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 is a night at the museum really like?

Last weekend we spent a couple of days at a very special mooring. Ellesmere Port is a run down small industrial town, on the south bank of the river Mersey and next to the Manchester Ship Canal. It does not have much to commend it, but it does have one gem. It is home to the National Waterways Museum. The old port is at the end of the Shropshire Union canal, where is meets the ship canal to the sea. It was once a thriving area, employing hundreds of people loading and unloading goods. After years of neglect, in the 1970’s a group of volunteers got together to clean it up and turn it into a boat museum. They did an amazing job and today it houses several acres of old buildings, exhibitions, boats and history. And best of all, we got to moor overnight in the middle of it.

We stayed for a couple of nights, and during the day got to visit all the exhibits and look around the town. But even better, in the evenings, the staff locked up the museum gates and we were left all alone. We had a special key so we could get in and out, but I loved wandering around the museum with the dogs, taking a close up look at the old terraced houses, the heavy port equipment, the boats themselves. It was kind of spooky although I did not see any ghosts. I could, however, imagine the dock workers busy in the docks, and the boat owners, living in their tiny cabins, behind a large barge full of coal or grain.

We are nearing the end of our six month narrowboat trip for this year, and this was a great experience to add to the memories. A night at the museum may not have been quite like in the movies but it was something very special nevertheless.

Welcome to the wonderful city of Chester

This week we took the Shropshire Union canal down into Chester, an ancient city that grew up from a Roman garrison settlement called Deva. The Romans built it here because it was roughly in the middle of the area of the UK they had conquered, it had good Roman road connections, and at the time it had good access to the sea through the river Dee. After the Romans, it continued as a successful medieval port city, and the Normans developed it further with a castle, a large cathedral and extended city walls.

Along the city walls, overlooking the canal.

These walls are possibly what Chester is most famous for. I walked a couple of times all the way around them, there are fine views across the countryside up to the Wirral and down to Wales. You can look down on Chester racecourse. You can see the Roman amphitheatre and ruined columns in a garden. The north side has the canal running alongside, utilising what once would have been a moat.

We moored up in a basin near the city centre, and just across from Telford’s Warehouse, a large pub, based in the headquarters of Thomas Telford, who built this canal. We had a fine meal with excellent craft beers, and even more excellent company of two of our nieces and a new boyfriend, who had to undergo a full inquisition from me and Mandy, testing for suitability. He passed!

The weather has turned this week and it has become wet autumn. But we have slowed down our travelling as we near the end of our summer on the boat, so a bit of rain can usually be avoided. And that has given more time for visiting Chester. Next year we plan to do a little less travelling and a little more visiting. Perhaps after two years, we are realising that retirement is more a marathon than a sprint.

Lovely city, Chester.

Should pubs change?

As I have travelled the world I have been in many bars, but have never found anything quite like a British pub. There are caricature “Irish Pubs” in many a city, but they just aren’t quite the same. Perhaps it is the inclement British weather that means we desire cosiness and that is what is different. Perhaps it is our unusual taste for warm beer. But today let me tell you about my favourite pub.

The Anchor Inn, High Offley, Shropshire

In 1987 we were on one of our first narrowboat holidays, doing the Four Counties Ring with friends. We stopped one night in the middle of nowhere and came across this pub, the Anchor Inn. The postal address is High Offley, a little village in Shropshire, but in reality it sits by itself, next to the canal. Presumably it was a farmhouse that started serving drinks when the canal was built, around 1830.

Although it looks reasonably large on the photo, the pub itself is just two small front rooms in the house. When we first found it, all drinks were fetched from the cellar. Nowadays they have electricity and chilled lager and cider on tap, but if you want a pint of real ale or scrumpy, they still go down into the cool cellar to get it.

Since 1987, we have visited maybe ten times. It is far too out of the way to be a regular haunt. But a few times making a special effort driving, and of course whenever we travel the Shropshire Union Canal, we go to see if it has changed. Sadly, Olive, the landlady for over 50 years, passed away last year. But her daughter has taken over and it is just the same. This week, the conversation in the pub was all about narrowboating. Where have we been this year? What have we seen? And the Wadworth’s 6X was served perfectly.

I know that over the years British pubs have had to change to survive. Most now serve good food, and have light, airy spaces. I do like those pubs. But sometimes it is nice to find favourites that have not changed, and the Anchor is one of them,.

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!

Cricket or Comedy?

When I come to write my blog there is usually one event from the week that I want to write about. It might be something surprising that has happened, an insight I have gained, or just an occasion I have enjoyed. This week I am struggling because I have had two really great days out. On Sunday I went to “The Hundred” cricket match at the Oval in London. On Tuesday I spent the day at the Edinburgh Fringe. So let me tell you about both, and you can decide which is better.

Starting with the cricket, it was a blisteringly hot day in London, but there was plenty of water and plenty of beer, so I kept myself lubricated. I was with my brother, two nieces and a fiancé, so it was a family day out and there was a good mix of banter and chat. My brother had brought a picnic and we settled down to watch the game. The Hundred is a twenty over game (like the India Premier League Twenty Twenty) but for some reason, each over is five balls instead of six. The women’s game was first and sadly was a bit boring, especially since “our” team, the Oval Invincibles, lost. The men’s game was more dramatic, culminating in an incredible score of 108 for one of the batters. After the game, we retired to the pub to let the crowds disperse, before heading to the train station, and for me an overnight sleeper train to Scotland. What a great day out.

The Fringe was also a wonderful day. Edinburgh Festival has been cancelled for the past two years, due to Covid so there was a real excitement in the air, as I wandered the streets and alleyways. Over the years I have learned not to cram too much in, so I saw just three booked shows. The first was in a free venue, and showcased five up and coming comedians. Perhaps my favourite was Carla Gordon. Watch out for her on your screens in coming years. The second show I went to was also stand up comedy, but was with a very established comedian, Simon Munnery. He is known for being alternative which I think is code for a bit weird. But I did enjoy the show very much and laughed a lot. I then had a couple of hours to wait, so I sat in a little park, watching street performers, till it was time for the Dean Friedman concert. Dean is a 1970s singer from New York that I have followed for years. He did not disappoint, with a good mix of old and new songs, and I walked back to the station feeling extremely happy.

So two really excellent days out, and a nice break from our semi-permanent holiday on our narrowboat. But which was better? What do you think?

Do we need libraries?

One of the things I have noticed travelling around the UK canals this year, is the increasing number of places to swap books. Often when we stop for water, there is an area in some building where people have placed the books they have read, so that other boaters can take them. We have so little space in a boat, that once a book is read, we want to get rid of it, and for most of us, we would rather share than throw away. The books can be very varied – popular thrillers, classics, fascinating biographies, even text books. It has made me wonder if this is the modern version of libraries.

I used to love going to libraries when I was growing up. Shelf after shelf of things to read, things to learn. All knowledge was here. But these days we have the Internet, and casual research is done with a quick google. Libraries also provided a community resource for meetings, or just getting out of the cold and wet, but is that a reason to keep them?

Over the years, cost cutting has led many local authorities to close libraries. One of my brothers is a librarian and I know he has been through tough and uncertain times. I have always argued to maintain libraries for people that cannot afford books. But if this trend towards sharing books continues, perhaps we don’t need the cost of formal libraries. Boaters have maybe set the trend because we have no space, but I am beginning to see old telephone boxes on high streets becoming book shares for everyone.

What to you think? Do we still need libraries?

Is mooring in town centres safe?

We are travelling through the East Midlands on the River Soar and passing through Leicester. A number of fellow boaters warned us not to moor in Leicester. It has a reputation for vandalism by drunk or drugged youths. But it is also a lovely historic town so we have moored here nevertheless. We have got lucky because the town has now installed a couple of secure pontoons for boats. We are moored up next to a beautiful park, and there is a gate onto the pontoon, for which only boaters have a key. At night they even lock the park, so we feel nice and safe.

A real peaky blinder in Leicester

City centres are often seen as dangerous by narrowboaters. Because canals were built to carry goods from factories and mills, they usually go through parts of town that are now quite run down. So you can meet some fairly insalubrious characters. But in our experience there are some lovely city centres and they are safe. We have loved Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford, Stoke on Trent even though all have dodgy reputations. The trouble is in the stretches of canal between the town centres and the countryside. During the day they are often fascinating industrial architecture but at night the boogeymen come out. So tomorrow we set off and do not stop until we are back amongst fields and trees. And we will enjoy what we see along the way.

Tonight we will enjoy sleeping amongst the hustle and bustle.

Two mile tunnel in a narrowboat

Last year I wrote a blog about travelling through the Braunston tunnel, 2042 yards of wet darkness. This week we travelled through the even longer Blisworth tunnel. It is also known as “Two Mile tunnel” because at 3076 yards, it is nearly two miles long. It is the third longest navigable tunnel in the UK, the ninth longest in the world, and the longest two way tunnel, where boats can just pass each other at a squeeze. It can be a little nerve wracking when you are a mile from either entrance and you meet a boat coming towards you. But is is also very beautiful.

The photograph does not reflect reality because my iPhone gives a very long exposure. In reality all you can see is the bit ahead of the boat, lit by the headlight. Sometimes you get to see water running from the roof as it goes through the light, but sometimes all you can do is hear it before it splashes into your face.

Sounds scary? Well maybe a little, but is also an adventure, and if we didn’t have our own boat, is the sort of thing I would happily pay to do on a tour, We are very lucky to be able to spend so many months travelling by boat, because almost every day we come across something new and surprising. This week we have had this tunnel, an aqueduct with no railing between us and a long drop, a sculpture park, a lake. I took a day off to go to London to celebrate my big sister’s birthday. We had a tree fallen across the canal, that had to be chainsawed away to let us through.

Next week who knows what we will see. I’ll let you know.

When is a community a clique?

Last Friday we were travelling along the Grand Union canal, looking for somewhere to moor up for a few days to get through the 40°C heatwave. We came up with three options. We could stay in Tring Cutting, a deep, tree covered mile of canal, with loads of shade but no facilities. We could go to the end of the Aylesbury arm of the canal and stay in the basin there, with some shade, water available and access to the town centre. Or we could stay in the Aylesbury Canal Society (ACS) marina, with electricity, water, toilets, seats outside in the shade, and two minutes from a Lidl, but with the boat in bright sunshine. We chose that one.

From a heatwave perspective I think it was a good choice. The boat did get roasting hot in the afternoons and evenings, but we got my brother to bring a fan, so that at lest the air was moving, We had plenty to drink and bought some ice from the supermarket. And most of the time, I and the dogs sat outside, with the other boat residents, talking about canals we have visited and people we have met.

The ACS members are clearly a community. They help each other whenever there is a problem. They all get involved with society events. Everyone knows what is going on in everyone else’s lives. When we were travelling there, other non-ACS boaters told us they are a bit of a clique. They keep themselves to themselves and do not welcome outsiders. We did not find that. We found them helpful. But I can see why it would be said. They are somewhat obsessed with themselves and what they do. Does that make them a clique?

I remember before I retired that I consciously tried to avoid cliques and organisational politics. I had had too many bad experiences of people trying to become successful by walking over others. Or “in crowds” that would not let me join. But with hindsight, perhaps some of my teams must have looked a bit like cliques to others. What made us successful was that we all looked after each other and were proud of ourselves as “the best” team.

I suspect that is how it is with ACS. They are a successful community that others see as a clique.

Are you part of any great communities? Is that how others see them?