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?

Should pubs change?

As I have travelled the world I have been in many bars, but have never found anything quite like a British pub. There are caricature “Irish Pubs” in many a city, but they just aren’t quite the same. Perhaps it is the inclement British weather that means we desire cosiness and that is what is different. Perhaps it is our unusual taste for warm beer. But today let me tell you about my favourite pub.

The Anchor Inn, High Offley, Shropshire

In 1987 we were on one of our first narrowboat holidays, doing the Four Counties Ring with friends. We stopped one night in the middle of nowhere and came across this pub, the Anchor Inn. The postal address is High Offley, a little village in Shropshire, but in reality it sits by itself, next to the canal. Presumably it was a farmhouse that started serving drinks when the canal was built, around 1830.

Although it looks reasonably large on the photo, the pub itself is just two small front rooms in the house. When we first found it, all drinks were fetched from the cellar. Nowadays they have electricity and chilled lager and cider on tap, but if you want a pint of real ale or scrumpy, they still go down into the cool cellar to get it.

Since 1987, we have visited maybe ten times. It is far too out of the way to be a regular haunt. But a few times making a special effort driving, and of course whenever we travel the Shropshire Union Canal, we go to see if it has changed. Sadly, Olive, the landlady for over 50 years, passed away last year. But her daughter has taken over and it is just the same. This week, the conversation in the pub was all about narrowboating. Where have we been this year? What have we seen? And the Wadworth’s 6X was served perfectly.

I know that over the years British pubs have had to change to survive. Most now serve good food, and have light, airy spaces. I do like those pubs. But sometimes it is nice to find favourites that have not changed, and the Anchor is one of them,.

When is a community a clique?

Last Friday we were travelling along the Grand Union canal, looking for somewhere to moor up for a few days to get through the 40°C heatwave. We came up with three options. We could stay in Tring Cutting, a deep, tree covered mile of canal, with loads of shade but no facilities. We could go to the end of the Aylesbury arm of the canal and stay in the basin there, with some shade, water available and access to the town centre. Or we could stay in the Aylesbury Canal Society (ACS) marina, with electricity, water, toilets, seats outside in the shade, and two minutes from a Lidl, but with the boat in bright sunshine. We chose that one.

From a heatwave perspective I think it was a good choice. The boat did get roasting hot in the afternoons and evenings, but we got my brother to bring a fan, so that at lest the air was moving, We had plenty to drink and bought some ice from the supermarket. And most of the time, I and the dogs sat outside, with the other boat residents, talking about canals we have visited and people we have met.

The ACS members are clearly a community. They help each other whenever there is a problem. They all get involved with society events. Everyone knows what is going on in everyone else’s lives. When we were travelling there, other non-ACS boaters told us they are a bit of a clique. They keep themselves to themselves and do not welcome outsiders. We did not find that. We found them helpful. But I can see why it would be said. They are somewhat obsessed with themselves and what they do. Does that make them a clique?

I remember before I retired that I consciously tried to avoid cliques and organisational politics. I had had too many bad experiences of people trying to become successful by walking over others. Or “in crowds” that would not let me join. But with hindsight, perhaps some of my teams must have looked a bit like cliques to others. What made us successful was that we all looked after each other and were proud of ourselves as “the best” team.

I suspect that is how it is with ACS. They are a successful community that others see as a clique.

Are you part of any great communities? Is that how others see them?

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.

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 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.

How scary is a dark narrow tunnel half full of water, and over a mile long?

A week of adventures as always, travelling from near Market Harborough, down the Watford staircase locks, onto the Grand Union Main Line canal to Braunston, before heading south on the windy Oxford canal, to end up in Banbury. Mandy accidentally threw a windlass in the canal, and I retrieved it by magnet fishing. I leaned over too far and nearly fell into a lock, just saving myself by jumping down onto the boat. Most of the week has been warm sunshine but we are now back to icy cold, especially first thing each morning. I think the scariest bit this week has been the long Braunston tunnel, 2000m of dark wet claustrophobia.

Believe it or not from the photo, this tunnel is just wide enough for two narrowboats, and we met five of them coming the other way. The noises as we bumped and scraped past each other, echoed in the gloom and added to the atmosphere. Doing a long tunnel is a bit like watching a horror film. You do your best to enjoy it at the time, but the relief when it finishes is wonderful!

We are having a few days moored up in Banbury. A chance to fill up the shopping, do the laundry and rest. I also popped into London on the train for dinner with some workmates from my last job. I have not seen them in person since 2019 (pre pandemic) and it was really good to catch up. I was a little concerned that I would have nothing to say, being so far away from work gossip these days, but it was not a problem, and over a lot of wine and steaks, we solved most of the world’s problems.

Next week, we are travelling further south, past Oxford and onwards.

I’d love to hear, do you do anything that scares you?

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