A round of applause please

What defines a holiday? I have been pondering this conundrum because somebody on a narrow boat interest group on the internet posed the question; “Do you feel like you are always on holiday no matter how long you have lived on your boat?”.

Speedwell Castle in Brewood

I would have said that a holiday is a break from work, responsibilities, worries and day to day routines. It normally involves lots of changes, such as location, activities, eating and drinking habits and people. I suppose you could wrap all that lot up with the word ‘different’. A holiday is very different from your normal daily life. So here’s a question; if you live and travel on a narrow boat all the time are you always on holiday or never on holiday? It feels like a holiday but it doesn’t match my definition. One or two of the respondents to the question on the internet replied that they had lived on their boats for five, ten or even twenty years and still felt like they were on one long holiday. Maybe if this wonderful weather breaks or something serious goes wrong with the boat it will all feel different but for now I’m just happy to just go with the flow and assume that the holiday will last forever.

Golden Girl and Rebecca on holiday

We are now on our fifth canal, the Shropshire Union and very beautiful it is too. We joined it via a tight turn off the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal and straight into the mouth of a lock. I’m still working on my manoeuvring skills in these situations so to see a small crowed gathering on the tow path as I began my turn was a bit daunting. They were ramblers and I assumed they would carry on walking but no, they all stopped and began to discuss my chances of success amidst speculation as to how much damage might result from failure. I was relieved to make the corner without incident but then bitterly disappointed that I actually had to ask for my round of applause. Really, some people want entertaining for nothing!

Bob and Marie leading the way

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark in our journey because not only did we come to the most southerly point in our route and begin to head north, we also said goodbye to two people who have become very firm friends over the last few weeks. A chance meeting when we were having maintenance done on the boat led to a vague plan to travel with Bob and Marie and their boat Rebecca once we came back from our Liverpool break. They just happened to be going in the same direction at approximately the same time so we agreed to try travelling together and see how we got on. These arrangement can be tricky of course and if it turns out that you don’t hit it off you can’t just part company that easily. When you are both going in the same directions and with a top speed of four miles per hour, it’s not easy to give another boat the slip. The solution was to a have a very frank, upfront conversation and agree that either couple could end the arrangement without explanation at any time. Well that turned out to be a wasted conversation because we got on like a house on fire from day one and we haven’t stopped laughing for three weeks. Sadly, Bob and Marie are on a different time schedule to us so we have had to say goodbye and agree to travel together again another day.

On the beautiful ‘Shroppie’

Since leaving Stone our confidence has been rising as we have cruised through the locks with calm efficiency, negotiated on coming boats at blind bends with casual aplomb and even dealt with our first visit to a marina full of boats to obtain fuel without causing any damage. Nothing has really phased us but then nobody told us about ‘The Narrows’. It seems that in this corner of Staffordshire the canal builders came up with a cunning way of dealing with changes of level that didn’t require a complex and expensive lock. They simply dug a channel through solid rock to maintain the even gradient of the water. That’s a fine idea but digging through rock is time consuming so they halved the problem by only digging the cuttings half the width of a normal canal and only slightly wider than our boat. Some of the cuttings are short and you can see if there is another boat coming and hang back. Others are longer, not straight and you enter them with your fingers crossed and You Tube videos of how to reverse a narrow boat running through your head. So far we have been lucky and not met anybody head on but I know you are all now just waiting for our luck to run out because that will make a much better story. I hope I never have to tell it.

Entering the narrows

Fingers crossed

Just a quick reminder if you missed the last blog, I am now updating a map that shows you our route around the system. Click here to see it.

Photos by Gill (mostly)

Holiday over

Well that’s the holiday over. What I mean is that tomorrow we start our seventeenth day on the road which is about as long as we have ever toured for, until now. Under normal circumstances we would be getting a bit despondent at this point as we contemplated returning home and getting back to work and routines but not this time. I’m wondering if the next week or two will feel like an extended holiday or whether we will begin to really believe that this is our life for the forseeable future. It’s an exciting prospect and ever so slightly frightening too. If I’m worried about anything, it isn’t the cycling, the weather or any problems we may encounter. No, it’s the possibility that there will come a point when we just aren’t enjoying the experience, but if the first two weeks are anything to go by, I would say there is nothing at all to worry about. So far, it has been wonderful and even without much in the way of warmth or sunshine, being completely immersed in the unfolding spring has been a magical experience.

Wild garlic in profusion

Wild garlic in profusion

As we have travelled north, further and further from familiar territory, the sense of being close to nature and living almost completely outdoors has been the single most rewarding sensation for me. As I write this I am sitting in the lounge of our wonderful and generous Warm Showers hosts, Dick and Jackie and I am looking out over Loch Sween with the very real prospect of seeing an Osprey fishing for its supper. You couldn’t ask for a nicer setting or kinder and more interesting people to stay with but I am still really looking forward to camping again tomorrow night. We will almost certainly be on Mull by then and well on our way to the Highlands. Lots of big climbs, I know, but with all the rewards of spectacular scenery that the clash of big mountains and rugged coastlines does so well.

Loch Sween

Loch Sween

Looking back at the first two weeks I get the sense of a transition from focussing on making linear progress over the ground to climbing to a completely different spiritual place that comes with this new landscape and the peace and tranquility of it all. We have gone through a kind of breaking in process. Getting gradually fitter as the roads have risen higher and working our way through various aches and pains as our bodies have adjusted to the new demands we are making of them. Now comes the reward of hard work we hope.

When Gill met Gill from Reed in Lancashire. She loved our story.

When Gill met Gill from Reed in Lancashire. She loved our story.

We have already met loads of lovely people, some of whom have embraced our odyssey with joyous enthusiasm and others who have not. I think the coolest response so far was from another cyclist who, when Gill explained what we are doing simply replied, “oh lovely” and changed the subject. By contrast, while I shopped for dinner in the Girvan Co-op Gill was presented with a two pound donation by a woman in the street who wanted to know what we were doing.

In Wigtown we were sheepishly approached by the wonderfully named Forbes Rogerson who, it turned out, was harbouring a burning desire to load up his bike and pedal into the sunset. I hope we inspired you Forbes because you really won’t regret it.

Port Patrick

Port Patrick

We have been spoilt rotten by Dick and Jackie over the last twenty four hours and it has been incredibly relaxing to stay in their home and swap stories of cycling and all manner of other topics. Dick offered to host us for two nights because we needed a rest but also because he said the weather forecast for today was awful. In fact it’s been glorious so the fact that he had a large load of firewood delivered today that had to be unloaded and stacked does make me slightly suspicious of his real motives for keeping us here for today. Only joking of course Dick, stacking firewood is my second passion after cycling, honestly.

We’ll be sad to leave our new friends but happy at the same time to start this new phase of the journey and to enjoy the experience as it continues to grow and develop.

Sunset over Jura

Sunset over Jura

Still waiting for the Osprey I’m afraid.