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?

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 to enjoy my 58th birthday

When I was a child, my birthday was my second favourite day of the year after Christmas. I would look forward to the surprise presents, the party food (jelly and ice cream), and being treated as the special one in our family of six. These days, now aged 58, there is always a risk that my birthday will be a disappointment. After all, I have all the “stuff” I want, so any surprise presents are difficult to choose, likely to be a let down, and take up needed space in our narrowboat.

Mandy, my wife, was particularly stressed about the day because she couldn’t think of what to do. So this year I took control, determined to choose my own best birthday.

There were a few presents after all, which had been very well chosen. A bottle of Arran 10 whisky from my youngest son, and some chocolates from my Mum, neither of which will not take up space for very long! And a board game all about narrowboating from one of my brothers, which is unusual and great fun.

But what made the day was the things I chose to do. Instead of moving the boat, we stayed for the day in Devizes, a lovely small market town in Wiltshire. Firstly we went out for breakfast. I had my favourite Eggs Benedict, and a real cup of coffee (normally I have decaf). Then I took the dogs for a long walk through the countryside to a farm where I had read they make excellent ice cream. I was not disappointed with my salted caramel brownie sundae, while the dogs had a special doggy ice cream. Coming back to the boat I chilled out for a while, doing a bit of baking (cornish pasties and banana walnut bread since you ask) and then went to visit the Wadworth brewery, which makes one of my favourite real ales – 6X. They weren’t doing tours but I sat outside in the sun, talking to the locals, and quaffing two 1/2 pints and three 1/3 pints so that I could try their selection without getting too drunk. Mandy then joined me and we went out to look for somewhere to eat, but in the end we just had another drink and came back to the boat to eat the pasties, and watch a lightweight Nicholas Cage film.

I went to bed, feeling really good. I think in future I will always plan my own birthday, and get what I really want.

What about you? Do you prefer surprises and to be treated by others, or to choose your own delights?

Five reasons why I didn’t vote this week

We had local elections in the UK yesterday. I didn’t vote. I think this is the first election where I have not voted since I got the vote, aged 18. I am feeling pretty guilty about it. I have an ingrained belief that everyone should vote. Not voting is lazy and results in politicians being elected by minorities of the population, activists that do not represent what most people want. So why didn’t I vote?

Firstly I should say that I am still struggling with the decision. We have had postal votes for years, so that we can vote when away from home. But…

  1. We couldn’t find a way to get the papers. Our eldest son, Rob, is currently living n our house in Scotland, and had the voting papers, but being on a narrowboat we couldn’t think of a way to get them to us.
  2. It doesn’t feel right to be choosing a local representative in Scotland, when we are spending at least the next six months travelling around England in a boat.
  3. I struggle with who to vote for. In our local area, it is a choice between Scottish National Party (SNP), Conservative (Tories), or Labour. In recent years only Tories and SNP have had a chance, so Labour feels like a wasted vote. I can’t vote SNP because I believe strongly in the benefits of a United Kingdom (I wish we were still part of the European Union). I can’t bring myself to vote Conservative, given the outrageous Tory politicians who ignored the rules during lockdown, when everyone I knew was putting their lives on hold.
  4. My vote does not matter. Whoever wins or lose, my one vote will not alter the result.
  5. Politics seems so far away from what we are doing at the moment. On a narrowboat, what I care about is Canal & River Trust, who run the waterways, and are independent of government, and the community of boaters, who I meet every day. Local politicians don’t care about travelling boaters because we come and go all the time.

Sometimes when I write this blog, it is for you. I really want to share my stories with you. Sometimes when I write this blog, it is for me. It helps me clarify in my head what I am thinking. This week has been one of those. None of the five reasons I have listed are strong enough. I could have got the papers via a friend or family. Voting is an obligation. Of course my vote matters. Politicians do affect what happens on the canals, and everywhere.

Next time I will vote.

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?