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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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2016 01 03 Newsletter – Trials and Tribulations

I’m back! I missed another week’s newsletter but I think I have a good enough reason. I’ll explain a little later.

I spent my last three days at Calcutt Boats sanding one of their hire boats ready for painting early in January. I thoroughly enjoy the unfamiliar exercise but I’m always delighted when I can down tools at 4pm and collect towel and soap from the boat to use the marina showers to wash off the day’s grime. Our shower on board is more powerful but the marina hot water supply is unlimited so a long and cleansing soak makes the short walk worthwhile.

On Christmas Eve we needed to stock up on food and drink for our week away. Our first stop was in Rugby and the busiest butcher’s shop I’ve ever seen. Joseph Morris had thirty butchers serving a queue of at least sixty people during our mid morning visit to collect the order Cynthia placed a few days earlier. Fillet steak for New Year’s day and three veal shanks for Cynthia’s Christmas Day treat, osso buco.

After fighting our way through the Christmas crowds we returned to the welcoming tranquility of an empty canal for a twilight hour and a half cruise to our evening’s mooring at Flecknoe.

The following morning, while many people sat wearing pyjamas among piles of discarded wrapping paper eating crunchy nut corn flakes soaked in Baileys Irish Cream, Cynthia and I tackled the Braunston flight’s six locks followed by Braunston tunnel and a peaceful and deserted canal up to Norton Junction before turning left up the Grand Union Leicester Line and the approach to the seven lock Watford flight. And there we stayed.

If I was given an unlimited number of guesses for our mooring location on Christmas Day this year I don’t think I would have come even close to pinpointing it.

Celebrating Christmas on the Watford flight

Celebrating Christmas on the Watford flight

I love cruising for many reasons. One of the most important to me is to be able to choose a spot away from artificial noise and away from other people. On Christmas Day we managed neither. We had the M1’s roaring traffic on one side and both the A5 and the West Coast Main Line on the other. We were surrounded by noise and hurtling vehicles but we had a wonderful time. We drew the curtains, threw some coal on the fire, turned the music up and opened a bottle of Wolf Blass (for me, Cynthia doesn’t drink often). What more can you ask for?

We had the Watford flight to ourselves the following morning. We reached the top in under an hour then moored for a few minutes to let the dogs off to attend to business and to allow me to tighten a squealing alternator belt.

I’m not the world’s most competent mechanic so after tightening the belt and starting the engine I was delighted that the squealing had stopped. I wasn’t quite so pleased to see that the quieter alternator now wasn’t charging my five batteries at all.

After whimpering for a few minutes, I carried out all the diagnostics within my repertoire which involved making sure that no wires had come loose, then starting the engine again to see if the alternator charge light had gone out. It hadn’t.

During normal use we consume roughly 10% of the domestic battery bank each day. I have four 160ah batteries for our domestic supply and one dedicated 110ah starter battery. I knew we could last a few days without charging the domestic bank but I didn’t know how long the starter battery would last. If I ran the starter battery down too low I knew that I could use the jump leads I carry on board to draw from the domestic bank but, even with careful power management I knew the batteries wouldn’t last nine days until we returned to our mooring at Calcutt Boats and access to an engineer or two. We needed to resolve the issue fairly quickly but I didn’t expect many or even any of the local marinas would be open for business over the Christmas period.

In order to conserve our dwindling battery charge we needed to avoid using the inverter and any 240v appliances on board. My laptop is normally on and charging for at least twelve hours each day. My old Samsung laptop died a month ago so I have been using Cynthia’s old MacBook Pro instead. Unfortunately its battery is dead so the laptop will only run when attached to the mains. We decided to run the inverter for just an hour a day for phone charging which meant that I couldn’t write a newsletter last week. I apologise for another missed week but I suspect that you were too busy eating and drinking to excess so didn’t miss it anyway.

We cruised for an hour to Crick marina.I tied up on their diesel filling point and then sat in the engine room looking blankly at the alternator while Cynthia scoured the marina for signs of working staff or boat owners who could offer advice.

Within minutes she persuaded a mechanically minded boater to lend a hand. He wasn’t able to do much other than confirm my own suspicions. No wires were loose, the belt was tight enough and the charge light stayed on when the engine started so the indications were that the alternator wasn’t working.

I couldn’t understand why. The alternator which came with the boat when I moved on board in April 2010 died in August last year. It’s replacement was just four months old so there shouldn’t have been a problem with it.

Cynthia found another couple who didn’t have any mechanical knowledge but they suggested joining River Canal Rescue. I have mixed feelings about RCR. I have used them twice before for engine servicing. I’ve had the same engineer, Kerry, each time. He’s been excellent but the office administration has been awful.

I considered joining them in April last year when my aging alternator belt snapped. I decided not to at the time because of their terms and conditions. You have to wait 72 hours after you join before they will come out to you. Last time I asked Calcutt Boats to supply and fit a new belt. On this occasion I thought we could limp along for three days so before we left Crick marina I paid £200 online for their Gold membership.

We cruised for another couple of hours before mooring mid afternoon. I was still concerned about our ever depleting batteries so I phoned North Kilworth Wharf to see if they had a mooring for the night where I could plug my shore line in to charge the battery bank. I didn’t really expect to reach anyone late afternoon on Boxing Day but shortly after trying the landline and mobile number listed on their web site my phone rang. It was the very helpful lady manager. She couldn’t help me with a mooring, and couldn’t offer me any advice about me troublesome alternator, but she offered to try and find her husband who knew a thing or two about them. I thanked her for her kindness but there probably wasn’t any advice he could offer me which hadn’t already been offered.

On Sunday we cruised thirteen miles to the Foxton flight without seeing another moving boat. We had the flight to ourselves. Two of the three lock keepers on duty were busy roping off a floating towpath caused by flood water from the fields undermining the towpath. The third and elderly lock keeper was on duty but asked if we could manage on our own as he wasn’t feeling too well.

Cynthia enjoyed her first attempt at taking a narrowboat through locks in front of an attentive audience. Despite the constant rain dozens of visitors lined the locks watching her progress.

The original plan had been to try and book a mooring with power at Union Wharf in Market Harborough but their office wasn’t returning my calls. We decided to turn left at the bottom of the Foxton flight to try Debdale Wharf for moorings instead.

Debdale’s marina office was closed but lights were on in one of their sheds so I knocked on the door. I thought I was in luck. Ex Calcutt Boats engineer Jim Garrett popped out of the shed where he was refitting his own boat. There were no staff on site to authorise a temporary mooring so I suggested to Jim that I could moor on an empty space inside the marina entrance until manager Steve came into work the following day. Jim didn’t think he would allow me to moor there so he tracked Steve down somewhere inside the marina to ask permission.

Steve wouldn’t allow us to stay in the marina for the night, which I thought was odd. I was more than happy to pay for a space and I certainly wasn’t in anyone’s way as the marina was closed for business. I know the staff at Calcutt Boats would have been happy to help a boater in distress but the spirit of goodwill didn’t appear to extend as far as Debdale.

We left the marina in the fading light to look for somewhere to stay for the night. Fifteen minutes later we were back at Foxton. As we negotiated the swing bridge next to the Foxton Locks Inn we decided to treat ourselves to a meal there at the end of a long and troublesome day.

We moored the boat on the towpath a few hundred feet away and hurried back to the pub to eat. Unfortunately for us the pub had stopped serving food twenty minutes earlier. We had a quick drink and, more in desperation than anticipation, decided to try Bridge 61 opposite.

Bridge 61 is a quarter of the size of the Foxton Locks Inn. It’s not as smart looking, it has a tiny little bar and was full of scruffy boaters. We loved everything about it. The atmosphere was warm and inviting and the food cheap and delicious. We both ordered beef stew in a plate sized Yorkshire pudding for just £5 each. The icing on the cake as far as I was concerned was a pint of mysterious draught ale. The staff didn’t know its name or strength or much about it at all other than it was selling very well. It was wonderful.

The following morning we dodged showers on the two hour cruise to Market Harborough before mooring in the only free space on the canalside moorings just outside Union Wharf. As soon as I moored I phoned RCR to ask for an engineer. As I had only joined two days earlier I expected to be told to wait another day. The Christmas spirit which had bypassed Debdale Wharf had clearly reached the RCR offices in Stafford. They agreed to send an engineer later that day once they found my membership details. The half hour delay was a small price to pay for a same-day engineer.

We spent the morning exploring Market Harborough’s fascinating town centre. All of the town’s hundreds of independent stores were filled with happy festive shoppers. We did a grocery shop at Sainsbury’s, and I purchased a pair of overalls and a set of pry bars for an important job I had scheduled for later in the day.

James was listing to port, so much so that water was overflowing the draining board, then pooling between the kitchen worktop and the cabin side. Water was also accumulating on the port side of the shower tray, and on the port side of the engine bilge. Condiments slid across the polished surface of the table in our Pullman dinette and the flower vase on the forward bulkhead cupboard top spent most of its time crushing plants against the cabin side.

The list is my fault. The boat was balanced perfectly when I moved on board, but in November 2011 I over-plated the original perished wooden cabin with steel. The new cabin top made the boat water tight but added a tonne to the boat’s weight. I raised the boat’s centre of gravity while meant that it wasn’t quite so stable. The additional weight also increased the boat’s draught by two inches.

I managed to decrease the draught slightly by removing half of the steel ballast bars from the engine room. All was well until November last year when I added another quarter of a tonne to the boat, all on the port side. I had the engine cooling system modified from raw water to keel cooling, and I had a large double radiator installed in my office under my desk.

I talked to the staff at Calcutt Boats about the problem. They suggested either moving the boat’s ballast from port to starboard or, if I didn’t have access to the ballast, welding a heavy steel plate to the starboard side to balance the boat.

I still had several dozen steel ingots in the engine bilge, some of which were on the port side. The idea was to move them to the starboard side to decrease the weight on one side of the boat and add it to the other. That was the plan for later in the day after the RCR engineer hopefully resolved our alternator problem.

Senior RCR engineer Kerry arrived at 3pm. A quick visual check told him that there was nothing obviously wrong, then a couple of minutes with his multi meter revealed the problem. The alternator, new just four months ago, had stopped working.

Kerry wasn’t surprised when he discovered that I was asking the alternator to replace 10% of my domestic bank’s 640ah each day. He suggested that even in such a short period of time I had worn it out. I’m hoping the alternator is still under warranty. Next week I’ll check with Justin Green who fitted the alternator in August.

Within an hour Kerry had the old alternator replaced with a new 70 amp alternator from his van stock then phoned their office so that they could relieve me of £70.

As soon as Kerry left I moved all of the ballast bars I could reach in the engine bilge. Cynthia tested the new trip scientifically. She fried two eggs. Success! They stayed in the middle of the pan rather than huddle together on the hob’s port side.

The boat’s not quite level yet. I think I can solve the slight list by moving the remaining dozen ballast bars which are jammed under the engine. They are quite difficult to get to though, so I will save that joy for a day when I am feeling particularly energetic.

We spent our remaining two days in Market Harborough wandering around the town eating as much as possible.  I can recommend Veneto for inexpensive and delicious Italian food, Simple Simon for their goat’s cheese and beetroot panini, and The Cook Shop on Church Street for its ridiculously comprehensive range of high end cookware.

On our last day, Tuesday, we collected a full load of washing from the dry cleaners on Coventry Road. They did a large “twice the size of a domestic load” service wash for £15. Fifteen pounds was a little more than I wanted to pay, but we had some items to clean which were too big for our little cheap and cheerful on board twin tub so we decided to splash out.

The laundry was spotlessly clean and beautifully folded when we picked it up. The only fly in the ointment was that they charged us £30 rather than the suggested £15. They said that they didn’t want to mix two different colours in our wash even though they told us everything we brought them would go in the same wash when we first visited. We didn’t have a leg to stand on though. The ticket they gave us when we took the washing in, which neither of us had looked at, clearly indicated the increased price. You live and learn!

We battled a lively breeze on the way back to Union Wharf and then spent the evening listening to small branches break off the trees above us and crash onto the roof. The wind gusted to 45mph making cruising very difficult indeed. Fortunately we didn’t have to until the following day.

Our cruise back to Foxton the following morning was interesting. In several places wind-blown trees hung precariously low over the canal. Two had crashed into the water but we squeezed past them with a little cabin scraping and then wound our way around numerous large waterborne branches.

We had to moor a mile before Foxton. A large fallen tree completely blocked the canal. It had toppled from the offside over the stern of a moored boat and even blocked the towpath. The tree had fallen the previous morning. CRT contractors had cleared the obstructed towpath but not the canal itself.

The danger of mooring under canalside trees on windy days

The danger of mooring under canalside trees on windy days

Within half an hour three contractors arrived from London, one English, two eastern European. Within minutes they cleared branches from the moored boat then tried to winch the tree out of the canal from the offside. They stopped very quickly when they realised that an underwater branch was trapped beneath the boat and was lifting it out of the water.

One of the Polish guys simultaneously demonstrated his balance and his disregard for health and safety rules. He climbed from the listing boat onto the fallen tree in the middle of the canal carrying an enormous chainsaw with four feet long bar. As he tried to maintain his balance on the slippery trunk, he poked his chainsaw bar under the water to locate the hidden branch. Once he found it he jumped back onto the boat, started his chainsaw and then, helmetless, gripping the boat’s cruiser stern rail, leaned out over the water, poked the saw four feet under water and began cutting. He was frightening to watch, but very effective. Within two hours the tree had been cleared and logged and we were on our way again.

We pulled onto the landing beneath the Foxton flight next to Bridge 61. While I walked to the head of the flight to book us in with the lock keeper, Cynthia attended to lunch. Normally this involves an hour preparing fresh locally bought produce. On this occasion all she had to do was walk into the pub with two of our bowls and ask the staff to fill them with jacket potato and beef stew.

Halfway up the flight Cynthia handed me a steaming bowl. I suppose her Californian accent was to blame but the beef stew turned out to be chilli but I wasn’t complaining on a cold winter’s day.

The wind and rain returned as we left the flight. We moored at Kicklewood Spinney in a squall which bent the trees above us and soaked us with heavy horizontal liquid sheets.

New Year’s Day was cold. We had our first winter frost and a wind which cut like a knife. After three hours wrapped in fleeces, gloves, waterproofs and my very fetching trapper’s hat, I was chilled to the bone. We moored next to Winwick Manor and called it a day.

Yesterday we cruised a little further before stopping briefly to allow Cynthia to walk into Yelvertoft to Squisito for a little culinary retail therapy. She returned an hour later with a loaded box and an unloaded wallet.

While she was away I received a call from RCR. They wanted some money from me even though I had given my debit card details over the phone when Kerry replaced the alternator.

They also wanted an additional £75 from me for their ‘on the spot joining fee’. I was told that because an engineer had visited me within the initial 72 hour exclusion period I had to pay extra. I refused. I pointed out that I wasn’t advised of this fee when joining or during any of the conversations I had with their staff prior to the engineer arriving. To their credit, RCR backed down immediately but, once again, they’ve demonstrated their appalling office admin.

A giant felled oak in a field next to the Watford flight

A giant felled oak in a field next to the Watford flight

With Cynthia back on board, we carried on for another three hours before mooring as we lost the light beneath the Watford flight, close to the noisy M1 which was thankfully invisible and inaudible with the curtains drawn and our music on.

Our winter break has been a thoroughly enjoyable and eventful ten day break from my winter work, but today I need to cruise for five hours to reach the Calcutt flight. We’ll moor above the locks tonight ready for the hour’s descent tomorrow and my return to sanding and painting until our cruising season begins again in April. We’re both very much looking forward to our adventures this year.

Cynthia Says…

As most of us know, life often requires one to hold one’s hand to the fire and face one’s fears.  This is how my holiday began on 24 December.  Paul and I had to go to Rugby to do some last minute food shopping prior to setting off on the waterways.  I was determined to make Osso Buco for our Christmas dinner, and had put in an order for veal shanks at a butcher on the outskirts of town.

As you can well imagine, driving in any market town the day before a big holiday brings one face to face with sharing the roads and roundabouts with lots of others in the same boat.  As the English roundabouts are still my Achilles heel, I was more than just a little anxious!  Thanks be to my ever-patient Paul I made the journey without mishap.  The need for practice overshadowed the fear….

All went smoothly until the morning of Boxing Day when the alternator decided to take a holiday.  We thought the suitcase generator would give the batteries a boast, but, alas, that was also not to be!  We were grateful to be able to continue on our way to our beloved Market Harborough, with a quick stop at the Foxton Locks.  We made our way to the Inn and had a drink expecting to be able to sit down to a nice meal and relax.  Well, that was not to be either—-the gods had other plans for us once again!

I love the twists and turns that life always throws your way, and we were rewarded once again for our persistence.  I was thinking the pub across the canal might still be open, so we made our way over the bridge and found ourselves enveloped in the lovely atmosphere of this special place.  We were taken not only by the ambience, but the colourful characters, and then there was the food—-a gift from heaven—some of the best beef stew I have ever consumed, surrounded by a tasty shell of Yorkshire pudding.  My what a lovely evening that was!  It was sort of a celebration of my first go at negotiating the locks of the Foxton Flight.  Paul asked me just as we arrived at the top if I wanted to handle James and I immediately agreed.  Another great opportunity to face my fears, and to do so in front of the many Gone-guzzlers who eagerly lined the locks.  I had a few minor mishaps, but nothing bad, and boy did I ever learn a lot!  This was to be one of my New Years’ resolutions and how nice it felt to be able to actually do this during the last days of 2015!

Market Harborough did not disappoint us—we indulged ourselves gastronomically and enjoyed every morsel.  A little shopping was also part of the experience and finding our perfect kettle was the icing on the cake.  As soon as we return to Calcutt we will once again rejoin our healthy eating patterns.

All started out well for our first days’ journey back to the real world of Calcutt Boats, until we began to hear stories from those along the footpath that there was a fallen tree ahead blocking the passage, and soon enough we came upon it.   We were quick lucky in the fact that the CRT people were there fairly soon and managed to clear the canal in order for us and those behind us to continue our journey.  As we made way to the bottom of the Foxton Locks, we decided another go at the Bridge 61 pub was in order.  Unfortunately when I went to order I was told they don’t do take-away, so I gave some quick thought to how to remedy this situation and asked if I could bring our own bowls.  Happily the answer was yes, so I ran back to the boat and grabbed them.  Shortly after Paul started into the locks our order was ready and I collected it then placed the bowls in a warming oven so our lunch would be ready for us once we moored at the top of the locks.

This time around I was the lock lassie.  I wanted to take James up the flight, but after the last episode, I felt rather ill due to the breathing in of all the toxic diesel fumes.  As I want to continue to operate the boat through the locks, I made a decision to buy and wear an appropriate respirator when doing so in order not to feel ill.

Life hands us many opportunities to learn and grown and do something that scares us every day.  This is always a goal of mine every year.  The past week plus was filled with such opportunities and I welcomed each one.

Hope you all enjoyed the holidays—we both feel very fortunate we have one another and our lifestyle—everyday is new and fresh!

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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 run my discovery days roughly on the first ten days or so of April, June August, October and December.  If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day next year you can do so by viewing the diary here. 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.

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.