Is every day the same on a narrowboat?

One question we often get asked by non-boaters is whether we get bored because every day is just the same. The answer is that we never get bored because every day is different. We learn something new each day. We see something new each day. Let’s look at this week as an example.

Last Friday, we travelled from Penkridge to Compton, an unusually long day for us – about seven hours cruising. Despite going through the middle of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, this is a pretty canal. It is one of the earliest, built by a chap named James Brindley and opened in 1772, and uses the contours of the land rather than cutting through hills and using locks to go up and down. Near Compton I found this pretty Victorian arts and crafts house to visit.

On Saturday, we stayed in Compton for a lazy day. I found a nice long walk for the dogs – along the canal, across countryside and back again along this disused railway line. Fascinating to imagine the heavy steam trains, the grime and dirt. It was a hot day and in the afternoon we found a country park where the dogs could swim. Pizza for team and a film.

On Sunday, it was back on our journey south. A boat coming the other way warned us that a boat club was ahead of us. Fifteen boats were waiting to go down Bratch Locks. This is a bit of a bottleneck on the canal, because three locks are next to each other, so they allow three boats to go down and then three come up. This means if you are boat four, you will wait around an hour before you can go. If you are boat fifteen, you could be waiting several hours. Fortunately by the time we got there the queue had reduced and we were only held up for around forty minutes. Bratch Locks are fascinating. They were built by Brindley as a staircase, where the top gates of one lock form the bottom gates of the next one. But this used too much water, so around 1820 they were converted to individual locks with about a meter of canal between each lock, and side ponds to hold the water. I have never seen anything like them, and as you can see in the photo, the rules are somewhat complex. Fortunately there were volunteers to help us and all was well.

On Monday, we passed through a number of small villages with great names such as Boterham, Giggerty and Bumblehole. We even went through Swindon – not the massive 1960s sprawling town in Wiltshire, but a hamlet of a few houses and a pub in the West Midlands.

Tuesday was a short day. Just a couple of hours from Stewponey to Wolverley. We moored in a beautiful tree lined stretch, next to a brilliant pub called the Lock Inn. It cooked traditional Black Country food. I had a couple of pints of the local ale, and an enormous plate of Faggots and Mash. We considered staying another day, so we could see the Morris dancers, but in the end decided to carry on.

On Wednesday, we continued to the end of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal at Stourport. Stourport was once a very small village called Mitton, but after the canal was built became one of the busiest inland ports in Britain, as the canal joins the river Severn and from there large boats sailed down to the sea at Bristol. Nowadays it is a sleepy pretty town, with much history to see. It also has a permanent funfair, where we found this rather sad Winnie the Pooh.

Thursday was another day off and we stayed in Stourport. We took the opportunity to enjoy this small breakfast. Yum! We also went on a trip to see Dudmaston, a huge stately home that is still lived in by a (rather wealthy) family.

So no. Every day is not the same on a narrowboat. Every day brings something new and we are very lucky to enjoy it.

Everyone is unique on the cut

We meet so many different people when we are out in our narrowboat on the canals – “on the cut”. There are the first time boaters on a day boat or a one week hire. There are live-aboard boaters who move up and down a canal but broadly stay in the same place. And the liveaboards who moor in a marina. Then there are the continuous cruisers like us that travel around the UK throughout the year, and the cruisers that travel just every few weeks. We meet hippies and families, engineers and accountants, solo boaters and people squeezing ten onto a boat. I love them all.

I think one of the things I love best is that I meet all of these boaters every day, in a lock , on a mooring, as we pass. And the mutual respect is palpable. We may bitch about the Canal and River Trust, who regulate what we do. We may bitch about hire boaters if we are live-aboard, or about the “owners” if we are hiring. But day to day we rub along just fine. I have never met such a diverse group of people who get along as on the cut.

Good luck to Mark. It is a special kind of person who can live with a narrow-boater. I hope you find someone special.

When is too much too much?

When it comes to food and drink I have to admit I love excess. Perhaps it comes from my childhood when we did not have a lot of money and I was often hungry. There were four of us brothers and sister and we would share one small tin of beans for our tea. Perhaps it come from my love of cooking for others – there is a generosity I love in providing more food and drink than is needed. I am very happy to eat keftovers so ‘too much” is not wasteful for me – just a kindness to my guests.

So when this milkshake was provided for one of my birthday treats last week, I could really appreciate it. Vanilla milkshake with Nutella, chocolate shavings, chocolate brownie, two ice cream sandwiches, and covered in chocolate sauce. I love milkshakes. I love ice-cream. I love chocolate. It is outstanding.

I knew it would be a challenge when my waiter told me “good luck”. But I like a challenge. And 30 minutes later my glass was empty.

I have to admit that after finishing, I felt a little unwell. The sugar rush was great but the come down afterwards left me slightly nauseous and drained of energy. Was this finally the occasion when too much was actually too much?

Well no. I loved the milkshake and in retrospect do not regret a single calorie. Probably once a year is enough but it was delicious.

Just call me Augustus Gloop.

It’s my birthday and the engine bay is full of smoke

It was my birthday on Wednesday and it was planned to be a very special day. My younger son Martin had joined us on the narrowboat, we had a lovely cruise expected through Stoke on Trent from the lake at Westport down to the village of Barlaston, where we would have dinner in the pub owned by actor Neil Morrisey. It should have been perfect.


About an hour after we set off, the engine suddenly cut out and smoke started to appear around the boards above the engine bay. The picture does not really show how bad it was – when I took the boards up I could not even see the engine for smoke. Taking photographs was the last thing on my mind.

Fortunately there were no flames and nothing was alight but the oil cap had blown off, everything was massively hot, and we were stuck, next to a recycling centre in not the best part of Stoke. And of course, a three hour thunderstorm had just begun.

Even more fortunately we recently renewed our membership of River Canal Rescue (RCR), which is like a car recovery service for boats. I called them and told them my engine had blown up. They calmed me down and convinced me that was not the case, and within 30 minutes they had an engineer with me at the boat.

It took some diagnosis but we eventually realised what had happened. Through simple wear and tear, the bearings in the engine water pump had begun to fail, and caused a vibration. That had “thrown” the drive belt off, which meant that the engine was no longer operating the water pump, and so the engine was no longer being cooled, and simply got hotter and hotter till eventually it boiled off the coolant and everything gave up.

This could have been a massive issue, The cylinder head might have seized, or a major gasket blown. But when it all cooled down and we turned the engine on, everything still worked.

So we moored up properly, RCR ordered a new water pump, and found a local engineer who could fit it the following morning. It did take a lot of work with a mallet and a crowbar to get the old pump off, but by 1130 the following morning we were all fixed and on our way.

So what have I learnt? Nothing new but some lessons reinforced.

  • Living on a narrowboat s**t happens. It will be OK. Get over it.
  • Expert help is invaluable, even just to reassure. Well worth paying for,
  • Planning is great, but the unexpected is always just around the corner.

So what about my birthday? Well using taxis we still had that delicious meal. And we have planned an alternative birthday on Sunday, when we should be moored in a marina, with access to a car. That should be a very special day. And I do not regret my birthday. It was an adventure. Retirement is all about adventures,.

Hatching week

We have been travelling the Peak Forest Canal this week, a sidearm off the Macclesfield, that was used originally for transporting limestone from the Peak District quarries. These days the industry has gone and it is very beautiful as it clings to the sides of steep hills, with far views across the national park. As we travelled towards the end at Bugsworth Basin, we noticed a number of ducks and geese sitting on their nests. We also saw one goose with four new baby goslings, which were cute.

Just a few days later we returned along the canal and were astonished to find maybe fifty families of geese and ducks with goslings and ducklings. It made me wonder how they all hatch at once. I understand the principle that hatching in late spring gives the best chance of survival, but for so many to arrive within a few days is pretty incredible.

It reminds me of a holiday we once had at a house in Islay, an island off the West Coast of Scotland. When we arrived we asked if there would be many midges, the infamous biting insects of that part of the world. The property owner said that they would come the following Thursday, which we guessed was a random date, plucked from the air. But no, we had no insects till the Thursday, when clouds of them suddenly arrived.

Nature is a wonderful thing.

Not a bad way to spend our retirement.

What is your go to comfort food?

I had a couple of long days away from the boat this week to go to a funeral in the south of England. I stayed over with my son and he reminded me that when he was growing up I had introduced him to cheese and tomato on crackers, my “go to” comfort food. When I returned to the boat on Monday night, it was the first and only thing I wanted to eat.

These were introduced to me by my music teacher some 37 years ago. The original and best is a Jacob’s Cream Cracker, buttered lightly and with a slice of cheddar and a slice of tomato, with just a little salt. The ones in my photo from this week were a little posher, involving fancy crackers, and “Calverley Crunch” a vintage cheese from a canalside shop we found last week. I recommend them with a glass of gin and tonic, a glass of port, or just a cup of tea. At the end of a stressful day, when you can’t be bothered to cook, and you just want something homely, nothing is better.

What is your comfort food after a tough day? Maybe beans on toast? Or Doritos and Salsa from a jar? Or even a big bowl of cornflakes? Whatever it is, I bet it has as much to do with when you first ate it, as what is tastes like. Comfort food is about comforting memories removing all the stress of the moment. And it is a good thing.

I’d love to hear in the comments what your choice would be. Let me know.

I ❤️ Heartbreak Hill

There are a number of “must do” places on the UK canal network – Bingley Five Rise, Salterhouse Dock, The Curly Wurlys near Skipton, Caen Hill Locks, Pontcysylllte Aqueduct, the Falkirk Wheel, the Kelpies, Barton Swing Aqueduct, Anderton Boat Lift, the Boat Museum in Ellesmere Port. We are lucky enough to have visited all of these, and this week we added another of our favourites – Heartbreak Hill. Over just 12 miles between Middlewich and Kidsgrove we climbed 31 locks. And we really enjoyed the experience.

A quick quiz question before I tell you more. If you look carefully in the photo above at the footbridge, you will see it has a small gap in the middle. Why?

Between Mandy, me and the two dogs we make a great team for things like Heartbreak Hill. She tends to steer the boat, and with the dogs’ help I do the paddles and gates. Doing a stretch like Heartbreak Hill gets us into such a routine that much is done almost unconsciously. For instance these are deep locks, and going uphill we have to make sure not to let too much water into the lock too quickly, or the currents will bang the boat into the lock gates. Instead we have developed a technique of two turns of the windlass, wait two minutes and then the next two turns.

And because we were rising we saw some amazing views across the Cheshire countryside. At the end of the “hill” we were all tired but very happy. I love Heartbreak Hill.

And the gap on the footbridge? Back in the day, narrowboats were towed by a horse with a rope, and the gap allowed the boat to do locks without unhitching the horse. Every day is a school day on the canals.

Does perfection need planning?

I am often accused of over planning. Be more spontaneous I am told. Let life decide. Relax and enjoy.

But we went to a completely perfect wedding this week – our niece Lucy and her new husband Dan. And Lucy had planned it to within an inch of its life. I genuinely do not think it could have been any better.

The Coleman clan

The ceremony itself was just the right side of emotional, with few cheeks left unblemished by a tear. Then a wonderful confetti procession, a delicious meal, waiters who unexpectedly turned into singers and dancers, a saxophonist, a late night pizza van, and dancing into the night. Add in a couple of inevitable family dramas, and it’s was perfection.

Most importantly of course, Lucy and Dan had the day that they had wanted and that had been in planning for so long. And I think that everyone enjoyed themselves, from the young kids, to the oldies. Thanks Lucy & Dan and congratulations.

Of course I understand there is a place for spontaneity, and some of my best moments are unplanned. Perhaps emerging from a tunnel in the boat, when we discover a new view over amazing countryside. Perhaps when we bump into old friends unexpectedly. Perhaps when we decide on a whim to have an adventure.

But to quote the A-Team (showing my age I know) “I love it when a plan comes together”.

What about you? Are you a planner or a discoverer?

Back in Scotland. Wishing we were on the boat.

We have had to return to Scotland for a couple of weeks. A few minutes after we crossed the border we saw this sky, welcoming us home with the flag. But in truth Mandy and I are already missing the boat.

Our niece Lucy is getting married so we need someone to look after the dogs while we go to the wedding. We are very excited about their big day and to see all the families but we still want to get back to the boat.

We are also going up to the farm in St Andrews where another niece, Rachael, and her family live. We have not seen two year old Fred for a while, and it is lambing time, and Mandy’s brother and sister in law are there, so we are very much looking forward to that. But we still want to get back to the boat.

While we are in Scotland we have arranged to see the doctor, dentist, get the smart meters fixed, get the dogs hair cut for the summer, get our own hair cut. Some of these are really tricky to do when we are travelling. For instance, a doctor visit is difficult because the Scottish and English National Health Services do not talk to each other. So all important things to do, but we still want to get back to the boat.

I know. We are very privileged and so lucky to have these opportunities. It is important to love every day and not just wish for the future. And I do. It will be a wonderful wedding, excellent to see Fred and all. I am even excited about the smart meters!

But I still want to get back to the boat.

What to do on a narrowboat when the canal is closed?

We were let down by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) this week. After a lovely weekend on the Montgomery Canal in Wales, we set off back along the Lllangollen with the aim to get to a mooring in Chester this Saturday. Unfortunately, when we got to Grindley Brook locks on Monday afternoon, we received this email from CRT:

There is a reality that with a 250 year old canal network, there will be times when things break unexpectedly. But in this case it was planned work, and we should have been notified well in advance. I am set up so that I get emails about any stoppages on the canals we travel, so that we can plan around them, and if this notice had been issued on 17th March, as it should have, we would have been well beyond the area before work started. But apparently they had a “system issue” which I suspect was more likely a “forgot to press the button issue”, so we did not know until too late.

This gave me two challenges. Firstly how to react to the CRT cock up. Should I get angry and shout at the poor agent on the end of the CRT helpline? Should I move the boat up to the stoppage area and shout at the workmen to work faster? Neither would have any impact except perhaps to make me feel better. No, after reflection we decided to treat the incident as one of those things that happens when you live on a narrowboat, and to make the most of it.

So my second challenge was how to make the most of it. I have been able to get a few jobs done on the boat – touching up some scratched paint, adding diesel bug inhibitor to my fuel tank, checking my weed hatch, getting a load of shopping. But much more fun has been a couple of bus adventures to local towns – Whitchurch and Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury in particular is a really lovely town, with Roman remains, a Norman mott and bailey castle, Medieval and Tudor shop fronts, and a bustling indoor market full of craft and food stalls.

The way I look at it is that if CRT had not made their mistake, I would never have had these extra few days, and to have had my adventures.

But I still hope that the work completes this afternoon and we can get back on our way. Living on a narrowboat is fun. Travelling on a narrowboat is more fun.

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