2016 05 08 Newsletter – The Reality Of Living On England’s Inland Waterways

We’re moored a mile north of Braunston opposite a field full of cowslips. Actually, they could be either dandelions or buttercups. They’re yellow and they’re pretty, so I don’t really care what they are.

I’ve just finished my first week back at Calcutt Boats. They’re a groundsman short and my bank account’s a few bob short, so both the company and I are happy. I would rather be cruising the cut now that spring has finally sprung but, if I have to work, I can’t think of anywhere better..

I’ve spent my days riding a mower through swathes of wild flowers, pruning bushes and trees and moving boats. I am very happy indeed earning a crust there and joining in the workplace banter which part of me has missed so much.

We’re only out of the marina for the weekend. Later this afternoon we’ll cruise three hours back to Calcutt ready for another week’s mowing and cutting. Another week closer to Cynthia’s forced departure.

Her six month visa expires at the end of this month. We haven’t been able to marry during the last six months because of a cock up on my part. She originally intended staying with a friend in Switzerland for two weeks until I can join her after my June discovery days, but that’s fallen through because of Swiss bureaucracy. She’s now going to be staying with another friend in Sarrians sixty miles north of Marseille.

On 15th June, I’m going to put the boat to bed, climb into the Hymer and drive through France to pick her up. Then we’ll head north through Switzerland and Germany to Denmark for our long awaited wedding. That’s the current plan anyway.

I haven’t had much time to write content for this week’s newsletter. I’ve spent most of my free time putting together an article I promised Boats and Outboards a month or two ago. I’ve reproduced it here. If you’ve been following the blog for any length of time, much of the content will be familiar to you, but I hope it’s interesting reading anyway.

Here’s the article….

Spring is a wonderful time of the year to live on the inland waterways. As I slowly cruised along the combined Grand Union and Oxford canals on the sinuous route between Napton and Braunston junctions two weeks ago, I spotted what I thought was a muntjac deer bolting away from me across a waterside field. The animal turned and raced back towards my boat. Another similar sized creature raced towards the canal from the field’s opposite side.

The two large hares met twenty feet away from me, stood on their back legs and began boxing. They continued to fight until I cruised around a bend. Minutes later I saw two buzzards circling lazily overhead and then a dozen mallard chicks paddling frantically across the water looking for a mother who rested on a sun warmed patch of towpath grass close to a majestic weeping willow.

Dozens of hire boats cruise through this beautiful natural display during the warmer months. The enchanted crews sit on bow seats enjoying a glass of wine and a break from their frantic work lives, dreaming of a less stressful way to live. They reluctantly pack their bags after their too short breaks afloat, join the arterial traffic racing along England’s crowded roads, arrive at the home they’ve taken a lifetime to buy and had to work for a lifetime to maintain, and then log onto the internet to search longingly through the narrowboats for sale adverts.

Some aspiring boat owners do very little research before buying a narrowboat and moving onto the water. They make a decision to purchase a boat costing tens of thousands of pounds after experiencing a few idyllic days on the canal network. They don’t really understand the reality of life afloat at all times of the year.

If you are thinking of buying a narrowboat, here’s a little information to guide you safely down the right path.


Life afloat isn’t as cheap as many people think.. The costs are similar to running a small family home. If you need to stay in one place for work purposes you’ll need a residential mooring costing £2,000 – £3,000 or more, far more if you want to moor anywhere near London. You’ll need an annual license. That’s another £1,000 for a 60’ boat. Then you’ll need coal, gas and diesel for heating and moving your boat. You’ll need to replace your battery bank periodically, paint your cabin, black your hull, repair or replace deck covers and maintain your engine. The expenditure goes on and on. Many boaters will tell you with a wry smile that B.O.A.T. stand for Bet On Another Thousand.

There’s a comprehensive guide to the cost of buying and maintaining a narrowboat here.


In a bricks and mortar home, you turn on a tap or press a button to unleash an unlimited supply of heating fuel, electricity and water. On a boat you have to work much, much harder.

I burn coal briquettes on my boat. Two tonnes a year. That’s eighty 25kg bags which have to be carried from boatyard to boat. Propane gas cylinders are a similar weight. They have to be lifted on to my bow and lowered carefully through a small hatch. A 20 litre toilet cassette weighs as much as twenty bags of sugar when full. Each day that has to be carefully carried through the boat’s narrow passageways and then taken to a sewage disposal point.

The cost of your on board water is included with either your license or marina mooring. If you are in a marina, your closest water point will probably be no more than a hose length away. If you are cruising the canals, you may have to travel ten miles to the nearest water point, then wait half an hour for your tank to fill. This isn’t something you want to do on a cold and dark winter’s night.

The Weather

Possibly the most frequently asked question of live aboard boaters is, “Isn’t your boat cold in winter?” Most boats aren’t cold at all, but they need more fuel to heat them than a similar space in a house. Narrowboats sit two feet or more in frigid water. The underwater section is part of the living accommodation so the lower two feet of cabin space needs constant heat to keep it warm. My coal bill for 2015 was £780.

My boat needs constant heat to keep it warm in winter, but it is warm. I love climbing into a warm and cosy cabin after a cold winter’s day cruise and then sitting in front of the stove’s flickering flames. Sitting in a warm cabin while the wind howls and rain drumming on the roof is very comforting.

Occasionally the weather prevents me from cruising or even living comfortably if I’m not careful.

The English canals freeze for at least a short period each year. Narrowboats are very sturdy. You can force your way through quite thick ice, but you will instantly strip off the hull’s protective coating from the water line. Repainting the hull costs £500 or more, so it’s not something you want to do too often. However, if you can’t move, you can’t empty a pump out toilet tank if you have one, you can’t top up your water tank, and you can’t easily resupply with coal or gas. The most sensible course of action is to find somewhere to moor close to amenities for the winter months which, of course, is going to cost you more money.

Last winter was particularly mild. Mild but very wet. Cold and dry is preferable to mild and wet. The towpath was two inches of liquid mud. Even letting Tasha, our ten year old basset hound, off the boat for a quick wee required a five minute mud clean up when she returned. My fiance, Cynthia, calls the front deck “the mud room”.

You have to monitor weather reports closely for sub zero temperatures. You have to also be aware of forecast wind speed.

Narrowboats have expansive high sides. They’re shallow draughted and flat bottomed. Consequently they are difficult to handle in anything stronger than a light breeze. My own boat has a fifty feet long cabin four feet high. I have two hundred square feet of “sail” for the wind to play with. Many boaters don’t cruise in strong wind.


I have hosted discovery days for hundreds of aspiring boaters over the last two years. The days are a combination of helmsmanship and an opportunity to explore and discuss a narrowboat equipped for full time off grid cruising. My guests come from all walks of life. Most of them are middle aged. Many, both men and women, intend to live afloat on their own.

Living afloat is far more physical than living in a house. Climbing on to my front deck to reach my cabin doors is the first test they face. Stepping over the hull side and simultaneously ducking under the deck cover is difficult for some. On their discovery days, guests aren’t asked to lift heavy bags of coal or gas cylinders, but they would need to if they were living alone on a boat.

An important part of my helmsmanship training is negotiating locks. Effective locking requires a degree of agility and fitness. The winding mechanisms, the paddles, which allow water in and out of locks are stiff and hard to turn. Lock gates weighing a tonne or more each are difficult to open and close. Solo locking often means that the boat owner has to climb up and down often slippery lock ladders and walk along a boat roof cluttered with trip hazards. If none of this appeals to you, you won’t enjoy single handed boating.

Even weekly grocery shopping can be very physical. If you’re moored in a marina, you can probably drive your car close to your boat, but not as close as you could in your bricks and mortar home. When you’re out cruising, more effort is required. You might be fortunate enough to find a canal-side supermarket, but you will often have to trudge a mile or more from the centre of a nearby town or village.

Narrowboat ownership offers a very physical lifestyle. I treat the physical exertion as welcome exercise. I’m as fit now as I was thirty years ago thanks to the life I lead. It’s a far cry from my corporate days when a hard day’s work involved nothing more taxing than moving pieces of paper from one side of my desk to the other.

Now I live a life close to nature. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Each day is a joy, but it is hard work. Next time you look longingly at any of the thousands of craft advertised on the internet under narrowboats for sale, remember what you’ve read here and think carefully before you part with your hard earned cash.

Article ends.

In my introductory email to last week’s newsletter I mentioned a breaking tiller handle, but failed to mention anything about it in the newsletter itself. I’m sorry. Here’s my tiller tragedy tale.

Unlike cruisers stern narrowboats’ usually fixed tillers, traditional stern narrowboats like mine have a removable brass tiller which is secured by a brass tiller pin. I have two different length tillers.

I use the longer tiller when I am cruising on my own. It’s four feet long and extends into the cockpit where I dangle my legs when I am sitting on the cabin roof steering. I have a large and heavy rudder which means that the boat is very manoeuvrable, but it’s quite a chore to move it without the leverage afforded by the longer tiller.

On my discovery days, I have either one or two guests with me on the boat’s stern. My longer tiller would get in the way so I use one half the length. Both brass tillers have a wooden handle which slides snugly several inches into the hollow brass tiller and is then secured with a hardwood wedge.

The tiller handle is locked in place providing the wedge continues to force wood against brass. If the thin wooden wedge breaks, the handle can work loose.

Canal bridges are often built at an angle to the waterway they cross.  On a windy day two weeks ago, one of my guests was at the helm. He swung wide to the right and lined up the boat perfectly for the bridge, and then veered sharply towards the low offside arch.

I glanced over at him to find out why. He was staring in confusion at the short wooden handle in his hand. A handle which was no longer attached to the tiller which was now swinging the boat rapidly towards the bridge’s unforgiving stone side.

Using the short length of brass still attached to the boat I managed to swing the bow away from the rapidly approaching arch, but not before the hull thudded into the offside wall, almost knocking Cynthia off her feet in the galley below.

The handle’s hardwood wedge had snapped allowing the handle to work free. Fortunately the hull rather than the cabin top made contact with the bridge. I now need to apply a dab of bitumen rather than repaint a long scrape on the cabin top.

I was very lucky.

Fortunately we were only two miles from Midland Chandlers at Braunston. They had a range of tiller handles in stock. I bought one roughly the right size for my tiller and managed to hammer it in securely where it stayed for the rest of the day.

After my guests left for the day, I spent an hour sanding the handle to fit my tiller, then hammered home a new hardwood wedge. The old handle lasted three years, so I’ve made a diary note to check the new one in April 2019. Just kidding!

An Unusual View Of Calcutt Boats

I’ve been writing about my life afloat for the last six years. Most of it has been spent on my mooring at Calcutt Boats. I love it here. I’ve visited many of the inland waterways’ marinas, but I’ve not seen one better. Ten acres of water are home to two hundred and fifty boats on spacious leisure moorings. There are two woodland areas, SSSI wild flower meadows and a beautiful half acre tree-studded island in the centre of the larger marina. It’s a very peaceful place to moor your boat.

The two marinas are on the Grand Union canal close to Napton junction on the Calcutt flight of three locks. The waterway is a hive of activity in the summer months. Narrowboats pass through the flight constantly throughout the day. I see them regularly, but not from the angle in the video below.

Calcutt Boats’ MD, Matt Preen, has a new toy. It’s a uneec Q500 4K Typhoon Set Quadcopter, a video drone to you or I. The drone can reach an altitude of 1,000 feet and has a range of a little over half a mile. It’s equipped with a high definition video camera mounted in a three way gimbel. Video quality is both excellent and vibration free. This particular video shows an aerial view of the locks and a working boat and butty negotiating the top lock. The video is only two minutes long. You can see it here.

Cynthia Says—-

In the blink of an eye….

Here I am writing this from the front deck with the keyboard on my lap and the iPad on the fold out table.  The hatch cover is rolled up like a workman’s sleeves, and I am breathing in the warm air of a truly perfect early summer day.  We literally sprung from winter to summer this past week and it is a joy to be able to linger outside and enjoy soaking up all that wonderful and much-needed D3.

We have been back on the dump barge since the Discovery Days came to a close last Sunday.  I truly love it here.  We are on a fairly private little peninsula that affords us great views of the activity around Calcutt Bottom Lock.  There are several big and graceful willow trees that provide needed shade, a picnic table for our meals al fresco,  and a ring-side seat for the fabulous sunsets.  The lawn here is my favourite spot to play with Tasha and do my tai chi and meditation.

I have observed much wild life since being back in this spot as well.   At least two pairs of swifts inhabit the dump barge, and they are continually swooping in and out.  There are moorhens about (which Tasha would love to find in her dinner bowl!), and I am fascinated with the a little hard-working coot.  She swims quickly by the boat several times a day sporting long pieces of dry reeds in her mouth.  She is obviously building her nest.  I wish I could locate it, as I would love to see the finished product!

Friday night Paul came home  bone-tired after a long week’s work tending to the Calcutt grounds (which look terrific by the way–I especially love all the neat little even paths he has mown through the long grass).  I knew getting this week’s newsletter written was at the top of his list, and I had a suggestion that proved to be a winner.  I told him I thought it would be nice if we went out on the canals for Saturday and most of Sunday.  The idea was a hit, so Saturday at 1:00PM we cast off the lines at the water point and set sail towards Braunston.  Please forgive my sometime references in sailing terms–old habits and ways of living die hard!

We moored up just west of Braunston in time for a belated lunch. We then took off for the next winding hole about 1 1/2 hours further on, and found a suitable place to moor for the night.

What a well-earned luxury it was to be able to sleep in this morning til 8:00!  After breakfast, Paul retreated to his “cave” (the bedroom) to get back to the business of getting the newsletter written.  I washed up the dishes then decided this lovely day was not to be wasted.  I gathered my Kindle, dog bed and pillow and headed for the aft deck.

A light zephyr was stirring, the sun was warm on my skin and the sky an awesome blue.  Whilst enjoying all the beauty of nature, a mother mallard came by to show off her ten little ducklings and I found myself wanting to scoop one up so that I could nuzzle its’ soft down against my cheek.

Paul needed a break and soon joined me outside on the towpath along with Tasha.  We took out the camp mat and other assorted soft pillows and had a nice lie down.  Tasha had a great time exploring the towpath, and after Paul went in to continue his work, she wandered away while I was reading.  Next thing I knew, she had taken the path up by the bridge and I found her in the cow pasture!  I don’t need to tell you what she had to appease her insatiable appetite!!

We reluctantly went back inside so I could get our late lunch underway.  After enjoying our succulent steak, Paul decided it was time to head towards home.  I put off washing up the dishes so that I could squeeze out every bit of the warmth, and sat on the foredeck to write this.  Perfect timing!

I will now wrap this up so I can spend a few minutes with Paul at the other end of the boat and soak up the last rays of sunshine…..the dishes can wait!

PS. A BIG Thank You to all you loyal readers who are now subscribers!!  We are So Grateful for this much-needed support.

Can YOU Help Maintain This Site?

I wrote about the ongoing and often crippling costs of maintaining this site in the last two newsletters. My total annual outgoings just to maintain the site and pay for the software to send out my weekly newsletters is over £5,000. It’s a cost I simply can’t afford any more.

I just about cover my day to day running costs through my Narrowbudget Gold package and my discovery day service, but there’s very little left to put towards the site. I’ll be returning to work at Calcutt Boats for all of May to help top up my dwindling bank balance. I’ll enjoy the working around the two beautiful marinas, but finding time to run the site and work a forty five hour week will be a struggle.

The only way I will be able to keep the site’s 9,000 posts and pages online in the future will be through voluntary subscriptions. These subscriptions will be just that; voluntary. If you can’t afford to pay, or you simply don’t want to pay, the wealth of information that’s taken me, and a host of experienced boaters on the forum, six years to write will still be there for you completely free of charge.

Over the last two weeks I’ve asked for voluntary subscriptions. Some very kind site users have already agreed to help, but I need many more if I am to keep the site running. I can’t maintain it any other way.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, I’m sure that you realise the time and effort which goes into it. I receive dozens of emails every week from aspiring boaters asking for advice. I answer every one of them as quickly and comprehensively as possible. You may have sent an email or two to me yourself.

I enjoy helping others move closer to the life I enjoy so much every day. I don’t ask or expect payment for this service. It’s a labour of love. Paying bills each month is not such a pleasant experience. Please help me continue to help others by subscribing to the site. The subscription form is here.

Your financial details are completely safe. Payment is made through the world’s largest payment portal. Only you can change your subscription details. You can cancel your subscription at any time.

For the price of a cup of coffee or a pint each month you can help keep a very useful inland waterways resource online. You can subscribe here.

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Useful Information

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.

Useful Information

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