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 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

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.


Living with potatoes

I have decided that hills are better than flatlands for cycling and potatoes are boring but sometimes have to be endured.

I obviously have too much time on my hands at the moment. Gill has found a job and is out all day and I haven’t and I am at home. The days are long and it’s a challenge to spend eight straight hours looking for work. My thoughts turn to this time last year and I find myself recalling a blog I wrote about signs of spring. It was one of the most popular pre-tour pieces I published and it drew analogies between the life cycle of leaves on a tree and our forth coming journey. There was talk of the leaves nourishing the tree long after they had withered and fallen to the ground and our adventure nourishing us long after our return.

Signs of spring

Signs of spring

The final sentence however came as a crushing blow to my negative frame of mind. It read simply;“Who knows what we might be planning then?”

I am sad to say that then is now, and we find ourselves planning very little. In fact the situation I am in is almost identical to that of this time last year, but without the prospect of the most exciting trip of my life to look forward to. I feel as if our life changing journey has achieved nothing more than to provide me with some nice memories for my old age. Surely I must have learned something from it.

Time to go for a walk and do some soul searching.

As I walked I found myself thinking about a part of the trip when we were cycling through Lincolnshire. The roads were flat and rather boring and the scenery was potatoes. (I may have just used potatoes as an adjective but humour me for a moment). On both sides of the road were acres and acres of potatoes. Endless symmetrical rows just coming into flower. I recalled very clearly that all the flowers on one side of the road were white and on the other side they were pink. That’s about as exciting as it got.

There are lots of potatoes in Lincolnshire.

There are lots of potatoes in Lincolnshire.

At times like this it’s easy to become focused on negatives. You start to notice that your backside is uncomfortable, your wrists ache and you fancy a pint but it isn’t in the budget.  I even asked myself what on earth we were doing. What was the point of this trip? I found myself desperately trying to think of anything interesting to prick the boredom bubble. Aren’t potatoes related to tomatoes in some way? I’m sure I read that somewhere. And are the leaves poisonous or did I dream that? The sameness of the situation grinds you down. In this kind of terrain your eye is often drawn to the horizon, desperately searching for change. Anything to confirm that the whole world isn’t really made of potatoes. It may come in the form of a church steeple or the silhouette of woodlands on the skyline. These things give you hope but what you are really looking for is hills. Hills mean change. Hills mean variety and entertainment and a chance to stand on the pedals and relieve that aching bum.

Those hills or mountains will come of course. The land is never flat forever and no matter how far away they might be, you know they will appear eventually. When they do finally interrupt the flat, boring horizon you are presented with a choice. You can rejoice in the prospect of more interesting scenery or you can focus on how far away they are and how much longer you are going to have to put up with this drudgery. That is when I realised that I had learned something useful from what we did. Today’s lesson: Don’t focus on how far way the mountains are but on how spectacular they look and what fun you will have when you reach them. I became aware that I am sitting at home thinking about how many more fields of potatoes I will have to endure before I get to the mountains.

It also forced me to acknowledge that there are quite a few church steeples and woodlands on the horizon to focus on while I am waiting. I have an interview tomorrow and other work related irons in the fire. Further ahead there is the Cycle Touring Festival in Clitheroe to look forward to in May and beyond that who knows what metaphorical mountains we might climb.

I feel much more positive after that and now I am going to get the tea ready. Now what did I say we would have tonight? Oh yes, I remember. I’d better go and peel some potatoes.

Brand New Life

I was driving Gill to work this morning and we were stuck in slow moving traffic. The road was lined either side with bushes and woodland and I was looking at the generally drab black and brown network of trunks and branches and straining to see any signs of spring. Suddenly my eye was taken by the brightest, greenest display of newly unfurled young leaves. A bit of digging around on the internet when I got home suggested that they may be Elder trees but actually it doesn’t matter what species these young leaves belong to, it’s what they represent that excites me.

They probably weren't even Elders but here's a nice picture anyway.

They probably weren’t even Elders but here’s a nice picture anyway

They were so vividly bright and verdant that they just screamed ‘BRAND NEW LIFE’ to me. They had that colour that you only see when something is new, really new. Before it becomes stained and tarnished by time and the elements. Amongst the drabness of the dirty woodland background they reminded me of someone who has turned up to a party in a flamboyant and glamorous outfit only to find that everyone else has come in jeans and T shirts. They looked gaudy and a bit out of place but they filled me with joy when I thought of the spring and summer that they herald. They represent new beginnings, something that I have been contemplating a lot just recently. I began to consider the changes that these leaves would go through over the next eight months and about what they would look like when we arrive home from our travels next October. Maybe they wouldn’t even be on the the tree by then. Maybe they would be dead.

Like us they will no doubt be battered by wind and rain, baked by sun and possibly even, like us, they will be attacked by insects. They will perform their task of absorbing the sunlight and converting it into energy for the tree as they gradually age and lose that vivid green in exchange for a slightly more subdued work-weary hue. No doubt our excited state at the time of our departure will also fade somewhat over the weeks and months but I would like to think that we will remain committed to the task, just like the leaves.

Come September the leaves will begin to dry and shrivel, turning yellow then red or brown before being discarded by the tree for good. To all intents and purposes they will be dead but their contribution to the tree will be far from over. During the coming weeks, months and even years they will be broken down to form nutrients for the tree that spurned them. I have no idea how long such things take but one day a part of them may well be recycled into yet more bright and shiny new leaves.

Our journey will end at about the same time that the leaves die but just as the leaves continue to feed the tree after they die so then, I hope, the experiences of our trip will go on nourishing us for many months and years to come.

By the time we leave in April, those young Elder leaves will be lost amongst a profusion of vegetation and spring will be well and truly with us. Likewise these thoughts will probably be lost in the turmoil of saying goodbye to friends and the thrill of our departure. Maybe they will come back to me next spring when I see those first opening buds once more. Who knows what we might be planning then.