The dark and narrow road

Earlier this year adventure cyclist and all round nice chap, Mark Beaumont cycled 18,000 miles round the globe on his bike and he did it in just over seventy eight days. Just let that sink in for a moment. That’s an average of about 230 miles a day, on a push bike. It might help to create a little perspective when I tell you that I have just checked our logs and we have managed an impressive 115 miles in three weeks with the aid of a thirty eight horse power engine and an occasional tail wind. I think we may have achieved our prime objective of travelling slowly.

Long sunny days

I was hoping by now to be able to give a reasonably rounded assessment of what travelling on a narrow boat is like but I don’t feel qualified. I am very happy to tell you that I am only qualified to tell you what it’s like to travel on a narrow boat in near perfect conditions. We’ve had three weeks of mostly unbroken sunshine and for the last two, very light or no winds. It’s boating heaven and the longer it lasts the more nervous I become about what we might have to deal with later.

We are in Middlewich now and at the start of a new phenomenon in canal terms. We are about to embark on our first experience of narrow canals. It all changed over the last couple of days when the term narrow boat suddenly made sense. You see up to now we have mostly travelled on the Leeds and Liverpool and the Bridgewater canals They were both designed to accommodate barges up to fourteen feet wide. Bridge holes, locks and aqueducts are all built to this specification so travelling on a skinny minny like the Golden Girl is quite straight forward. You just aim her at the middle of everything and she slips through with room for a little wiggle on the way. Or so we thought.

Tight corner

After several days of no locks, swing bridges or obstacles other than the odd bicycle wheel or dead fish we set off last Friday for what promised to be an exciting leg of the trip. After a brief stop for our travelling companions to top up on fuel we would be leaving the Bridgewater Canal and joining the Trent and Mersey. We would be passing through one lock and no less than three tunnels and we hadn’t realised that our Golden Girl had been hitting the wine and cream cakes, or so it seemed. The lock was our first one that would only take one boat at a time and that’s when I first suspected that somebody appeared to have put a little weight on. Gill was handling the boat with confidence now and she elected to navigate the first tunnel after waiting for our time slot to meet the one way regulations. She entered cautiously and it was obvious that this was narrower than other tunnels we had been in. There was still plenty of room either side and no doubt it would all have been fine if Victorian engineers had had access to lasers and tunnel boring machines rather than pencils and pick axes. It was soon obvious that with each change of shift the navvies that dug this beast had changed direction! I won’t go into too much detail as it wouldn’t be fair but let’s just say we had a little bump and Gill took full responsibility for trying to create a branch line using our TV aerial pole mount on the side of the boat. It didn’t work and the boat came off worst. (It’s all fixed now so no serious damage was done.)

Here we go

Gulp!

It’s a bit dark in here

Who put that kink in the tunnel?

By the time we emerged from the third tunnel at the end of the day we had pretty much mastered the technique for staying in the middle and accepted that perhaps it was the canals that were narrowing rather than the Golden Girl’s waist line that was expanding. The challenges got greater over the next two days with narrow and winding sections of water which seemed to be occupied primarily by newly acquired hire boats travelling flat out and plainly not expecting to meet another boat coming the other way. Particularly at blind bridge holes. Words were exchanged on a couple of occasions, especially with the driver of the one that was travelling so fast that he couldn’t take any avoidance measures and ended up, rather satisfactorily, buried in the mud and reeds on the far bank. We left him and his crew, at a sedate pace of course, trying to dig themselves out with barge poles.

Not the place to meet a coal boat towing another one!

We only had another couple of miles to go before mooring up for the night and although I had found these new narrow sections with very tight turns quite tricky, I had actually secretly enjoyed the challenge. We hadn’t had any mishaps other than those caused by other boaters so I was feeling tired but a little smug when we came around the final bends. That didn’t last. As we rounded the corner I was trying to work out the line to take when the canal disappeared. Well at least it appeared to. No doubt perspective played a part but about fifty yards ahead the waters narrowed into what appeared to be a six inch channel over a river. I hastily looked around for an escape route, assuming I was going the wrong way but all I was faced with was impenetrable canal bank. Engaging reverse with more enthusiasm than the engine was keen on I slowed down and approached what looked like an impossibly narrow gap half the width of the boat. As we got closer I finally accepted that perhaps it was wider than us but only by inches and passed gingerly through to the other side. I swear the boat breathed in as we passed over the considerable drop to the river below. Now I really understood that we were on the narrow canals.

I don’t know how we did that.

The white water rapids and waterfalls that I was now expecting around the final turn didn’t emerge and we were able to moor without further trepidation just outside the small town of Middlewich.

We are having a little break now for two days and we are all on strict diets in preparation for up to twenty narrow locks per day and the tunnel from hell. More on that later.

Photos by Gill

Life on a narrow boat. It will be relaxing they said.

So I suppose you would like to know what it’s like to live and travel on a narrow boat. Well, if the first ten minutes of our journey are anything to go by I can categorically report that it is terrifying.

We managed to get all our stuff on board, take the car back to Rufford which will be our long term marina for this winter and then go by train back to Burnley and take up residence on the boat. There was some dispute with the many spiders on board who seemed to be under the impression that the boat was theirs but we resolved that by throwing them out of the windows. After a fitful first night’s sleep this was our first experience of ‘driving’ the boat.

We checked the fuel, filled the water tank, had one more cup of tea and then realised that we were all out of excuses. It was time to go. I had been told, and had read many times, that reversing a narrow boat is really difficult so the fact that our boat was parked nose into the bank had been playing on my mind all night.

Tight squeeze

The close proximity of a large number of very valuable craft didn’t help to allay my anxiety as I fired up the engine and nervously engaged reverse.

Lots of expensive boats

The boat took off at about seventy miles an hour backwards, or so it seemed. In practice it was probably more like one mile an hour and concentrating hard on all those YouTube videos I had been absorbing over the last few weeks I gracefully carved a beautiful arc across the open water. When I thought I was far enough out I put her into forward gear and set the tiller to take us towards the exit. What happened next took me by surprise to say the least. Our Golden Girl took on a mind of her own and drifted sideways towards all those expensive boats and the flimsy wooden jetties they were moored on. In my panic I couldn’t remember anything about the insurance cover I had purchased just two days ago. Did it cover multi million pound damage to boats and the destruction of inland waterways? While I was simultaneously contemplating this and throwing the throttle and tiller about wildly (just as everybody had advised me never to do) a kindly gentleman appeared on the end of one of the jetties, gave us a bit of a push and suddenly I was in control again. With racing heart and clammy hand I aimed the boat at the exit of the marina hoping to get out quickly before anybody else saw us. What I didn’t see was the large steel black and white guiding posts sticking out of the water. Gill was leaning on one of them with all her strength preventing me from felling it with fifteen tons of steel. Another marina resident sat calmly sipping a cup of tea and gave us a cheery wave as we finally made it out into the canal. She wisely reminded us that paint was replaceable so not to worry too much. I was a nervous wreck by now. I was under the impression that the boat would be controllable merely by judicious use of the tiller and throttle from the stern. I didn’t realise that you needed a supply of both land and boat based humans to fend off obstacles and prevent extensive damage to other people’s property. For the next half hour we pottered along sedately while my heart rate came back down to normal and I puzzled over the contradiction between the lazy, laid back boating life that everybody had talked about and the terrifying, mega stressful first ten minutes that I had just experienced. Then I remembered that about two hours ahead of us lay seven locks and I started to sweat again.

That will be a lock then.

Five days, twenty one locks, six swing bridges and a few bottles of wine later, we find ourselves moored in Skipton and relaxing over beers as we chat like old hands to other boaters. Any casual eaves dropper would just assume we have been living on board for years listening to us swapping stories of handy knots and reverse thrust turning as we contemplate the ingrained dirt of our calloused boaters hands. If only they knew.

We learned an awful lot over those five days but that’s for another post.

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.

Learning Narrowboatian

Buying our narrow boat is totally dependent upon the sale of a property that we have a share in so we were very excited to finally get the bungalow on the market, one step closer to life on the water. Or so we thought. Of course we didn’t expect to the sell the house immediately but that didn’t stop us getting excited and intensifying our search for the perfect floating home and that’s when sod’s law took effect.

Of course we should have guessed that the total absence of any interest in the house whatsoever would be in direct contrast to a veritable flood of near perfect boats coming up on our searches immediately. We have a fairly detailed and strict criteria against which we are matching our floating dream home and it was unbelievably frustrating to tick all the boxes against the sales ads whilst knowing that with no interest in our property for sale there wasn’t really any point in organising a viewing or even making a tentative enquiry. That frustration has now got the better of us and having dropped the asking price on the bungalow we are busy organising visits to view boats that are for sale within our as yet, imaginary price range.

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, ...

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, …

This brings me to the topic of how you choose a narrow boat to live on, which turns out to be very similar to choosing a house. In both cases it is common to lay out the basic requirements of style, price range, age, number of rooms, outside space etc. before selecting properties/boats to view based on those requirements. However, listening to other boat owners that have been through the process reveals that like buying a house, all those carefully thought out requirements will all be abandoned the day you step on to the perfect boat and fall in love with it. It turns out that it’s more akin to choosing a dog at the rescue centre in that the boat, apparently, will choose us rather than the other way around. It doesn’t mean I am abandoning my carefully constructed spreadsheet that, in theory, identifies our perfect craft. It simply means that we have to be prepared to fall head over heels in love one day and we will need a level headed friend to point out that the new love of our lives won’t last five minutes on the canal before it sinks and hopefully they will stop us wasting our relatively easily earned cash on it. A bit like the way your heart sinks when your precious teenage child comes home all doe eyed with that totally inappropriate girlfriend or boyfriend in tow and it’s your job to delicately persuade them that they really could do better. Love is a dangerous thing.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

The similarities with buying a house wain by virtue of the fact that most houses don’t have an engine and you can’t, therefore, drive them around. A narrow boat on the other hand is the essence of freedom and mobility; provided, it turns out, that it is of certain dimensions. There are two thousand miles of navigable canals and rivers in England and Wales and we want to explore all of them. That means that our craft can’t be longer than sixty feet and no more than seven feet wide if we aren’t to be restricted by certain locks on the system. We are advised that since we want to ‘liveaboard’ (that’s what we canal people call living permanently on the boat) we will also require at least a fifty seven foot boat to give us enough space so it would appear that our choices are actually quite narrow in more ways than one.

Restrictions may apply

Restrictions may apply. Photo: Canal and River Trust.

In the mean time we go on looking and I am busy learning the new language of Narrowboatian so that I can converse with the salty dogs that are hanging up their windlasses and retiring, hopefully, to a nice two bedroomed bungalow close to the sea.

Swapsies?

Swapsies?

Anybody want to swap a short fat bungalow for a long narrow dream home?

 

It’s not a boat but it is narrow.

I know it's not a narrow boat.

I know it’s not a narrow boat.

I’m sorry to disappoint all those who thought they could look forward to tales of life on the not so high seas. The narrow boat is still very much a part of the plan but it has taken more of a back seat for now. As the sign in the picture says the above park home is under offer. Our offer. We are quietly optimistic of taking possession of this narrow but cosy establishment some time before Christmas. The most significant element of the purchase being that it will be ours entirely and we will no longer be paying rent to anybody. This is how our thinking went:

Although we might be in a position to buy a narrow boat now and live on board we would have to continue working part time to make ends meet. This adds all kinds of complications to life on a boat, not least the fact that we would have to have a permanent mooring and almost certainly run a car in order to secure work. We would also be limited to cruising short distances in between work with the possibility of longer trips for holidays. This is far less attractive than being able to travel around the country on the boat, free to roam as we please. For that we need to be financially independent and that isn’t going to happen any time soon. It just isn’t the life that has caught our imagination whilst talking to other liveaboards.

What we really want is it to retire to a narrow boat and explore the life style without the constraints of work or place. With this in mind we re-examined our finances and worked out the quickest route to life on the water. Enter a cheap mobile home, bought for cash, and a compact but rent free life that will allow us to reach our goal in half the time previously anticipated.

There is a real danger in this. Living for the future is something that we don’t believe in and on paper that appears to be exactly what we are planning to do. It will be at least five years before we can retire which is a long time and we have no intention of putting our lives on hold in the hope that it will all work out in the end. The challenge now is to squeeze all we can out of park life and to find some kind of balance between working for the future and living for the moment. Not an easy thing to do I’ll grant you but we are up for that challenge.

There is an age limit on the park we have chosen, residents must be at least fifty five. Gill has thoroughly enjoyed having estate agents gently point out to her that it is unlikely that we would qualify. I couldn’t help but notice that they were always looking at her when they broke this news. Of course I am more than qualified already but Gill will have to wait until the New Year to fit the rules. I have a sneaking suspicion that there may be blogging material in life on a residential mobile park, watch this space as they say. That will be a 35′ x 12′ space to be precise. Still, bigger than a tent eh?

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