Questions, questions

It’s amazing how many people are curious about narrow boats and the prospect of living and travelling on them. People we see on the tow path seem to fall into two categories; those who show absolutely no interest whatsoever and don’t even want to make eye contact and the larger majority who, given the tiniest hint of invitation will hungrily embark on a detailed interrogation about our lifestyle. The same comments and questions come up again and again so for those of you who have never had the opportunity to ask, here are the answers.

“Do you live on the boat?”

This is an interesting one because when we say yes we do we invariably get the same response which is something along the lines of; “Ooh, how lovely. I would love to do that. What a wonderful life you must have.” The reason it’s interesting is because they probably have almost no concept of what living on a narrow boat entails but they are confident that they would be ideally suited to the experience. It’s often followed by a second question that somewhat undoes their declared desire to abandon everything and move on board immediately and that is:

“Have you got a house as well?”

The question isn’t quite what it appears to be because what they really mean is: “Have you got somewhere proper to live like normal people?” Technically we have because we own a property that is rented out but as we have no intention of ever going back to live in it we don’t feel that it counts as the safety net that the questioner is hinting at. It’s usually at this point that I can sense them beginning to re-evaluate their initial rose tinted idealism and it leads to questions such as:

“Have you got a telly?”

The answer to that is yes we have but for some reason we stopped watching it back in July and haven’t missed it at all. I suppose we will watch it in the winter on the marina but while we have been travelling it just hasn’t appealed. Variations on this question are:

“Can you cook on the boat?”

No we just eat bread and drink cold water.

The Golden Girl doing ‘real’ cooking

“Is it cold in the winter?”

No because we have a solid fuel stove and diesel fuelled central heating. I can’t really imagine why anyone would choose to live somewhere that is cold in the winter. I’m sometimes tempted to reply with, “No, is your house cold in the winter?” But maybe I am being unkind now.

“How do you get on for shopping?”

Well we moor the boat up somewhere close to some shops and go and buy stuff actually. I guess for most people shopping starts and ends with a car in a car park and they have never considered it can take place any other way. We have been known to walk a mile or more each way to the shops but that doesn’t bother us and you would be surprised at how much shopping two people with a rucksack each and four shopping bags can carry. The only serious issue is when you see your favourite beer or wine on offer and you have to ration how much you buy.

“Can you just stop anywhere you like?”

I like this question because it’s sensible and the answer could have a massive impact on the joys of boating. That answer is, more or less anywhere, yes. There are designated mooring spots that have time limits of one or two days or maybe a week but generally so long as you moor on the tow path side and you are not obstructing a bridge hole or a winding hole then you can just pull up and stay for up to two weeks in one spot. In the earlier part of our trip we almost moored in some beautiful places. I say almost because before I was confident at reversing the boat we would usually just end up looking back longingly at some idyllic setting that we hadn’t noticed in time to stop. It’s better now as although I’m still no expert I can bring the boat to a halt and at least try to back into a nice location. It doesn’t always work and can lead to a little, shall we say, friction between the crew and the captain but we’re getting better.

I think I did actually reverse into this spot.

There are other practical and sensible questions about mail, doctors, dentists etc. and then there are the really ridiculous ones. Often they are heard as observations rather than outright questions. Things like:

“Look, they can stand up inside it”. Or, “They are eating a proper meal” and “That one’s got a washing machine in it”. These things are normally heard as people pass by and blatantly stare into our home without any thought for our privacy. It doesn’t actually bother me really and can be quite entertaining.

The one question that people rarely ask, though I suspect many would like to is; “What do you do about your toilet?” Well it’s quite simple, we use a porta potti just like caravaners do. I’m sure you don’t need any more information than that but one couple I met got a bit more. They were walking the tow path and stopped me to ask for directions as I made my way to the elsan disposal point carrying a heavy waste cassette. I apologised and explained that I couldn’t help them as I wasn’t local to the area at which point the man took in the situation and said; “Is that full of what I think it is?” I replied, bluntly but honestly, “yes, it’s full of poo”. The lady he was with went visibly pale and made a sort of squeaking sound before they hurried off. Probably in the wrong direction. Well, what did he expect me to say!

And finally, the most common question by far:

“Are you the Golden Girl?”

I hasten to point out that this one is always addressed to Gill. She smiles shyly and confesses that yes she is indeed that creature, whilst I usually stand behind her making gestures to indicate that actually she only thinks she is. I’m always tempted to say that I get my turn at weekends and on Bank Holidays but I don’t want to shock people.

I enjoy these exchanges with the people we meet and if the initial flicker of curiosity grows into a full blown desire to own a boat one day then good luck to them. Perhaps I just like being the object of intrigue but really it’s more about sharing something that I enjoy and enthusing about it.

Any more questions at the back there?

Brides don’t have their bottom’s blacked

We are in a frenzy of activity here as we prepare for our first major trip on the waterways.

Isn’t she looking lovely?

The Golden Girl is like a bride-to-be being primped and preened for the big occasion though the analogy breaks down a little in that most brides don’t have their bottom’s blacked. Allow me to explain.

Most narrow boats are taken out of the water every two or three years to check for corrosion and mechanical problems and to clean them off and re-paint the bits that are normally inaccessible. The term ‘bottom blacking’ is slightly misleading as the actual base plate underneath the boat doesn’t get done but I’m not going to miss the opportunity to play with such potential for a little cheeky anthropomorphising.

The actual procedure simply involves taking the boat across the canal from our home marina to the one opposite where they provide the service and floating the boat over a trailer which is then hauled out of the water by tractor. Four days later, once the cleaning and blacking are done, the process is reversed and we can bring our shiny new girl home. Simple eh? Well apart from the fact that our home will be stuck in a shed on a trailer and we will have to find somewhere else to live for a few days. Being homeless for four days simply meant that we could visit family and friends and on the whole I was quite looking forward to the experience. Then I made the mistake of speaking to another boater that had recently had his boat blacked.

Alarm bells started to ring when he asked me if I owned any Wellington boots. I hesitated but couldn’t stop myself asking why and that was the point that ‘getting the boat blacked’ became a completely different prospect. He went on to explain, with a mischievous grin on his face, that because of the steep angle that the boat would come out of the water the rear end, the end I would be standing on, would probably go under water! Apart from the prospect of trench foot, there was also a possibility of the engine bay getting flooded if the bilge pump couldn’t cope. It sounded like the equivalent of sending the bride for extensive plastic surgery a week before the wedding.

I don’t know what it is about my mind but armed with this new knowledge of possible catastrophe it decided to explore all the other things that might go wrong with ‘getting the boat blacked’. I lay awake in the small hours envisaging the boat tipped up at some alarming angle and wondering what would happen to our furniture and belongings under such circumstances. Would they all end up in a broken heap at the back of the boat? Would the sudden shift of weight send the stern even deeper under water? Would I be able to hold on? Should I wear a life jacket? Then, for no logical reason whatsoever I decided that it might be blowing a gale on the morning of our appointment and I would be faced with smashing recklessly into our neighbours homes as I thrashed around trying to manoeuvre out of our marina and into the next one. By the time I finally got to sleep I had managed to conjure up a tragedy that made the Titanic disaster look like a paddling pool accident.

Of course it all went smoothly on the day. I didn’t fall overboard, our belongings never moved, no neighbours boats were destroyed and I didn’t even have to change my socks. In fact, I quite enjoyed the experience and our Golden Girl is positively blushing.

Here are a few pictures in case you are wondering what on earth I am wittering on about.

Waiting patiently to be hauled out

Here we go, onto the trailer

Testing the pressure washer. Oops! Sorry madam.

This is great fun!

Out we come

Our Golden Girl’s bottom.

Going back into the water and this is as bad as it got.

Are you sure she’ll fit through there?

Getting intimate with my Golden Girl

Well I would love to be able to tell you that I have serviced the engine on the boat and everything went smoothly and to plan but I’m sure that isn’t what you want to hear is it? Well lucky you because that is exactly what didn’t happen. I can take the credit for researching the parts required for the job and ordering them, but that is where the bulk of my involvement ended. I would love to show you pictures of me deep in the engine bay wrestling with filter straps and bleeding the fuel supply but there aren’t any. The reason there aren’t any of course is because I didn’t actually do the service. What I did was service my friend Paul’s computer and he, in turn, serviced our boat engine. Know your strengths, that’s what I say.

A great place for doing yoga

What should have been a two or three hour job ended up taking a bit longer and spanning two days. This was mostly down to me ordering the correct fuel filter but the correct fuel filter not fitting. Don’t ask me to explain this, I’m still in correspondence with the supplier and for now I am pleading not guilty. Their blurb plainly stated that the filter in question would fit a Betamarine 38 engine and my friend Paul, who knows about these things, found that it did not. I will let you know the outcome of the dispute at a later date if it proves to be interesting in any way, which I doubt.

So here is a brief summary of what I have learned about servicing an engine on a narrowboat.

Firstly, it’s best to get somebody else to do it if at all possible. This is mostly because the engine in question is very big and the space that it lives in (we boaters call it an engine bay), is very small. Not only is it very small but it also filled with many cables, wires and additional bits of inconvenient apparatus in addition to the engine which makes working in it almost impossible. Watching my friend contorting his body into ever more complex and painful looking shapes it occurred to me that a great second profession for a yoga instructor would be marine engineer.

The second thing that struck me was the way in which all the parts of the engine that you need to access in order to service it are hidden in the most inaccessible places imaginable. If I had done the job myself I would have considered it a major achievement simply to find the oil filter never mind replace it. The situation did at least provide me with a small but vital role to play. Once Paul had squeezed himself into a cavity smaller than his head he was totally dependent on me to pass him the correct tool at the vital point in the oil filter removal procedure. I never thought I would feel so comfortable in my almost spotless overalls, or as proud when I noticed a small patch of grease on them.

With the service itself complete and the engine purring like a contented cat on steroids I thought we were finished. Apparently not. Deep in the bottom of the engine bay there lurked an evil looking cocktail of water, diesel fuel, oil and general filth. Paul pointed out that in such conditions it would be difficult to detect any residual leaks from the new filters and it might be a good idea to clean it out. He even offered to lend me his wet vac to help with the job. So, there I was, me and my new found status of ‘marine engineer’, hoovering foul smelling waste matter from the bowels of my Golden Girl. By the time I had finished I was quite adept at wriggling around the engine though and I am very pleased to say that my overalls ended up satisfyingly filthy. You never know, I might even get to wield a spanner next time.

Making watery friends

I think we may have found the most wonderful winding, watery bunch of friends you could ever wish for. Before we had even left the marina on the first day we were being offered help from other boaters and the theme has continued every day of our trip so far.

Take Brian and Jane of The Bank Hall Dry Dock for example. We had Golden Girl taken out of the water at their facility so that the surveyor could have a good look at her bottom and by pure coincidence we were moored next to their big Dutch Barge, Cloudy Bay on our first night. Before we went to bed Brian had offered to take me into Burnley to buy coal the next day and the pair of them insisted on meeting us at our first set of locks to give us a hand and show us how it’s done. We were bowled over by such kindness and generosity but what we didn’t realise at the time was that this was just typical of how folks with the common interest of boats and canals seem to treat each other.

I’m sure we will meet Mr. or Mrs. Grumpy sooner or later but if our first week on the water is anything to go by I doubt it will be any time soon. So far we have been given endless invaluable advice, been invited to a Macmillan Coffee morning at the Lower Park Marina and been rescued by a lovely couple called Chris and Steph who found us stuck on the wrong side of the canal on a particularly windy day. I would never have believed that fifteen tons of steel could be blown around like a balloon once it is floating on water but I assure you it can and although the wind has no problem tossing the boat about I didn’t have the same success with my barge pole. But that’s another story.

The fabulous Chris and Steph

We are particularly grateful to existing friends Neil and Hilary who have been holding our hands throughout both our boat buying and boat sailing journeys. Neil has a wealth of boating experience and he is also a bit of a wizard when it comes to tying things up in knots. You can see his craft of rope tying and fender making at his Facebook page here. Neil also kindly offered to turn the boat around in the centre of Skipton where it’s very busy and there isn’t a lot of space. He presumably didn’t want to be associated with anybody responsible for mass sinkings and sensibly took the tiller from me for the process. He left me feeling in awe of his boat handling skills and acutely aware of my total lack of them.

Skipton: Not the easiest place to spin a boat around.

It took us nearly a week to get from Burnley to Skipton on the boat but when we got there it was like a social whirl. In three days we had met up with Neil and Hilary on their boat, had a visit from Vicky and Woolly who live in the town and by the magic of a common contact who lives in Canada but is presently in Laos we were put in touch with boaters Ben and Liz who have been travelling the country on their narrow boat Blue Otter. Thanks for the introduction Rhian and thanks to Ben and Liz for a great night in the Narrow Boat Inn. Where else?

Having a great night with Liz and Ben in the Narrow Boat Inn.

We already have a wealth of memories and stories to tell but to date my favourite revolves around a pub meal at The Castle in Skipton. First of all it took visits to four pubs in order to find one serving food on a Sunday and then having placed our order and settled down with a drink we were hesitantly informed by the young and obviously inexperienced waiter that they didn’t have any chips. It had been busy apparently and they had run out. A complex re-selection involving the lunch time sandwich menu and we resolved ourselves to wait again. The waiter came back after twenty minutes and said that they didn’t have any sausages! More choices were made and eventually we got mostly what we had ordered and to be fair it was very nice. After a bit of discussion it was agreed that they wouldn’t charge us for our second round of drinks in recognition of what had been a shambles of a dining experience. When the bill came we were delighted to find that they had completely miscalculated it in our favour in addition to the missing drinks round. Presumably they had lost their calculator or run out of batteries for it or something. I wouldn’t go as far as to say don’t go to The Castle if you are in Skipton but maybe don’t go on a Sunday evening after a busy weekend.

All part of the rich tapestry that life on the canals is turning out to be I suppose and long may it continue.

P.S. Since writing this I have to mention Caroline that we met in Gargrave. I asked her if we could borrow her hose adaptor because we didn’t have one and in typical fashion she just gave it to us, insisting that she had a spare. A week later, passing her on her mooring above Barrowford locks she offered to help us through the locks. Boaters will know what a difference this makes. Yet another lovely gesture that adds to this experience.

Welcome to our Golden Girl

Well in terms of blogging drama I’m afraid I have disappointing news. Today we completed the purchase of our Golden Girl.

She goes on forever!

The survey went really well. Our surveyor, Peter, gave us the thumbs up after giving the boat a thorough going over. He scratched and scraped her bottom and submitted the poor girl to a detailed and intimate prodding with his sonic probe and to the great relief of all concerned he declared her to be generally very thick skinned. Which is a very important quality of a steel hulled craft that is prone to rusting away whilst sitting in the canal.

Our lovely surveyor Peter and the even lovelier bottom of Golden Girl

There were a few minor issues of an electrical nature which the current boat owner is addressing but nothing that will stop us roaming the waters and setting forth on our next exciting adventure. (Edit: these have now all been resolved)

As always I don’t like to make promises but it is my intention to document what will no doubt be a catalogue of predicaments that we will get ourselves into over the coming months and maybe years while we literally learn the ropes. In the mean time I can only offer those who are sufficiently interested, a few more details of our lovely new home.

First off, she’s a narrow boat. She’s not a barge and she certainly isn’t a long boat. Long boats usually came with lots of oars and a crew of hooligans hell bent on mischief of all kinds. We don’t have any oars.

This is the pointy bit at the front which we call the prow.

She’s 57 feet long, 6′ 10” wide and has a draught (the bit that sinks below the water surface) of 1′ 9”. Working from back (stern) to front (prow) we have:

A small back yard where we will stand to steer the boat and hold social gatherings of an evening. Technically it’s called a cruiser stern but it’s amply big enough for two chairs and a bottle of Chablis on ice.

All back yards should have a life belt of course.

A lounge/diner complete with wood burning stove, comfy but dodgy looking leatherette sofa and compact dining table with two chairs. Guests will get a tray on their laps (assuming they get dinner).

The galley (kitchen to all you land lubbers reading this) is fully equipped as they say with stove, grill, fridge, freezer and washing machine. There is loads of storage space which on a narrow boat is a particular luxury and I am already eyeing up at least one cupboard for tools. (You don’t get a shed on a narrow boat unfortunately)

“Put the kettle on darling”

After the kitchen comes a spare bedroom. Now I know you are all busy checking your diaries and visualising life on a free floating Bed and Breakfast but I should warn you that we will probably convert this space eventually into a sitting/dining/getting-away-from-each-other space so get your requests in quickly.

The bathroom is compact but nicely fitted out with a good shower, hand basin and caravan style cassette toilet which guests will be invited to take their turn in emptying. Unfortunately there is only a door on one end of the bathroom, the other one being open to the main captain and lady captain’s bedroom. (You can go back to your diaries now and cross out all those prospective weekends you have pencilled in).

Note the posh toilet rolls that came with the boat.

The main bedroom has a double bed but as is common in many boats it is hard up against one side of the hull and negotiations are still on going as to who will be doing the gymnastics several time a night to go to the bathroom. When I say negotiations, I mean Gill has told me it will be me.

Main bedroom and front door.

Finally we come to the prow. This has another outdoor seating area which I suspect will mainly be used by guests who will be able to sit and watch the world go by at 4mph whilst sipping an early evening gin and tonic as Gill and I wrestle with locks and swing bridges. (Maybe you shouldn’t have been so hasty to cross out those potential visits after all eh?)

Despite appearances these are NOT spare wheels.

We have solar panels, central heating and all manner of boaty bits and pieces, the purposes of which we are hoping will become clearer with experience.

It make take a while to get the hang of everything!

The plan now is to use our two week holiday at the end of September to get to grips with the boat and then move it to its new home in Rufford. No doubt there will be a story or two to tell and no doubt those stories may involve the forty odd locks along the way!

P.S. We have just made our maiden voyage from the dry dock to the marina but that’s another story.

We might have bought a narrowboat

Do you remember this?

Well look at it now!

I have just re-read my last twelve months of blogs which started with an announcement of our plans to buy and live on a narrowboat. With a few diversions into bird watching and house plant management there was a heavy emphasis on bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t actually buy a boat until we sold my Mum’s old bungalow. Well I guess I deserve a bit of a slap on the wrist for not keeping you up to date because, like my indefatigable palm tree, our plans have suddenly sprouted new and exciting life.

May we introduce Golden Girl

We finally sold the property last month and after a few weeks of renewed searching we found our dream boat. Barring any untoward findings during the out of water survey which takes place next month we will be the proud and considerably giddy owners of Golden Girl. 57 feet of pure loveliness and with an engine that purrs like an overfed pussy cat. She’s really lovely.

All mod cons

The process of getting from that blog to finally owning a boat has been like torture and when I shook the hand of Golden Girl’s current owner the overwhelming emotion that flooded through me was one of relief. I had expected joy, happiness, excitement and maybe even a touch of anxiety and a little sinful pride but no, it was just pure unadulterated relief. At last we could relax and stop worrying about viewings and surveys, false promises and lost dreamboats and just get on with living our dream. Well, at least that’s what I thought.

Cosy lounge

Buying a narrowboat is not unlike buying a house in some respects in the sense that it is common to have a survey of your prospective new home carried out by an expert. In the case of a narrowboat however this involves hauling it out of the water somewhere so that the surveyor can get a good look at its bottom. I already had a surveyor lined up so everything seemed straightforward when I rang up Burnley Dry Dock to book us in only to be told that they had no availability until late October! I think I may have overdone the tearful disappointment in my voice a little but it worked because they found us a shared slot with another boat early next month. So that’s it. So long as the surveyor doesn’t come back and tell us that the Golden Girl has completely lost her lustre we should be the new owners by the end of September or sooner. Of course if it turns out that her bottom is rusted and rotten we might have to pull out of the sale. I expect there could be tears so don’t miss the next episode and the possibility of high drama!

That’s it for now really. I’m hoping that this new development might inspire me to more regular and even creative writing as we set forth on our watery adventure. It should start with moving the boat from Burnley to its new home at Rufford via forty seven locks so if that doesn’t provide me with something to write about then I don’t deserve your further attention.

There is so much more to tell you but I feel I am tempting fate until we actually have the keys in our hands and our bank account is empty. We will know for sure on September 12th but until then I will simply ask for your best wishes. See you on board soon, we hope.

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