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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.

Learning Narrowboatian

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

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

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

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, …

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

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

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

Restrictions may apply

Restrictions may apply. Photo: Canal and River Trust.

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

Swapsies?

Swapsies?

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

 

Poking around in their bedrooms

We spent a pleasant enough afternoon yesterday investigating the homes of complete strangers, grilling them mercilessly about their bathroom arrangements and poking around in their bedrooms.

The homes in question were afloat and no more than seven feet across at their widest point. Yes, you’ve guessed, we are going to buy that narrow boat.

For some time now we have had a plan to retire to the waterways in about seven years when I receive my state pension and we are finally free from the shackles of paid employment. It’s what is referred to as a long term plan and therein lays its failing. It’s not dissimilar to the position we were in three year ago when we had long term plans to pack in our jobs and cycle around the coast. Back then we suddenly realised, prompted by a change of circumstance, that waiting was a mugs game and as readers of this blog will know we packed our bags and got on with it. We have decided it’s time to just get on with it again.

Obliging owners who took us for a ride. (Cruiser stern)

Obliging owners who took us for a ride. (Cruiser stern)

Waiting and dreaming sometimes works out for people and good luck to them but so often it turns into an invitation for disaster and disappointment when all the plans come tumbling down due to some unfortunate and unimagined circumstance. We simply don’t want “if only” to feature anywhere in our epitaphs.

It’s a bit like seeds that are held in an inanimate state waiting for the right conditions that will enable them to germinate and flourish. We acquired this particular seed some time last year when we were tossing around ideas that would satisfy our newly found wanderlust but we put it in the metaphorical fridge as insurance against future drudgery and boredom. A few weeks ago we realised that the fridge was no place for something with so much potential for joy. Now the seed is firmly planted in the optimum conditions and already the first exciting signs of germination are appearing.

Hello! Wake up, can we look in your boat?

Hello! Wake up, can we look in your boat?

We have visited various narrow boat marinas over the last few weeks and have found the location for our new home and placed a deposit on it. Now we just have to raise the funds and go and find the home itself. All our conversation at the moment revolves around cruiser versus traditional sterns and the pros and cons of pump out or cassette toilets. We have produced a complex list of features, (in a spreadsheet of course) each weighted with a score according to its importance and we are busy putting boats for sale through the matrix to find the kind of craft we need to go and view once we have the funds. It’s very exciting and talking to boaters that already live on board is all part of the build up to this next adventure.

Traditional stern

Traditional stern

Our technique so far has been to visit a marina or section of towpath where it is possible to engage with owners, ask them a slightly corny question such as, “how long is your boat?” and then without further ado invite ourselves on board for a good poke around and a grilling of the occupants. So far, without exception, they have been more than willing to show off what is very obviously their pride and joy and also to encourage us without reservation to ‘get on with it’. So we are.

We have to sell a property to raise the funds for this so it might not happen tomorrow but happen it will and that in itself is far preferable to wondering ‘what if?’ Expect a lot of pictures of narrow boats on here over the next few months.

Do you have a junk room?

Do you have a junk room? Or an attic, box room, garage or spare shed: whatever form it takes I mean somewhere that you can chuck all that stuff that won’t fit anywhere else. Or maybe you rent storage space to hold the possessions that don’t fit into your regular home anymore. Apparently the latter trend is growing rapidly and 11% of self-storage is used by people who are de-cluttering. That’s not de-cluttering. That’s moving your clutter somewhere else.

I’ve spoken to lots of people who have boxes in their attic that they put there the last time they moved house and they have never opened them since. (Me included at times) Even more intriguing is if you asked them to list the contents of those boxes they would struggle.

I wonder how many people have gone through the process of packing the contents of their house prior to a move without using the phrase; “I can’t believe how much stuff we have.” I’d love to hear from you if you are one of those rare individuals.

So, you might think that since Gill and I have gone to extremes to reduce what we own to the bare minimum we wouldn’t suffer from these problems but you would be wrong. Even though we don’t now have an attic, a spare room or a garage we have still managed to squirrel away about ten boxes of stuff that we haven’t opened in the two months since we moved into our park home. I am beginning to wonder if anybody is truly immune from this need to hang on to things no matter what.

My own weaknesses are bits of old bikes, off cuts of timber and knackered Ordnance Survey maps held together by brittle yellowing Sellotape. The idea of throwing a map away is such an anathema to me that I even have more than one copy of some maps and I still hang on to them. When we cleared my Dad’s shed out we found old tobacco tins full of broken and rusting screws. Maybe its genetic. As I type I am looking at a leather clock that used to belong to my Mum and Dad. It sits proudly on our mantelpiece and you know what? I don’t even like it!

When we went cycle touring for a few months we whittled our belongings down to just what would fit onto the bikes. We put a lot of time and effort into it until we felt confident that we weren’t taking anything that was superfluous to our needs. We more or less got it right too, but then we did something really strange.

I'm sure I've got a spare spoon in there somewhere

I’m sure I’ve got a spare spoon in there somewhere

While we were on the road we actually began to accumulate stuff. We bought a three pack of plastic Sporks because they were on offer, (combination spoon and fork that are supposedly unbreakable) and a five pack of toothbrushes despite that fact that I only needed one toothbrush to clean the chains on the bikes. We ‘forgot’ about food that we had bought and stored in the bottom of the panniers and I even carried a ‘handy’ sheet of polythene that somebody gave me even though it was ten times bigger than what I needed. Well you never know when it might come in useful do you? In other words, even when cycle-touring, and with such limited storage capacity, we still weren’t immune to the twin problems of ‘acquiring stuff’ and ‘hanging on to stuff’.

Maybe it’s all a matter of space. After all, how many people do you know with an empty garage that they put the car in each night? If I am right and the only way to avoid hanging on to stuff that you don’t really need is to limit your storage space then that would suggest that our 35’ x 12’ home is too big! Maybe a narrow boat is the only answer. I would miss my shed though.

I looked up the definition of Junk on Oxforddictionaries.com. It told me that is was “Old or discarded articles that are considered useless or of little value”. When you put it like that it seems a strange thing to dedicate a room to doesn’t it?

Then again, there is another definition of the word junk. It also means: Worthless writing. Hmmm?

 

 

At last I have my focus.

Maybe more for me than for you, I feel compelled to place a full stop in this blog. A marker to move forward from after a fair bit of reflection on my part. I should warn you that it isn’t funny.

20160219_115654_compressed

At last I have my focus! After spending the last twelve months and more thrashing around trying to work out what the hell this blog is supposed to be about I finally have some answers. I have been reading advice from other bloggers and focus seems to be the one requirement of a good blog that everybody agrees on. Now, after giving it a lot of thought, I am finally making some sense out of what it is I want to write about.

It really is so very simple and it’s been staring me in the face all along. The blog started as an account of a life changing adventure when we decided to sell everything, give up our jobs and take off on a six month 4,500 mile cycle tour round the coast of Britain. But that was only how the blog began, not our story. This story really started several years earlier when we had one of those; late-night, second-bottle-of- wine, what’s-it-all-about type of conversations that ended with an agreement that we should never settle for the mundane and never stop questioning the way we live.

We have been focussed on those ideas ever since and that, of course, is what the blog is about. I may have gone off on some pretty wacky tangents at times but when I look back on all the posts and consider what I want to write about in the future it’s the same topic as that which forms a fundamental thread running through our lives.

I don’t think we ever had a road to Damascus moment but we have gradually moved from a focus on jobs, money and possessions to one that centres on free time, new experiences and living a simple life. It’s all about needing less rather than earning more. All the big events and decisions in the last few years have revolved around this including the bike ride, although we probably didn’t realise it at the time. The move to part-time, low paid work, and the recent purchase of the mobile park home are further steps along the way. There is a narrow boat somewhere on the horizon but that’s still a dream at the moment. Each event has led to less stuff, less space and a lot less money. It has also given us a huge sense of freedom and flexibility. It feels a bit like the first day of our big bike ride when tears rolled down my face as we rode the first few miles and I contemplated the scale of what lay ahead. The unknown emptiness of the next six months was exhilarating, like a long dark night just waiting to be filled with sweet dreams. (Ironically, it may well be possible to achieve a similar sensation by having unlimited money but that option was never coming our way.)

The blog is my attempt to provide some insight into what our chosen route involves. We don’t have a manual entitled “Nirvana in six easy steps- the simple life” though I expect there may well be one. We have no idea whether what we are doing is the answer but it’s an option. It’s not about knowing the answers anyway; it’s more about having endless questions. What if? Could we? Should we? We are just attempting to answer the questions rather than letting them hang in the air. It’s about not getting to the end of the journey still wondering what would have happened if we had taken that fork in the road.

A simple life

A simple life

So there is the focus for this blog. It’s about our journey trying to make the most of whatever time we have left. Just like everybody else I suppose. We’re not trying to say it’s the right way. It’s just our way.