It’s not a boat but it is narrow.

I know it's not a narrow boat.

I know it’s not a narrow boat.

I’m sorry to disappoint all those who thought they could look forward to tales of life on the not so high seas. The narrow boat is still very much a part of the plan but it has taken more of a back seat for now. As the sign in the picture says the above park home is under offer. Our offer. We are quietly optimistic of taking possession of this narrow but cosy establishment some time before Christmas. The most significant element of the purchase being that it will be ours entirely and we will no longer be paying rent to anybody. This is how our thinking went:

Although we might be in a position to buy a narrow boat now and live on board we would have to continue working part time to make ends meet. This adds all kinds of complications to life on a boat, not least the fact that we would have to have a permanent mooring and almost certainly run a car in order to secure work. We would also be limited to cruising short distances in between work with the possibility of longer trips for holidays. This is far less attractive than being able to travel around the country on the boat, free to roam as we please. For that we need to be financially independent and that isn’t going to happen any time soon. It just isn’t the life that has caught our imagination whilst talking to other liveaboards.

What we really want is it to retire to a narrow boat and explore the life style without the constraints of work or place. With this in mind we re-examined our finances and worked out the quickest route to life on the water. Enter a cheap mobile home, bought for cash, and a compact but rent free life that will allow us to reach our goal in half the time previously anticipated.

There is a real danger in this. Living for the future is something that we don’t believe in and on paper that appears to be exactly what we are planning to do. It will be at least five years before we can retire which is a long time and we have no intention of putting our lives on hold in the hope that it will all work out in the end. The challenge now is to squeeze all we can out of park life and to find some kind of balance between working for the future and living for the moment. Not an easy thing to do I’ll grant you but we are up for that challenge.

There is an age limit on the park we have chosen, residents must be at least fifty five. Gill has thoroughly enjoyed having estate agents gently point out to her that it is unlikely that we would qualify. I couldn’t help but notice that they were always looking at her when they broke this news. Of course I am more than qualified already but Gill will have to wait until the New Year to fit the rules. I have a sneaking suspicion that there may be blogging material in life on a residential mobile park, watch this space as they say. That will be a 35′ x 12′ space to be precise. Still, bigger than a tent eh?

Jam sandwiches

The thing I remember most acutely about riding my bike as a child was the sense of exploration. In the endless days of the summer holidays we would make up a few jam sandwiches and take off on another intrepid voyage into the unknown. The fact that so much is new during those tender years makes it easy to have an adventure. There is so much to discover and to wonder at. Whether it’s how far you can ride in a day or venturing deep into the woods to discover that witch’s grave we have heard about. It’s all a bit magical. Somebody asked me the other day how I got into cycling and I realise now that I gave them the wrong answer. I told them about how I started to ride a bike but that’s a subtly different thing. Learning to ride the bike is one thing but discovering what possibilities it opens up and going exploring on a bike is a whole new world. I think it was those early day rides that really got me into cycling and sowed the seeds of my life long cycle touring passion.

All this rose-tinted reminiscence was prompted by a short ride that Gill and I undertook last week. It wasn’t very long but it brought back all the wonderful sense of exploration and discovery that was so easy to find as a child. The idea for the ride came while I was looking at Google Earth and trying to work out exactly where in Preston the Lancaster Canal terminated. It was originally supposed to connect to the docks but it was never completed and its end point has been further truncated by a remodelling of the city centre. It now comes to an abrupt halt in the middle of a mixed residential and commercial area about a mile from the modern marina. It was strange to zoom in to what appeared to be closely packed terraced houses on narrow streets and find myself looking at the tops of narrow boats. This was something just crying out to be explored.

Inspiration

Inspiration

We picked up the canal along the wonderfully named Sidgreaves Lane and ducked under the first bridge bumping over the cobbled paving on our less than ideal touring bikes. We have walked this bit of the canal before and we passed under roads that were regular cycling routes but it wasn’t long before we were trying to work out the unfamiliar surroundings. It’s amazing how you can be in the middle of an area that you think you know well but when seen from a different perspective it all looks totally different.

Towpath tranquility

Towpath tranquility

The open fields either side of the water were soon replaced by sports facilities on the right and the odd bungalow on the left heralding the outskirts of the city. Modern houses, or urban sprawl if you prefer, encroached on both sides now and manicured gardens were adorned with private moorings and waterside decking. In contrast we glimpsed the Tulketh Mill chimney in the distance, a very familiar Preston landmark alongside the busy Blackpool Road reminding us that this watery artery would soon take us deep into the city. It was a marked contrast with the scene of peaceful serenity around us as moorhens and mallards went quietly about their business. A pair of proud swans glided by, protectively escorting their single tiny cygnet.

Mum, Dad and the little one

Soon we were passing right by the mill and under the main road and suddenly those terraced houses I had seen on the map were packed tightly along the far bank. Their gardens tumbled steeply down to the water’s edge, some immaculately terraced and trimmed, and others a wild riot of bramble and weed. More than one boasted its own private pub like construction complete with mock terrace bar and parasols. They were just crying out for our overdue summer to get underway and the opportunity to sip cool drinks in the balmy evening air. I was more than a little jealous of these idyllic havens hidden behind what would undoubtedly be unremarkable red brick terraced streets.

G and T for me please

G and T for me please

We had to lift the bikes over a short flight of stairs but there on the other side was the small marina and the narrow boats that had so intrigued me on Google Earth. That was it, the end of the canal and suddenly we were battling with busy city centre traffic as we made our way down to the marina. A completely new world of noise and fumes, traffic lights and five way junctions to negotiate, just yards from the canal terminus. It was like emerging from the peace and tranquillity of a cathedral into the chaos of the city centre. Ten minutes of mixing it with the traffic and we were at the old docks, now a smart residential and retail centre.

On the south side of the marina you can find Common Terns nesting. They have chosen to fly 12,000 km from Namibia to raise their new families in Preston. Sometimes nature is just beyond explanation. They squabble and bicker amongst themselves and with the coots, pigeons and seagulls that they share the nesting pontoons with. With their striking and sleek appearance they remind me of spivs, all slick and sophisticated on the outside but with a message that says, don’t mess with me.

Common Tern

Common Tern

We leave them to their aerial conflicts and head for the end of the dock and the channel that links it to the river Ribble. Massive lock gates control the tidal waters and I can see why narrow boat skippers are wary of this route back to the tranquil waters of the canals. There is no choice; it’s the only way to get from the Lancaster canal to the rest of the national network. Flat bottomed boats designed to cruise at 4mph are not well suited to fast moving tides and winds and it must be an exciting dash to the shelter and safety of still water.

Holding back the sea

Holding back the sea

Unfortunately the tide is out so there won’t be any boats on the river to entertain us today. That’s enough exploring for us and we turn tail and head for home on familiar cycle tracks and roads.

We had managed to spend over two hours covering a measly eighteen miles but it felt like a real voyage of discovery. The idea of riding into Preston city centre from where we live sounds about as appealing as an hour on a spinning bike in the gym but we had managed to turn it into a real adventure. For a couple of hours I was a carefree teenager once more, exploring the world around me and uncovering hidden gems right in my own back yard. It was wonderful, even magical.

We were starving when we got back. Next time I’ll take some jam sandwiches.

 

The not so beautiful eclipse of the sun

Well that’s it for another ten years at least. It’s all over. I have found myself just as wrapped up as anyone by all the frenzy surrounding this latest eclipse of the sun. The media have, predictably, gone crazy over it. School start times have been changed, TV schedules re-written, planes chartered and personalities have been wheeled out to bring us coverage of this extraordinary event.

Photo courtesy of ESA

Photo courtesy of European Space Agency

The adjectives used to describe the spectacle have been interesting. We have been drowning in words like spectacular, stunning, breath taking and one reporter described it as the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Really? I’m sorry but I don’t actually think it is that beautiful. Extraordinary yes, amazing maybe, even incredible but I don’t think it even comes close to dozens or even hundreds of sunsets I have seen for example. I have seen spectacular mountain vistas, stunning towering sea cliffs and even breath taking fields of red poppies swaying in a summer’s breeze which all provide a visual spectacle far more stimulating and rewarding than an eclipse of the sun. I think a lot of these commentators are missing the point.

Sunset over Jura

Sunset over Jura

I am not trying to belittle this phenomenon at all. I just think that it is special, not because of its beauty, but because of its rarity. The correct reason for making such a fuss about it is that it may be the only one some people will see in their entire life time. Now that is special. Depending upon where we are on the planet, weather conditions or restrictions imposed upon us by our circumstances some of us may never see an eclipse from birth to death. That’s what makes this event worth shouting about. That’s why we should celebrate it, because it is precious.

So if the true value of an eclipse of the sun lays in its very rare nature then surely that is true of other uncommon and unique experiences. But here’s a thought: You can’t simply choose to see an eclipse of the sun whenever you like, you have no control over such things, but you can enjoy equally rare and precious experiences almost at will.

Stunning sea cliffs

Stunning sea cliffs

Most of us already have a whole catalogue of these very special moments already stored away. The first time we fell in love, held a baby, climbed a mountain or rode a bike. There are thousands of other examples but the key word here is ‘first’. Ask yourself this question; when was the last time you did something for the first time? Think hard about that question because the answer may reveal that you are missing opportunities to collect the most precious things in the world. Truly unique experiences.

When you do something special, something wondrous, exciting or even frightening for the first time you experience something that you can never ever experience again. Its uniqueness lies in it being the first time. By its very nature the first time can never be repeated again and this makes all the emotions and sensations associated with a new experience precious beyond words.

You will have to wait a very long time to witness a solar eclipse again but you can create rare and special events pretty much whenever you like. From something as simple as cooking a meal that you have never tried before to travelling to a new place or taking on a real challenge that stretches and tests you, it’s easy to set these situations up. At the ripe old age of 55 I cycled through the night from Manchester to Blackpool. It was the first time I had ever cycled all night and into the dawn. It was a wonderful, unique and special experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Yesterday I spoke to someone who is learning to play the piano in their sixties. They can look forward to a whole host of first time experiences to savour and cherish. So don’t wait for the next eclipse to come around. It may be cloudy, you may be in the wrong part of the world or sadly, you may be dead. Make your own eclipses now. Make them for the very first time, make them beautiful and make them often.

JFDI

There are various definitions of the acronym JFDI ranging from the polite (just focus and do it) to the obscure (Joyful Frog Digital Incubator) and of course to the more common one which you can work out for yourselves.

This morning it was freezing at 8am and although the sun was shining the forecast gave a high of 6c by mid-afternoon, so it was easy to think of all sorts of important things to do rather than go for a bike ride. Finally, at half past ten, having exhausted Facebook, Twitter and even the washing up those four letters popped into my head and it was time to stop prevaricating and JFDI.

Apart from being a bit chilly it really was a perfect cycling day. The image below says it all. If ever something should put a smile on the face of a cyclist it is the sight of a completely limp flag set against a blue sky.

Looking good for a bike ride

Looking good for a bike ride

It wasn’t a really spectacular or lengthy ride, just a pleasant jaunt on a wonderful winter’s day. There were moments that stood out. Like the one when a buzzard flew just ten yards in front of me screeching as it went. It made me jump then it made me gasp, then I considered briefly, and rather ridiculously, that it might be eyeing me up for dinner. It was a beautiful sight all silliness aside.

Tree

Tree

The model sheep made me smile as they always do. I just don’t understand why somebody would build a big house in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by fields of real live sheep and then decide that they need some stone ones on their lawn. Then again, there are lots of things I don’t understand. Like where the two twenty pence pieces that I specifically put in my shirt pocket had gone to when I came to pay at the toll bridge. Gill paid in the end so that worked out rather well.

Stone sheep

Stone sheep

Real sheep

Real sheep

We cycled about thirty mostly flat miles in the end but I ran out of body fuel after twenty five so the last five miles were rather a slog. Gill kindly pointed out that she had an energy bar in her pocket. About ten minutes after we got home!

Trees and Sky

Trees and Sky

After a quick shower and change of clothes we treated ourselves to lunch in a local pub. Which brings me to two pieces of signage that I saw today that I feel you should know about. The first one was on a van and it irritated me. It was advertising a car valeting service and said; “keeping your car mucky free”. Now I’m no expert, as you may have gathered, but that simply isn’t English. The second one was grammatically correct but amused me for other reasons. It was in the toilet at the pub and read; “We aim to keep these toilets clean at all times. If you have any concerns please speak to one of our team”. I went straight back to the bar and said; “Excuse me young man, your toilets are spotless but I’m a little bit worried about the state of the economy at the moment”. I didn’t really but the idea made me smile.

Ironing – part two

The George and Dragon in Dent is the best pub in the world and that is official. We awarded it this accolade by dint of it being open when we got there and having an open fire roaring in the grate within five minutes of our arrival. The barmaid seemed somewhat bemused by her first customers, focused as they were on having the fire lit before anything else. We rearranged the furniture around the hearth and dripped water everywhere as we traipsed from the fire to the toilets to wring out first gloves and then socks as we peeled off layer after layer and turned the pub lounge into a drying room. We started with tea and followed that with sausage baguettes followed immediately by more tea and scones with jam. Other customers came in and kept a safe distance from us at first but gradually the atmosphere changed and soon it was all camaraderie and tales of weather based bravado flowed freely. A couple of mountain bikers paddled in and we rearranged our various sodden items so that they could share the fire. We talked of backpacking, cycling and climbing and near death experiences in heavy showers. The food and drink came and went and the tales grew taller but nothing got much drier unfortunately. The conditions outside were improving and before long we had to face the fact that we would have to leave this haven of warmth and comfort. We entertained the crowd as we pulled on wet socks and gloves and demonstrated how to put on our weird looking ‘Rainlegs’; half chaps, half waterproofs. We said our goodbyes to our new found soggy friends and stepped out into a freshly laundered landscape. Seven more cyclists were preparing to take a few more gallons of water into the pub as we set off back the way we had come.

Our route now would take us back up Dentdale to Cowgill, over Gayle Moor and Blea Moor to Ribblehead and the famous twenty four arch viaduct before finally descending gently down the dale to Ingleton. (Well that’s how I pictured it in my imagination)

All the other sheep had blown away

All the other sheep had blown away

We would be crossing the Settle railway once more on Wold Fell but first there was the little matter of regaining the 600 feet we had descended from it earlier. We wouldn’t be directly into the wind for a while now and with the rain gone and the occasional break in the cloud we were enjoying ourselves. First hands, then feet and finally backsides dried out and after a few miles the discomfort of the morning was almost forgotten. We grunted and pushed up some steep sections as we climbed back up the valley and under the railway and then for a few blissful minutes we had the gale on our backs and we were gently nudged up the last slopes to join the B road to Ribblehead. As we waited at the T junction to turn right I commented to Gill that although we would be turning directly into the wind, which must now have been gusting fifty to sixty miles an hour, we would be generally descending so it should be an easy ten miles to Ingleton.

How wrong could I be? We dropped for about half a mile with the wind not quite in our faces and then as the gradient eased and we veered south west we just ground to a halt. Or we would have done had we not pushed hard in our lowest gears to maintain any forward momentum at all. The valley was acting like a super funnel, squeezing the mass of air into a narrowing space. It seemed as if the elements had decided they didn’t want us in Ingleton and they were mustering all their strength to push us back the way we had come. As we passed through Ribblehead we stopped to admire the viaduct and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to perform the back breaking work, day after day and often in conditions as bad or worse than today’s. Surrounded as we were by Ingleborough and Wernside, the situation was spectacular but it would have to wait for a return trip for us to appreciate it as all our concentration was needed just to stay upright on the bikes. Nearly two hours later we finally arrived at Ingleton with all our original plans in tatters. It was already late afternoon, Gill was shattered and I was more than happy to capitulate and look for a campsite. It would mean a longish day to get home tomorrow but the chances of having winds that strong for a second day were remote and we could always opt for another early start if necessary.

We had covered a miserly thirty two miles since setting off at 8.15am and it was 5pm when we arrived at the camp site. We do cycle slowly when touring but this had to be some kind of record, even for us. After showers and a quick change we strolled to the pub and sat in a kind of stupor over beer and a fabulous lamb tagine dinner. We reflected on one of the most interesting days on our bikes we had ever experienced and one that wouldn’t be forgotten for a long time. On the plus side, we weren’t showing any symptoms of small pox.

Next time you are doing the ironing, hedge trimming, etc. just remember, it will end.

Ironing – just like cycle touring really.

I hate ironing. Most people do. OK, I know there are some really weird people out there that claim to enjoy it, but most people don’t. And if it’s not ironing then substitute some other banal, tedious chore of your choice. Hedge cutting, grass mowing, whatever, the principle is the same so bear with me and let’s go with ironing. Here is my point. Why is it that whenever I get to the end of a pile of ironing, when I flick that socket switch to off, curl that cable back around the iron and gaze at the neatly stacked pile of clothes I feel really happy? Why does doing something so pointless and boring end up giving me pleasure. Well, I put it to you, it’s because you can’t have one without the other.

There is no way of measuring pleasure other than against something like misery or suffering. You can’t quantify happiness other than by comparing it with sadness or some other negative emotion. And you can’t have that smug ‘I’ve just been to the dentist’ feeling unless you have actually been to the dentist. That is why cycle touring can be like ironing. You see, not all of cycle touring is pleasurable. In fact, as many of you have suggested, a lot of it isn’t pleasant at all. So why do it? You might ask. We do it for a combination of the good times and the bad times. The good times are just that, good. The bad times enable us to recognise the good ones.

What follows is an extract from a report I wrote about a tour from Edinburgh back home to Lancashire a few years ago. (It’s a bit long so I’ll post it in two halves) We did have some reasonable weather, albeit cold for the time of year, which was May. We also had some wet and windy weather but this day still holds the accolade of most memorable of all our touring so far. See if you can see beyond the misery, to that moment of switching off the iron. (…and no, before you ask, we will not be taking an ironing board with us.)

I was woken once or twice in the night by the sound of the wind gusting in the trees around us. They were serious gusts and I was a bit concerned when morning arrived and there was no sign of them weakening.

 Our ritual of taking down the tent never changes. Whatever the weather we practice the same procedure; weighing down the flysheet, inner and undermats with panniers to prevent them being whisked away by a sudden gust of wind. This morning all the practice paid off and we managed to strike camp without losing any vital component.

 The walkers we had met in the pub last night were waiting by reception for their luggage transport and we had a nice chat before leaving. They were a bit concerned about us cycling in such strong winds but we assured them we had been in worse conditions. Little did we know.

 We would be following the Settle Carlisle railway for much of today so although we were passing through fairly high ground I hoped that the gradients wouldn’t be too bad. This famous scenic line opened on 1st May 1876 and was the last main line in England to be built entirely by hand. Six thousand men toiled on it for seven years and many died either in accidents or from contracting small pox. No doubt they were weakened by the hard labour and the harsh conditions in these beautiful but unforgiving landscapes. Fortunately, I knew none of this as we began what would turn out to be ‘a most interesting day’.

 The plan was to cycle to Ingleton, about twenty five miles away, have brunch and then head either south east towards Clitheroe or South West towards Lancaster. Either way would put us about thirty miles from home for a short final day on the Saturday.

 We stopped at Nateby to put on wet weather gear. It wasn’t raining yet but the forecast said; showers, occasionally prolonged, and the wind was so cold that we needed the extra layer for warmth. It was obvious from the start that this was going to be a tough day. After an hour of pushing against the wind we had covered a measly seven miles. It was depressing but I suggested to Gill that even at this pace we could easily cover fifty miles in the course of the day.

 Entering Mallerstang Dale we could have been back in Wales as we passed Pendragon Castle but the next hamlet, Outhgill reminded us that this was very much The Yorkshire Dales. As we climbed the scenery grew bleaker, empty farm houses stood testament to the harsh lives people must have lived here in the past. That is when the rain began. After a couple of tentative showers the weather Gods got their act together and the practising was over. We came alongside the railway and eventually crossed it at the first high point of the day but there was to be no freewheeling down the other side into the headwind. By the time we reached Gardale Head we were soaked and getting colder by the minute. It was much too early to take shelter at the pub so we pressed on directly into the full force of the wind and the increasingly heavy rain.

But it was May

But it was May

 We had planned to use cycling route 68 over the tops to Cowgill but there were road signs warning of wintery conditions at any time of year as the road climbed to 1750’ above sea level. We had a really tough decision to make. The alternative was ten miles on the busy main road down Garsdale. This would be an easier road and it would guarantee shelter and warmth in the small market town of Sedburgh but it was directly into the wind and would take us further away from Ingleton. The other choice was straight up the minor road and over the top. Only three miles but we had no idea what we might or might not find at the hamlet of Cowgill on the other side of the hill. We ummed and ahhed but we really needed to get going as we were both beginning to shiver in the biting wind. Having opted for the short high route we managed to cycle about fifty yards before being forced to get off and walk up the steep narrow ‘Coal Road’. I tried to say something encouraging to Gill but the best I could come up with was, “I promise you, this will end”. Pushing the loaded bikes up that hill against the wind was stupidly hard but at least it warmed us up and it wasn’t long before we could start cycling again. I looked in vain for any sign of a break in the weather as we were buffeted and battered but the sky was a uniform grey and the clouds hugging the lower slopes of the hills were going nowhere. It was just a matter of keeping our heads down and gritting our teeth in the knowledge that eventually we must reach the high point and drop into calmer conditions. On the tops the rain turned to hail and my face felt as if was constantly being sandblasted. So painful were the impacts that I half expected to find blood on my gloves as I wiped water and snot from my face. When the descent did eventually begin it was no relief because of the squally wind. We daren’t pick up any real speed as the road was winding and steep and with freezing hands it was hard to hold the brake levers tight enough to control the descent. Never have I been so glad to reach the comparable calm of a valley floor as I did on reaching Cowgill.

 A couple of walkers, out braving the elements, assured us that the nearest place to get any food or shelter was Dent, three miles in the opposite direction to the one we wanted to go. We were past caring. We desperately needed to eat and to get out of the wet and restore some feeling to hands and feet. It’s easy to get things out of perspective when you are cold and wet and I dare say we could have turned left and continued on our chosen route to Ingleton but the prospect of warmth, food and being dry was simply too much to resist. We turned right and cycled hard for Dent and survival.

……..to be continued.

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