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.

Why is great food bad for you?

I have indigestion. Last night I had a delicious meal that my son cooked – spicy chicken and chorizo wraps. I really enjoyed the food, and devoured three filled wraps while watching an episode of “Lewis”, a British detective series. This morning I am feeling the after effects of so much chilli. Why is it that the best food and drink is not good for me?

I love spicy food, but my guts disagree. I love heavy red wines, but they give me a headache. I love bowls of rich ice cream and plates of cakes, but they make me fat.

Of course I have seen all those virtuous people on social media, extolling the benefits of living on fruit juice, celery and tofu. And I can enjoy a salad as much as the next man. But when it is a cold miserable evening in the middle of February, I want comforting food that makes me feel good in the moment.

I understand the science. Two things are working against me. The first is that thousands of years of evolution have taught us humans that fat, sugar and intoxicants are rare commodities to be enjoyed when you can find them. The second is that during 57 years of life I have been bombarded with messages from adverts, parents and friends, extolling how such food is a reward and makes you feel great.

I even understand how theoretically I can change my view. Because my mind has been programmed to like bad food, it can be reprogrammed to avoid them, and seek out the healthy.

But I guess the problem is the same as an addict coming off cigarettes or stronger drugs. It will never happen until they really want to make the change. And I really do love the bad stuff. So while I have a sore tummy this morning, I would very happily have a curry and a beer tonight.

It is all about choices. I choose to love my exercise. But I also choose to love eating bad stuff.

Am I stupid?

Dodging the storms

This week has seen the birthday of one of our sons – Tin (Martin). So we have been away for a few days in a lodge (fancy static caravan) near Newton Stewart, on the Scottish Borders. There is some fine walking around here which we have been enjoying with the dogs, but we have also been trying to dodge the big storms, bringing torrential rain and very strong winds.

Galloway Forest, looking down on Murray’s Monument

Tin says I am lazy because I am not keen on walking in rain. I have also been told by innumerable hikers that “there is no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing”. Personally I think this is hogwash. For me it is just not fun to be out in a hooley, with the rain lashing, or worse still, hail battering my face. When we were in Orkney before Christmas, there were at least three occasions when I came back from a walk utterly soaked. No fun.

There is however, something primitive and very satisfying about being inside in the warm during a storm. Perhaps it goes back to cave dwellers, huddled around an open fire, cooking whatever they had just hunted. I am hoping that in the next few days there will be snow, because I really love to see it falling when I am inside in the warm.

So that is what we are doing. Playing cards. Watching films. Cooking comfort food. Drinking whisky.

Not a bad life.

Are British TV series better than American?

I have held a belief for some time now that British TV drama and comedy programmes are fundamentally better than American ones. There are a number of reasons for this. British programmes tend to have one or two writers, and hence have more of a voice. They are usually much shorter and so finish while the audience still wants more. The humour tends to be darker and more subtle.

Examples of great British TV would be Fawlty Towers, written by John Cleese & Connie Booth and comprising just three series (seasons) of 4 episodes each. Or Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, comprising two series of six episodes. Or Broadchurch by Chris Chibnall, which had three series, each of 8 episodes. Or Sherlock by Steve Moffat & Mark Gatiss, which had 4 series, each of just 3 episodes. I could compare that with some great American TV written by writers’ rooms that I loved but where I eventually ran out of patience. Lost had 121 episodes over 6 seasons. Walking Dead had an incredible 177 episodes over 11 seasons.

This week I have been watching several series and they have both confirmed and contradicted my view. After Life is a superb black comedy written by Ricky Gervais, and has just three series of 6 episodes – his other British winners (The Office, Extras) had just two series of 6 episodes. But I have also been watching Ozark, written by a writers’ room, but finishing after just 4 seasons (admittedly 44 episodes in total). I have just started season 4 and I am so hungry for more. And I have been watching Inspector Morse, an old British detective series, which had each episode written by someone different, and comprised 33 episodes over 8 series.

So I guess I conclude my stereotypical view is flawed. There are great American series and great British series. We live in a golden age for television drama and comedy and I feel lucky to be able to watch both.

Are long walks any different to short walks?

This week I have been continuing to walk sections of the Southern Upland Way. This is a 212 mile long distance walk from coast to coast across Scotland. It has been a somewhat nostalgic experience for me because I used to do a lot of long distance walks in the UK, and I had forgotten how different they are.

I have walked the Pennine Way, the Cleveland Way, the Ridgeway, the Wainwright Coast to Coast, the Cotswold Way, Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s Wall and bits of the Thames Path, South West Coast Path and the West Highland Way. Each of these has a different character but one thing connects them all – they are largely remote. Because I have dogs I am lucky enough to walk most days, but often the routes are well known to me, quite busy with other walkers, and certainly close to civilisation. The long distance trails on the other hand go through some of the quietest parts of the UK. During this trip I have walked maybe 50 miles and I think I have met single figures of fellow ramblers.

Now OK I accept that January is an unusual time to be walking. The weather has been a bit grey, the hours of daylight are relatively short, the ground in places is very wet, and non-retired people are at work. If I was walking in the summer no doubt I would meet many more. However, the principle of remoteness still applies. I am lucky enough to be met at either end of each section by my wife with a car, so I do not carry a tent. But I still need safety provisions in case of emergency – a good compass and map, food, drink, one of those foil blankets to keep me warm. If I did need to stop somewhere, I would be miles from contact, quite possibly without phone coverage.

But I think that is what I like most about the long distance walks. There is just me, the dogs and my iPhone for podcasts or music. I am walking where I have never been before and seeing views I have never seen before. This week, red kites have flown just a couple of metres above me on the top of a hill. I have come across a huge “striding arch” art installation miles from civilisation, I have searched for a secret “cist” of coins that I had heard had been hidden near the path (sadly I missed it). From a mental health perspective there are few things better I think. Exercise, peace and revelation.

You should try it.

I know I have readers outside the UK. Do you have equivalent long distance walks?

More reasons to love Scotland

We are having a couple of weeks away in the Scottish Borders, staying north of Dumfries. The cottage is remote and with no light pollution, it is properly dark at night. I had forgotten how much stars “pop” in a properly dark sky. They look amazing. The countryside around here is very beautiful. I have been doing a couple of sections of a long distance walk called the Southern Upland Way. January is such a quiet time here. Most people do not want to take time off work, so soon after Christmas, or if they do, they want to go somewhere hot or to go skiing. Over 30 miles walking I don’t think I met another rambler.

Crawick Multiverse – just off the Southern Upland Way

Being retired has many benefits but I think the best is that I have time to do things like this. When I was working I was lucky enough to have six weeks annual leave a year. But still, to take two weeks in January would have been a big chunk of that, and if I did take the time, I would feel I needed to maximise the time, by being busy every day. Now I am retired I have no rush to do anything. Yesterday I did a long walk and today I plan to relax. It is a crisp cold sunny morning, so maybe I will take the dogs out, then light the fire and watch a film or read a book.

My fire. Not my feet.

While I am excited to be planning to get back to our narrowboat for several months this year, I feel very grateful that we live in Scotland in the winter. It is such a beautiful country – about the same size as England but with a much smaller population. There are many new areas, like this, for me to discover, but also the familiarity of great cities such as Edinburgh. There are castles around every corner, mountains and hills, lochs and beaches.

Drumlanrig Castle, just up the road from where we are staying

Personally I do not support independence for Scotland – I also love England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and see the benefits of great countries being joined together. But I still love Scotland. Beautiful, proud and full of character.

Haggis for my tea tonight I think.

The problem I have with teachers

I have been reading a fascinating book this week by Ben Goldacre called “I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That”. It is a collection of his articles written in the early 2010s, arguing why we need more factual and evidence based decision making and media. One of these articles was a 2011 paper for the UK government about how education could and should be more evidence based. It really gave me pause for thought and made me consider the problem I have with teachers.

When you meet someone at a party and they tell you what they do, there are often stereotypical reactions. When I used to tell people I was a banker, I would gird my loins for being told that all the ills of the economy were due to my greed. When I told then I worked in IT, I would often see their eyes glaze over. Now, when I tell them I am retired, they look at me as if I am mad, and try to find the reason I “can’t” get a job. In return, when someone tells me they are a teacher, I can almost feel the atmosphere chill, as they prepare to defend themselves against jibes about their lengthy holidays or inability to do a real job. Personally I have huge admiration for teachers. Indeed, for many years I wanted to be one myself. Helping children grow to well rounded, well educated adults must be one of the best things a person can do. But…

The defensiveness I mentioned goes a lot further than responding to dinner party comments. I am not sure why, but I find teachers, possibly more than any other profession, are unwilling to accept criticism, or suggestion of how things could be done better. I am even nervous to write about it because I know teacher friends will already have their hackles rising. Ben Goldacre is a doctor and draws analogies from his own profession, where up to the 1970s, consultants would reject evidence as attacking their professionalism, judgement and brilliance.

Surely teachers, as with any other profession, should not choose teaching methods because “that is the way it has always worked”, or “that is how I like to do it and I am the expert” or “that is the latest fad I have heard about”. There should be proper systematic randomised controlled research which would tell us factually what works and what does not. I have spoken to teachers who reject this idea as something being done to them. But there is no reason for that. In medicine the research is owned by the profession, supported by statisticians. It could be the same for education.

The good news is that in the US, and more recently the UK, education policy does seem to be going in the right direction here. A 2017 £75m investment in the Teaching and Innovation Fund to support evidence based education may help. But teacher defensiveness along the lines of “But every child is different, every class is different” is common. As an example read the article “Education research is great but never forget teaching is a complex art form” by Thomas Rogers. These are just the kinds of arguments that used to be heard in medicine, or indeed in my old profession of IT, and have largely been debunked.

I admire teachers. I admire their professionalism, their work ethic, their talent. I sympathise with the way they are lectured by politicians, journalists and me. Now is the time for them to take ownership for evidence based education, even if it means slaying a few sacred cows.

What do you think?

Eight wishes for 2022

Happy New Year’s Eve!

When I was working, we used to write objectives for the coming year. So this year I have decided not to make resolutions about things I will stop or start doing. Instead I have identified eight outcomes to aim for by the end of 2022.

  1. I will have a happy family. For various reasons the past couple of years have not been easy for my sons, but things are on the up and this will be a good year. Mandy and I will continue to love our retired life.
  2. We will have had an amazing year on the narrowboat. Last year we were able to spend 4 months travelling the canals in the north of England. This year we will spend over 6 months in the south, meeting friends and family as we travel, seeing wonderful places, and enjoying the best of the countryside.
  3. I will have lost weight and will be fitter. I made pretty good progress on this when we were travelling last year, but the past couple of months have been more slovenly.
  4. We will have decided where we want our house for the next twenty years. This was also a goal for 2021 but we have struggled to choose between the many wonderful places in the UK.
  5. Covid will no longer dominate our lives. This is a hard goal for me to achieve by myself, but I have a good feeling that after the Omicron wave, we will be living with the disease as we do with flu or a cold.
  6. I will have been abroad again. I have really missed travelling. This year I want to go to at least one new place outside the UK.
  7. I will have experienced many perfect moments. I love those moments when you suddenly see an incredible view, or a sunrise, or you sit down with friends for a wonderful meal and you realise that it does not get any better than this.
  8. I will have continued to write this blog. There is something about writing each week that I find really satisfying and mindful, as I take the opportunity to reflect.

What about you? What are your goals for 2022? Whatever they are I wish you a very happy, healthy and prosperous year.

Love Pete

One Year Retired – 5 reasons I miss work, and 5 reasons I don’t

This week marks twelve months since I retired. Overall it has been a wonderful experience but I am not pretending there is nothing I miss.

Five things I really miss about work are:

  1. The people were great. I know it is corny but I do miss them. I worked with some really talented and really fun people. I try to keep in touch but I am rubbish at it.
  2. I miss weekends. The routine of work and the rhythm of a working week are something I have lived with for nearly 40 years and it feels strange that I can now do anything any day. Either every day is like a weekend, or no day is like a weekend.
  3. I miss chatting early in the morning. I used to wake before 6am and email, text or call with my fellow early risers. Sotimes I now have a lie in till 7am or occasionally 8am but more often I am up by myself these days. Nice to have my own space but I miss sharing.
  4. I miss having money coming in. This is a bit of a strange one because we worked out our finances before I retired and we can afford it. We even have our money set up so that a fixed amount goes into our account each 18th of the month, just like it used to. But there is something psychological for me when it is existing money I am spending, rather than new money coming in.
  5. One year in and I still don’t really understand what being retired means. I was warned it would take a long time and it has. To some extent this still feels like one long holiday, and I still rush at what I do.

Two things I though I would miss but I don’t:

  1. I thought I would miss making decisions that really mattered. I worked in the sharp end of banking and some of my decisions affected literally millions of people and very large sums of money. I remember ny friend Matt (who reads this blog) telling me that the biggest decisions I would make in future would be whether to buy brown or white bread. He was absolutely right but I really don’t mind. The decisions I make these days are about me and my family, and I am very happy with them.
  2. I thought I would miss the adrenaline of work, especially when things went wrong and needed fixing urgently. Looking back I think I was a little addicted to that adrenaline, but I don’t think it was healthy. I am much happier being more chilled now.

And there are many things I love about being retired:

  1. I am not tied down by anything. If I decide I want to cancel all my plans for tomorrow and do something different, I just can.
  2. I can take as long as I want. When we were on our narrowboat I did not have to think of where I needed to be by Saturday – we could go fast or slow.
  3. I get to meet new people, do new things. Orkney for a month for instance was a great opportunity I could never have had while working

Overall I have no doubt I made the right call to retire and I am really looking forward to whatever new adventures 2022 will bring. But as it is Christmas I will raise a glass to my time at work, and to all my friends from that time.

A wonderful Christmas to all.

Pete x