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 11 08 Newsletter – New Video Content For Livingonanarrowboat.co.uk

On Sunday afternoon I dropped down the ten staircase locks of the Foxton flight while I chatted to fellow boat owner Trish and other half Andy. Trish doesn’t live on her boat full time yet but uses it as often as possible to escape the pressure of modern life. She’s certainly a step ahead of me with regard to living afloat economically. I have all the electrical toys on board I could ever wish for, including a battery draining 1600w Nespresso coffee machine. Trish is happy settling down on her river Ouse mooring to read by candle light. I don’t think I could ever be comfortable living such a frugal existence.

Once through the flight, Trish and Andy helped me through the swing footbridge opposite the Foxton Locks Inn. I moored on the towpath just beyond the bridge so that we could sit with a pint in the sun in Bridge 61’s beer garden for an hour. They left to explore the remains of Foxton’s inclined plane boat lift so I raced back to a warm boat in failing light regretting the thin tee shirt which had seemed such a good idea in the brief sun an hour earlier.

In the foggy dawn light I cruised along a mirror smooth canal with my tunnel and navigation lights on. I couldn’t see much further than the boat’s bow so each bridge came as a rather unpleasant surprise.

Two hours later I reached Market Harborough’s Union Wharf and plenty of free moorings. The official water point is in the basin itself next to a very smart toilet and shower block but there are four additional water points next to a line of visitor moorings on a curved concrete bank just outside the basin. I moored next to one of them.

I shut the engine down, drew all of the curtains on the towpath side so unsavoury characters walking by couldn’t see in – not that I expected to see anyone unpleasant in Market Harborough but old habits die hard – then slipped my 70l rucksack over my shoulders and marched a mile through town to the Sainsbury store at the far end of the high street. Market Harborough is a wonderful place to replenish your supplies. In addition to the Sainsbury store, there are Waistrose, Tesco, Lidl and Aldi stores.

With a full and very heavy pack I staggered back towards the boat but stopped for lunch at a Subway store in the high street. The very kind guy who served me obviously thought the old guy in front of him was struggling a little because he called me back as I walked away from the counter then dropped a free of charge and still warm chocolate chip cookie on my tray. What a lovely chap!

Back at the boat I swapped my grocery rucksack for my small day sack then headed back into town again to try and find some brackets my a new water saving shower head kindly sent to me by Australian agent and former discovery day guest Chris Smith.

There was nothing even remotely appropriate in the town’s Homebase store but I struck gold at Screwfix a further mile out of town. The fog had thinned at midday but as the last daylight disappeared the fog thickened again highlighting a thousand yellow lights decorating a high street jewellery store.

Market Harborough is a gem of a town. It’s vibrant, clean and friendly and is full of beautifully maintained historic buildings as well as dozens of thriving independent retailers. I’ve covered many, many miles on my cruises this year but too quickly to fully explore fascinating towns like this. I think Cynthia and I will enjoy much more leisurely cruising next year and definitely another trip to Market Harborough.

After a twenty minute trudge along a half seen high street and a circuit of the misty canal basin the warm yellow light filtering through my closed curtains was very welcoming.

Early the next morning, cloudy but thankfully fogless, I cruised for two hours to the bottom of the Foxton flight, said a quick hello to the first heron on my current cruise just outside Market Harborough and then spent a very pleasant two hours on the ascent, including a half hour delay to allow three boats to pass in the small pound between to the two sets of five staircase locks.

There is very little traffic on the canals at this time of the year. After four hours on the move I passed just three moving boats, all of them on the Foxton flight, and then just two more during the next three hours before I moored for the night.

Of course Sod’s Law dictates that you never meet another boat on an open stretch of canal. The unexpected meeting is always on the blind approach to a narrow bridge hole or, in my case, inside Husband Bosworth tunnel.

It’s a tunnel I’m not particularly fond of. Apart from the usual problem of not being able to see the boat coming towards you or how well it’s being handled, the walls appear to be more uneven than other tunnels in the area. Last year I lost a riveted fender hanger and earlier this year caught my cratch cover. Thankfully the damage was a scrape rather than a rip but the sound of steel or canvas meeting brick is never pleasant. Husbands Bosworth tunnel also feels very shallow. I struggled to make any headway as did the two boats which passed me. In fact both of them were followed by a boiling but ineffective wake.

As the light faded I pulled over close to the first convenient section of Armco barrier, jumped onto the soggy towpath and then spent ten minutes straining at my centre line trying to pull the boat over the shallow mud to the bank. I couldn’t pull the boat closer than three feet away from the towpath so I jumped back on the boat and carried on in the gloom for another half mile before finding a deeper mooring.

I set off the following morning at 7.30am on my penultimate leg to Calcutt Boats. I usually follow the same pre cruise routine. The first job at this time of the year is to empty the stove’s ash pan into a galvanised metal bucket on my enclosed front deck. After burning a hole in the carpet I have over the deck matting soon after I first moved on to the boat I realised how hot the stove ash can be, and how well a metal bucket transfers the heat to whatever it’s sitting on, so I now have a heatproof mat under the bucket.

With the ash pan empty I then throw some more coal briquettes on the fire which is usually alight from the night before and, after leaving the stove door open for a while to cool, I clean the stove glass.

Next job while the kettle is boiling is to empty my composting toilet’s liquid container. The container will just about last two people for a day. I empty the container outside in a nearby hedge (EA approved as there are no chemicals involved) and then, before I fit the container back on to the toilet, I add a spoonful of sugar to stop the urine from smelling. I give the container a quick wipe with an eco-cleaner then the toilet is ready for another day.

After a quick breakfast I check my engine oil and water, start the engine, fit my tiller and secure it with a tiller pin, make a hot drink in my insulated travel mug, put the mug along with my camera, voice recorder, map and glasses on the engine room hatch, undo the bow line from either the mooring stake or piling chain I’m using, remove stake or chain, do the same with the stern line and finally push the bow away from the towpath then hop on the stern and glide serenely into the canal centre. I’m a creature of habit but the routine works for me.

Almost immediately I had to stop the boat in the middle of the canal to put on my wonderful waterproofs. I can cruise, and often have, in torrential rain all day without a drop getting through. Heavy rain fell for the next four hours until I reached the head of the Watford staircase flight.

This flight is usually manned but, despite an open door to the lock keeper’s office, there wasn’t a soul about. I was half way through the second lock before one of the three keepers on duty appeared. He apologised for his fully understandable absence.

An elderly boater, waiting at the bottom of the flight for his turn, had died the day before. The three lock keepers were organising the boat’s removal. News of someone’s death is never pleasant but this guy had apparently died of natural causes doing something he loved. I hope to follow in his footsteps in another thirty years.

At 3pm I moored close to Welton Hythe marina for the day, quickly shut down the engine, closed my curtains on the towpath side – a security measure every time I leave the boat – and then marched down the towpath towards Norton Junction and the now closed Bucky flight. I wanted to visit the Abraxas Cookshop in the Heart of the Shires Shopping Village and see what progress had been made with the scheduled Buckby flight gate replacement.

I underestimated the distance. After an hour’s brisk walk I reached Whilton marina but with another mile to the shopping village, failing light, no torch and the infernal din of the M1 just 150m away, I turned around and headed back towards the boat.

The highlight of the walk was seeing the drained pound beneath the lock CRT were working on and understanding the work and equipment and money needed to replace a pair of lock gates. Did you know that each oak gate will last 25 years and costs £11,000? CRT makes 180 new gates each year at a cost of £2,000,000. Understanding some of the costs involved in maintaining the waterways makes me realise what good value my annual £1,000 licence really is.

Munching an apple from a help-yourself basket in front of a towpath cottage garden I passed a long line of boats on residential moorings close to Norton junction. Aromatic wood smoke rose vertically into the still night from half a dozen chimneys. I don’t think wood is very practical fuel for boaters but it smells wonderful.

The walk back to the boat would have been perfect if I hadn’t had to hop between islands of almost dry grass in a sea of liquid mud. The condition of the towpath is enough of a reason for me to willingly pay for a mooring away from clinging mud during the winter months.

Living afloat in the winter is a joy when the towpath is firm but the state of the towpath in mild and wet weather, and the resulting mess inside the boat, is a very good reason for finding a mooring for a few months inside a marina. Muddy boots and paws aren’t the only problem. My utterly useless braid on braid rope is a real pain. It soaks up muddy water like a sponge and leaves thin brown lines on the cream paint on my roof and cabin sides. I can spend two hours cleaning the boat and then after just a few hours cruising it’s covered in mud and leaves again. The back deck becomes a mess of mud and rotting leaves and needs daily cleaning to keep the drain holes beneath the deck hatch clear.

Within an hour of setting off on Thursday morning I was inside Braunston tunnel and feeling unusually nervous. I don’t particularly like tunnels at the best of times. I feel a little out of control but at least usually there’s, literally, a light at the end of the tunnel. Braunston tunnel is no exception. It’s just over a mile long and reasonably straight so as soon as you enter it you can see the exit drawing ever closer. However, on Thursday after a quarter of an hour on the tunnel, there was nothing but darkness ahead of me.

Another fifteen minutes and still no sign of the exit. My hyper active imagination began to play tricks on me. It reasoned that if I couldn’t see the exit something was blocking it. I could usually see the exit so something unusual was blocking it… like brickwork from a collapsed tunnel roof. Of course that was ridiculous I thought. The tunnel has been open since 1796 without mishap. But once the seed was planted it began to grow very quickly.

What if the tunnel roof had collapsed? How would I know? My tunnel light isn’t very powerful so would I carry on at my normal 4mph tunnel speed until I crashed headlong into a mass of unyielding and unstable rock? Would the boat sink? If it didn’t, how would I get out? Would I have to reverse for half a mile or more back to the eastern portal? What if my crash into the collapsed section caused more rock to fall above or behind me? What if I was trapped in the tunnel? How would I call for help? How long would my food last? How would I stay warm? Would I have enough air to breath? How would anyone know I was in there?

After a few more minutes of similarly stupid thoughts I saw a tunnel light coming towards me. Phew! If a boat was coming towards me, the tunnel wasn’t blocked after all! Once the boat passed and I reached the tunnel’s half way point I saw the faint outline of the western entrance. Every other time I’ve been through this tunnel the day has been bright so there’s been plenty of light to illuminate either end. Thursday was dull and overcast so there was very little light filtering into the entrance. What a relief to know I wasn’t going to provide a sensational headline for a local newspaper!

Once through the tunnel I flew down the Braunston flight with another boat and then spent the final hours on the very familiar combined Oxford and Grand Union canal between Braunston and Napton junctions. Courtesy of my discovery days I’ve cruised this stretch over two hundred times in the last eighteen months but it’s a beautiful and challenging section with ever changing scenery around a series of tight bends. I never tire of it.

I cruised the section four more times on Friday and Saturday on two equally wet days. Friday was wet and fairly calm. Saturday was wet and very windy. Mark, my Saturday guest, looked a little underdressed in his tracksuit but the heavy rain running off his beard didn’t appear to bother him in the slightest. I think he was too focussed on keeping a flat bottomed high sided narrowboat from crashing into the narrow bridge holes we frequently encountered.

I spent most of yesterday trying to concentrate on writing this newsletter. I was too tired after forty hours cruising over the last week, tiredness which wasn’t helped by eating half of the substantial almond and cherry cake given to me by Deanna and Rob who were out with me on Friday.

Today I’m back on my mooring at Calcutt Boats. I’m going to do very little now until Thursday when I have to pick up my rental car ready for Friday’s drive down to Heathrow to pick up Cynthia and her two beloved Bassett hounds, Tasha and Bromley. It’s a journey I’m looking forward to very much.

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Would You Like To See More Video On The Site?

In December 2013 I purchased a Sony Handycam with the intention of adding useful video content to the site on a regular basis. I produced a few videos  including this very popular first attempt on the importance of internal storage space afloat. Then I ran out of steam as my full time job and general site maintenance vied for my attention. I don’t have a full time job now so I have much more free time. I’m going to focus on adding more video content now if you tell me you want it.

I’ve created a very short survey. Please take just a couple of minutes out of your busy day to help me improve this site’s quality. All I want to know is whether you think video content would be useful to you and, if so, what you would like to see. Here are a few suggestions for you; time lapse video of my cruises from April to December each year, how to moor a boat securely, which knots to use and how to tie them, how to change a gas cylinder, light a fire, regular engine checks (I might struggle with that one!), reversing a narrowboat and turning in a winding hole. These are just a few ideas to jump start your imagination. I’m sure you can think of many, many more which haven’t occurred to me. Here is the survey form. Please spare a minute or two to complete it.

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 run my discovery days roughly on the first ten days or so of April, June August, October and December. As winter approaches more and more site users are booking the relatively few discovery days still available. There are just six dates remaining this year. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day please check the diary before it’s too late. ou 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.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Peter Martin who kindly produced a short video of his discovery day experience for me to use on my site. The video is below followed by his comments.

“With two and half years before I can pick up my work pension, a break up of my marriage, kids now independent and need for downsizing, now seems like the time to plan what I’ve often dreamed about over the years.

Living on the cut seems to fit in very well with my lifestyle. I like the outdoors, love boating, independence and getting back to nature.

Having not spent any length of time with live aboard boaters, the Discovery Day was was really just an opportunity to pick up the vibes that go with life on the inland waterways. I needed to do this before committing myself further in the discovery process. Easier to nip things in the bud now if it didn’t appeal before my imagination runs away with itself!

It was a very enjoyable day. I particularly enjoyed the warm welcome of coming in out of the cold to sit in the heat of a toasty, warm cabin. That sold me the lifestyle straight away. It also confirmed that I definitely need a solid fuel stove as primary heat. I know it means hard work lugging coal etc., but what better way to get some outdoor exercise.  I’m also now sold on composting toilets! I never imagined I’d spend the following  week viewing endless YouTube videos of people’s loos!

The helming and boat handling were great experience. By the end of the day I had got over the intimidation of  controlling  60 feet and 20 tons of metal.  A very worthwhile 10 hours and it has confirmed that I’ll continue along this pathway.

The hard work now begins in downsizing, straightening out the finances and then the enjoyable part of finding the right boat.”

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.

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