A dreich day

The Scots would call it a ‘dreich day’, the Irish a ‘soft day’. Personally, I would call it a ‘bloody miserable wet day’. However you want to dress it up, I’m not inspired to experience it other than through the window and with the benefit of a full tea-pot and a glowing fire. It’s the perfect recipe for a spot of self-indulgent navel gazing.

A dreich day

I’m always conscious when I start writing that there are countless blogs out there telling us how to live our lives. From Kafir to Pilates, detoxing to mindfulness there is always some holier-than-thou preacher pushing ‘the solution’ and filling us full of guilt because we aren’t on board. They berate us for our consumerism and accuse us of destroying our precious planet whilst proffering the simple meditative, all-fulfilling alternative of living in a small space on a vegan diet in the woods. Whenever I come across these blogs I worry that maybe I am guilty of the same thing. I have never suggested that anybody ‘ought’ to cycle around Britain on a bicycle and I have never said that living on a narrow boat is in some way the ‘correct’ way to live ones life but I do worry that it could come over that way.

When I was younger I had a passion for reading accounts of unbelievable feats of bravery. Tales of near death experiences on ice encrusted peaks in the Himalayas had me spell-bound. I devoured them hungrily but I never once considered following in their footsteps. I never felt that the authors of these sagas were suggesting that I ‘ought’ to be doing the same thing or that what they did was some kind of path to enlightenment. They were having a good time and they felt compelled to share it as far as I could tell and I was happy to gorge on their adventures vicariously without ever feeling denigrated.

I write this blog because I enjoy it. It’s a handy way of exploring ideas and the world around us and writing things down helps me to get my thoughts in some kind of order. The fact that some people seem to enjoy reading it is a real bonus and that is really all there is to it. I’m not trying to tell anybody else how they should live their lives, just exploring my own choices.

Which brings me to the navel gazing. I’m trying really hard to set aside the novelty aspect of life on the boat and work out why I am enjoying the experience so much. There are obvious factors like the scenery, peace and quiet, abundant wildlife and friendly neighbours (and the stove, don’t forget the stove) but all of that could easily be attained living in a very comfortable house in the countryside.

Don’t forget the stove

The boat, on the other hand, presents plenty of reasons for not living on the water. There is a never-ending round of chores and repairs, we are always tripping over each other and there is never having enough space to store anything. We have cut our personal belongings down to a ridiculous level but there are still more ‘things’ than there are spaces to keep them in. We have limited wi-fi availability, the phone signal is dodgy and we don’t have constant running hot water a lot of the time. Last night the mains electricity was playing on off, on off all evening. Life on a boat is harder than life on land so why is it so much fun?

By modern standards our life now is quite primitive and at times less comfortable than the one we are leaving behind but at the same time I can’t help but feel it is more satisfying. It’s certainly more demanding. To some extent it’s like going back in time. My dad was a joiner and spent his working days being creative in a physically demanding job. In his limited amount of free time he was normally found repairing or restoring something or tending his modest vegetable patch in the back garden. Leisure time was a novel concept then and life was full without having to be filled. Perhaps the boat takes us back some way to that time when there was always something that needed doing as opposed to finding something to do.

Humankind has done a magnificent job of making life easier through technology. From electric tooth brushes to pneumatic nail guns we have managed to take the labour out of nearly everything we do. There is no need to walk anywhere if we don’t want to, lifts and escalators have taken the place of staircases; and digging, weeding, hoeing and harvesting are all taken care of by Tescos. Now we have so much more free time and we can go to the gym or for a run to get the exercise that used to be an integral part of everyday life. I genuinely don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad one but it does seem a bit odd when you think about it.

Our new lifestyle on our Golden Girl is definitely more taxing than our old one but at the same time it is strangely more satisfying. The simple processes of staying warm, dry and well fed require a little more effort than they used to and that in turn brings a greater sense of achievement. The boat is definitely more complex than the house was. There is more to learn, more to go wrong but also more reward from making it work. It demands more time and investment both mentally and physically and for me, at least, it’s just more interesting.

I’m going to put a note in my diary and read this again in a few months time and we’ll see if I still agree with myself or whether it turns out it’s a fool’s paradise I am living in and not a marina at all. In the mean time life on board provides me with plenty to do when I’m not contemplating mental conundrums on a dreich or soft day.

Right, enough of all this philosophical navel gazing stuff, I’m off to empty the toilet.

Still raining

It’s all about the fire

Sitting on our warm and cosy boat and staring into the fire as the ice in the marina gradually melts made me realise just how important our stove is. So important I thought I would write about it.

I have fond, if somewhat rose-tinted memories of growing up in a council house with basic central heating. I don’t mean central heating in the modern sense of the term, what I mean is that we had a coal fire and it was roughly in the centre of the house. It may have been central but it’s role of heating the whole house was plainly unachievable and our levels of comfort were indirectly proportional to how far away from the fire we were. In the depths of winter I recall changing into my pyjamas in front of the fire before attempting to get up the stairs, into my bedroom and under the bed clothes in less than five seconds, and then attempting to warm the bed up with what was left of my meagre body heat. A hot water bottle may have been deployed in extreme conditions I admit. Eight warm, snugly and peaceful hours later I would awake to find ice had formed on the inside of the bedroom windows while I had been dreaming of long hot summer holidays. Now, approaching retirement and in an era of sophisticated, thermostatically controlled, touch of a button activated heating systems I find myself once more scraping ice off the windows from the inside. It sounds grim I know but I’m actually loving it and I think I know why. I think it’s all about the fire.

Baby it’s cold outside (photo by Gill Pearson)

The option to heat your entire living space to any temperature you choose, to control which rooms are heated and when, and to be able to adjust and monitor the system from your phone seems like the ultimate convenient heating solution. The alternative of filling coal buckets, emptying ash pans and attempting to ‘move’ heat from a single source around fifty seven feet of ice clad steel tubing couldn’t possibly be seen as preferable or even acceptable could it? So why am I enjoying it? Well it’s all about the fire.

Maybe it’s the whole effort, reward cycle. After all setting the timer and thermostat on a modern central heating system doesn’t require much effort and even if you overcome the challenge of a wireless system it’s still only a momentary sense of satisfaction. It doesn’t last. You stay warm but there isn’t any sense of earning that warmth. Tending our solid fuel stove on the other hand is a never ending task that requires real physical effort and a degree of skill and organisation. Carrying a full coal scuttle the length of the boat whilst it rocks from side to side is a brilliant core workout and those 20kg bags of fuel don’t move themselves either. When it comes to keeping the fire in it will burn for ten hours without attention but during the day a little more tending gives us more control. Feeding the fire with coal, emptying the ash pan, cleaning up the dust and adjusting the ventilation to fine tune the heat output means that there is a real sense of effort and involvement in order to achieve the reward of warmth. Then there is the cooking! There is always a kettle on the go and more often than not there will be a stew or curry simmering away, filling the boat with mouth watering smells. The stove has become a crucial element of day to day life that provides warmth, hot food and a good deal of satisfaction.

The true meaning of mult-fuel

Apart from the sense of reward there may be another reason why I am just a little bit obsessed by this simple metal box. Fire has been at the heart of living for a couple of million years now so in the scheme of things our modern ways of controlling it in the form of cookers, boilers and other heating methods are new inventions and maybe in evolutionary terms we haven’t yet left the hearth behind. Nearly everybody enjoys a bonfire or a campfire and who doesn’t love a good barbecue. The idea of sitting around a fire is so ingrained in our species that it drives us to create excuses for doing it and cooking on a fire takes us back even deeper into our roots. Huddling around an open fire and baking potatoes in it couldn’t be described as practical but its attraction endures beyond far more convenient methods of preparing food or staying warm.

We’ve put several pictures on social media of our stove blazing away with pots and pans on it and I have been amazed by the level of attention these posts have attracted. It seems that food and fire are just as critically connected and central to our existence as they ever were. Despite the unbelievable technological advances that we have achieved in the past few hundred years we are still essentially driven by primitive needs and emotions and maybe that is why I am looking forward to finishing this post and putting a bit more coal on the fire. Maybe the novelty will wear off eventually but for now, it’s all about the fire.

I know: the glass needs cleaning

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