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.

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Dawn at Brockholes Nature Reserve

After a half hour drive on nearly deserted city roads the initial shock of a 3am start is beginning to wear off. As we put on our boots and gather up camera and binoculars the light of the full moon is competing with the glow of the unrisen sun to create a half light and the sounds of the birdsong are clearly audible above the noise of the nearby motorway. It’s a short walk along one of the reserve paths to check on the nesting great crested grebe sitting stoically in the cold on her semi-submerged platform. Dedication personified. From here we enter the woodlands and as the sounds of nature take over from those of the grinding wheels of commerce we are, in turn, transported to another world. One of natural tranquillity and rich earthy smells emanating from the abundant woodland floor.

We can pick out the repetitive but beautiful call of a song thrush and just about make out its silhouette, perched on a nearby sapling and as we watch a subtle movement catches Gill’s eye. She calls out, quietly, deer! There are two young female roe deer just twenty yards from us. All four of us have stopped in our tracks and we stare at each other waiting for somebody to make a move. After a couple of breath taking minutes the deer decide we are far enough away not to pose any immediate threat and they melt quietly into the undergrowth. Jumping over fallen branches soundlessly and seemingly without effort they make their way through the familiar terrain as we clomp clumsily on along the path in our heavy boots, like aliens in a foreign world.

It’s still too dark in the woods for bird watching but we have fun trying to identify the numerous calls and songs. The familiar wren is ever present with its strikingly loud song that nearly always incorporates a giveaway trill mid call. It’s a wonder that such a tiny creature can create such a powerful cacophony? At less than a quarter of their size it drowns out the blackbirds and song thrushes it shares this place with and seems to shout out its territorial demands with an unlikely authority.

As we leave this enchanted place the sun is threatening to rise over the river, opposite the still bright moon which glows pale and surreal through the high branches of the trees.

Setting moon

It’s cold, very cold and despite the promise of a warm spring day later on; we are glad of hats and gloves as the faintest of breezes wafts the chilled air off the waters of the Ribble. The river is busy with black headed gulls, oyster catchers and the odd redshank. Herons are already standing sentinel, looking for their first fish or eel but the sand martins that occupy the riverbank mud walls are nowhere to be seen. I’m thinking that it’s probably too early but just as that thought crosses my mind the first ones appear swooping and darting above the river, leaving their nest holes to feed on the early flies.

Chilled bird watcher

A fiery red crescent is growing out of the distant skyline giving the impression that the eastern horizon is being engulfed by a terrible inferno.

Here comes the sun

I can’t wait to feel the first warm rays on my back as we turn away from the water and make our way towards the car park area where it’s very likely we will be able to spot one of my favourite mammals. We climb quietly up the river bank and peer, commando style, over the top of the rise and sure enough there are two brown hares cavorting on one of the paths just close by. They pick up our scent immediately and retreat to a safer distance but not before we catch a tantalisingly brief view of their antics. They are spotted on the reserve at all times of the day but if you want to be sure of a good sighting it’s best to come early.

Brown hare in car park. Photo by Emma Jayne Sharples

By now the odd car is arriving on the reserve. We are not alone any more and the feeling that we are somehow privy to a wonderful secret is slipping away. It’s time for something to eat and a brisk walk to restore some warmth to chilled fingers and toes. Our visit isn’t over but the main objective of experiencing the new day is. We have shared something very special that only a dawn walk can provide. There is a real sense of adventure about starting out in the dark and a wonderful reward in watching the birth of a new day at this spectacular time of year. Was it worth setting the alarm for three in the morning? What do you think?

Early morning light

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Blackcaps and Bluebells or “What’s in a name?”

I’ve always liked those short pithy adages that sum up a huge experience or offer profound advice in a few thought provoking words. Things like; “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That particular one often comes to mind when I sit down to try and write something. The barriers to doing so many things in life can usually be brought down by making that first brave and daunting step. I thought I would have a go at writing my own saying to sum up what I did last week. It’s a bit rubbish and I doubt it’s destined to feature in the top ten memes of the twenty first century but here it is anyway:

“If you can’t sell your house and buy a boat, take a walk in a Bluebell wood.”

I have always taken a passing interest in birds and wildlife but working at Brockholes Nature Reserve here in Lancashire has fuelled that curiosity and given me a thirst for more knowledge. In particular I was keen to get to know the reserve better first hand and with that in mind and a certainty that getting close to nature is a sure fire way of putting things in perspective Gill and I decided to spend a day there. What could be more fun than poking around in the woods and gazing out over the River Ribble and the numerous lakes in the hope of spotting some of the rarer delights of the reserve and trying to identify them.

Brockholes floating village

It wasn’t long before we were staring hopelessly up into the now quite dense spring foliage of the trees desperately trying to pin down the source of a loud and stunningly beautiful bird song. It doesn’t help that in my case being deaf in one ear means that I have no sense of audio direction. Most of the time I wasn’t even looking in the right tree. We did eventually spot a small bird with a black cap as the source of the warbling and identified it as the unimaginatively named Blackcap. This led me off on a train of thought about all the people that spot birds and other wildlife and claim to have no idea what they have seen. Like the small seagull with the black head for example. That will be the Black Headed Gull actually. Or the dainty little white butterfly that I was watching just the other day. When I looked it up later on the internet it turned out to be called a Small White. I should have guessed. You see you probably know a lot more than you think.

Small bird with black cap. (Photo Wikipedia)

That theme doesn’t always run true though. The next bird we identified, the Garden Warbler wasn’t in a garden at all. A much better name for it would have been The Tall Trees by the River Warbler. Nice song though. After a couple of hours of exploration we made our way back to report our findings and add them to the sightings board in the visitor centre. There, one of the regular bird experts, Bill Aspin, undermined our growing confidence in song recognition by playing us a recording of a Willow Warbler (not always in Willow Trees I should point out) which was impersonating a Chiff Chaff. Oh well, still lots to learn I suppose. We paused to recuperate over a sandwich and a cuppa in the floating restaurant on the lake.

Re-fuelled we made our way along the reed bed walk and peered deeply in the reeds in the hope of spotting a Reed Warbler (makes sense) or maybe a Reed Bunting. What we did see was both a Large Red Damselfly and a Blue-Tailed Damselfly both of which live up to their names admirably.

Large Red Damselfly. (Photo Gill Pearson)

This was all beginning to make sense now and a small brown bird with a white throat turned out, predictably, to be called a Whitethroat. Everything was falling into place until we spotted a Kestrel and a pair of Linnets and and I realised the flaw in my new found theory of how to guess the name of everything. Then there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes building a nest on Ribble Pool. They break all the rules; Grebe meant absolutely nothing to me but the great crests on their heads made some sense. It’s all very confusing. When I say they were nest building by the way that isn’t quite accurate. One of them, gender not established, was busily swimming all over the lake gathering reeds and twigs and laboriously bringing them back to add the the structure while it’s partner slept peacefully nearby. Occasionally the sleepy one would raise it’s head and open an eye as if to say, “you’re doing fine, just another couple of hundred sticks should do it”. I could sense a row brewing so we moved on and left them to it.

Grebes with great crests (Photo Gill Pearson)

Now we were in the Bluebell Woods.

Lots of bell shaped blue flowers. (Photo Gill Pearson)

In every direction there were thousands of small, blue, bell-shaped flowers. Who would have imagined. As we were watching a delightful little Bank Vole (a vole that lives in a bank) amongst some fallen logs a couple of visitors came by. Seeing our binoculars they jumped to the false conclusion that we knew a thing or two. They were wondering if we could throw any light on the identity of a small song bird they had seen. It was a pale brownish grey with a black cap they said. We tried not to sound too smug as we confirmed for them that what they had seen was almost certainly a Blackcap. They didn’t look particularly impressed and I think they may have thought we had just made the name up.

So there we go. A fabulous day of diversion therapy in a beautiful place. Oh, and if you were wondering; Brock is the old word for Badger. On the fringes of the reserve there are Badger sets and of course Badgers make holes don’t they. Which brings me back to adages and the particular one; “What’s in a name?” Quite a lot it seems.

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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.

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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.

 

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My palm tree is alive! (and so are my dreams)

I have just closed the curtains a few minutes after five p.m. and that makes me ridiculously happy. The days are finally getting noticeably longer and there are visible and audible signs of spring to accompany me on my regular walks now. Snowdrops, catkins and even the odd crocus are defying the current cold snap as if to say, bring it on Winter, your days are numbered and our time has come. Birds are visibly busier laying down fat both to combat the cold but also to ensure they are in tip top condition for breeding. Robins are sparring over territory and potential mates and buds are fattening on the tips of branches. Nature is stirring impatiently and my palm tree is alive!

I have renewed my on-line notifications for boats of a certain criteria and I am allowing myself to get excited once more. Everybody I speak to assures me that Spring is the best possible time to sell a property, so I am refusing to let the lack of enquiries dampen my optimism. Like the tightly packed new leaves developing in the sticky buds on the trees there is an inevitability in the air that tells me our plans will unfurl this summer and they will be as vibrant and vivid as any newly emerged young leaf. I am determined to remain positive and to learn from the lesson of a twenty year old house plant; where there is a will there is a way.

The house plant in question is a potted palm. How I acquired it is one of my oft repeated tales that I like to narrate to any captive audience whenever I get the opportunity. The story goes back two decades but the memory is still crystal clear in my mind. I was attending a folk night in a local hotel and I had bought a couple of tickets for the interval raffle. To my surprise my number was called out and I was invited to select a prize from the selection on display. A low table at the front of the room sported various bottles of alcohol and a couple of boxes of chocolates. Alongside it was an elegant potted palm tree that I assumed was a part of the hotel’s fixtures and fitting so I thought I would be terribly witty and announce that I would like the plant. Unfortunately for me it didn’t belong to the hotel and whilst all the other lucky raffle winners went home with a bottle of scotch or a box of Black Magic I had to wrestle a teenage tree into my car. Over the subsequent years that plant has moved house with me at least ten times and has been sufficiently neglected and traumatised on so many occasions that is has been reduced to nothing more than a collection of bare branches several times. It’s never given up on me though. Just recently it’s been thriving in our new home and last week I decided drastic action was required before it took over the entire lounge like some rampant Trifid, mainlining on Baby Bio. I chopped it down in a moment of extreme pruning hysteria and now it looks like the picture below.

Sorry Palm

It was one of those ‘do or die’ decisions. We wouldn’t have been able to keep the beast if it had continued to grow and it certainly wouldn’t have fitted on a narrow boat. I didn’t really want to part with it because it has been such a part of my life so I trusted to nature and its enviable ability to teach us lessons in survival. It’s about a week now since I took the pruners to it and today I noticed something wonderful. A new bud is forming on the main trunk and it has become a metaphor for my current state of limbo whilst waiting to sell the bungalow.

You won’t get rid of me that easily!

It reminds me not to lose hope and to believe that things will come good in due course. By the time we have our boat the indestructible palm tree should be just about the right size for a seven foot wide floating lounge. It was meant to be.

 

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Long Tailed Tits and narrow waisted trousers

The problem with being of slim build is that there is nowhere to hide an ever expanding waistline. I’m currently shaped like one of those fishing floats that are long and thin with a large bulge in the middle. It took a wedding in the autumn to force me to pull my head out of the sand when I realised that none of my trousers that were remotely suitable for such an occasion could actually be buttoned around my waist. Two months on and I am finally getting round to doing something about it.

Now that I am able to walk a reasonable distance again without any significant pain there is no excuse so it was out again this morning for my regular two mile march around the streets and into the countryside as the sun struggled to get out of bed. The route I took today is about fifty percent main road, thirty percent housing estate and twenty percent country lane. It’s fine for getting a little bit of exercise but not brilliant for scenery or bird watching so I don’t usually bother to take a camera or binoculars. It’s more a case of head down and quick march while I mentally run through my wardrobe of narrow waisted trousers and try to summon up the purpose to walk faster and harder. This morning was different though and an abject lesson in stopping to smell the metaphorical roses and regret leaving the binoculars at home.

For a start it was cold but blissfully calm after several days of windy weather and the sky was magically lit by a reluctant winter sun. We may have turned the seasonal corner now that we have passed the solstice but the sun is like a sulky teenager at this time of year. It unenthusiastically peers over the horizon and attempts to perform its daily duties whilst barely leaving its bed. It doesn’t get up any earlier either for the next few weeks; it just goes to bed a bit later but those extra few minutes of daylight are already filling me with anticipation of what is round the corner. There were other early signs of a change too; a Robin and a Dunnock were singing enthusiastically as if nobody had mentioned to them that spring is still a good few months away.

What a cutie. The Long Tailed Tit. (Photo by Craig Smith)

Along the short stretch of country lane a Long Tailed Tit caught my eye as it flew into the bushes next to me and as I looked around for more (they usually come in small flocks) my eye was caught by the frenetic and constant movement of a pair of Gold Crests.

The Gold Crest. (Photo by Tairi and uve Pixdaus.com)

These are stunning little birds with their brilliant black and yellow head stripe and they are a joy to watch as they acrobatically search for small grubs and eggs in the nooks and crannies of trees and shrubs. They are constantly on the move prompting the question of whether they might not need quite so much food if they ever sat still for a minute or two. They are actually quite common, similar in winter numbers to Robins but being Britain’s smallest bird and rarely appearing out in the open, lots of people have never seen one. The final birdy treat was provided by a Blue Tit that flew past my face so close that I actually heard its wing beats.

The last stretch of the walk is through a housing estate and back to the main road. It didn’t mean there was nothing to see though. Starlings, Blackbirds, Gulls and a flock of Gold Finches all added colour and sound to the otherwise dull scenery while the sky continued to flaunt its silvery winter splendour.

Winter sky and a chance to find out where the birds nest.

Oh and I nearly forgot; I saw sixty seven pigeons as well.

As I walked the final stretch to home my thoughts turned back to those frantically busy Gold Crests and I realised where I might be going wrong. I’ve never seen an overweight Gold Crest you see and come to think of it; I’ve never seen one slumped in a chair drinking beer either. I’m not planning to start doing acrobatics in the bushes but maybe less beer and more walking might go some way to alleviating the problem of a wardrobe full of trousers that don’t fit me.

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