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.

Why am I prejudiced about yoghurt pots?

There are broadly two types of boats on the rivers and canals of the UK. Barges (narrowboats, widebeams, Dutch barges) are usually steel, have flat bottoms, are long and relatively narrow (typically 10-25m long). They are great in shallow, silted canals and are traditional in style. Cruisers, which can be anything from dinghies to huge yachts are usually white fibreglass, have a proper keel underneath, and look smart and modern. They are great on open rivers and even the sea.

Marlow this week

These two types of boat are crewed by two types of boaters. Of course there are exceptions, but barge owners are usually more hippy, less tidy, more chilled. Cruiser owners are often more wealthy, and more proud of their boat. The two communities take the mickey out of each other. Cruiser owners call barge owners “ditch dwellers” because of our love of canals. Barge owners call cruisers “yoghurt pots” or “plastic bathtubs” because of their fragility. I had always thought this jest was in fun and that we got on OK. After this week, I am not so sure.

We have been travelling along a wide section of the River Thames from Reading to Windsor. Lovely weather this week, magnificent nature and expensive houses to gawk at along the river. We have had a great time. But we have also detected quite a lot of passive aggression from the cruisers. They clearly feel this river should be for them. They resent the space we take up on a mooring. They think we make their beautiful river look messy. Some of them have been quite direct with me.

Clearly I believe they are wrong. I have written before how good it is that different people get along in this boating life. But being in the minority this week has made me wonder how inclusive I really am with cruisers when we are back in narrowboat heaven on the canals. Perhaps my flippant jokes towards the cruiser owners are not just banter, but prejudice. We will be back on canals soon, and I will do my best to change my stereotypical views. I can’t promise I won’t call their boats yoghurt pots though!

What is a treacle fair?

This week we have been moored in a marina near Aldermaston, and on Saturday, while walking the dogs, I came across a number of posters advertising a “treacle fair”. This is not something I had come across before so I asked some locals and it turns out that this is an annual country fête in the village of Tadley. It will not surprise you that we decided to go.

Ferret Racing

It was a very odd but actually quite rewarding experience. There was a rock choir of about 20 pensioners singing enthusiastically. There was a massive “crew” of about 100 teenage dancers, whose routine seemed to be waving arms and running towards each other. There were beer and tea tents. There were burger vans, a small funfair, charity stalls with raffles. There was a model railway and a hat stall. Even better were the special events in the arena. Dog agility was pretty impressive, birds of prey flying was even more so. Best of all was the ferret racing. Four ferrets put into drain pipes with obstacles, to see which would reach the end first. Don’t worry, there was no cruelty here – these were pet ferrets who were just having fun playing in pipes. Each race could last over 15 minutes, as they wandered up and down the pipes, never quite reaching the end.

Some people say the British are eccentric. For me, Tadley Treacle Fair is a great example that shows yes we are. And it is absolutely fine.

Oh by the way, it is called a “treacle” fair because from at least the nineteenth century, people believed there were treacle mines in Tadley. I love it.

Is travelling at 3mph boring?

One of the things I am often asked about living on a narrowboat is whether it is boring. People assume that travelling at just 3mph through the countryside must be monotonous. The answer is that it is quite the contrary. Every day we see new things, meet new people, revel in where we are. On a narrowboat it is all about the journey, not just the destination.

Most evenings we fall into bed, absolutely shattered. We get the physical exercise with the locks, swing bridges and walks. But mentally, if you are steering, despite the slow speed, you have to concentrate the whole time, or you find yourself crashing into the towpath, a bridge, or another boat. If you are not steering, there is often something to plan – where to get water, where to get rid of rubbish, where to moor tonight. Or something to see. In recent weeks we have seen so many ducklings, goslings and cygnets. We have seen kingfishers, water voles, hares. We have seen crops beginning to sprout, wild garlic carpeting the side of the canal. We have seen magnificent aqueducts, tunnels, bridges. The beauty of the great city of Bath, the charming country market in Devizes, the lovely high street in Newbury. The dogs actually get so stimulated by watching and sniffing, that we have to give them time inside the boat to sleep.

One of the things I most enjoy is discovering the unexpected. This week I found a “no magnet fishing” notice, a wizard’s face carved into a tree, a horse drawn barge. The sign in the photograph was on the A34 bridge over the canal outside Newbury on Wednesday. It raises so many questions. Why is there a “Concrete Society”? Who are the members? What is so special about this fairly standard bridge? Why was the award put on a brick wall and not a concrete one? And if you look closely you can see that while the award was still wet, someone has written in the concrete around it “10 Thousand Trees”. It reminds me that the building of this road was hugely controversial, cutting a swathe through an ancient forest.

I would see none of this, hurtling along a motorway, or living in a house. Sometimes the slow life is more interesting, not less.

Are you going anywhere at 3mph this week?

Using up my air miles

When I was working I had teams in India and used to visit quite frequently. Over the years I built up 106,000 Emirates air miles, which are soon running out. This has given me the opportunity to try to use them up and get myself a final trip back to India to see my old friends. This blog is about the challenges that I have faced trying to book. It is a real first world problem story, so if that is going to irritate you, please stop reading now!

106,000 miles sounds like a lot. It would take you over four times around the world. When airmiles first started they would relate to how many miles you could get on a free flight, but these days, they are just points. I think airlines try to give you more so you think you have a big number but they aren’t actually worth as much.

I did lots of research, found some dates in February next year, when the prices are lower, and looked at return flights between Glasgow and Chennai and Delhi. I found that if I could do a flight to Chennai, I could do that with my miles plus airport taxes, and then pay for the return from Delhi. Unfortunately this didn’t work. Turns out that flying into one city in India and back from another does not count as a return, so costs nearly double. It also turns out that you can’t go one way on miles and the other with cash. You have to choose one or the other.

Emirates do what looked like a solution where you can use cash and miles, but when I tried that, the miles were worth very little, and again it was too expensive. But then I received an email telling me that till the end of the week I could buy additional miles with a 35% discount. This would be a solution that could work. I could buy 71,000 extra miles and then fly to Delhi and back using miles alone.

But then I hit technical problems. The website took me through the whole process, as far as taking my credit card details and checking with my bank, before saying “There has been a problem” and dumping me out. Emirates told me I was using the wrong browser, so I changed that but no success. My bank tells me that there is no issue at their end. So now I am sitting here, waiting for “the back end team” to call me back, and hopefully give me a solution before the offer runs out tonight and it becomes too expensive again.

As I said earlier, I know this is a first world problem, and I am very lucky to have the opportunity to even consider a flight to India. I also know that long haul flights have a massive carbon impact, so maybe I should not be going. But India is such a great country, and I have so many friends that I never properly said goodbye to when I left work, due to the pandemic.

Any thoughts?

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?

Five reasons why I didn’t vote this week

We had local elections in the UK yesterday. I didn’t vote. I think this is the first election where I have not voted since I got the vote, aged 18. I am feeling pretty guilty about it. I have an ingrained belief that everyone should vote. Not voting is lazy and results in politicians being elected by minorities of the population, activists that do not represent what most people want. So why didn’t I vote?

Firstly I should say that I am still struggling with the decision. We have had postal votes for years, so that we can vote when away from home. But…

  1. We couldn’t find a way to get the papers. Our eldest son, Rob, is currently living n our house in Scotland, and had the voting papers, but being on a narrowboat we couldn’t think of a way to get them to us.
  2. It doesn’t feel right to be choosing a local representative in Scotland, when we are spending at least the next six months travelling around England in a boat.
  3. I struggle with who to vote for. In our local area, it is a choice between Scottish National Party (SNP), Conservative (Tories), or Labour. In recent years only Tories and SNP have had a chance, so Labour feels like a wasted vote. I can’t vote SNP because I believe strongly in the benefits of a United Kingdom (I wish we were still part of the European Union). I can’t bring myself to vote Conservative, given the outrageous Tory politicians who ignored the rules during lockdown, when everyone I knew was putting their lives on hold.
  4. My vote does not matter. Whoever wins or lose, my one vote will not alter the result.
  5. Politics seems so far away from what we are doing at the moment. On a narrowboat, what I care about is Canal & River Trust, who run the waterways, and are independent of government, and the community of boaters, who I meet every day. Local politicians don’t care about travelling boaters because we come and go all the time.

Sometimes when I write this blog, it is for you. I really want to share my stories with you. Sometimes when I write this blog, it is for me. It helps me clarify in my head what I am thinking. This week has been one of those. None of the five reasons I have listed are strong enough. I could have got the papers via a friend or family. Voting is an obligation. Of course my vote matters. Politicians do affect what happens on the canals, and everywhere.

Next time I will vote.

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?

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.

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