Ten things we have learnt from six months living on a narrowboat

Last year was my first year retired, and due to pandemic restrictions we only started our narrowboat trip in June, meaning we travelled for around three months. This year has been much more what we originally planned – over six months travelling the canals and rivers of England in narrowboat Thuis. This week we finally moored up for the winter, in an excellent marina near Chester. So what have we learnt?

  1. A narrowboat is a small space to live in but it works. For the two of us and our two dogs there is enough space for everything we need – a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining area, dogs crate and lounge.
  2. Hot is worse than cold. In cold weather we simply turn on the stove or the boiler and the small airspace warms up pretty quickly. In the worst of the heatwaves, the tin can became pretty unbearable by about 4pm.
  3. There is no rush. Despite having so much time, my temptation is always to push on to the next place to see, the next milestone to conquer. Next year we plan to slow down even more, and spend more time in the places we visit.
  4. I love my solar. Last winter we had 525w of panels installed, and it has meant that we have not had to run the engine to charge the batteries when we are moored up. Sorry to Mandy that I became a little obsessed by the app on my phone that monitors the charging and battery status.
  5. Experienced boaters still scratch the paintwork. We have been narrowboating on holidays for 36 years, but some things can’t be avoided – narrow lock gates, fallen trees across the canal, drunk day boaters with no clue. There are shiny narrowboaters, and people who actually use their boats. We are the latter.
  6. I am not as introspective as I thought. Outside of work, I have always thought myself shy and avoid talking to people whenever possible. But on the cut (by the canal) I will talk to anyone and everyone. Not sure why – maybe because I never need see them again!
  7. I love my wife. You can imagine that during six months in a confined space there are times we irritate each other, but there is noone I would rather be with. She is a great boater, a great coach and a great companion. She has made this summer for me.
  8. I don’t need lots of stuff to be happy. I have a house full of things I have gathered over the years. But I have been equally happy on the boat with a few clothes, a working fridge & cooker, and reasonable internet.
  9. Things break. The saying that boat stands for “bung on another thousand” does have some validity. This year we had to fix some dodgy electrics, a failed webasto boiler, bubbled up paint on the roof, the waste tank monitor, a diesel cap, some bolts, a leaking floor panel, and more. This winter we are replacing the kitchen and the boat covers. On the other hand there are many expenses we don’t have. For instance it is not so easy to order things off Amazon that we don’t really need, because there is nowhere to deliver to.
  10. I am not sure we will ever be year round liveaboards. The winter is just too muddy when you have dogs, and at the end of six months I am ready to live in a house again for a while. But I can already feel that in a month or two I will be itching to get back on board for our next adventure.

Have you ever lived on a boat or in a caravan or motor home? What was it like for you?

What day is it?

When you see a doctor in a British film checking on mental capacity, the two questions they always ask are “Who is the Prime-minister?” and “What day is it?”. I have struggled with the second of these questions this week. Indeed, for the first time in 20 months, I nearly missed getting my Friday blog out, because I thought it was earlier in the week. Does this mean I am getting forgetful in my old age? Or is it just that days are much like each other when retired?

We are back on our narrowboat and off on our travels. The next month or so will see us travel the Staffordshire & Worcester and Shropshire Union canals, hopefully making it to Ellesmere Port before returning to a marina near Chester for the winter. We do have a couple of days off each week, but because we are not working, there is no reason for these to be at the weekend, and we both lose track of days.

I have some coping techniques. I have an alarm on my phone on a Thursday afternoon to remind me to write a blog. When it is Grand Prix season, I am always reminded when it is a Sunday – race day. But still, during the week, the freedom to do what we want each day, can mean that any day is like any other. As Pooh says in the picture above – today is my favourite day.

Oh by the way, I think the Prime-minister is Boris Johnson, but based on his permanent holidays, I may well be wrong.

Have a great weekend!

Should I get my moles checked?

About 15 years ago I had a skin cancer taken off the back of my hand. I have a lot of moles on my skin and one of them had gone a bit itchy. When tested it turned out to be a malignant melanoma. Fortunately it was early stage and I had no other issues after the removal. Despite the skin cancer, I rarely use suntan cream when on the boat, but this week it has been so hot and sunny I felt I needed to. As I was putting cream on the back of my arm I found a small raised mole, and when I photographed it, it turned out I had two red moles not looking exactly normal.

As you can imagine, after my previous experience I felt a little nervous but it is hard to see a GP when on the boat. Our GP is in Scotland and will not speak to me when I am in England – apparently the two health services are separate. But seeing a GP in England is difficult because our address is in Scotland. It is one of the many challenges about not having a fixed address. But fortunately I have access to a video consultation through some insurance, so I spoke to an online GP who looked at the photo and said it was probably benign and not an issue, but I should see a private dermatologist. This was all sounding quite expensive, so I waited till Wednesday, when I was back up in Scotland for the day, preparing for my wife’s 60th birthday party. I called my own GP who kindly saw me that same day.

He gave me a thorough examination and said that these two red spots are entirely normal – some kind of blood blemish – and nothing to worry about. He did find three black moles on my back that he said we should keep an eye on, but all in all, a great result.

So I wonder, was I wasting my time and that of the NHS getting these small moles checked? Should I have bothered? The doctor said I was doing exactly the right thing, especially given my medical history. Unnecessary stress maybe. But much better than not getting them checked and finding out too late that I had a problem.

Moving on

I needed to blow some cobwebs away this week, after the funeral of my Dad. We had a thanksgiving service in Salisbury Cathedral, which was quite a joyous event, as lots of people celebrated his life. But it is still a stressful time and I was glad to get back to Scotland. My son, Tin, and I took the dogs for a walk up Arthur’s Seat. This is a famous hill right in the middle of Edinburgh.

It was a crisp, cold morning and the fresh breeze on top certainly helped clear the mind. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that walking is one of my things. There is something in the combination of physical exertion and the wonderful views that really energises me and gives me perspective.

It will no doubt take some time to grieve for my father, but life moves on, and next week I should be able to get back to our narrowboat. Within a few weeks, Mandy and I will be off on our next big retirement adventure – six months travelling through the canals in the South of England. Mandy says that in my head I am already there. I am certainly getting very excited by the thought.

I look forward to sharing the experience with you.

Why is great food bad for you?

I have indigestion. Last night I had a delicious meal that my son cooked – spicy chicken and chorizo wraps. I really enjoyed the food, and devoured three filled wraps while watching an episode of “Lewis”, a British detective series. This morning I am feeling the after effects of so much chilli. Why is it that the best food and drink is not good for me?

I love spicy food, but my guts disagree. I love heavy red wines, but they give me a headache. I love bowls of rich ice cream and plates of cakes, but they make me fat.

Of course I have seen all those virtuous people on social media, extolling the benefits of living on fruit juice, celery and tofu. And I can enjoy a salad as much as the next man. But when it is a cold miserable evening in the middle of February, I want comforting food that makes me feel good in the moment.

I understand the science. Two things are working against me. The first is that thousands of years of evolution have taught us humans that fat, sugar and intoxicants are rare commodities to be enjoyed when you can find them. The second is that during 57 years of life I have been bombarded with messages from adverts, parents and friends, extolling how such food is a reward and makes you feel great.

I even understand how theoretically I can change my view. Because my mind has been programmed to like bad food, it can be reprogrammed to avoid them, and seek out the healthy.

But I guess the problem is the same as an addict coming off cigarettes or stronger drugs. It will never happen until they really want to make the change. And I really do love the bad stuff. So while I have a sore tummy this morning, I would very happily have a curry and a beer tonight.

It is all about choices. I choose to love my exercise. But I also choose to love eating bad stuff.

Am I stupid?

Dodging the storms

This week has seen the birthday of one of our sons – Tin (Martin). So we have been away for a few days in a lodge (fancy static caravan) near Newton Stewart, on the Scottish Borders. There is some fine walking around here which we have been enjoying with the dogs, but we have also been trying to dodge the big storms, bringing torrential rain and very strong winds.

Galloway Forest, looking down on Murray’s Monument

Tin says I am lazy because I am not keen on walking in rain. I have also been told by innumerable hikers that “there is no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing”. Personally I think this is hogwash. For me it is just not fun to be out in a hooley, with the rain lashing, or worse still, hail battering my face. When we were in Orkney before Christmas, there were at least three occasions when I came back from a walk utterly soaked. No fun.

There is however, something primitive and very satisfying about being inside in the warm during a storm. Perhaps it goes back to cave dwellers, huddled around an open fire, cooking whatever they had just hunted. I am hoping that in the next few days there will be snow, because I really love to see it falling when I am inside in the warm.

So that is what we are doing. Playing cards. Watching films. Cooking comfort food. Drinking whisky.

Not a bad life.

Don’t I care about losing my Dad?

My father passed away this week. I have written before about him. He has had advanced Alzheimer’s for several years and in recent times has been a shell of what he was. He knew no-one, could not communicate, could not understand, was incontinent and immobile. It made me deeply sad and angry. I still expected however, that when he passed I would be upset. And yet this week I have been very matter of fact, getting on with the logistics. I am definitely more relieved than grieving. So am I kidding myself? Will this come and hit me later? Or did I do my grieving as he deteriorated and I lost the father and man he once was?

Rev. Brian James Coleman 1936-2022

He was a traditional father. I don’t remember him ever hugging me. There were four of us children and as we grew up he was always there for us, but in a quite hands-off way. If we had an intellectual argument he became engaged and was fascinated. He was less good with emotions. This is a little odd because he was a parish priest, and empathy with people in tough situations was part of the job. I think it was just that underneath the image of the vicar, he was always a shy man. I think he was proud of me. I was certainly proud of him.

I do have very happy memories of him. We were lucky to have a stable and safe family environment. There was never much money around, but he kept us clothed and fed. I would add “warm” but we grew up in cold, draughty vicarages where you would wake up to ice patterns on the inside of the bedroom windows. But I am not complaining. That was normal in our generation and we were happy. And we were free. He and our Mum always encouraged our independence. I could leave the house first thing and not return till dusk. From an early age I would go to cub camps, or music weekends by myself. I learnt to be self reliant, in terms of my physical and emotional needs. It made me who I am.

This week I have loved reading the many “With Sympathy” cards that my Mum has received. Dad was involved in many clubs and activities and was held in great respect. What I have loved the most is that these memories are all of how he was before the awful disease took him away. It has helped me remember that man. I loved him.

Bye Dad x

Are long walks any different to short walks?

This week I have been continuing to walk sections of the Southern Upland Way. This is a 212 mile long distance walk from coast to coast across Scotland. It has been a somewhat nostalgic experience for me because I used to do a lot of long distance walks in the UK, and I had forgotten how different they are.

I have walked the Pennine Way, the Cleveland Way, the Ridgeway, the Wainwright Coast to Coast, the Cotswold Way, Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s Wall and bits of the Thames Path, South West Coast Path and the West Highland Way. Each of these has a different character but one thing connects them all – they are largely remote. Because I have dogs I am lucky enough to walk most days, but often the routes are well known to me, quite busy with other walkers, and certainly close to civilisation. The long distance trails on the other hand go through some of the quietest parts of the UK. During this trip I have walked maybe 50 miles and I think I have met single figures of fellow ramblers.

Now OK I accept that January is an unusual time to be walking. The weather has been a bit grey, the hours of daylight are relatively short, the ground in places is very wet, and non-retired people are at work. If I was walking in the summer no doubt I would meet many more. However, the principle of remoteness still applies. I am lucky enough to be met at either end of each section by my wife with a car, so I do not carry a tent. But I still need safety provisions in case of emergency – a good compass and map, food, drink, one of those foil blankets to keep me warm. If I did need to stop somewhere, I would be miles from contact, quite possibly without phone coverage.

But I think that is what I like most about the long distance walks. There is just me, the dogs and my iPhone for podcasts or music. I am walking where I have never been before and seeing views I have never seen before. This week, red kites have flown just a couple of metres above me on the top of a hill. I have come across a huge “striding arch” art installation miles from civilisation, I have searched for a secret “cist” of coins that I had heard had been hidden near the path (sadly I missed it). From a mental health perspective there are few things better I think. Exercise, peace and revelation.

You should try it.

I know I have readers outside the UK. Do you have equivalent long distance walks?

Is this the end of the pandemic?

It may seem an odd thing to say when in the UK we have had more people contracting Covid in recent weeks than ever before, but I think this week may mark the end of the pandemic. Numbers of cases are now reducing, and numbers of people in hospital have not reached anything like the peaks of last spring. When we look back in a year’s time I think Omicron may be seen as having been a good thing. It has given millions of people increased immunity, adding to the benefits of vaccines, without immobilising the NHS or killing vast numbers. Of course I know that every death is a tragedy, and I feel for everyone impacted, but at last can we now get back to normality?

UK cases by age group – source Zoe Study

I wonder if living more normally is one reason that the UK public have been so angry this week at the revelation that Boris Johnson attended a party in his garden, while we were in full lockdown back in 2020. Most of us have suffered materially in the past two years, whether through loss of friends and relatives, or damage to our own physical and mental health. Despite this we have got on with our lives. We have built up anger with nowhere to direct it. Now perhaps we can let that out a little. And when we find out that the likes of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings have been ignoring or bending rules, then that anger overflows.

Personally this week I have felt a mixture of anger, fascination with the politics and some sympathy with those involved. The latter may seem a contradiction, but I do have sympathy with the civil servants who had been putting themselves at risk, working 12+ hours a day in close contact with each other to try to help this country through the pandemic. Back in May 2020 I was leading a large operational team, most of whom where working at home, but some who had to work in an office. Those people did not have alcohol or parties but sometimes they would let of steam in the grassy area outside the office. They would maintain social distance and I believe followed all rules, but to someone outside would it look as if they were taking things seriously enough? I don’t know.

In the UK we have a reputation that we can laugh at anything, smile in the most trying of circumstances, make fun of serious events. We all needed those safety valves in May 2020, as we do now. If this is truly the end of the pandemic, let’s adopt the ideas of the recently deceased Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation reviews after apartheid was dismantled. Let’s try to find out the truth about what happened and how it could have been better, let’s apologise for things that were wrong. And then let’s move on.

Am I mad?

Why I am not panicking about Omicron

In the summer I wrote a blog about why I thought the UK government was pursuing a herd immunity strategy by deliberately letting people get ill with Covid. I said that there was nothing wrong with this strategy but they should be honest about it.

Six months later I am convinced I was right, and if Omicron had not arrived, we would be in a good position for this winter. Unfortunately we are now faced with yet more Christmas restrictions and in some ways it feels as if we are back to square one. However, I think there are at least four reasons we should be more optimistic this time:

  1. Vaccines do make a difference. I realise there are still some anti-vaxxers around who will call me a sheep, but I have had all three doses, and I am convinced they will help reduce the severity of any illness.
  2. Natural immunity makes a difference. Like vaccines it may not stop people catching Omicron, but it should help reduce the severity.
  3. We have free lateral flow tests widely available. If people are sensible and test themselves before meeting up, there is a good chance we can reduce the spread a little at least.
  4. I am optimistic that Omicron is less severe than Delta and Alpha. I realise the government and doctors are underplaying this because they want to encourage boosters, but it does appear to be the case in South Africa, and we have always been told by virologists that at some point there would be a fast spreading weak variant, just as there was at the end of Spanish flu, a hundred years ago.

There has to be at least a reasonable chance that by February we will be through this pandemic. Covid will be with us forever no doubt, just like flu and the common cold, but after two years we could all do with a break.

I realise this is not my normal blog about how great retirement is, but it does reflect what is on my mind this week. I have been looking after my Mum in Salisbury this week, after she had ten days in hospital with heart problems. So I am just very conscious about infections.

Back to the normal baloney next week!