Is every day the same on a narrowboat?

One question we often get asked by non-boaters is whether we get bored because every day is just the same. The answer is that we never get bored because every day is different. We learn something new each day. We see something new each day. Let’s look at this week as an example.

Last Friday, we travelled from Penkridge to Compton, an unusually long day for us – about seven hours cruising. Despite going through the middle of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, this is a pretty canal. It is one of the earliest, built by a chap named James Brindley and opened in 1772, and uses the contours of the land rather than cutting through hills and using locks to go up and down. Near Compton I found this pretty Victorian arts and crafts house to visit.

On Saturday, we stayed in Compton for a lazy day. I found a nice long walk for the dogs – along the canal, across countryside and back again along this disused railway line. Fascinating to imagine the heavy steam trains, the grime and dirt. It was a hot day and in the afternoon we found a country park where the dogs could swim. Pizza for team and a film.

On Sunday, it was back on our journey south. A boat coming the other way warned us that a boat club was ahead of us. Fifteen boats were waiting to go down Bratch Locks. This is a bit of a bottleneck on the canal, because three locks are next to each other, so they allow three boats to go down and then three come up. This means if you are boat four, you will wait around an hour before you can go. If you are boat fifteen, you could be waiting several hours. Fortunately by the time we got there the queue had reduced and we were only held up for around forty minutes. Bratch Locks are fascinating. They were built by Brindley as a staircase, where the top gates of one lock form the bottom gates of the next one. But this used too much water, so around 1820 they were converted to individual locks with about a meter of canal between each lock, and side ponds to hold the water. I have never seen anything like them, and as you can see in the photo, the rules are somewhat complex. Fortunately there were volunteers to help us and all was well.

On Monday, we passed through a number of small villages with great names such as Boterham, Giggerty and Bumblehole. We even went through Swindon – not the massive 1960s sprawling town in Wiltshire, but a hamlet of a few houses and a pub in the West Midlands.

Tuesday was a short day. Just a couple of hours from Stewponey to Wolverley. We moored in a beautiful tree lined stretch, next to a brilliant pub called the Lock Inn. It cooked traditional Black Country food. I had a couple of pints of the local ale, and an enormous plate of Faggots and Mash. We considered staying another day, so we could see the Morris dancers, but in the end decided to carry on.

On Wednesday, we continued to the end of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal at Stourport. Stourport was once a very small village called Mitton, but after the canal was built became one of the busiest inland ports in Britain, as the canal joins the river Severn and from there large boats sailed down to the sea at Bristol. Nowadays it is a sleepy pretty town, with much history to see. It also has a permanent funfair, where we found this rather sad Winnie the Pooh.

Thursday was another day off and we stayed in Stourport. We took the opportunity to enjoy this small breakfast. Yum! We also went on a trip to see Dudmaston, a huge stately home that is still lived in by a (rather wealthy) family.

So no. Every day is not the same on a narrowboat. Every day brings something new and we are very lucky to enjoy it.

Everyone is unique on the cut

We meet so many different people when we are out in our narrowboat on the canals – “on the cut”. There are the first time boaters on a day boat or a one week hire. There are live-aboard boaters who move up and down a canal but broadly stay in the same place. And the liveaboards who moor in a marina. Then there are the continuous cruisers like us that travel around the UK throughout the year, and the cruisers that travel just every few weeks. We meet hippies and families, engineers and accountants, solo boaters and people squeezing ten onto a boat. I love them all.

I think one of the things I love best is that I meet all of these boaters every day, in a lock , on a mooring, as we pass. And the mutual respect is palpable. We may bitch about the Canal and River Trust, who regulate what we do. We may bitch about hire boaters if we are live-aboard, or about the “owners” if we are hiring. But day to day we rub along just fine. I have never met such a diverse group of people who get along as on the cut.

Good luck to Mark. It is a special kind of person who can live with a narrow-boater. I hope you find someone special.

It’s my birthday and the engine bay is full of smoke

It was my birthday on Wednesday and it was planned to be a very special day. My younger son Martin had joined us on the narrowboat, we had a lovely cruise expected through Stoke on Trent from the lake at Westport down to the village of Barlaston, where we would have dinner in the pub owned by actor Neil Morrisey. It should have been perfect.


About an hour after we set off, the engine suddenly cut out and smoke started to appear around the boards above the engine bay. The picture does not really show how bad it was – when I took the boards up I could not even see the engine for smoke. Taking photographs was the last thing on my mind.

Fortunately there were no flames and nothing was alight but the oil cap had blown off, everything was massively hot, and we were stuck, next to a recycling centre in not the best part of Stoke. And of course, a three hour thunderstorm had just begun.

Even more fortunately we recently renewed our membership of River Canal Rescue (RCR), which is like a car recovery service for boats. I called them and told them my engine had blown up. They calmed me down and convinced me that was not the case, and within 30 minutes they had an engineer with me at the boat.

It took some diagnosis but we eventually realised what had happened. Through simple wear and tear, the bearings in the engine water pump had begun to fail, and caused a vibration. That had “thrown” the drive belt off, which meant that the engine was no longer operating the water pump, and so the engine was no longer being cooled, and simply got hotter and hotter till eventually it boiled off the coolant and everything gave up.

This could have been a massive issue, The cylinder head might have seized, or a major gasket blown. But when it all cooled down and we turned the engine on, everything still worked.

So we moored up properly, RCR ordered a new water pump, and found a local engineer who could fit it the following morning. It did take a lot of work with a mallet and a crowbar to get the old pump off, but by 1130 the following morning we were all fixed and on our way.

So what have I learnt? Nothing new but some lessons reinforced.

  • Living on a narrowboat s**t happens. It will be OK. Get over it.
  • Expert help is invaluable, even just to reassure. Well worth paying for,
  • Planning is great, but the unexpected is always just around the corner.

So what about my birthday? Well using taxis we still had that delicious meal. And we have planned an alternative birthday on Sunday, when we should be moored in a marina, with access to a car. That should be a very special day. And I do not regret my birthday. It was an adventure. Retirement is all about adventures,.

Hatching week

We have been travelling the Peak Forest Canal this week, a sidearm off the Macclesfield, that was used originally for transporting limestone from the Peak District quarries. These days the industry has gone and it is very beautiful as it clings to the sides of steep hills, with far views across the national park. As we travelled towards the end at Bugsworth Basin, we noticed a number of ducks and geese sitting on their nests. We also saw one goose with four new baby goslings, which were cute.

Just a few days later we returned along the canal and were astonished to find maybe fifty families of geese and ducks with goslings and ducklings. It made me wonder how they all hatch at once. I understand the principle that hatching in late spring gives the best chance of survival, but for so many to arrive within a few days is pretty incredible.

It reminds me of a holiday we once had at a house in Islay, an island off the West Coast of Scotland. When we arrived we asked if there would be many midges, the infamous biting insects of that part of the world. The property owner said that they would come the following Thursday, which we guessed was a random date, plucked from the air. But no, we had no insects till the Thursday, when clouds of them suddenly arrived.

Nature is a wonderful thing.

Not a bad way to spend our retirement.

What is your go to comfort food?

I had a couple of long days away from the boat this week to go to a funeral in the south of England. I stayed over with my son and he reminded me that when he was growing up I had introduced him to cheese and tomato on crackers, my “go to” comfort food. When I returned to the boat on Monday night, it was the first and only thing I wanted to eat.

These were introduced to me by my music teacher some 37 years ago. The original and best is a Jacob’s Cream Cracker, buttered lightly and with a slice of cheddar and a slice of tomato, with just a little salt. The ones in my photo from this week were a little posher, involving fancy crackers, and “Calverley Crunch” a vintage cheese from a canalside shop we found last week. I recommend them with a glass of gin and tonic, a glass of port, or just a cup of tea. At the end of a stressful day, when you can’t be bothered to cook, and you just want something homely, nothing is better.

What is your comfort food after a tough day? Maybe beans on toast? Or Doritos and Salsa from a jar? Or even a big bowl of cornflakes? Whatever it is, I bet it has as much to do with when you first ate it, as what is tastes like. Comfort food is about comforting memories removing all the stress of the moment. And it is a good thing.

I’d love to hear in the comments what your choice would be. Let me know.

I ❤️ Heartbreak Hill

There are a number of “must do” places on the UK canal network – Bingley Five Rise, Salterhouse Dock, The Curly Wurlys near Skipton, Caen Hill Locks, Pontcysylllte Aqueduct, the Falkirk Wheel, the Kelpies, Barton Swing Aqueduct, Anderton Boat Lift, the Boat Museum in Ellesmere Port. We are lucky enough to have visited all of these, and this week we added another of our favourites – Heartbreak Hill. Over just 12 miles between Middlewich and Kidsgrove we climbed 31 locks. And we really enjoyed the experience.

A quick quiz question before I tell you more. If you look carefully in the photo above at the footbridge, you will see it has a small gap in the middle. Why?

Between Mandy, me and the two dogs we make a great team for things like Heartbreak Hill. She tends to steer the boat, and with the dogs’ help I do the paddles and gates. Doing a stretch like Heartbreak Hill gets us into such a routine that much is done almost unconsciously. For instance these are deep locks, and going uphill we have to make sure not to let too much water into the lock too quickly, or the currents will bang the boat into the lock gates. Instead we have developed a technique of two turns of the windlass, wait two minutes and then the next two turns.

And because we were rising we saw some amazing views across the Cheshire countryside. At the end of the “hill” we were all tired but very happy. I love Heartbreak Hill.

And the gap on the footbridge? Back in the day, narrowboats were towed by a horse with a rope, and the gap allowed the boat to do locks without unhitching the horse. Every day is a school day on the canals.

What to do on a narrowboat when the canal is closed?

We were let down by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) this week. After a lovely weekend on the Montgomery Canal in Wales, we set off back along the Lllangollen with the aim to get to a mooring in Chester this Saturday. Unfortunately, when we got to Grindley Brook locks on Monday afternoon, we received this email from CRT:

There is a reality that with a 250 year old canal network, there will be times when things break unexpectedly. But in this case it was planned work, and we should have been notified well in advance. I am set up so that I get emails about any stoppages on the canals we travel, so that we can plan around them, and if this notice had been issued on 17th March, as it should have, we would have been well beyond the area before work started. But apparently they had a “system issue” which I suspect was more likely a “forgot to press the button issue”, so we did not know until too late.

This gave me two challenges. Firstly how to react to the CRT cock up. Should I get angry and shout at the poor agent on the end of the CRT helpline? Should I move the boat up to the stoppage area and shout at the workmen to work faster? Neither would have any impact except perhaps to make me feel better. No, after reflection we decided to treat the incident as one of those things that happens when you live on a narrowboat, and to make the most of it.

So my second challenge was how to make the most of it. I have been able to get a few jobs done on the boat – touching up some scratched paint, adding diesel bug inhibitor to my fuel tank, checking my weed hatch, getting a load of shopping. But much more fun has been a couple of bus adventures to local towns – Whitchurch and Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury in particular is a really lovely town, with Roman remains, a Norman mott and bailey castle, Medieval and Tudor shop fronts, and a bustling indoor market full of craft and food stalls.

The way I look at it is that if CRT had not made their mistake, I would never have had these extra few days, and to have had my adventures.

But I still hope that the work completes this afternoon and we can get back on our way. Living on a narrowboat is fun. Travelling on a narrowboat is more fun.

Losing my glasses

We are now properly set off for our 2023 narrowboat adventure. Our first canal is the Llangollen, one of the prettiest navigations in the UK. It gets extremely busy during the summer, so an early season visit makes sense. The weather has been a bit drizzly, but nothing we can’t cope with, and the scenery is beautiful. But on our first day out (Wednesday) I made the massive mistake of dropping my glasses in the canal.

These are expensive glasses and the only pair I have on the boat, so as they sank under the water, more than a few expletives came from my mouth. Fortunately we were just mooring at the time, so I knew pretty much where they had gone in. Unfortunately, my magnet fishing line did not find them – possibly no steel in the frames. I was not willing to give up, so I stripped down to my underwear and a T Shirt, and got in.

Boy it was cold, but I was determined, and after about ten minutes feeling along the silt with my feet, I discovered something that could be what I wanted, so I dipped under the water to pick up whatever it was – and it was my glasses!

A hot shower and fresh clothes, and a wash of my glasses and everything turned out well. No scratches, on me or the specs. I realise I was fortunate, and am grateful everything turned out well. Lesson learnt – don’t wear glasses when playing with ropes over the rear of a boat.

Have you ever lost and found something important? How did you feel?

It may be snowing but it’s cozy inside the narrowboat

It is so good to be back on the boat.

It has been convenient to live in a house over winter. Easy to keep clean. Things don’t break as often. Plenty of space. But I have missed the boat.

The new kitchen was finally finished on Tuesday, so I drove down Wednesday with a car full of everything we need for a season – clothes, towels, crockery, cutlery, bedding. I am very pleased with the work the boat yard have done and they have kept the boat relatively tidy. Last year I had to clean lots of mould from surfaces. But this year a quick steam clean of the floor, a wipe of the insides of the cupboards, and we are fine. I have learnt that the key is to allow plenty of air circulation, so moving the bed away from the wall, having several windows open a little, and giving everything a good clean before we leave the boat in the autumn. All these things have helped.

I’m heading back to Scotland later, and then will return with Mandy and the dogs over the weekend. My plan was to get going early next week, with our first trip on the Lllangollen and Montgomery canals through Wales. But the forecast is that the current snow and sleet will continue all week, so I will have to do some pretty fancy negotiating to persuade Mandy that it is better to travel than to hunker down with the cozy stove in the boat.

Gongoozlers (people who like to watch the boats but don’t have one) often ask me if it is cold living on a narrowboat. You might think so because there is just a single metal skin and little insulation. But in fact they are very easy to keep warm and do not use much energy because there is such a small airspace inside. As I write this, it is lovely to watch the snow falling outside while feeling cozy and warm inside, with the boat very gently rocking in the wind.

But I have a list of jobs to be done. I would like to give the kitchen walls a quick coat of paint to make them look as fresh as the new units for when Mandy arrives.

I’m ready for the summer – in the snow. Are you?

When can I go back to the narrowboat?

I was hoping that this week’s blog would be about my return to the narrowboat, after having a new kitchen fitted over winter. I know the washing machine has not yet arrived but that is not urgent, and I really want to get the boat set up for the summer season. Unfortunately I found out on Wednesday that the new cooker is installed but is not yet converted to bottled gas, so I would have no way of making food or boiling a kettle. The limited electricity on a boat means that things like electric kettles and microwaves are rarely used.

The new kitchen – work in progress

I am hoping that on Monday the new “jets” will be installed and I can travel down to the boat on Tuesday. I am bracing myself because I have not been on the boat since November, so something is sure to be broken. But we have plans for travelling the west of England this year, so the sooner I get back, the sooner we can resolve any issues and get going.

Last year we travelled for seven months, all around the South of England. This year we plan a more mixed summer, where we travel for 5-6 weeks and then return to the house for 1-2 weeks before repeating. That way we can keep the house in good order, and still make the most of the boat. It will also help us work around some events this year, such as my niece’s wedding and a weekend at the London E-Prix (Formula 1 for electric cars).

On the boat we also have targets – to spend time around Gloucester docks, to see our younger son in Tewkesbury, to cross the Pontcysyllt Aqueduct and navigate the recently reopened stretch of the Montgomery canal. I also want to return to the boat museum in Ellesmere Port, and possibly to explore the many canals of Birmingham.

So hopefully by next week’s blog I will be back… We will see.

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