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.

Is organising a party stressful or fun?

On Saturday it was my wife’s birthday party. We took a week out from the narrowboat and our sons rented a cottage for us in Barley, a little village in a very pretty part of Lancashire. The party was mainly organised by my two brothers in law (Andrew and Stephen) and me. Mandy had asked for lots of family and friends in an informal setting. Andrew had found a village hall in Roughlee and had used WhatsApp over six months to send out invitations, chase people up, and ask for music choices. Stephen sorted a barrel of ale and hired glasses. I had a birthday cake made and organised a hog roast. Lots of others got involved and brought food and drink. In the end we had about 60 guests enjoying themselves.

Everyone seemed to relax. But I felt quite stressed during the day. I was worried about everything that could go wrong. Would the rain hold off? Would everyone turn up? Would the pig arrive in time to be cooked? Were we making too much noise for the neighbours? Was everyone happy? Would there be enough food and drink?

It was an odd situation for me because before retirement I had a high pressure job and had a natural ability to stay calm and relaxed amongst the stress. I wonder if the difference is delegation. When I was working I had ultimate trust in my team. My job was just to see the big picture and make decisions when needed. At the party I completely trusted what Stephen and Andrew had done, but I felt that anything I had organised, and the overall party were down to me. Mandy is usually the organiser of events like this, and I knew she would judge me against her standards on anything that went wrong.

Well the good news is that it was a big success. At the end of the evening when everyone had gone home and most had gone to bed, I sat with one of my sons and a glass of Talisker malt whisky and reflected on what a great time we had had. Was it stressful or fun? Perhaps both in equal measure. But it did feel good.

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.

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.

Eight wishes for 2022

Happy New Year’s Eve!

When I was working, we used to write objectives for the coming year. So this year I have decided not to make resolutions about things I will stop or start doing. Instead I have identified eight outcomes to aim for by the end of 2022.

  1. I will have a happy family. For various reasons the past couple of years have not been easy for my sons, but things are on the up and this will be a good year. Mandy and I will continue to love our retired life.
  2. We will have had an amazing year on the narrowboat. Last year we were able to spend 4 months travelling the canals in the north of England. This year we will spend over 6 months in the south, meeting friends and family as we travel, seeing wonderful places, and enjoying the best of the countryside.
  3. I will have lost weight and will be fitter. I made pretty good progress on this when we were travelling last year, but the past couple of months have been more slovenly.
  4. We will have decided where we want our house for the next twenty years. This was also a goal for 2021 but we have struggled to choose between the many wonderful places in the UK.
  5. Covid will no longer dominate our lives. This is a hard goal for me to achieve by myself, but I have a good feeling that after the Omicron wave, we will be living with the disease as we do with flu or a cold.
  6. I will have been abroad again. I have really missed travelling. This year I want to go to at least one new place outside the UK.
  7. I will have experienced many perfect moments. I love those moments when you suddenly see an incredible view, or a sunrise, or you sit down with friends for a wonderful meal and you realise that it does not get any better than this.
  8. I will have continued to write this blog. There is something about writing each week that I find really satisfying and mindful, as I take the opportunity to reflect.

What about you? What are your goals for 2022? Whatever they are I wish you a very happy, healthy and prosperous year.

Love Pete

Why does deleting my contacts make me feel weird?

My wife Mandy has been writing Christmas cards this week. One of the ways she works out who to send to is to go through our shared contact list. She complained that there are hundreds of names to go through that are from my work, and I no longer need them anymore. I agreed.

So this week I have been going through the contacts name by name, deleting those that are no longer relevant. People that I once worked with very closely but who I will never see again. It has been a weird experience and one that has made me feel both sad and happy at the same time.

Some of the names were fine – perhaps someone that I didn’t really know, or one of many recruitment consultants that I will never need again. But often, a name will bring back vivid memories, Maybe an image of the person in my mind. Or a memory of something that happened at work together. Deleting the contact is such a definitive end. I have probably kept too many but it hurts.

However, it has also been a very happy experience. I have been so obsessed this year with loving retirement that I had forgotten how important work was to me for 35 years. And the thing about work that was so important to me was the people, not the work itself. It was probably what made me good at my job. I always cared so deeply about the people I was working with. And the memories of those people brought back those feelings. I have been very lucky to have known so many great people over the years.

I don’t miss working. I don’t regret. But it was so great to work with so many wonderful people over the years. I am lucky.

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.

I love Orkney

I am writing this at dawn, sitting in my lounge overlooking the entrance to Scapa Flow in Stromness. Stromness is the second town in Orkney and for the next month we are staying in a cottage that once who have been owned by a fisherman, with its own pier and tiny beach to launch the boats. Dawn here is currently a very civilised 07:40 so I have not had to get up early to see the sun rise. And boy is it beautiful. Here are a couple of pictures from a few days ago:

Since we arrived last Saturday, we have already fallen in love with this wonderful set of islands. It is true that you can have every season here in thirty minutes, and some of the landscape can be bleak. Very few trees grow here for instance. But because it is an archipelago, around every bend in the road, over every brow of a hill, you come across the most stunning views.

One of my sons, Tin, near Kitchener’s Monument after a torrential shower
The beach at Scapa, after a whisky tasting at the distillery

Out of season it feels as if we have the islands to ourselves. For instance the Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic set of standing stones, as impressive as Stonehenge. But in Stonehenge you would be surrounded by coachloads of tourists, and kept a long way from the stones on fixed visiting paths. At Brodgar it was just us.

Ring of Brodgar

Quite a few restaurants are now closed for the season, but that has not stopped us finding the most wonderful food, including what we have cooked for ourselves. Sorry vegetarians, but picking our own lobsters straight off the fishing boat was wonderful. My son Tin is trained as a chef, and they tasted sooooo good.

Yum

I have to go now. A ferry awaits to take us to the island of Hoy, for another stunning walk, and my other son, Rob, is arriving for a few days. This is going to be some month.

How far back does your family tree go?

This week I have been a genealogist. Several years ago I built up my family tree with the aid of the Genes Reunited website, stories from older relatives and lots of censuses, birth, wedding and death certificates, together with visits to graveyards and old houses.

A small section of my tree

I have not kept the tree up to date and decided to transfer it to the Ancestry.co.uk website, so there was quite a lot of work to do. I also recently received a number of old photographs – one pile from an old tin chest in my Mum’s loft, that turned out to contain all the papers left to my Dad when his parents died; one pile from my Mum’s cousin, who’s own mother recently passed away; and one pile from my wife’s aunt, who’s husband died last year.

It has been time consuming and a little bit obsessive. At one point my wife instructed me in no uncertain terms that I needed to come down for dinner, because I had been sitting in my study for over 12 hours without a break. But it has also been both rewarding and a little sad. Rewarding because I really find it exciting to find our new things and to connect with the past. If you have watched “Who Do You Think You Are?” You will know the experience. But what has been sad is finding quite a few photographs where I can’t identify the people. I have pictures that have been kept carefully for over a hundred years, but where everyone who could have identify them has now gone. Here are a few examples:

Some of my relatives – but who are they?

So this week, I have one request. If you have pictures or papers from the past, please annotate them on the back with the names of people involved. Please use real names, not things like “Grannie and my Uncle”. By doing so, future genealogists like me will be able to connect faces to names, and keep them alive in memories. Do it this weekend.