How to find your way around the British Canals

I am getting excited now as we get nearer to returning to our narrowboat and travelling around the British canals this summer. We have been having work done on the boat including a new kitchen, but that should be ready soon, so hopefully by the end of the month we will be back.

The UK canal and river network is extensive – some 2000 miles – travelling through vast tracts of countryside, and connecting most towns & cities. Before the railways it was the best and fastest way of carrying goods from place to place, and despite falling into disrepair in the first half of the twentieth century, most of the navigations (the official name) are now open to traffic again. Volunteers and the Canal & River Trust keep the waters clear and the locks operating. It is somewhat easier than other countries because most of the equipment is self service and we can take our narrowboat anywhere we like, whenever we like.

Just a few of my guides

So of course that begs the question of how we know where to go. The answer is a mixture between 21st and 19th century technologies. There are some great apps and websites. One of our favourites is “Canal Plan AC” website, which is brilliant at working out how long it will take us to make a journey, and where likely stops are along the way. It takes account of fast and slow navigations, and time to get through locks, as well as how many hours a day we want to travel, and where are good places to moor. The other app on my phone is “Open Canal Map” which allows me to track our journey live and zoom in and out of the canal maps, for instance to see where a water point is, or a recent stoppage.

But I have to admit, despite the advantages of technology, I prefer to use proper paper books. There are two sets of canal books in common use in the UK – the Nicholson Guides and the Pearson Guides. Pearsons are more chatty and have simplified maps. Nicholsons are more comprehensive and have the detailed Ordnance Survey maps. Both guides have been around for over 50 years and are updated every few years. I had always thought that was done by hundreds of editors but by coincidence we have become friends with Jonathan Mosse, who lives on a boat near us in Scotland, and does most of the work to keep Nicholson guides up to date. When he started in the 1970s, he would spend his days boating and cycling along canals. These days he can do a lot of the research online, but he is still always grateful for updates from boaters like ourselves, who travel the canals every day, and can let him know when a bridge number has changed or a pub has closed.

This week, he kindly sent me the guides that have been updated for 2023 – covering the North West of England. They are shiny and new but it will not take long till they are covered in muddy thumb prints and hand marked updates. I feel privileged to play a small part in keeping everyone informed as we share the navigations.

If you have never had a narrowboat holiday in the UK, I recommend it. The slow pace of life will bring mindfulness and calm, even if just for a week. And don’t forget to get a copy of your local guides.

Is this my last year skiing in the alps?

I didn’t learn to ski till I was in my forties. I was the kid that hated sliding in the playground, and saw nothing to enjoy in sliding down a mountain. But my wife really wanted to ski, and after several years of holidays that I did not really enjoy, I finally got the hang of it, and since then have loved skiing. We skied at least once a year until 2020, when we stayed in Morzine just as the pandemic was breaking. This week has been our first week on the slopes since then, as we came back to the great resort of La Plagne.

The view from our hotel

Last time we were here was five years ago. La Plagne is quite a high resort for the French Alps, with our hotel at 2100 metres, and the tops of the mountains over 3000 metres. At this time of year it should be guaranteed great snow, and back in 2018 the drifts were well over my own height.

This year has been quite different in the French alps, and just two weeks ago La Plagne was grassy hills and patches of ice. Fortunately last week it had the first big dump of snow, and so conditions have been good for us. But even then, by the end of the week the snow has been skied off on some of the steeper pistes.

When we started skiing, some of our favourite resorts were around 1500 metres, such as Soldeu in Andorra, and Courchevel 1550 in France. These days, even with artificial snow blowers, these are no longer great ski resorts. I feel that our days of skiing in the alps may be over.

I expect that for some readers of this blog, you may be considering me pretty privileged. If the worst that the global climate emergency brings is a change to my vacation plans, then lucky me. But it is still a reminder- a reminder that global warming is real, is happening and will change all our lives. Because it is progressive, climate change does not make the news every day, but it is probably the most important story in my life, and probably yours. I make no excuse for having flown here, and for keeping my gas central heating on when we get home at the weekend. But I have learnt to love skiing, and maybe this will be the last year with sufficient snow to make it work.

Has your life changed due to the climate emergency? Will things ever return to “normal”?

Are retired people allowed to have opinions?

Now that I have been retired for two years, I realise that when I was working I was unconsciously biased against retired people. I believed that they should not have opinions about business, politics, or pretty much anything else. There are two reasons for this – retired people have outdated ideas and they no longer contribute to society. And therefore their views have no value and should be ignored.

Now that I am retired it will not surprise you that my beliefs have changed. I like to think my own opinions are relatively progressive, and while my tax contribution may be less than when I was working, I have time to think, perspective and experience. If I were to follow my own stereotype I would also now be believing that young people’s opinions have no value. For instance, how can a 16 year old have the vote (which they do in Scotland) when they have no understanding of life, and are distracted by adolescence?

In reality I am trying hard to balance all my ageist biases with tolerance. Telling everyone which pronouns I want seems odd to me, but I understand that it is fundamental to some. Continuing to rally behind Brexit despite the economic evidence, seems nonsensical to me, but I understand that for some, it is the basis of British sovereignty. Keeping a narrowboat on a 48 hour mooring for a week is against the rules and therefore makes me judgy. But it is January. Does it really matter?

I conclude that retired people like me are allowed opinions. And so are young people, middle aged people, people of different faiths, races; people that are very like me and people that are quite different.

Or is having an opinion so important, I should not be tolerant of the contrary view. What do you think?

Never too old for a birthday party

Last Saturday I woke up several hours before dawn to drive the long journey from Edinburgh to Haywards Heath. I was doing my son Rob a favour by driving his car down to his flat. For reasons too complicated to explain, he had ended up with two cars in Scotland over Christmas. But the more important reason for the adventure was to join friends and family of my aunt Gillian at her 90th birthday party.

Gillian is my Mum’s sister and has lived in the Haywards Heath area (near Brighton) for over 50 years. For all that time, she has worshiped at a local Baptist Church. The church hosted the party and were so very welcome to us all. Gillian knew about the people from her church but was not aware any family would attend. In the end I think there were about 70 people, so a great turnout to celebrate with her. It was a very special day.

I am not a great one for parties. I find the large group of people a little intimidating and always forget to talk to everyone I should. The Jonah Lewie song says “you will always find me in the kitchen at parties” and that would have been true for me if there were not already many church people busy providing teas and coffees. Instead I snuck upstairs and found a games room where I could play table tennis with a niece and her fiancée. Much more me.

But I am sure that Gillian found it a very special day. Never too old for a party. I look forward to sharing Gillian’s 100th.

Do you love to party or would you rather hide in a corner?

Never too old for a birthday party

Last Saturday I woke up several hours before dawn to drive the long journey from Edinburgh to Haywards Heath. I was doing my son Rob a favour by driving his car down to his flat. For reasons too complicated to explain, he had ended up with two cars in Scotland over Christmas. But the more important reason for the adventure was to join friends and family of my aunt Gillian at her 90th birthday party.

Gillian is my Mum’s sister and has lived in the Haywards Heath area (near Brighton) for over 50 years. For all that time, she has worshiped at a local Baptist Church. The church hosted the party and were so very welcome to us all. Gillian knew about the people from her church but was not aware any family would attend. In the end I think there were about 70 people, so a great turnout to celebrate with her. It was a very special day.

I am not a great one for parties. I find the large group of people a little intimidating and always forget to talk to everyone I should. The Jonah Lewie song says “you will always find me in the kitchen at parties” and that would have been true for me if there were not already many church people busy providing teas and coffees. Instead I snuck upstairs and found a games room where I could play table tennis with a niece and her fiancée. Much more me.

But I am sure that Gillian found it a very special day. Never too old for a party. I look forward to sharing Gillian’s 100th.

Do you love to party or would you rather hide in a corner?

Why do people not play board games anymore?

Over Christmas we had guests and played quite a lot of games. Charades of course, a tournament of a card game called “sh*thead”, funny rummy, dobble and more. But the only proper board game we played was this Lord of the Rings version of Risk – and even then we ran out of time to finish it.

When I was growing up we played a lot of board games. I was one of four children and over board games we learnt how to be competitive while still friends – most of the time. In particular with my brother Michael, we would spend long afternoons over Monopoly, Cluedo, Wembley, Flutter, Battling Tops. Each Christmas our parents would buy us a new game to share and it became a Christmas morning favourite after Church to play the game while our Mum made the dinner (different times).

When I first met my wife Mandy, we also played a lot of two person games – backgammon, othello, pass the pigs. We have a cupboard stacked high with games which these days are gathering dust. I am not sure why we don’t play them. We still play cards when we have people round. This week we learnt a new card version of golf, where you have 9 or 18 holes (rounds) to minimise your strokes (points on the cards). I guess when we were growing up there were no computer games, and only three channels of black and white TV. I am also aware that I am really speaking for myself. There are millions of dungeons and dragon players across the world that would laugh at my comments.

But I do miss board games. Perhaps I can persuade Mandy today to choose one of the dusty boxes from our cupboard, and we can return to our usual arguments over the rules. For the avoidance of doubt, there is no rule in Monopoly that says all fines should be put onto free parking and picked up by the next player that lands there – even if it is a good idea!

I wish you a very happy and game-full New Year.
Pete

Does East Lothian have the best coastal walk in Scotland?

On Thursday I had a most wonderful post Christmas walk from Dunbar to Cockburnspath in East Lothian. We managed to find a window between the heavy rains, and the sun was low in the sky, giving a lovely light over the sea.

Scotland has amazing countryside, from mountains and munros to lochs and lakes. Some of my favourite walks are along the coast. The highlands have emptiness and drama. The western isles have the longest white sand beaches. Orkney and Shetland have prehistoric coastal settlements. The north east coast has craggy cliffs. But East Lothian is one of my favourites. The John Muir Way runs right along the edge, past golf courses, a nuclear power station, beautiful towns, classic beaches, cliffs, and rocks. All kinds of coast in one short walk.

Where is your favourite coastal walk?

Ten reasons Christmas is my favourite day of the year

Christmas is my favourite day of the year. Always has been. I wonder why.

My tree
  1. I love the anticipation. Probably more than the day itself, I love the run up – getting things prepared, making plans, organising.
  2. For a little while everyone seems friendly. When I am out walking the dogs, strangers greet me with a “Happy Christmas” instead of ignoring me. People all seem to smile a little more, be more patient.
  3. I like food. I like drink. I realise it can be excessive, especially the Christmas lunch. But there is a generosity in excess that I love.
  4. So many happy memories of Christmases past. As a child excited to find out what Father Christmas had left. As an adult making it just right for my own children.
  5. I love the carols and ceremonies. My Dad was a vicar, and even just the smell of a church at Christmas reminds me of the time when we came out of a midnight service to find snow falling on Christmas Day.
  6. I love the decorations, the tree bedecked with baubles and tinsel, the cards around the rooms, the lights.
  7. I love hearing from distant friends. Even if it is just a note in a Christmas Card once a year, it maintains the connection. We had a visitor from New Zealand this week, who we had only seen once in the past 30 years. But we had stayed in touch at Christmas and it made this week’s visit possible and memorable.
  8. Cold is good. I much prefer cold weather to hot weather. Last week in particular was crisp, bright and very cold. Nothing better than going out for a bracing walk, and then returning to a warm house and a wood burning stove.
  9. I really like Christmas films. I am a real weeper for soppy films and they don’t get much more soppy than at Christmas.
  10. It is all about family. We are fortunate enough to have our sons with us this year, and I am so looking forward to our time together – playing games, eating, drinking, chatting, slobbing.
My fire

On the narrowboat, the dogs food is kept in an old Christmas tin, with the label “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”. Hardly a day goes by through the summer, when I don’t hum the song to myself, because for me it is true.

To my blog followers and readers, whatever your faith, I wish you a very merry Christmas and hope you too enjoy a bit of seasonal magic this year.

Baby it’s cold outside

The coldest week of the year has seen temperatures here drop to around -12°C overnight. It has given us a good excuse to stoke up the swood burning stove and watch Christmas movies, including Die Hard 1 & 2. Both class as top Xmas movies in my book.

My back garden on Wednesday

My favourite film this week was the new full length version of Muppets Christmas Carol on Disney+. This includes a lost song “When love is gone” which was supposedly removed from the film when it was first digitised because early DVDs had limited capacity. It is easy to forget in these days where we keep photos and videos on our phones and in the cloud that it is not so long ago that most images and films would often be gone forever.

Perhaps because my Dad died this year, I have been listening to a podcast called “Griefcast” where comedians are interviewed about people they have lost and how they have coped. It is hosted by Cariad Lloyd and she talks about how just a few years ago, when someone died , their friends and relatives would be left with just a few mementos – maybe a few printed photographs, occasionally a clip of their voice from a cassette. But these days, especially for young people, there are endless pictures, videos and voice clips. Neither grief is easier, but they are different – constant reminders, or very few.

I am glad when something new is rediscovered from the past. Regular followers will know that I love doing family history research, and earlier this year I found a newspaper article about the death of my wife’s grandfather. Family lore said that he had been knocked off his pushbike returning in the dark, drunk from the pub. The truth was that he had been working in the pub, was sober and had saved the life of his companion by pushing her out of the way of the oncoming car. A memory well worth recovering.

I look forward to someone rediscovering the missing song and dance section from Die Hard. Yippee-ki-yay!

Do I need a PA?

I am probably from the last generation of managers that worked with a personal assistant (PA). As I was promoted in my last few years, I found my successors did not get the privilege. Automation and cost cutting meant that PA’s were seen as a thing of the past, like smoking at work, or executive dining rooms.

This week I have been organising a visit to India in February. It is just for a vacation but when I was working this would have always been a job for my PA. And this week I realised quite how hard it is. Getting flights, hotels and meetings all to fit is no easy thing. I think I have managed it but I do wish I had a PA.

You can see how old I am from the fact that I have printed off my confirmations. I can give you the excuse of experience of India airports where you can’t enter the terminal without a printed ticket, but in truth I needed the paperwork to give me confidence that I had everything booked. I think I did OK but I do know that when something goes wrong while I am travelling (which it will) I will want to call my PA and will miss them.

So I want to say thank-you to all my PAs over the years. You were awesome and made me successful.

Can robotics really ever replace a great PA? What do you think?

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