A year’s worth of lessons

Beginning of our journey

Twelve months ago today, on the 27th of September 2017 we moored up our Golden Girl for the very first night of our new life. As I recall it Gill was exhausted from the physical effort of raising paddles and pushing heavy lock gates and I was exhausted by the stress of handling the boat during those first half a dozen miles of our journey. A year later and the journey continues along the waterways and of life and the learning goes on.

Having lived through a particularly cold winter and one of the hottest summers on record I think it is safe to say that we now have some idea of what living on a narrow boat is all about. Those first few days on the boat last year were a very steep learning curve but now after this year’s journey of nearly six hundred miles (and counting), 370 locks, numerous tunnels, aqueducts and bridges I think we can also say that we have some boating experience under our belts. Living in such a small space and being responsible for your own water, fuel and waste distils life to the basics and that in itself has been another challenge. So have we learned anything?

Deep in thought, deep in a lock

Self sufficiency certainly. Practical skills of course. But most of all I think we have learned to cherish the simple things in life. Perfectly still mornings when the mist rises from the water and nothing disturbs its glassy surface. Leaving a mooring when the only sound is that of the dawn chorus and no other boats are moving yet. The flash of electric blue as a kingfisher skims by the boat and the wary look of a heron as it watches us pass by and tries to decide whether to stand its ground or gracefully move on. Relaxing on the back of the boat at the end of a tiring but fulfilling day and watching a spectacular display of light and colour as the sky comes to life with the setting of the sun. All things that cost nothing but give plenty.

Should I stay or should I go?

One of the things we have laughed about is the feeling of satisfaction and comfort that we both get when we leave somewhere with a fresh tank of water, empty toilets and bins and having re-fuelled with diesel and gas and re-stocked the larders with food. It makes us feel totally self sufficient and that the world is, once again, our oyster. We are free to go wherever our fancy takes us, to stop and moor wherever and whenever we like and to enjoy the anticipation of new places and people as yet undiscovered. To travel with no real destination is the best kind of exploration but it has been something that has had to be learned and I’m not convinced we have totally mastered that skill yet. It’s going to take time as well as miles and maybe another long trip or two to really perfect that skill but we are getting there.

Early morning bliss

I think from our previous experiences travelling we had already learned that people are mostly kind and friendly, always willing to help a stranger in need but this last few months has helped to reinforce those lessons. We have met some incredibly kind folks, made life long friends and enjoyed coming across some real ‘characters of the cut’. So much of what we now know has been generously passed to us by people such as Bob and Betty. Both in the latter half of their eighties we first came across them as Bob skilfully reversed their boat into a mooring space whilst Betty jumped nimbly from the prow with the rope to tie up the boat. Later that day they invited us on board for gin and tonics and regaled us with fabulous tales of their fifty four years of boating. Including the one about their second boat “which kept on sinking all the time”. Listening to them and seeing the sparkle in their eyes made me both wish that we had taken to this lifestyle earlier but also very grateful that we have done it at all.

Of course just because we have learned some valuable lessons over this last year it doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty more to learn. I am still trying to understand why I haven’t been motivated to write for example. I thought that having lots of free time and plenty of subject matter writing the blog would be easy but it hasn’t been so at all. Learning that it’s OK not to write is one of the trickier lessons for me. We also still fall out and bicker sometimes over silly trivial stuff but that’s probably related to living in such a confined space and always in each other’s pockets. We haven’t met anybody yet who has the answer to that one!

Sometimes it feels as if we have this new lifestyle down pat and there is little more to learn and then at other times I still feel like I am only in the foothills of the greatest mountain I will ever climb. It seems as if our lives go round in a circle. We start out doing little other than learning and then after a period of thinking that we know it all the learning starts again. Long may it go on, I’m loving it.

End of the day

Making motorway minutes count

It is said that travel broadens the mind and I would heartily agree in almost all circumstances bar one. Gill and I have just spent three hours driving down to Gloucester on the M6 and M5 and despite the best efforts of Radio 4 I can’t help but feel as if I have just lost those precious hours of my life forever. There is something absolutely unique about the tedium of motorway driving despite the fact that the volume of traffic requires constant vigilance. I made a concerted effort today to get something positive from the experience but it wasn’t easy.

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I could make the same journey in any other way and get something from it. Walking the 200 or so miles would be a serious adventure over a couple of weeks and it would leave a legacy of valuable memories. Cycling the same distance over three days would be a real challenge and provide a great sense achievement and satisfaction. Even driving via smaller, quieter roads would make an interesting day out with stops for lunch and afternoon tea. On a train I could have focussed on a good book or the radio without compromising my safety, or that of other travellers. Then there are the many eccentric options such as roller skating, skateboarding or maybe travelling by pogo stick. A flight in a microlight would turn the journey into a thrilling experience or maybe it would be possible to navigate by canoe or narrow boat. Anything but the motorways.

I understand the importance of motorways and their contribution to the efficient transportation of both goods and working people but boy oh boy are they boring. For me the driverless car just can’t come soon enough.

I can think of a positive slant on today’s experience though. Whilst the journey may have felt like a waste of three hours there is, at least, a valuable lesson to take from the experience. It reminds me of why it is so important to treat not just every day but every minute as if it was your last. Put another way, if I was told I had three hours to live I wouldn’t be making a bee line for the M6 or any other motorway for that matter.

I’m sure there were plenty of people on the road today who would completely disagree with me, even some who enjoy motorway driving but the message remains the same. When you are forced by circumstance to do something boring and apparently pointless you can at least use it to remind yourself how precious every minute really is. I may feel like I wasted the best part of two hundred minutes this morning but isn’t that all the more reason to treasure all the ones that follow?

Thanks Dad

When my Dad died I wanted to stand up and say something about him at the funeral. Unfortunately I knew only too well that I wouldn’t be able to get through such a speech without dissolving into a blubbering wreck and spoiling it for everybody. In the end I wrote a short poem that tried to convey what he meant to me and what he would be leaving behind once his physical presence had gone. I still couldn’t read it out and had to give it to the priest to read on my behalf. I was thinking about him this morning and for some reason, sixteen years on I feel like sharing it, and him, again. This is what I wrote.

Hey Dad, me bike isn’t working,
I can’t get it into third gear,
“Well go and fetch me tools lad,
And bring your bike over here”.

I’d pedal away with me mates,
Having carefully watched what he’d done,
Another small part of his knowledge
Passed quietly from father to son.

All through our childhood, the lessons went on,
Showing us just what to do,
From mending a bike, to making a kite,
With scissors and paper and glue.

As I grew older, he taught me much more,
The subjects were never the same,
Now it was woodwork, and how to use tools,
A hammer, a chisel, a plane.

And so I left home, with skills of my own,
To get me through every day life,
The seasons came round, and I settled down,
With two boys and a wonderful wife.

I thought Dad had finished, the lessons all done,
So it came as a little surprise,
To find when I met with a problem,
He was there in my head to advise.

The lessons were different, not practical things,
Like tipping a new snooker cue,
But patience and wisdom, honesty, truth,
And knowing the right thing to do.

To love and to care, to listen and share,
To know when to guide, when to steer,
These are the things that you teach me now Dad,
And it’s wonderful having you near.

So keep looking on Dad, as I try to do right,
And when you think that I’m making a mess,
Say, “Excuse me son, would you like some advice?”,
And I promise I’ll always say yes.

Thanks Dad

Happy families

I’m the fat one on the left

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