Do we need libraries?

One of the things I have noticed travelling around the UK canals this year, is the increasing number of places to swap books. Often when we stop for water, there is an area in some building where people have placed the books they have read, so that other boaters can take them. We have so little space in a boat, that once a book is read, we want to get rid of it, and for most of us, we would rather share than throw away. The books can be very varied – popular thrillers, classics, fascinating biographies, even text books. It has made me wonder if this is the modern version of libraries.

I used to love going to libraries when I was growing up. Shelf after shelf of things to read, things to learn. All knowledge was here. But these days we have the Internet, and casual research is done with a quick google. Libraries also provided a community resource for meetings, or just getting out of the cold and wet, but is that a reason to keep them?

Over the years, cost cutting has led many local authorities to close libraries. One of my brothers is a librarian and I know he has been through tough and uncertain times. I have always argued to maintain libraries for people that cannot afford books. But if this trend towards sharing books continues, perhaps we don’t need the cost of formal libraries. Boaters have maybe set the trend because we have no space, but I am beginning to see old telephone boxes on high streets becoming book shares for everyone.

What to you think? Do we still need libraries?

Is mooring in town centres safe?

We are travelling through the East Midlands on the River Soar and passing through Leicester. A number of fellow boaters warned us not to moor in Leicester. It has a reputation for vandalism by drunk or drugged youths. But it is also a lovely historic town so we have moored here nevertheless. We have got lucky because the town has now installed a couple of secure pontoons for boats. We are moored up next to a beautiful park, and there is a gate onto the pontoon, for which only boaters have a key. At night they even lock the park, so we feel nice and safe.

A real peaky blinder in Leicester

City centres are often seen as dangerous by narrowboaters. Because canals were built to carry goods from factories and mills, they usually go through parts of town that are now quite run down. So you can meet some fairly insalubrious characters. But in our experience there are some lovely city centres and they are safe. We have loved Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford, Stoke on Trent even though all have dodgy reputations. The trouble is in the stretches of canal between the town centres and the countryside. During the day they are often fascinating industrial architecture but at night the boogeymen come out. So tomorrow we set off and do not stop until we are back amongst fields and trees. And we will enjoy what we see along the way.

Tonight we will enjoy sleeping amongst the hustle and bustle.

Two mile tunnel in a narrowboat

Last year I wrote a blog about travelling through the Braunston tunnel, 2042 yards of wet darkness. This week we travelled through the even longer Blisworth tunnel. It is also known as “Two Mile tunnel” because at 3076 yards, it is nearly two miles long. It is the third longest navigable tunnel in the UK, the ninth longest in the world, and the longest two way tunnel, where boats can just pass each other at a squeeze. It can be a little nerve wracking when you are a mile from either entrance and you meet a boat coming towards you. But is is also very beautiful.

The photograph does not reflect reality because my iPhone gives a very long exposure. In reality all you can see is the bit ahead of the boat, lit by the headlight. Sometimes you get to see water running from the roof as it goes through the light, but sometimes all you can do is hear it before it splashes into your face.

Sounds scary? Well maybe a little, but is also an adventure, and if we didn’t have our own boat, is the sort of thing I would happily pay to do on a tour, We are very lucky to be able to spend so many months travelling by boat, because almost every day we come across something new and surprising. This week we have had this tunnel, an aqueduct with no railing between us and a long drop, a sculpture park, a lake. I took a day off to go to London to celebrate my big sister’s birthday. We had a tree fallen across the canal, that had to be chainsawed away to let us through.

Next week who knows what we will see. I’ll let you know.

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?

It’s faster by road, faster by rail, so why travel on a narrowboat?

I am going to try very hard this week not to complain about the heat. That is hard because it has dominated our thinking, as the tin can we travel in has warmed up like an oven. BUT. It has still been a lovely week, as we have come up the tidal Thames and joined the Grand Union canal, a long canal that will take us from London to Birmingham or Leicester. It feels great after weeks of rivers to be back on a proper canal, where we can moor up almost anywhere, and we don’t need to worry about currents and tides.

The Grand Union going under the M25 motorway

This week has mostly been finding our way through London, a wonderful busy city. Surprisingly, most of the time the canal lives in a world of its own, with trees and green spaces, hiding from the town. Then sometimes, such as in Hayes, we find ourselves right in the middle of multicultural vibrancy. It was Eid and there were many very happy muslims, eating during daylight at last. I got the best samosa from a Hyderabadi takeaway. And fruit & veg shops spilling out across the streets. Unfortunately there were also too many drunk Brits enjoying the sunshine on the towpath and making me nervous.

Now we have escaped London and are mostly in countryside, with a number of commuter towns. But the Grand Union runs right next to very busy motorways and train lines, so we can never quite forget “normal” life. We came up a few locks this week with a solo boater who had taken three weeks travelling on the canal through London from Tottenham to Watford. As we passed under the M25 motorway I noted that the journey by car would be about an hour.

So if it takes so long, what is the benefit of travelling by narrowboat? It is because the journey is the destination. This week we have seen parakeets flying above us. We have passed through shanty towns of houseboats. We have helped a geography lesson on how locks work to a class of teenage girls. We have passed under the main Heathrow flight path, with planes landing a few hundred feet above us. I discovered a fascinating pockmarked stone on the towpath, which turned out to be a flint formed by burrowing plankton, millions of years ago. It’s a great life.

It has been bl**dy hot though!

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.

Should I get my moles checked?

About 15 years ago I had a skin cancer taken off the back of my hand. I have a lot of moles on my skin and one of them had gone a bit itchy. When tested it turned out to be a malignant melanoma. Fortunately it was early stage and I had no other issues after the removal. Despite the skin cancer, I rarely use suntan cream when on the boat, but this week it has been so hot and sunny I felt I needed to. As I was putting cream on the back of my arm I found a small raised mole, and when I photographed it, it turned out I had two red moles not looking exactly normal.

As you can imagine, after my previous experience I felt a little nervous but it is hard to see a GP when on the boat. Our GP is in Scotland and will not speak to me when I am in England – apparently the two health services are separate. But seeing a GP in England is difficult because our address is in Scotland. It is one of the many challenges about not having a fixed address. But fortunately I have access to a video consultation through some insurance, so I spoke to an online GP who looked at the photo and said it was probably benign and not an issue, but I should see a private dermatologist. This was all sounding quite expensive, so I waited till Wednesday, when I was back up in Scotland for the day, preparing for my wife’s 60th birthday party. I called my own GP who kindly saw me that same day.

He gave me a thorough examination and said that these two red spots are entirely normal – some kind of blood blemish – and nothing to worry about. He did find three black moles on my back that he said we should keep an eye on, but all in all, a great result.

So I wonder, was I wasting my time and that of the NHS getting these small moles checked? Should I have bothered? The doctor said I was doing exactly the right thing, especially given my medical history. Unnecessary stress maybe. But much better than not getting them checked and finding out too late that I had a problem.

Why am I prejudiced about yoghurt pots?

There are broadly two types of boats on the rivers and canals of the UK. Barges (narrowboats, widebeams, Dutch barges) are usually steel, have flat bottoms, are long and relatively narrow (typically 10-25m long). They are great in shallow, silted canals and are traditional in style. Cruisers, which can be anything from dinghies to huge yachts are usually white fibreglass, have a proper keel underneath, and look smart and modern. They are great on open rivers and even the sea.

Marlow this week

These two types of boat are crewed by two types of boaters. Of course there are exceptions, but barge owners are usually more hippy, less tidy, more chilled. Cruiser owners are often more wealthy, and more proud of their boat. The two communities take the mickey out of each other. Cruiser owners call barge owners “ditch dwellers” because of our love of canals. Barge owners call cruisers “yoghurt pots” or “plastic bathtubs” because of their fragility. I had always thought this jest was in fun and that we got on OK. After this week, I am not so sure.

We have been travelling along a wide section of the River Thames from Reading to Windsor. Lovely weather this week, magnificent nature and expensive houses to gawk at along the river. We have had a great time. But we have also detected quite a lot of passive aggression from the cruisers. They clearly feel this river should be for them. They resent the space we take up on a mooring. They think we make their beautiful river look messy. Some of them have been quite direct with me.

Clearly I believe they are wrong. I have written before how good it is that different people get along in this boating life. But being in the minority this week has made me wonder how inclusive I really am with cruisers when we are back in narrowboat heaven on the canals. Perhaps my flippant jokes towards the cruiser owners are not just banter, but prejudice. We will be back on canals soon, and I will do my best to change my stereotypical views. I can’t promise I won’t call their boats yoghurt pots though!

What is a treacle fair?

This week we have been moored in a marina near Aldermaston, and on Saturday, while walking the dogs, I came across a number of posters advertising a “treacle fair”. This is not something I had come across before so I asked some locals and it turns out that this is an annual country fête in the village of Tadley. It will not surprise you that we decided to go.

Ferret Racing

It was a very odd but actually quite rewarding experience. There was a rock choir of about 20 pensioners singing enthusiastically. There was a massive “crew” of about 100 teenage dancers, whose routine seemed to be waving arms and running towards each other. There were beer and tea tents. There were burger vans, a small funfair, charity stalls with raffles. There was a model railway and a hat stall. Even better were the special events in the arena. Dog agility was pretty impressive, birds of prey flying was even more so. Best of all was the ferret racing. Four ferrets put into drain pipes with obstacles, to see which would reach the end first. Don’t worry, there was no cruelty here – these were pet ferrets who were just having fun playing in pipes. Each race could last over 15 minutes, as they wandered up and down the pipes, never quite reaching the end.

Some people say the British are eccentric. For me, Tadley Treacle Fair is a great example that shows yes we are. And it is absolutely fine.

Oh by the way, it is called a “treacle” fair because from at least the nineteenth century, people believed there were treacle mines in Tadley. I love it.

Is travelling at 3mph boring?

One of the things I am often asked about living on a narrowboat is whether it is boring. People assume that travelling at just 3mph through the countryside must be monotonous. The answer is that it is quite the contrary. Every day we see new things, meet new people, revel in where we are. On a narrowboat it is all about the journey, not just the destination.

Most evenings we fall into bed, absolutely shattered. We get the physical exercise with the locks, swing bridges and walks. But mentally, if you are steering, despite the slow speed, you have to concentrate the whole time, or you find yourself crashing into the towpath, a bridge, or another boat. If you are not steering, there is often something to plan – where to get water, where to get rid of rubbish, where to moor tonight. Or something to see. In recent weeks we have seen so many ducklings, goslings and cygnets. We have seen kingfishers, water voles, hares. We have seen crops beginning to sprout, wild garlic carpeting the side of the canal. We have seen magnificent aqueducts, tunnels, bridges. The beauty of the great city of Bath, the charming country market in Devizes, the lovely high street in Newbury. The dogs actually get so stimulated by watching and sniffing, that we have to give them time inside the boat to sleep.

One of the things I most enjoy is discovering the unexpected. This week I found a “no magnet fishing” notice, a wizard’s face carved into a tree, a horse drawn barge. The sign in the photograph was on the A34 bridge over the canal outside Newbury on Wednesday. It raises so many questions. Why is there a “Concrete Society”? Who are the members? What is so special about this fairly standard bridge? Why was the award put on a brick wall and not a concrete one? And if you look closely you can see that while the award was still wet, someone has written in the concrete around it “10 Thousand Trees”. It reminds me that the building of this road was hugely controversial, cutting a swathe through an ancient forest.

I would see none of this, hurtling along a motorway, or living in a house. Sometimes the slow life is more interesting, not less.

Are you going anywhere at 3mph this week?