How to find your way around the British Canals

I am getting excited now as we get nearer to returning to our narrowboat and travelling around the British canals this summer. We have been having work done on the boat including a new kitchen, but that should be ready soon, so hopefully by the end of the month we will be back.

The UK canal and river network is extensive – some 2000 miles – travelling through vast tracts of countryside, and connecting most towns & cities. Before the railways it was the best and fastest way of carrying goods from place to place, and despite falling into disrepair in the first half of the twentieth century, most of the navigations (the official name) are now open to traffic again. Volunteers and the Canal & River Trust keep the waters clear and the locks operating. It is somewhat easier than other countries because most of the equipment is self service and we can take our narrowboat anywhere we like, whenever we like.

Just a few of my guides

So of course that begs the question of how we know where to go. The answer is a mixture between 21st and 19th century technologies. There are some great apps and websites. One of our favourites is “Canal Plan AC” website, which is brilliant at working out how long it will take us to make a journey, and where likely stops are along the way. It takes account of fast and slow navigations, and time to get through locks, as well as how many hours a day we want to travel, and where are good places to moor. The other app on my phone is “Open Canal Map” which allows me to track our journey live and zoom in and out of the canal maps, for instance to see where a water point is, or a recent stoppage.

But I have to admit, despite the advantages of technology, I prefer to use proper paper books. There are two sets of canal books in common use in the UK – the Nicholson Guides and the Pearson Guides. Pearsons are more chatty and have simplified maps. Nicholsons are more comprehensive and have the detailed Ordnance Survey maps. Both guides have been around for over 50 years and are updated every few years. I had always thought that was done by hundreds of editors but by coincidence we have become friends with Jonathan Mosse, who lives on a boat near us in Scotland, and does most of the work to keep Nicholson guides up to date. When he started in the 1970s, he would spend his days boating and cycling along canals. These days he can do a lot of the research online, but he is still always grateful for updates from boaters like ourselves, who travel the canals every day, and can let him know when a bridge number has changed or a pub has closed.

This week, he kindly sent me the guides that have been updated for 2023 – covering the North West of England. They are shiny and new but it will not take long till they are covered in muddy thumb prints and hand marked updates. I feel privileged to play a small part in keeping everyone informed as we share the navigations.

If you have never had a narrowboat holiday in the UK, I recommend it. The slow pace of life will bring mindfulness and calm, even if just for a week. And don’t forget to get a copy of your local guides.

Does East Lothian have the best coastal walk in Scotland?

On Thursday I had a most wonderful post Christmas walk from Dunbar to Cockburnspath in East Lothian. We managed to find a window between the heavy rains, and the sun was low in the sky, giving a lovely light over the sea.

Scotland has amazing countryside, from mountains and munros to lochs and lakes. Some of my favourite walks are along the coast. The highlands have emptiness and drama. The western isles have the longest white sand beaches. Orkney and Shetland have prehistoric coastal settlements. The north east coast has craggy cliffs. But East Lothian is one of my favourites. The John Muir Way runs right along the edge, past golf courses, a nuclear power station, beautiful towns, classic beaches, cliffs, and rocks. All kinds of coast in one short walk.

Where is your favourite coastal walk?

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?

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 day is it?

When you see a doctor in a British film checking on mental capacity, the two questions they always ask are “Who is the Prime-minister?” and “What day is it?”. I have struggled with the second of these questions this week. Indeed, for the first time in 20 months, I nearly missed getting my Friday blog out, because I thought it was earlier in the week. Does this mean I am getting forgetful in my old age? Or is it just that days are much like each other when retired?

We are back on our narrowboat and off on our travels. The next month or so will see us travel the Staffordshire & Worcester and Shropshire Union canals, hopefully making it to Ellesmere Port before returning to a marina near Chester for the winter. We do have a couple of days off each week, but because we are not working, there is no reason for these to be at the weekend, and we both lose track of days.

I have some coping techniques. I have an alarm on my phone on a Thursday afternoon to remind me to write a blog. When it is Grand Prix season, I am always reminded when it is a Sunday – race day. But still, during the week, the freedom to do what we want each day, can mean that any day is like any other. As Pooh says in the picture above – today is my favourite day.

Oh by the way, I think the Prime-minister is Boris Johnson, but based on his permanent holidays, I may well be wrong.

Have a great weekend!

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.

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?

Preparing for six months on a narrowboat

I feel as if I should be writing about Ukraine this week. Russia’s invasion is dominating the news, and the harrowing pictures are literally terrible. This is a peaceful European country just a couple of thousand miles from here. I feel helpless myself, but so impressed at the way the Ukrainians are holding off the Russian army. Such acts of bravery and heroism.

I feel guilty that instead I am writing about the events in my life. But that is what this blog is meant to be about, so apologies if this seems trivial.

We are about to set off on our next retirement adventure – six months on the narrowboat. Last year, due to Covid restrictions, we did not set off till July, but we loved our three months in the canals of the north of England. This year we will head south to travel from Market Harborough to Oxford, to Reading, to Bristol, back to London, maybe up into Essex, and then back up to the Midlands. I expect things will break down, weather will be mixed, plans will constantly change. I also expect perfect moments – mornings in the summer with the mist rising from the water around the boat, lazy evenings moored next to a pub, seeing friends that we have missed for years.

At the weekend, I drove down to check on the boat. It is looking good. Over the winter it has been blacked (taken out of the water and the bottom painted), has had new solar panels fitted, the engine and water heater serviced, a new sink fitted in the bathroom, and an expensive new charger/inverter installed, so that next year we can look at updating the galley (kitchen). No doubt we will find “snags” as we start moving again but that is OK.

I wonder how long it will take us to get back into the slow pace of life, and the relaxed attitude we found last year, where things going wrong are never seen as a big deal, and our worries fade away. I am so looking forward to it.

All being well, by next blog we will be on our way. I very much look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Slava Ukraini!

Moving on

I needed to blow some cobwebs away this week, after the funeral of my Dad. We had a thanksgiving service in Salisbury Cathedral, which was quite a joyous event, as lots of people celebrated his life. But it is still a stressful time and I was glad to get back to Scotland. My son, Tin, and I took the dogs for a walk up Arthur’s Seat. This is a famous hill right in the middle of Edinburgh.

It was a crisp, cold morning and the fresh breeze on top certainly helped clear the mind. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that walking is one of my things. There is something in the combination of physical exertion and the wonderful views that really energises me and gives me perspective.

It will no doubt take some time to grieve for my father, but life moves on, and next week I should be able to get back to our narrowboat. Within a few weeks, Mandy and I will be off on our next big retirement adventure – six months travelling through the canals in the South of England. Mandy says that in my head I am already there. I am certainly getting very excited by the thought.

I look forward to sharing the experience with you.

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