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.

Life as a canal dog

We are back travelling on the narrowboat and this week have been on the oldest navigation in the UK – the River Wey – with its 17th Century shallow cuttings and locks. And then back on the RIver Thames, heading into London – one of the widest rivers we have been on. As I write this I am feeling distinctly nervous about tomorrow, when we travel on the tidal Thames for the first time, from Teddington to Brentford. But two of the family on the boat don’t seem nervous at all – our dogs.

Lulu and Ziggy

The dogs adapt very quickly to canal life when we return to the boat from a house. They wake up about 7am and I take them for a walk, to get their main exercise of the day and to do their ablutions before breakfast. We like to go for a walk early before the day gets too hot, so that they do not get in the way of any boating plans we have. We usually set off on the boat about 9am with the dogs in their harnesses and tied to a pole in the middle of the back deck. This allows them to get around the deck to see anything they want, but prevents them falling in, which has happened a couple of times.

Sometimes they just sit or lie down, and take in the world. Sometimes they bark at other dogs on the towpath, or at Canadian geese, which for some reason they seem to dislike. Either way, just being there seems to tire them out. Their brains must be so full of the new things they can see, hear or smell. Sometimes they are so tired or hot that we put them back in the boat for a snooze. Sometimes they stay our with us. At locks their preference is to come onto the land with me and “help”. They usually sit by a lock ladder, watching and judging everything that is going on. If there are no locks, we will usually take them for a wander at some point, just to stretch their legs.

We often finish boating in the early afternoon, and if the dogs want, they get another walk. When they are in the boat, they can’t climb out without being lifted but it is surprising how rarely they ask to go out. They must have strong bladders! They have their tea at 5pm and then usually cuddle us while we watch TV, before their final micro walk around 8.30. When they come back from that they are so tired they take themselves to bed and sleep through.

It is not a bad life being a canal dog. Certainly Lulu and Ziggy seem to enjoy it, and we love to have them with us.

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?

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?

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.

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.