Losing my glasses

We are now properly set off for our 2023 narrowboat adventure. Our first canal is the Llangollen, one of the prettiest navigations in the UK. It gets extremely busy during the summer, so an early season visit makes sense. The weather has been a bit drizzly, but nothing we can’t cope with, and the scenery is beautiful. But on our first day out (Wednesday) I made the massive mistake of dropping my glasses in the canal.

These are expensive glasses and the only pair I have on the boat, so as they sank under the water, more than a few expletives came from my mouth. Fortunately we were just mooring at the time, so I knew pretty much where they had gone in. Unfortunately, my magnet fishing line did not find them – possibly no steel in the frames. I was not willing to give up, so I stripped down to my underwear and a T Shirt, and got in.

Boy it was cold, but I was determined, and after about ten minutes feeling along the silt with my feet, I discovered something that could be what I wanted, so I dipped under the water to pick up whatever it was – and it was my glasses!

A hot shower and fresh clothes, and a wash of my glasses and everything turned out well. No scratches, on me or the specs. I realise I was fortunate, and am grateful everything turned out well. Lesson learnt – don’t wear glasses when playing with ropes over the rear of a boat.

Have you ever lost and found something important? How did you feel?

It may be snowing but it’s cozy inside the narrowboat

It is so good to be back on the boat.

It has been convenient to live in a house over winter. Easy to keep clean. Things don’t break as often. Plenty of space. But I have missed the boat.

The new kitchen was finally finished on Tuesday, so I drove down Wednesday with a car full of everything we need for a season – clothes, towels, crockery, cutlery, bedding. I am very pleased with the work the boat yard have done and they have kept the boat relatively tidy. Last year I had to clean lots of mould from surfaces. But this year a quick steam clean of the floor, a wipe of the insides of the cupboards, and we are fine. I have learnt that the key is to allow plenty of air circulation, so moving the bed away from the wall, having several windows open a little, and giving everything a good clean before we leave the boat in the autumn. All these things have helped.

I’m heading back to Scotland later, and then will return with Mandy and the dogs over the weekend. My plan was to get going early next week, with our first trip on the Lllangollen and Montgomery canals through Wales. But the forecast is that the current snow and sleet will continue all week, so I will have to do some pretty fancy negotiating to persuade Mandy that it is better to travel than to hunker down with the cozy stove in the boat.

Gongoozlers (people who like to watch the boats but don’t have one) often ask me if it is cold living on a narrowboat. You might think so because there is just a single metal skin and little insulation. But in fact they are very easy to keep warm and do not use much energy because there is such a small airspace inside. As I write this, it is lovely to watch the snow falling outside while feeling cozy and warm inside, with the boat very gently rocking in the wind.

But I have a list of jobs to be done. I would like to give the kitchen walls a quick coat of paint to make them look as fresh as the new units for when Mandy arrives.

I’m ready for the summer – in the snow. Are you?

When can I go back to the narrowboat?

I was hoping that this week’s blog would be about my return to the narrowboat, after having a new kitchen fitted over winter. I know the washing machine has not yet arrived but that is not urgent, and I really want to get the boat set up for the summer season. Unfortunately I found out on Wednesday that the new cooker is installed but is not yet converted to bottled gas, so I would have no way of making food or boiling a kettle. The limited electricity on a boat means that things like electric kettles and microwaves are rarely used.

The new kitchen – work in progress

I am hoping that on Monday the new “jets” will be installed and I can travel down to the boat on Tuesday. I am bracing myself because I have not been on the boat since November, so something is sure to be broken. But we have plans for travelling the west of England this year, so the sooner I get back, the sooner we can resolve any issues and get going.

Last year we travelled for seven months, all around the South of England. This year we plan a more mixed summer, where we travel for 5-6 weeks and then return to the house for 1-2 weeks before repeating. That way we can keep the house in good order, and still make the most of the boat. It will also help us work around some events this year, such as my niece’s wedding and a weekend at the London E-Prix (Formula 1 for electric cars).

On the boat we also have targets – to spend time around Gloucester docks, to see our younger son in Tewkesbury, to cross the Pontcysyllt Aqueduct and navigate the recently reopened stretch of the Montgomery canal. I also want to return to the boat museum in Ellesmere Port, and possibly to explore the many canals of Birmingham.

So hopefully by next week’s blog I will be back… We will see.

Why I love Kerala

I have just returned from a two week trip to India, seeing many sights across the country and meeting old friends. I enjoyed every moment but I have to say that my favourite few days were in Kochi, Kerala. I have never been to Kerala before, although many people have told me how wonderful it is. Kerala state is the pointy bit at the bottom of India and much of it is made up of jungle and rivers. Trivandrum is the capital but many tourists (like me) go to Kochi instead.

Th lunch we were given after our backwaters trip

I think there are three reasons why I loved it so much – the beauty, the peace and the history.

It is very very beautiful. I went on a backwaters tour, walked around Kochi a lot, frequented the very cheap ferries between the islands, and used quite a few tuk tuks (auto rickshaws). It seemed as if around every corner I would see a fresh “wow” view.

So very lovely

Saying it is peaceful may seem a little odd. The narrow streets of Fort Kochi are as filled with vehicles blaring horns as every other town in India. But get away from the streets, in the Dutch Palace, or the synagogue, or the Cathedral, or in the backwaters, with our boat pushed along by poles rather than an engine. Suddenly everything seems silent and reflective. I even went to a modern art event called Biennale, set in a series of old spice warehouses, and I felt so relaxed just sitting quietly, looking at the exhibits.

Our driver
One of the many exhibits at the Biennale

As for the history, Kochi was one of the first Indian areas visited by western countries. The Roman Empire traded at Muziris, a port believed to be a couple of kilometres north of Kochi. The Dutch, the Portuguese and the English all ruled over the town at one time or another, often working jointly with the local maharaja. Just before Indian independence, a new island – Willingdon – was dredged from the sea, making a port that large ships can now visit, for the trade in spices, particularly pepper. I was able to explore many of these sites. I even popped into Kochi Chamber of Commerce which was near my hotel, and one of the gentlemen there gifted me a copy of a history book celebrating a hundred years of the chamber. India is not just about seeing the famous tourist sites. It is also about exploring and talking to people you meet.

The famous Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.
A statue I found hidden in the merchant navy headquarters on Willingdon island.

I was only in Kerala for three days, but I think I have fallen in love. What a magnificent state. And so much more to explore if I ever return.

What is wrong with being British in India?

This week I have been in Delhi, Kolkata and Kochi in India. All have been fascinating. Delhi is loud and bustling with tens of millions of people going about their business. Kolkata is full of tiny side streets and old buildings from when it was India’s capital, most of which are now quite run down. Kochi is quiet, very beautiful, and full of tourists. One thing they all have in common is a feeling that sometimes they are tolerating me, rather than welcoming me.

Kolkata

When I first came to India, some twenty years ago, I was treated as a king. Some of that was because I was usually being entertained by companies who wanted me to give them work. Some of it was because of a cultural hangover from the days of the British Empire. Some of it was because of the wealth gap between me and most Indians. It felt awkward and embarrassing to me, and I made every effort to change the relationships I had with my colleagues from “parent – small child” to “adult – adult”.

Since then, India has developed massively. It is no longer a third world country. Many more (but still a minority) of the population have money. They are likely at some point to overtake China in terms of overall wealth. It is a world power in a way that Britain no longer is. I massively admire the country and the Indian people.

But as it has grown more powerful, some of the politics has become more nationalistic, and divisive. This has included a revisiting of the history of the British Raj, and how India became an independent republic. Peaceful leaders such as Ghandi are no longer revered as much as violent revolutionaries such as Netaji Bose. I am not saying that is wrong, nor in any way to justify one country ruling another. But I do feel sometimes that as a tourist the way I am treated has moved from “parent – small child” to “parent – angry teenager”. What I want is to be treated as an equal, by people who have a different culture, religion, and history to me – people that I want to get to know.

Perhaps I am being naive. I live in Scotland where sometimes the anger I have heard against the English is worse than anything I have heard in India. And most of my interactions with normal Indians this week have been mutually respectful and rewarding.

Perhaps I am just secretly missing being treated as a king.

Should retired couples spend time apart?

I am in India this week. When I was working I used to travel here quite.a lot because I had teams in Delhi and Chennai. My last visit was in February 2020. I had meant to return that autumn, to say goodbye to my teams before retirement. Unfortunately the pandemic scuppered my plans and I was not able to see my teams in person, either in the UK or India. So this visit is my chance to meet up with some of those ex colleagues, as well as a chance to see some of the areas of India where I have never visited.

The India Parliament buildings from one of my walks
this week

I would love to have brought my wife, Mandy, but she would have hated the noise, the mix of wealth and poverty, and the spiced food which characterise this wonderful country. So we are away from each other for two weeks. Since I retired, this is the first time we have been apart for so long. For much of that time have lived every moment together, in the small tin can that is our narrowboat.

Given that for much of my career I would be away from home during the week, it is amazing we have not killed each other, being together all the time. There have certainly been moments when I have thoroughly irritated Mandy. But being together has become our new normal, and I have to say that being so far apart this week is feeling very odd. We video chat every day, but I am used to sharing my adventures and I am missing her.

But I know that logically it is important we retain our own identities. We are more than just a couple and this holiday is giving me a chance to do my own thing while no doubt back in Scotland, Mandy will be relishing having her own space. I am only three days into the trip, and by the end, I hope to have relaxed into solo travelling.

Do you think spending time apart is good for a relationship, or should we just be enjoying our time together? What do you think?

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.

Is this my last year skiing in the alps?

I didn’t learn to ski till I was in my forties. I was the kid that hated sliding in the playground, and saw nothing to enjoy in sliding down a mountain. But my wife really wanted to ski, and after several years of holidays that I did not really enjoy, I finally got the hang of it, and since then have loved skiing. We skied at least once a year until 2020, when we stayed in Morzine just as the pandemic was breaking. This week has been our first week on the slopes since then, as we came back to the great resort of La Plagne.

The view from our hotel

Last time we were here was five years ago. La Plagne is quite a high resort for the French Alps, with our hotel at 2100 metres, and the tops of the mountains over 3000 metres. At this time of year it should be guaranteed great snow, and back in 2018 the drifts were well over my own height.

This year has been quite different in the French alps, and just two weeks ago La Plagne was grassy hills and patches of ice. Fortunately last week it had the first big dump of snow, and so conditions have been good for us. But even then, by the end of the week the snow has been skied off on some of the steeper pistes.

When we started skiing, some of our favourite resorts were around 1500 metres, such as Soldeu in Andorra, and Courchevel 1550 in France. These days, even with artificial snow blowers, these are no longer great ski resorts. I feel that our days of skiing in the alps may be over.

I expect that for some readers of this blog, you may be considering me pretty privileged. If the worst that the global climate emergency brings is a change to my vacation plans, then lucky me. But it is still a reminder- a reminder that global warming is real, is happening and will change all our lives. Because it is progressive, climate change does not make the news every day, but it is probably the most important story in my life, and probably yours. I make no excuse for having flown here, and for keeping my gas central heating on when we get home at the weekend. But I have learnt to love skiing, and maybe this will be the last year with sufficient snow to make it work.

Has your life changed due to the climate emergency? Will things ever return to “normal”?

Are retired people allowed to have opinions?

Now that I have been retired for two years, I realise that when I was working I was unconsciously biased against retired people. I believed that they should not have opinions about business, politics, or pretty much anything else. There are two reasons for this – retired people have outdated ideas and they no longer contribute to society. And therefore their views have no value and should be ignored.

Now that I am retired it will not surprise you that my beliefs have changed. I like to think my own opinions are relatively progressive, and while my tax contribution may be less than when I was working, I have time to think, perspective and experience. If I were to follow my own stereotype I would also now be believing that young people’s opinions have no value. For instance, how can a 16 year old have the vote (which they do in Scotland) when they have no understanding of life, and are distracted by adolescence?

In reality I am trying hard to balance all my ageist biases with tolerance. Telling everyone which pronouns I want seems odd to me, but I understand that it is fundamental to some. Continuing to rally behind Brexit despite the economic evidence, seems nonsensical to me, but I understand that for some, it is the basis of British sovereignty. Keeping a narrowboat on a 48 hour mooring for a week is against the rules and therefore makes me judgy. But it is January. Does it really matter?

I conclude that retired people like me are allowed opinions. And so are young people, middle aged people, people of different faiths, races; people that are very like me and people that are quite different.

Or is having an opinion so important, I should not be tolerant of the contrary view. What do you think?

Never too old for a birthday party

Last Saturday I woke up several hours before dawn to drive the long journey from Edinburgh to Haywards Heath. I was doing my son Rob a favour by driving his car down to his flat. For reasons too complicated to explain, he had ended up with two cars in Scotland over Christmas. But the more important reason for the adventure was to join friends and family of my aunt Gillian at her 90th birthday party.

Gillian is my Mum’s sister and has lived in the Haywards Heath area (near Brighton) for over 50 years. For all that time, she has worshiped at a local Baptist Church. The church hosted the party and were so very welcome to us all. Gillian knew about the people from her church but was not aware any family would attend. In the end I think there were about 70 people, so a great turnout to celebrate with her. It was a very special day.

I am not a great one for parties. I find the large group of people a little intimidating and always forget to talk to everyone I should. The Jonah Lewie song says “you will always find me in the kitchen at parties” and that would have been true for me if there were not already many church people busy providing teas and coffees. Instead I snuck upstairs and found a games room where I could play table tennis with a niece and her fiancée. Much more me.

But I am sure that Gillian found it a very special day. Never too old for a party. I look forward to sharing Gillian’s 100th.

Do you love to party or would you rather hide in a corner?

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