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?

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!

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 British TV series better than American?

I have held a belief for some time now that British TV drama and comedy programmes are fundamentally better than American ones. There are a number of reasons for this. British programmes tend to have one or two writers, and hence have more of a voice. They are usually much shorter and so finish while the audience still wants more. The humour tends to be darker and more subtle.

Examples of great British TV would be Fawlty Towers, written by John Cleese & Connie Booth and comprising just three series (seasons) of 4 episodes each. Or Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, comprising two series of six episodes. Or Broadchurch by Chris Chibnall, which had three series, each of 8 episodes. Or Sherlock by Steve Moffat & Mark Gatiss, which had 4 series, each of just 3 episodes. I could compare that with some great American TV written by writers’ rooms that I loved but where I eventually ran out of patience. Lost had 121 episodes over 6 seasons. Walking Dead had an incredible 177 episodes over 11 seasons.

This week I have been watching several series and they have both confirmed and contradicted my view. After Life is a superb black comedy written by Ricky Gervais, and has just three series of 6 episodes – his other British winners (The Office, Extras) had just two series of 6 episodes. But I have also been watching Ozark, written by a writers’ room, but finishing after just 4 seasons (admittedly 44 episodes in total). I have just started season 4 and I am so hungry for more. And I have been watching Inspector Morse, an old British detective series, which had each episode written by someone different, and comprised 33 episodes over 8 series.

So I guess I conclude my stereotypical view is flawed. There are great American series and great British series. We live in a golden age for television drama and comedy and I feel lucky to be able to watch both.

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?

More reasons to love Scotland

We are having a couple of weeks away in the Scottish Borders, staying north of Dumfries. The cottage is remote and with no light pollution, it is properly dark at night. I had forgotten how much stars “pop” in a properly dark sky. They look amazing. The countryside around here is very beautiful. I have been doing a couple of sections of a long distance walk called the Southern Upland Way. January is such a quiet time here. Most people do not want to take time off work, so soon after Christmas, or if they do, they want to go somewhere hot or to go skiing. Over 30 miles walking I don’t think I met another rambler.

Crawick Multiverse – just off the Southern Upland Way

Being retired has many benefits but I think the best is that I have time to do things like this. When I was working I was lucky enough to have six weeks annual leave a year. But still, to take two weeks in January would have been a big chunk of that, and if I did take the time, I would feel I needed to maximise the time, by being busy every day. Now I am retired I have no rush to do anything. Yesterday I did a long walk and today I plan to relax. It is a crisp cold sunny morning, so maybe I will take the dogs out, then light the fire and watch a film or read a book.

My fire. Not my feet.

While I am excited to be planning to get back to our narrowboat for several months this year, I feel very grateful that we live in Scotland in the winter. It is such a beautiful country – about the same size as England but with a much smaller population. There are many new areas, like this, for me to discover, but also the familiarity of great cities such as Edinburgh. There are castles around every corner, mountains and hills, lochs and beaches.

Drumlanrig Castle, just up the road from where we are staying

Personally I do not support independence for Scotland – I also love England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and see the benefits of great countries being joined together. But I still love Scotland. Beautiful, proud and full of character.

Haggis for my tea tonight I think.