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Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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2015 07 27 Newsletter – Closed Encounters of a Shared Kind

To be quite honest, for the first time since I started writing regular weekly newsletters three years ago, my heart just hasn’t been in it this week. You see, nine days ago I had a bit of a shock.

Sally has decided that living afloat is not for her. More to the point, she’s decided that living afloat with me is not for her.

On Thursday 16th July, while we were moored at Kirtlington Quarry waiting for our Saturday café treat at Jane’s Enchanted Tea Garden, Sally’s daughter arrived to collect Sally and most of her belongings, and that was pretty much it.

The cracks in our relationship had been widening for a while, but significantly since April when we began spending all of our time together in a very small space. Two people need to get on very well indeed if they are going to spend all of their time together shoehorned into three hundred square feet.

I think Sally didn’t mind living afloat but “not minding” simply wasn’t enough. I adore the lifestyle but some aspects of it are hard work; the constant need to monitor your utilities to make sure that you don’t run out of gas, electricity, water and coal, the logistics of nipping to the shops when you’re miles away from anywhere, and the logistics of keeping in touch with land based friends when your home is constantly moving. For Sally though, I think the straw which broke the camel’s back was having to endure a relationship with a pig headed, often insular partner who was quite content to moor in the middle of nowhere and embrace nature and its tranquillity.

There’s no point crying over spilled milk. I’m a solo boater now and, to be quite honest, being on my own suits me very well indeed. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy company very much indeed. If you’ve been on a discovery day with me you’ll know that, but I also enjoy the freedom to choose what I do and where and when I do it without having to discuss it with someone else and often have to agree on a compromise. I’ve often herd compromise described as a result where neither party is happy. I think that was the case very often with Sally and me.

Anyway, enough of the self-flagellation. I have a life to live, so onwards and upwards!

On Sunday after finishing the newsletter I cruised half an hour to Aynho Wharf and my first opportunity to replace the windlass I threw in the canal at Somerton Deep during a medical emergency ten days earlier.

Sally was waiting for me at the wharf, but the shop was not. I missed their early Sunday closing by twenty minutes. No problem though, I still had one perfectly good windlass which I intended holding very tightly anywhere near water until I had a replacement to fall back on.

I helped Sally load the last of her belongings into her car before bidding her farewell, possibly for the last time ever, then filled up with water and continued on my not so merry way.

I usually enjoy single handed boating but my heart really wasn’t in it when I reached Aynho Weir lock. The diamond shaped chamber is a bit of a pain at the best of times. It’s not really a problem if you have someone with you. They can set the lock while you just rattle about in the odd shaped chamber. On your own though, you have to leave your boat floating in the middle of the lock with just the stern secured so that you can step on and off.

Just after the weir lock is The Pig Place. The owners moored their boat next to a large field in 2007, purchased the land and then bred pigs, poultry and sheep, The meat is for sale in their canal-side shop, Overnight moorings are available there as is, apparently, use of a waterside BBQ for cooking the purchased meat. A dozen boaters from three moored boats sat around the smoking grill chatting and drinking beer. There was a free mooring just long enough for me, but I didn’t really want any company.

Next lock, Nell Bridge. Nothing particularly unusual about the lock, other than a busy main road between the lock landing and the lock itself, but it provided me with a little late afternoon entertainment to cheer me up.

Multitasking isn’t something I’m terribly good at, so trying to hold my insulated travel mug full of coffee in one hand while trying to trying to raise one of the two downstream paddles with the other, during a heavy shower, with my mind distracted by relationship issues, probably wasn’t a good idea.

My second and only windlass slipped from my hand, bounced on the concrete lock side, somersaulted twice, and then dived gracefully into the lock.

I jumped up and down and shouted at the water for a while before calming down enough to consider my options. I could wait for another boat to appear, then ask them to help me set the lock, I could pull the boat back from the lock landing, moor for the night and then look for somewhere to buy a windless, or I could make do with the resources on hand.

I had a half-hearted bash at raising the paddles with my bare hands. Only then did I realise what a wonderful tool the windlass is. I managed to raise half of one paddle before my forearms cramped, so that idea clearly wasn’t going to work.

I had a dig around in my tool box and immediately found an effective but unorthodox solution; a pair of mole grips.

They were a little unwieldy but worked very well so, although my new windlass was bound to raise a few eyebrows, at least I could carry on. I pressed on to Kings Sutton lock and windlass salvation.

I would like to thank the kind hearted couple off narrowboat Terrapin who saw both me and my mole grips wrestling with a stubborn paddle and without a moment’s hesitation dashed back to their boat to find their spare windlass. They told me they were about to throw it away because of the broken weld between the windless head and handle. Regardless of its condition, the swivel headed windlass was much easier to use than either my mole grips or my bare hands, so I am very grateful.

I moored above the lock ready for an early cruise into Banbury the following day. I knew Tooley’s Boatyard in the town centre had a chandlery so I planned to buy a couple of new windlasses there. Useful as the gifted windless was, I didn’t expect the head and shaft to stay connected for much longer.

No luck at Tooley’s. They don’t open on Mondays. I had a quick walk around Castle Quays instead, moved the boat to the closest access to Tesco’s at bridge 162, and then visited the store to fill my seventy litre rucksack with enough food for a week before moving off again.

At Hardwick lock I encountered the first lock queue of my three week cruise, five boats and one hour long. The next lock up, Bourton, was scheduled for periodic closure the following day to remedy leaking gates which were draining the pound above.

Once through the leaky lock, I ploughed through the muddy shallows of the partially drained pound, then through Slat Mill lock before mooring for the night in a peaceful spot other than the occasional rattling train.

Onwards through Cropedy the next morning feeling quite excited at the thought of visiting Cropedy marina and finally securing a working windlass. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

Two year old Cropedy marina is doing very well. All bar one of the two hundred and fifty moorings are now taken. In fact the demand is so high, another eighty moorings will be created soon. Visiting the marina was delightful; immaculately kept grounds, a vast expanse of water to enable easy manoeuvring and happy, friendly staff.

I keep an accurate record of my engine running hours and the running average diesel consumption per hour on an Excel spreadsheet. My spreadsheet told me that I had used 146 litres since my last fill, or nearly half a tank. The spreadsheet was almost spot on. One hundred and forty five litres topped the tank up. Who needs a fuel tank gauge or a dipping stick?

Sadly, Cropedy marina couldn’t provide me with a windlass but even though they don’t offer them for sale, they tried very, very hard to help me out. They discussed which of the boat owners currently at the marina might have one spare, then offered to lend me one until I passed the marina again. I don’t know when I’ll be passing again so I didn’t take them up on their kind offer.

Over the previous days I’d been chatting with the crew of NB Pot Bellied Pig as we leap frogged each other. They knew I was searching for a windlass supplier so delivered some good news when they saw me waiting beneath Broadmoor lock.

There’s a fender maker hidden in the dense undergrowth beside the lock selling fenders of course and, more importantly, windlasses.

I must learn to carry more cash with me. Many of the smaller canal-side businesses don’t accept credit or debit cards. This was one of them. I spent five minutes on board searching cupboards, pots, pockets and drawers before finding £14 in loose change. After chatting with the kindly owner for ten minutes about canals in general and the tragic mistake which lead to the death of a mother of two in nearby Varney’s lock several years ago, he reduced the price to £12 because I was “in the trade”. Two examples of the kindness of waterways business folk in two hours which, I think it’s fair to say, you wouldn’t experience on dry land.

With my shiny new windlass with head firmly welded to shaft I flew up the next seven locks before mooring in a very tranquil spot at the head of the Claydon flight.

Wednesday was a fairly long day, eight hours cruising twelve miles and nine locks, and a briefly traumatic one when I thought I’d blown up the engine.

I stopped at Fenny Compton’s water point to top up my tank and dispose of five days’ worth of rubbish and, in an attempt at multitasking, quickly made myself a coffee while the tank filled.

Another boat was waiting for water so I hastily poured boiling water into my thermal mug, plonked my coffee on the rear hatch, untied and set off for a serene cruise on the south Oxford summit pound’s most tranquil stretch between Fenny Compton and Marston Doles.

After half an hour I caught a whiff of hot metal. When you’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting or standing in the same place at the back of your boat, you get to know all the usual smells, sounds and vibrations. The slightest change in anything sets your mental alarm bells ringing.

I ducked my head into the engine room looking for smoke, but everything looked exactly as it should, and smelled exactly as I expected it to smell. I glanced at the engine temperature gauge. As usual, the temperature was exactly seventy degrees. But as I looked at the gauge set in the roof pigeon box I could smell hot metal again. Then I realised where the smell was coming from.

My new composting toilet has a 12v under a vent in the roof. The fan draws moisture from the toilet’s solids tank under the toilet in the bathroom inside the cabin. The hot metal smell was drifting back to me from the roof vent.

I quickly reversed the boat to stop it dead in the water, checked to make sure that there was no traffic coming, and darted into a cabin filled with the smell of hot metal. The culprit was immediately obvious. A once shiny red but now blackened and empty kettle wilted over a burning hob.

I managed to save the kettle but not the underpants I was wearing when I thought I’d cooked the engine. I’ll leave multitasking to the much more competent fairer sex in future.

I haven’t taken many photo’s over the last week, but here’s an interesting one for you. Just before Marston Doles and the head of the Napton flight of nine locks, a residential boat owner has used an extreme strategy to avoid having to pay for a licence or for mooring his boat online.

An online narrowboat mooring with a difference

An online narrowboat mooring with a difference

A rear view - The channel has been filled in behind the boat

A rear view – The channel has been filled in behind the boat

A short spur has been dug from the south Oxford canal just deep enough to allow him to steer his boat into an adjacent field and just far enough so that the channel could then be filled behind him. His boat is now not connected to the network so I suppose he thinks he doesn’t have to pay the fees that all other boat owners on the inland waterways pay. Why a boat in the field though? Surely his boat is now little more than a caravan, which would have been far easier to move into the field in the first place.

I spent the last night of my cruise at the bottom of the Napton flight on Wednesday before mooring at the top of the top of the Calcutt flight the following day to prepare for my return to “work”, or what passes for work these days. I had seventeen consecutive discovery days to run so the boat needed cleaning inside and out, and I needed to do some shopping.

I can’t easily visit shops for the next three weeks from my base close to Napton junction. I haven’t owned a car for two years, the nearest bus stop is a mile and a half away, and the buses, as far as I know, run about once a fortnight. Fortunately, getting to the shops isn’t necessary these days. I just ask the shops to come to me.

The lovely people at Tesco delivered my weekly shopping for a very reasonable £2. The delivery driver phone me as instructed when he arrived at the postcode I gave him, then helped me carry my dozen bags of groceries to Calcutt Top lock. What wonderful service.

Amazon is just as good. I use their Prime service which means that I get free next day delivery. After Sally’s sudden and unexpected departure, I needed to replace numerous household items. The boat is now fully stocked with food and pots, pans and utensils to cook it with.

My last three discovery days have been something of a weather sandwich. We were battered by constant torrential rain on Friday, baked by relentless sunshine on Saturday and were awash again on Sunday. The weather hardly matters though if you have the right gear on. I did. My pre warned guests did. The dozens and dozens of hire boat crews we passed sadly did not.

As usual, many of the hire boat crews have provided me with countless opportunities to show aspiring boat owners what can go wrong on the waterways. We watched the waterways equivalent of a multi car pileup as three Black Prince boats travelling in convoy crashed into each other. The lead boat appeared around a blind bend in front of us, panicked and piled into the towpath. The first of the two following boats thudded into the back of the lead boat. The third boat turned in the opposite direction and embedded most of the cabin into dense hawthorn, much to the dismay of the three wine drinking ladies on the front deck.

We listened in dismay to a tirade of abuse directed at one well-meaning boater who gently informed an obviously novice crew of the folly of raising the paddles at both ends of the lock.

We narrowly missed a day hire boat as it cannoned from bank to bank before slewing sideways into a lock, then watched in amazement as a bow balancing boy, beer in hand, leaped into the water egged on by half a dozen other bottle waving teenagers.

But most of all, in addition to the occasional mishap caused in the main by necessary but far too brief helmsmanship guidance given to inexperienced hirers by hire companies, and the odd encounter with harmless but over exuberant youth, most of the hire boat crews and an equally large percentage of private boat owners demonstrated a level of friendliness and easy communication which has both surprised and delighted many of my guests.

Despite, or maybe because of, the frequent navigational mishaps, canals and rivers offer a fascinating way of life. One which I hope to enjoy for many years to come.

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Discovery Day And Narrowboat Helmsmanship Training

If you’re new to this site you might not know about the service I launched in June 2014. I host narrowboat experience days on board my own 62′ long narrowboat James No 194. The ten hour days are a combination of discussion about the pros and cons of living on board, narrowboat designs and the best equipment for live aboard boaters, and a six to eight hour helmsmanship training cruise along the Oxford and/or Grand Union Canals.

I’m running the discovery days approximately on the first ten days of August, October and December this year. As summer approaches more and more site users are booking the relatively few discovery days still available. August onwards is still relatively free. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day please check the diary before it’s too late.

Update 19th July 2015

The earliest dates are now at the beginning of October. If you want to  see the available dates for October onwards click here.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendees David & Geoff…

“Geoff and I have had the grand dream of downsizing to the live-aboard dream for a few years. We seriously looked into it a couple of years back (when we first bought Paul’s eBook, joined his ‘Living on a Narrowboat’ site, and helped beta-test his Narrow-budget software). Paul was great at talking us through the early stages, and we even started looking at potential boats – but then Geoff’s elderly Mum moved up to live near us for additional help and support, and we had to put our plans on hold.

I’ve had some experience with boats (albeit 30 years ago, on a couple of family holidays on the Kennet and Avon, and the Thames), but Geoff has only ever been on a few of our friend’s boats, and those only when moored up. It seemed a good idea therefore to spend a bit of time on a boat whist underway, before we are at a point were we can take things seriously again – and preferably with someone who knows what they’re doing as both Helmsman and an experienced liveaboarder.

Both Paul and Sally were great hosts: Paul welcoming us with a cup of coffee which we sipped whilst taking an easy but incredibly useful walk through his boat – Paul sharing his experiences (good and bad) of living aboard, and showing us the very many improvements that he has made to Narrowboat James to make it an almost perfect liveaboarder. I couldn’t get over how much space and storage he’s been able to cram into a mere 48 foot cabin – and how comfortable a living space he’s created. We even got to discus the eternal boating obsessions of having enough power and water ‘off-grid’ – and the best choice of toilet whilst continuously cruising (I am totally now sold on the idea of a composter: I’ve never used a boat-loo that was so simple and pleasant!)

The initial tour and live aboard advice delivered, Paul then took us out to the Helm, had us help untie, and then we headed off for a day of tuition and experience. Paul was a clear but wonderfully relaxed teacher (amazing, since he’s putting his home and his livelihood in your hands!); everything was explained in straight forward and simple terms, and we were both soon taking the tiller – safe in the knowledge that Paul was right beside us to guide and nudge us in our waterways first steps.

In the first part of the day Paul covered everything you could need to know in safely handling a boat: from steering at slow speeds, judging the correct lines to take through turns and bridges, making tight turns, and passing boats and other travellers with courtesy and safety. All whilst the perfect Warwickshire countryside floated by at a sedate 2 miles an hour…

After lunch, we got to spend yet more time at the tiller, honing our skills until everything began to feel almost natural – by which time we were ready to try our hands at navigating the three locks back at Calcut boats.

I can’t praise Paul enough for his patience and good humoured teaching. Everything was taken at a gentle pace, and we were allowed to take the time we needed to get the real ‘feel’ of handling a boat. We both almost felt like ‘proper’ boaters by the end of the day…!

If you’re thinking of buying a boat – whether as a simple weekend breakaway, or to pursue the liveaboard dream – then nothing can beat the level of experience you can gain in a whole day of sailing  with someone like Paul, who not only knows exactly what he’s doing, but is totally free and open in ensuring that knowledge is passed on. We learnt so much in our eight hours – and certainly feel a lot more confident that any future boating plans will be based on sound advice and personal experience.

But the day itself was also just so much *fun* too – even aside from all that wisdom-shared; hell, we even ‘enjoyed’ the nice bit of ‘English summer’ rain that we had… 😉

Thank you Paul, and Sally – and James too. It was an honour to get such a detailed glimpse of an almost ideal life.”

You can find out more about my discovery days and availability here.

I Need Some Help!

Each time I write a newsletter, I tick another subject off the list of things which those new to boating have told me that they want to read about. The hardest part of the process isn’t the writing itself, it’s constantly thinking of new content for each issue. The trouble is, I don’t know what you want to read. I think I keep the newsletters reasonably interesting but I don’t know for sure. That’s where I need your help.

Can you let me know what you would like to read in the future? Are there any areas of narrowboat life you don’t think I’ve covered enough or areas which I’ve missed completely? Please let me know what you want to read about. Thanks for your help.

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Please Help Keep This Site Online

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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.