Cricket or Comedy?

When I come to write my blog there is usually one event from the week that I want to write about. It might be something surprising that has happened, an insight I have gained, or just an occasion I have enjoyed. This week I am struggling because I have had two really great days out. On Sunday I went to “The Hundred” cricket match at the Oval in London. On Tuesday I spent the day at the Edinburgh Fringe. So let me tell you about both, and you can decide which is better.

Starting with the cricket, it was a blisteringly hot day in London, but there was plenty of water and plenty of beer, so I kept myself lubricated. I was with my brother, two nieces and a fiancé, so it was a family day out and there was a good mix of banter and chat. My brother had brought a picnic and we settled down to watch the game. The Hundred is a twenty over game (like the India Premier League Twenty Twenty) but for some reason, each over is five balls instead of six. The women’s game was first and sadly was a bit boring, especially since “our” team, the Oval Invincibles, lost. The men’s game was more dramatic, culminating in an incredible score of 108 for one of the batters. After the game, we retired to the pub to let the crowds disperse, before heading to the train station, and for me an overnight sleeper train to Scotland. What a great day out.

The Fringe was also a wonderful day. Edinburgh Festival has been cancelled for the past two years, due to Covid so there was a real excitement in the air, as I wandered the streets and alleyways. Over the years I have learned not to cram too much in, so I saw just three booked shows. The first was in a free venue, and showcased five up and coming comedians. Perhaps my favourite was Carla Gordon. Watch out for her on your screens in coming years. The second show I went to was also stand up comedy, but was with a very established comedian, Simon Munnery. He is known for being alternative which I think is code for a bit weird. But I did enjoy the show very much and laughed a lot. I then had a couple of hours to wait, so I sat in a little park, watching street performers, till it was time for the Dean Friedman concert. Dean is a 1970s singer from New York that I have followed for years. He did not disappoint, with a good mix of old and new songs, and I walked back to the station feeling extremely happy.

So two really excellent days out, and a nice break from our semi-permanent holiday on our narrowboat. But which was better? What do you think?

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.

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.

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.

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