A dreich day

The Scots would call it a ‘dreich day’, the Irish a ‘soft day’. Personally, I would call it a ‘bloody miserable wet day’. However you want to dress it up, I’m not inspired to experience it other than through the window and with the benefit of a full tea-pot and a glowing fire. It’s the perfect recipe for a spot of self-indulgent navel gazing.

A dreich day

I’m always conscious when I start writing that there are countless blogs out there telling us how to live our lives. From Kafir to Pilates, detoxing to mindfulness there is always some holier-than-thou preacher pushing ‘the solution’ and filling us full of guilt because we aren’t on board. They berate us for our consumerism and accuse us of destroying our precious planet whilst proffering the simple meditative, all-fulfilling alternative of living in a small space on a vegan diet in the woods. Whenever I come across these blogs I worry that maybe I am guilty of the same thing. I have never suggested that anybody ‘ought’ to cycle around Britain on a bicycle and I have never said that living on a narrow boat is in some way the ‘correct’ way to live ones life but I do worry that it could come over that way.

When I was younger I had a passion for reading accounts of unbelievable feats of bravery. Tales of near death experiences on ice encrusted peaks in the Himalayas had me spell-bound. I devoured them hungrily but I never once considered following in their footsteps. I never felt that the authors of these sagas were suggesting that I ‘ought’ to be doing the same thing or that what they did was some kind of path to enlightenment. They were having a good time and they felt compelled to share it as far as I could tell and I was happy to gorge on their adventures vicariously without ever feeling denigrated.

I write this blog because I enjoy it. It’s a handy way of exploring ideas and the world around us and writing things down helps me to get my thoughts in some kind of order. The fact that some people seem to enjoy reading it is a real bonus and that is really all there is to it. I’m not trying to tell anybody else how they should live their lives, just exploring my own choices.

Which brings me to the navel gazing. I’m trying really hard to set aside the novelty aspect of life on the boat and work out why I am enjoying the experience so much. There are obvious factors like the scenery, peace and quiet, abundant wildlife and friendly neighbours (and the stove, don’t forget the stove) but all of that could easily be attained living in a very comfortable house in the countryside.

Don’t forget the stove

The boat, on the other hand, presents plenty of reasons for not living on the water. There is a never-ending round of chores and repairs, we are always tripping over each other and there is never having enough space to store anything. We have cut our personal belongings down to a ridiculous level but there are still more ‘things’ than there are spaces to keep them in. We have limited wi-fi availability, the phone signal is dodgy and we don’t have constant running hot water a lot of the time. Last night the mains electricity was playing on off, on off all evening. Life on a boat is harder than life on land so why is it so much fun?

By modern standards our life now is quite primitive and at times less comfortable than the one we are leaving behind but at the same time I can’t help but feel it is more satisfying. It’s certainly more demanding. To some extent it’s like going back in time. My dad was a joiner and spent his working days being creative in a physically demanding job. In his limited amount of free time he was normally found repairing or restoring something or tending his modest vegetable patch in the back garden. Leisure time was a novel concept then and life was full without having to be filled. Perhaps the boat takes us back some way to that time when there was always something that needed doing as opposed to finding something to do.

Humankind has done a magnificent job of making life easier through technology. From electric tooth brushes to pneumatic nail guns we have managed to take the labour out of nearly everything we do. There is no need to walk anywhere if we don’t want to, lifts and escalators have taken the place of staircases; and digging, weeding, hoeing and harvesting are all taken care of by Tescos. Now we have so much more free time and we can go to the gym or for a run to get the exercise that used to be an integral part of everyday life. I genuinely don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad one but it does seem a bit odd when you think about it.

Our new lifestyle on our Golden Girl is definitely more taxing than our old one but at the same time it is strangely more satisfying. The simple processes of staying warm, dry and well fed require a little more effort than they used to and that in turn brings a greater sense of achievement. The boat is definitely more complex than the house was. There is more to learn, more to go wrong but also more reward from making it work. It demands more time and investment both mentally and physically and for me, at least, it’s just more interesting.

I’m going to put a note in my diary and read this again in a few months time and we’ll see if I still agree with myself or whether it turns out it’s a fool’s paradise I am living in and not a marina at all. In the mean time life on board provides me with plenty to do when I’m not contemplating mental conundrums on a dreich or soft day.

Right, enough of all this philosophical navel gazing stuff, I’m off to empty the toilet.

Still raining

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It’s all about the fire

Sitting on our warm and cosy boat and staring into the fire as the ice in the marina gradually melts made me realise just how important our stove is. So important I thought I would write about it.

I have fond, if somewhat rose-tinted memories of growing up in a council house with basic central heating. I don’t mean central heating in the modern sense of the term, what I mean is that we had a coal fire and it was roughly in the centre of the house. It may have been central but it’s role of heating the whole house was plainly unachievable and our levels of comfort were indirectly proportional to how far away from the fire we were. In the depths of winter I recall changing into my pyjamas in front of the fire before attempting to get up the stairs, into my bedroom and under the bed clothes in less than five seconds, and then attempting to warm the bed up with what was left of my meagre body heat. A hot water bottle may have been deployed in extreme conditions I admit. Eight warm, snugly and peaceful hours later I would awake to find ice had formed on the inside of the bedroom windows while I had been dreaming of long hot summer holidays. Now, approaching retirement and in an era of sophisticated, thermostatically controlled, touch of a button activated heating systems I find myself once more scraping ice off the windows from the inside. It sounds grim I know but I’m actually loving it and I think I know why. I think it’s all about the fire.

Baby it’s cold outside (photo by Gill Pearson)

The option to heat your entire living space to any temperature you choose, to control which rooms are heated and when, and to be able to adjust and monitor the system from your phone seems like the ultimate convenient heating solution. The alternative of filling coal buckets, emptying ash pans and attempting to ‘move’ heat from a single source around fifty seven feet of ice clad steel tubing couldn’t possibly be seen as preferable or even acceptable could it? So why am I enjoying it? Well it’s all about the fire.

Maybe it’s the whole effort, reward cycle. After all setting the timer and thermostat on a modern central heating system doesn’t require much effort and even if you overcome the challenge of a wireless system it’s still only a momentary sense of satisfaction. It doesn’t last. You stay warm but there isn’t any sense of earning that warmth. Tending our solid fuel stove on the other hand is a never ending task that requires real physical effort and a degree of skill and organisation. Carrying a full coal scuttle the length of the boat whilst it rocks from side to side is a brilliant core workout and those 20kg bags of fuel don’t move themselves either. When it comes to keeping the fire in it will burn for ten hours without attention but during the day a little more tending gives us more control. Feeding the fire with coal, emptying the ash pan, cleaning up the dust and adjusting the ventilation to fine tune the heat output means that there is a real sense of effort and involvement in order to achieve the reward of warmth. Then there is the cooking! There is always a kettle on the go and more often than not there will be a stew or curry simmering away, filling the boat with mouth watering smells. The stove has become a crucial element of day to day life that provides warmth, hot food and a good deal of satisfaction.

The true meaning of mult-fuel

Apart from the sense of reward there may be another reason why I am just a little bit obsessed by this simple metal box. Fire has been at the heart of living for a couple of million years now so in the scheme of things our modern ways of controlling it in the form of cookers, boilers and other heating methods are new inventions and maybe in evolutionary terms we haven’t yet left the hearth behind. Nearly everybody enjoys a bonfire or a campfire and who doesn’t love a good barbecue. The idea of sitting around a fire is so ingrained in our species that it drives us to create excuses for doing it and cooking on a fire takes us back even deeper into our roots. Huddling around an open fire and baking potatoes in it couldn’t be described as practical but its attraction endures beyond far more convenient methods of preparing food or staying warm.

We’ve put several pictures on social media of our stove blazing away with pots and pans on it and I have been amazed by the level of attention these posts have attracted. It seems that food and fire are just as critically connected and central to our existence as they ever were. Despite the unbelievable technological advances that we have achieved in the past few hundred years we are still essentially driven by primitive needs and emotions and maybe that is why I am looking forward to finishing this post and putting a bit more coal on the fire. Maybe the novelty will wear off eventually but for now, it’s all about the fire.

I know: the glass needs cleaning

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Early morning delights

One of the most talked about and debated subjects amongst narrow boat owners is toilets. The discussions revolve around the different options for dealing with the unavoidable consequences of not being attached to mains sewerage and they generally end up with an agreement to disagree. If you really want to know more about such things just search any boating forum for the phrase ‘toilet type’ or ‘toilet options’ and you will have all the entertainment you require to see you through the long winter nights. I haven’t raised this subject to start a debate but rather as an explanation for my unusual morning habit.

I have taken to going for a walk around the marina just as the day is dawning, which at this time of year is about 7am. The first time I took the stroll it was to avoid using our own on board toilet and therefore reduce the frequency with which it might need emptying. That purpose now plays second fiddle to the fantastic sunrises, the setting moon and the early morning sounds of nature that accompany me on the five minute walk each way.

I don’t meet many folks at such a time and those that I do probably think that I’ve forgotten the dog, but I do get to see the day wake up whilst waking myself up at the same time. Maybe I have just been lucky so far but I haven’t walked in the rain once and I’ve seen some stunningly beautiful skies. The sight of a razor sharp crescent moon suspended against an ice blue dawn sky would be enough to take anybodies breath away but last month the planet Venus came to add a touch of bling to the show too. The sky on the last two mornings has managed to graduate from a fiery orange yellow through the most delicate shade of violet to blue. It’s a trick that as a young painter I tried, but largely failed to recreate and it has fascinated me every time I have seen it since. The closer you look and the harder it is to see how the colours blend from one to the other.

Famous work of the well known artist; Nature

These magic skies are full of birds on the move at this time of year. Thousands of geese in great geometric skeins pass noisily overhead as they make their way to their day time feeding grounds whilst large flocks of jackdaws rise from the surrounding trees filling the air with their distinctive cries and putting me in mind of squabbling children.

Pink footed geese on their feeding grounds

There are always coots, moorhens, swans and mallards on the water, already busy at this early hour watching out for movement on a boat that might indicate food is on its way. The rapid repetitive quacks of the mallards always makes me think they are laughing at something. Come to think of it maybe they are: probably that daft bloke walking to the toilets at such an unearthly hour of the day.

“Any chance of a bit of breakfast?”

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A life, and a boat, of two halves

Well I suppose it’s better than half a life, or an empty life, and yes, a boat does have two halves.

We are now spending just over half of our time on the boat and the remainder back at the park home in Warton. It’s a bit frustrating to be honest. The time spent at the marina is everything we had hoped for; we are surrounded by nature and wildlife, our neighbours are lovely and always helpful and we are enjoying making the boat our own and our home. By contrast, back in Warton, we find ourselves living in the shell of our former dwelling as we gradually divest it of our belongings. We are trying to find a balance of keeping it looking lived in to engage prospective buyers whilst taking sufficient of our chattels to the boat to make that our cosy home. It’s a balance that results in us always needing the one thing that is in the other place. Far too many of our conversations start with the phrase, ‘did we bring’….., and usually the answer is ‘no’. Hopefully we will sell the park home soon or at least Gill will find work in Rufford and we can make more of a definite move to our new life afloat. In the mean time…….

I like being somewhere new and undiscovered and at the moment that includes the boat, the marina and the surrounding area. We seem to flit between getting to know our neighbours, discovering new and beautiful footpaths to explore and pulling apart various bits of the boat to work out where and how, we are going to keep everything when we do eventually get it on board. And as if that isn’t enough to keep us occupied there is always the distraction of what has turned out to be a fantastic local hostelry in the village. Great food, great beer and, did I mention the Ukulele playing? We have discovered a lovely five mile walk that takes us along the towpath and country lanes to Mere Sands Wood wildlife reserve and back to the village and we have already had close encounters with Kingfishers, Water Voles and Tawny Owls all within a mile or two of our new home. It’s fabulous.

Kingfisher by Gill Pearson

Whilst we have been roundly entertained by the local fauna, I have been doing my best to entertain the other residents of the marina by moving our boat about. Boat movements aren’t that common now that winter is upon us so whenever the throaty throb of a diesel engine alerts everyone to some activity they all come out to watch. Particularly if the boat in question belongs to a complete novice like myself. Mutterings of “this should be funny” could be heard from all corners of the water as Gill and I prepared to leave our mooring. Popping over to the service point to fill up with diesel seemed like a simple enough operation to me so I thought I would spice it up a little by turning the boat around at the same time. We had originally moored with the pointy bit towards the land and having cleaned half the boat from our jetty we needed to swap it about to get at the other side.

Leaving our mooring to do some entertaining

We managed the re-fuelling easily enough and then I began to reverse vaguely back towards mooring point number 98 with something I had read occupying my mind: “narrow boats are notoriously difficult to steer backwards”. I can now vouch for that, they are.

It felt as if I was trying to coax fifty seven feet of seven foot wide wriggling python into an eight foot wide slot that I could swear was moving. By the time I managed to ‘engage’ with the end of our jetty at the third attempt the spectators standing on the other boats were probably wishing they had made a sandwich and flask of tea for the occasion. I think I was supposed to ‘drive’ our beast gently backwards along our berth but in reality Gill and I just dragged it there using the ropes. It was more like a round of The World’s Strongest Man (and woman) than a lesson in boat handling but never mind, I’m sure everybody but us enjoyed it.

Are you sure it will go in there?

The next challenge is to take the boat down the canal towards Sollom where there is supposedly a winding hole where we can turn around before heading back. We wandered down there this morning to take a look and the ‘hole’ looks about two inches wider than our boat is long. That should be interesting I thought. Perhaps we should go under the cover of darkness for our first attempt.

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Getting a quart into a pint pot

We are back on dry land and I am wondering how do you get a quart into a pint pot?

Plenty of space in this one!

We are once more in our cosy little park home in Warton and as I contemplate moving everything from here to our new home at the marina I am reminded of my first job working for Field and Trek, the outdoor equipment suppliers. Allow me to explain:

When I originally went to work for them they operated from two high street shops but carried a bewildering quantity and range of stock squeezed into a rabbit warren of basements, attics and rickety extension buildings. Every new delivery brought fresh frustrations as we were expected to pack items into already full shelving bays. I complained bitterly one day to the manager about the impossible task of putting twenty large tents into a space that was barely big enough for five. “Can you get just one more in?” he asked. “Well yes, I suppose so” I replied. “Well just keep doing that until they are all put away” he quipped. I have a feeling his words will be coming back to haunt me over the next few weeks and months.

About a quarter of our possessions are now on the boat and those that remain here will have to be severely whittled down before the final move. It’s going to take a good deal of ingenuity in terms of storage space on that boat to fit everything on board. Even then it can’t possibly work without another round of charity shop trips, Ebay sales and calling in favours from friends with large attics and garages. (Hint, hint) It’s going to be another hard lesson in working out just how little we need to be comfortable and content. There are plenty of existing ‘live-a-boards’ at the marina to prove that it can be done but when I look around at our furniture, books, CD’s, clothes etc., I am just a little bit daunted by the task and as for the shed, well I’m just pretending it’s empty for now!

Look out for the advert on Right Move soon:

BEAUTIFUL, COSY, MODERNISED SINGLE BEDROOM PARK HOME FOR SALE

Contents also available by negotiation.

I found myself sitting on the boat the other day looking into the galley and thinking, I wonder what’s behind that kick board under the kitchen unit? Before I knew it I was lying on the floor rejoicing at the size of the cavity I had discovered when the board was removed. I suspect there might be quite a bit of that kind of thing going on over the coming months.

Meanwhile, it’s back to painting, weeding and generally sprucing up this place with a view to a quick sale. Offers invited!

Any interest?

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The Wigan Flight and my new friend Joe.

It seems the canal network is full of kindness but it is also full of characters too. Put the two together and you have Joe.

Joe and his son Malcolm.

I’ll come to Joe in a minute but first a bit of context. All the way through our maiden trip on Golden Girl we were acutely aware of a particular elephant in the room. Most trips and adventures have renowned obstacles that have to be overcome and our route back to Fettler’s Wharf Marina was no exception. We had already conquered the Foulridge Tunnel; at 1640 yds long it is the fourth longest on the network and boasts a great anecdote about a cow that fell in the canal at one end of the tunnel and for reasons best known to itself decided to swim to the other end where it was reputedly rescued and revived with brandy.

That exit to the Foulridge Tunnel is a long way away!

The tunnel was challenging but didn’t compare to the ogre that was constantly playing on our minds; the Wigan flight. It consists of 21 locks squeezed into a two mile stretch of water which takes boaters through the town of Wigan and drops over 200ft in the process. It is notoriously hard work and because of water shortages the top and bottom locks are only open for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Although there is a place part way down to stop it isn’t the most desirable of mooring places so once entered the locks effectively have to be completed in one hop.

We had been concerned about this section of the trip because of our limited experience and everybody told us that we needed to ‘double up’ with another boat to make the job easier and quicker. That’s where Joe and his son Malcolm came in. We met them as we moored up at the top of the locks the night before the big adventure and although wary of Joe’s appearance at first he turned out to be a real rough diamond and a seasoned traveller of the waterways. His boat was practical rather than pretty and at sixty years old it was still ten years younger than him. Both boat and boater had a ‘used’ look about them but what they lacked in style or finesse they made up for in years of hard earned experience.

We were up and away by 8am and whilst Gill went off with Malcolm to organise the first lock I was given a little pep talk by Joe and challenged to follow him via the “really tight turn” into the lock. I nervously tracked his wake and made it in neatly alongside him without bumping into anything and only later found out that Joe had been tempting Gill into a small wager on whether I would make it first go or not.

Nervously approaching the top lock.

What followed was four hours of hard graft, some really great inside knowledge of technique and an endless succession of stories from Joe that got taller and taller as the locks got deeper. I got a bit over confident at one point and got caught by the currents between locks and before I knew it I was heading down the culvert that takes excess water around them. With racing heart and a good deal of thunderous reverse I managed to back away but it was a timely reminder not to take anything for granted and to maintain concentration. Joe didn’t say a word as I came in alongside him but his face clearly said, “don’t get cocky lad, you’ve still a lot to learn”.

Gill and Malcolm did an amazing job. Gill was always one lock ahead making sure it was full and the gates were open for us to enter whilst Malcolm worked the lock we were in. I was given a free passage for the first couple of locks but then Joe gradually introduced me to tasks that I could manage by leaving the boat briefly to shut a gate or drop a paddle before nimbly, and nervously, jumping back onto our boat as she began to descend into the watery depth.

There was a definite element of master and apprentice about Joe and I and whilst he was a great teacher he couldn’t resist a bit of teasing at my expense. I got completely soaked by a cascade of water leaking from the side of one lock and as Joe chuckled at my predicament he wryly commented, “Aye they do tend to let a bit of water in on that side”. Now I knew why I was on the left and he was on the right!

Doubling up in a lock

In less than four hours and having had a break half way for a brew we were through the flight and whilst Joe and his son went off for a few well earned pints and some dinner we plodded on to our evening halt at Crooke in the pouring rain. We were more than a bit soggy by the time we tied up but nothing could take away the feeling of achievement and a fair bit of relief at having overcome that particular demon. As our friend said later in a text message, we were very definitely not lock virgins any more.

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A tale of three halves

A tale of three halves

It would, of course, normally be a tale of two halves but I decided that the flight of six locks at Blackburn required a half all of its own. This is the account of just twenty four hours on our first trip on the narrow boat and I hope it gives a flavour of the huge variety of emotions and experiences that we are going through.

We moored about a mile outside Blackburn on Sunday evening in what appeared to be a quiet and safe location but it didn’t stop us walking down the canal towards the town to assess the situation and we chained the boat to the steel banking just for extra security.

A haven of peace and tranquillity. We hoped.

I’m sure we will relax in time but for now it’s all belt and braces. Being the only boat in the vicinity made us feel more vulnerable and three youths pushing a broken down scooter along the tow path soon after we had moored did nothing to bolster our confidence. However, the night passed peacefully and we were up early, determined to have plenty of time to pass through a proud industrial northern town which sadly, has a very dubious reputation amongst boaters. We had already met a couple two days ago that had had all their windows on one side of the boat smashed when they left it for an hour to go shopping in one of the local supermarkets. This and all the advice we had been given suggested just passing straight through without stopping but this wasn’t an option for us today.

There are six locks in the middle of Blackburn and between the fourth and fifth lock is a service station. This is a facility provided by the Canal and River Trust to take on water and empty toilets. As I had hinted at in the previous post, we hadn’t been very clever with our waste management which had left us in desperate need of these services. To add to any anxiety about the situation my good friend Neil had warned me that getting the boat onto the mooring as you come out of the fourth lock was really tricky. I had, apparently, “to get my arse right across the pound”.

We cruised steadily towards the industrial side of town keeping a wary eye out for floating debris, a particular hazard to boats in these locations. There was plenty of rubbish and even a floating wheelie bin to avoid but no dreaded ropes, wire or shopping trolleys to snag on the propeller. Well at least if there were, we didn’t see them. The scenery transitioned from well heeled up-market car dealerships on the outskirts with high tech security and millions of pounds worth of stock to run down, semi-derelict Victorian factories which must have been a wonder and salvation to their workforce when erected but now looked sad and decayed. TRIM, a local graffiti artist was everywhere. Every bridge, wall, gantry and information sign for the next five miles carried his, or her tag. We marvelled at some of the precarious situations that must have been required to apply the signature. Nothing was too much trouble for TRIM.

Well done TRIM

As office workers in smart town shoes made their way along the canal tow path to work, nearly all with a cheery hello for us, we relaxed and tried to enjoy the positives of this once significant cotton industry hub. Very soon we were at the first lock which just happened to be situated right next to the scene of a recent major fire.

Entering the first Blackburn lock

The combination of the stench of burning and the abundance of unsavoury litter and objects in the locks didn’t make for a pleasant sensation as Gill opened the gate paddles and I began to descend into the stinking hole, inch by foul inch.

 

Gate paddle blocked by Blackburn’s finest filth

But soon I pulled out of the fourth lock and I’m proud to say that I got ‘my arse across’ without too much trouble and after doing our chores we were on our way and through the final two locks. The seedier side of Blackburn gave way to suburbia and a pleasant lunch time rendezvous with friends who wanted to see our new plaything.

Filling up with water. (We didn’t take photos of the other operation)

And so to the third half. The next couple of hours were a sheer delight. Nothing but green fields, golden tinted leaves and an abundance of wildlife surrounded us as we motored gently towards our evening stop. The only obstacles in the water were ducks and swans and the smells were earthy and rich, and full of a hint of change from summer to autumn. A little, low, late afternoon sun was all that troubled us as we meandered around gentle contours, under an abundance of strong, stone arch bridges. The corners of the under arches carried deep grooves, worn by the ropes that were used to tow the barges by horse in the days when the canals really had to earn their keep. The idea of leisure boating would have been alien to those tough old boating families that kept the mills of Blackburn supplied with fuel and materials a couple of hundred years ago. By comparison our day had been easy but then we have been softened by the luxuries of modern day life. So we were glad to pull up adjacent to the Top Lock Pub at Wheelton and the prospect of a cosy evening of food and a beer or two and the company of fellow travellers.

Safely moored at Top Lock

Any hint of anxiety that had preceded the day had evaporated long ago, smothered by the glorious experiences of the afternoon. Such are the ups and downs of this particular journey.

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