We have a plan! It involves Liverpool and a black bottom.

The two most frequently asked questions to anybody going off on a trip or adventure are: “What’s your plan?” and “Have you planned your route?”

Sometimes people genuinely want an answer, sometimes they do not. Some of them really do want all the details but I suspect the majority are just being polite. Either way the answer, in our case, is usually “we don’t have a plan” and, or, “No, we don’t have a route”. In the case of the our cycle trip around the coast of Britain we didn’t need much of a plan other than; get up, eat, pack, cycle, camp, eat, sleep and repeat. As for a route, that was largely dictated by the boundary between the land and the sea. That’s just the way it is if you are cycling around an island. We have, up to now, adopted a similar attitude to the six month canal trip.

For ages now I have been giving the same, slightly facetious answers to the same questions about it. I have even refused to put a definite start date on the trip, answering somewhat glibly that we will simply wake up one morning and decide to leave because it’s a sunny day or we don’t have any reason not to, or we have run out of cornflakes or something. Well for all those people that I have irritated with my non-committal answers I have some news: WE HAVE A PLAN!!

To everybody that has asked about our route the closest I have got to any kind of answer has been, “we will be going vaguely south”. I can now reveal that we will be going west, and not vaguely, but purposefully. You see based on a whim, and what better premise is there for formulating a plan, we decided the other day to look into the possibility of going to Liverpool on the boat. I don’t mean that we began researching whether or not there were canals that went to Liverpool, there are. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal kind of gives the game away in it’s name. What I mean is that I had read that it is now possible to float your way right into the heart of Liverpool docks courtesy of an assisted passage provided by the Canal and River Trust. All you have to do is book a return journey on specific dates and once there you can stay in the shadow of the Liver birds for up to a week free of charge. So that’s what we plan to do. After that we will head east and then vaguely south.

I had heard that these assisted passages into and out of the great metropolis were very popular so we didn’t think we stood much chance of finding one at such short notice. However, to our considerable excitement, we discovered that there was one slot left available on the 4th May. We snapped it up pronto and then started to read a bit more about the journey. It seems we will be navigating several open dock basins (life jackets have been purchased), a couple of tunnels and possibly some rather big obstacles in the form of ships.

Room for a little un?

If it all goes to plan we will end up sailing majestically into Salthouse dock right in the heart of the city where we can stay for six days. Tourists can look forward to some hilarious entertainment as I try to manoeuvre onto to our allocated pontoon without bashing into any visiting cruise liners. Pretty cool eh?

Look out Liverpool, we are coming for you.

So that’s the glamorous start to our journey sorted. Before that can happen our Golden Girl will have to endure the rather undignified procedure of being hauled out of the water by her prow to have her bottom blacked. That’s happening on Thursday so we are de-camping to stay with family and friends for a few days. Apart from not being allowed to stay on the boat while she is out of the water I don’t think she would want us watching such a process anyway.

So there it is. A real life plan with dates and everything. The next person that asks; “have you got a plan?” had better have an hour or two to spare to listen to the answer.

Know your enemy. (Not for the squeamish)

If you thought you might read this post whilst enjoying a cup of tea and a biscuit I would think again. In fact, if you are planning any food related activity during or either side of reading this you might want to reconsider.

The hardest thing about this once a day writing challenge hasn’t been the writing as much as thinking of something to write about. This morning I employed a tried and tested solution and took myself off for a decent walk hoping that I might find inspiration. I wasn’t disappointed; the inspiration was everywhere, in fact I nearly trod in it on several occasions.

Of course you know what I’m talking about and whilst it isn’t a pleasant topic of conversation it does seem to be something that people love to talk about. That was certainly my experience when I worked for the Canal and River Trust. I talked to people about many things as I stood on the tow path but without a doubt, especially if people wanted a moan, dog poo and irresponsible dog owners was by far the most popular subject. It was closely followed by cyclists, which is a bit disturbing, but that will have to wait for another day.

The conversations all followed a remarkably similar pattern working their way through various levels of indignation at owners who would allow their dogs to foul the towpath but who didn’t see any requirement to clean it up through to utter bewilderment at the practice of bagging the stuff and then hanging it in a tree or bush. I generally shared their feelings but had to stand my ground when they suggested, as they inevitably did, that we at CRT, should provide more poo bins. This required the very height of my diplomatic skills in pointing out to them that if people chose to own a dog, knowing full well that that dog would produce waste material, then surely it’s their responsibility to deal with that problem not anybody else’s. Anyway, that’s not really what exercised my mind on my walk today. It was the strange minds of the negligent dog walkers.

People are always banging on about what to do about this problem. Solutions such as spraying the offending deposits with fluorescent paint (presumably to help people to avoid it and shame the culprit’s owner) to hanging, drawing and quartering those found guilty are suggestions I have come across. I don’t think you will ever resolve it though because of the minds of those responsible. Their minds simply must not work in the same way as most rational people. They must be missing some simple connections somewhere for one obvious reason. Surely, sooner or later, the laws of chance must dictate that the kind of person that leaves their dog’s poo in the middle of the pavement, must one day step in another dog’s poo. What on earth goes through their mind at this point? Do they simply shrug their shoulders and think, fair doos. I think not. I wouldn’t mind betting that they are equally disgusted and indignant just like anybody else but that’s where the missing links must be. Somehow they must not make that really obvious association that would make them think twice the next time they took their dog out. Or perhaps there is another explanation. Perhaps, after they had acquired a dog, they discovered that they had an insurmountable aversion to their dog’s dung and are now forced to walk the pavements only under the cover of darkness whilst being consumed by overwhelming guilt.  Perhaps.

The frustrating thing about this subject is that I have had endless conversations with righteous dog owners about it but I have never, ever met a dog owner who doesn’t pick up and is prepared to discuss why. Maybe if the dog patrol warden could have that discussion we might finally make some progress towards solving the problem. In the words of the 6th century Chinese General, Sun Tzu, you have to “know your enemy”. (Don’t you just love Google)

I did think carefully about it but on balance I decided there were no appropriate pictures for this post.


A narrow escape?

First of all, apologies for the complete lack of blogging over the last few weeks and thank you to those of you who noticed my absence. (Both of you) I’m very flattered.

The plain truth is, I haven’t had much to write about and even less motivation to try. I think that despite having found work and a nice place to live, we are both still a bit down in the dumps, wondering where the next adventure will come from and when. Life has become too routine in precisely the way that I promised myself it wouldn’t following our big trip last year. You know that feeling when you leave the house and you just know that something isn’t quite right but you don’t know what. Then half an hour later you get to work and find that you’ve left your phone at home. Well it’s a bit like that but on a bigger scale. Like we are getting things sorted but there is some undefined element that is missing. Yesterday however, I think we may have made some progress in finding that missing link. If was a funny sort of day all round really. We only had plans to go for a gentle walk but all the best plans end up in tatters don’t they?

We started by making an offer on a static home on a residential park close to where we live. Five hours later the offer was rejected but what happened in between was amazing. We sailed somebody else’s narrow boat down a canal, made two new friends, viewed another boat that was for sale and considered living on it and finally drove home with our heads whirling and the possibility of a whole new life ahead of us. Let me explain.

Lovely day for a stroll

Lovely day for a stroll

One of the consequences of having so much freedom last year is that we are both finding it rather difficult to settle back down. We don’t want to go off and do the same or similar type of trip again, at least not at the moment, but at the same time we find ourselves doing a lot of foot scratching. (No it’s not a fungal infection, just a bit of wanderlust.) My job working for The Canal and River Trust as a fund raiser has brought me into contact with a lot of people who live on board narrow boats and I think I may have infected Gill with my enthusiasm for the lifestyle. We have been doing a lot of walking on the tow paths and narrow boat envy doesn’t take long to take hold. Some of them are just beautiful. At about the same time we have been considering our financial future, retirement and what we want from the remainder of whatever allotted time we have left. With this in mind when a cheap property came up for sale on a local residential park we started to consider the possibility of getting out of rented accommodation and taking a big step towards making work optional rather than essential. Ok, it wasn’t a boat and nor was it on a canal but it was cheap and it was narrow, so it kind of fitted the bill.

After putting in a cheeky offer on the property we went off to take a stroll along the Leeds Liverpool canal on what turned out to be a glorious sunny day but not quite as forecast. A couple of miles down the tow path we came across Carol, sitting in the sun, alongside a narrow boat and looking more chilled than a frozen chilli. It turned out that Carol and her partner Roy had sold their house last year, bought the boat and moved onto it and had been in a state of euphoric relaxation ever since. We found ourselves pouring out our life stories, desires and dreams to each other and before we knew it we were sailing down the canal towards Parbold, our original walking destination. We had a good look around the boat, had a go at sailing it without going aground or destroying any other boats, spotted a kingfisher and generally fell in love with the whole business. After saying goodbye to our new found friends we began the walk back to Burscough unexpectedly discussing chemical toilets and boat licences. A phone call from the estate agent shattered the park home dream for now but by then it was only one option and we were already moving on to other possibilities.

Saying goodbye to our new friends Carol and Roy

Saying goodbye to our new friends Carol and Roy

Earlier in the walk we had passed a boat that was for sale and after our brief but wildly successful careers as skippers we now looked on it in a completely different light. The owner kindly showed us round and in our imaginations we were already managing locks, fishing for our supper and toasting the moon reflected in the perfect mirror of a midnight canal.

Seems like we might be at a cross roads

Seems like we might be at a cross roads

All of a sudden it feels like the rut we were in danger of getting stuck in is full of opening doors. Over the last forty eight hours we have discussed other park homes, motor homes and narrow boats. Maybe we are trying to find a compromise somewhere between the tent and a house, I don’t know. Whatever the motivation it’s exciting to experience all these potential options opening up before us like a glorious flower blooming. I do believe that we are heading for our next adventure. We might not know what it will be yet but there is a tangible feeling of it’s inevitability. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. It might be the daylight at the end of rather dull period or it may be the light of a narrow boat coming towards us. It’s the not knowing that makes it exciting.

Listening to oddballs

I, like most people, like to think I am a reasonably good judge of character. My current job, working as a charity fundraiser, is casting some doubt on that assumption. Before I reveal what I mean I should probably explain the mechanics of the job:

Setting out my stall.

Setting out my stall.

I am usually located close to a canal or other waterway with a banner announcing the charity and it’s purpose and a table full of leaflets and paraphernalia. My job is to engage with the general public which turns out to be much more involved than you might expect. It starts with a smile to make the initial eye contact followed by a greeting and a question. The question is usually  something along the lines of “have you come across the Canal and River Trust before?” or it may relate to the weather if I deem that to be appropriate. In a surprising percentage of cases irrespective of the question, the response I get is: “No thank you”. So far I have resisted the temptation to ask if they would like twenty grand in used ten pound notes to see if I get the same answer but I’m not sure what I would do if somebody said yes please. Occasionally people pause long enough for me to engage them with a big dollop of charm and some attention grabbing statistic about the charity and we are off. I love this moment, it’s like the opening curtain of a performance or the bell going off for round one of the big fight. Well, maybe not a big fight, that’s probably not the best analogy. But it is definitely a performance. It’s all about establishing early on whether or not my punter has any sympathy with the work of the charity and making a judgement accordingly whether to pursue the conversation or politely let them go and refix the smile ready for the next one. Most of the time it’s pretty straightforward. Most of the time.

Every now and again that thrill of the opening performance is replaced about sixty seconds into the exchange with a cold, slightly disturbing sensation as I realise I have found another lonely oddball who is, in turn, delighted to have found somebody that is prepared to listen to them. What is it about me that attracts them? I seem to get at least one of them every shift. Then, just as they get into their stride explaining to me how the country was doomed from the moment the steam engine was replaced with the internal combustion one, or that one day, and it’s always one day, they are going to buy a an old wreck of a boat, renovate it single handed and get the BBC to make a documentary about it, something really annoying happens. While I nod and smile politely a whole host of people who may as well be wearing sandwich boards bearing the message “I want to become a friend of the Canal and River Trust, where do I sign?” start to pass behind my new found friend. Yesterday it was a chain-saw sculptor who wanted to know what the minimum height restriction was on the entire 2000 mile network. (I didn’t know). He needed to know this because of the trees he would need to keep on top of his boat and, of course, the bee hives. I kid you not. I try not to resort to being rude but try as I might I just don’t seem to be able to shake these characters off. Then there are the drunks.

Roll up, roll up

Roll up, roll up

Last week one of them kindly offered to go and get me a pint from the pub at half past eleven in the morning. I declined of course because I was working but I was already in danger of becoming half cut simply by being engulfed by the alcoholic fug that surrounded him. He was harmless enough but it is so frustrating. I hadn’t seen a soul for the ten minutes before he appeared but now there was a steady stream of towpath walking enthusiasts passing quickly by and trying to avoid me and my drunken accomplice. Yesterday’s drunk was another with a plan to buy a boat. Having explained approximately what was involved in terms of licensing and water safety I gave him a map of the waterways hoping he might want to get home immediately to start planning his odyssey. Not a chance. He spread out the map to explain to me that he was going to sail down to Slough to surprise his daughter and stay with her for a while. I’m sure she can’t wait. The conversation was made a bit tricky by the fact that every now and again he would lose his balance and stagger away from me. Mostly he went toward the pub but there were a couple of dodgy moments when it looked like he might end up in the canal. Eventually he decided it was time to go home and sleep things off but not before assuring me that I was now his everlasting pal and as soon as he got his boat I would be the second man aboard. I think not.

I sometimes wonder when I am trying my opening conversational gambits whether or not I have been understood and I often don’t catch the response I get. In one particular case though two gentlemen decided to stop to talk and we were a couple of minutes into the exchange before we realised we had no common language. They were newly arrived from Czechoslovakia (I think they may have been in denial as to recent history) and their English was limited to say the least. My Czech is pretty rusty and I was struggling to explain what I was doing standing by the canal. The word canal seemed to be understood and I got the distinct impression that they were asking me a question which involved money. I decided that they must be asking what it cost to maintain the waterways and I launched into my eye popping statistic reveal. £250,000 a day I announced with a little dramatic effect. It always gets a reaction but in this case they seemed genuinely shocked. Even horrified. I didn’t want to mislead them so with perseverance and a bit of mime I eventually established that I had just told them it would cost a quarter of a million pounds to hire a narrowboat for a day. They decided not to bother.

I might just go and make a small amendment to my C.V. Experienced charity fundraiser and all round oddball magnet. Good listener.

Canal and River Trust Blog

My latest blog post isn’t here! It is over here at the Canal and River Trust web site. Very flattered to be asked to blog for them about how I came to be a tow-path fundraiser on our return from the trip around Britain. Hope you enjoy it.

Fundraising site at Glasson Docks

Fundraising site at Glasson Docks

Back in the saddle

So we are off to the very first Cycle Touring Festival to be held in Britain, if not the world. No doubt it will be full of all the geeky nerdiness that is inevitable when a couple of hundred like-minded enthusiasts get together. I don’t suppose it matters whether it’s model trains, VW campers or steam engines, all these gatherings are much the same. If you aren’t at least a bit fanatical about whatever the theme is, it is probably better to stay away.

There will be much earnest discussion about tents, stoves, bicycles and far flung destinations whilst tales of past adventures will no doubt get taller as the weekend goes on and the beer tent gets busier.

Checking the tent in the garden

Checking the tent in the garden

For Gill and I it will be a very special weekend. The first time back on our bikes with all our kit since we returned from ‘the big one’ last year. Just printing off the packing list sent a shiver down my spine and now that everything is loaded into the panniers I can’t wait to get on the road. In many ways this trip will be the antithesis of last year’s. Thirty miles each way and virtually no route planning or discovering new roads as the venue is practically in our back yard. None of this matters though because we will no doubt be riding back down memory lane for much of the four days. It’s going to be great to catch up with old friends, some of whom we met on lasts year’s trip, and to meet some of the fellow tourers and bloggers that I have been sharing vicarious journeys with over the last few years.

Chaos before packing

Chaos before packing

Settling back down into any kind of normal life has proved ridiculously hard but we might be getting there. I suppose the point is that we didn’t really want to settle down to ‘normal’ again at all so finding an alternative way of making a living has proved extremely hard. I’m thrilled to say that I have achieved that as a fund raiser for the charity, Canal and River Trust.

Another day in the office for me

Another day in the office for me

Gill is going to give care work a try once more and most importantly, we will both be working just two or three days a week. Lots of time for mini adventures and day dreaming of bigger trips in the future. Which right now is looking pretty rosy. We just need to hang on to a bit of reality over the next few days as we are going to be surrounded by people enthusing about their latest or imminent adventures whilst we have to be patient and refill the bank account. Dream on.