It’s faster by road, faster by rail, so why travel on a narrowboat?

I am going to try very hard this week not to complain about the heat. That is hard because it has dominated our thinking, as the tin can we travel in has warmed up like an oven. BUT. It has still been a lovely week, as we have come up the tidal Thames and joined the Grand Union canal, a long canal that will take us from London to Birmingham or Leicester. It feels great after weeks of rivers to be back on a proper canal, where we can moor up almost anywhere, and we don’t need to worry about currents and tides.

The Grand Union going under the M25 motorway

This week has mostly been finding our way through London, a wonderful busy city. Surprisingly, most of the time the canal lives in a world of its own, with trees and green spaces, hiding from the town. Then sometimes, such as in Hayes, we find ourselves right in the middle of multicultural vibrancy. It was Eid and there were many very happy muslims, eating during daylight at last. I got the best samosa from a Hyderabadi takeaway. And fruit & veg shops spilling out across the streets. Unfortunately there were also too many drunk Brits enjoying the sunshine on the towpath and making me nervous.

Now we have escaped London and are mostly in countryside, with a number of commuter towns. But the Grand Union runs right next to very busy motorways and train lines, so we can never quite forget “normal” life. We came up a few locks this week with a solo boater who had taken three weeks travelling on the canal through London from Tottenham to Watford. As we passed under the M25 motorway I noted that the journey by car would be about an hour.

So if it takes so long, what is the benefit of travelling by narrowboat? It is because the journey is the destination. This week we have seen parakeets flying above us. We have passed through shanty towns of houseboats. We have helped a geography lesson on how locks work to a class of teenage girls. We have passed under the main Heathrow flight path, with planes landing a few hundred feet above us. I discovered a fascinating pockmarked stone on the towpath, which turned out to be a flint formed by burrowing plankton, millions of years ago. It’s a great life.

It has been bl**dy hot though!

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?

Is five days watching a sports game a waste of your time?

This week I watched a whole cricket test match for the first time. A couple of blogs ago I wrote about learning to love American Football (well done the Buccaneers). At least with cricket I know the rules. And I have been to a day of a test match before – it requires a very different mindset to watching short form cricket such as 20:20. You settle into your seat, and read a newspaper or have a drink while the game goes on slowly slowly. One of my followers, Matt, commented that American Football is like chess with violence. Test cricket is like chess but slower. And this week I committed to all five days of England against India.

Photo credit ICC Twitter

For many people, the idea of spending five days watching a sports game would seem to be a complete waste of time. Especially when one of the likely outcomes is a draw. But the opportunity for me was a luxury that I would never have chosen when I was working. And I found it to bring a kind of mindfulness.

Over the years I have practiced a little amateur meditation in order to wash away the cares in my mind. By actions such as concentrating on relaxing areas of my body, I have found a peacefulness that has helped during times of stress. I found the test match did much the same for me. There were moments of excitement when I sat forward to see whether a wicket would be taken or runs scored. But for much of the time I found that repeated quiet defensive play became really quite relaxing.

Now I should confess that in UK time, each day started at 4am, so I missed the first hour or two. I also often took the dogs out in the snow while listening to the match on my headphones. But I think the principle of enjoying slow play still applies. So much so that I plan to watch the second test starting tomorrow.

Most of us live in a rush where we resent wasted time. Technology such as mobile phones has made this worse. How many of us look at our phones whenever we get a spare 30 seconds? Even when we go on holiday, too many of us are “always on”. So I think I am privileged to be learning that taking time just to be me can be so rewarding.

Have you ever watched a test match? Or maybe took several days to do as little as possible? Let me know.