2016 05 15 Newsletter – Colourful Tales From the Cut

I sat in the Hymer in Windsor Castle’s overcrowded car park. I was there for the penultimate day of the Royal Windsor Horse Show. To be more precise, Cynthia was there for the horse show. I wasn’t interested. Horses scare me, but the owners often scare me more.

The car park was full of four wheel drive prestige cars, tweed jackets and braying laughter. Horse boxes costing more than a house lined the showground perimeter and immaculately groomed horses and riders weaved through the slow moving car park traffic. A steady stream of noisy Heathrow planes filled the sky. Windsor’s vast castle dominated the skyline above me.

I was having a two day break from my second week back at Calcutt Boats. I’m back in the routine now. My daily cutting, pruning and trimming is constantly interrupted by radio requests to move boats, run errands offsite and tend to visiting wharf-side boats. I love it all… apart from one regular task more akin to hard prison labour than gentle grounds work.

We have section of made up land close to the canal. Thousands of tonnes of canal dredgings and earth dug from Locks marina have been shaped into three plateaus. The steep sides are grassed. They need mowing every week at this time of the year. The only way of cutting them is with a Flymo tied to an old mooring line. Each week fellow groundsman Pat and I spend six gruelling hours hauling the mower on a rope up and down the hill. After a year’s break I was reintroduced to the three Heartbreak Hills on Friday. Pat and I are also responsible for rodding the site sewage system after occasional high season blockages. I would rather be up to my knees in the brown stuff than hauling a heavy mower up a clay cracked slope.

This weekend has been a welcome opportunity to recover from Friday’s hard labour. Cynthia thoroughly enjoyed the horse show, but after sitting for a couple of hours shaded from the sun and unprotected from a frigid wind, she was chilled to the bone. By mid afternoon we’d both had enough.

We drove ten miles north west to the relative tranquility of National Trust Cliveden. I’ve visited the property many times before by car. I remembered the car park being rather small and difficult to access in anything larger than a family hatchback. A phone call to the information centre confirmed this. We were told to access the property via the hotel entrance and then head for the Trust’s overflow car park.

The Hymer made it without mishap, but it was a tight squeeze.

We hoped to stay in the Trust car park overnight. After a leisurely evening meal I wandered around the grounds with my camera, making my way slowly along quiet woodland paths down to the Thames. My phone rang. Cynthia told me that a very pleasant Trust official had knocked on our door to tell us we couldn’t stay. Paying Trust visitors also share the grounds with  guests at high end hotel Cliveden House. After paying £300-£700 for a room for the night I suppose their guests are entitled to a little exclusivity.

The warden suggested that we try the National Trust car park on nearby Cookham Common. We’re there now. We managed to wedge ourselves into the small parking area without upsetting too many people. The car park emptied at dusk leaving us in peace, apart from the occasional night time cars with steamy windows and, I assume, very soft suspension judging by the amount of rocking they were doing.

We’ll return to Cliveden today. The grounds are both beautiful and vast. We’ll spend the day wandering aimlessly through woodlands and along the Thames paths on land landscaped by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1666.

We’ll head back to the boat this evening, rested and raring to go. Cynthia’s visa expires in two weeks so she will be staying with a friend in the south of France until I can join her after my June discovery days.

Last year, my June discovery days were fully booked months in advance. This year there are one or two free spaces. If you’re thinking of buying a narrowboat  as a full time home or just for recreational cruising, a discovery day is an opportunity to find out all you need to know about the bewildering choices open to you as a narrowboat buyer. No two boats are the same. Not all are equipped or suitable for long term cruising off grid, something which is essential if you intend to live afloat away from a residential mooring. My discovery day guests also learn how to handle a narrowboat on a twelve mile cruise through rural Warwickshire, and you’ll learn how to safely negotiate the six locks we’ll pass through at the end of the day.

I want to fill my free days, so if you are thinking about booking a day with me, I would like to offer you an incentive. I’m offering a 25% discount on all shared single, exclusive single and two person discovery days in June. Please email me directly to ask for a discount code. I hope to welcome you into my floating home soon.

That’s all I have for you this week. My week has been full, but not filled with the kind of activity that you want to read about. I don’t have much canal related stuff to write about at the moment, but I know a man who does.

“Fred” has lived an interesting life. I suppose many would call him a “colourful” character. He’s the kind of guy I would like moored next to me. I could spend hours chatting to him over a beer or two. He’s one of a select band of boaters from the canals when life wasn’t quite so sanitised.

I hope you enjoy his tales from the inland waterways. If you do, please let me know. I’ll try to encourage him to write more for you.

I’ll hand you over to Fred now, but before I do, please accept my apologies for not adding photo’s to the blog again. I had plenty to add, but I forgot to bring my card reader with me. I’ll try to make amends next week.

Here’s Fred….

My name is not a secret but I will not reveal it to protect the innocent and also the not so innocent ! So just call me Fred.

So why do we do it?  Are we all crazy?

Yep , if you are reading this you are  more than likely one of those affected few with the affliction, the itch that does not go away in the older supposedly wiser years.

Boat ownership, of the inland waterways variety is what I am talking about.

It could be said I am one of the last real narrowboat number Ones left alive. I was born on the cut in a back cabin in 1962 on the South Oxford and spent my first three years aboard until I moved to live with my Grandmother ashore after the Old Man died suddenly and mother was taken ill two months later and soon followed the Old Man to a place where the lock gates swing easily and running aground on shallow canals  never happens. The hard existence and conditions had been their downfall in my opinion, even if it was the life they chose to live and work exceedingly hard at in the dying years of trade afloat.

Gran hated the cut and anything to do with narrowboats as she said it killed her daughter, who she saw precious little of for years as Mum was rarely nearby for long enough to visit. My life changed so much in those few months that I barely remember anything of where I was born, except that smell of the back cabin and that lovely rocking motion at night along with the beautiful noise of that twin cylinder engine rumbling away with its particularly unique sound. It seemed like it ran from before dawn till past dusk seven days a week.

I have tried so many times to buy that tired looking Motor boat  back from its owner of the last forty plus years. He knows of its significance to me, yet he let it rot on a bank in the Midlands until just a few years ago.   It annoys me on a daily basis at present as I would like to see my days out onboard after a full and proper refurbishment back to how it should look. It is my ultimate dream which I fear will stay a dream until I finally moor up for the last time in a different world.

So it transpires that  in my early youth I had not a lot to do with the cut or narrowboats apart from boyhood escapades at the local locks with a canoe ………..until I got an engineering apprenticeship at a company that also made narrowboat shells as a sideline to the main business, only because the owner’s parents also worked a pair many years before and he did not want to let his father down by saying no.

My desire to buy my own first boat came a few years later after going out with an older  friend John and his wife Carol (and her cute far younger sister whose name now escapes me strangely)  in an ancient centre cockpit Creighton cruiser with an outboard engine in 1980 on a beautiful sunny summer’s day. Well it was until I discovered I had left my coat hanging on a post at their mooring. The outboard motor broke down and we all got very drunk and got home very late after bow hauling it for what seems like miles home. I was laughing so much my ribs hurt and being wet through and half naked  did not seem to matter…..Yet  strangely I was hooked on the idea of owning one.  

It was to be a fantastically new modern babe magnet and my weekend fun accomodation. The flat I was sharing at the time was as salubrious as a twenty year old chicken shed and was as damp as one too. Finding a young lady who would even set foot in the place was seeming impossible. The boat would make life easy in the girlfriend department was my thinking.

Reality was not as my dream unfortunately ,but being an engineer and a fairly competent one with the ability to “find time during the working week”, I bought a ten year old 23ft Norman cruiser with a smartly built homemade wheelhouse at the rear end but alas no outboard engine!

It was white and blue, quite tidy internally with a sea toilet and a temperamental diesel fired heater. Crucially it was within my budget and near to home on the tidal Trent.  But the elusive outboard was becoming impossibly hard to locate at the right price. Now I desperately needed one. I looked everywhere and failed miserably in my search.

Now for the craziness of youth.

Languishing in the corner of the workshop at work was a healthy rebuilt Perkins 4108 engine that was supposedly destined in to go in a long ago “written off”  works Land Rover.  In exchange for doing a weekend of being “on call” and chief slave for what seemed an eternity, it was mine. A Z drive and all the other bits came from a broken boat at Newark marina for cash on a Saturday morning so I set to fetling the beast……To make it roar ! To bring my dream alive.

Three weeks later at Newark the boat was hoisted into the Trent. I shot off at a great speed along with 75 kg of builders sand in plastic bags wedged under the floorboards at the front end to even up the weight of the huge engine and Z drive weighing down the back end.  

Despite it being a flood tide with whole trees attached to pieces of bank coming towards me downstream, I set off upstream towards the locks. I swear to God it would have been possible to water ski behind it had I the kit, the training, and a coxswain to drive the boat, and even less brain cells than I used that day going out on a fast flowing flood tide with very little experience.

It was great being a complete novice with no training or safety kit of any kind. You have no ability to realise how damn stupid you really are and how easy it would have been to become a statistic on a chart for the rescue services.

After trimming the boat with yet more sand and reducing the prop to something less than half of the original size on a lathe (yep it worked to a fashion)  I found it managed canals at about 3mph at tickover and could negotiate single width locks due to only being 6’10” beam.

I had a useable boat. Oh what a good summer this was to be I thought.

Due to one of life’s little surprises in September I found myself soon to be without a dwelling, or for that matter any sort of house or roof over my head. So being an enterprising young  man I swiftly moved aboard , residing in a local river marina and put everything else in my Land Rover or a steel storage container at work (beware it can go mouldy!). The adventure had begun, it was going to be great l thought.

Previously during my 3 week  summer holidays I had travelled far and enjoyed the sunshine, the scenery and canal side hostelries, learning new skills with a plastic cruiser  and boating tricks as I went along, so mistakenly I had only seen the rosy side of life through a haze of alcohol.

By November I was scraping ice off the inside of the single glazed windows in the morning despite having the diesel heater blowing hot air over my feet noisily all night. And the dripping condensation was enough to fill a deep lock every day or so I thought! Worse was when I discovered the mold growing under the mattress a few days later.  That feeling of dread was beginning to raise its ugly head, And raise its head it did, giving me all sorts of ailments and problems. I was not living like a normal human being…….this was barely surviving.

Something had to happen fast before the conditions killed me.

Somehow I survived the winter whilst spending hours planning my new narrowboat…….. mainly sat in the warm dry pub scribbling on an engineer’s drawing pad or seated on a stool in the office at a technical drawing table at work fearing to go back “home” . I even slept in that office on the office couch most of that February to keep warm much to the bosses amusement.

As I had been part of the team that built a few narrowboat shells I knew how to do it, so I did……Well  in reality 5 of us built a 47’ 6” shell (82-6-4) over a bank holiday weekend in early 1981.

The Boss went away at 12 o’clock on the Thursday with his new girlfriend and returned on the Tuesday morning at 7am. I along with the others had hardly slept at all and we were absolutely shattered to say the least, but in the corner of the yard sat a trad shell, albeit without doors or hatches and still with wet red oxide paint on it. And a lot of final internal and external welds to do.

The money to pay for it came from selling my prized motorbikes and trusty Land Rover and a loan from the bank manager………and after paying the boss  I still had a little money  left over to pay for portholes, flooring and insulation and some of the wood paneling !      

However the boss said “you owe me your life for the price you got that shell for “. And for the next year it was work, work, work, and more work and, not a lot of money for doing it , but I would never ever have swapped the experience for anything at the time. Even though I was now living in a half finished narrowboat in the yard , I had learned lots of practical skills about fitting out in this time, mainly by making mistakes and having to do things over again rather than proper instruction.

Oh How the Internet and especially Youtube  would have made life so much more informed in those months.

REALITY CHECK…….Have you ever lived in a steel box from October onwards with no portholes installed or insulation and just a tent set up inside ?  I will give you a tip…..Do NOT try it unless you are totally insane and are closely related to a very hardy Eskimo.

But during this quiet time of my life with no permanent transport I managed to salvage all sorts from far and wide, and reclaim and rebuild even more. It took about fourteen months to get my pride and joy totally finished to a respectable level and finally lifted into the cut ready for the next part of my adventurous saga in the journey we call life.

It now had a 1950’s McClaren water cooled twin engine courtesy of a British Rail redundant railway crane aligned up to mechanical Parsons gearbox and it sounded so good with the dry exhaust straight through the roof blowing smoke rings, I felt as if I were three years old again with that beautiful sound .

The Boss went broke owing lots of people money, me and the other lads included, so various tools and welders became mine ………Sorry Mr Taxman and Official Receivers. My need was greater than yours.

I had to move to work for another narrowboat shell builder where I stayed for a few years learning more about my trade and making a bow and stern shape of my own that I liked, until he went the same way as the last boss, (and he managed to do it a few times in different guises after I left too!). But at least he paid us lads up to the last day.

In the mid to late  eighties I arrived “Up North” and found an Idyllic spot to live on a farm mooring and found work in a local marina part time to start with. I also drove a truck for an old fashioned haulier when there was little to do at work due to the recession years.

One Saturday evening there was a knocking on the roof from a local police constable (who I drank with occasionally) saying “You and your boss may not like this”. Our weekend boat was adrift across the canal and the hirers were intoxicated and detained in a cell, along with eight others who they had picked up by the first lock in a pre arranged meet and turned the day into a booze cruise!   

The keys were missing and the boat was absolutely trashed and damaged with lots of water inside. So many people had stood on the rear deck water had got into an old air intake grill and eventually seeped into the cabin space. By luck, the weight must have moved forward to stop it sinking. It took me all night to get the water out and get it back to the marina in the dark alone with no lights as they had ripped them off. On the Sunday I managed to  fit new carpets and clean and repair it well enough to be re hired on Monday for a day hire. The customers were none the wiser.

At the marina they (I) built a very good quality boat shell and also did the fit outs too, which to my mind were a little dated and lacked the finer things in life, and where technology was a dirty word. Historic I can respect, but living in the dark ages is just plain crazy to my mind. Nowadays we all expect every electrical gizmo to work on a battery for a week after just one hours charge !

Life was great at weekends, especially giving instructions to new hirers that, as they left you from the second or third lock, often made you wonder would they manage to sink the hire craft or do damage to someone’s pride and joy or both!  The fleet always came home battered bruised and with something that required my attention.

I was in heaven in some ways , plenty of money coming in and living afloat for near nothing. The cut certainly had a great appeal ……..and still does, but in totally different ways.

I was always astounded at the requests from some people who wanted boats built in those years, absolute fortunes were parted with to obtain “their” narrowboat . Some clients had never set foot aboard and were totally clueless and yet gave money up front without an real guarantees of where it went , and paying for “extras” in cash was just too good to be true. Especially as I was paid direct by the customer for the steelwork and a percentage went back to the marina .

Luckily where I worked the owners were honest and never did any customer ever lose out. Alll of them went away with what they wanted, nearly always on time too! But eventually I grew up and decided it was time to move on in life to pastures new.

Some time soon I will write about the fun and games that were had in those following  years, some of the escapades were hardly believable.


Cynthia says…

–Plodding Forward–

Well, if anything, I wish I could slow down this month—it seems like each day is slipping away much too quickly.  I have So Much to accomplish before I very reluctantly pack my bags and jump on the train to London and on to Avignon France.

I AM looking forward to my two week sojourn in southern France.  I have never been there before, though with my flying job I have spent a fair amount of time in Paris and Lyon.  This girl isn’t really a city person, but I do love both of these cities.  Lyon is the gastronomic capital of the world and much like Paris on a smaller scale.  I haven’t set foot there since the early nineties, so I am sure it has changed.

Provence is full of treasures in so many ways–an artists’ paradise, natural beauty that is multifaceted, and of course, the always available and delicious food!  The Sunday outdoor market in Sarrians, where I will be holing up with a friend,  will be one of my favourites I am sure.  For those of you who haven’t seen “The Hundred Foot Journey” with Helen Mirren, it is a must-see if you have any interest in eating the freshest and most delectable food that can only be plucked out of one’s garden, or bought at a farmer’s market.

So I have much to look forward to, but am feeling great sadness over having to pull myself away from dear Paul and beloved Basset, Tasha.  I was beginning to feel as if I was just settling in to my new life and country and now I have to uproot myself and head out.

After our wedding in Denmark at the end of June, I will be debarking from the continent for the states where I will apply for that expensive spousal visa.  Once I accomplish that task in New York, I will head to Vermont, rent a car (and hopefully remember to drive on the right side again!) and head for my house, Hawley.

The For Sale sign will be hammered into the ground this week after a good cleaning, and then I will be holding my breath and crossing my fingers that it will sell—quickly!  It would be amazingly wonderful to wrap things up there by the time the visa is issued—

On a more local note, we have been blessed with two great weekends in a row.  It was delightful to cruise slowly and quietly along the canal last weekend, resting in the sun along the tow path.  This weekend found us further south in Windsor where I met a dear English friend who lives near me in the states.  I hadn’t seen her in several years so it was a nice little homecoming.

Unfortunately, the day weather-wise wasn’t so terrific.  I was just getting over a head cold this past week, and the cold wind, cloudy-sunny day was playing havoc with me.  I was hot one minute, cold the next, and concerned I might get chilled and the cold would return, which I didn’t welcome.

I used to be a navigator for a friend doing combined driving with horses.  That was what I witnessed at the show and it was a lovely reminder of days gone by—and the venue with the Windsor Castle towering above us was quite spectacular.  Perhaps a horse will find it’s way back into my life one of these days—-

I walked nearly two miles to the show and back, and by the time I returned I was exhausted.  Feeling better and enjoying the day here at Clivedon.

Getting geared up for another week full of checking off things from my To Do, To Buy list—I have packed my passport at least–the most important piece of my belongings.

PS. Hope to hear from more of you loyal readers with subscriptions—they are most helpful and appreciated by both of us.  Any amount is most appreciated.

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.

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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.