Learn about life afloat the easy way

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 10 05 Newsletter – A LONG Overdue Central Heating System Installation

Last Sunday after lunch we cast off to do battle with the Sunday crowds at the ever popular destination for leather clad bikers, walkers and families visiting the locks to watch the steady stream of boats ascending or descending the ten lock flight.

Dainty Cynthia strained against Foxton’s swinging two lane highway, then the much lighter swing foot bridge at Foxton Junction. Cynthia held on to the boat on the water point opposite the flight while I struggled through hordes of visitors to find a lock keeper and book myself in to the queue.

Finding the right lock keeper wasn’t easy. The previous day one of the keepers enjoyed an unexpected dip in the pound between the two five lock flights. His radio, one of the two used by keepers on the flight, objected to his dip so, with just one working radio between them, communication from one end of the flight to the other was impossible.

A keeper on the third lock up from the bottom told me that his colleague who was in charge of scheduling was at the top of the flight. I climbed the hill through people and pushchairs to find the wrong keeper. The one I wanted was, of course, at the bottom of the flight.

We were in luck. The last descending boat was nearly through the flight so within ten minutes it passed me heading for Market Harborough while the single boat in front of me started up the flight.

The Foxton flight is a bit of a pig if you need to wait before going up. There’s often a trip boat moored just beneath the flight but, if you’re lucky, you can just squeeze between that and the bottom lock next to Bridge 61, one of the two pubs at the bottom of the flight.

A group of burly bikers stood drinking close to where I waited for the lock to empty. A bearded giant shouted across to me, “Oi, do you think you’ll be here long?” You will? Put the kettle on then!” There’s always a comedian at canal side pubs happy to share his wit with passing boaters.

The flight, especially the bottom five locks, was heaving with people. Twenty or thirty gongoozlers lined each of the lock walls oblivious to the dangers of balance beams from opening lock gates or the often slippery lock sides. I watched in horror as the mother of a toddler tipped his pushchair up on to two wheels so that he could hang by two small restraining straps over the side and look down on to my boat in the empty lock six feet below.

I lifted several children onto my roof so parents could take photo’s then thanked the parents and a steady stream of children who opened and closed the lock gates for me as we swiftly made our way up the flight.

As usual in the UK, once you travel more than a hundred metres from the nearest car park, the crowds disappear. It’s a phenomenon which has always amazed me. I’ve hiked on some of the country’s most beautiful places with hundreds of miles of peaceful paths but I regularly see hordes of tourists enjoying car park picnics complete with the sound of revving engines and the smell of diesel fumes. Within minutes of exiting the top lock we had the countryside to ourselves again. Yippee!

We cruised for an hour and a half past the Laughton Hills, Kicklewell Spinney and through Husbands Bosworth tunnel before stopping briefly at North KIlworth Wharf to by coal, kindling and a Waterways World.

We moored close to Downton Hill waking to a still, cool and mist shrouded day on Tuesday. My first job, as usual at this time of the year, was to light the fire. The routine is usually the same; I empty the ash pan, clean the cold stove glass, place a couple of fire lighters on the empty grate, light them and then add a dozen bone dry pieces of kindling and then another dozen coal briquettes. I leave the bottom plate off to allow maximum draught and wait for the firelighters to light the kindling and the kindling to light the coal. The routine doesn’t normally include fighting my way through smoke so thick I could cut it with a knife.

I don’t have an airtight seal between my stove door and the stove. It’s not normally a problem at all. There’s usually enough of a draught to suck any smoke up the flue. The morning was utterly still and the mist hung heavily over the boat so the fire wouldn’t draw at all. Fortunately I have a ceiling mounted 12v fan which I turned on its highest setting after I had opened the front doors wide and rolled up the cratch cover.

It’s at times like this that I wish I had a secondary heating system to fall back on. Fortunately for me, I soon will. I was booked in for half a day on Thursday for the first part of my Webasto diesel central heating system installation.

Once mist began to clear outside, and the even thicker smoke had cleared inside, we headed south along the second half of the Leicester Line’s twenty mile summit pound towards our destination for the day on the last available mooring at the base of Crack’s Hill.

What a gorgeous day. A warm sun shone from a cloudless blue sky. A gentle breeze kept Crick’s half a dozen wind turbine’s turning and provided enough of a draught over my chimney to set the fire blazing and melt the inside of the boat.

We sat on Crack’s Hill’s summit for an hour away from the cabin’s inferno, braved the boat’s heat for a quick lunch then sat on a hillside bench in recently planted Crick Millennium Pocket Park for the rest of the afternoon reading and drinking in the view, trying not to focus on the intrusive 77m high wind turbines which have recently appeared in this area.

I’m normally pretty good when estimating the time needed for a day’s cruise but I made a right royal cock up of Tuesday. I estimated the time we would need to reach Hillmorton locks but then forgot to add the additional time to reach the closest point to Rugby station on the visitor moorings to the north of the town.

After a clear passage through Crick tunnel we reached the head of the manned Watford flight and a little canal-side excitement. Two tree surgeons agile as monkeys climbed confidently through the lofty canopy of an old beech seventy feet above the towpath. Foot thick limbs crashed or were lowered to the ground and then logged and left next to the canal for passing wood burning boaters to use. The owner of the boat ahead of us filled all his available roof space with logs too thick to fit in his stove. I suspected he wouldn’t wait until the logs seasoned before burning them after noticing dark brown tar stains running from his chimney down his cabin side.

With Cynthia now in a familiar lock routine we flew down the seven lock Watford flight then the six lock Braunston flight an hour later before mooring next to a floating greenhouse on the north Oxford half a mile out of Braunston.

At 4pm after a late lunch we continued our journey towards Rugby, leaving the last of the three lock Hillmorton flight as the light dimmed and the day chilled.

As we moved away from the flight we were joined by two middle aged men paddling kayaks. One of them moved close to my stern to “freeboard”, to position himself so that my boat would pull him along without needing to paddle.

He managed as much as half a mile at a time before losing concentration, ploughing in to the offside vegetation and then paddling furiously to move back into position close to me. Twice he miscalculated, moved to close and was sucked against my hull, unable to move away until I slowed down. He was quite content to stay glued to me on the first occasion for half a mile but not so happy the second time when he couldn’t escape as I manoeuvred for a narrow bridge hole. He didn’t feel comfortable being sandwiched between twenty tonnes of steel and an immovable brick bridge arch.

We reached Rubgy’s visitor moorings in the dark. I turned my headlight on for the journey’s last half mile but my tunnel light doesn’t illuminate much out in the open.

After quickly mooring and securing the boat we walked a mile and a half to a well deserved meal at the Romna Indian restaurant in Albert Street close to Rugby’s town centre. If you enjoy a good curry and friendly and attentive service you’ll love this place. After stuffing ourselves senseless we waddled back to the boat for a sound night’s sleep.

At 6.38am on Wednesday I bid Cynthia a temporary farewell on Rugby station’s platform one. She’ll be back in six weeks courtesy of Virgin Airways carrying all she needs for a life on the waterways including her two beloved basset hounds. I’ll pick her up close to the airport. Unfortunately I’ll be picking her up in the boat so the “airport run” will be a round trip of three weeks!

Back on my own again with too much space to rattle around in I moved two hours closer to Braunston and my appointment with Justin Greene the following day.

A month ago I scheduled the date so that Justin could investigate my engine’s overheating problem and the reason for the engine smoking so much. However, after a little research I’ve changed my mind.

Lucy Illiffe, daughter of my boat’s original owner, visited me on my mooring at Calcutt Boats two years ago. She presented me with the boat’s operations manual which her father wrote some time during his twenty year ownership.

Last week I was reading through the engine maintenance part of the manual. He wrote that the only regular engine maintenance needed was the topping up of engine oil every few days and that not more than a litre should be added at any one time. Clearly the engine has always been smoky if such regular top ups where needed.

In addition to excessive diesel fumes the noise from my wet exhaust is driving me mad. Everyone comments on it. The helmsman or woman on every boat I pass turns round to find out what the racket is. The exhaust makes more noise than the engine and the engine envelops me in a cloud of nauseating fumes if there is a following wind.

I could sort out the wet exhaust problem easy enough by having the wet exhaust system removed and have a one or two keel tanks fitted, but that wouldn’t solve the problem I have with unhealthy fumes tainting the fresh air around me as I cruise. The most effective but expensive solution is to replace the engine.

After much research I have come to the conclusion that Beta Marine offer some of the quietest and most reliable engines on the market for inland waterways craft. The model I am considering is a Beta 43 priced at a little under £7,000, plus a further estimated £2,000 for engine fitting and cooling system conversion.

I’m going to have to wait until early next year before I can afford it, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to go ahead with the change. Much as I enjoy a little attention as I cruise the network at the moment it’s for all the wrong reasons.

So, rather than have Justin fiddle around with an engine I won’t have for much longer, I asked him to install the Webasto Thermotop C I purchased eighteen months ago. I was only booked in with him for the morning but in three hours he managed to install the burner in my engine room, drill through the hull for its exhaust and connect the fuel line to my diesel tank.

All I need to do now is buy four radiators from Screwfix before the scheduled fitting date towards the end of November. Justin will remove an expensive to run electric radiator from my bedroom, remove the three existing radiators running from my stove’s back boiler and replace them with the four new and larger capacity radiators.

While Justin toiled I did very little. I wandered along the canal back towards Braunston Junction then strolled up into Braunston village before walking back down to the bridge beneath Braunston bottom lock where I chatted to one of the two lock keepers on duty for half an hour before returning to the boat and a two hour cruise back to the water point above Calcutt top lock.

With very few boats about I washed the boat down for the first time in a month after I filled my tank, then moved on to the towpath to moor for the night and wait for Friday’s two guests.

Sadly, only one arrived. The other suffered an acute and debilitating side effect of curry eating in a motorway service station during his drive to me so had to postpone his day. What a shame as both Friday and Saturday were perfect autumn days; warm sun, a gentle breeze and a flurry of end of season boaters to keep novice helmsmen on their toes.

I planned to send out this newsletter after my discovery day on Sunday but it was a traumatic day with a late finish. I’ll tell you about it next week. My apologies for not adding photo’s this week but I just haven’t had time.

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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 27th September 2015

There are still three dates available for October so you can join my on the cut for an idyllic autumn cruise. You may want to stay locally the night before, the night after or both, in which case I highly recommend this B & B. It’s a five minute stroll from the mooring where I begin my discovery days.  If you want to  see the available dates for October onward click here.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Ken Sharratt.

“I’ve thought about living on a narrowboat on and off for the last twenty years but through commitments, events and various other things I have never done anything about it until now. Over the last seven or eight months I have started  researching the subject and it has gradually gained momentum, from reading magazines and e-books, the internet and looking round boats to figure out what I wanted.

The first e-book I came across was written by Paul, called “Living on a Narrowboat” (part of the Narrowbudget Gold package of three guides and a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator). I found this invaluable in giving me a realistic view of the life I am aiming for and has definitely added to my growing knowledge. To my surprise I started receiving a newsletter in my inbox which covers all things related to narrowboats from life to composting toilets which I was quite impressed with. I noticed the information about the Discovery day after reading one of these.

I thought, if I’m going to change the direction of my life and spend quite a bit of money doing it, the discovery day sounded like a good way of starting to find out if my expectations matched the reality of everything involved with it.

I wasn’t disappointed. Paul is very easy to get along with. He made us welcome from the start and provided a steady supply of tea throughout the day. It was a very enjoyable and productive day for me. He made me re-evaluate a few things and was remarkably relaxed about sailing off downstream  with his home in Fairly inexperienced hands. He was there at hand though to provide advice, instruction and direction and the odd hands on correction when absolutely necessary.

I would recommend that anyone considering taking to the water should read the book and go on one of these discovery days. They will definitely shorten the time spent on their learner curve and possibly avert a costly or disastrous decision from being made.

I am currently in the process of getting my house ready for sale. The builder should be here in a few weeks, then the decorator and after that the estate agent, so hopefully it’s going to be early next year when it’s sold and I can buy the boat that’s waiting for me out there with my name it.”

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

If you enjoy reading these posts, if you find the masses of information on this site and my new motorhome site, rvblog.co.uk both useful and entertaining, please help keep it available for those who both want and need it. There are eight years of painstakingly written and researched information on hundreds of posts and pages on the two sites. They may be lost forever if I can't find a way to maintain them. Click on the button below to find out more.


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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 now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.