’ve never actually been inside ‘one of them’ before”. That’s the giveaway isn’t it? “One of them”. There is something about that phrase that says, “Well it’s not a house is it?”

It's mobile but it isn't going anywhere.

It’s mobile but it isn’t going anywhere.

I think I have worked out what is going on here now. Everybody is really supposed to live in a house aren’t they? We all have this pre-conceived idea of ‘the family’, ‘the home’, ‘the job’ etc. and if we are confronted by anything that breaks the mould in any way it makes us a bit uncomfortable. You hear phrases like; “Oh they’re not married”, or “They work from home” suggesting that ‘they’ are actually not quite normal.  Perhaps that is why we are all struggling with what to call the place where we live now. No matter how you dress it up it’s not a house in a conventional sense and in reality it’s a plywood box sitting on a steel chassis with a fake tiled roof made out of aluminium. By any stretch of the imagination that is not a conventional house as described by the dictionary. Of course no friend wants to describe it like that for fear of being rude but the plain truth is; Park Home, Mobile Home, Caravan, Static Van and Unit all describe it much better than ‘house’ does. This is why we all keep stumbling when we grasp for the right name to use. I have experimented with referring to it as a house from time to time but it just doesn’t sound right. Calling it a house won’t magically make it sprout another storey and it feels phoney. A bit like the well-dressed lady in Lidl’s who answered her mobile phone and announced to the caller, “Oh I’m just doing a bit of shopping in Sainsbury’s”. Who does she think she is kidding? (That’s a true story by the way; thank you Elaine.)

The official UK government website has settled on Park (mobile) Home, thus hedging its bets by putting the potentially offensive word in brackets. Use of the word mobile is a bit misleading anyway. It’s got nothing to do with the thing having wheels or being towable, it’s doesn’t and it isn’t. The mobile word refers to the fact that in theory at least, we could, should we choose, load our house onto the back of a big lorry and take it somewhere else. In that sense it is mobile. In reality these things rarely move anywhere unless it’s really, really windy.

I suppose it’s fitting really that if you choose to live somewhere a bit quirky and unconventional then it follows that it might be a bit tricky to refer to it without mortally offending the owners. Just for the record I should point out that we really don’t care what people call it. To us it’s just home and you can call it anything you like but “Gill and Tony’s place” sounds quite nice. It’s going to be a whole lot easier if we stick to our plan of buying a narrow boat at some point in the future. At least that is what it says it is; nothing more, nothing less.

Shopping smarter, the BBC way.

There was an interesting program on the BBC last night. It wasn’t completely original, I saw something similar last year but I am intrigued by the message it is giving out at prime time and the assumption that there is sufficient interest in the subject. It was titled, ‘Shop well for less’, but I don’t think that title tells the whole story of what it was about.

The basic premise, if you didn’t see it, or can’t be bothered catching it here, was to take a family that shop really badly and consequently overspend, throw in a bathroom project in their house that has been unfinished for years because they are short of cash and show them how much they could save by shopping smarter. I’m not here to comment on the detailed content or quality of the program but I am very interested in what it had to say.

I suppose there are several ways of viewing this kind of show; you could see it as a useful educational tool that explains the value of shopping more thoughtfully and questioning not just how much you buy but also what brands and whether or not you are getting value for money. On the other hand, you could view it as an anti-consumerism message and thus part of a small historic movement that has always questioned the whole concept of acquiring stuff simply because we can.

On a different level again you could say the program was encouraging us to fight back against the fierce onslaught of the advertising industry. There was an element of blind testing revealing that top brands aren’t always the best value and neither is price an indicator of quality in all cases. To the producer’s credit they also acknowledged that sometimes paying more for quality works out cheaper in the long run.

The biggest unanswered question that it left in my mind though, was would such a program have any impact? I doubt it myself. The program lasted an hour and during that time it appealed to people to think before buying and to question the claims of advertisers. In the same period, on a multitude of commercial channels, tens if not hundreds of hours of advertisements were broadcast. Millions of sales e-mails were dispatched and in the same time thousands of minds were dreaming up new ways of convincing us to buy things that we may, or may not, need. Then there are the magazines we read, the bill boards that assault our senses every day and the mountains of junk mail that pile up behind our doors. All this verses a one hour TV program; it’s hardly a fair competition is it?

I do believe there might be a glimmer of hope in all this though. The fact that it isn’t the first program of its kind is encouraging, but more important still, is the time that it was broadcast and its position on a major channel like BBC1. The cynic in me believes that its main appeal might be in its voyeuristic intrusion into another family’s life so that we can all enjoy gasping with incredulity at the stupidity of the mum and dad that go out to buy winter coats for their boys and come home with bedding and clothes for themselves and the children but not the coats that they went for. Having said that, it was pretty hard hitting when it came to advertising and there were some strong messages about buying what we actually need rather than what the marketing gurus tell us we need. It’s not going to bring about the death of consumerism or drag the advertising industry to its knees overnight but it’s an encouraging step towards questioning the whole crazy business of what we buy and why we do it. There are plenty of examples of consumers winning victories over suppliers and turning the tables on who is in control of what we buy. In the 1970’s the large UK breweries were determined to phase out unprofitable and unpredictable real ale in favour of cheap-to-produce and stable keg beers. The Campaign for Real Ale was formed to combat this move and by people power alone they reversed the strategy of the suppliers completely. It is now almost impossible to find a pub in the UK that doesn’t serve real ale. Admittedly what we are talking about here is different; this isn’t just a suggestion that people should choose to buy a different product but that they actually refrain from buying a lot of things completely. That’s a much bigger ask, I agree.

Most people I talk to understand that unrestrained consumption, by an ever increasing population, on a planet of finite resources doesn’t add up. I am hoping that a program like this, being broadcast on a mainstream channel and at prime time is an indicator that challenging thoughtless consumerism isn’t quite as off the wall as it used to be. It’s only a very faint glimmer of hope but it’s better than total darkness.

Buy one get one free. If only that was an option

Buy one planet, get one free. If only that was an option

 

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