image_pdfimage_print

Narrow boat dreaming – again

If we ever do get our narrow boat I think I might rename it Dreaming, or Dream On, or maybe even Nightmare. For the last six months I feel like I have been swinging between sweet dreams and frustrating nightmares as the idea of living on a boat on the canals has remained tantalisingly out of reach. In my last post I hinted that we were getting serious again about looking for a boat but I don’t know why because there was absolutely no progress on the house sale. But what a difference a month can make. Not only is Spring now in full and glorious bloom but we have also had a firm offer on the house from somebody who isn’t stuck in a chain. It’s hard not to get excited.

Sweet dreams

Of course I realise that nothing is guaranteed with these things and until contracts are signed and money is in the bank anything can happen but we are allowing ourselves the luxury of dreaming once more.

Oddly, I woke up a few days before we received the offer in a strangely joyous mood only to realise that it was because I had just dreamt that the house was sold. It was a terrible blow to find that no such thing had happened in reality and my mood plummeted at the thought that we could still be in this position in six or even twelve months time. I could have got very depressed at this idea but I decided there was no use in moping and I really must take stock of what we have got and live for the moment. Life is full of blows and disappointments and I guess it’s all about learning to deal with them.

The problem with dreams is that they make us even more vulnerable to being knocked back. Goodness knows most of us are just bumbling along through life never knowing when the next wave is going to smash over our bows or a sudden squall is going to blow up from nowhere and drive us off course. It seems to me that all we can do is learn to take the knocks when they come and hang on tightly to that dream.

Which reminds me of my boxing days. I’m not a big fan of the sport but as a school boy I did have a bit of a go at it under the tutelage of non other than a British Olympic coach Kevin Hickey, who just happened to be our P.E. teacher. I learned a little bit about ‘going with the punch’ and that the difference between this and ‘going into a punch’ was a whole world of pain. I was a seven stone weakling at the time and I used to spend my lunch breaks happily battering a six and a half stone weakling around the gym. My comeuppance came when my sparring partner was off school one day and I was put in the ring with Charlie Parker (it’s all true I promise). He promptly knocked seven bells out of me and taught me a valuable lesson about complacency. It didn’t stop me fighting though.

Just a few months later I was back in the fray going head to head with a formidable opponent. I had come across this boy before and knew of his reputation. He was a skilled and wily opponent. I was on the defensive for quite a while before finally getting the upper hand. With a couple of deadly blows I had him exactly where I wanted him and in just one more move I was able to declare Check Mate. I might not have made it in the noble sport of boxing but I was at least Year Four Chess Champion.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that it’s OK to dream so long as you are prepared to take the knocks when the dreams are cruelly snatched from your grasp, or in our case, constantly held at arms length.

So for now we are back in the game of serious boat hunting with the caveat that it could all still come to nothing. And talking of re-naming boats, if you remember back that far; I could live with most names but I came across one the other day that would just have to be given to the sign writer. “Knot a Yot”. Really? What were you thinking of.

I hope the sale goes through quickly for all our sake because there is only so much I can write about dreaming. By now I really was hoping to be regaling you with fascinating and hilarious tales of life on (and possibly in) the water. Fingers crossed eh?

Remember the palm. Never give up.

Towpath temptations

The lack of progress of our plan to live on a narrow boat has been pretty depressing when combined with the dark winter months and without actually discussing it we have refrained from walks along the local towpaths. In the same way that you might avoid walking past endless confectionery shops during a self-imposed abstention from sweet eating during lent, we have avoided the temptation of bumping into sickeningly contented and blissfully happy live-aboards enjoying the lifestyle that we so envy but can’t yet have. But you can’t avoid temptation forever.

Peaceful Lancaster Canal

Signs of Spring

It may have been a bunch of daffodils or snowdrops that did it but something lifted my spirits and gave me the urge to get back out there and start dreaming again. Come to think of it, it may have been those loveable thespians Timothy West and Prunella Scales who were back on the telly, bumping into various obstacles on the Leeds and Liverpool canal and oozing love and contentment as they casually destroyed locks and jetties on a borrowed narrow boat. Better TV might have been to view the owners of said boat watching the program Goggle Box style and weeping quietly into their Pinot Grigio as their pride and joy bounces from one side of the canal to the other.

Whatever it was that spurred me on, it resulted in a lovely walk along the Lancaster canal. It’s not the busiest of canals at any time of year so in the depths of winter we knew we would be unlikely to bump into many occupied craft. As it happened we only saw three boats and whilst they all looked beautiful and homely I was relieved to see that none of them bore a For Sale sign or sign of life so we were safe. Safe from conversations about living on a boat that inevitably end with the well-meaning but frustrating advice to ‘just get on with it’ without any acknowledgement of the fact that getting on with it costs money that we don’t currently have. Fortunately there were plenty of distractions of the feathered, flowery and woody variety to keep us more than occupied spotting early signs of spring, or more accurately, the end of winter.

A male goosander taunted us by waiting patiently for us to get within about twenty yards of him and then just as I raised the camera he would take to the air and fly just far enough along the canal to be out of photographic range before repeating the process.

Not so close up goosander

Being teased by a Goosander

I got bored in the end and turned my attention to a much more obliging swan who seemed to think that I was a photographer from the avian equivalent of match.com or something as he paraded up and down like an over inflated gigolo.

What a splendid chap and didn’t he know it.

As far as we could see he was wasting his time as there wasn’t another swan anywhere in sight; unlike the female mallard that seemed to be enjoying being diligently followed by not one but two hopeful suitors. I’m not sure how she was going to make her mind up because it looked to me as if she was being pursued by identical twins. We had a really close up view of a moorhen next and what a stunning bird it is.

Look at those feet! (Photo from http://www.nerjarob.com/)

There is a perception amongst those not interested in such things that all British birds are small brown jobbies. Well this beauty is brown, black, white, red and bluish grey with huge striped yellow feet. I mean how exotic do you want?

We joined the arm of the canal that links it to the river Ribble and the rest of the national network.

Deep scary locks

A set of deep locks takes boaters down onto the branch and under the main road to wind through the suburbs of Preston.

Under the road

Canals in these situations are a haven for wildlife and it was a delight to see grey wagtail and long tailed tits busy amongst the budding trees and catkins. We took to a woodland path alongside the railway to get back to the Lancaster itself and make it a circular walk avoiding a stretch of boring tarmac. The trees are all like coiled springs at this time of year, just waiting for another couple of degrees of warmth and another hour or two of daylight to spur them into a frenzy of leaf production.

‘Now you see me’ nest.

Just a few more weeks and the stark outline of naked branches will be transformed into a rich vibrant green canopy hiding the nesting birds and providing food and shelter for a wide variety of life. The abundance of summer will be here before we know it and those that live all year on the canals will be joined by the weekenders and the holiday boaters. Fingers crossed we will be joining them.

 

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?

 

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.

Holy stones and dancing pigeons

I am conscious of my lack of blogging just recently but there are mitigating circumstances. The combination of starting a new job, travelling the length and breadth of England visiting family and not to mention the stress of trying to outwit a fat pigeon have just left no time for writing I’m afraid. They are feeble excuses I know; the job is only three days a week, the family visits did, in practice, leave me with time on my hands on occasions and the battle of wits between me and the pigeon is largely won for the time being so it’s high time I started writing again.

This was before I made him mad.

This was before I made him mad.

If you haven’t already worked it out from my social media posts, my new job is that of, “Wildlife Supporter Officer” working at Brockholes nature reserve for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Unlike the Ronseal tin, the job title doesn’t really reveal very much, but in essence I try to persuade people to become supporters of the Trust by engaging them in fascinating and witty conversation about wildlife and why we need to protect it. The visitors are intriguing, ranging from very serious bird watchers who are so well camouflaged that I don’t usually notice them unless they move, through to courting couples that have absolutely no idea why they are at the nature reserve other than it seemed like a nice romantic backdrop to a first date. What makes the job so interesting is that it turns out that the hipster and his vertiginously heeled beauty are just as likely to be interested in the charity as the telephoto toting twitchers, once you get into conversation with them. They all seem to be really lovely people including most of the children. I say most of the children because the one that told me his idea of a fun day out would be to hunt down everything that moves with a high-powered rifle and kill it was probably beyond even my powers of persuasion. The rest of the little darlings are lovely though and we have all sorts of fun engaging in earnest conversations, mostly about badges, stickers and dinosaurs but occasionally also about wildlife. I have also discovered that my owl impersonation is a real ice breaker with four-year olds.

It’s early days but I am gradually building up my knowledge of the nature reserves across the region so that I can enthuse about the best location for observing the buff tailed bumble bee or explain which varieties of native newts are to be found amongst the courting couples in the St. Annes sand dunes. There is a lot to learn it seems. I still can’t see any difference between the Black Headed gulls and the Mediterranean ones and most days when I get home I have to turn to Google to find out if some wag of a naturalist has been pulling my leg or not. (It turns out that there is a partridge with red legs actually. It’s called a Red Legged Partridge.)

Despite the ridiculous number of miles we had to drive on the motorways to get around the family we did manage to squeeze a few lovely walks into our grand tour and I am more than pleased that both of our grown up boys and their partners are not averse to a stroll in the countryside. Something must have rubbed off on them somewhere along the lines. It was an amazing example of how easy it is to find yourself a bit of peace and quiet and to connect with nature no matter where you live. A Somerset canal, a Dorset beach and a Hampshire water park all proved to be delightful places for a bit of casual bird watching and, in the case of the beach, the discovery of some really intriguing stones with holes in them. A little research revealed that the holes are made by Piddocks, a bi-valve mollusc that literally eats its way into the rock to create a home. I picked up a couple of them and they are proving to be a great hit with the kids when I’m working. You can’t beat a rock eating mussel to create a bit of interest.

Holy stones

Holy stones

And so, the pigeon. As you know we have been feeding an ever increasing variety of birds (you can add chaffinch to the list now) from our bird feeding station as it is grandly called and it’s all been a huge success apart from the pigeons. Well it’s been a huge success for the pigeons from their point of view because for them it’s like a free Michelin star restaurant has opened up in town. The problem is we can’t afford their appetites so something had to be done. Ten minutes work with a wire coat hanger and our bird feed station food tray, the one that contains the avian equivalent of a three course gourmet dinner, is finally pigeon proof. Don’t be alarmed, I didn’t stab the pigeons with the coat hanger, I just made a simple cage that prevents them from getting at the food.

My pigeon rattling cage

My pigeon rattling cage

I may have stopped them eating us out of house and home but they, on the other hand, have worked out a very effective revenge. You wouldn’t believe how much noise two dancing pigeons can make on a tin roof at four o’clock in the morning! I’m on the case though; I’m making them a pair of slippers each next.

 

Why don’t we wear things out any more?

There is something about the way things change over a long period of time that is immensely satisfying; particularly if you, or a loved one, bring about those changes.

I was in my early twenties when my Nana died and I wasn’t very interested when the family were sorting through her belongings. There was one item though that I recall with great nostalgia and I wish it was in my ‘junk room’ right now so that I might stumble on it from time to time. It wasn’t a valuable thing, or precious in the way that a piece of jewellery or an antique is and as far as I know, nobody thought to hang on to it. Despite its apparent worthless status though, I deeply regret that I’ll never get the chance to hold it in my hand and run my fingers around the memories that it held. The object in question was a large metal spoon. A dessert spoon to be precise which in itself wasn’t that special but what made this particular spoon unique was the way in which it had been altered over time. Nana used to use it to beat cake mixture in her favourite china mixing bowl. She always used that same spoon and bowl during the creation of what must have been thousands of cakes and she had managed to wear away a fair proportion of the spoon so that it had become oddly asymmetric in shape. A totally unique piece of cutlery that belonged to, and represented my Nana as intensely as any inanimate object could possibly do. We used to joke about the fact that we had actually eaten part of the spoon in her cakes.

Nana’s son, my Dad, was a joiner and amongst the tools that I inherited from him is a very special chisel. It also holds in its form the story of his working life and an attitude to things that has been sadly lost. He probably used that chisel for over fifty years, painstakingly sharpening it at the end of the working day before returning it to its protective canvas sheath. Little by little with each successive sharpening the blade of the chisel has been ground away until only a short stub remains. Unlike the steel that has been lost on the grinding wheel and the sharpening stone, the memories of his craftsmanship are firmly embedded in what remains of the blade. It is possible of course that he broke it at some point and I am getting over nostalgic about these things but even if he did break it, the fact that he re-ground and re-sharpened it so that it could be used again tells the same tale.

I think there is something very special about objects like the chisel and the spoon. They speak of a time when the things we owned held much more value and nothing was discarded unless it was well and truly worn out or broken beyond repair. It’s hard to pin point just when things changed; when it became normal to buy a new replacement for something long before it has reached the end of its useful life. My Dad taught me how to sharpen a saw. It’s a time-consuming and tedious process so I do understand why working builders might not want to do it but the first cut after the sharpening is satisfying like no other. Contractor’s saws are now sold in multi-packs because it is assumed that they will be used until blunt and then thrown in the skip to join everything else in the landfill site. Each saw has less value than the time it would take to re-sharpen it. It’s not just the fact that the things we buy now are not designed to last as long, or that their lovely wooden handles have been replaced with plastic ones. What we have lost is the unique relationship that can be fostered between a person and an object if they spend enough time in each other’s company. There is something really beautiful in the way in which the wooden handle of a spade changes to match the hand of the gardener that digs with it season after season. The patina and sheen of the wood reflects the callouses that it, in turn, created. Or the subtle change in the shape of a knife’s blade that has been sharpened a thousand times before carving the Sunday joint. The changing shape of the handle or the blade reflects the changing lives of those that use them in a way that words or photos could never do. They capture time. When I was working on the canals last year I pointed out to many people the deep grooves on the cornerstones of bridges that have been worn by the ropes as the horses pulled the barges through. Running your finger through those grooves is about as close as you can get to time travel.

Look out for those grooves

Look out for those grooves

It’s a shame that we don’t seem to wear things out anymore; we just get bored with them now and throw them away. It’s easy to justify it on the grounds that the thing didn’t cost much in the first place and a new one is so cheap it’s not worth the effort of maintaining or repairing it. It’s a shame because soon there won’t be any worn down handles to run our hands over while we contemplate the life of a previous owner no longer with us. So much less of what we use will get passed on. There will be less to make the bridge from one generation to another, fewer memories preserved forever in shapes. It’s ironic that you can’t buy these things; you have to make them from the things you buy and it takes years, maybe even a whole lifetime. I sometimes wonder how old my Nana would have had to get to wear away the rest of the spoon.