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.

Who would go to Orkney in November?

I am very excited. We are currently travelling up to Scrabster at the top of Scotland. Tomorrow lunchtime we take the ferry over to Stromness in Orkney for the next month For anyone that does not know, Orkney is a set of islands north of the Scotland mainland, and south of the Shetlands. Orkney is a popular summer tourist destination, when it has daylight from about 2am to midnight. In winter, Orkney tourist attractions close, it is windy, wet and dark. So why on earth would we want to spend a month there?

The original retirement plan was to go in February, after stopping work at the end of the year. It was meant to help wind me down, hunkered in a cottage with a warm fire as the rain and winds blew around. Well the last lockdown put and end to that plan. In February we were not even allowed to leave West Lothian. Instead the retirement got kicked off properly with our long narrowboat adventure – more to come next year. But we still really wanted to visit Orkney, and November is much like February.

There will still be many archeological and historic sites to visit, amazing walks and views, great food and drink. And there will still be plenty of hunkering. We are super excited. Next week I will let you know whether reality matches my imagination. Orkney here we come!

Why can’t I choose a car?

I have spent much of the past week looking at cars. Buying a car was meant to be one of my first jobs after coming back from the narrowboat. We currently have a Nissan Qashqai SUV and a bright yellow little Fiat 500. While we were away we decided we could live with just one car, and that should be a slightly larger SUV. So this week I have been trawling both Internet and car showrooms, looking at options. We came close with a Mazda CX-5 but I just seem to be unable to make the decision. That is unlike me, so I thought I would do a bit of self-help in my blog, to examine why, and then decide on next steps.

Mazda CX-5
  1. We have always loved the cars we have bought and while the cars we have seen have been perfectly logical and sensible, I just haven’t felt the passion.
  2. At the moment we can’t downsize to one car because our son, Tin, needs a car to get to work, on the other side of Edinburgh. Public transport would take several hours.
  3. The car we need to replace is the Fiat, because after its last MOT, it looks like it could have issues in the future. But we have been looking at SUVs, and with the Qashqai would end up with two SUVs.
  4. Given climate change I really don’t want to own two SUVs.
  5. I feel we ought to be looking at electric, but with a fair few long journeys, the range is not quite there yet in second hand cars.
  6. We have spent a lot of money on the Qashqai in the past 12 months and that will be lost if we sell it.
  7. It is a bad time to buy a second hand car. Because of part shortages, there are not enough new cars coming off production lines, so customers are looking at second hand instead, and that has made the market really hot.
  8. If we have to have two cars, what I really want is a toy car for me – preferably a small convertible. But I know that will just annoy Mandy, who wants the bigger SUV. So I am prevaricating.
  9. Right now we have lots of options, and as soon as we make a decision we have no options.
  10. But I don’t feel happy not making a decision, so need to do something.

What next steps? I have some long car journeys around the UK over the next few days, as I go to visit family members that I have not seen since the first lockdown. That will give me time to consider what I really want. I also need to talk more to Mandy. Or perhaps I’ll just wait till she reads this blog…

What should I do?

End of part one?

We are back in Scotland. The narrowboat is safely moored near Market Harborough and ready for the winter. Our long trip is over.

For the past few years my retirement plans have centred around spending time on the narrowboat. We reckoned that by the end of the trip we would know whether Mandy and I still get on, whether we actually love boating or it was just a dream, where we want a house, and what we want to do with our future.

So how have we done?

The good news is that Mandy and I still get on. We have rubbed along very nicely being together 24 by 7 in a small space. We have discovered that we absolutely love to meet friends and relatives, but we also love the times when we are moored in the middle of nowhere, with just each other for company.

We also have found that we do love the canals. We love seeing something new each day, the beauty of the countryside, the history of city centres, the pace of life, the community. It feels very sad this week that for this year it is over.

In terms of where we want a house we have not made so much progress. We absolutely love Scotland. Where we live now is very convenient, but Fife or the Highlands are also very appealing. We have also considered moving back to northern England to be nearer friends and family, and nearer the canals. Alternatively we could live on the boat 12 months a year, but for now that feels too scary for me. Maybe a house with a mooring for the boat. We have certainly spent time discussing options this year, but are not a lot further forward on a decision. No rush I guess.

What about our future? No decisions there either. But I think we have made progress. We have found that in retirement there is no need to make long term plans. We know much of what we are doing this winter (Orkney in November, Swinton Park for Christmas, maybe skiing). And we know we want too spend six months on the boat next year. That is enough for us.

So probably 5 out of 10 against our goals for this summer, but the way we both feel is more like 10 out of 10. It has been a tremendous time and we want more.

Have a great weekend. Pete

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

I don’t want to go to jail

We are staying this week in a very new Marina south of Rugby. Dunchurch Pools was designed by the people that built the Eden Project in Cornwall and is very beautiful.

It is set in a remote part of the country, quite a long way from shops and other amenities, but it is right next to three prisons – a category B, a category C and a young offenders institution. They are hidden behind trees, but inquisitive as always I have been for a look.

It made me sad and a little nervous to look at the high walls and barbed wire. The counterpoint between the freedom we have on our boat, and the restrictions for prisoners was very real. I have never been inside a prison, and only once been in court. That was for a speeding offence and although it was a very “friendly” court and I had a good story to tell, I still felt hugely nervous.

I would hate jail. Fortunately I have no plans for a life of crime. But I am hugely grateful that my life has not gone that way.

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.

Going underground

We have been in several tunnels this week. We started with the famous Harecastle tunnel, north of Stoke on Trent. It is a 2600m tunnel and takes about 40 minutes to drive a boat through in the dark. Fortunately I am not claustrophobic.

The second is much less known. Froghall tunnel is at the end of the Caldon, one of the most beautiful canals in the UK, if a little narrow. The tunnel is just 70m long but unfortunately less than 10% of narrowboats can fit through it. Our boat was just too tall.

The third was a railway tunnel near Leek. It turned out that for Bank holiday weekend, the Churnet Valley Railway was holding a real ale festival, and we moored our boat right by one of the stations. Beer, steam trains and narrowboats all in the same place. Lucky me!

Our final canal tunnel of the week was also near Leek and was about 120m long. We moored up for the night at a lake right by the tunnel entrance. Really really beautiful

I usually find some kind of helpful life lesson in my travels each week. Perhaps something about darkness, or light at the end of the tunnel? Perhaps something about the bear who came across a hill and could not go over, under or around it, and had to go through it? Or perhaps this week I can simply be grateful for my retirement that allows me to see such wonders.

Have a great weekend.

Five reasons that a breakdown can be a good thing

Our narrowboat broke down again this week. You may remember it overheated when we were in Scotland. This time the alternator belt shredded when we were just south of Wigan. We could have been frustrated or angry. It spoilt our plans, and some people had told us it was not safe to moor near Wigan overnight. But instead we chose to make the best of it, and I have five reasons that the breakdown was a good thing for our retirement adventure…

  1. We met Harry. We had called out River Canal Rescue but unfortunately they did not have the right size belt. Harry was passing on the towpath and offered to help. He fixed the belt with insulation tape and refitted it so that we could get a few hundred yards down the canal to a much safer mooring with other boats. I love the folk we meet on the canal.
  2. We learnt that we should always carry a spare belt. The original one is now replaced, but I will order a second as soon as I can find the part number!
  3. It reminded us that as a 19th Century Prussian general once said “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. As a result we have had a more relaxed week, for instance traversing the Runcorn arm of the Bridgewater canal, which was not in our original plan and was beautiful.
  4. We now know the sound of a slipping belt, so that if it happens again we can be prepared.
  5. It explains our Scottish overheating. The theory that it was a failing thermostat never quite convinced me, especially when it overheated again last week, with no thermostat installed. But the alternator belt also drives the coolant pump, so when it was slipping there was no pump.

Every day is a school day, and that applies equally in retirement as at work. How was your week? Did you breakdown too?

Married for 35 years

Monday was our 35th wedding anniversary. Thirty five years is an awfully long time. When we first got married I was just 22 and knew very little about the world. In the 35 years since then, Mandy and I have both changed so much. Many people tell you that to make a marriage successful you need to work at it. Of course that is true, but I think there is also a huge element of luck. We are fortunate that we have tended to change together rather than change away from each other. I know many couples who were perfectly suited when they married but over the years have simply grown apart.

Incredible hair!

This year was always going to be critical for the two of us. After many years when work dominated my life and I was often away from home during the week, suddenly we would be together all day every day – this summer in the confined space of a narrowboat. And on top of that, retirement brings a lot of time to reflect on what you want from life.

So you can imagine how delighted I am that we seem to be rubbing along pretty well. We are both really enjoying the contrast of peaceful miles of country canals with the bustle of industrial city centres. We are both enjoying both meeting old friends and family we have not seen for years, and also the solitude of time to ourselves. So different from who we were 35 years ago, but still in love.

Sorry for soppy post. Back to normal grumbling next week.