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.

Why spending a month away is different

We have been in Orkney for a while now. The first couple of weeks were very like any other vacation. We had our sons with us and we went to see all the famous tourist attractions, such as the Ring of Brodgar (standing stone circle) and Skara Brae (neolithic village). It was a great break. But it was not really why we came here, and this week has felt different. It has been wet and windy all month, but this week particularly so. So there has been more hunkering down in front of a fire, and less tourist stuff. I have read a couple of books, and watched some new films. It is very chilled.

But I am not the kind of person to sit still for long, so I have been out discovering the less famous sites in Orkney. It is a quite incredible place, full of history. At low tide we walked across to the Brough of Birsay, where the vikings became Christians and started a monastery. Near Finstown, I climbed down through a roof hatch into Wideford Chambered Cairn, hidden on the side of a hill, where Neolithic people buried their families. We found the ruins of a rare circular church, at Earl’s Bu, next to a Viking drinking hall. Despite sideways hailstones in a gale, I found the Brock of Borthwick, an ancient tower on the edge of a cliff. It feels as if there is history around every corner here.

These are the kinds of places you never have time for in a short vacation, the kinds of places known by locals. And I have found that talking to local people has been another difference. Perhaps also because we are out of season, I feel that we are treated less as outsiders on this trip. I have met fascinating people. I had a personal history education session from a guide at Maeshowe visitor centre. I found out about Stromness in the Royal British Legion Club. The local butcher knows me by name.

I even heard about a place called “Happy Valley” which I have not seen in any of the tourist books, and has no signposts. Orkney has very few trees and has quite a bleak landscape. So 70 years ago, a man called Edwin Harrold bought a cottage on a hillside and over his lifetime, built a special garden around it, with trees, flowers, brooks and waterfalls. When he died, he passed the property on to the council and it is maintained free to visit. I am guessing that few tourists discover this special place, and when I went to see it, I felt there was no-one for miles around.

So it does feel different. Indeed, Mandy & I have been considering staying even longer. I suspect we will decide to come back to civilisation for December, but we do feel privileged to have shared these very wonderful islands for a little while.

When was your very good year?

I was listening to Frank Sinatra’s ”Very Good Year” this week, and it made me consider which has been my best year. Frank talks about meeting girls at 17 on the village green, 21 in the city and at 35 in their limousines. He then talks about being in the autumn of his years and feeling like a vintage wine. The song became an enormous hit and is still amongst the ones he is most famous for.

When I was 19 I had left home for university and was living in London. I was loving the independence and the freedom to make my own choices. I was doing some studying but also spending a great deal of time at the student radio station. My future was open with so many options. It was a very good year.

When I was 22 I left Uni, started a career in IT and married Mandy. We were just kids and knew so little of the world. Many people told us we were far too young but we were so in love and so excited about the future. It was a very good year.

When I was 26 we moved to the Netherlands. We had two very young children and spoke no Dutch. But instead of being scared, we were excited. Everything felt new. I loved my job. I had remote access to the computers with a 2400 baud modem – 27,000 time slower than the speed I have in this remote cottage in Orkney. It was a very good year.

When I was 37 I joined the Halifax Bank. I had spent many years as a consultant and working for a “real” company felt fresh. Our boys were 11 and 12 – old enough to do almost anything, but before they turned into surly teenagers. We lived in Yorkshire, such a great county for countryside and straight talking people. I learnt to ski, to fly, to dive. It was a very good year.

When I was 48 we bought a house called Monkroyd, in Todmorden, on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border. It was the house I had dreamt of as a child, a Victorian mill owner’s mansion. It had secret rooms, open fires, two large cellars. Mandy was back close to her family in Burnley. I was commuting to the great city of Manchester. The boys had left home and we were enjoying our space. It was a very good year.

When I was 55 I was leading a very large team running payment operations for Nat West. It was my perfect job and a great way to end my working career. Fascinating challenges and a leadership team that could meet any challenge with energy and positivity. We were living in Scotland near Edinburgh, my favourite city in the world. I also got a chance to spend a lot of time in India, my favourite country in the world. It was a very good year.

I am now 57 and Sinatra’s “autumn of years” is probably appropriate. Despite a stuttering start in lockdown, retirement has been amazing. After many years of making choices that narrowed future options, suddenly we can do anything we want, whenever we want. Mandy & I have spent so much time together and remarkably we have found we still enjoy each other’s company.

I have had so many very good years.

Which was your best year? Let me know.

I love Orkney

I am writing this at dawn, sitting in my lounge overlooking the entrance to Scapa Flow in Stromness. Stromness is the second town in Orkney and for the next month we are staying in a cottage that once who have been owned by a fisherman, with its own pier and tiny beach to launch the boats. Dawn here is currently a very civilised 07:40 so I have not had to get up early to see the sun rise. And boy is it beautiful. Here are a couple of pictures from a few days ago:

Since we arrived last Saturday, we have already fallen in love with this wonderful set of islands. It is true that you can have every season here in thirty minutes, and some of the landscape can be bleak. Very few trees grow here for instance. But because it is an archipelago, around every bend in the road, over every brow of a hill, you come across the most stunning views.

One of my sons, Tin, near Kitchener’s Monument after a torrential shower
The beach at Scapa, after a whisky tasting at the distillery

Out of season it feels as if we have the islands to ourselves. For instance the Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic set of standing stones, as impressive as Stonehenge. But in Stonehenge you would be surrounded by coachloads of tourists, and kept a long way from the stones on fixed visiting paths. At Brodgar it was just us.

Ring of Brodgar

Quite a few restaurants are now closed for the season, but that has not stopped us finding the most wonderful food, including what we have cooked for ourselves. Sorry vegetarians, but picking our own lobsters straight off the fishing boat was wonderful. My son Tin is trained as a chef, and they tasted sooooo good.

Yum

I have to go now. A ferry awaits to take us to the island of Hoy, for another stunning walk, and my other son, Rob, is arriving for a few days. This is going to be some month.

Who would go to Orkney in November?

I am very excited. We are currently travelling up to Scrabster at the top of Scotland. Tomorrow lunchtime we take the ferry over to Stromness in Orkney for the next month For anyone that does not know, Orkney is a set of islands north of the Scotland mainland, and south of the Shetlands. Orkney is a popular summer tourist destination, when it has daylight from about 2am to midnight. In winter, Orkney tourist attractions close, it is windy, wet and dark. So why on earth would we want to spend a month there?

The original retirement plan was to go in February, after stopping work at the end of the year. It was meant to help wind me down, hunkered in a cottage with a warm fire as the rain and winds blew around. Well the last lockdown put and end to that plan. In February we were not even allowed to leave West Lothian. Instead the retirement got kicked off properly with our long narrowboat adventure – more to come next year. But we still really wanted to visit Orkney, and November is much like February.

There will still be many archeological and historic sites to visit, amazing walks and views, great food and drink. And there will still be plenty of hunkering. We are super excited. Next week I will let you know whether reality matches my imagination. Orkney here we come!

End of part one?

We are back in Scotland. The narrowboat is safely moored near Market Harborough and ready for the winter. Our long trip is over.

For the past few years my retirement plans have centred around spending time on the narrowboat. We reckoned that by the end of the trip we would know whether Mandy and I still get on, whether we actually love boating or it was just a dream, where we want a house, and what we want to do with our future.

So how have we done?

The good news is that Mandy and I still get on. We have rubbed along very nicely being together 24 by 7 in a small space. We have discovered that we absolutely love to meet friends and relatives, but we also love the times when we are moored in the middle of nowhere, with just each other for company.

We also have found that we do love the canals. We love seeing something new each day, the beauty of the countryside, the history of city centres, the pace of life, the community. It feels very sad this week that for this year it is over.

In terms of where we want a house we have not made so much progress. We absolutely love Scotland. Where we live now is very convenient, but Fife or the Highlands are also very appealing. We have also considered moving back to northern England to be nearer friends and family, and nearer the canals. Alternatively we could live on the boat 12 months a year, but for now that feels too scary for me. Maybe a house with a mooring for the boat. We have certainly spent time discussing options this year, but are not a lot further forward on a decision. No rush I guess.

What about our future? No decisions there either. But I think we have made progress. We have found that in retirement there is no need to make long term plans. We know much of what we are doing this winter (Orkney in November, Swinton Park for Christmas, maybe skiing). And we know we want too spend six months on the boat next year. That is enough for us.

So probably 5 out of 10 against our goals for this summer, but the way we both feel is more like 10 out of 10. It has been a tremendous time and we want more.

Have a great weekend. Pete

Starting the adventure – part 2

We are in England. The next stage of our narrowboat adventure starts here. The journey from Scotland has frayed our nerves but we have got here. The weather just about held for our journey along the Clyde. As you can see from the picture of us rounding Dumbarton Rock, it is a wide river.

Lifting the boat out of the river in torrential rain and then putting it back in in England was equally nerve wracking. I knew the guys were experts but seeing the boat hanging in the air, it just looked as if it could topple over very easily!

But we got here safely and the English canal network journey has begun. We are travelling down the Dearness and Dove canal into Sheffield, with both our sons, Rob and Tin. Because of Covid, Mandy had not seen Rob for two years and it was a great reunion. Next week we go back up to Doncaster, across on the Aire and Calder to Castleford and then onto the great Leeds and Liverpool canal, ready to start our journey over the Pennines to Lancashire.

Despite some pretty shocking weather in recent days, we are already remembering why we own a narrowboat. Pootling along some beautiful countryside with very few cares. It even helped calm my nerves for the England game on Wednesday night.

I hope you are also relaxing as we head into the summer.

Have a great weekend, Pete

Starting the adventure – part 1

After several years of dreaming, several months of preparing, our narrowboat adventure has fully begun. We left the Kelpies a week and a half ago, and after a couple of days on the Union canal towards Edinburgh, we set off along the Forth & Clyde to Glasgow and the Clyde.

What was meant to be a two day trip actually took four. Our engine overheated and went bang with lots of smoke. We had to stop and call out River Canal rescue who removed a possibly faulty thermostat, probably exacerbated by the vast amount of weed in this canal that has not been used by boats for two years. Then when we could get going again, two lift bridges at Clydebank broke down, and the only automated drop lock in the world stopped working when we were in the middle of it. A drop lock is where you drop down in the lock to go under a road and then come up the lock on the other side. A marvellous piece of engineering – when it works!

So we are now at Bowling – a marina at the end of the canal. Since we arrived here our batteries have drained too fast because the solar panels appear to be faulty, and we were using too much electricity. We are having to run the engines for several hours each day to provide power. Then our bathroom sink started leaking, soaking everything underneath it. A quick trip to a caravan parts shop in Glasgow, and some very dodgy plumbing from me appears to have fixed it for now.

On Sunday we plan to take our most perilous journey, an hour on the wide tidal Clyde river, up to Dumbarton Sandpoint where we will wait till Tuesday and then be lifted out by crane onto a lorry to travel down to the English canal network for the rest of the year. My fingers are crossed. If there is no blog next week you will know why.

What have I learnt this week? A reminder that in narrowboating, patience is everything. If something can go wrong, it probably will, and there is no point in getting upset. Better to relax and enjoy the moment.

Have a great week.
Pete

Why is it hard to say goodbye?

Despite Scottish Canals running out of water this week, we should finally set out on our adventure on Monday. From Falkirk to Glasgow, and then a week later out of the water to a lorry to take us down to the English canal network for the rest of the season. It is a retirement promise that we have planned for a number of years, and should have started in March, if this pesky pandemic had not happened. But as I write this morning, I am struggling to say goodbye to the marina where we have seen berthed since we bought the boat, and to the comfortable way of life we have had in Scotland, with a house in short driving distance from the boat.

This is particularly strange because throughout our lives, Mandy and I have moved house many times, usually for my work, and have always balanced the excitement of new challenges to be greater than the loss of certainty from where we were already happy. And strange because we do plan to come back to Scotland in the winter, for other adventures, such as a month in Orkney.

I guess I am a little nervous of the trip to England, specifically the short journey from the canals, along the Clyde to the boatyard to be craned out. The Clyde is a wide tidal river, carrying big ships and fast moving craft. We have been getting prepared, including this week borrowing the heaviest anchor and chain I have even seen on a narrowboat – just in case. But it is still scary. I am also a little nervous about what happens when things break down. I have done the training in plumbing, electrics and engine maintenance, but that is not the same as doing it for real.

However, I can feel the positive energy from being nervous, and I am desperate to get back to cruising – to wake up each morning in a different place, to reclaim the relaxation from chugging through the countryside at 3mph. And one thing I have loved this year since retirement is spending most of my time with Mandy. Perhaps surprisingly, given that we have spent much time apart over the years through work, we find we still really enjoy each other’s company – most of the time anyway.

What about you? What is your attitude to major change? Excited by the anticipation or scared of what could go wrong?

Have the jabs made you invincible?

Today marks a milestone for me. Two weeks after my second vaccination means that my immunity to Covid is about as high as it will get. My chance of getting the disease is much lower now, and even more importantly, the chance of me getting seriously ill and dying is very small. It makes me feel invincible.

Yesterday lunchtime Mandy and I felt invincible enough to go across the road for lunch at our local bistro. This new café opened at the start of last year and the owner, Kumar, was immediately faced with months of lockdown, and yet no reduction in costs for things like council tax and licensing. We have really wanted to support this local business but it is a small room and we were honestly scared, so yesterday was the first time. Kumar could not have been more welcoming. I had their oriental vegetarian burger, made with lentils, lemongrass and coriander and it was delicious. And maybe because we have both had two jabs/jags now, we did not feel nervous at all. Thanks Kumar.

I was reading this morning a report from the Bank of England, saying that the UK economy is growing rapidly as we have opened up again. That is good news and I guess we all need to put particular effort into supporting local businesses. Amazon has had quite enough of my trade this past year.

The other thing I should have been be getting excited about this week was our expected trip down to England with our narrowboat. We were meant to be leaving our marina on Tuesday for a little tour of the Scottish lowland canals, before lifting the boat out of the water near Glasgow, and taking it down south. Unfortunately Scottish Canals have a big problem this week with the main water feed into the Forth and Clyde canal, and all boat movements have been stopped. This is immensely frustrating because there is nothing we can do. Even being invincible is no help.

Grrrrrrr.

How are you feeling this week? Invincible? Frustrated? Excited?

Enjoy your weekend, Pete