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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.

 

In the eyes of the gloomy beholder

Well we nearly got out on the bikes yesterday. It was discussed briefly but the gloomy skies and cold blustery wind were all it took to convince us that a walk would be more fun. It wasn’t. It’s quite shocking sometimes how your mood can smother every glimmer of brightness.

We headed for the nearest access to the canal about three miles from home and as we drove down the quiet country lanes a succession of cyclists in brightly coloured winter outfits acted like a powerful search light exposing our guilt at having left the bikes in the shed. Each rider we passed seemed to drive home the message that there was absolutely no reason for not being out cycling. I think that’s where the rot set in for me. Once on the towpath it quickly became clear what the effect that so much rain has had in the last few weeks and we were squelching through glutinous mud almost ankle deep. After a few hundred meters we turned back in the hope that the path in the other direction might be a bit drier. It was slightly easier underfoot but the cold wind was now squarely in our face making it difficult to stay warm even at a brisk walking pace.

There were three brief encounters with wrens which fluttered into the undergrowth like tiny little balls of rusty fluff but other than them, even the birds seemed to have deemed the day to be not worth bothering with. A few ducks huddled in a field adjacent to the water but the remains of ice floating on the surface was obviously enough to put them off going for a dip. The narrow boats moored along the bank looked sad and neglected as they listed in the water; lifeless and unloved under a blanket of last autumn’s debris. Branches ripped from the trees in the recent winter storms rose from the water like the dead arms of cadavers frozen in a last desperate cry for help.

Library photo reflecting a better mood

Library photo reflecting a better mood

I’m sure that in other circumstances I would have noticed all manner of signs of spring but the grey, damp blanket of sky casting it’s  gloomy shadow over everything seemed to blind me to such things. All I could see was black mud, dark sinister water and bare boned trees reaching up and touching the drab ceiling with skinny skeletal fingers. It was a bleak, hopeless scene almost entirely devoid of life. Or so it seemed to me.

After about a mile we turned tail to get some relief from the cutting wind and made our way back to the car and the promise of warmth, home-made soup and a lazy afternoon listening to the rain rattling on the windows. Sometimes it’s just hard to see the beauty and I brought the camera home unused for the second day in a row. I know the splendour is there, I’ve seen it before, but sometimes on a day like today, the problem is in the beholder.

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