Is there any point in a static narrowboat?

This week we are back at the narrowboat, moored in a marina near Chester. The weather is very autumnal – strong winds and rain. So we are not travelling. We have the warm stove on, are watching Christmas movies and walking the dogs.

You may wonder what the point is in coming to the boat of we aren’t travelling. Well I don’t really understand why, but when we arrive we immediately relax. Even the dogs find a comfy spot and curl up. Years ago we used to part-own a static caravan and that had much the same feel. It is as if all the worries of the world are left at home and we can chill.

Some canal boaters never move their boats. I heard this week of a new “wide beam” coming to this marina, which is too wide to travel through the bridges from here, so will be marooned. The owners don’t care. They just like staying on the water. The marina owners also recently installed five floating pods which can be hired by anyone. They are booked out at weekends, even at this time of year.

So I do get it. And I am really enjoying this week. But I confess that a little part of me can’t wait till the spring, when we will be off on our travels again. It’s like people that enjoy cruise ships. Some just want to stay on the ship. Others enjoy the facilities but want to see new things, meet new people.

Which would you prefer?

How important is central heating?

It has been cold this week – around 3°C. Unfortunately our boiler broke down – no heating and no hot water. Fortunately we have a service contract and so were able to call an engineer out. Unfortunately his temporary fix only lasted overnight. Fortunately we have a wood burning stove. Unfortunately it is not working very well because the chimney has not been swept for four years. Fortunately, with new kindling and some TLC we have managed to light it. Unfortunately it does not heat the water or the radiators.

Error 43 – no continuous flame

When we are in the house we get very used to utilities always working. You turn on a switch and the lights come on, open a tap and there is fresh clean water, click on your phone and the Internet is available. And without thinking the house is warm when it needs to be, and you can have a shower whenever you like. It is all very easy and when something does not work we get resentful, angry, confused.

It is very different on the narrowboat. There are three ways to heat the boat – the engine, a diesel stove or the Webasto boiler. The reason there are three ways is that often one or two ways are broken or inconvenient to use. The electricity is always on our mind. The solar is great in the summer but not in the dark, cloudy winters. The engine charges the batteries well but only easily when we are travelling. There is a mains hook up where we are moored in a marina, but we have to remember to top it up, or we will be cut off. And water is not always available. We have to remember to find a working canalside tap every couple of days to fill up, and once a year to disinfect the tank. As to the Internet, things are massively better than even a few years ago. We have a mobile powered WiFi router and can also tether to either of our phones which we have deliberately contracted with different networks, to maximise coverage. But it ain’t “always on”.

I wonder, is it better to have the ease and comfort of living in a house, with the consequent panic when something does fail. Or to live off grid on a boat, where it is harder work, but you understand it better. I’m not sure. I just know I don’t like being cold.

Fortunately the engineer is back today with lots of spare parts. And if that does not work, we can go back to the boat.

What is your view? Perhaps you believe that with sufficient layers of clothes, we do not need heating?

Going on a road trip

While we have been travelling on the narrowboat over the past two years we got to visit a lot of friends and family we had not seen since lockdown. But there were a few we missed out so this week we set off on a road trip. I am writing this in a cozy pub hotel near Stratford on Avon. This morning we are off to Hove in Sussex to see one of our sons. Then from there we travel to Surrey to stay with our sister in law, and then on to a vast mansion on the south Devon coast, where some friends are house sitting. From there it is to the far end of Cornwall, to stay at the Pig Hotel, where our other son is working. Back via Salisbury to see my Mum, and then to a village near Cambridge where Mandy’s Aunt lives. Finally we stay with Mandy’s brother in Lancashire and then home to Scotland via our friends in the Yorkshire Dales.

It will be quite an adventure and a good run out for our new car. Our old Qashqai had served us well for five years but was costing us more to maintain than it was worth, so after much prevaricating we have opted for a 2019 Kia Sportage. It is absolutely fine to drive but petrol heads will be disappointed that the main criteria for purchase were space in the boot for our dogs’ crate, and lots of “toys” inside like sat nav, apple play, parking camera. Immediately after signing for the car, I felt a bit of post purchase dissonance – would an XC40 have been more sensible, could I have negotiated a better deal, would a 2020 model have been better? But now we have had it for a few days, I am happy. It will do us very nicely.

Some of the route aligns with canals we have traversed this year. Journeys that took us several weeks in the boat are completed in a few hours. I prefer boating because you see so much more on the way but I admit I am enjoying being able to go left and right as well as straight on, as we do on a canal. When we see friends from the boat, they sometimes suggest meeting at some pub in the countryside, and we have to point out that the narrowboat is not great across land!

So on with the trip. It may not be Route 66, or even the Highlands North Coast 500, which we enjoyed a few years ago, but I am excited. I quite enjoy this retirement lark.

Getting my eyes tested

It is over three years since I last got my eyes tested, so this week I popped over for a test to my friendly optician – Robert Callendar in Linlithgow. The good news is that my eyes remain healthy and my prescription is unchanged. I was happy because I thought I could keep my existing glasses, but Robert was in sales mode and persuaded me otherwise.

I was born short sighted and wore glasses till I was about 40, when I had my eyes lasered to get 20-20 vision. I loved not having to wear specs, and I still would rather not. But a few years ago I realised that I could not read small print, and got some reading glasses. Then, when I had my last test, I found my distance vision was also deteriorating, so I got some glasses for driving and watching TV. Now I have the two pairs, but most of the time I do not wear any.

The optician suggested I get some varifocals, so that I could wear them all the time, without worrying about where they are, but I am holding onto my identity as someone who does not wear glasses. If my prescription had changed I would have been persuaded, but I did not want to spend money. This is where my salesman optician got smart. Rather than continuing to argue for varifocals he just asked whether I had been wearing sunglasses on the narrowboat this year. Apparently not wearing them at my age on sunny days can lead to cataracts. That did make some sense and when I mentioned we were hoping to go skiing this year his eyes lit up.

So I have ended up ordering some fancy Bolle prescription sunglasses, with rose-blue lenses which apparently are best for bringing out contrast on the piste.

I do feel as if Robert has stolen my wallet, but I am pleased my eyes have not deteriorated these past few years, and I am looking forward to testing out my new sunglasses. As Huey Lewis said, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades”.

Is retirement busy doing nothing?

I saw a “mash report” article this week on social media, commenting that the author’s parents are retired and spend their time doing jobs that really do not need to be done. It is very common to hear retired people saying that they have no idea how they ever found time to work, given how busy they are. It made me wonder if that is us too.

North Wales Coastal Path near Prestatyn

We are certainly busy. During the summer months we were moving the narrowboat most days, and that took up much of our time. I’m not complaining. It was more like a holiday than work and we loved it. And when we returned to our house, there were many postponed jobs to be done, so again I was very busy. But this week we have been back at the boat, in a marina, so there is no excuse for not just chilling. And yet I find myself still with lists of things to do. Is it “make work”?

I’ll let you decide. This week I have been on lots of long walks with the dogs, including a big chunk of the North Wales Coastal Path, and around an Iron Age hill fort. I have been to the chandler to find out why the new metal plate on my deck is corroding (it is aluminium and needs painting). I have spent time on chat with British Gas, trying to sort out why my smart electricity meter will not talk to them. I am trying to source a bendy metal strut to hold up the middle of my new tonneau cover on the back of the boat. We had a trip out for lunch to see some friends in Wales who we have not seen for a while. I have visited two National Trust properties – Chirk Castle and Erddig house. And we spent a boozy Saturday night talking to other boat owners in the marina bar. My “to do” list still has booking a ski holiday, finding a new car, booking a hotel in Salisbury for when we go on a road trip at the end of the month, buying new walking boots, and arranging sight and hearing tests.

I am enjoying retirement. That is certain. But am I just making up things to do, or am I making the most of the time we now have? What do you think?

Spring cleaning in the autumn

I’m back at the narrowboat for a couple of days. Last year we left the boat over winter for nearly six months, and when we returned, it felt a little sad. Some surfaces and fabrics had gone damp and mouldy, and it took a few weeks to get it back feeling like home. This year we plan to spend more time on the boat during the cold months. And before that starts we determined that the boat needed a really good autumn spring clean. That is easier without the dogs, so Mandy is looking after them in Scotland while I clean everything, top to bottom. I have even done a bit of indoor painting and the boat is looking great. Our new boat covers have also arrived so we are prepared for the next few months.

Our smart new tonneau cover

Many people ask us how we can stay on a narrowboat when it’s is cold. They are right and wrong. It is true that the boat is single skinned with leaky windows. When we wake up on a cold winter’s morning, the inside of the boat can be nearly as cold as the outside. But it is perfectly cozy under the duvet, and the good news is that the boat has a very small volume of air, which means that once I have started the heating in a morning, it warms up very quickly. We have something called a “webasto” which is a diesel boiler and heats the water and central heating. If we want it even warmer, we have a bubble stove, which looks like a wood burning stove but also runs on diesel, and gets the boat really toasty warm.

We are looking forward to our first winter boat vacation in a couple of weeks. For the six months we were away this summer, I largely wore shorts and t shirt, so it is amazing how quickly autumn has arrived. The boat is in a marina but was getting rocked by wind and rain today, and I had the heater on. The cleaning has gone well and I am very much looking forward to the winter. My favourite mornings on the boat are when the canal and marina have frozen over and sparkle in the dawn light, but we feel safe and warm inside. Having spring cleaned in the autumn, it should be lovely. As the Dutch say “Gezellig”.

Why have a financial advisor?

In the UK we have had a pretty volatile week in the markets after what seems like a crazy mini budget, giving away millions in tax cuts, funded by massive borrowing. In a country usually noted for financial sobriety, it has been a shock to feel like a banana republic. This crisis coincided by chance with the six monthly visit from our financial advisor, Neil. We have worked with Neil for about six years. We pay him quite a lot for his advice, You might ask why we would do that, when post retirement, we have reasonably simple finances. No money coming in, and the savings pots not changing very much. The reason we work with Neil may surprise you. We value his life advice as much as his money advice.

When we started working with Neil, his main questions were not about things like our risk appetite and pension valuations. Yes he dealt with all that stuff, and we have done a mix of things with our money. But – the questions were about what we wanted to do with our lives. He would then work to make our money fit our choices. Our answer was that we had always talked about retiring early and owning a narrowboat. He told us that the disappointing thing was that many people have dreams about retirement, but very few actually fulfil them. The temptation of working just a few more years is too high, either to get more money, or because they don’t want to let go of the status work gives them, or simply because of habit.

Around this time, a very good friend passed away suddenly. He was younger than either of us, and it was a shock that reinforced Neil’s advice. If we had this dream, why not follow it. So we bought the boat pretty much immediately. And we put a date in our minds for retirement – end of 2020. I did wonder if having made that decision, work would start becoming boring as I trudged through it to retirement. But in fact it reinvigorated me and my last couple of years working were amongst my most fulfilling and successful. In the final three months I started reducing my hours to get myself ready, and on 2nd January 2021 I retired and we set off on our new adventures.

It was good advice from Neil, and that is still what we get. When we met him this week we were talking about moving house, something we have talked about for a few years. We have prevaricated because we could live anywhere and it has been hard to choose. We seem to be narrowing down on the North West of England but are not sure. Neil’s suggestion is to sell up, rent somewhere where we think we want to live, and take our time to see if it is right for us. With likely falling house prices, we are unlikely to lose. He also told us not to scrimp on what we spend on a new house because it is “just changing asset classes”.

Good advice. Mind you, after this week’s mini budget, maybe we would be better off living outside the UK. What do you think?

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.

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,.

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