You lucky gits!

“You lucky gits!” Said the lady behind the counter of the convenience store. She offered us a bag for our shopping and having initially refused we quickly remembered how useful bags are on a boat and changed our minds. When we explained that we had come into the village on a narrow boat she sounded genuinely pleased for us and just a little bit jealous, hence the lucky gits comment. She is right of course, we are incredibly privileged to be bobbing about on the canals on our own boat but what she didn’t know is what a steep learning curve it’s all been. I have heard it said that you should never make the same mistake twice because there are plenty to choose from. There are plenty of boating ones to make I can tell you for sure.

Not only are there lots of things to get wrong, there are whole categories of things to mess up. There are technical ones related to electricity and plumbing, including toilet related issues of a cassette capacity nature. There are lots of boat handling mistakes that can result in simple things like failing to land on a mooring properly due to wind aggravated problems that leave you pinned helplessly against the wrong side of the canal for about half an hour. See this post for details of our rescue. There are also silly practical ones that I am only owning up to purely for your entertainment so please laugh in private and not in our faces next time we see you.

Swinging Bridges, whatever next.

We have left the boat for a few hours without shutting the stove down sufficiently and come back to a floating sauna which nearly rendered the sofa a molten blob of plastic. Ooops, quite serious that one. We convinced ourselves that the aerial for the telly was broken until a friend pointed out that when you relocate your home every day you have to retune the T.V. Duh. Oh and we have settled down for the evening more than once only to realise that we haven’t put the chimney up and then had to scramble onto the roof to affix said appendage. In addition, we have forgotten to take it down but I count that as a different mistake.

Our troublesome chimney with impressive decking background

Getting used to travelling at less than three miles an hour and having a form of transport that is severely restricted in where it can go has meant a fair bit of planning when it comes to shopping and keeping the cupboards stocked. We have managed to get that one mostly right and haven’t had to go on emergency rations yet. Cash hasn’t been a problem as the ubiquitous ‘hole in the wall’ pops up in the most convenient of places.

How convenient: A hole in the wall.

We have also proven to be pretty hopeless at planning how far we can get over a period of days because of delays like locks, swing bridges, (especially on windy days) and getting stuck for a couple of nights because we don’t particularly want to travel in horrible weather. Then there are the stoppages. There are issues on the canals like broken locks, low water levels or inconvenient fires close to our route. (See BBC News for details) This latter one has just closed the Blackburn locks but we are hoping it will be open again tomorrow. All of this has resulted in a bit of a last minute dash for our home mooring at Rufford in order to be back there by Friday. Not what we intended and a really good reason to retire and never have a deadline again. You see that’s what I mean by learning from our mistakes.

Leaving a lock without sinking or drowning. Phew!

On the whole though it has been a blast. Testing, stressful, relaxing and demanding all at the same time but overall I think we can definitely say that we are two very lucky gits.

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.

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.

Those necessary nerves – 24 hours to go

Golden Girl will be surveyed tomorrow and we should know by the end of the day if we are buying her or not.

Will she be our dream girl?

There is something delicious about being on the very cusp of an adventure. I love the feeling of anticipation; that exquisite cocktail of excitement tinged with fear and the magnetic attraction of the unknown. The fact that this particular step into the unknown has been over two years in the making ratchets up the expectation and as the time left to the finish line diminishes the emotions grow stronger and the waiting gets harder.

I’m not really sure when this journey started. I’ve always loved canals and often wondered what it would be like to live on a narrow boat. It may go back ten or twenty years or even longer. The problem with ideas like that is that life gets in the way and we rarely get beyond the dreaming part. It’s just too easy to think of a million and one reasons why we can’t follow our dreams and convince ourselves that something we would really like to do isn’t an option. When we were planning our cycle trip around the coast of Britain we heard it over and over again; “Ooh, I’d love to do something like that but….”. The fact that we did actually break the tradition and go and do it changed us fundamentally and it has given us the ability to get beyond the dreaming and make something a reality.

Cheers – remember this?

That’s why we plan to part with what seems like an insane amount of money later this week and buy our boat. I wouldn’t say we aren’t nervous about it and things will ramp up another notch or two when we put our present home up for sale and commit to life on the water. (I can’t even swim!) But that’s the whole point I suppose. It must be nice to be really content with the status quo but we are all different and I’m just grateful that Gill and I are similar in that we are always looking for what is beyond the next horizon.

I have been holding off from writing any more about this whole boat business until the sale has gone through but now that we are so close to the finishing line I have realised how important this period of anticipation is. I have been really guilty over the last twelve months of wishing the time away. Wishing somebody would come and view the house, put in an offer, get their survey done, exchange contracts. Wishing the right boat would come up for viewing at the right price. Wishing the money would come through so that we could make an offer and finally wishing that the boat survey would happen so that we could complete the purchase. I’ve become a little obsessed about the next step rather than trying to enjoy the journey. Finally, with just hours to go I’m trying to savour every last morsel of sweet anticipation before reality smacks us in the face and the inevitable “what have we done” moment occurs. I’m a bit more prepared this time though. It happened on the first morning of our big bike ride as I pedalled along the road out of the village I was suddenly daunted by what we were doing and scared of what we had committed to. The feelings soon passed once the journey for real was underway and now at least I know from experience that those early nerves are just a necessary component of any great adventure.

I’ll update the blog at the end of the week or early next week and tell you what it feels like when a dream comes true after two years of anticipation. Or, if she turns out to be a rust bucket destined to sink in the first lock she encounters, how it feels to have your dream snatched away when it’s just inches from your grasp. I suppose it will make a better blog if she turns out to be a rust bucket.

Dream on

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.

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.

 

Problems, perspective and Pigeons

A little bit of perspective.

Gill has been getting arty with the camera

After my self-indulgent moan about not being able to buy our narrow boat right now I was reminded of how trivial a problem that is when I read a friend’s blog. His subject deals with life after the loss of a loved one, his partner and mother of his young children in fact, and reading it made me realise that perhaps I was getting things a little out of perspective. It’s worth a read by the way.

It’s easy to do though isn’t it?

“There’s always somebody in the world worse off than you”, people say to you. Of course there is. It doesn’t matter how bad your circumstances are there will be somebody somewhere in a more difficult situation. Pondering this might put some perspective on your own problems but it doesn’t make them go away. What it actually does is make you realise that not only do you have a problem that is less enormous than somebody else’s but that you should also feel guilty about your problem because it is inadequate. So now you have two problems!

It was also pointed out to me that struggling to sell a property is only a problem if you have a property to sell in the first place. Very good point. That really is perspective isn’t it? So, time to move on to other subjects I think.

There is something that I need to get off my chest. I suppose it’s a bit of a confession or at least, an admission. I’ve kept it quiet for a while but I feel that the time is now right to open up and share with you. I’ve become a bird watcher. So has Gill. As you know we have been feeding the birds in the garden all year but now we have taken it to another level. We have been visiting wild places at strange times of the day armed with binoculars, ham sandwiches and a flask of tea. I’ve always had a passing interest in birds ever since I used to nick their eggs as a boy but I’ve never actually gone bird watching before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a twitcher at this point although we did go looking for Waxwings in Preston the other day because I’ve never seen one. We looked for them on the Rowan trees in Morrisons car park but we were disappointed and had to settle for a cut price bottle of Gordon’s Gin instead.

The fabulous but illusive Waxwing. (Photo by Janet Stocks)

I suppose there was a certain inevitability about it once I started working at Brockholes nature reserve.

Not a bad place to work really. (Photo by Gill)

Conversations with the bird enthusiasts there about what they had seen left me intrigued and wanting to go and look for myself. By happy coincidence Gill acquired a bit of unexpected cash at around this time and very kindly bought me a new pair of binoculars. She also borrowed them and enjoyed herself so much she bought herself a pair. Added to these things we found we could go bird watching without walking too far which fitted perfectly with my gradual recovery from Plantar Fasciitis. Before we knew it we were sitting in draughty hides misidentifying all manner of small feathery things and discovering that 99% of all birds are actually pigeons.

Indoor Pigeon. Handy for bird watching in poor weather conditions.

For all I have a basic knowledge and we are both learning fast we are still capable of providing much entertainment amongst real birdwatchers by mixing up our Dunlins and our Sanderlings or getting told off for talking too loudly in the hides. Also, Gill’s hat is pink, which is not the colour for any self-respecting ornithologist to be seen in and I suspect we aren’t always being taken seriously. We don’t really look the part. The real bird watchers are all in green.

A rare sighting of the fabulous pink hatted smiler.

They even have green binoculars. You wouldn’t think there would be much danger of injury from such a sedate pastime as bird watching but tripping over a well camouflaged birder is a genuine hazard. I spent five minutes scanning a small bush for thrushes the other day when it picked up a tripod and walked away! Some of them are harder to spot than the birds.

Anyway, it’s all a bit of good clean fun and the perfect accompaniment to life on a narrow boat but we are trying not to think about that at the moment. For now we will be doing our observing from dry land but it should be a good excuse to write nonsense on this blog which is something I haven’t been doing enough of lately. You have been warned.

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