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?

Is retirement about flexibility?

Our Webasto (boiler) turned out to be quite badly knackered so is off to be repaired. Not a huge deal because the engine also heats the water and heating. But it means that we could not travel further south this week because we would be too far away from our engineer. So making a virtue out of a catastrophe, we have spent the week travelling to Lechlade, a pretty Cotswold village, near the source of the Thames.

Lechlade from the river on Tuesday evening

Of course, if I had still been working, this would have been a far bigger issue. Vacation and work plans would have had to change. But in retirement this is a good thing. We have seen one of the most beautiful parts of the country – isolated and very pretty. The flexibility we have has created an opportunity. I have loved it.

This is a particularly strange thing for me to say because when I was working I was notorious for being organised. My diary was planned to the minute. Even non-meetings, such as doing my email, or walking amongst my team, was marked in the diary for a particular time slot. It was a very effective way for me to be productive.

And I confess that this part of me has not completely gone away. I still make “to do” lists all the time – what we need to buy, what I need to fix, what we will do after the summer. But I have also learnt to value and enjoy the flexibility we now have. Our trip south to Reading can wait. We can get our hair cut, go out for lunch with friends we have not seen in years, I can paint the boat roof.

It is fair to say so far that I am loving life on this year’s boat adventure. Every day I learn something new. Every day I have fun. Every day we get to flex our plans.

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.

And we’re off!

There is a saying that BOAT stands for Bung On Another Thousand, and it has felt a little like that this week. After the problems I mentioned last blog, after an overnight power failure, we got things working, and set off for our first trip of the year, to the little town of Market Harborough. It was lovely sunny weather and all was good with the world – until at 1am the power failed again. We brought the narrowboat back to our boat yard/marina but all the engineer could find was that the leisure batteries were a little old and weak. So we have replaced all four of them and now have a set that should charge to 480 amp hours, and last 4-5 years. After the previous expense over the winter upgrading and servicing across the boat, we are hoping that we now are ready for the summer and all will be well for the next six months. Some chance!

But despite the inevitability of more things going wrong, we are feeling pretty chilled because we have now set off properly on our 2022 adventure. Yesterday we left the base and steered up Foxton locks, a beautiful staircase of five locks, the steepest set in the UK, bringing the canal 23m up to the highest point on the Leicester arm of the Grand Union canal. We will have a few days at this summit level before dropping down another lock staircase and heading through the dark, wet Braunston tunnel in the direction of Oxford.

It should be early enough in the season that there will not be too many boats on the cut (narrowboater jargon for the canal). I just hope the weather stays as sunny as it has been this week. The days have been lovely, the nights very cold, but we have good heating when we are awake, and a cozy duvet when we are asleep.

So yes, more will go wrong, but we will also have the best of times. I am looking forward to sharing with you each week.

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.

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.

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.

Why spending a month away is different

We have been in Orkney for a while now. The first couple of weeks were very like any other vacation. We had our sons with us and we went to see all the famous tourist attractions, such as the Ring of Brodgar (standing stone circle) and Skara Brae (neolithic village). It was a great break. But it was not really why we came here, and this week has felt different. It has been wet and windy all month, but this week particularly so. So there has been more hunkering down in front of a fire, and less tourist stuff. I have read a couple of books, and watched some new films. It is very chilled.

But I am not the kind of person to sit still for long, so I have been out discovering the less famous sites in Orkney. It is a quite incredible place, full of history. At low tide we walked across to the Brough of Birsay, where the vikings became Christians and started a monastery. Near Finstown, I climbed down through a roof hatch into Wideford Chambered Cairn, hidden on the side of a hill, where Neolithic people buried their families. We found the ruins of a rare circular church, at Earl’s Bu, next to a Viking drinking hall. Despite sideways hailstones in a gale, I found the Brock of Borthwick, an ancient tower on the edge of a cliff. It feels as if there is history around every corner here.

These are the kinds of places you never have time for in a short vacation, the kinds of places known by locals. And I have found that talking to local people has been another difference. Perhaps also because we are out of season, I feel that we are treated less as outsiders on this trip. I have met fascinating people. I had a personal history education session from a guide at Maeshowe visitor centre. I found out about Stromness in the Royal British Legion Club. The local butcher knows me by name.

I even heard about a place called “Happy Valley” which I have not seen in any of the tourist books, and has no signposts. Orkney has very few trees and has quite a bleak landscape. So 70 years ago, a man called Edwin Harrold bought a cottage on a hillside and over his lifetime, built a special garden around it, with trees, flowers, brooks and waterfalls. When he died, he passed the property on to the council and it is maintained free to visit. I am guessing that few tourists discover this special place, and when I went to see it, I felt there was no-one for miles around.

So it does feel different. Indeed, Mandy & I have been considering staying even longer. I suspect we will decide to come back to civilisation for December, but we do feel privileged to have shared these very wonderful islands for a little while.