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.

When was your very good year?

I was listening to Frank Sinatra’s ”Very Good Year” this week, and it made me consider which has been my best year. Frank talks about meeting girls at 17 on the village green, 21 in the city and at 35 in their limousines. He then talks about being in the autumn of his years and feeling like a vintage wine. The song became an enormous hit and is still amongst the ones he is most famous for.

When I was 19 I had left home for university and was living in London. I was loving the independence and the freedom to make my own choices. I was doing some studying but also spending a great deal of time at the student radio station. My future was open with so many options. It was a very good year.

When I was 22 I left Uni, started a career in IT and married Mandy. We were just kids and knew so little of the world. Many people told us we were far too young but we were so in love and so excited about the future. It was a very good year.

When I was 26 we moved to the Netherlands. We had two very young children and spoke no Dutch. But instead of being scared, we were excited. Everything felt new. I loved my job. I had remote access to the computers with a 2400 baud modem – 27,000 time slower than the speed I have in this remote cottage in Orkney. It was a very good year.

When I was 37 I joined the Halifax Bank. I had spent many years as a consultant and working for a “real” company felt fresh. Our boys were 11 and 12 – old enough to do almost anything, but before they turned into surly teenagers. We lived in Yorkshire, such a great county for countryside and straight talking people. I learnt to ski, to fly, to dive. It was a very good year.

When I was 48 we bought a house called Monkroyd, in Todmorden, on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border. It was the house I had dreamt of as a child, a Victorian mill owner’s mansion. It had secret rooms, open fires, two large cellars. Mandy was back close to her family in Burnley. I was commuting to the great city of Manchester. The boys had left home and we were enjoying our space. It was a very good year.

When I was 55 I was leading a very large team running payment operations for Nat West. It was my perfect job and a great way to end my working career. Fascinating challenges and a leadership team that could meet any challenge with energy and positivity. We were living in Scotland near Edinburgh, my favourite city in the world. I also got a chance to spend a lot of time in India, my favourite country in the world. It was a very good year.

I am now 57 and Sinatra’s “autumn of years” is probably appropriate. Despite a stuttering start in lockdown, retirement has been amazing. After many years of making choices that narrowed future options, suddenly we can do anything we want, whenever we want. Mandy & I have spent so much time together and remarkably we have found we still enjoy each other’s company.

I have had so many very good years.

Which was your best year? Let me know.

Why am I scared to say hello?

There is a real community of narrowboaters. We are an eclectic bunch, from hippies to shiny boaters, but unlike almost everywhere else, we seem to like each other’s differences, rather than resenting them. Everyone says hello, or waves as we meet. And yet, in “real life” I am quite introverted and tend to avoid contact. So why do I seek out people to speak to on “the cut”?

This week, Mandy and I have been watching a lot of YouTube vlogs from Colin and Shaun – “Foxes Afloat”. You can also catch them on Amazon Prime. Many of the narrowboaters we have been talking to this year have mentioned them. Their vlogs are a bit of a cult viewing, as they travel the canals of the UK in their boat the Silver Fox, and tell us about their adventures.

Foxes Afloat

This week we discovered that coincidentally they have been travelling a very similar route to us, and are but a few days ahead. They have travelled the Coventry, North Oxford, Grand Union and Leicester branch. They stayed in Dunchurch Pools marina in the same mooring where we were last week. They also seem to have a very similar philosophy to Mandy and me. They love the life of a narrowboater, with the beauty and peace it brings. They love the ups and downs of owning a boat. Colin and Shaun have been together for 27 years, like the 35 years for Mandy and me. We resonate.

Shaun is the lead presenter and is autistic. He is happy talking to a camera but struggles with other people.

I am not autistic and have found that this summer that one of my favourite times is working a lock with people I have never met before. But how does that fit with me being scared to meet new people, being nervous to communicate? Maybe it is similar to how I used to work. I found energy from putting myself out there and learning new things, learning from others. I have written before about my mix of being strongly introvert and strongly extravert at the same time. I love watching Foxes Afloat. I empathise with Shaun and Colin. I love the connection with our own trip this summer.

And I wonder why I can be full of energy with others, but feel equally attracted to hiding in a corner.

It is an odd thing, being human.

Stay safe.
Pete

Does the UK have the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets?

There is something about sunrises and sunsets that I love. And this time of year is the best. I don’t know if that is just because the nights are getting longer so that dawn and dusk are closer together, or because the sun is lower in the sky, so the sunlight is filtered by dust in the air, or because I am noticing it more on the canal. But we have had the most stunning mornings and evenings this week.

I have visited many countries and seen beautiful sunsets and sunrises all over the world. But there is something about the UK in September that I really love. This week has seen days as warm as the peak of summer, rain as torrential as at any point this year. The old crudgies (like me) are out on the canals, as the children have gone back to school. And everything is feeling that little bit less rushed.

I am so lucky to have the life I do, where my biggest worry this week is what kind of blacking to use to paint the boat hull at the end of the season. And my biggest gratitude is to hear that my wonderful niece Lucy has got engaged to the equally wonderful Dan.

And everything is well as the sun rises and as the sun sets.

Ten lessons I have learnt in the first six months of retirement

This week marks the six month anniversary of me retiring, and is an appropriate time to reflect on what I have learnt.

On the cut this week
  1. Work is much less important than I expected. Many people would tell me that after 35 years I would miss the challenge of work, and that I would be back soon. It has not turned out that way. I have been offered odd days of highly paid work and have turned them down. Maybe that will change in the next six months but for now, retirement is definitely for me.
  2. Sleep is great. I have always got by on about six and a half hours of sleep. Although I still like to get up early, I now have about eight hours of sleep. It definitely helps my well being.
  3. Food and drink are far too accessible. At work, even working from home, the rhythm of meetings kept me busy all day. Now it is much to easy to reach for the cookie jar. One for me to watch in the next six months.
  4. I love the freedom to do the unexpected. Yesterday, we were moored up, and I discovered the Falkirk monument was nearby, commemorating the battle between Jacobites (Scots) and Hanoverians (English) in 1746. I spent a happy afternoon wandering the battlefield imagining how it would have been.
  5. Mandy and I really like each other. I had heard so many stories of couples that retired and found that over the years they had grown apart. I am not saying we never argue, but most of time it feel like we are a team. I love it.
  6. It can be as motivating to do a trivial job in retirement as to solve a billion pound problem at work. I truly loved my work. I felt I was involved in big decisions that really mattered. I loved being involved in fixing the problem one day when no-one in the UK could make a faster payment. But surprisingly it was equally motivating yesterday to fix the electrical horn on the boat.
  7. I miss the people from work, but am making new friends. The good news is that I have stayed in touch with quite a few of my old colleagues. Also a little surprising because I am terrible at staying in touch. But I have enjoyed getting to know new people in my new life, especially on the canals. Boaters are an eclectic bunch, but always interesting.
  8. I think I will always be a planner. I had great intentions of not planning anything and just seeing where we ended up. But I do plan a lot – where we need to be when, what we need, what we will do. I like to think I am now prepared to be more flexible to circumstances changing. But I do like a plan!
  9. I enjoyed the stress of work, but I am enjoying more the abscence of stress. There is something energising about the adrenaline associated with stress. In most of my roles, I was “always on” 24 by 7, ready to deal with major incidents. It was exciting. But I don’t miss that stress. My blood pressure is down and I feel better in myself.
  10. Retirement is about enjoying the moment, not about distracting yourself. We had plans to go to Orkney for a month and then travel on the canals, as a way of distracting myself from wanting to work. These plans got disrupted by Covid, but in some ways I am glad they did. As we set off for four months on the canals now, it is all about what we will do, who we will see, and how lovely it is.

Are you retired or thinking of it? What is your experience?

Ten reasons to meet people again

I have been on a bit of a tour this week. From Scotland I drove down to Sheffield for a walk with my son, daughter in law and dog, and then on to Market Harborough for training courses in plumbing and electrics at the Narrowboat Skills Centre, Debdale Wharf, working in a classroom with four other students and an instructor. Since I was in England, I took the opportunity to meet up with a friend from when I was working, and I visited an aunt and her family. Both live relatively close to where I was training. I have eaten in restaurants and pubs. I have even been to a cinema. Then tonight I head on to stay with my Mum for the weekend. We talk most days, but as with my son, it will be the first time I have been with her in eighteen months.

With Simon at Hambleton, Rutland Water

I have to confess that after so long being generally isolated, it has felt very strange to be with people again – strange and a little scary. In some ways I would like to retreat back into my safe bubble at home. News from countries like India continues to be frightening. But there are good reasons to start meeting people again:

  1. Isolation is not great for my mental health. I know that everyone has reacted differently, but now is the time for me to come back blinking into the light.
  2. The economy needs growth. Forecasts are for a huge “bounce” in the second half of this year, but that will only happen if we get back to work and back to leisure activities.
  3. I need to relearn social skills. I have written in a previous blog that I have introvert and extravert traits. This last year has made me more introvert and now I need to get out there, or hide in a corner.
  4. There are many things I want to do in my retirement and I can’t do them if I am scared of being with other people.
  5. The vaccines work. Even where the faster spreading variants are prevalent, vaccinated people seem to be relatively safe from severe symptoms.
  6. Gossip is fun. I am not sure if you have found the same, but remote conversations lack nuance and body language, and so the “water cooler” gossip doesn’t happen the same way. I know it is naughty but we all like it!
  7. If not now, then when? I can’t wait for everything to get fully back to normal, because I think that may take decades.
  8. Teams work. Next week I am meeting a couple of fellow narrowboaters to see if we can travel the river Clyde together late in June. It is a big tidal river and frightening alone on a flat bottomed boat, but as a team we will all feel safer and can help each other.
  9. People are interesting. I have always been a people watcher. I love the ways we are all different and can learn from each other.
  10. I have really missed my friends and family. Zoom, FaceTime and Teams are great, but are not the same as being with people.

What about you? Have you sneaked out of lockdown to meet people, are you still prohibited, or like me are you now just beginning again?

Why should you write a blog?

I have read a great deal on blog writing. Some say that it is a self absorbed activity – shouting into the wind. Some say that it is a way of supporting others by sharing experience. I can only speak for myself and say that I love writing my blog because it allows me to get my head around what is happening in my life and how I choose to respond to it.

Photo credit content-writing-india.com

So if it is for my benefit, why publish? For many years I used to write a private diary. I called it my “win, learn, change log” and every day I would identify sone small success, something that had gone less well that I would learn from, and one change that I would make as a result of either. In general I found this a healthy and therapeutic activity; good for my mental health and good for my personal development. By publishing a blog I get much the same response but publishing it makes me less self absorbed, less repetitive and more outward looking.

If you follow my blog you will know that I am recently retired and reflecting on how to spend the rest of my life. That gives me choices and I get to share them with you, dear reader. As the blog develops I hope that more of my followers respond with comments and we can have more of a dialogue.

I have read that, like Facebook, blogs are now passé and that younger people are preferring to share their life experiences based on video in Tik Tok and Instagram. I will stick with words. I love to write and I love to write my blogs.

How about you? Do you already write regularly? If so, what do you get from it? If not, why not start today?

Is lockdown damaging your mental health?

A couple of things have made me reflect on my mental health this week. I read an excellent blog from someone managing depression. I won’t share it here because it is personal but it reflected on how difficult it is to balance taking ownership for solving mental health issues yourself, with the need to ask for help. The author is in the final year of university, with the stress of coursework and exams reinforced by demoralising rejections for job applications. That would be the same in any year, but layer on a lockdown when the opportunity to get out, get away and get support is more difficult, and depression looms all too easily.

The second thing is much more positive for me. For some reason this week I have had quite a few friends reaching out to check in. It is amazing how much difference it makes to receive a message asking how you are. I have certainly found this lockdown the hardest. I am not sure if that is because now I am retired, I do not have work to distract me; or if it is because vaccines make the end seem so close and so far at the same time. But the small contacts with friends have certainly helped. A lesson for me that I should make more effort to stay in touch. Not a strength for me!

My wife and I have been talking about what we do with our plans for this year. We were meant to be staying on Orkney for six weeks and then travelling the English canals in our narrowboat. Realistically the Scottish government seems to be saying it will be summer before we are allowed to travel. Perhaps we should see more of Scotland and postpone moving the boat. Or move it at the end of the season. We are just looking forward to the time we can make decisions without restrictions.

Has the lockdown affected your mental health too? If so, how are you managing it? I’d love a comment to hear from you.