The five kinds of narrowboaters

Cruising the canals of England, I have come to the conclusion that there are five kinds of narrowboaters. Of course this is stereotyping. Everyone is different, and one of the things I love about this life is meeting the many people and finding out about their lives. But sometimes stereotypes are useful, so here we go.

Can Hill Locks
  1. The day boaters. This is usually a group who have hired a short boat for the day, and crammed on as many people as they can. Often celebrating a birthday or an event, there is usually a lot of beer and wine consumed, often music, and very little understanding of how to steer a boat, or the rules of the canal. They career from side to side and we try to stay out of their way.
  2. The hire boaters. This is usually a family or friends, who have hired a boat for a few days or for a week or fortnight. Sometimes they also are newbies or sometimes they have had many narrowboat holidays and understand it as well as us. Usually they are keen to learn, and we love to talk to them, to hear what they have been up to and where they are going. Often they are on a mission, perhaps a canal ring to complete, or a place to get to, and they will cruise for eight or more hours a day. Our one complaint about hire boaters is that most of them go too fast, especially past moored boats, sending them rocking in their moorings.
  3. The marina moorers. These are people who keep their boat in a marina and rarely move it. Instead the boat is treated more like a static caravan – somewhere to visit for a holiday, and an occasional trip out. We have a lot of empathy with these people because before I retired, this is exactly what we did, with our boat moored at the Kelpies in Scotland. Marina moorers often form quite a community with other boaters in the marina, and when visitors like us join them, we usually find them welcoming. Bit of a waste of a boat though.
  4. The continuous cruisers who cruise. This is us. The rules of our licence are that we must keep moving every couple of weeks, but in practice, we are on a proper adventure and spend most days moving on to find new places to visit. There are surprisingly few boats doing this, but we get to meet them, and often see them again, on a different canal, later in the year. The problem with this group is that we can be narrowboating snobs. Because we move such a lot, we like to think we are expert boaters, and can be critical of others, especially hire boaters.
  5. The continuous cruisers who don’t cruise. These people have continuous cruising licences, rather than ones for a marina or official long term mooring, but in practice they stay put. I do have sympathy for these people. Often they have very little money, and perhaps children in schools, so can’t move all the time like us. They live in fear of the Canal & River Trust police, who check that boats are moving every two weeks. My only complaint is when they sit on the visitor mornings in the centre of towns, which are meant to be restricted to one or two days.

There are other subgroups I have missed, such as the stag and hen do weekenders, the honeymooners, the people who move boats for a living. Despite any grumbles, we all rub along just fine. And one of the benefits of narrowboating is that if you don’t like the people you are moored next to, then you can just move on. It’s not a bad life.

How to enjoy my 58th birthday

When I was a child, my birthday was my second favourite day of the year after Christmas. I would look forward to the surprise presents, the party food (jelly and ice cream), and being treated as the special one in our family of six. These days, now aged 58, there is always a risk that my birthday will be a disappointment. After all, I have all the “stuff” I want, so any surprise presents are difficult to choose, likely to be a let down, and take up needed space in our narrowboat.

Mandy, my wife, was particularly stressed about the day because she couldn’t think of what to do. So this year I took control, determined to choose my own best birthday.

There were a few presents after all, which had been very well chosen. A bottle of Arran 10 whisky from my youngest son, and some chocolates from my Mum, neither of which will not take up space for very long! And a board game all about narrowboating from one of my brothers, which is unusual and great fun.

But what made the day was the things I chose to do. Instead of moving the boat, we stayed for the day in Devizes, a lovely small market town in Wiltshire. Firstly we went out for breakfast. I had my favourite Eggs Benedict, and a real cup of coffee (normally I have decaf). Then I took the dogs for a long walk through the countryside to a farm where I had read they make excellent ice cream. I was not disappointed with my salted caramel brownie sundae, while the dogs had a special doggy ice cream. Coming back to the boat I chilled out for a while, doing a bit of baking (cornish pasties and banana walnut bread since you ask) and then went to visit the Wadworth brewery, which makes one of my favourite real ales – 6X. They weren’t doing tours but I sat outside in the sun, talking to the locals, and quaffing two 1/2 pints and three 1/3 pints so that I could try their selection without getting too drunk. Mandy then joined me and we went out to look for somewhere to eat, but in the end we just had another drink and came back to the boat to eat the pasties, and watch a lightweight Nicholas Cage film.

I went to bed, feeling really good. I think in future I will always plan my own birthday, and get what I really want.

What about you? Do you prefer surprises and to be treated by others, or to choose your own delights?

How rich is rich?

I consider myself quite well off. I was lucky enough to be able to retire when I was 56 and can afford to spend much of the year travelling on our narrowboat. I am clearly not oligarch wealthy but I can afford not to worry too much about money. But this week we have been navigating the Thames from Oxford south, passing small towns such as Wallingford, Goring and Pangbourne. I have realised that there are so many really rich people living here, that by comparison I am a pauper.

A house

The houses are often very large and ornate, with expensive boats, sometimes in their own boathouses, and large gardens rolling down to the river. George Michael’s house is in Goring and recently sold for £3.4m – and it is a relatively small house.

A boathouse

Seeing so much opulence has given me a different view of wealth. Am I jealous? Maybe a little. But we once lived in a large mill owner’s house in Yorkshire so we have done that. It cost a fortune to maintain, and most of the time we did not use most of the rooms. I could have earned more in my working life. Certainly I could have worked for longer and accumulated more wealth.

But that is not what life is about for me. Working till I am 75 and then crashing with a heart attack. What makes me rich is not the money we have. It is the time we have. Mandy, the dogs and I can enjoy life at a slow pace, see places we have never seen, meet people we have not seen in too long, make new friends along the rivers and canals.

How rich do you need to be, to be rich?

Is retirement about flexibility?

Our Webasto (boiler) turned out to be quite badly knackered so is off to be repaired. Not a huge deal because the engine also heats the water and heating. But it means that we could not travel further south this week because we would be too far away from our engineer. So making a virtue out of a catastrophe, we have spent the week travelling to Lechlade, a pretty Cotswold village, near the source of the Thames.

Lechlade from the river on Tuesday evening

Of course, if I had still been working, this would have been a far bigger issue. Vacation and work plans would have had to change. But in retirement this is a good thing. We have seen one of the most beautiful parts of the country – isolated and very pretty. The flexibility we have has created an opportunity. I have loved it.

This is a particularly strange thing for me to say because when I was working I was notorious for being organised. My diary was planned to the minute. Even non-meetings, such as doing my email, or walking amongst my team, was marked in the diary for a particular time slot. It was a very effective way for me to be productive.

And I confess that this part of me has not completely gone away. I still make “to do” lists all the time – what we need to buy, what I need to fix, what we will do after the summer. But I have also learnt to value and enjoy the flexibility we now have. Our trip south to Reading can wait. We can get our hair cut, go out for lunch with friends we have not seen in years, I can paint the boat roof.

It is fair to say so far that I am loving life on this year’s boat adventure. Every day I learn something new. Every day I have fun. Every day we get to flex our plans.

Oxford is such a lovely city

I will do my best to avoid another blog this week where I say that something broke on the boat and we got it fixed. I will just mention that our electrics are now working really well, but our heating boiler isn’t. Narrowboat life hey!

This week we have been travelling around in North Oxfordshire. The Oxford canal has been closed all winter as it goes down into Oxford, but we discovered that it was about to be reopened, and were one of the first boats to go through. We have spent a couple of days moored here and what a truly lovely city it is.

St Peter’s College, Oxford

The buildings are simply awesome. I wandered around, peeking through gates into the famous colleges. I visited the Ashmolean museum, completely free to see antiquities from ancient empires. I took advantage of being in a town to get some drugs for Mandy’s ongoing cold. I discovered that the famous Martyrs’ monument isn’t actually where the Catholic priests Latimer, Cranwell and Ridley were burnt to death – that was on a nearby street near Balliol college.

And best of all, I got to look around St. Peter’s College. My grandfather was one of the founders of this college in the early 20th Century. Although we visited my grandparents in Oxford regularly, I can’t remember seeing the college. It is a fine set of quads, surrounded by a mixture of old and new buildings. One of these used to be the head office for the Oxford Canal Company, which is a nice link for me.

I would not have discovered any of this if we had not been on the boat. What a lovely city.

What to do when a narrowboat is not narrow enough?

What is the difference between an oak tree, a tight shoe and a pot of glue? An oak tree makes acorns, and a tight shoe makes corns ache. What about the pot of glue? That is where I get stuck.

I was reminded of this poor attempt at a joke on Wednesday morning when we got the boat stuck trying to get into Pigeons Lock on the Oxford Canal. The bottom lock gate would not open fully, and Mandy warned me that the narrowboat would not fit. I was more bullish and said we should have a go. She was right.

The irritating thing is that we hadn’t intended to be in this lock. We had gone south through it a few days ago, and were on our way through Oxford to the Thames. But the electrical problems we have been having are not properly fixed, and the recommended boat electrician is back at Aynho Wharf, where we have already been. So we turned around.

Canal & River Trust look after all the canals, so we called them out. Fortunately the team was not too far away, so within an hour they were at the lock, tutting and complaining about boat owners that leave their fenders down in locks. I tried to keep quiet about our attempt to ram our way through.

Other than getting stuck, and the gales that blew us sideways, it has been a lovely week. We have had a lot of visitors – our friends Martin and Saskia, my aunt Dorothy (who kindly did a couple of loads of washing for us), my cousins David and his wife Margaret, and today, our youngest son, Tin, who is heading off to a new life as a sommelier at a posh hotel in Cornwall. He is an expert in wine and very good with people, so we are hoping it will be an ideal job for him.

Next week, back south to the Thames. When narrowboating, nothing goes to plan and you just have to go with the flow. Who knows what awaits us on the river flowing to London.

How scary is a dark narrow tunnel half full of water, and over a mile long?

A week of adventures as always, travelling from near Market Harborough, down the Watford staircase locks, onto the Grand Union Main Line canal to Braunston, before heading south on the windy Oxford canal, to end up in Banbury. Mandy accidentally threw a windlass in the canal, and I retrieved it by magnet fishing. I leaned over too far and nearly fell into a lock, just saving myself by jumping down onto the boat. Most of the week has been warm sunshine but we are now back to icy cold, especially first thing each morning. I think the scariest bit this week has been the long Braunston tunnel, 2000m of dark wet claustrophobia.

Believe it or not from the photo, this tunnel is just wide enough for two narrowboats, and we met five of them coming the other way. The noises as we bumped and scraped past each other, echoed in the gloom and added to the atmosphere. Doing a long tunnel is a bit like watching a horror film. You do your best to enjoy it at the time, but the relief when it finishes is wonderful!

We are having a few days moored up in Banbury. A chance to fill up the shopping, do the laundry and rest. I also popped into London on the train for dinner with some workmates from my last job. I have not seen them in person since 2019 (pre pandemic) and it was really good to catch up. I was a little concerned that I would have nothing to say, being so far away from work gossip these days, but it was not a problem, and over a lot of wine and steaks, we solved most of the world’s problems.

Next week, we are travelling further south, past Oxford and onwards.

I’d love to hear, do you do anything that scares you?

And we’re off!

There is a saying that BOAT stands for Bung On Another Thousand, and it has felt a little like that this week. After the problems I mentioned last blog, after an overnight power failure, we got things working, and set off for our first trip of the year, to the little town of Market Harborough. It was lovely sunny weather and all was good with the world – until at 1am the power failed again. We brought the narrowboat back to our boat yard/marina but all the engineer could find was that the leisure batteries were a little old and weak. So we have replaced all four of them and now have a set that should charge to 480 amp hours, and last 4-5 years. After the previous expense over the winter upgrading and servicing across the boat, we are hoping that we now are ready for the summer and all will be well for the next six months. Some chance!

But despite the inevitability of more things going wrong, we are feeling pretty chilled because we have now set off properly on our 2022 adventure. Yesterday we left the base and steered up Foxton locks, a beautiful staircase of five locks, the steepest set in the UK, bringing the canal 23m up to the highest point on the Leicester arm of the Grand Union canal. We will have a few days at this summit level before dropping down another lock staircase and heading through the dark, wet Braunston tunnel in the direction of Oxford.

It should be early enough in the season that there will not be too many boats on the cut (narrowboater jargon for the canal). I just hope the weather stays as sunny as it has been this week. The days have been lovely, the nights very cold, but we have good heating when we are awake, and a cozy duvet when we are asleep.

So yes, more will go wrong, but we will also have the best of times. I am looking forward to sharing with you each week.

Why do things always break down on a narrowboat?

Back on the boat. Back to problems. When you live on a narrowboat, there are always problems. Always something to fix, always something not quite right. And at the start of a season this is even more true. We have had a lot of work done on the boat over winter and there are snags with the new equipment. And the old equipment has had a winter of frosts and no love, so is playing up.

I am writing this early in the morning after a difficult night when our 240v electricity stopped working, and our water pump would not turn off. The diesel heater will now not come on, and the engine will not start. My fancy new inverter/charger bluetooth app says that the batteries are fine, but the “low battery” light is on and the 240v system will not work. We can’t use the toilet or the taps while the pump is off. Aaaaaargh!

We had planned to set off from the marina this morning, but that won’t be happening till we get fixed. This is where we have to change our attitude back to living on a narrowboat. If we don’t move today, it does not matter. We are retired. We have time. And everything will get fixed. I should count my blessings that we are still in the marina where there are engineers, and we can get work done. And it will be a learning experience. I will find out what broke so that next time I may be able to fix it myself.

And it is a lovely morning. The sun is bright, and the mist is rising off the water. I think it is going to be a wonderful day.

Preparing for six months on a narrowboat

I feel as if I should be writing about Ukraine this week. Russia’s invasion is dominating the news, and the harrowing pictures are literally terrible. This is a peaceful European country just a couple of thousand miles from here. I feel helpless myself, but so impressed at the way the Ukrainians are holding off the Russian army. Such acts of bravery and heroism.

I feel guilty that instead I am writing about the events in my life. But that is what this blog is meant to be about, so apologies if this seems trivial.

We are about to set off on our next retirement adventure – six months on the narrowboat. Last year, due to Covid restrictions, we did not set off till July, but we loved our three months in the canals of the north of England. This year we will head south to travel from Market Harborough to Oxford, to Reading, to Bristol, back to London, maybe up into Essex, and then back up to the Midlands. I expect things will break down, weather will be mixed, plans will constantly change. I also expect perfect moments – mornings in the summer with the mist rising from the water around the boat, lazy evenings moored next to a pub, seeing friends that we have missed for years.

At the weekend, I drove down to check on the boat. It is looking good. Over the winter it has been blacked (taken out of the water and the bottom painted), has had new solar panels fitted, the engine and water heater serviced, a new sink fitted in the bathroom, and an expensive new charger/inverter installed, so that next year we can look at updating the galley (kitchen). No doubt we will find “snags” as we start moving again but that is OK.

I wonder how long it will take us to get back into the slow pace of life, and the relaxed attitude we found last year, where things going wrong are never seen as a big deal, and our worries fade away. I am so looking forward to it.

All being well, by next blog we will be on our way. I very much look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Slava Ukraini!