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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2016 04 03 Newsletter – Motorhomes, Mountains and Flu

I didn’t write a newsletter last week because of our workload as we prepared to collect our Hymer B754 motorhome. Because our life at the moment is more roads than rivers, I created a survey asking newsletter subscribers to let me know if they would be interested in reading accounts of our motorhome travels. The answer was a very positive and resounding “Yes please!”.

I know that there are many differences between motorhome and narrowboat lifestyles, but there are probably even more similarities. Both require you to live in harmony with your significant other in a very small space. Both require you to take a far more hands on approach to managing your utilities, and both necessitate embracing a simpler life much closer to nature than you would in a bricks and mortar home.

In many ways, living in a motorhome is more challenging that living on a narrowboat. In a boat you can stop for the night just about anywhere you please along over 2,000 miles of river and canal banks. In a motorhome, especially in the UK, finding somewhere to park for the night away from a campsite can be something of a challenge.

Stopping for the night in the middle of nowhere is normal practice on a narrowboat. In a motorhome, you are very much in the minority. When our motorhome was being handed over to us, we were told to ensure that we travelled with an almost empty water tank. The expectation was that we would travel from campsite to campsite and only use the onboard facilities with water and electricity close at hand.

We specifically looked for a motorhome which would allow us to be as independant as possible. Continental models are better than those in the UK. Our Hymer has a 150w solar panel, two 110ah leisure batteries and a 150l water tank. We’ve only used it for nine days so far but for six of them we’ve been off grid, “wild camping”.

If we want to tour extensively in the motorhome, we need to wild camp as much as possible. Official camp sites with electric hook up, showers, Elsan points, fresh water supplies and waste disposal cost £20 or more a night. If we were to tour for, say, 120 days over the winter and use campsites every night, we would need to find £2,400 for campsite fees. We simply can’t afford that.

On Sunday, after a very pleasant night’s stay at our very first camp site, Newlands Caravan Park in Wellesbourne, we set off with the intention of doing a little shopping. Staying in a campsite on our first night wasn’t very good from the point of view of testing out our wild camping capabilities, but at least we broke ourselves into motorhoming very gently.

With no experience at all of motorhome living, even though we spent four hours transferring stuff from the boat, we were still short of a few essential items. I knew that we would need a shore line, or hook up cable in motorhomers’ terminology, so I brought one with me from the boat. I thought the spare 5m cable I keep in the engine room to connect our Kipor suitcase generator to the boat would be long enough. It wasn’t. I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow one at Newlands on our first night, but I was sure I wouldn’t be so lucky the next time.

I also forgot to bring a Hozelock tap connector with me. I packed a hose, but no way of using it. Brilliant! Cynthia needed a few important household items too, but she wasn’t in any condition to go shopping. She was incapacitated by a nasty case of flu so spent as much time horizontal as possible.

I used the Google voice search facility on my iPhone to find directions to the Homebase store in Stratford on Avon. I knew from previous visits that there was a supermarket there too, so Stratford was a good first stop for us.

Google had other ideas.

After directing us down roads barely wide enough for a bicycle, and sometime in the opposite direction to Stratford, we ended up heading in roughly the right direction before veering off into the wilderness once more. I was sure that we were being lead on a wild goose chase, but we weren’t in a hurry and, once I learned how to keep the Hymer out of the ditch, we were enjoying riding in a high vehicle with wonderful all round visibility.

On a rural back road miles from anywhere, Mrs. Google told us to find somewhere to park and instructed us to walk the rest of the way. We were five miles from the retail park on the A3400 heading away from Stratford towards Henley-in-Arden. We certainly weren’t walking.

The countryside was stunning and we weren’t worried about our destination particularly, so we made the most of our misplaced trust in Google, temporarily abandoned our shopping trip, and headed north into Henley then west towards Redditch before turning south to Alcester to pick up the A46 south west towards the M5.

We pulled into a suspiciously quiet retail park on the outskirts of Evesham to discover that all the shops had closed five minutes earlier. The most important item on our shopping list was a tap connector, but with an almost full water tank we could manage without one for another day or two.

We stopped for a coffee at Gloucester Services on the M5. What a much needed breath of fresh air the owners of this and Tebay services have brought to motorway shopping and dining in the UK. We stocked up with pies and pastries and then hurried back to the Hymer in heavy rain. I hurried a little more than Cynthia.

As I bound gazelle like along the path towards our parking spot in an empty coach bay, I caught my foot on a kerb edge, performed a very messy sumersault and measured my length on the Tarmac. Cynthia isn’t used to my constant trips and falls, a legacy of a viral infection I contracted in my mid thirties which affects my balance, so she thought I’d had some kind of seizure.

I immediately leaped to my feet to assure Cynthia that everything was fine, then fell over again because it wasn’t. My sprained ankle was already balloon like and wouldn’t take my weight. Cynthia helped me hobble to the Hymer then began dosing me with arnica tablets and arnica cream plus an ice pack every fifteen minutes. She swears by the homeopathic remedy.

We headed towards Sharpness hoping to find somewhere to wild camp with an estuary view. I expected Sharpness to be bigger. The only road in terminated at a small car park which, a sign and a local dog walker informed us, was locked at dusk.

With no other immediate option we drove slowly through the docks, ducked under stationary cranes and bumped over railway lines until we spotted the high roofs of a number of motorhomes on raised ground set back from the road.

They were parked on a large grassy area in front of Sharpness Dockers’ Club. I stopped to chat with a couple of very friendly retired guys standing in front of the three parked motorhomes. Parking on the fields was either free or just a few pounds depending on who you spoke to at the club and, they joyously informed me, the club’s beer was cheap and the weekly bingo night, tonight, was a great crack.

As Cynthia felt worse than ever and, thanks to my ailing ankle, walking was extremely painful, we decided to forgo the pleasures of the bingo hall and stay in our comfy little home.

I’m pleased we didn’t venture out. All night long we were buffeted by high winds. Torrential rain battered the roof for hours at a time. I love laying in bed listening to wind and rain, but when the wind feels powerful enough to turn my home over and the rain feels heavy enough to crash through the skylight, it’s an unsettling experience.

The following morning, thankful that we didn’t park on the now submerged grass, we left the surprisingly peaceful haven of the Dockers’ Club garden.

Weston-Super-Mare was our next stop. We needed a little food and still needed to buy the items we had forgotten, so we pulled into a Morrison’s supermarket car park on a retail park not far from the motorway. I found four bays I could straddle then shopped quickly in Morrisons for food, and nearby Boots for a hot water bottle for Cynthia who was feeling worse than ever, before relying on my iPhone sat nav once more to direct me to nearby Davan Caravan & Motorhomes to buy a 25m hook up lead.

I sailed past the business’s entrance without looking, then turned next right into a road barely wide enough to accommodate an A4 piece of paper standing upright. I managed to turn the vehicle in someone’s drive before inching out of the road again, but not before I had added another scrape to the cabin side.

Now fully stocked we drove to Acacia Farm campsite rather than try to find somewhere free to park. Cynthia was feeling worse than ever, and I was starting to feel a little rough. The arnica appeared to have worked well on my ankle but flu like symptoms were getting the better of me.

The campsite facilities were excellent. Torrents of hot water in the spotless showers, a quirky toilet bowl Elsan point and an old red GPO telephone box converted into a toilet. Who could ask for more? For the car lover, there were dozens of high end Jaguars on site courtesy of the owner’s main business.

Cynthia still felt awful the following day. So did I, but we needed to move on.

At Bridgewater we headed west along the A39 to our first view of the coast at Watchet. I pulled over long enough to watch a steam train puff slowly past, and for Cynthia to catch a glimpse of the ocean before collapsing into a feverish heap once more, then headed south into Exmoor National Park.

A steam train in Wachet

A steam train in Wachet

We drove for an hour through heavy rain, virtually zero visibility and increasingly barren terrain before stopping for the night on the high moors five miles south of Lynton. We pulled onto an uneven car park set back from the road. My first attempt at level parking was a failure. We couldn’t get from one end of the cabin to the other without climbing gear, so I unwrapped my brand new Thule Levelling Ramps to see if they could improve the situation. They worked wonderfully.

Our Hymer home parked for two days on the high moors

Our Hymer home parked for two days on the high moors

We stayed there for the next two days, both fever ridden and in bed unable to do anything constructive other than make an occasional weak hot drink and watch the world outside through the van’s panoramic windows.

Sheep grazed by the unfenced road and a herd of vigilant wild ponies plucked at the coarse grass fifty metres away, raising their heads at the passage of occasional cars. We had the moors to ourselves each night as we watched the setting sun from our sick bed. I’m not good at being ill, but if I have to stay in bed to recuperate, I can’t think of a better place to do it.

Two Exmoor ponies watch me as I stalk them

Two Exmoor ponies watch me as I stalk them

I felt slightly better by Thursday so we decided to move on again. Our two day stay off grid had been no hardship at all. Even though the sun hadn’t shone enough to provide much of a charge via our single solar panel, the two batteries were holding up well. We had been using our gas powered blown air heating extensively while we were feeling sorry for ourselves so we exhausted the first of our two 11kg cylinders just before we left, but we still had another to fall back on. Our tiny water tank was still half full so we had no problems there, and we still hadn’t filled the first of our two Thetford cassettes. All in all, it was a very positive introduction to the joys of living off grid in a motorhome.

The drive off the moors into Lynton was one of the most memorable and challenging drives I’ve ever had the pleasure to tackle. If this was a typical motorhome journey then I am absolutely hooked.

We had a few scary moments. The first was when I took a wrong turn up a steep and narrow road with a hairpin turn close to the junction. We had to stop to allow a car to carefully negotiate the turn. When I tried to pull away, I couldn’t move forward at all. The Hymer has twin rear axles, only one of which is connected to the drive. There wasn’t enough weight on the drive axle so with the wheels spinning we just slid slowly backwards. I had to reverse two hundred metres back down the road against the flow of traffic (two cars) back on to the A39 coast road.

That particular stretch of the A39 is not for the faint hearted. Bound by a cliff on one side and a deep gorge on the other, the road clings to the hillside for miles, sometimes narrowing to less than ten feet, so taking an eight feet wide motorhome along it, with the chance of meeting an eight feet wide motorhome coming the other way, makes for a very interesting experience.

A riverside Lynton hotel

A riverside Lynton hotel

We pulled into a car park in Lynton with spaces for coaches and motorhomes so stopped for a coffee and a walk down to the harbour. Lynton is picture perfect. A lively river tumbled to the sea past the car park and quaint little cafes. A handful of small boats swung slowly from their moorings in the tiny harbour, and the cliff railway, once the world’s steepest, slowly hauled tourists from village top to bottom.

Lynton harbour on an early spring day

Lynton harbour on an early spring day

We stopped again a few miles later in a cliff top car park overlooking Porlock Bay while we considered our route. We had just passed and ignored a sign advising us to to take a toll road rather than continue along the A39. The reason for the advice was Porlock Hill, which is allegedly the steepest section of A road in the UK. There’s a 25% gradient, or one in four, at the bottom. As a novice motorhome driver, and one who had recently come unstuck on a far less steep hill a couple of hours earlier, I didn’t fancy it at all. We took the toll road.

The view over Porlock Bay as we plan our route

The view over Porlock Bay as we plan our route

I’m so pleased we did. The quiet road dropped down into Porlock via a series of savage hairpin beds, two which required a three point turn, and through a tranquil wooded gorge. We met a handful of vehicles coming towards us, but not on any of the tighter bends. That road, and the section of the A39 off the moors into Lynton, was the highlight of the trip for both of us.

We both wanted to stay in the south west for longer, but we had to return to base. A few weeks earlier Cynthia had ordered me a special birthday cake so we had to return to Calcutt to collect it.

After a tedious drive back along the M5, M42 and M40, stopping briefly in Southam to top up both diesel and gas, we arrived back at Calcutt as the sun set for our third night off grid.

We collected the cake on Friday, but then didn’t have the energy to set off on our travels again. We stayed another day and night in Calcutt Boats’ main car park before heading out once more. I needed to return to base by 14th April ready for a run of seventeen consecutive discovery days starting the following day so we had ten days free.

Yesterday we started off toward the south west, but we veered a little off course. The beauty of travelling in a motorhome is that you can go anywhere you like. If there isn’t anywhere suitable to wild park, there’s always a campsite within a few miles drive.

Cynthia still felt very poorly. She decided that a detox bath would help her so we hired a room in the Days Inn at Warwick northbound motorway services for an hour. While Cynthia was having her bath I checked nearby Camping and Caravanning Club sites online.

We both felt that we would benefit from a couple of days pampering on a quiet site with decent facilities, so I booked a pitch at the Hereford Camping and Caravanning Club site at Tarrington. We had a very quiet night there yesterday on my 56th birthday. Cynthia unveiled the cake we travelled so far to collect. As she sung a very hoarse rendition of Happy Birthday to me the little white motorhome trundled across the cake until it nestled close to the tiny narrowboat. Both narrowboat and motorhome are sleeping in a cupboard now. The cake is tucked away safely in my tummy.

Cynthia's imaginatively themed cake

Cynthia’s imaginatively themed cake

We’re still at the campsite now, feeling slightly better after a good and peaceful night’s sleep other than the noise of the occasional Worcester to Hereford train flashing by 100m from our pitch. We’re going to stay another night here, then move off again. We’re not entirely sure in which direction yet, but not knowing where we’re going to end up from one day to the next is all part of the appeal.

Cynthia says—-

The Week that Was….

Well, sorry to say this weeks contribution won’t be a lengthy one due to the fact that I (actually both of us) am still trying to cope with getting the flu.  It certainly caught us by surprise.  Neither of us has been sick like this for years!  I have been reprimanding myself for not having stocked my first-aid/natural remedies arsenal with the highly effective Oscillococcinum by Boiron.  Oh well, I won’t make that mistake again soon!

We spent a good four hours toting our things from the boat to the motorhome—I did the packing on the boat interspersed by cleaning and Paul did the running back and forth and unpacking on the motorhome.  We made a good team, and were proud of ourselves when after we set off we discovered there were no rattling sounds! After my many years of living on sailboats along with working on airplanes I have learned how to pack securely.

I had to admire Paul’s driving skills as he found us battling strong downpours along with narrow twisty roads.  We were both relieved to arrive safely at Newlands for the night.

The next day was Easter, and while Paul did some errands outside, I ran around like a banshee hiding chocolate Easter rabbits and the like.  Paul had a fun time locating all of them and it was a nice way to enjoy the holiday.

From then on the next couple of days were a blur for me—I spent the majority of my time lying about feeling under the weather along with feeling sorry for myself…..

The day we were set to leave for the coast, I woke up surrounded by the Wild Exmoor ponies and sheep….such a lovely sight!  I felt good enough to be up in the copilot seat for the remainder of the day and loved every minute of the heart-in-my-throat hairpin twists and turns down to Lynton.  Paul did a superb job negotiating all this–especially after the heart-stopper of a hill which forced him to back down and seek an alternate route.

We walked about Lynton for awhile enjoying the lovely sunshine as we gazed out on the sea and Harbor before us.  I found myself getting caught up watching a fledgling solo surfer trying to ride the waves.  After 15 minutes of watching him I knew this was either his first attempt or close to it.  Not like watching the seasoned surfers I grew up with in SoCal!  But I give him credit for trying…

We decided to head up the coast on the A39, and as we started out of town we were immediately accosted by a 12% uphill grade in front of us.  Just As Paul downshifted we both looked up simultaneously and found ourselves staring at a mammoth truck coming towards us.  Our hearts were in our throats and we held our breath as we made our way past him unscathed.  Wow.  What a hill!  We drove along in ecstasy and passed by the entrance to the toll road to Porlock.  We stopped at a breathtaking spot overlooking the sea with Porlock nestled down against the sea below us and vowed we would return.

Paul decided to return to the toll road and eschew the 25% gradient.  Smart move this, as we were bludgeoned with charm at every turn on this lovely road with no lorries to deal with.  The toll booth was hilarious—just a box by a lean-to to drop your money in!

The remainder of the trip went well, but it was a long day.  Unfortunately too long for me, as I found myself the next day in relapse, with Paul the same to a lesser extent.  Neither one of us wanted to hang around the marina so off we went—and after a very cathartic Detox bath at the Days Inn we were on our way to our present location—a superb choice by Paul.

I felt badly in more ways than one that I couldn’t give Paul a nicer celebration for his birthday…..but there’s always next year!  And at least the cake brought a smile to his face…..hope you enjoy it!

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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.  I realised this morning that I hadn’t added all of my dates for the first half of the year. All the dates for April and June are there now. 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.