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?

Becoming nomadic

I’ve never had my genes analysed so I have no idea if I share any percentage of them with the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara desert but I am inclined to think not. I do own a fair amount of blue clothing and admittedly my skin is beginning to resemble the bark of a gnarled oak tree but it’s the wandering thing that I’m not really getting. Not yet anyway.

Moving on

We have been travelling now for three months and apart from a two week hiatus when we had to visit Gill’s parents to help out with some health issues, we have tended to move on most days. Occasionally we have moored up for a couple of nights in the same place but that has been mostly related to having to shop, find a launderette or visit friends rather than to explore the surrounding area. So I am asking myself this question, are we living a nomadic lifestyle, or are we on a journey? I think it’s the latter but it will eventually change into the former.

Waterways community

As this is our first long trip out on the boat we have elected to spend six months travelling around the canal network before returning to what we think of as our ‘home mooring’ at Rufford. That’s the key point, knowing that we are going back to a place where we have come from and within a fixed time frame makes this more of a travelling experience rather than a wandering lifestyle. That might change next year if we elect to give up our winter mooring and set out with no fixed destination and how that might feel intrigues me. We got talking to a woman the other day that has lived on her boat for fourteen years and she mentioned that she was spending a week in the same quiet spot on the tow path. When I told her that we rarely spent more than two days in the same place she smiled and said, “yes, we used to be like that when we first lived on the boat.” That’s when I realised that we are on a journey rather than living a lifestyle.

I suspect that a sense of place, belonging somewhere specific, is a deep rooted thing and maybe we’ll never become true nomads. For now we are making ourselves spend more nights in the same place and exploring our surroundings in more depth. This might be the compromise that is needed to make a wandering lifestyle acceptable. To settle for short periods in somewhere that becomes a temporary home, albeit for a few days or a week. We have noticed that we see some boats again and again whilst others we only ever see once, and that’s a clue.

Life is such an ……

We are beginning to notice the different types of boaters on the network. There are the obvious holiday hire boats but then there are all the different types of private owners. Some boats are pristine with barely a scratch on their paintwork whilst other look as if they might sink at any moment. Some are piled high with logs, coal, wheelbarrows and all manner of practical paraphernalia whilst others are adorned with gleaming brasswork and containers of flowers that might hold their own at any horticultural show.

It’s on the roof if you need it.

It doesn’t take long to work out which boats are lived on and which ones come out on sunny weekends and a two week holiday once a year. I think we are a bit lost at the moment, not fitting into any particular category and rather than it taking a few weeks to settle into our new lifestyle I now realise that a few years might be required.

Taking time to explore

We are half way through this first long trip and although it still feels like one long holiday we are just beginning to recognise that what we are actually on is a journey of a whole different kind. When you put a finite time or distance on a trip there is an element of enduring the difficult things because they will come to an end but without that end point it’s no longer a case of endurance but adjustment and acceptance of change instead. We will have to grow into this new way of life and it can’t happen quickly because the changes are just too big. We are thoroughly enjoying the whole experience so far but we are also beginning to understand that there are no short cuts to becoming nomadic.

Let’s not get too serious. Here’s a laughing cow.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Are you sitting comfortably?

The sun is streaming in through the lounge window and the sky is an unbroken summertime blue. It looks like a beautifully warm spring day and yet when you step outside it’s hard to believe how cool it is. It might be disappointing to discover that winter hasn’t quite lost its grasp but it reminds me that we need contrasts like warm and cold or winter and summer, to make sense of the world.

The news is full of horror stories about war, economic crisis and climate change while social media is awash with tales of human endeavour, extraordinary acts of kindness and a genuine feeling of people fighting back against social injustice. The world seems to be full of differences that conflict with each other but we need both halves of the picture to form a whole. There is no good without evil, no kindness without self-interest and no reward without sacrifice. On a personal note everything seems to be falling into place; we love our new home, I have found a job I really want to do and we have exciting long term plans that look more feasible with each passing month. So why do I have this nagging feeling that something isn’t right? It must be something to do with that old chestnut, the comfort zone and how it can sometimes make us feel strangely uncomfortable.

Life is all about contrasts; it’s the way that we measure things, one against the other. From something as simple as flopping into a comfy armchair after hours standing on your feet to stepping out into the unknown from a cosy secure lifestyle, it is the difference between the two sensations that enable us to measure them and it’s the difference that creates the experience.

Gill and I couldn’t be more in the comfort zone right now. No financial worries, a simple but comfortable home, good friends, a happy marriage, good health, what more could anybody want? I’m enjoying the option to simply wallow in comfort for now but I know it won’t last. There will come a time when I have nothing to contrast the safe and cosy lifestyle against other than the fading memories of another very different one from two years ago. We do this quantifying thing on many levels from the micro, shifting in a chair to get more comfortable and saying, “Ooh, that’s better”, to the macro; moving house, changing jobs or packing our world into a few bags and taking off travelling. We are doing it all the time at one level or another, it’s our way of ‘tasting’ the world.

Sometimes life deals us a blow that turns our comfortable world upside down and reminds us to appreciate what we have. Of course nobody actually wants to lose their job suddenly or suffer an unexpected illness or accident but in the aftermath of these awful experiences people often talk of the positives that can come out of them. These things may be out of our control but they are another way that we can see and measure one part of our lives against another. Like it or not, I think we need these upheavals now and again to stem the rot of stagnation. Obviously though, it is so much better if we can create the disruptions of our own accord, and in a good way, rather than through some terrible misfortune.

Alastair Humphreys published a book called, Micro Adventures, all about fitting short exciting experiences into busy lives when ‘packing it all in and taking off’ just isn’t an option. (That’s covered by his new book, Grand Adventures.) He advocates such things as climbing a hill after work and sleeping out under the stars in sharp contrast to the normal pattern of commute home, have tea, watch telly, go to bed, repeat. The thing about doing something a little bit crazy and maybe uncomfortable like this is that it can actually make the tea, telly, bed thing quite appealing. Contrast; it’s all about contrast.

I like Alastair’s idea of the micro and the grand adventures but I would quibble over the exact terminology. I would suggest that his micro adventures would be better described as mini ones and the term micro could then be reserved for the really tiny but important things like watching the stars rather than the telly or getting up early to see the sunrise.

Worth getting up early for

Worth getting up early for

I would like to think that the next few years of our lives, assuming we can predict anything of course, will be cosy and comfortable but I also know that it won’t be enough. It’s going to take a whole load of micro adventures and a fair number of mini ones if comfortable is going to remain satisfying. Maybe there is a lot more to the phrase, “make yourself comfortable”, than you might at first think. I think that it is something that we have to work at constantly and it never comes alone. There is no such thing as comfortable without uncomfortable.

Somewhere between all these contrasts and differences there lies a rich vein of reward that is just waiting to be tapped.

I don’t know what I was thinking of …..

I’ve been attempting daily meditation. Like most of the good habits I try to form this one is sporadic to say the least. I first tried a couple of years ago and worked my way up from five to fifteen minutes over the course of about a month. Then I stopped. A few weeks ago I tried again and this time I just jumped straight in at the fifteen minute point like a fearless black belt meditator. Then I stopped again. Today I started yet again and since it’s still today and I may meditate tomorrow I suppose technically I can say I am meditating again. Well at least until I stop.

I have absolutely no idea what I am doing of course. I’ve read a few articles about it and listened to the odd practitioner on the radio over the years so I know a little of the theory of meditation but it’s not like learning to do something tangible like juggling. (I’ve lost count of the number of times I have embarked on a routine of ten minutes juggling every day but that never lasts either). The thing with juggling, unlike meditation, is that it’s fairly easy to know if you are doing it right or not. Generally speaking if the balls are in the air then you are juggling, if they are on the floor then you’re not. It’s quite straight forward. With meditation it’s just not that clear-cut is it? Most of the time I don’t actually know if I am meditating or not.

This is me juggling

This is me not juggling

As far as I understand it you are supposed to think of nothing, or not think at all, you see I’m already confused. Some say you should concentrate on your breathing, others say to focus on how you feel and your location in the room (mindfulness meditation). Forgive me, but that sounds a bit like thinking to me. And isn’t not thinking, sleeping anyway?

My own technique is to focus on my slow breathing and if a thought pops into my head to try and let it pop out again just as quickly. Sometimes I end up thinking about thoughts that are about to pop into my head and how I can keep them out and at some point in every session I think about how much longer there is to go before I can start thinking again. In other words, I have a long way to go before I achieve fifteen minutes of uninterrupted nirvana. I usually meditate with my eyes shut and one thing that I have noticed is that the colour behind my eyelids is like a slowly moving lava field that is repeatedly obscured by a darker colour that washes in like the tide over a sandy shore. It’s very calming and pleasant but I do sometimes wonder if it’s a product of my age and it’s actually just a hangover from being brought up in the era of the lava lamp.

It’s not a complete disaster. I do feel very relaxed at the end of a session and there is usually a moment, generally in the final five minutes I estimate, when I drift off somewhere. I suddenly become aware that I have no recollection of the previous moments, a bit like when you are driving and you realise to your horror that you can’t recall the last couple of miles. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t fallen asleep , (during the meditation I mean, not the driving) because I haven’t dribbled or fallen off the chair or anything so maybe I have actually meditated. It’s also impossible to know if these moments last for a second or two or a few minutes. Presumably, if I was a really good meditator they would last for fifteen minutes. All joking aside though, those few moments when I seem to get it right make me think that there probably is something worthwhile in this business and I really should persevere. I once read that twenty minutes effective meditation is as valuable as a good night’s sleep. Or did I dream that?

I am going to keep trying because if nothing else I have never heard of anybody saying that they meditate every day and it’s a waste of time. On the contrary all practitioners seem to agree that it benefits them in lots of ways and serious science seems to concur.

From lowering blood pressure to improving memory and slowing the ageing process, meditation has been credited with endless physical and mental paybacks. Studies using MRI scans have confirmed that a mere eight weeks of regular meditation will bring about real changes to the brain reducing processes associated with stress and boosting those responsible for concentration and decision making. About the only thing that it doesn’t seem to help with in my case, is the ability to form regular good habits; like meditating every day for example, or juggling. Something to ponder perhaps; when I’m not meditating.

Right; I’m off to sit in a darkened room to not think about lava lamps for quarter of an hour.

Gill’s new coat

By way of an attempt to explain the philosophy of our chosen lifestyle I offer you, Gill’s new coat.

Ta daa!

Ta daa!

There are many aspects to what we are trying to achieve with our simple way of life, but one of the components of it is cutting out waste. By that I mean not just wasteful packaging or throwing food away because we fell for that unbelievable value deal in the supermarket, but questioning everything we do and everything we buy and asking ourselves if we are being wasteful. Cutting out short term immediate waste by using less paper towels or switching off lights that aren’t required is obvious and just requires a little bit of willpower and a change in habits. What I call long term waste that takes years to manifest itself is harder to identify but Gill’s new coat is a good example of how we are trying to combat it.

She has had a variety of waterproof coats over the years and we used to go for what I would call reasonable quality at a reasonable price; maybe around £40. They usually last a couple of years before their waterproof qualities are gone and they stop being functional or components like zippers fail. Her new coat cost at least five times more than we are used to paying but per year it should work out cheaper. It is made by a really interesting company who genuinely don’t seem to want you to replace your coat every two or three years. The coat has a lifetime guarantee against faulty materials and workmanship (well workwomanship actually) and when it does wear out they will take it back as a deposit on a new one, promising to either find it a new home or using whatever they can from it to recycle into new materials. I have been following the growth of this company for years and recently I have seen more and more of their products both in the hills and on the high street so word seems to be spreading. They make some great gear but they are also making a real difference too. They are called Paramo and it’s worth looking them up and reading a bit about their philosophy as well as their products. 

P1030589

Owners of Paramo waterproof jackets often talk in terms of tens of years of life and of sending them back to the manufacturer for new zips to be fitted or damage to be repaired to extend their life even further. I know Paramo is not alone in this attitude to manufacturing and longevity but they are quite rare and I find it very refreshing. Of course it flies in the face of the whole materialism based infrastructure that our economy relies on but they are concrete proof that there really is an alternative way of doing things. So long as you can get used to the idea of wearing the same coat for ten or even twenty years it makes absolute sense. I can almost hear cries of alarm at such an idea but isn’t that exactly where we have gone wrong. We have fostered the idea of buying stuff for the pleasure of buying it, rather than to fulfil a need. We seem to have completely distorted the reason for shopping and turned possessions into a class A drug that will give us a short fix but will always leave us craving more. Gill’s new coat is all about the long term satisfaction that remains long after the buzz of the purchase is over.

P1030585

I sometimes feel like I am banging a lonely tambourine with this kind of post but then to my delight I saw a link today to an article saying almost exactly what I am thinking. If you are interested in buying less often by buying quality I can heartily recommend this post. I can’t vouch for the web site ‘buymeonceas I haven’t tried it myself and I’m not convinced by everything they are recommending but as a concept I think they are absolutely spot on.

“Less is more” – Robert Browning

 

One more tweak

The thing about a touring bike is that it is never really finished. You are always making small adjustments. Whether it’s a better location for a light bracket or a small change to saddle position there always seems to be room for one more tweak. Right now Gill is waiting for a new handle bar stem that will give her room for more adjustment. She feels like she wants to be slightly more upright on the bike to tackle discomfort in her hands. At the same time I am convinced that I want to raise my saddle slightly to relieve occasional pain in my knees. Unfortunately, in my case, it will involve a visit to this man, as the alloy seat post is well and truly welded into the steel frame. It’s all part of the fun of touring though, looking for the holy grail of riding position and equipment set up.

Life feels very similar at the moment. We have both found part time jobs that we are happy with which is like the equivalent of purchasing a good basic bike but now comes the endless tweaking to get things just the way we want them. And like a new bike, it’s going to take a bit of getting used to.

We are hoping that this new found freedom will enable us to do a lot more short tours this summer. We have organised our touring kit so that we could, in theory, be packed and away in just an hour or two whenever we have a few days off together. Unfortunately, our working shifts don’t allow for this just now but it will only take a small tweak to resolve it. Coordinating nice weather with shift patterns might be a little trickier but we’ll see what we can do.

Despite the current difficulty in planning anything much more complicated than a trip to the supermarket I am quite enjoying the chaotic nature of our new lifestyle. For the first time in my life I don’t have to be jealous of our retired friends who love to tell us that they don’t know, and don’ t care what day it is. Neither do we. I don’t normally start my fund raising shifts until mid-morning so we only need an alarm clock two days per week when Gill is working. We are both likely to be working some weekends so we are free from the Monday to Friday routine that has dominated the whole of our married life up to now. (Well apart from our ‘gap year’ just gone) The unpredictability and variety is really quite refreshing.

Today Gill is at work and I can enjoy my time writing, reading or whatever I choose. On Saturday it will be Gill’s turn. Tomorrow we are both off work together so we plan to rise at some ridiculous hour and go walking to hear the dawn chorus, simply because we can and because we both enjoy such nonsense.

Dawn wren. Photo courtesy MKNHS.org.uk

Dawn wren. Photo courtesy MKNHS.org.uk

This morning I had a message from Gill about her shifts over the next two weeks and a two or three day mini tour on our freshly tweaked bikes looks like a distinct possibility. We are getting there. I have no doubt that should we ever get our lives and our bikes perfectly set up we would be instantly bored, so for now I am just revelling in the small adjustments to both. It’s been hard work achieving this state of mild chaos but well worth the effort. There were some pretty dark days when we were both trawling the internet looking for work and wondering if we had seriously miscalculated. But perseverance has paid off and it feels like this is where we wanted to be once our life-changing journey was over. For now, at least, we are riding on the crest and looking down into the rut that we escaped from last year. It will require some skilful balance to stay up here but I can heartily recommend turning your life upside down once in a while. When the dust settles and with a little tweaking it can be very rewarding indeed.

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